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The fractured shore

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In this last settled hour before the dawn,
I dig my heels to slow the flow of time,
And with each measured breath,
Embrace departing ghosts of dreams,
Until at length, and with sad smiles,
They waste into the thinning night.
And the sun rises,
Ignites first light of trembling day,
And burns to clear blue,
Somnambulant mists of sleep,
From whence souls crash their dancing flight,
Become flesh again,
Fallen in this deep befuddled mess,
Of pillow, sheet, and creaking bed.
Then here am I once more,
Slow ache of man, rising,
Washed back upon the fractured shore,
Of life.

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other notes coverAn excerpt from “Notes from a small bookshop” by Michael Graeme

Available from all good bookshops no time soon:

I don’t know how much strangeness you’re wanting, or how much you can take. It’s a genre thing, I suppose. You come in expecting one thing, like this dusty old geezer sitting in a second hand bookshop pontificating on how things were so much better in the old days, then here he is showing you another thing entirely.

We’ve already had the spy story, the mystery police thing, the love story, a bit of crime thriller – I mean if Milord Milner isn’t a crook, then who is? We’ve even had a little bit of bonk-buster, though I admit I glossed over much of the animal fervour of that in favour of the romantic angle, out of respect for Magg’s privacy and it just seemed like the decent thing to do.

But this is something else entirely and you’re most likely going to find it really, really weird. It’s something you might think is even verging on the speculative, or a bit science fiction-ish, but it isn’t. Trust me, it’s already obsolete, technologically quaint.

Most of us don’t want strangeness do we? We want our days predictable, punctuated by three square meals. We want a thirty minute commute, and a nine to five, then a couple of hours after tea collapsed in front of a predictable Soap while we shovel crisps into our mouths and wash them down with cheap wine from the corner shop.

Then bed and dreams.

Dreams we can do. Dreams are okay, I mean for all their strangeness – and it’s mainly because we forget them so quickly. But that’s about the size of it, isn’t it? Any real strangeness in our waking lives and we’re covering our ears going: Nah,nah,nah,nah,…

But strangeness is everywhere. Every story ever written came out of someone’s head. Did you ever pause to think about that? Isn’t it weird? We make stuff up, make believe it’s real, and it’s okay – people still want to know what happens to these other people, people like me, who aren’t actually real.

But not all strangeness is made up.

I was reading the leftleaning news this afternoon and it was telling me of a town in America, all the jobs moved out and those nine to five people with their family SUVs and their cute little clapboard houses now living in tents along a bleak riverside on the outskirts of town and going hungry. No more wine and crisps for them. This is their new normal discarded, like waste, scrunched up and tossed into the bushes, their own Milord Milners caring little if they live or die. But these are not empty beer-cans. They are people, indeed more than people, they are, in the philosophical, and even in the existential sense, just different versions of you and me.

It will kill us, you know, this thing we have created. And only those of us capable of sustaining our Milord Milners will be allowed to survive, all be it barely. In this respect then, we will be farmed like cows. Some for milk, some for slaughter.

How the Milord Milners are made these days is open to speculation. They are no longer born to it like they were in olden times. I suspect rather they are merely psychopaths, that the system favours their emotionally insensitive natures, and the rest of us are just too passive or too stupid to prevent them gaining power. Shall we merely go on allowing it then? How can we? How can we not? I mean, if we are to survive.

But what is surviving? It’s a subject that needs redefining. And while we’re at it, what is living? I mean truly living.

You can forget the notion now that through diligence, the dream of middle class semi-detached suburbia, and 2.1 children is still attainable. And the working class too, you can forget the notion of meaningful work and ample playtime for afters. You already know this. You’re all in the same boat now, your bright young ones with degrees in this and that, rubbing shoulders with you bright young ones who don’t, and all of you chasing nothing-Mcjobs in the murky, shark infested pool of the precariat, all of you filling in here and there on poverty wages until you’re automated out of existence. You own no capital, you have no provision for old age. Do you think you can still run around a warehouse when youre eighty five with cataracts and a dodgy prostate?

So what am I saying here?

Beyond stating the problem, I don’t know. It depends what you want, what you value, or can re-evaluate in your life. Whether we go on pursuing the thrill of those dubious stimulations promised by Milord Milner’s ultimately empty mouse-clicks, or we set our devices aside, and do something else, something that does not involve staring at a screen and adding to the sedimentary layers of data for others to mine and profit by at our considerable expense and ultimate enslavement.

