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Two Excerpts from ‘Shrapnel’ (c.1998 – 2007)

17 Nov

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(xxxii)

“The genius of the free market idea is to have us blame ourselves for the inequalities built into the system. Imagine a hundred-meter sprint where some had to do a marathon or 10,000 meters before anyone started the stopwatch, some started six inches from the finish, and all the medals were already, anyway, sent to the same guys who won them every year without even needing to turn up at the track. It wouldn’t be credible as athletics, but it’s pretty much exactly how the economy works…”

William Sterling Everett: Signs of the Times (1997)

Careless Talk Costs Lives, the old wartime propaganda posters used to insist, a cartoon Nazi spy gleefully eavesdropping on Mavis and Hilda – or at least, on two ladies in hair-rollers and spotted headscarves who might as well have been named Mavis and Hilda – as they blithely gossip about their husbands’ postings and other matters of use to any passing Nazi spies who may have been lurking on the street-corners where they passed the time in their utility coats. They hold baskets amply but modestly furnished with rationed eggs, cheese and milk and, according to the poster, anyway, threaten to lose the war as surely as any active enemy saboteur.

Perhaps this was some early premonition of Chaos Theory, intimating the vast potential consequences of minute actions as their barely perceptible resonances multiplied in the world: the low hum of insect wings building in the air, slowly unfastening the stitches that hold some wind-current to its known course and changing the entire weather system. Or maybe it’s the appearance of a dropped penny on a pavement that magnetises itself to a hundred other orphan pennies and builds slowly towards a one pound coin, a ten pound note, perhaps the full multi-million pound jackpot of a lottery win on a £1 ticket.

Isn’t this how markets are assumed to function, as the unfathomable result of millions of barely perceptible individual purchase decisions as they generate vast sprawling factories and refineries in the desert sands, plant crops inside glistening perspex Savannah greenhouses, lay down entire networks of roads and red-brick housing estates with pocket gardens and tarmac cul-de-sacs and parking spaces to meet all the millions of freely-chosen individual desires that spawned them? As we desire it, so things shall be.

Except, desire as we may, nothing much seems to change. We throw out one government and acquire another that will at best pursue much the same policies with minor tweaks to the packaging and presentation, at worst do something it hardly bears thinking about that wasn’t even in the manifesto. We’d prefer to live our lives without being defined and shaped by money; we’d like to disentangle ourselves from the nine-to-five and the long-distance commute but find we need to spend ever more of our lives chasing money to achieve this goal in any meaningful way, to stack up enough to get out of the rat race, or at least, we do if we haven’t got the money to start with. We seek equilibrium while the prospect of achieving it recedes ever further into the realms of fantasy: even a moderately secure paid job and a place to live becomes the stuff of daydreams and fairy tales.

If this is the case, it must be because we lacked the necessary talent and drive. The thickets of mystique that grow around social connections and blind chance, like thorns around Sleeping Beauty’s castle, or the endless inflation that lifts entry-level doors beyond the reach of those who used to do the jobs, like the windows in Rapunzel’s tower. Besides, give someone the place and the role itself, the confidence inspired by acceptance, will tend to produce an approxiation of competence, enough to confirm the initial choice as right and justified, at least. Once the investment is made, and you’re on the inside, it might take years to expose your shortcomings even when this doesn’t apply.

Turn someone down, and maybe they’ll find themselves in debt, confidence shattered, slide from that crucial lost chance into apathy or worse. This is confirmation bias as a social and economic system, a lottery with delusions of meaningful decision-making. Every interview with someone successful you’ve ever read mentions the moment when something clicked: the job that led to everything that followed, the support that made the rest easy, the random draw that raised this one individual from the aspirant horde and planted those particular feet firmly on the sprung rubber surface of the fast track, where white lines curved on their clear path to the finish line. The rest remain outside, groping in the darkness for even the semblance of an entrance to the stadium.

Those who make it are the ones worthy of the rewards; the rest have fallen short. Anyone can see the natural justice at work in this.

Time passes. Small change turns up in the street from time to time. There is another story to be told, where we might glimpse details otherwise deemed insignificant: moments of clarity, peculiar unravellings of the fabrics we live by as the mind turns in on itself between one distraction and the next, each small paid job only tenuously connected to the last. Here’s one of those stories now, the beginnings of a prose elegy sketched out among the slogans and images that pierce the rain-soaked urban fabric with the fantastic promises of a dozen billboards along the route I’m walking:

It’s been eighty years since the armistice of the Great War, more or less. Vast posters appear in the streets showing the dark centres of scarlet poppies, as though Georgia O’Keefe has become confused with More O’Ferrall, the content stolen for the pasted image seamlessly merged with the interests profiting from the billboard itself. Lime green posters, possibly florescent, are slapped on top, unofficial fly posters showing a large disembodied phallus in black marker-pen. A train is beating over the iron railway-bridge, its wheels and carriages throbbing through the brickwork and girders above us with a close approximation of the rhythm in a migraine headache, right behind the eyes. A car takes a tight corner on a mountain road while the sun rises, or sets, it isn’t clear. Love and acceptance is promised to all by the mascaras and lipsticks worn by women so exceptional in appearance they are paid in multiples of your annual salary for a handful of photographs, a few seconds of film footage. There are four landscapes, sited at angles to one another above a junction, each one dramatic, beautiful and entirely free of advertising, all trying to entice us to travel into them by luxury car, cruise-liner or air…

This might be important. It’s just unedited notes, a few scraps of evidence, but you’ll probably have guessed already where it’s going, what the point will be. This isn’t subtle. There are some kinds of knowledge that we all share but somehow never quite rise into full consciousness for long enough to come into focus, mirages we aren’t sure are really there at all: am I seeing my mind work from a long way off or am I going mad? We know, instinctively, that the only place we’ll ever see a landscape entirely free of advertising is in the landscape depicted in an advertisement. It’s one of these things we know and witness continually but that no longer seems unnatural. Of course there are adverts everywhere, except in adverts. How else could things be?

Perhaps one day our shared observations will magnetize to one-another, gather weight and form, their collective gravity suddenly become sufficient to jolt entire fixed weather systems from their default courses. Would what ensued be chaos or liberation? Until then, I can indulge the dream of travelling among landscapes free of advertising while walking through a half-mile long canyon of shops and offices flanked by billboards, all the way from the Holloway Road to the gates of Finsbury Park. Perhaps if I can prove I’m worthy, start earning and save some money now, it might even happen. If I can just put my head down against all this rain and keep going…

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(lxiii)

“We work to maintain our chains of our own free will. We keep them safe with the clocks and the coins inside our own homes and fret ourselves ceaselessly about losing even a single link.”

Henry Sutton (1886)

The sun strains through the clouds like weak tea through muslin. Neon signs flicker high on the walls as I pass the Ethiopian crafts and clothes shop with its white door and window-frames, the grocer and halal  butcher, the steel shutters unrolled for an afternoon trade that seems to barely exist. On the pavement gangs of youths in leather jackets with gelled hair and strong after-shave hang around, maybe Greek, Cypriot or Turkish, maybe Albanian or Italian, but wherever they’re from I think I don’t recognise the language until I do, suddenly, finally catching a slangy, heavily accented English spoken at three times normal speed. A group of Somali women thread between them, while two elderly Jamaican men with grey hair and beards stand aside to let them pass, one doffing his tweed hat with a smile then moving on.

At the bus-stop a line of people moves forward to board a red Routemaster whose conductor hangs from the back step, one arm outstretched to signal that only the first four can get on, the rest must wait. There are murmurs and shufflings, but the line quickly falls back and returns to its paperbacks, newspapers and magazines. I am behind them, pausing by a litter-bin to pick up the shiny bronze penny that leans at a forty-five degree angle in the space between two paving-stones. As I stand, I notice the sky darkening, a large cloud moving through the light like a shadow over water. I can hear the distant rumbling of thunder, feel a vague electric charge hanging on the air like a veil.

