Itchings of Distinction

A couple of weeks ago this dropped through the letterbox.

MA Creative Writing  (with Distinction) degree certificate.

I knew it was coming, and I knew what result I’d got a couple of months earlier. I’d briefly considered, and quickly dismissed, sharing the outcome back then, and toyed longer with sharing a photo my foster daughter took of me holding the certificate the day it arrived. I could tell myself that wouldn’t be ‘showing off’, but a sweet little evocation of connection with these children that have come to mean so much to me, but are almost invisible to everyone apart from local friends as I can’t include them on social media. I could have posted the picture with a little self-deprecating jibe of the type that has become a prominent strand of my inner monologue (“At least someone is innocent enough to believe that a middle aged graduate paying thousands for yet another worthless piece of paper is something to be proud of.”)

Ant holding his MA  degree certificate

I might come back to what this qualification is “worth” at some point, but one fairly straightforward answer is that, for me, it isn’t worth much unless I make it pay. I don’t particularly mean ‘pay’ in monetary terms. I reckon the chances of recouping the financial outlay are relatively slim, and close to zero if you factor in the money I could potentially have earned while I was doing the course. But the hope of becoming a paid ‘career writer’ is not why I decided to do it. Whenever I mentioned to anyone about doing an(other!) MA, I usually mentioned something along the lines of having a more serious go at creative writing than I ever had before being ‘an itch I needed to scratch’. When I went to the first meeting of staff and students before I started the course, one of the tutors asked me about why I had joined the course. I said something about lots of people over the course of my life having made comments like ‘you really ought to write a book’, and ‘you should get this published’ on the rare occasions I offered anything up for public consumption. “Is that because you’ve had a particularly interesting life?” he asked. “Well, no – far from it,” I had to answer. “I suppose it’s because I can string words together in a way that at least some people find interesting or ‘clever’, but I’ve never pursued it seriously because I don’t think I have much worth saying.”

I’ve never felt (or perhaps have always suppressed?) the drive to be heard, or even the need to write for oneself, that seems to motivate most writers who do persevere through creative blockages and countless rejections to reach the point of being published.

If nothing else, however, doing this MA has given me… Well, I wrote ‘confidence’ there, but have had to self-edit immediately. I don’t feel ‘confidence’ at all. I feel a mix of things, including a degree of frustration and shame that I still don’t feel ‘confident’. It has given me the understanding that I have no right not to be confident in my writing, even if I can’t (yet?) feel it. It has, however, given me some external validation that I do have somethings to say and someways to say them. At the end of his feedback on my extended writing submission, my tutor quoted from Louise Glück (whom I had in turn quoted in an epigraph to my piece):

didn’t we plant the seeds,
weren’t we necessary to the earth,

the vines, were they harvested?

from ‘October’

The seeds have, I suppose, been long planted, and I have been given reason to think I may have vines ready to harvest. I suppose that putting this out there is an attempt to outsource the accountability I am so poor at holding to myself.

(But can I convince myself I am necessary to the earth?

Gerald English with The Jaye Consort: Medieval Music

This is the first record in the series that I bought myself, and still have in my possession. I can’t remember exactly when I got it, but I would have been in my teens, and do recall buying it from a record shop in the Arndale centre in Nelson. I’m not sure exactly what can have triggered an interest in medieval music, but it may well have been linked to a fascination with the history of the period and before (when I won the school Biology prize in 1983 I bought the book of Michael Wood’s ‘In Search of the Dark Ages’ with the book token. I suppose it was a bit of an odd Biology prize when I was presented with it at the awards assembly). I do remember that I sometimes used to tune in to Radio 3, although I’ve never developed a deep knowledge of classical music, and that it was most usually early music that I enjoyed. I remember hearing the name Emma Kirkby a lot, and being transported by recordings of her singing the music of Hildegard of Bingen. My lack of real knowledge was shown up when I started taping a Radio 3 recital on authentic reconstructed instruments, the shagbutt, minikin and Flemish clackett, only to find it was a repeat of a spoof originally produced by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1968 under the moniker Schola Polyphonica Neasdeniensis (and if anyone can find a way of getting this to play, I’d be really grateful: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=irqERfuS-iQ). 