I have a feeling the answer lies in rediscovering that truer sense of the ordinariness of the world, the purer treasure of it, and yes, the sheer grace in all of that. Only there can we recapture our souls, and live as we should. And be happy.

I don’t know what I mean by any of this exactly, only that in common with the rest of us, I’m working on it,…

Do not go gently.

Be careful what you accept as normal.

No one is a waste of space.

https://www.wattpad.com/myworks/139757309-notes-from-a-small-bookshop

 

 

 

 

As I sit in the barber’s chair,
This sunny autumn afternoon,
My hair fast tumbling to my lap
In short shorn clumps of steely fuzz,
The barber’s nimble clippers buzz,
Tracing out the shape of bone,
Vibrating deep into the well,
Of thoughts and other things unknown.

And in the mirror opposite,
With spectacles removed I see
A blur that looks a bit like me,
Turned back now to a smoother flesh,
And freshly spun naivete.

A young man in the barber’s chair,
A sunny autumn afternoon,
His hair fast tumbling to his lap,
A blonde and honeyed fuzz, lit gold
In sunlight slanting bright and low.
And with much clearer eyes than mine,
He spies himself grown grey and old,
Upon the treading mill of time.

I wonder what he see in me?
If after all these years at last,
Are we become in later life
What we both thought by now we’d be?
Or does my portrait disappoint,
This face, this hair of thinning grey,
Our path subverted and waylaid,
It seems with every single step.
And even now, come autumns’ turn,
How precious little have we learned?

And me, regarding him?
Do I consider my self now,
No wiser than I was back then.
Am I no more than old and thin?

The trim is done, and parting slow,
I quietly beseech my past,
Keep faith, we’ll one day surely see,
Relaxing in this barber’s chair,
The man we both still want to be.

 

 

Ahead of the times

IMG_20170821_213323_429Now and then you’ll come across one of my novels popping up on Amazon, even though I don’t publish on Amazon and prefer to give them away. Instead, someone calling themselves Michael Graeme, will steal one of my titles, stick it on there and charge money for it. I know,… I’ve talked about this before, but anyway,…

It’s a common issue faced by all creatives working in the digital sphere. Why? because our “product” is easy to replicate and distribute. You just cut and paste. And it’s not just text of course: music, photographs, videos, computer-apps, games, databases, information,… you name it, it’s all vulnerable to filching. But does it matter? Should we not be viewing this ease of reproduction more as an indicator of a strange but bright new future?

Those wealthy enough can protect themselves to a degree, or at least they can for now. Indeed there’s a whole industry built up around digital rights management to prevent file copying, but the ways of defeating it are morphing faster than the defences can adapt – that’s just the nature of digital technology. So, do we accept piracy as a hazard against which there is no realistic defence long term? And more,… is this an indicator of the changing nature of society, of what we understand as industry, work and value?

It’s hard to imagine a cultural shift when you’re still living in the last vestiges of the old one. Science fiction writers and futurologists can have a stab at it. The most I’ll venture with any certainty is that in fifty years our current era will seem like the stone age, socially, technologically and economically.

The shift began with the ability to “cut and paste”. It renders anything you create, digitally, worthless, at least in traditional money terms, even if you’ve spent years working on it. How come? Well, you only need to apply the basic rule of economics which states the price of anything is proportional to its scarcity, and anything so easily reproducible as a computer file isn’t exactly scarce is it? unless rendered artificially so by technological countermeasures, and they will always have the tide of anarchy against them.

So the future is looking like a place where our traditionally paid labours are worth nothing, and all information based “products” produced by those labours won’t be worth anything either, at least by contemporary economic rules. For a time I’m sure there’ll be an elite of celebrity artists who continue to be paid handsomely via the old model, their works protected by a stout, metaphorical ring-fence of barbed wire, but by then they’ll be servicing exclusively a societal elite holed up in their security patrolled mansions – these being the crooks and the psychopaths still looking for ways to game the old system for maximum profit at the expense of the rest of us. All this even as that old system atrophies around them. And in part, they’ll do this by hoarding and guarding what bits of tangible capital remain and renting it out to the rest of us.