The shadow throws the neon lights and office windows into sharper relief, and a blue and red sign shaped like a telephone flashes over a painted board that reads: Cheap Rate International Phone Calls and Travel Specialists. A man sits behind a wooden desk inside, a computer in front of him as he turns a ball-point pen over and over between his fingers, tapping it on the desk and staring into space. On the walls around him are posters in full colour showing scenes from Guyana, Jamaica, Cyprus, places where lurid pink and orange sunsets spread themselves behind silhouetted palm trees, where improbably blue skies luxuriate above sapphire oceans and white sand beaches, while natives in colourful clothes hold out baskets of fruit that seem to ripen in the warmth of exaggeratedly contented smiles, wide as the clean horizons that surround them.

He continues to stare into space, his gaze following a fly as it batters itself against a flickering florescent tube spotted with dust. He has the flight details and dialling codes of every point on the globe at his fingertips, but he is going nowhere and talking to no-one.

p1240390

Notes From A Hospital (19 – 23 June, 2016)

8 Aug

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This place asserts itself first as a very ordinary space, as though it’s been purposefully designed to seem mundane, to take the edge off its real function with a veneer of domesticity, something between a dated suburban show-home and a school dining hall lined with beds. I try to pinpoint where the dread I’m feeling comes from. Perhaps it’s the incongruity of this mustard yellow stripe crossing the grey linoleum floor tiles, or the slightly discoloured white panels of this suspended ceiling, where small swarms of black pin-holes prick through to varied depths, each taking its arbitrary place in the beige constellation. A cobweb strains and slackens like a parachute canopy, a delicate diaphragm of white glowing thread where a steel window-frame opens to the blue sky outside. A cloud the shape of a gigantic wolf’s head drifts over the low-rise rooftops of the hospital buildings across the visible courtyard. Florescent tube lights glare inside glazed plastic boxes, blue marble-patterned curtains trembling against the partly opened windows… Mainly, the dread lies in the medical machinery that returns repeatedly to the ward, measuring blood pressure, squeezing the upper arm like a velcro python. The machines attached to these needles and drips flood us with antibiotics, painkillers and saline solutions, extract blood samples. These machines test us, seek dark shadows in our lungs, root out the signs and patterns of destruction in our own cells.

*

Inside A&E I see my own blood collect inside syringes, glimpse scans of my own ribs, examine the stock market graphs of EEGs and pulse readings as I’m assessed and reassessed then run through further tests, just to be sure. I’m given painkillers and injections, laid on a trolley and wheeled out into the cavernous bay where our ailments align like vehicles taking spaces in a supermarket car park. It’s the early hours of Sunday morning. An elderly man with the visible bruising and dried blood traces of a head injury is asking for food with an incongruously posh accent, as though making announcements on the BBC in 1966. A youth, who it seems had collapsed in the street, is surrounded by a retinue of drunk friends whose red eyes startle in the stark florescent light. There is the intimacy of an elderly husband and wife acting as though they are in a private space, as though this might be almost routine, as though they might switch places on the gurneys night after night. A wall-mounted TV scrolls adverts and a scarlet ticker-tape of rolling bad news. There is a coffee machine somewhere, though it’s not clear where. And where else would one stranger approach another with the words “I need to take some of your blood” so regularly and with such bluntly pragmatic intent to see the action through? Extraction might be coded into this space. Does the PFI that rebuilt it once now draw rents from these aluminum and white plastic fittings, these oxygen canisters and uniforms, leased-back strip-lights and polished concrete floors, wooden desks and blue curtains?

*

In this refrigerated room the machine hums quietly among the pipes and platforms, the windows of the observation chambers. Always seems strange when the operators of a system clear the space before it operates, leaving you alone inside it. This is the CT-scanner with its turquoise floored, aquatic waiting room, its looped TV channel discussing accidents – a man trapped under a car ploughed into him by a double decker bus, a surfer in collision with a jet-ski on a rolling wave, collusions of random chance and sheer misfortune followed by miraculous recoveries. When I’m wheeled along the corridor with its peculiar scent into the presence of the monolith – like the central pierced stone of Men-an-Tol – I’m conscious of the solstice, of the fact that I’d planned to be elsewhere, at a solstice celebration, and instead lie here, my back pressed in its thin gown against a cold metal slide, my arms stretched back above my head as I listen for the voice that emerges from the white machine telling me to breathe in, hold breath, breathe normally, its magnets whirring inside the white casing like the drum of a washing machine, circling my upper body, scanning everything, from chin to groin, slice by slice, till somewhere, on a screen behind those black glass windows, I’m reconstituted, replicated in a three dimensional matrix. This might be the altar of some alien pagan cult, exploring the limitless recesses of the body’s interior.

*

Everything tastes of this one solution but I don’t know what this taste is, how to begin to describe it. Everything smells of it but I don’t know exactly how I’m taking in the scent, what the components of this fragrance are, only that in the combination of taste and scent it blends a sickly sweetness with a metallic edge – is something complex, alien and impossible to place on any previous axis of sensory experience. Mercury and over-sweetened rhubarb? Silicone in custard? A compound of artificial sweeteners and metal shavings? Copper coins sucked through a soft cloth steeped in pine fragranced shampoo? The contrast – for this is what they call that weird solution here – is intravenously administered. I’m told that I’ll experience the illusion of wetting myself, that a soft warmth will seem to spread from my groin to my knees and waist. The woman beside the machine is reassuring, has told me already that this isn’t real, but it will, she insists, feel very real in the moment it happens. This is standard procedure, to be expected, she says, and it will pass once the moment does, be entirely gone and half forgotten even by the time I leave this room. It is not, she insists, anything to be concerned about.

*

I understand that this machine reads my body better than I, who inhabit it, can. The machine is driven by electromagnetics and x-rays, sending its resonant frequencies through my cells and fibres, my soft organs and hard bones, slice by slice as I pass through its open circle. The body inside the machine, my body, is kept at the refrigerated temperature the machine requires. My nostrils and the back of my throat are filled with that indefinably synthetic alien substance, still to be properly named or described: silicone and rhubarb with saccharine, uncooked pastry in cleansed sump-oil, white truffle in volcanic sulphur, spinach steeped in phosphorus and copper sulphate. How do I even begin to describe this after-taste? I’m conscious that this is primal machinery, machinery geared to extract a fully illuminated body’s interior, an imprint or double lifted from my own flesh for remote examination. This is a revelation of the inner self: not those hypothetical coloured lights, the auras and chakras beloved of the New Age, but the true inner being of flesh and fluids, nerves and ribs, veins and arteries, alveoli and heart-muscles, in all of which life flows, a low-level electric charge like the static thickening in the warm air that precedes a thunderstorm. Where clouds gather inside any image produced, wherever new cells or growths appear, fear must always follow, to clot and accumulate among the relentlessly shortening hours and days…

*

When I return to the ward, when I’m pushed in a wheelchair towards the empty bed by an open window overlooking a small lawn where pigeons and blackbirds peck among the freshly-trimmed grass in a late evening sunshine I’d half forgotten was out there, I’m approached by a tall Jamaican-Nottingham girl with Nefertiti features and a crown of lilac-dyed braids tied up in a tight sphere on her head, like an Egyptian sun-disk. She wraps my arm in a velcro pressure gauge, takes a blood sample and pulse: unlike every other nurse I’ve so far encountered she follows the electronic reading with an old-school press of her fingers to my wrist, silently counting while looking at the small dial of a watch. She seems in charge right now, but tomorrow I’ll be chatting to her and discover she’s still two months from qualifying, and she’ll laugh when I tell her she seemed to be the authority on the ward in the first half-hour I spent on it. “I was just trying not to seem nervous”, she says. “Didn’t figure I was doing any kind of good job at it”. And there it is, our disconnection, me oblivious to her nerves, her oblivious to whatever I was feeling just then, swept into her presence on the medical process that had already led from ambulance to A&E, from there to a holding ward, and had now landed me here, on a specialist male respiratory ward in another hospital, her long fingers taking the pulse of the one wrist still unmarked by cannula needles. It’s 7pm already and she’ll soon disappear as the night shift drifts in, as new ranks of nurses, new cleaners and carriers, wipers, bathers, sometime wound-dressers and carers arrive, one after another: all those who’ll see us through till morning, one way or another.

