Friday 23 October 2009

Poem: 'Raki In Tigaki'

(For Denis Charlton, who was there,
and who suggested this title)

he laughs something in greek, parakalo?
he nudges a glass at me, raki, do we know
are we aware of what we buy? after
a four hour storm from Rodos, we know
drawing back into bougainvillea shade,
cockerels crow somewhere near, dogs answer,
how to explain it to him?

a blur of years ago, Criti, Rethymnon,
an ossuary of human skulls, Samaria gorge,
then tabepna nudges deceptive water-clear liquid,
drink it, slam it back, raw, even as it sears,
43%, the boon and the damnation of gods,
tsikoudia, so intoxicating, so stimulating,
raki dreams are for ever, yet always new,
back to the Minoans and Mycenaeans,
they took swords to the first man who
brought the fruit of the vine, gift of Bacchus,
fearing poison, me too, yes… although
English courtesy determines we say ‘good’,
such apparent approval brings a full carafe
and he sits with us, matches drink for drink,
raki reconfigures the brain into telepathy
beyond words, the rage of poetry supersnazzing
my veins, charged alcohol molecules
that darken the day, then illuminate the dusk
storming mind-centres strangely lucid and sly
into bewilderments of bamboozlement, with
the shades of the lizard-king on my left shoulder
and Ti Jean to my right, nodding both their
stoned dazzlement, Bacchus – don’t fail me now!
he sits with us, matches us drink for drink,
‘the old ways’ he says, or rather, we agree,
we mutually determine, we understand,
the young, they don’t follow these old ways,
only value profit, money, fast material things,
we collude ‘we drink to the old ways, yammas’ as
the sun extinguishes, transferring its molten heat
into glass by glass, counting old ways into extinction…

now, he laughs something in greek, parakalo?
raki? – yes, we know raki…

Saturday 17 October 2009

Manfred Mann @ Beverley Road Baths, Hull, 1967

HULL, 1967

Wednesday, 11th January 1967, and the Hull University Union
‘Coming-Up Dance’ was held at the Beverley Road Baths.
For your 12/6d fee you got three bands – The Small Four,
The Kodiaks, and chart-topping Manfred Mann.
The event opened at 9pm and closed at 1am. I was there…

‘Psychedelic Freak-Out time’ jeers Mike D’Abo as a burst of inconvenient feedback escapes Tom McGuinness’ amp. As if. ‘There’s one Manfred’ as Paul Jones had pointed out on “Cock-A-Hoop” near the dawn of their collective career, ‘but there’s five Menn’. Helpfully going on to list them by name on his cheekily self-mythologising “The One In The Middle”. In terms of heavy R&B-Jazz credibility that first five carried the greater weight. But the string of Pop hits that ensued – and there were a lot, inevitably eroded some of that exclusiveness. The second men, with D’Abo as a frailer prettier replacement as the ‘one in the middle’ not only readjusted into an altered, but still recognisable continuity, but, falling back more on the UK industry’s Pop professionals rather than Jazz-R&B originals for their songs, they nevertheless crafted intelligent Pop of some considerable musical merit. And when they’re booked for the Hull University ‘Coming-Up Dance’, the twelve shillings and six-pence fee doesn’t seem an out of the way extravagance. Beverley Road Baths, an imposing brick-&-sandstone block on the main north road out of Hull, periodically hosted Pop events. I saw several. Wending through admission and the changing-room area, the pool itself, presumably drained – but can you be certain? was boarded over with a temporary floor that retained a considerable degree of suspect springiness, especially when the beat provoked a bopping audience-response that achieved a near-tsunami bounce. The two support bands, The Small Four and The Kodiaks pass without exciting too much interest.

