Friday, 3 January 2014

Only Connect

Yesterday was a rather fine day, in spells.  See above, and below.  Today, exactly at 12:00, as I prepared to go and get some lunch, a mighty wind roared up out of nowhere, bent the trees alarmingly and drove torrential rain across the campus.  I decided to wait.  As I don't happen to keep a full set of waterproof outer clothing in my office, I ended up idly surfing the Web for a large chunk of my lunch hour.  It took me on an interesting path.  As I recall, it went something like this:

First, I visited Arts & Letters Daily, always a good starting point.

I decided to read an article from the Daily Telegraph:  "Marcel Proust -- a savagely funny genius".  It had never occurred to me that Proust was funny.  But then, I've never read Proust.  Partway through, slightly bored, my attention was grabbed by a sidebar picture of Groucho Marx, linking to "30 great one-liners".  That looked like it might be rather funnier.

However, it wasn't.  I was about to bail out after a few utterly predictable ones, when a photo of Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers appeared, showing them pretending to light cigarettes from leeks.  Non-Brits will know Sellers, but will probably not know Milligan, the "troubled" comic genius of The Goon Show, which they will probably never have heard of, either.  I was struck by Spike's "beatnik" appearance: beard, pullover, no shirt or tie!  Given this photo must have been taken in the late 1950s / early 1960s, it was a truly out there look for someone creating a career in the entertainment world.  But Spike was an out-there kind of guy.  Sellers is wearing the standard 60s jacket-and-tie combination in its "young grown-up" version.

I realised I knew very little about him as a person, so I googled him.  The Wikipedia article is an interesting read, but then I read that "From the 1960s onwards Milligan was a regular correspondent with Robert Graves".  Really? Robert Graves?  Apparently so.  So to get the other side of the story I googled Robert Graves, whose Selected Poems I just happened to have bought earlier in the week.  It seems their negative experiences of wartime (is there any other kind?) gave them a common bond.  Graves was an out-there guy, too, of course.  Their correspondence was published in 1991 as Dear Robert, Dear Spike.  I had no idea.

But, more interesting than the Milligan-Graves connection (annoyingly, a prominent American poetry website consistently misspells the name as "Mulligan" in its Robert Graves article) was the connection between Graves and Idries Shah.  Idries Shah!  I used to read his Sufi compilations -- Caravan of Dreams, Tales of the Dervishes, Wisdom of the Idiots (no, really) -- and the Mulla Nasrudin stories in my stoner-student days.  That is, before I discovered the even more entertaining tales of Carlos Castaneda.  But Idries Shah was just an exotic name on a paperback book cover.

Again, I had no idea: it's easy to forget what an appeal that whole Ouspensky-Gurdjieff "secret knowledge" scene had for proto-hippies and seekers like Graves and Doris Lessing.  Apparently Graves was eventually hoodwinked into "translating" the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in 1967 from notes allegedly made from an elusive original allegedly held by the Shah family for 800 years, but which was never produced (allegedly*).  His reputation -- never exactly solid -- suffered quite a blow.

But then it stopped raining, I went to get some food, and the chain was broken.  But I wrote this down first, in case I forgot:
There are holes in the sky
Where the rain gets in
But they're ever so small
That's why the rain is thin

Spike Milligan
There was nothing thin about today's rain, however.  Those holes must be getting bigger.

* The word "allegedly" is a magic spell which wards off all legal action, allegedly.

1 comment:

Zouk Delors said...

Thanks for reminding me about the holes in the sky, which I'd forgotten. It was in the collection published as Milligan's Little Pot Boiler (1963), which I bought at age 11 and still had up to thirty years later (and may even still have somewhere). The one which has always remained with me is:

Return to Sorrento (3rd Class)

I must go down to the sea again,
To the lonely seas and sky,
I left my vest* and socks there,
I wonder if they're dry?

(though I actually recalled it as "vest and pants*").

*Note for US readers: in British English these are undergarments, not what we would refer to as a "waistcoat" and "trousers".