Waterloo Sunset

I very much enjoyed this programme about Ray Davies. I was struck by his comment about one of his songs (I think it was ‘Days’) that the words might seem ‘a bit naff’ on their own, but he felt that the music transformed them.   Actually that is true, I think, of quite a bit of his stuff.   People usually praise the words, the little observations and stories, but on their own the observations are not necessarily all that original.  There are a lot of songs, for instance, about the fears and longings of suburban life (‘Mr Pleasant’ or ‘Shangri-la’) which, taken just as stories and observations, are amusing but quite commonplace.  But the music really does transform them into something else.

In fact I’d say his musical inventiveness is, if anything, rather underrated, or at any rate not so often remarked on.  His back catalogue of songs (imagine having written ‘You really got me’, ‘Days’, ‘Sunny Afternoon’, ‘Autumn Almanac’, ‘Lola’ and ‘Waterloo Sunset’!) is quite exceptionally varied in terms of moods, rhythms and musical colours, and is full of lovely details and surprises.  Listen, for instance, to the way that the strange and melancholy song ‘See my friends’ changes its feel and rhythm in the middle of each verse, opening up, and then drawing back again.

For various reasons, although I grew up in the 60s and 70s, I didn’t encounter ‘Waterloo Sunset’ at all until about 5 years after it came out.  But when I did finally come across it I was really blown away, and I still am.   It really is the most amazing marriage of words and music.  There is actually not one single word of description of the sunset itself, yet when I listen to this song, the harmonies rising up over the melody instantly evoke to me an enormous brightly coloured sky, towering up over the little figures of Terry and Julie, and the people swarming out of the underground, and the song’s narrator, watching the whole scene from his window.

(As I’ve observed before, vivid descriptive writing isn’t so much a matter of providing detailed instructions of a scene, as of giving readers/listeners permission to construct the scene for themselves.  This is a perfect example.  We all know what sunsets look like, and don’t need to be told, but we do need something to trigger off the whole set of associations, something to allow us to pretend that a sunset is happening right now.)

The Glastonbury version of the song here is performed with the Crouch End Chorus, which includes my good friend Clive among its tenors.  Lucky man.

(Clive lives in North London, where Davies grew up and still lives, very much in the surroundings in which the programme is filmed.  The programme reminded a bit too of an odd but interesting book by another North Londoner that I wrote about here.)

The sound of the underground train

I was sitting the other day in an underground train in London, surrounded by strangers.

Books and films often turn underground trains into symbols of urban alienation and loneliness, as in the Eurythmics song ‘This city never sleeps.’  And, if I think about it at all, that’s how I tend to see them: machines hurtling through dark tunnels, people who don’t know each other avoiding eye contact or interaction of any kind.

But it struck me on this occasion that there was entirely different way to see it.  How amazing that so many people can coexist so peacefully in such close proximity, feeling so unthreatened that they can peacefully read, listen to music, play with their smartphones, until the point where the path of their individual lives diverges from the route of the train, when they join other peaceful streams of people, on moving stairways, streets, buses, and continue on their way. Why call this alienation, why not call it a remarkable ability to respect each other’s space? I suddenly found the scene incredibly reassuring and benign.  Cram this many chimpanzees into a space this size and they’d go crazy with aggression and fear.

Why go for the gloomier image, the darker story, when there is more than one alternative?  David Brin raises a related question here, when he wonders why books and films routinely portay society and its institutions as stupid, dangerous and malign when, after all, they are also what delivers the food to our plates, the power to our plugs, the roads we travel on, the ambulances that pick us up when we fall…

I think we rather like the fantasy of being surrounded by darkness and danger. It allows us to imagine we aren’t the tame and domesticated creatures that most of us really are.

The secret sea

‘The Caramel Forest’ and ‘Day 29’ are both set in the forests of the planet Lutania.

This imagined place owes a lot to the Strugatsky brothers’ The Snail on the Slope, which also describes a strange forest where human inhabitants live among strange alien life forms, while a scientific agency sits on a cliff above.  Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris has a similar set-up of human scientists hovering above a weird, utterly inscrutable, living ocean, and the ‘castle’ in ‘The Caramel Forest’ was suggested to me by the inexplicable structures that emerged from time to time from the seething surface of Solaris.

Both Solaris and Snail on the Slope are books that refuse to resolve themselves.  One way of looking at this is to say that such books deny the reader the pleasure of tied-up loose ends.  But you could equally well say that they refuse to snatch back from the reader an encounter with the alien. Tidy endings can be acts of vandalism.