*

He was a big man once, a hard man, most likely, judging by his talk at times, the kind of man who carried his own name – M.I.C.K – inked on the four finger-knuckles of his right hand, where it remains visible among the bruises and needle-punctures, the dressings and swellings. He’s lost 25 kilos these last 8 weeks, he’s said, and the medical staff have confirmed it – 25 kilos gone from his bruiser’s bulk while his features soften into vulnerability and panic under the brute force of whatever illness has its hold on him. When he’s angry, he verbalises his feelings in terms set by a physical aggression of which he’s no longer capable: “a crack on the nose”, “a punch in the mouth”, “a kick in the balls”. Right now, you can only imagine what he might have looked like ten or twelve weeks back, the big fella and hard-man he remains in his own head despite this new reality where he’s bent double, depleted, fighting for breath over a white plastic bed-table while his grey skin hangs, exposed and flabby, in the folds of his unbuttoned pyjamas. When noises come from him, gasps and wheezes and cries, nurses from Spain and Trinidad, Guyana, Sri Lanka and Slovakia surround him, hook up the nebuliser or IV drip, ameliorate his pain for a few more hours, but it’s clear that he resents this dependence, is reduced and rendered weak, yet knows there’s nothing to be done with this need but to accept the help and rail against how disgusted he feels with himself at needing it. The women, the nurses, too pragmatic and pressed to be fazed, get on with it and keep going, as the world always does in the face of our humiliations.

*

Then there is the beauty of this woman with her attentive expressions, working to understand the post-stroke broken language of a 64 year old man with close-cropped ginger hair, a man returned to a kind of meta-childhood, whose wife and sole carer died a year or two ago, clearly aware of the chasms constantly opening between his movements, words and the thoughts behind both. He gets up often, paces, performs a kind of dance to re-learn the co-ordination of his limbs and extremities, placing his feet in a grid pattern that he repeats, over and over, on the chessboard of grey and mustard coloured linoleum tiles on the ward floor. In conversation, when he can’t find a word, knows but can’t retrieve it from his blighted vocabulary, there’s a laminated book of prompts he shuffles through in his big hands until something clicks and the conversation continues, like a car being repeatedly jump-started on a driveway. This woman, her features falcon-sharp, her fringe cut on a ruler’s edge across a forehead framed by tousled brunette and blond-highlighted hair, is listening to him. On her wrist is a playing card tattoo: the six of clubs, a grid of clenched black fists, its significance to her entirely unknown to me, perhaps anyone. She has the air of someone who’s been through more than one life, that who she is now is only the latest draft of a work in progress, which seems to be all she has in common with the man she’s talking to. Whatever he was before this, before the stroke hit him and his wife’s death cut him adrift, neither of us can know.

*

It is my final day here, though I don’t know this quite yet. Right now, I am viewing a range of potential futures, measuring my current difficulties against the struggles of others – who have no reliable address, whose health is free-falling far beyond any depth reached by mine, touch wood and so far. Men whose lives are in some sense already mostly lived, what highlights there were securely fixed in the territory of the past. Who, then, is more or less fortunate here, and is this, or anything, even measurable or, at least, measurable in these terms? Let us imagine that the dividing line between this world of hospitals and medical procedures, this world where control is relinquished, half in terror, half in relief, this world of quietly dealt-with deaths behind curtains, of being woken from restless sleep at 3am to be plugged into an antibiotic drip, to wake and sleep among all the humiliations a body can inflict on the spirit inhabiting it…the line between that world and another, a world that is none of these things, a world where the illusion of control is granted…that division seems fragile as the tissue in an exposed lung. One here is well enough to leave but waits on the availability of sheltered housing; another aged 87, reads the Daily Mail in bed, having fallen through a table a few days ago to end up here, immobilised. Yet another is tethered to his bed by a plastic oxygen tube, alternately pacing out the limits of his leash and flipping through the sports pages of The Sun. For a few hours more we are all here, on this respiratory ward, distracting ourselves with the thought that there might be more years ahead, or some purpose to those that have gone already, taking all our breaths and heartbeats, our best efforts and worst errors, and dragging them all out to sea with us, as a tide gathers stones on its long withdrawal from a pebble beach.

Men an Tol

From: Robert Holcombe’s Telekinesis (c.1954 – 1957)

6 Jul

Telekinesis II (1955)

“The game begins when the children, in whatever numbers are available when the desire to play takes hold, form a circle and focus their collective attention on a point in the ground at the dead-centre of their gathering. Each child then imagines the ground opening, mentally invoking a wound or vulva, a mouth or eye at that single point in space. Once the correct degree of focus is achieved each child in turn joins with the song that will slowly grow in volume and force as it passes repeatedly around their human circle, sometimes in the form of an elaborate but instinctively formed round, sometimes as a massed single chant as all the voices present merge into one:

Open, open, turn this earth to mouth,
Show coral lips and ivory teeth,
Cleave this ground to bring forth life,
Slice this stone with a surgeon’s knife.

When the required mass of vocalisation and psychic focus is accomplished a slowly expanding oval will appear in the air, its appearance not unlike a shadow’s penumbra surrounding a brighter central area. Witnesses have variously described this initial apparition as alike to a tiny nebula or cellular form hovering an inch above the ground, its circumference widening at an even rate. After a few moments this portal – for this, it is said, is what has been conjured – reaches its maximum dimensions, as determined by the numbers within the circle, then raises itself to conclude a smooth ascent somewhere around the average waist-height of those comprising the circle that has invoked it. It remains stabilised at this height for as long as the chant is sustained…”

Telekinesis [Brides] (1956)

Telekinesis [The Forest] (c.1954 - 1957)

Behold! The Markets Shall Erase Our History! (Nottingham Contemporary, 16 Jan to 17 April 2016)

6 Jan

Eastern Bloc Songs Sampler

Behold! The Markets Shall Erase Our History! (Small Collections Room, Nottingham Contemporary, 16 Jan 2016 – 17 Apr 2016)

Drawing together strands from a number of ongoing projects, including 723 Variations On The Same Theme, Eastern Bloc Songs and the fictional archives of the British artist Robert Holcombe, Wayne Burrows presents a display spanning both sides of the Cold War. Curated by Irene Aristizábal, Behold! The Markets Shall Erase Our History! takes in typographic consumer propaganda, erased partisan histories, fabricated Independent Group artworks and artifacts from the histories of popular music in Communist Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Eastern Bloc Songs: A Sampler, introducing loose English translations from the Polish, Czech, Hungarian and Croatian lyrics of 11 songs featured in the exhibition – all recorded between 1964 and 1981 by Filipinki, Klan, Marta Kubišová, Czesław Niemen, Hana Zagorová, Sarolta Zalatnay, Olympic, Hana & Petr Ulrychovi, Josipa Lisac, Tadeusz Woźniak and Izabela Trojanowska – is published by Nottingham Contemporary to accompany and contextualise the display and will be available at the gallery shop and elsewhere from January 15th.

003 (3)

Eastern Bloc Disco with UrBororo (Nottingham Contemporary, 16 Jan 2016, 8.30pm to 11pm, free).

To celebrate the opening weekend of Monuments Should Not Be Trusted and expand on the display of Eastern Bloc 7” records in his exhibition in the Small Collections Room, Wayne Burrows will be playing soul, rock, psychedelia, pop, folk and jazz, all drawn from the surprisingly diverse output of the official state record labels of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania, East Germany and the USSR between the 1960s and early 1980s.

The session will also include a live set from UrBororo, Pil & Galia Kollectiv’s new venture into “skewed filing cabinet swamp blues for corporate inflight listening” – an “objectively boring” band whose songs are made from an unlikely merger between the sounds of surf, grunge and punk and whose lyrics are all borrowed from a 1970s Management Self-Help guide.

“UrBororo are objectively boring. They also view themselves as boring. UrBororo actually refer to themselves with typically irritating self-deprecation as ‘The People Who You Wouldn’t Like to be Cornered by at a Party’. They regard most of what they do as a waste of time. Based on a managerial help book, the songs they play propose a skewed filing cabinet swamp blues for corporate inflight listening.”Pil & Galia Kollectiv (2015)

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Exotica Suite & Other Fictions (Launch at New Art Exchange, July 10, 2015)

20 Jun

Exotica Suite & Other Fictions will be out on July 10th, via Shoestring Press for the print publication, and as a full length album, also titled Exotica Suite, on CD from July and as a vinyl LP in 2016. The recordings feature some of the written texts sampled, remixed, re-edited and performed with music by Paul Isherwood, best known for four acclaimed albums made with The Soundcarriers, most recently Entropicalia (Ghost Box, 2014). The launch will also premiere a cycle of related short films to which the recordings act as soundtracks. It’s all scheduled to take place at at New Art Exchange on July 10, between 6 – 9pm, free but booking via Eventbrite is strongly recommended.