With regards to most music, regretfully, I’m really in the “I don’t know much about it but I know what I like” camp, and my knowledge of the ‘classical’ music field is still very patchy, but this record, when I go back to it, has elements that reach forward into all sorts of other things I’ve come to enjoy. There’s the sacred music here that reaches forward to Byrd, Tallis, Taverner and Palestrina, then on to John Tavener, Henryk Gorecki, and Arvo Pärt. There’s the world-music element, with many of these tunes apparently having common roots with Asian or middle-Eastern instrumentation, rhythms and melodies: the sleeve notes are testament to this, describing the sound as “not unlike an Arabian night-club band, and referencing instruments that are ‘played to this day in Tibet’. A particular favourite of more recent musical fusion that I discovered a few years later via John Peel was the German electro-rock-dance-world-fusion band ‘Dissidenten’, whose Krautrock underpinnings were elaborated by Moroccan musicians on their superb ‘Sahara Elektik’ album, and there other moments in this record that I think “that sounds like Tinariwen”, a Tuareg group that I’ve been fortunate enough to see play live.. One of my favourite bands from the 4AD record label that has been the source of my biggest musical obsessions, ‘Dead Can Dance’ drew heavily on medieval and world music: there’s a Saltarello on this album, and on their ‘Aion’ LP. My favourite musical artists by a far, ‘Cocteau Twins’ have, I’ve always felt,  a mediaeval feel to the rhythms and guitar treatment on their ‘Peppermint Pig’ EP, while the title of their song ‘Musette and Drums’ offers more than a nod in that direction too. 

Looking back at the roots of their nation’s culture is for some people a search for a an illusory purity (see all those social media posts featuring heroic knights of St George and white dragons). For me, this record was one of the first clear indicators of just how diverse the origins of ‘English’ culture are.

Those eyes, that mouth.

I have a singing voice that is adequate for holding a tune, but little more. One time, and one time only, have my vocal efforts been met with something like reverie from an audience. An audience of one, in the men’s toilets of a hotel in northern Finland just before Christmas 2003. We were, I suspect, both a little drunk. Certainly, I was, and he soon would be. Nevertheless, in my foolish attempt to mimic the oral ice-sculpture of Elizabeth Fraser singing Tim Buckley’s Song to the Siren I must have channelled something that wetted a desiccated memory in my listener.

“What is that?” It wasn’t a casual question. “I’m sure I heard that in a pub in Leicester, must have been ten, fifteen years ago. Been wondering what it was ever since. Beautiful female voice; just an echoey accompanying guitar, I think.”

So yes, it was Fraser’s version: the one in my head as I drunkenly warbled that had somehow arced across the years and porcelain stalls to evoke the song that had lodged in his mind after just that one listen. In those days before Shazam and Spotify, we could be transported by a piece of music and despair of ever hearing it again. Yet just a couple of minutes later he was listening to the song, headphone-embraced, on a mini-disc collection of 4AD label artists belonging to a new-found friend I’d met just a couple of hours earlier. We’d spent the evening in the hotel bar sharing an obsession with Fraser’s band, Cocteau Twins, in a spiralling bliss of cloudberry liqueur.

But now, I am resisting the siren-song of the Buckley connection (Elizabeth Fraser would later record a beautiful unreleased duet – All Flowers in Time Bend Toward the Sun – with Tim Buckley’s son, Jeff, shortly before his river-bend drowning, as her relationship with Cocteau Twins bandmate Robin Guthrie, and subsequently the band itself, imploded). Instead, with oar-blades feathered, I’m striking out for that treasure hiding on the B-side of the transitional Love’s Easy Tears  EP, the song I return to most: Those Eyes, That Mouth.

