Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Raising Our Sails

The Solent at Hill Head

"The winds of grace are always blowing, it is for us to raise our sails higher"

I recently watched a DVD published by the ECM label about the jazz* woodwind player and band leader Charles Lloyd, Arrows into Infinity. By any standards, Lloyd has had a remarkable career, starting out in Howlin' Wolf's backing band and progressing to his current status as an internationally-respected musician, with a million-selling album along the way, Forest Flower (released in 1966, and featuring a very young Keith Jarrett), which opened the door to sharing the bill with the likes of Hendrix and the Grateful Dead.  There was also a decade of silence, recovering from heroin-addiction, and discovering and following his spiritual path at Big Sur.

Lloyd is a major figure in that cerebral, spiritually-oriented, improvisatory lineage that includes John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Billy Higgins, one which seems to predispose musicians to an open-minded collaborative approach with players from other traditions and genres.  His is an interesting story that crosses the paths of many interesting people, which makes for an engaging film.  If you get a chance to see it, do.

The words at the head of this post (adapted from the 19th century guru Ramakrishna) are quoted by Lloyd towards the end, and I found them inspiring enough to scribble down as I watched. It was fun, over the weekend, to watch wind-surfers on the Solent putting these words into prosaic practice, catching the blustery tail end of Hurricane Bertha.  Some raised their sail so high they were practically blown away.

Equally inspiring is Charles Lloyd's apparently endless selection of idiotic hats.  Why do musicians like to wear "characterful" hats, even indoors?  They surely can't all be bald.

And with that profound thought, we raise our own sails, and head off for our summer blog break.  See you later, probably some time in September.  I hope you have a good summer.

*  What an inadequate word "jazz" is to cover the range of musics that get lumped together under that label.  It's like describing Paul Simon or David Bowie as a pop musician.  Unfortunately, I don't think any other word works, either.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Word War Won?

Fed up with the War To End All Wars yet?  Unfortunately, the commemorative frenzy won't be over by Christmas.  Four more years!  Such a senseless waste of human life, turned into a senseless waste of media air-time...  Have we already had Trench-Foot Challenge ("celebrities stand in a water-filled trench all night for a week, and are then forced to run across a booby-trapped ploughed field") or Bully Beef Masterchef?  I must have missed those.  Radio 4's 1914: Day by Day, presented by historian Margaret MacMillan, has been an honourable exception.

One of the best (as in, most authentically moving) WW1-related things I've seen this year I came across by accident.  I heard a short piece of music that I liked one morning on BBC Radio 3, and the presenter attributed it to one F.S. Kelly, who had studied at Balliol College, Oxford, won a gold medal at the 1908 Olympics, and quickly gained recognition as a composer of talent.  Tragically, however, Kelly was killed in France, like so many other young men of promise in that generation.  Naturally, I followed this up, and in the process discovered that the Balliol College War Memorial Book, published in two volumes in 1924, is available online at, of all places, Flickr.

To browse through these volumes is to get a real glimpse of the bloody swathe that the Great War cut through an entire generation. From just one Oxford college, around 300 men died.  Some of them were barely-formed boys, with little more to be said about them than "He was clever; he won a place at Balliol; he joined the army; he died".  But some were destined to be the shapers of the future, for example Raymond Asquith.  It is particularly moving to read in one place so many contemporary accounts of ordinary and not-so-ordinary untimely deaths in war, using the language and emotional range of the time, and written while the grief was still raw.

Kelly's page is here.  Remarkably, he was present at the death of Rupert Brooke at Skyros en route to Gallipoli (not from wounds, but from an infected mosquito bite).  In that last heyday of the old, rigidly class-bound Britain, it seems such young men of talent and similar background found themselves thrown together wherever they went.  As someone once said, "life is just one damn Balliol man after another".

A corner of a field in France...