Exotica Suite & Other Fictions

BOOK PUBLICATION CONTENTS & BLURB:

Exotica Suite begins with an Easter Island creation chant in the style of William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell and an imaginary Polynesian colony in England in the 1780s then takes in a series of tall tales featuring Hawaiian musicians. Other Fictions fabricates occult histories in Nottingham caves and embarks on a labyrinthine sea voyage with the body of a late Hawaiian King. Now gathered in one place for the first time, the various forgeries, stories, false lectures, misleading anecdotes and other writings in Exotica Suite & Other Fictions are the flip-side to Black Glass: New & Selected Poems, also published by Shoestring.

Exotica Suite simultaneously exists as a vinyl LP and audio CD made in collaboration with the musician Paul Isherwood, best known for his work with The Soundcarriers.

“…spins a web that oscillates between the fictional and non fictional and encourages us to reflect on how we navigate the past and how this could affect all our futures.”

Katherine Wood on Marine (2013)

Book Contents:

Part One: Exotica Suite:
A Creation Fragment from Easter Island
An Account of the Hawaiian Colony in England (1790)
The Kumulipo Variations
Four Hula Songs for the Goddess Laka
The Sorceress
An Imaginary History of Musical Polynesia
(i) The First Musician
(ii) Joseph Kekuku Between Two Worlds
(iii) Sol Hoopii Finds A Sack Of Souls
(iv) Arthur Lyman’s Marimba Calms Pele’s Rage
(v) Shell-Ears And Tin-Ears
Invocation to Sun Ra (1914 – 1993)

Part Two: Other Fictions
Marine: A Story in Eight Objects
A Marriage of Styles
The Disappearances
The Peel Street Codex
The Nottingham Medlars
An Edible Alphabet
Fabricated Archives
Spirit Wrappings: Some Notes on the Rashleigh Jackson Family Collection
A Mandinka Song: Theme & Variations
Disturbances
The Enigma of Robert Holcombe
Convulsive Beauty: A Fabricated Lecture
Twelve Non-Specific Sites

The Sorceress (1955) Latino Graphics E

Exotica Suite LP/CD Tracklist:

Side 1:
The Hawaiian Colony Ballad I
Creation Fragment
Altar Prayer For Laka
A Hula for Laka (For Link Wray)
The Hawaiian Colony Ballad II
The Sorceress

Side 2:
Ankle Bracelet
Flute Interlude
Kumulipo Variation
The Hawaiian Colony Ballad III
Subliminal (Invocation to Sun Ra)

Avant Garde or Last Minute at Sunscreen (EM15 at Venice Biennale, 2015)

10 May

Photosensitive Abstraction

An animated text, made in the form of a screen-saver for the Sunscreen project, curated by Candice Jacobs in association with EM15 at Venice Biennale, went live on April 27th and is now available to download and install by following the instructions on the Sunscreen website. Avant Garde or Last Minute is very loosely linked to an ongoing Robert Holcombe project involving found texts under the title 723 Variations On The Same Theme, and one of around 40 newly commissioned online art-works, including those made specifically for the project by a number of artists I’ve collaborated with or written about elsewhere, not least Shana Moulton, Yelena Popova, Bruce Asbestos, Frank Abbott, Blue Firth and Simon Raven. The full collection of free, downloadable screen-savers by these and many other artists can be browsed here.

A Sampling of Spoken Word on Records: 1952 – 1993 (from: Staple – The Music Issue, 2010)

27 Mar

Staple 72 The Music Issue (Image) The story of spoken word as a recorded medium really begins at the birth of the technology itself, with Thomas Edison reputed to have tested his earliest prototype phonograph cylinders in 1877 with his own recital of ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’. The technology was sufficiently advanced by 1890 for Alfred Tennyson to make wax cylinder recordings of around ten poems, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ among them. In the years that followed 78rpm discs featuring Biblical readings and passages from Shakespeare were plentiful, and many examples of interest exist in the richly populated hinterland between music and poetry: the twisted ballads and song-poems of the ‘Old Weird America’ gathered on Harry Smith’s epochal Anthology of American Folk Music and the Red Bird Poetry and Jazz sessions of Tony Kinsey and Christopher Logue are only two of the most interesting. Despite the riches available even before the full advent of the 12″ LP record, however, it seems to be the 1950s that saw spoken word recordings really take off, and the births of such idiosyncratic labels as Caedmon in America and Argo in the UK were particularly significant in creating a commercial market for what were otherwise seen as largely educational and archival artefacts. In the selection that follows, we’ve gathered a mere 17 recordings to represent a cross-section through the many hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of possible inclusions, but they hopefully touch on key strands in the development of spoken word as a distinct literary medium and offer an introductory gesture towards that larger story.

T.S. Eliot: The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock

From: T.S. Eliot reading Poems and Choruses (Caedmon, 1955)

The serious-minded Modernism of T.S. Eliot, and the poet’s drily ironic delivery of his own lines on records like this one, are often lazily condemned (in some circles, at least) as the antithesis of the spoken word scene’s more democratic energies. But any reader or listener who can’t imagine this 1955 reading of his early masterpiece The Love Song Of J Alfred Prufrock bringing down the house in a live setting with the same riotous force as the poem manages on paper is allowing Eliot’s forbidding reputation to get between the actual words and a more instinctive response to their effect. The truth is that however dry Eliot’s reading seems, there’s humour in the play between his high-serious tones and the absurdist doggerel of couplets like “I grow old, I grow old/I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled” and “In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michaelangelo”. This LP, released as part of the Caedmon Literary Series in 1955, opens our selection of recordings made between the 1950s and 1990s, all precursors of today’s spoken word scene, and many by poets more closely associated with the page than the stage. As such, it’s also, I hope, a means of bridging the gap often perceived to exist between the realms of written and performed poetry in the UK. We very deliberately open proceedings with this recording of a man who is in many ways held up as the totemic ‘difficult page poet’ by both his supporters and detractors in the belief that Prufrock – first published in 1917 – unsettles that view at a very fundamental level. It’s not just our view that Eliot bridges the divide between page and stage approaches, either: the poet’s love of music hall is well known (he even wrote an essay on Marie Lloyd) but perhaps more revealing is that during an interview with Linton Kwesi Johnson in a Brixton café for The Big Issue in the North in March 2001, the renowned dub-poet mentioned in passing that he had himself recorded a reggae version of Eliot’s poem, to make exactly this point. At the time of writing, Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Prufrock remains unreleased, but it would be wonderful, and no doubt transformative, if Eliot’s estate were to one day relent and allow Johnson’s so far unheard dub take on Prufrock to take its place beside Eliot’s own reading.

Edith Sitwell: Façade

From: Façade: performed by Paul Scofield and Peggy Ashcroft with The London Sinfonietta conducted by Sir William Walton (Argo, 1972) [Link to different performance]

While the position of Eliot’s Prufrock in the Modernist canon is assured, there’s still a lingering suspicion that Edith Sitwell’s cycle of nonsense-poems set to music by William Walton – and first performed at the Aeolian Hall in London on June 12, 1923 – is some kind of in-joke, perpetuated by the Sitwell clan as a wealthy bohemian indulgence at the expense of a gullible public in search of novelties. Listening to this version, recorded to commemorate Walton’s 70th birthday, and conducted by him with Paul Scofield and Peggy Ashcroft performing the recitals, suggests that it’s a singularly odd blend of verbal humour and musical experiment – not (as is sometimes claimed) in a jazz idiom, but with the quirky tenor of Erik Satie’s compositions, sharing its general atmosphere and tone with his score for Rene Clair’s silent film En’tracte (1924), an enterprise in which erstwhile Dadaist Francis Picabia was also involved. Seen in this context, it’s a good example of British modernism produced with lively humour and a lightness of touch, a point that seems self-evident in such nonsensically playful lines as “And why should the spined flowers/Red as a soldier/ Make Don Pasquito/ Seem still mouldier” (‘Lullaby for Jumbo’), “The light is braying like an ass” (‘Trio for Two Cats and a Trombone’) and “Herodiade’s flea/ Was named sweet Amanda,/ She danced like a lady/ from here to Uganda” (‘Came the Great Popinjay’). Taking its cues from the delight in wordplay of folk poetry and nursery rhyme, Sitwell’s verses seem both modish (“Lily O’Grady/Silly and shady,/Longing to be/A lazy lady”) and – at times – dug from some oddly distorted memory inside the language itself:

Bells of grey crystal
Break on each bough –
The swans’ breath will mist all
The cold airs now.
Like tall pagodas
Two people go,
Trail their long codas
Of talk through the snow.
Lonely are these
And lonely am I…
The clouds, grey Chinese geese,
Sleek through the sky.