I hesitate before daring to try and write about Cocteau Twins’ music at all, and especially Those Eyes, That Mouth. If I’m lending you my very heartbeat, even for just three minutes thirty-six seconds, what if it is, for you, an ice-pulse? The song is not one of their most popular and (if any are) crowd-pleasing pieces. It contains echoes of what the group were when I first fell for them, when music seemed the only thing that mattered, because the things that ought to matter were unobtainable or incomprehensible. And it contains the essence of what they would become, when life outgrew their music, yet their music swallowed that life. You can hear the transition just after the two-minute mark. A shard of ice shatters in a scrape of reverbed guitar string; Liz’s characteristically inscrutable lyric says, if only to me, “worthy of young men”; the rhythmically three-swept melodic guitar and multifoiled bass-line subtly change key, Liz’s voice ups out and away, “now we are reaching”, and that glass grenade shard of guitar falls like piled snow from the pines outside that Arctic hotel, the year our eldest child finally saw Santa Claus for real, and realised he wasn’t.

I remember with the clarity of filtered memory my first playing of Those Eyes That Mouth, over seventeen years earlier, on the day it was released: October 13th 1986. Just a couple of weeks earlier I had arrived at university, sharing a flat with my best friend from home, a fellow Cocteaus fan. A few weeks later I would catch my first sight, through the window of that flat, of the girl who was to marry me; a little later in this same room, she would be among a bunch of us chatting together after an evening at the Brewhouse, exchanging lengthening glances that would have a friend later mock that I had stars in my eyes. Now, Russ and I danced round the room like the wise idiots we were, and as that guttering guitar sliced a bleeding smile across the upturned face of the song when the needle dialled two-thirds across the vinyl, laugh lines crazed our meeting eyes, and our tinderbox hearts blazed.

Other records might have done the same in those few years when we seemed to live whole lives by the day, but few other than Cocteaus songs continue to feel fresh and vital across the looped rope of time to the present, while still containing that half-gift of nostalgia. We need a word for the experience of compressing time that this music creates with all that sonic stuff there are no words for, because if there were words we wouldn’t need the music (and some ethnographers speculate – it seems to me more than plausibly – that perhaps we wouldn’t have words but for music). I think of the Portuguese saudade, mainstay of the Fado song tradition, and of the Welsh hiraeth – a longing, a yearning for an ideal of home, a heart’s ease, that perhaps there never was and perhaps never will be. This song, unlike most Cocteaus’ tracks, ends on a long slow fade, taking crystalline beauty with it, to who knows where.

Thirty-three years after first hearing it, as I listen to this song for the however-many-thousandth time, making coffee in the kitchen of our home, my wife approaches the doorway. She’s heard the music, sees me, and her arms come up, as if holding something, as if to a child, as if to a lover, as if to a friend. Before we embrace, for the first time in weeks, our faces crease, laugh lines haunting our smiles, and I look at her. Really look at her. It only takes a moment, in the collapsed time this music creates:

those eyes,

that mouth…

Tablet 7 – Black Lives Matter

This Babylonian letter from the Manchester University Museum includes the injunction: “… don’t be negligent! Cultivate the field … and use (its harvest). Or give it over to other hands, in order that it may be cultivated!” 

Whose field are we on? Who gets to cultivate it, and how, and for whose benefit? 

 What have we sown? What have we grown?