Friday, 8 August 2014


We all have a list of words that make us react irrationally when they are used, as we see it, improperly.  For all I know, "improperly" may be high on yours.  I have carefully avoided using "inappropriately" here, which I'm aware is a word that is beginning to irk many. One word which is heading to the top of my list is "grab".

"To grab", of course, is a perfectly decent, venerable and useful word.  It has a primary meaning of "to grasp or seize suddenly and roughly". It also has a figurative sense, as in "to obtain or get (something) quickly or opportunistically", and it is here the trouble starts.  People have long been grabbing something to eat before doing something else, or grabbing an opportunity to speak to someone.  The use of "grab" lends a feeling of vigour and spontaneity to what is generally a fairly mundane act.  To a large extent, that is the whole point of figurative language in everyday use.

But increasingly "grab" is becoming a synonym for "to get", "to buy", or "to take advantage of".  Every day, I am urged by advertisers to grab some of this Great Deal or some of that Amazing Bargain as it goes by, as if shopping were a slightly hysterical, competitive game for the street-wise and sharp-elbowed, and not simply a question of forking over the required amount of cash.  I'm sure if you did actually "grab" his latest pizza offering, Mr. Domino would call the police pretty sharpish.

But then I'm 60 years old, and still wince whenever the youngster in front of me in the queue asks the nice lady behind the coffee counter "Er, can I get a latte to go?"  No "please", no "thank you", no hint of a smile.  Just wrong in so many ways...  Of course you can have a latte, kid, but the nice lady will have to get it for you, and then only if you ask her politely.  And no grabbing!

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Down the Town

I don't often go "down the town" these days, by which I mean the central shopping area, dominated since 2000 by the monstrous West Quay mall.  It's not just the disheartening spectacle of consumer flocking behaviour which puts me off, but also the large number of non-mall shops which have closed, due to the West Quay force-field sucking the life out of them.  There are few more depressing sights than rows of shuttered and graffiti-splattered shopfronts, where not so long ago many small retailers thrived.

I don't really have much reason to go there; it's been well over a decade since our kids required a weekly expedition to Toys'R'Us to spend their pocket money, and apart from the occasional foray to buy socks at M&S I mainly try to shop elsewhere.  If I must go "down the town", then I try to avoid the weekends, when le tout Hampshire seems to descend on the John Lewis store to buy a new fridge.

If I am in the area, however, I generally visit a favourite spot, a tiled underpass that runs beneath Portland Terrace to Bargate Street, with its cave-like entrance in the shadow of an imposing chunk of the ancient city wall.  It generally yields a few photographs; the silver birches on the adjacent grassy and litter-strewn bank are reliably photogenic.

As it happens, I've never yet photographed any of the city wall itself  -- once the very waterfront where Henry V set sail for France -- or even the castle-like Bargate, probably the only things left in central Southampton a tourist would bother to point a camera at.  I probably never will do so, either, but I really should spend more time down by the docks and Southampton Water, where the cruise liners and the gigantic container vessels come in, more like floating office blocks than ships, and where the Fawley Refinery looms on the far shore like Mordor. Soon, of course -- very soon, in fact -- I will have plenty of time to do just that.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Idiotic Hat Life Coach

It's August, and the blog break is fast approaching, so it's time for a few words from our visiting Idiotic Guru:  Lay some hard-won wisdom on us, guru!

[The Idiotic Guru speaks]
OK, listen closely now, I'm only saying this once, unless there are repeat fees, of course.  People often say to me, how is it that someone as inadequate, plebeian, short, and ugly as yourself has made it to a position of such eminence that you feel able to hand out advice to the likes of me, whose many apparent advantages have taken me nowhere in life?  Explain your secret, Idiotic Guru!

Behold, my secret is a list, which I found in a magazine on a park bench one afternoon, long ago in the past, where all good secrets are to be found. Though the real secret is that I disagree violently with every item in this checklist of well-meaning, sententious twaddle: I deliver a kick in the listicles, so to speak.  As William Blake said to me one night: The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.  At least, that's what I thought he said.  It was a very noisy pub.