This is ‘Bells of Grey Crystal’ in full, and like much else in Façade it manages to be entirely superficial yet affecting simultaneously; the combination of Sitwell’s nursery-rhyme verses and Walton’s settings, with their parodies of sea-shanties and music hall comedy songs, suggest a peculiarly English sensibility at work. Just as Façade borrowed the devices of European modernism to build a path back to childhood, so English psychedelic bands such as The Kaleidoscope and Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd would later eschew the harder formal experimentation and political edges of their American and European contemporaries of the later 1960s in favour of acid-tinged reworks of The Wind in the Willows or a full embrace of Lewis Carroll’s mindbending Victorian doll-house aesthetic. Sitwell’s later work may have fallen rather too often into grandiose pomposity but her early material has its own undeniable energy and appeal, perhaps coming as close as England managed to a native strain of Dadaism – or perhaps a development of the musical genre now known to adherents as Toytown Psychedelia four decades ahead of schedule. It’s certainly not difficult to imagine a 1967 English band in velvet jackets and frilly shirts performing many of these lyrics to the backwards tapes, fuzz guitars and distorted brass bands of the day: “The rooms are vast as sleep within:/When once I ventured in,/Chill silence, like a surging sea,/Slowly enveloped me” (‘Clowns’ Houses’).

Dylan Thomas: Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait

From: Dylan Thomas reading Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait (Caedmon, 1952)

Dylan Thomas was both an early protégé of Edith Sitwell’s and, in some respects, perhaps the indirect instigator of the boom in both public readings of poetry, and spoken word releases on vinyl LPs and 45s, during the 1950s and after. It was Thomas’s renown as a reader (as well as writer) of poetry that saw him endlessly touring the United States in his later years, and Caedmon’s phenomenally successful LP recordings (beginning in 1952, when two young American women, Marianne Roney and Barbara Cohen, brought Thomas’ voice and the medium of vinyl together) became instrumental in showing a market for recordings of such readings existed. Some of these LPs, such as Thomas’s own readings of Under Milk Wood, or his seasonal story A Child’s Christmas in Wales, added at the last minute to his debut recording of five poems for the label, sold in great quantities. That’s probably less true of this far from obviously commercial single, recorded in New York in 1952, on which one of Thomas’ more oblique and knotted late poems is spread over both sides of the record. But if the meaning here is frequently obscure, the language and rhythms are sufficiently rich for a listener to treat the piece as an immersive rather than interpretative experience. Hearing Thomas’s deeply musical reading of such lines as “Sails drank the wind, and white as milk/ He sped into the drinking dark;/ The sun shipwrecked west on a pearl/ And the moon swam out of its hulk” is to allow the long-lined ballad stanzas driving the poem forward to wash through the mind like the sound of the ocean itself: “…nothing remains/Of the pacing, famous sea but its speech,/And into its talkative seven tombs/The anchor dives through the floors of a church”. As Marianne Roney noted in a 1999 interview, looking for an explanation of the success of her fledgling company’s Dylan Thomas recordings with the public, Thomas always “wrote to the thunder of his voice. His poems are inconceivable without that voice”. While it’s possible to hear other voices successfully reading at least some of Thomas’s work (Richard Burton’s performance in Under Milk Wood comes to mind) or appreciate Thomas’ thunderous tones applied to the works of others (notably Yeats and James Stephens, whose poems he often incorporated into his public readings) it’s certainly hard to imagine Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait being this successfully transmitted by any voice that is not Thomas’s own.

Louise Bennett: A Jamaican Alphabet

From: Childrens’ Jamaican Songs and Games Sung by Louise Bennett (Folkways, 1957)

Already well-known at the time of this record’s release as the editor of several anthologies of Jamaican folklore, dialect and stories, and as a newspaper columnist and radio broadcaster, Louise Bennett is often considered the most important figure in carrying the oral traditions of the Caribbean into the post-war evolution of a distinct written literature. While she could be biting and satirical as well as warm and witty in her own poems, with pieces such as ‘Colonisation in Reverse‘ and ‘Independence’ having enormous influence on the writing that developed in her wake, Bennett – always an enormously popular figure in Jamaica – was not widely acknowledged as a poet deserving of literary respect until the 1960s. Jamaica Alphabet is typical of her earlier output, in that a piece of folk poetry is redefined by Bennett’s sensibility, and her linguistic and rhythmic invention, releasing the oral into a written form:

A is fe Ackee Saltfish bes’ frien’
B is fe Bammy Banana an den
C is fe Cocoa, Coconut, Callalloo
D is fe Dumplin’ an Duckoonoo
E is fe Egg nourishin fe eat
F is fe Fu-fu when you lose yuh teeth…

Bennett’s other achievement, of course, was to marry the oral as performance with the new mediums of radio and recording, and it’s worth remembering that Jamaica Alphabet was released on the legendary Folkways label as part of a 10″ album of traditional songs and games in 1957, barely a decade after the SS Windrush had first docked at Tilbury. Its contents – doubtless somewhat exotic to English ears on its initial release – have since become so deeply woven into the fabric of British culture that Bennett’s voice now seems as familiar as Thomas Hardy’s or John Betjeman’s. As a precursor, pointing towards the future of English, and for her immense importance in shaping the spoken poetry and performance that flourished from the 1960s onwards, it’s probably not going too far to suggest that Bennett has been as energising and transformative an influence on the English language poetry of the twentieth century’s second half as T.S. Eliot was on that of the first.

Edward (Kamau) Brathwaite: Calypso

From: Rights of Passage by Edward Brathwaite (Argo, 1968)

As though taking positions on either side of Louise Bennett’s commitment to an oral literature, the two towering figures of Caribbean poetry since the 1960s have been Derek Walcott and Edward Kamau Brathwaite, but while Brathwaite was undoubtedly considered the senior figure during the 1960s and 70s, he has subsequently been eclipsed in Europe and America by Walcott’s ascent to Nobel status in recent decades. As a question of mere literary reputation, this shouldn’t much matter, but it’s the difference in approach between the two bodies of work that perhaps explains how the discrepancy arose. For while Walcott’s response to the poetic marginality of his St Lucia home was to occupy the traditional forms and models of European literature, Brathwaite’s to that of his native Barbados was seemingly to tear up that tradition and begin again, from the example of such Francophone poets as Aimé Cesaire and Nicolás Guillén. The 1967 publication of Rights of Passage, the first book in his first trilogy, sees modernist techniques interwoven with an English that shifts between standard form and the dialects of ‘Nation Language’. Brathwaite re-told the story of the migrations and disruptions of the Middle Passage in a form that echoed the collective experience described: in broken lines, fragments made coherent by a constantly changing rhythm. As Brathwaite himself stated in the sleeve notes to this recording, “the rhythms… convey a great deal of the meaning of the poem. The drum-like beats of its African beginning (‘Drum skin whip/ lash’) give way to the blues of the ‘slave’ section, which in turn develop into the boogie-woogie train rhythms of emancipation, the jazz phrases of urban ghetto life and the creole dialect speech rhythms of the peasant countryside”. For this reason (and not unlike Basil Bunting’s 1978 recording of Briggflats for Bloodaxe) what can seem difficult on paper comes into clear and accessible focus when heard aloud, with the musical structures foregrounded. Brathwaite’s impact on the younger generation of British and Caribbean poets who went on to develop dub poetry and other performance-based styles – Michael Smith and Linton Kwesi Johnson among them – has been undeniable and profound, but his less frequently noted effect on Walcott’s sense of scale in works like Another Life and Omeros probably shouldn’t be forgotten either.