‘Hansel and Gretel’ is in the mix here too of course, along with all the other sinister/enticing forests in fairy tales. (Laura Diehl, who did the illustration of ‘The Caramel Forest’ for the Asimov’s cover is primarily a children’s book illustrator.  A great choice.)  So, I think, is a stoned and dreamy LP by a jazz-tinged 1970s prog-rock band called Caravan, whose title track began:

In the land of grey and pink where only boy-scouts stop to think
They’ll be coming back again, those nasty grumbly grimblies
And they’re climbing down your chimney, yes they’re trying to get in
Come to take your money – isn’t it a sin, they’re so thin?

*  *  *

The ‘goblins’ in Lutania are able to stir things up in people’s minds.  For most people, this is unwelcome.  They are forced to think about painful or scary things that they’ve tried to bury.  They feel invaded.   But for Cassie in ‘The Caramel Forest’ it’s actually a relief to hear the voices in her head confirming what she already knows about her parents’ unhappy marriage and her mother’s lack of interest in being a mum. Better to have it confirmed than to leave it unspoken.

Odd, solitary Stephen in ‘Day 29’ is a different case.  His secrets are so deeply buried that even the goblins can’t winkle them out.  But they can still taunt him with the fact that he’s hiding things.

(This post refers to two stories, both originally published in Asimov’s, which are included in the Peacock Cloak collection.)

The golden apples of the sun

(Post about the story ‘Poppyfields’, included in the Peacock Cloak collection.  It was first published in Interzone.)

As I have said before, I find landfill sites and waste ground oddly fascinating.

With landfill sites it is the processes taking place beneath the ground that I find absorbing to think about, the slow breakdown of human refuse as it gradually finds its way back into mineral form.  We tend to think of human rubbish as the enemy of nature, but of course in another sense it is part of nature.  Plastic bags or linnets.  Nature, like Poppyfields, doesn’t care.

*  *  *

I named Angus Wendering after the poem by W.B.Yeats, ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’.  (There is a musical setting of it by Christy Moore, which is actually where I encountered it).

I went down to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
I cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And hooked a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire aflame,
When something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded in the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and hold her hand;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

Beautiful in a way, but it’s a dangerous dream, that dream of a magical, glimmering girl, a dream that can lead to cruel, dark places.

It’s interesting how the poem both delivers and does not deliver a resolution in its final lines.   The poem itself reaches those golden and silver apples, plucks them and gathers them in, but it leaves Aengus still searching for them.  He’ll never find them of course.


Another random musical treat.  The prelude to Wagner’s Parsifal.

When I was a child I had a book by Roger Lancelyn Green called ‘King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table’.  It was one of several books that I read so often that it fell apart.   Actually, looking back, some pretty weird ideas were smuggled into my mind by that book, as they were by the books of Green’s teacher and friend C.S.Lewis.  (What exactly is a small boy to make of a scene, for instance, where some knights stop in the nick of time from getting off with some pretty and delightful women, and the women promptly turn into hellish fiends?  It probably scarred me for life.)  But it’s quite a story, and a great example of a story that itself has a story, travelling from Britain across Europe and back again, acquiring new themes, settings, characters and subplots as it went.  Even as a child I enjoyed that idea, of the story itself having a story.

The roots of it all seem to lie in the period after the Romans abandoned Britain (in 410 CE), when the Romanised and Christianised Celtic population (linguistic forebears of the Welsh, Cornish and Bretons) were attempting to fight off invasion by the pagan Germanic peoples- Angles, Saxons and Jutes – who were to become the English.  Hence the lost kingdom of Logres, which Arthur’s order of knights was formed to defend.  (Travel out of Wales along the M4, and you will see on the bilingual sign, ‘Welcome to England.  Croeso i Loegr’.   It’s still Logres in Welsh, and the English are still Saxons*, though,  in one of those shifts that occur with these organic stories over time, the English came to think of Arthur as a mythical king of England, rather than a king who tried to prevent England from coming into being.)

But this only forms one element even in the main narrative arc of the Arthurian story.  Another introduces a kind of original sin: Arthur’s incestuous liaison with his sister, Morgan La Fey, which resulted in the birth of his son Mordred who was eventually to betray him.   Another  deals with a different sexual sin that tainted the honour of the Round Table and also ultimately played a key part in its destruction: the famous adulterous affair between Lancelot and Guinevere (which is echoed by the similar story of Tristram and Iseult).  Another is the quest for the Grail.  And of course there are countless other stories within the main arc.  There are layers and layers to be mined here.

Wagner’s Parsifal isn’t even set in Britain, and it doesn’t deal with King Arthur’s knights, but it is based (from a medieval German source) on one of the most well-known stories within the Arthurian cycle (also drawn upon by T.S.Eliot in The Wasteland), the story of the Fisher King, the maimed guardian of the Grail, who lives in perpetual agony as a result of a wound inflicted on him by the sacred spear which pierced Christ’s side on the cross, the Dolorous Stroke of Arthurian legend.  Only a ‘pure fool, enlightened by pity’ – Parsifal himself – can heal it.