And Uh-huh, it’s the Manfreds. Just like on all those TV slots. Only the Five Faces Of Mann were not the same men of the self-referential Homeric “5-4-3-2-1”. A new record label, HMV to Fontana. Jack Bruce had been a temporary replacement for original member Mike Vickers, now he’s gone too, with Klaus Voorman on bass – the guy who drew the ‘Revolver’ cover. They were also briefly augmented by a horn section including Lyn Dobson and the esteemed Henry Lowther. But “Just Like A Woman” proves an unconvincing introduction. The much more assured “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” or the later “The Mighty Quinn” were both from Dylan’s ‘Basement Tapes’ so direct comparison with the originals were not immediately possible. Not until the bootlegs some time later. And even then the tight Manfred versions pack a punch. By contrast, Mike D’Abo’s ‘amphetamine and pearls’ pales against ‘Blonde On Blonde’, and his improvised ‘I guess I love you girl’ destroys the narrative structure anyway. Asked to name his favourite among the many artists who’d covered his songs, Dylan once claimed – not the Byrds, but the Manfreds. It might be true, who knows? Or it might have something to do with the fact that they were charting one of his songs at the time, and by bestowing his approval on its sales he was helping his own writer royalties?

And things get better. Mike Hugg might resemble Marty Feldman’s less-afflicted younger brother, but his musical invention, clear through to theming TV sit-com “Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads?”, is awesome. The sweetly tuneful album track “Each Other’s Company” is an anti-celebrity celebration of ordinary lives – ‘it’s not that she’s special, it’s just that she’s mine’, while their smart jazzy instrumental take on Tommy Roe’s “Sweet Pea” proves their chops are still as sharp as ever. And “So Long Dad”, which inexplicably failed to chart later in the year, is a complete sixties class-aspirational movie in just under three minutes. Of course, when he wrote it, Randy Newman was using American reference-points, but – just as the Animals anglicised and northernised Cynthia Mann & Barry Weil’s “We’ve Gotta Get Out Of This Place”, the Manfreds give the song a one-act ‘Up The Junction’ east-London slant. Newman is at his most slyly observational, sketching a lyric-portrait characterisation of the low-life opportunist made good, hooked up to a rich girlfriend called Jane. Adding sociological weight as he returns to his quaint old blue-collar hometown, ‘quaint no more, just older than before’. He stomps up the stairs and down the hall ‘to my Daddy’s door’. With a playwright’s ear for nuanced dialogue, their one-sided conversation operates on satiric levels, ‘I think you’ll like her Dad, and I hope you do’, then dismissively ‘but if you don’t, that’s alright too’. Dad’s opinion doesn’t really matter either way. Jane’s uncle owns a bank, D’Abo expressively teases out his fliply patronising tone as ‘I think I’ll try my hand at that’, the unobtrusive effects investing the capsule-tale with visual depth. Finally, of course, the trendy couple won’t live around here, because ‘the smoke makes Jane’s eyes tear so bad, and we can’t have that’. Almost as an afterthought ‘we’ll write you where we’re at’, drop by – just ‘be sure to call before you do’. With the Pop revolution making the class system more porous than ever before, with a nouveau riche aristocracy of Pop stars, sports stars, clothes designers, and Angry Young Northern novelists with regional accents, not to mention predatory ‘Alfie’s taking advantage of it all by social-climbing to their ‘Room At The Top’, remaking the social landscape, “So Long Dad” was a song perfectly of its time.
Meanwhile, as Paul Jones was off being even more ludicrously teen-sweet, pouting “I’ve Been A Bad Bad Boy” over sweeping strings, the Menn were well into their second life. Manfred swaying behind his keyboards, with his slightly intimidating Beatnik gone-cool carried over from some BeBop parallel universe. Always seeming older, although he wasn’t, much. While Mike D’Abo, in a lace-ruffed shirt, is sniping “Semi-Detached Suburban Mr James”, another social-vignette. Although Ray Davies is correctly regarded as the chronicler of the Well-Respected Mr Pleasants of Suburbia, the Manfreds add the sneering frustrated-romance element of the love-object choosing safe domesticity over the presumably more trendy life-style he’s offering. The ‘Mr Jones’ in the original lyric-draft was altered in view of the departing Paul, to avoid potential misunderstanding.

Then, ‘Psychedelic Freak-Out time’ jeers D’Abo as a burst of inconvenient feedback escapes Tom McGuinness’ amp. To hoots of derision from the band. As if.

So, a good night. But the next time I come here, it’s to swim.