Herbert Read: Exile’s Lament

From: Echoes of My Life by Herbert Read (Argo, 1967)

Released on the Argo record label to commemorate Read’s death in 1968 at the age of 75, the very English sensibility on display throughout Echoes of My Life seems at first glance as far removed from Brathwaite’s concerns in Rights of Passage as it’s possible to be. Yet listening to the two recordings together, it quickly becomes clear that both are concerned with roots and displacements, and Read – a Yorkshire-born poet, anarchist and art critic who first came to prominence with poems and diaries written in the aftermath of war service between 1915 and 1917 – had once described himself as a young man “cast into the frenzy of war with no better personal covering than the philosophy of Nietzsche,” suggesting that his own life had seen its own exiles and disruptions. In this recording, he moves back through his own experience in an effort to bridge the distance between his origins and later years, interspersing passages of prose autobiography from The Contrary Experience with selections and excerpts from the poems, and weaving his own voice with those of Peter Orr and Yvonne Bonnamy to describe a series of landscapes, and the resonances of these in his own sensibility. Read’s frequent sense of the impact of natural forces on an individual consciousness follows in the tradition of Coleridge, and perhaps anticipates Ted Hughes, as when he notes “A rising fish ripples the still waters/And disturbs my soul”, or observes a rook, that “if it should swerve in the sky/Will move the whole world momentously”. Despite his own poetry’s broadly conventional feel, that English Romantic ideal underlay Read’s promotion of Surrealism during the 1930s, and in the book he edited at the time of the 1936 International Exhibition in London, essays by Andre Breton, Paul Eluard, Georges Hugnet and Hugh Sykes-Davies sketched out the connections between the French movement’s concerns and the longer traditions of Romanticism and political radicalism in England that Read felt made the movement a natural fit with this deep-rooted sensibility in his home culture. It is these interests, rather than his broader role as a polemicist, educational writer and public explicator of modern art, that informs this recording. As the poems move forward from ‘Childhood’ and back into the deeper history of a Saxon and early Christian England glimpsed in such poems as ‘The Ivy and the Ash’ and ‘Dirge’, the record ends with a conjunction of ‘Exile’s Lament’, a polyphony of voices in apparent conversation with Caedmon, the first Christian poet of England, and ‘Lines from Moon’s Farm’, in which the central symbol is a clock. In one passage, Read finds belonging in a village whose inn, to his delight, is named The Wings Of Liberty, and these homespun details combine with reminiscences on the ancient kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbria, and the thought, voiced by an exile, that we might live “for fifty years in successive states of illusion”, our best hope to believe “it is not too late for these illusions to be re-established”.

Joan Baez: The Magic Wood

From: Baptism: A Journey Through Our Time, Sung and Spoken by Joan Baez (Vanguard, 1968)

This selection of spoken and sung pieces with settings – both musical and atmospheric – by Peter Shickele, also emerged in 1968, and while Baez’s concept presents itself as ‘a journey through our time’, the record draws mainly on older material to present its portrait of the political turbulence of its day. Works by Walt Whitman, Federico Garcia Lorca, James Joyce, Countee Cullen, Wilfred Owen, William Blake and Norman Cameron’s translations of Arthur Rimbaud appear alongside Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s ‘Colours’, Norman Rosten’s ‘In Guernica’, Jacques Prevert’s ‘Song of the Blood’, Kenneth Rexroth’s ‘Poems from the Japanese’ and the anonymous lullaby ‘All The Pretty Horses’ in a surprisingly effective and considered meditation on war, love and idealism, allowing the many voices gathered into Baez’s own to create a deeper perspective on an age of slogans and easily-chosen sides. Perhaps the most surprising inclusions are three poems from the now largely forgotten 1940s Faber poetry collections of Henry Treece, whose ‘Old Welsh Song’, ‘Who Murdered The Minutes’ and ‘The Magic Wood’ each offer a fusion of the early WB Yeats’ elegant lyrical impulses and Dylan Thomas’s more extravagant linguistic compression. Baez’s version of ‘The Magic Wood’ is – like her setting of e.e. cummings’ ‘All in Green Went My Love Riding’ – a case of a poem written under the influence of folk song re-translated back into that tradition. In ‘The Magic Wood’ this creates not just a very fine setting of an unduly neglected poem but one of Baez’s own best performances, beautifully poised between the breathless innocence of her singing voice and Treece’s wonderfully nightmarish imagery:

I met a man with eyes of glass
And a finger curled as the wriggling worm,
And hair all red with rotting leaves,
And a stick that hissed like a summer snake.

The wood is full of shining eyes,
The wood is full of creeping feet,
The wood is full of tiny cries;
You must not go to the wood at night!

The Open Window: The Priests of the Raven of Dawn

From: The Open Window: Peter Shickele, Stanley Walden, Robert Dennis (Vanguard, 1969)

A very different proposition from Baez’s arranger Peter Shickele is this 1969 recording of a song built from two different William Blake poems, presenting the verses of ‘London’ intact but inserting a refrain from ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ as a kind of chorus. The mood is set by repeated electric piano vamps and a doom-laden organ, creating an experience akin to an otherworldly progressive rock sermon. It’s superbly atmospheric, and delivers Blake’s extraordinary poetry – “In every cry of every man/ In every infant’s cry of fear,/ In every voice, in every ban/ The mind-forg’d manacles I hear” – without worrying about possible archaisms, and deploying its late sixties musical armoury with unusual sensitivity to the text’s own shifting moods. As Shickele’s sleeve-notes rightly emphasise, Blake’s ‘London’ may have been written in the 1790s “but there’s no need to update it, or to pretend that it’s not also about, say, New York”. As with the 1970s jazz settings of Blake’s poetry by Mike Westbrook and Michael Horovitz’s adoption of Blake as the figurehead of his late sixties anthology of performance-based poetry, Children of Albion, ‘The Priests of the Raven of Dawn’ offers a lesser-known piece of evidence in support of Blake’s currency in the underground culture of this time on both sides of the Atlantic.

BBC Drama Workshop with Ronald Duncan and David Cain: July

From: The Seasons. Poems by Ronald Duncan and Derek Bowskill, Radiophonic Music by David Cain (BBC, 1969)

As you’d expect from the national broadcasting body, responsible for most of the UK’s schools programming on radio and television for the better part of 70 years, the BBC archives are a rich seam of recordings in which pretty much every possible approach to presenting text in audio formats is tried out. From well known actors reading the works of Shakespeare and Wordsworth to specially commissioned scripts devised for radio by many of the post-war era’s best-known poets, perhaps the most fascinating today are the readings set to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s distinctive and hugely influential electronic sounds. On this 1969 recording, the Workshop’s David Cain creates abstract soundscapes for the poems of Ronald Duncan, who moves through each of the 12 months of the year in turn, and Derek Bowskill, who offers four poems on the four seasons, from Spring to Winter. For ‘March‘, Cain generates minimal rhythmic scales that seem to skip happily along, but periodically stumble on dry synthetic rustles, like feet dragging in leaves, as Duncan intones “The Earth is washing, who will wake her?/ Burn the brambles from the hedge./ Fire will rouse her/ Bring a scrubbing brush of ice/ Frost to soap her,/ Till the fingers of rain/ Fall and rinse her”. The effect is curiously disjunctive, as when the decayed folk-tunes of ‘May’ accompany imagery of a female-personified Earth going “in impudent loveliness/ To meet the wind’s wantonness:/ Wet leaves of vine, her lips;/Their kiss, the heather rose…”, or the stately but melancholy processional of ‘July’ evokes Duncan’s “Empress with an endless train”, followed by “white swans and modest little boats” whose “cortege goes/ Down to the indifferent sea”. Throughout, nature is powerfully evoked through sounds that are far removed from the natural. The vivid poems (“Like severed hands the wet leaves lie”, writes Duncan in ‘October‘; “Now night on all fours/ Crawls cautiously through the valley”, he adds for ‘November‘) are steeped in the neo-pagan imagery of fertility, death and resurrection, and set here to a sonically inventive palette of clicks, bleeps, rustles, whooshes and rhythmic patterns that will be familiar from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s other early productions. These – the work of composers like Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram and John Baker – domesticated the alien sounds of electronic music into such familiar yet startling shapes as the Dr Who theme and the 1960s call signals of BBC Radio Nottingham and Sheffield. The sleeve-notes of this LP suggest that David Cain was responsible for a 1967 setting of Eliot’s The Waste Land that should also be well worth tracking down, if it still exists.*

[Note: Since first writing this, I had the opportunity to ask Cain himself about his Waste Land setting. It turned out this was never recorded, to his knowledge, and was made as an arrangement for a live performance.]