The same themes, uncomfortable to modern ears, of sexual guilt and sexual pollution, run as obsessively through the opera as they run through the Arthurian stories in general, and, at some 5 hours long, the opera itself is quite a challenge just to get through – ‘I’ll think I’ll scream if that king tells us one more time about how he longs to die’, my son observed in the interval of a recent performance – but it contains some really exquisite music, including this famous prelude, which apart from being one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written,  seems to me to distill the particular mood or gestalt that has given this particular cycle of stories such extraordinary longevity.

* Relics of this ancient struggle are to be found all over England.  Outside Cambridge, a few miles from where I live, is Fleam Dyke, a massive earthwork built by an East Anglian king to defend his lands against Celtic British forces.

Recording of my Greenbelt talk

Dark Eden was selected as the ‘Big Read’ for the 2012 Green Belt festival (quite an honour, I thought), and I was invited to give a talk there. The talk is available here, though I’m afraid you have to pay for it (as an MP3 or a CD) .

I say ‘talk’.  Much of it is actually more of a conversation in which I get to speak the most.  As I’ve mentioned before, there were some interesting and original questions asked.

My son’s songs

I put a song on the home page of this website by my son Dom: The Escape.  Obviously I am biased, and you’ll have to judge for yourself, but I just love this piece’s evocation – both in words and music – of the sheer exhilaration of letting go and moving on.   Here are some other favourites of mine:

The Receipt

My Sister

I’m at a loss


Brian Wilson

I referred to the work of Philip Dick previously as something that I particularly admire.   Here is another tortured Californian who I also admire.   I’ve seen him perform a couple of times in recent years, on his Pet Sounds and Smile tours of the UK.  The beautiful clear voice of his youth has gone, and, of all rock stars, this frail-looking man is surely the most uneasy and vulnerable on the stage, to the point where the audience seemed to me to be not just applauding him, but reassuring him of its love so as to help him keep going.  But his music as ever is sublime, soaring, stately, and, despite his abusive childhood and his precarious mental health, peaceful and full of hope and love.

He’s recently reunited with the surviving Beach Boys (his brothers, Carl and Dennis, are of course dead), and recorded a new album.   The single ‘That’s why God made the Radio’ doesn’t exactly push out into new musical territory, but still has all the qualities that makes Wilson’s music such a sweet balm.  Many tortured souls make tortured art, but with Wilson, it is as as if he set himself to build in music, the peace that was missing from his life.

Batter my heart

Random cultural treat!

I’m not by any means a connoisseur either of poetry or opera, but I first came across this exquisitely beautiful sonnet by John Donne in the setting of it by John Adams in the opera Dr Atomic, and loved both the setting and the poem.  There’s a clip of that setting here, sung by Gerald Finley.  The sonnet itself is as follows:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend

Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

I, like an usurp’d town to’another due,

Labor to’admit you, but oh, to no end;

Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,

But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.

Yet dearly’I love you, and would be lov’d fain,

But am betroth’d unto your enemy;

Divorce me,’untie or break that knot again,

Take me to you, imprison me, for I,

Except you’enthrall me, never shall be free,

Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

I do not share Donne’s faith, but I love, and find myself really deeply moved by, this vision of a human soul as a usurped town, begging to be broken into and liberated because it no longer has the strength or will to liberate itself.   Instead of a captured city, we might think of a computer riddled with viruses, or a mind so dominated by destructive addictions that it can no longer achieve the level of sustained self-awareness that would be necessary for it to be able to break free.

It seems to me that the vision of an invaded and subverted soul expressed by this poem, shares a great deal with the vision of Philip Dick, for example in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, or The Man in the High Castle.  Dick was certainly interested in the ‘metaphysical poets’, of whom Donne was one.  And of course he was, if anyone ever was, a master of metaphysical SF.

PS Lovely as the poem is, I can’t entirely suppress from my mind the thought that ‘Batter my heart’ might also be the title of a ballad sung by a lovesick Glaswegian to the girl in his local chipshop.

The Holy Machine: the song

The Holy Machine is now also a song!

The Holy Machine – Southern Tenant Folk Union

(Song by P.McGarvey, published by Santa Mira Music/admin. Bug Music Ltd Copyright 2011: Johnny Rock Records.)

The Edinburgh-based group Southern Tenant Folk Union have included this as the final track on their forthcoming album ‘Pencaitland’, due out in June 2011 (see cover image below).   The whole album is well worth hearing.   I particularly liked the setting of the W.B.Yeats poem ‘An Irish Airman Foresees his Death’.

Album cover image