Insomnia

•June 28, 2011 • 4 Comments

I started out writing a post about a line in the Leonard Cohen song ‘Alexandra Leaving’ that always jumps out at me: ‘in full command of every plan you wrecked.’  I was going to write about my father and his failed projects, in particular the snail farm where the snails grew bigger and bigger because he couldn’t overcome his crippling shyness and bring himself to phone restaurants in order to sell them.  I was going to compare the corpulent snails to the unfinished novels, stories and articles slithering around the insides of my computer, how I keep feeding the machine with more and more words that aren’t going anywhere.

But I soon got bored of that; it was just the same old, same old.  So I distracted myself by reading the Cavafy poem Cohen based his song on.  The poem’s called ‘The God Abandons Antony’, Antony being Marcus Antonius.  In Plutarch’s version of the story, Antony hears a ghostly, musical troupe making its way through Alexandria the night he loses the city to Octavian.  The procession is the sign that Bacchus, Antony’s protector god, is deserting him.  Here it is:

The God Abandons Antony

When suddenly at midnight you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now;
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive – don’t mourn them uselessly;
as one long prepared and full of courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you;
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and full of courage,
as is right for you who were given this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion,
but not with the whining, the pleas of the coward;
listen – your final pleasure – to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.

Don’t you just love that ghostly procession?  I did, I loved it so much I skipped off down another road.  I learned that the poem was also about Cavafy’s own desire and inability to flee Alexandria, that the city was as much a metaphor to him as the literal place he felt ensnared by, a fevered city whose madness and lassitude it was impossible to escape.  Reading about Alexandria I found myself wanting to write about the mythical drama of this cultural and mystical crossroads, home to the largest great library in the ancient world, an outpost of Greek thought at the edges of the Sahara, a complex, changing place where differing opinions were encouraged.

That night I couldn’t sleep. Who was I kidding?  Someone (Edmund Keeley) had already written a book about Cavafy’s Alexandria, a book praised by Joseph Brodsky as being ‘as marvellous a guide to the imagined Alexandria as E. M. Forster’s is to the real one’.  Yes I’d read Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet (over half of it anyway) but that was years ago and I don’t have the best memory in the world.  Yes, we might all have our own Alexandria but wasn’t I jumping the gun, shouldn’t I actually do more than browse a few internet sites before grabbing hold of and running with the first idea that whizzed by?

Talking of whizz.  Half finished thoughts were running so fast and furious around my brain it was like a pinball machine in there.  I should never have started a blog in the first place, it was too stressful putting stuff out there once a week.  Usually I sit here quietly writing my poems, sending off the occasional handful to a magazine until I think I’ve got a collection – some poems hang around for several years before they’re looked at by another pair of eyes.  And what’s the point of it anyway?  Does the world really need more outpourings from another angsty writer?  Aren’t I in danger of churning out another load of going nowhere words when I could be writing something proper like a novel, some short stories or a memoir?

I got up for the second time and hurled my book against the wall.  If you’ve ever suffered bouts of insomnia you’ll know this feeling – the despair and rage of the early hours, the point where you start plea-bargaining with a god you don’t believe in for a pathetic two hours sleep.

The snails slithered – or rather, speed-skated – into view.  Giving up the blog at this stage would be no different from abandoning all the novels gathering dust in my computer.  It’s all down to insecurity. If asked a question he didn’t want to answer, my father used to say ‘Don’t worry about what I’m doing, just get on with what you’re doing.’  Behind all the bluster and bravado, he worried like hell about what people thought.  Seems I am my father’s daughter, after all.

Elsewhere I’m writing about a blue door that may, or may not, be my Alexandria. Meanwhile, here’s the beautiful Leonard Cohen with his take on the poem.

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Festivals ain’t what they used to be

•June 23, 2011 • 7 Comments

It’s August 1973.  Anne and I are hunched up in the back of a van on our way to Reading music festival; in the front are two members of the Sealed Knot in full cavalier regalia – plumed hats, breeches and thigh high boots.  They drop us off by the entrance but we never make it through the gate.  Tim Hardin and Commander Cody are playing but so are Status Quo.  It all seems a bit efficient, commercial, mainstream so we head back to the road, stick out our thumbs and hitch to the free festival in Windsor Great Park.