Brian Aldiss - 'Greybeard'


(Faber, 1964, Harcourt Brace & World, Inc
July 1965, Signet Paperback)

‘Greybeard’ starts off like ‘Tales Of The Riverback’, with a ‘Wind In The Willows’ attack by stoats, a character called Big Jim Mole, and Greybeard, his wife Martha, and their companions leaving the rural hamlet of Sparcot to sail down the Thames to find the world. Setting out from Sparcot, with its crotchety ‘Dad’s Army’ of grouchy, bickering, argumentative oldsters, settling uneasily into a strangeness that is both personal – of their own old age, and global, of a gradual de-evolution to a kind of ageing medievalism re-making England into an unknown world. This is a melancholy place that only the elderly have inherited. Oldsters who are half-frightened, half-bewildered, tantalised by memories, haunted by superstitious tales of gnomes, badger-men and other wild things. ‘Of the seven ages of man, little but the last remained’.

In our own, real time-steam, demographic imbalance is increasingly leading to a predominance of retired oldsters supported by a minority of working young people. The tastes and whims of old age are taking on greater economic and social significance than in previous more youth-centric decades. Unlike when Brian W Aldiss wrote this novel, and when it first appeared in the Beat-Boom year of July 1965. Slowly, gradually, the ‘Greybeard’ time-stream begins to appear only a nudge away. Already we can probably more closely relate to its milieu than its initial readers could. Sliding into a time when ‘one of the characteristics of age’ is that ‘all avenues of talk led backwards in time’, and ‘childhood itself lay in the rotting drawers of the world’.

‘Greybeard’ is part of the soft apocalypse movement of the sixties. Part of the restless urge, the uneasy fear, or the ominous dread of the coming global ‘cleansing’. Writers from John Wyndham to JG Ballard had imaginatively destroyed the world in innumerable ways, answering the millennial Cold War fears. There had already been the death of grass, the wind from nowhere, the thermonuclear inferno. The end-of-the-world Brian Aldiss envisaged is both consistent with that feeling, yet one that endures. A feeling that chimes with current gaia-theory that the world is making its own ‘adjustment’ to burgeoning human interference with the planet’s natural balance. There is a sense that the renewing world will be a better place for the passing of the mad human parade. A perceptive Kyril Bonfiglioli instantly recognised that ‘Greybeard’ is ‘the novel we have all been hoping someone would write’, devoting the entire editorial of ‘Science Fantasy no.68’ to advocating what he termed ‘the novel which is to emancipate science-fiction and clear it of the reproach of infantility’.

As chapters one, three, five and on relate the journey of ‘Greybeard’, alternate chapters – or ‘compartments’ as Aldiss refers to them, flashback in what Bonfiglioli terms a ‘series of wonderfully-illuminated vignettes’ to when the central character was merely Algernon Timberlane. The sterility afflicting the world begins in the early-eighties, dated precisely to the 1981 ‘accident’. These chapters are necessarily differently paced, and if they are also less atmospherically charged, more conventionally structured, that’s part of the slow tease as only gradually the truth is revealed. Rogue radiation is the obvious suspect. With atmospheric fall-out from superpower nuclear weapon-testing a serious real-life cause for concern during the late fifties and early sixties. It’s not until later that it’s made clear, that the US and UK governments detonated multimegaton bombs in space which disrupted the Van Allen belts. In the early years of the global sterility Timberlane is recruited by DOUCH(E), as a kind of USA-sponsored impartial monitor of contemporary history, which legitimises his part in the unfolding story. There is global war, with Operation Childsweep intended to conserve the one world-resource that retains value – children. ‘This one really is a war to end war’ observes one US soldier, ‘there won’t be anyone left to fight another’. An early economic casualty of childlessness is the record industry. Kids buy Pop music. No kids, no record sales. This very sixties equation was written before the advent of platinum-selling AOR! The contraceptive industry also becomes obsolete. Aldiss doesn’t mention the sad disappointed paedophiles whose tastes must also be victims of the tragedy! In Washington Timberlane watches a ‘slouch’ comedian whose message is that, in a world haunted by unconceived children, and with no biological tomorrow to work towards, ‘morality is obsolete’. As far as SF techno-speculation is concerned there’s little beyond orbital jets on transpolar parabolas, and hovercrafts are widely used – equipped to fire little tactical nuclear shells. In 2005 there’s a revolution, Britain withdraws from the war. Chapter two returns Timberlane to Aldiss’ familiar Oxford with continuity mentions of the ‘Oxford Mail’ (for which Aldiss started his writing career as literary editor) as the ‘United National Government’ collapses and devolves to regional authorities under local despot Commander Peter Croucher, and a cholera-plague decimates the already-crumbling social infrastructure. Should Timberlane support Croucher? Is any order better than none? Initially pragmatic he’s eventually forced to escape with Martha when there’s an assassination attempt on his life.