The Liverpool Scene: Winter Poem

From The Liverpool Scene: Bread on the Night (RCA, 1970)

When the Penguin Modern Poets series published its tenth volume, bringing together three young Liverpool poets, there might have been some calculation that poets from the Beatles’ home city might prove a popular choice, but probably few clues as to the mainstream best-seller status that followed. While the contributors continue to be spoken of together, as the Liverpool Poets, the three were all notably different, even in 1967, when The Mersey Sound first appeared. Brian Patten’s work displayed a stumbling but often likeable adolescent sincerity, Roger McGough’s updated older music hall and cabaret traditions, while Adrian Henri’s interests were more underground and bohemian, encompassing jazz, painting and literary modernism. McGough and Henri both moved into making records that travelled a long way from the idea of merely recording their own poems, and McGough’s trio The Scaffold (with John Gorman and Mike McGear) scored mainstream novelty hits like Lily The Pink alongside occasional pop-psychedelic curiosities, and they continued to work as a cabaret and recording act well into the 1970s. Henri’s The Liverpool Scene – an altogether more volatile outfit that also included the independent song-writing talent of Andy Roberts – is more varied in its blend of music and word, with Roberts’ grasp of folk, blues and jazz idioms meshed into Henri’s knowing (and often satirical) approach to the key bohemian tropes of his time. The version of Henri’s long poem ‘The Entry Of Christ Into Liverpool‘, based on a painting made in the early 1960s as a homage to James Ensor, unrolls against a backdrop of loose jazz, while the Henri-penned instrumental ‘Come Into The Perfumed Garden Maud’, with its Eastern scales and heavy improvisation, seems to anticipate such current cult bands as Voice of the Seven Woods and Six Organs of Admittance, demonstrating that Henri’s input was not always, or even predominantly, on the lyrical side. Even so, perhaps it’s his own ‘Winter Poem’, an effective mood-piece with atmospheric and minimal backings, that comes closest to the mood generated by David Cain, and it’s tempting to wonder if Henri had that BBC recording in mind when recording this track. The influence of the Liverpool Poets is often spoken of today in terms set largely by knowledge of McGough’s most accessible work, with its clear sentiments, gentle comedy and love of puns, but the recordings of The Liverpool Scene (alongside the best of Henri’s poetry, and such publications as Environments and Happenings, his 1974 study of installation and performance art) suggest that the phenomenon was both wider ranging and more attuned in significant ways to the traditions of modernism than is usually acknowledged, by either the advocates or detractors, who continue to debate the Liverpool Poets’ influence.

Edwin Morgan: The Loch Ness Monster’s Song

From: The Barrow Poets: Magic Egg (Argo, 1972)

A music and poetry aggregation who made records from around 1963 into the early 1970s, The Barrow Poets’ core members were William Bealby-Wright, Gerard Benson, Cicely Smith, Heather Black and Susan Baker. They began with a cabaret presenting a broad range of material, from Shakespeare, Walter de la Mare and Robert Graves to Ogden Nash and Jack Kerouac, and on later recordings for Harley Usill’s marvellously eccentric Argo label – such as Joker and Outpatients – added more material written by the poets and performers themselves, with music by Jim Parker, whose CV also includes work on John Betjeman’s recordings for the progressive rock-leaning Charisma label, of which more later. Magic Egg is billed as the group’s childrens’ LP, and the title track recasts an Assyrian legend as a song that shares some DNA with the material created by the noted folk musicians Sandra Kerr and John Faulkner for Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin’s Bagpuss in 1973. Elsewhere, though, the material covers Edwin Morgan’s noted sound poem ‘The Loch Ness Monster’s Song’, Miroslav Holub’s ‘How to Paint a Perfect Christmas’ and Adrian Mitchell’s version of the English ‘world turned upside down’ poem, ‘Nothing Mass Day’, alongside a variety of folk pieces such as ‘Tom Tit Tot’ and ‘The Turtle Dove’. The version of Edwin Morgan’s piece is especially strong, taking the witty print version of this entirely wordless poem and presenting it as a piece of anarchic vocalese full of gurgles, roars and other meaningless but evocative glossolalia, part childrens’ party piece, part distant cousin of the Dadaist experiments of Kurt Schwitters and Hugo Ball, as the monster herself surfaces, looks around, and – not liking what she sees – returns to the depths of Loch Ness.

Sir John Betjeman: The Licorice Fields at Pontefract

From: Sir John Betjeman: Late Flowering Love (Charisma, 1974)

Jim Parker adds his musical stylings to the familiar tones of the best-known post-war Poet Laureate, John Betjeman, on several recordings, with recordings like Banana Blush and this one, Late Flowering Love, picking up on the popularity of Betjeman’s films and documentaries with settings that sometimes create 1920s pastiches or summery string arrangements to frame his words, but occasionally offer something more sinister and interesting, as in the crawling bass-line that underscores ‘Late Flowering Lust’, Betjeman’s account of an old man’s vision of entwined skeletons as his speaker “runs his fingers down your dress/ With brandy-certain aim” and concludes, in the aftermath of reignited passion, that “Too long we let our bodies cling,/ We cannot hide disgust/ At all the thoughts that in us spring/ From this late-flowering lust.” In another piece here, ‘The Licorice Fields of Pontefract’, Parker adds the feel of a psychedelic brass band to the typically cosy voice that intones: “In the liquorice fields at Pontefract/ My love and I did meet/ And many a burdened liquorice bush/ Was blooming round our feet…”. Located somewhere between a downbeat take on ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’ and the darker, more unsettling hallucinations being created by former Mr Fox member Bob Pegg on records like Ancient Maps around the same time, it’s a reminder that Betjeman could be a surprisingly strange poet at times, deploying his reassuring tones to slip all kinds of sex and death-obsessed peculiarity under the radar of his audience. No wonder Philip Larkin liked him.

Peter Redgrove: From the Reflections of Mr Glass

From: British Poets of Our Time: Peter Redgrove and Peter Porter (Argo, 1975)

Alongside its many releases of train-sounds LPs, Shakespeare plays, radio ballads by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger and a wide-ranging series of ethnographic field recordings edited by Deben Bhattacharya, the Argo label also gave what looks like free rein to Peter Orr to compile a series of recordings of contemporary poets reading their own works. Besides Orr’s rightly renowned The Poet Speaks compilations, each featuring four or five poets, and widely used in schools, a separate strand of LPs was produced under the general heading British Poets of Our Time. These differed from the anthology approach of The Poet Speaks titles by devoting either a whole record to one author (as was done for Philip Larkin, Thom Gunn and W.H.Auden) or – as was more common – splitting an LP between two contrasting or complementary voices. Intriguing connections were thus forged between Stevie Smith and Adrian Mitchell, Norman Nicholson and Tony Connor, and, as here, the urbanely witty early work of Peter Porter, already trailing the shadows that would deepen through the next decade, and the free-associative Cornish strangeness, with its unique strain of scientific romanticism, of Peter Redgrove. Both poets read on this LP without accompaniment of any kind, and do so very engagingly indeed, proving that, sometimes, the words themselves and the poets’ own voices are all that is necessary.