Already we have a generation who own nothing. They rent their homes, their cars, their phones. There’s even talk of retail models whereby we rent the very clothes we’re wearing. Stop paying, pause for breath on that tread-mill of the damned, and you’ll literally be left naked and broke as the day you were born. But I’m sure that’ll just be a temporary end-phase, that it’ll last no more than a generation, a necessary period of reflection for impressing upon us the need to think differently about the notion of value, of what we value and how we value it. And then, all writers, like everyone else, will be producing stuff for free, simply because they want to. And whatever we need, even the clothes on our backs, others will produce for free as well.

The alternative, at least for the ninety nine percent of us who own nothing, is a form of unwaged slavery, but I don’t think that’s going to happen because when a man has nothing left to lose, he’s impossible to control. And the greedy freaks, the one percent who go on hoarding wealth will be reviled and shamed and shunned to the remotest desert isles with all the money in the world to play with, money that’s worth nothing any more. And then the very notion of piracy will have become a quaint old fashioned term, one we must look up in the OED, then shake our heads in wonder such a strange phenomenon ever existed in the first place. An egalitarian utopia? Unlikely, I know, but the opposite doesn’t bear thinking about either, though I admit for now it seems the more likely outcome.

I remain optimistic though, and if I’m right, the future isn’t what it used to be. But at least I know why I give my stories away – I mean apart from it being easier and less self destructive: I suppose I’ve simply always been ahead of my time.

s5It was with some trepidation I approached this much venerated book. I know Vonnegut only by reputation as a genial curmudgeon in his later years, also as an influential spokesman on the Arts, and of course, in no small part, through his regular inclusion on the list of America’s all time finest writers. Slaughterhouse 5 is also a perennial target for various Conservative factions within the USA who argue for it to be banned on account of its profanity, blasphemy and sexual perversion. This lends it some extra Kudos of course.

It’s a short book, I found it concisely written, a style much missed in our more elaborate times. I was able to devour it greedily and easily over a couple of sittings, but the ideas in it are complex enough and big enough to warrant several re-readings. It’s a book that’s still being discussed after fifty years, still used as a study text on literature courses, all of which is sufficient evidence of its worthiness and its enduring relevance. As for the profanity, blasphemy and sexual perversion, it may have been considered risque in 1969, but seems quite tame now and I find the ongoing calls for its censorship deeply puzzling.

The book’s origins are factual and reasonably well known, that beginning on the night of February 13th 1945, the city of Dresden was repeatedly bombed by US and British air forces. The result was a firestorm that levelled the city and killed 135,000 people, mostly civilians. Sheltering from those raids was a group of American prisoners of war, billeted in the titular Slaughterhouse 5. The slaughterhouse was disused, everything on four legs having long ago been killed and eaten, but its shelters were deep enough to afford survival when many others, sheltering elsewhere, perished.

When the raids had passed, the prisoners and their bewildered guards ventured above ground to find the entire city now resembled the surface of the moon. One of those prisoners was the 22 year old Kurt Vonnegut who, along with his fellow POWs, was then set the harrowing task of recovering human remains.

Slaughterhouse 5 was therefore, in part, Vonnegut’s own way of getting his head around that traumatic experience, though it wasn’t until some twenty years later he was able to find the right voice through the somewhat loosened sense of reality afforded by his lingering post traumatic shock and depression. Published at the height of the Vietnam war, the book found immediate resonance. One of the striking points he makes is that accounts of war are generally written by older men, giving the impression they’re fought by men, when in fact they’re fought by children, by teenagers, at the behest of men, so the book is subtitled: The Children’s Crusade.

Asked at the time what he was working on, he said it was an anti-war book, and he was told he might as well write an anti-glacier book, meaning war and glaciers simply “are” and there’s nothing you can do about either. It’s a point Vonnegut accepts, and of the horrors of war themselves, he’s quite matter of fact, never judgemental, indeed almost anthropological in his presentation, leaving the reader to come to their own conclusions regarding the fact we seem to keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

He does not draw caricatures of good and evil, right and wrong, but simply says this is what happened, and the rest of the story is how I dealt with it. The conclusion we draw however is inevitable. How this influences our own contemporary lives, I suppose, depends on whether or not Vonnegut, as he says, gets to us before we become generals and politicians.