Anne is carrying the tent because she’s sturdier than me.  A basic two-man with a pole at either end, it’s a million miles from yurts and glamping and we’ve never even heard of a Winnebago.  Other than that we have a small rucksack and sleeping bag apiece.  We’re not carrying any morning-after eyeliner, lipstick, scented candles, duvets, leftover roast chicken or foldaway chairs.

As for festival outfits, it’s a choice of purple loons and an embroidered tee shirt or a cheesecloth skirt with a black halter-neck top.  If it gets cold I’ll put on the burgundy velvet jacket that is getting creased to buggery in my rucksack.  These are not my ‘festival’ clothes; this is not how I express my festival persona. Basically, they’re the clothes I wear all the time because they’re the only ones I’ve got.

Glastonbury late 60s/early 70s - Bath Chronicle picture library

I’m reminded of this now because festival season is upon us and last weekend’s papers devoted page after page to festival survival guides.  How on earth did we manage back then?  No tips on what to take, what to wear and what to eat or drink.  No Goan fish curry, rare breed bacon rolls, seafood paella, organic bruches or chai teas.  No Jimmy Choo mock-croc wellies, fairy dresses (worn with work boots, natch), sequins (the only time you can get away with them, darling) or Chanel messenger bags.  No Pearl Lowe, Pixie Geldof, Kate Moss or Alexa Chung.  No U2, Coldplay or Beyoncé. No, erm, Wombles. No solar showers. No toilets.

No toilets.  You think festival bogs are the pits?  Try picking your way through the woods to find a tree that hasn’t already been commandeered by a bare-arsed hippie or isn’t ankle deep in the offerings of previous squatters.

As for retail opportunities, you could buy a copy of the Socialist Worker and score a veritable rainbow of microdots (LSD) but you couldn’t buy a bottle of water (bottled water, what the …?).  You might be ripped off, but not for long.  A free sheet gave an update on the quality of acid being sold and festival-goers ‘liberated’ the guy selling milk of his produce because he was selling it for 15p, almost three times the going rate.

See, there was a strong political element to the Windsor Free Festivals.  Of course we all went to have a good time but, as organiser Bill Dwyer set out, there was also a revolutionary aim – a new society based on the commune, getting high and an end to rent-paying (a feudal relic from the time of William the Conqueror).  Far from giving festival-goers style tips, the Sun and the Evening News warned people to stay away. About 1,500 people ignored them.

Of course it was naïve and misguided.  And as far as I can recall there wasn’t actually much political activity as such – no one roused until the police turned up to bust people for drugs.  Essentially, there was a lot of lying around getting stoned and being photographed by tourists in checked trousers with cameras hanging around their necks.  Being a hippie was terrific way of life for the lazy; you knew you could always rely on the more industrious freaks to truck in water, set up a free food kitchen and talk down the acid casualties in the Release tent.

To be honest the music wasn’t all that but then festivals have never been just about the music, which is why watching Glastonbury from the comfort of your armchair, a glass of chardonnay in hand, is such as much fun as weaving a macramé hanging basket.  I vaguely remember watching Hawkwind and the Pink Fairies.  The only other thing I remember about the music is a general air of chaos, a running order that kept changing because bands didn’t turn up and pleas for help with stage management because the stage hands kept crashing out.

It was terrific.  I loved it; I even went the following year.  So why does reading about Glastonbury make me want to spit?  Why get so worked up about girls with names like Miquita, Bip and Jameela saying they’ll be sure to pack their Wayfarers, bunny ears and feather boas?  Why so splenetic about pictures of Camp Kerala at Glasto?  (Egyptian cotton bedding, beaded throws from Rajasthan, golf buggies, bar and chill-out areas, a spa team – all for a mere £8,000.)

Camp Kerala tent - source Camp Kerala website

It’s not as if I’d change anything, not even putting up with hair that was greasy and frizzy hair for days (no John Frieda serum back then and dry shampoo simply sat like dandruff on the grease).  The thing was, everyone’s hair was frizzy, all the time.  I can’t say style didn’t come into it because what we wore was important.  It said something about who we were, what we believed in.  Even if we weren’t always entirely on message (I never did think that refusing to pay rent was much of an answer) our clothes were an expression of a counter-cultural philosophy, whereas a ‘festival’ wardrobe is leisure wear for people who want to spend a few days trying to locate the wild child they never were.  It’s today’s equivalent of cruise wear.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’ve always loved clothes and it would have been great to waft around Windsor Great Park in a floaty Ossie Clark number, channelling Marianne Faithfull.  But I’ll pass on Camp Kerala.  Unless, that is, anyone’s got eight grand to spare.