Anyway, here we are, my annotated Twelve Steps To Success:

1. Stop spending time with the wrong people. Avoid anyone who makes you unhappy, wastes your time, or holds you back.  People who want to drag you down to their level are not your friends.
WRONG:  Seek out the "wrong" people, they will enrich your life, and at the very least make you look good.  Who needs dull friends?
2. Stop lying to yourself.  There's no need to pretend everything is OK if it isn’t.  It's pointless to pursue goals you don't believe in, only to blame someone else for your subsequent failure.
WRONG:  Self-deception is the royal road to the top.  Who cares to the top of what? You can always pretend you meant to go there, should you ever get there. If not, you know who to blame!

3. Don't ignore your own needs. In particular, don't pretend to be, or try to become, someone you’re not, just to please someone else, or to be liked.
WRONG:  I don't need to spell this out, do I?  Do you think the secret of any successful long-term relationship is "just be yourself, and insist on having things your way"?

4. Don't cling on to the past. In particular, stop beating yourself up over old mistakes.  Get over it.
WRONG: Show me a successful person who does not obsess over past mistakes, and I'll show you a trustafarian.  We learn through shame and humiliation...

5. Don't be afraid to make mistakes. Avoid the urge to perfection. "The best is the enemy of the good".
WRONG: Look no further for an explanation of the wave of mediocrity that has overwhelmed us. "Good enough" is not good enough.  Sure, make mistakes, but don't let them get into the final draft!

6. Stop trying to buy happiness.  The best things in life are not free  -- they are actually very expensive -- but they cannot be bought with money.  Try investing some time.
WRONG: Oh, please...  Invest as much time as you like in your Lada, it will still be a Lada.

7. Take care of the pennies. Notice and value the constant flow of small, ordinary things, otherwise one day you will realise -- too late! --  that was all there was ever going to be.
WRONG: Nobody ever became rich, actually or metaphorically, by penny-pinching.  Think big, or you will shrink to fit.

8. Don't be lazy Don't follow the path of least resistance. Don’t always take the easy way out.
WRONG: Trust John Keats: "If poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all".  If you find something tough going, give it up and get out of the way.  Find your own groove!

9. Don't postpone things until you feel completely ready. It will be too late.  Nobody is ever really ready: successful people just get on with it.
WRONG:  See 8 and 5.  Stop filling the world with half-baked crap.

10. Avoid self pity and complaint.  It's tough all over. Nobody wants to know how hard it was for you to do what you did, especially if moaning about it has become your substitute for doing it.
WRONG:  A good moan in good company (see 1) is one of life's great pleasures.  Why deny yourself?

11. If at first you don't succeed, try doing it differently, but only slightly differently.  To persist in a course of action hoping for a different outcome is not the definition of neurosis, it is the definition of persistence.
WRONG:  Yet another way to bury us in unwanted gifts from untalented people.  Give it three or four radically different approaches, then give it up and try something else.  Or better still, get back in the audience.

12. Ambition and competitiveness are easily confused.  Jealousy of the achievements of others and holding grudges are poisons -- hate, anger and jealousy will hurt you, not their object.  True ambition is generous to the aspirations of others.
WRONG: A little poison can be highly stimulating... "It is not enough to succeed.  Others must fail".

And if that lot doesn't turn you into a happily successful yet ruthlessly driven narcissist, then I don't know what else I can do for you.  Stop wasting my time!  Do try not to leave a trail of pain and damage in your wake, if you can avoid it, but if you can't then read a few biographies of the people you admire, and you won't feel so bad about it.  Although you may also decide that "success" isn't really your thing after all.
[The Idiotic Guru stops speaking]

OK, Idiotic Guru, thanks for that.  I think we can all find a takeaway message in there somewhere!  Now go and visit somebody else, please.