I proudly sang the National Anthem at a Silver Jubilee party in 1977. As the ‘final’ line of God Save the Queen ended I drew a deep breath and launched into the second verse — including the lines ’Scatter her enemies / and make them fall /Confound their politics / Frustrate their knavish tricks’. And then the third verse, too before they put a stop to me and awarded me the prize cake with its silver fondant crown. I gleefully chanted, “Who won the war? Who won the war?” at my classmate Stefan, whose dad was a German emigré jeweller, with a group of fellow pupils in our primary school playground. I decorated a polystyrene straw boater and a piece of dowelling with red white and blue ribbon as part of my outfit for the Royal Wedding garden party we held in 1981. My mum sang me to sleep each night with a lullaby that ended ‘it is time for picanninies to go to sleep’, and I went on to sing the same words to my own children decades later. One of the books mum read to me had a refrain that I remember to this day: ‘Epaminondas, you ain’t got the sense you was born with!” At school, Mrs Wellington read us the ‘Little Black Sambo’ stories. At church we had little booklets of tear-out photos of babies and children – Sunny Smiles they were called, and we would ‘sell’ the photos to raise money for National Children’s Home. People would flick through and choose their favoured picture, leaving a booklet of stubs and the final unsold few: the ones who looked as though they might be a bit disabled or, of course, black. But we learned to love and care about the poor African children in those far away lands who were being won for Jesus (and being educated, and having wells dug for them, and being taught improved farming methods) by brave missionaries funded by the JMA (Junior Missionary Association). For collecting over £5 a year for them I was awarded the ‘JMC DSO’ – a medal looking like the Victoria Cross, and in subsequent years a ‘bar’ to add to the medal ribbon. I referred along with everyone else to ‘the paki shop’ and casually used terms like ‘wog’ and ‘coon’ and the N-word for black people, and laughed at jokes with punchlines like ‘Alcock and Brown – that’s my Rastus’. I remember a black cricketer, I think he was called Lloyd, coming from the West Indies to play for our local cricket club and him being a warmly welcomed and much loved character. He is the only black person I remember from my childhood. Of course, I had a spell collecting Robertson’s golly badges. I stood in genuinely awed and respectful silence at the parade of veterans on Remembrance Day as it made its way to the cenotaph on the park next to our house. Back then, it was a long procession, with plenty who had seen active service in both world wars. I was outraged when, occasionally, the wreaths that had been laid and remained there all year had been thrown about the place, and I remember me and a couple of friends putting them back and re-erecting all the little wooden poppy-crosses that had been trampled down in the flower beds around the memorial. I remember learning (or rather failing to learn) to drive in Nelson and my instructor directing me through ‘Little Bangladesh’ and joking he’d prefer it if I kept my speed up. I laughed along, of course. 

Getting on for half a century after many of these childhood memories, I currently have 298 ‘friends’ on Facebook. I’ve done a quick audit and as far as I can see, four are people of colour: one is black (mixed, I believe) and I think three are of South Asian ethnicity. Apologies to anyone if I’ve got that wrong or missed you out.

I have made several attempts to continue writing this piece over the course of several days, taking it in various directions, wondering where best to place my focus, but I have concluded that, for the time being at least, I should pause and think and try to engage more and posture (‘virtue signalling’ anyone?) less, apart from one thing I really wanted to include — and that is an apology to that lone black voice on my timeline for not doing more to amplify that perspective more before Black Lives Matter blew up in our timelines and on our news screens and, yes, I jumped on the bandwagon. I have previously ‘liked’ a number of her posts and comments that have dealt with issues around race, and have several times composed responses to people who have presented on her timeline arguments that display the (usually unwittingly) racist perspectives that she has to deal with on a daily basis throughout her life, but have always drawn back and not sent them, because I really don’t like an argument. Before I’d even heard of George Floyd, on the morning of 27th May (he was killed on 25th May) she posted:

“Seeing a different black man everyday killed by the police is so traumatic. It makes me scared for my family and makes me scared about the thought of raising a son 😖”

Well, I can imagine some people thinking this is hyperbole: a different black man every day? Really? Here, perhaps, is somebody who has been radicalised to unreasonably fear every policeman in the same way that we lefty snowflakes claim people have been radicalised to fear every muslim or black kid in a hoodie. And anyway, all of that is happening in America, and we’re better than that here.