Written in the stars?

•June 17, 2011 • 3 Comments

Written in the stars?

Today is my birthday.  If our destiny is written in the stars mine was sealed fifty odd years ago when the Sun, Mercury and Venus were in Gemini, the Moon was in Taurus and Libra was ascendant.

That makes me a Gemini.  It means that I have truck loads of brilliant ideas but am prone to changing horses midstream; I’m not all that good at finishing things.  It also makes me charming, generous, witty, logical, adaptable, talented, friendly, open-minded and playful.  Or, to look at it another way, unreliable, superficial, fickle, deceptive, flighty, whiny, self-absorbed and gossipy.

Of course, anyone with half a brain knows there’s nothing in it.  There’s no empirical evidence.  It’s completely irrational.  And yet who hasn’t, from time to time, turned to the heavenly bodies in the hope of finding out life is about to take a turn for the better?  As Margaret Atwood once said – on Start the Week, I think – why not take all the help you can get?

At the moment things are in full swing for Geminians, astrologically speaking.  According to Jonathan Cainer:

Mercury and Venus are gliding across the dance floor of the zodiac, whispering playfully as they twist and twirl. Using the power of imaginary amplification, let us listen in on their discussion. Why yes! It’s working. The two are discussing you – and they seem to be saying some highly complimentary things. Apparently, you have talents that you are not yet making full use of – and you have admirers whose interests you have hardly even registered.

Fasten your seatbelts!  Who knows what might happen if I finally make full use of those underdeveloped talents?  Maybe I’ll plant enough carrots to make eight bunches instead of growing eight individual carrots next time (novice gardener, I thought carrots grew in bunches).  Maybe I’ll publish a novel or – wait for it – my forthcoming poetry collection will storm the bestseller lists (apologies for shameless plug but while I’m at it, it’s called This is your Life and is due out in October or November).

Seriously, life is pretty good right now so I haven’t felt the need of any celestial help.  That’s how it goes.  Needless to say, when I did need it, when I actually consulted an astrologer (what can I say, things were desperate) there was no Venus and Mercury gliding around dance floors it was all Saturn’s in your eighth house, drone, you probably feel like you’re wading through a swamp.

Ah, Saturn – the old man of the universe, heavy and melancholy with his love of order, tradition, rules and regulations, intent on keeping us knee-deep in the swamp until we’ve learned whatever lesson he’s trying to teach us.

Don’t ask me what my particular lesson was.  What I mainly remember is a profound disappointment that the astrologer could have been a solicitor’s clerk in his flannel trousers and scuffed slip-on shoes.  His flat smelled of last night’s pizza.  But what on earth was I expecting?  Elizabethan astrologer and alchemist John Dee in his study, stroking his white beard and poring over charts plotted on tobacco yellow paper; a fire blazing in the grate, a celestial globe and copper astrolabe, a scorch mark on his oak desk from the time he conjured up the devil?

Not quite but really, if you’re going to go in for this stuff you might as well have all the accessories.  While I can’t actually embrace the belief that our psyches and behaviour are governed by the movement of the planets I’ve often thought it must be a tremendous consolation to have the conviction of a faith or superstition. But it’s the images, words and ideas that constellate around astrology I’m drawn to – medieval charts and celestial maps; gods, archetypes and magic.

Clearly, none of this is going to stand up to the scrutiny of scientific investigation but then I find bald facts rather boring.  And while I might be momentarily intrigued by what it means for Venus to be conjunct Uranus, I’m not sufficiently interested to take it any further.  No, I’m happy for the appeal of astrology to exist in a nebulous, liminal place, a place inhabited by mercurial things you can’t pin down.  Which, curiously, is said to be a typical characteristic of a Gemini.

Coming soon …

•June 1, 2011 • 4 Comments

First post on 17th June 2011 ….  Written in the stars?