Although this back-story is essential to understand Greybeard’s world, to round out and define the character-relationships, it’s the strangeness that clings to your mind long after you’ve finished reading. For there is a past, the flimsy present to which they cling, but no future, with posterity scissored-off. Sailing down the river to Swifford Fair, with Greybeard in his fifties, yet one of the youngest men alive, Aldiss uncannily catches the brittle-boned nuances of old age, of people growing older in a world grown old. In these, the last of human days, there are still whimsical scoundrels, quack-healers, charlatans and fanciful rogues seeking advantage from the senescent chaos around them, such as the wonderfully titled Dr Bunny Jingadangelow. And as Bonfiglioli observes, the Thames ‘winds through the action with leisurely symbolism, linking together the rather complex time-scheme, pregnant with its own unchanging vitality’. To Aldiss, the narrative portrays ‘nature taking over… the jungle has become anglicised’, with England an untended entanglement ‘ceasing to be a nation, it is merely a wild country, without name’. The ragged company drift across Meadow Lake to a medieval Oxford, encroached by the slow seepage of flood and dereliction, to find each college has reverted to a kind of Gormenghastian fiefdom of octogenarian academics, where memories linger on in flickers. New Year 2030, and Balliol parades the three real, if slightly malformed children it harbours. A spectacle of wonder and curiosity. While beyond these contracting clusters of caricatured culture, wild-life is swarming back to reclaim Britain after the brief interruption of human civilisation, masking its remains, impatient even as the last human groups count out their days. To Aldiss, this is a novel of ‘figures swallowed by their landscape’. Even though it’s 2030, ‘Greybeard’ is a world’s-end novel. Yet Greybeard finds time to muse that his leisurely life of aimless drifting might even be preferable to the hectic pressured career he might otherwise have been trapped into had that world not ceased.

Aldiss himself admits ‘I cannot but feel some warmth’ for the novel (in his contribution to ‘Hell’s Cartographers’). But there are emotions other than warmth there. ‘I wrote ‘Greybeard’ in distress, when I was bereft of my children’ he divulges elsewhere. This explains its otherwise puzzling dedication to ‘Clive & Wendy, hoping that one day they will understand the story behind this story’. Following estrangement from his first wife, she was living in the Isle of Wight with their children, while Brian was in Oxford struggling with his own feelings of grief, remorse and pain over their separation, the childless world he metaphorically created reflects his feelings of loss and absence from Clive & Wendy, ‘it is an example of a personal dilemma dramatised as a universal woe’ (in ‘The Twinkling Of An Eye’, 1998). Although Aldiss has been known to chafe at the restrictions of being considered a ‘genre’ writer, it is precisely this magically flawed humanising element of his work that makes him probably my favourite writer across the decades. Thirty years later, with ‘Greybeard’ still in print and readily available, PD James mainstream best-seller ‘The Children Of Men’ (1992) is also about a future childless world, and is also located around Oxford. Without undue rancour Aldiss generously concedes that ‘ideas are free’.

Meanwhile, with Greybeard and Martha, long-time companions Jeff Pitt and Charley Samuels sailing across the Sea of Barks – submerged Berkshire, and their final encounter with Bunny Jingadangelow in his stately steamer, there are teasing suggestions that perhaps every last trace of humanity is not vanishing in this long slow extinction, that the faery-sightings and elfin-rumours are evidence that some hidden children remain. That a new world will survive and persist. Although it will be different from everything that came before.

Review in ‘Science Fantasy no.68’ by Kyril Bonfiglioli (page.3)
Brian Aldiss ‘The Twinkling Of An Eye’ (Warner Books, 1998)