Then the first comment below that post was from a white woman whose profile says she works at a bar in Doncaster. She has a son who, in his profile pic is a black kid wearing a reversed baseball cap. Her comment was “Shaqs been stopped by police 4 times these last two weeks. Twice when I sent him to the shop. Asking him his name or where he lives. I’ve been to the shop too many times to count & not been stopped once 🤔 xx”

Many of us – especially those of us who are white, even more so who are also male, even more so who are also economically comfortable (middle class, if you like)  really haven’t much of a clue about all this, and about the history that has led to it, or certainly not what it actually feels like to live with those experiences. Unless we make the effort to find out. And people like Lauren are, understandably, fed up of doing the emotional hard work of telling us and continually being ignored, rebuffed, marginalised, and patronised by those who claim to be ‘colour blind’ or insist that ‘all lives matter’ – never mind the explicit and overt racism on the one hand, and unconscious, internalised and structural racism on the other, that are still deeply ingrained in our culture. 

So, I will end here by saying that although Lauren is a former student of mine, I am quite certain I have learned more from her than she ever learned from me, and I will leave anyone reading this to think about the conclusions that can be drawn from my experiences in childhood and beyond: they certainly don’t inevitably lead in the direction of anti-racism, so if you have some unease about what’s going on, think I’m a woke SJW who needs to get real, or just don’t know how best to respond to the Black Lives Matter movement, well, join the club. Let’s talk.

U2: War

A number of artists that I listen to a lot, and are most representative of what I would want my music to ‘say about me’ will be missing from this list, because I am trying to identify the turning points: the music that opened doors. Sometimes, having walked through that portal, I found a mansion to explore and rarely returned to the entry point. So it was with U2. If this were a list of records that mean most to me, or that I listen to most often, U2 wouldn’t be represented. I left their records, including the first album I bought by them, ‘War’, at home when I went to university, and think I probably haven’t heard it start to finish between then and yesterday when I pulled it up on Spotify. But U2 were the gateway drug to the post-punk / indie / alternative music scene that has dominated my musical preferences to this day. Yes, I may have quickly rejected U2, but for a time they burned brightly as the first band to really give that all important adolescent sense that they were  speaking directly to me. (Incidentally, my friend Paul Lavendar recently shared an article that highlights why it became so easy to scoff at U2, but also offers a bit of a challenge to those of us who have done so: https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/music/fintan-o-toole-bono-at-60-why-is-ireland-so-ambivalent-about-its-most-famous-son-1.4244508).

U2 were the first band that I saw live, on December 2nd 1982 at Manchester Apollo: the second date of their ‘War’ pre-tour where they showcased three songs from the upcoming album, alongside their existing repertoire from singles and their first two albums. I was a few weeks short of my fifteenth birthday, and it was easily one of the most exciting things that had ever happened to me (seeing Burnley play for the first time on January 2nd 1978 at Burnden Park runs it close). Posters and music paper articles and pictures of the band (in iconic photographs by Anton Corbijn) immediately began to cover my bedroom walls, and I wore the black sleeveless top I bought at the gig constantly when not in school uniform, and even when I was I  listened to them surreptitiously in class on my brother’s ‘borrowed’ Walkman using one of those white earpieces that looked a bit like a hearing aid run inside my shirt, up the back of my collar with my  hair carefully arranged to hide it. I made a handmade booklet of their lyrics, and carefully crafted cassette box inserts for the compilation tapes I made including the rare B-sides from singles borrowed from youth group friend Stephen Pratt who already owned everything they’d released, and was among the group who took me to that first gig. If their Christianity was particularly important to me at the time, they helped forge the link between faith and a social and political conscience. 

It was from U2 that I learned what ‘Bloody Sunday’ was; ‘New Year’s Day’ cemented the seemingly distant events of the Solidarity movement in Poland in my developing awareness of global politics, and when the single ‘Pride: in the name of love” was released it brought the civil rights movement belated to my attention. U2 did more than merely coincide with my shift away from the Conservative political outlook I’d grown up with, and the ‘noisy punk band from Ireland’ as Bono described them, were probably my first great love in music, if not the longest lasting,