Dave Dallwitz Jazz Band: Patterns for Slatterns

From: Dave Dallwitz & His Jazz Band: Ern Malley Jazz Suite (Swaggie, 1975)

The story of Australia’s most notorious modern poet, a man who never existed, was told in fascinating detail by Michael Heyward’s 1993 book The Ern Malley Affair, in which Ern’s creation as a tool to discredit Australia’s nascent avant-garde by the conservative poets James McAuley and Howard Stewart while on active service in 1943 set in train a compellingly unlikely series of events and connections. Malley’s poetry and fictional back-story were embraced by the young Melbourne editor Max Harris, who published the works in his magazine Angry Penguins. Harris’ subsequent trial for obscenity over the publication of these poems, and the debates in court and elsewhere over their value, is all laid out in brilliantly entertaining detail by Heyward’s account, which also includes copies of all the letters, poems and collages faked up by McAuley and Stewart in Malley’s name. Far from an ordinary hoax, however, Malley’s invention left a legacy in which the fake collection of this fabricated poet, published under the title The Darkening Ecliptic, ended up becoming one of the iconic works of the Australian modernism it had been created to discredit and Malley passed into Australian culture as a folk-hero to rival Ned Kelly. Which is no doubt why more than thirty years after the original hoax and its attendant dramas had been played out, Australian band leader Dave Dallwitz felt inspired to create his Ern Malley Jazz Suite, setting selections from Malley’s cut and paste texts to 1930s style jazz music, intercutting songs based on such poems as ‘Culture as Exhibit’, ‘Boult to Marina’ and ‘Perspective Lovesong’ with instrumental passages evoking portraits of Max Harris, Sidney Nolan and Malley himself – whose best-known likeness was the painting of Nolan’s creation featured on the LP’s sleeve. The raucous jazz pastiches of the band’s music generate a synthetic feel that complements the texts well, and Penny Eames’ singing enunciates the absurd poetry of such lines as “And I must go with stone feet/ Down the staircase of flesh” (‘Sweet William’) with a deadpan brilliance that is hard to fault.

R.S. Thomas: Welsh Landscape

From: R.S. Thomas Reading his own Poems (Oriel Records, 1976)

In the drought summer of 1976, The Welsh Arts Council visited the home of R.S. Thomas with some basic recording equipment and taped his readings of around 40 poems, releasing the results on this LP, a fascinating back-to-basics project that frames Thomas’s sometimes odd lineation on the page in the brittle, old-fashioned voice (not unlike Eliot’s, and the opposite of Dylan Thomas’s thunderous delivery) that helps to make sense of his signature poetic techniques. Side one covers material from his work between 1946 and 1968, and includes such poems as ‘A Peasant’ and ‘Walter Llywarch’, while side two divides equally between his two early 1970s books H’m and Laboratories of the Spirit, poems that seem marginally less bleak only because they encompass a more mythic dimension than the earlier work. Despite the poems’ focus on human suffering at the hands of an arbitrary universe and its largely absent creator, their angular music and Thomas’s ability to create compelling, often beautiful, images from his bleak material gives the effect of a hard-won transcendence; the Crucifixion is “love in a dark crown/ Of thorns blazing, and a winter tree/ Golden with fruit of a man’s body” (‘In a Country Church’), while for all the general despairing tone of ‘Welsh Landscape’, the vivid “spilled blood/ That went into the making of the wild sky” and half-comic dismissal of the past (“Brittle with relics,/ Wind-bitten towers and castles/ With sham ghosts”) ensure that however disconsolate the words may be, their grounding in the passing beauties of the world, even (perhaps especially) at its least picturesque, ensures there’s an ultimate sense that life might, in the end, mean something after all.

Cecil Rajendra: The Animal and Insects Act

From: An Evening of International Poetry (Alliance Records, 1982)

By the early 1980s, the shape of what was already becoming a distinct spoken word and performance poetry scene was well established, and one of its key strands is given a showcase on this double album presenting a rising generation of African, Caribbean and Asian poets, many with roots on the page, but all equally interested in the possibilities for immediate communication with audiences offered by performance. Recorded live at Camden Town Hall in March 1982, it’s a snapshot of an historic moment, sandwiched between the punishing recession and inner-city riots that greeted the early years of Conservative government and the launch of the Falklands War that year, widely believed to have saved Margaret Thatcher from electoral defeat in 1983. Edward Kamau Brathwaite is the senior figure, lending his considerable weight and sense of history to the evening with a reading of ‘For The Third World’, and (perhaps not surprising, given the event’s links to 1982’s First International Fair of Black and Third World Books, the brainchild of John La Rose) the concerns of many – though not all – contributors are political in nature and subject. James Berry writes from the perspective of a ‘Black Man On Trial in London’, E.A. Markham presents a woman transferring her anger into bread making in ‘Don’t Talk to Me About Bread’, Linton Kwesi Johnson performs ‘Di Great Insohrekshan‘, his definitive poem on the Brixton riots, and John Agard offers observations on the attitudes revealed by ‘Graffiti in a British Rail Waiting Room’. Jack Mapanje’s quirky perspective in ‘Travelling on London Tubes’, Valerie Bloom’s comic ‘Recommendation’ and the absurdist legal satire of Cecil Rajendra’s ‘The Animal and Insects Act’ ensure the tone is varied, taking in voices from India, Cuba and Africa as well as the Caribbean. Some of the material is of its day, but much still has a clear resonance: in hindsight it’s easy to see that these voices were transforming English speech, and the poetry written in it, in ways that are still very much with us.

Marie Osmond: Karawane

From: Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century, by Greil Marcus (Rough Trade, 1993)

Punk’s relationship to poetry is usually defined by the stick-thin figure of John Cooper Clarke, and in his early recordings (notably his adaptation of a 1940s barrack-room ballad into the mordantly funny, expletive-laden ‘Chickentown‘ and his bleak portrait of the more desolate corners of England in the late 70s and early 80s, ‘Beasley Street‘) Clarke set an example of accessible, sweary rhyming that bred a legion of imitators, and his approach is still used as a template by many contemporary spoken word artists; pretty much any open-mic night in the country will bring a few verbal stylings directly traceable to Cooper Clarke into plain view. Yet while this side of punk created its own form of alternative cabaret, Greil Marcus’s 1989 book Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century proposed a different lineage, with its roots in a very different kind of cabaret: the Cabaret Voltaire, established in Zurich during the first world war, and the starting point of Dada as a movement in art, literature, politics and design. His book generated sufficient interest for this 1993 ‘soundtrack’ to be released by Rough Trade, pushing raw punk demos by The Slits, Liliput, The Raincoats and Buzzcocks into the same lineage as The Orioles’ 1948 doo-wop hit ‘It’s Too Soon To Know’, Benny Spellman’s 1962 recording of ‘Lipstick Traces (On a Cigarette)’ and Bascam Lamar Lunsford’s 1928 take on the Appalachian ballad ‘I Wish I Was A Mole in the Ground’. Threaded between these more conventional tracks are such works as Raoul Haussmann’s ‘phoneme bbbb’ and Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco and Richard Huelsenbeck’s ‘L’Amiral cherche une maison a louer’, examples of sound and nonsense poetry made in the years between 1916 and 1918, and in Marcus’s view the founding documents of what came to be known as punk during 1976. Perhaps the most intriguing piece featured is a version of Hugo Ball’s ‘Karawane’ performed by the clean-cut Mormon pop-star Marie Osmond, recorded for an episode of the American TV series Ripley’s Believe it or Not in 1984. There’s a certain logic to the incongruity here; just as punk became cabaret during the 1980s, and it transpired, anyway, that the Sex Pistols’ sole LP had drawn heavily on the session bass playing of Chris Spedding (previously a member of Mike Batt’s bubblegum children’s TV cash-in group The Wombles) so it seems strangely fitting that an Osmond, of all people, might create her own fleeting moment of cultural insurrection.

The cultural confusion her recital creates seems a fitting place to close the story, for now. By the early 1990s, of course, the vinyl LP had already largely ceased to be the format for spoken word recordings, replaced by cassette and CD audio books, and those in turn are now being pushed to the margins by podcasts, downloads and online streaming video formats. As the formats continue to mutate the one sure thing is that the story outlined here continues, and poetry will keep finding outlets far beyond the traditional confines of the printed page, even as the book itself – one of the most resourceful technologies yet created – continues to hold its own.