So anyway, he creates this alter ego called Billy Pilgrim whose experience loosely mirrors Vonnegut’s, at least in so far as events in Dresden go, but after the war, Billy finds himself coming “unglued” in time, so that no matter how many years he puts between himself and 1945, those events are never far away, and as real as they ever were. He can go to sleep in the present and wake up right back in the middle of the raid, then wake forward to somewhere else, then back again, the events of his entire life playing out in parallel rather than in a linear fashion.

Billy becomes an optometrist, marries, survives a plane crash, then claims to have been kidnapped by aliens who put him in a zoo. And it’s the aliens who explain to him the nature of life and time, that the passing of time is an illusion and the only authentic way of seeing life is the way Billy sees it now, all at once.

Although dealing with dark matters, this isn’t as pessimistic a book as it might sound. Rather, Billy’s experiences, his loosened time-frame, and his matter of fact acceptance of things grants us an elevated perspective on our own stupidity.

As regards genre, as with all the most influential books, Slaughterhouse 5 defies neat pigeon-holing. The nearest I can get to is it’s a satire on war and the post traumatic sufferings of a man coming to terms with it consequences. It’s also a meditation on the nature of life. I found it very funny in places, cautionary, thought provoking, and delightfully irreverent.

I enjoyed it very much.

A short read, yes, but this is definitely not a small book.

It was Pablo Picasso who said: all children are artists, the problem is to remain an artist as we grow up. The fact that so many of don’t is a serious problem – it was me who said that last bit, not Pablo – and I don’t mean ‘serious’ economically or politically. I mean we risk making our souls sick. Another fine artist, the writer Kurt Vonnegut said of art, and I paraphrase slightly for artistic purposes: it’s not a way to make a living, more a way to make living bearable.

In 2006, he wrote to Xavier High School in New York by way of reply to pupils inviting him to come and speak at the school. He was one of many venerated authors so invited, and the only one to reply, which perhaps says much about the majority of venerated professional authors. Vonnegut declined to visit on account of his great age, but the Xavier Letter is now legendary, and encapsulates very well his philosophy regarding the true value of art – not as a means to make a living, nor to gain approval, or praise, or fame, but on a more fundamental, vital and deeply personal level, to experience what he called ‘becoming’.

Here it is, read aloud by another fine old artist, none other than Gandalf the Grey:

We can think of life in very complicated terms, I know I often do. Indeed we can make it as complicated as we like, or we can pare it down to more manageable proportions, perhaps even to something akin to a Zen Haiku, instead of Wordsworth’s Prelude, and that Haiku might say something like: we’re born, we fart around for a bit, and then we die, but inbetween we have a chance to grow some soul – I’m paraphrasing Vonnegut again, but he definitely said fart, though not in that letter to Xavier High School. And the best way to grow some soul is through the practice of art, any kind of art that takes your fancy.

But the problem with art is you cannot write an app to do it. And since the endgame of unbridled Capital is to complete the grand project of reducing the entire world to nothing more than the sum of its parts in pursuit of maximum profit, then art – and especially amateur art, which neither computes, nor ever pays the bills – is going to get itself rubbed out. It’ll be dropped from all the school curriculums as those fiendishly clever little chaps with their apps pare the money down until only Maths and English and Science survives the reckoning, these being the tick-in-a-box, sure-fire CV gold-star employability type subjects.

Then we’ll all spend our days between birth and death writing yet more little apps to hang off the iron brain of the human universe. And it’ll be a profitable place, that universe, at least for those who own the iron brain, but it will also be a place without much soul, a place where the farting will have become everything of value, and where none of us will be anything other than robots made of meat, and valued not a jot, and where life for anyone with a brain, and a longing for some kind of meaning – which is just about all of us – will become utterly unbearable.

So,… by all means value your Maths and your English, and your Sciences – I know I do – and make no mistake, their diligent pursuit makes for a decent pay-packet in return, even in these most straightened of times – but do art as well, and experience the mystery and the magical, intangible rewards of ‘becoming’.

Write that poem. Dance that dance. Sing that song. Don’t do it for money, or praise or fame.

Do it for yourself.

secret scriptureI’m coming at Sebastian Barry from all angles. I read his earlier novel, “The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty” (1998) many years ago, fell headlong then into the snare of Irish history, a history that both fascinates and terrifies, the history of Ireland being as violent and as turbulent as my own life has been peaceful and uneventful.

And then I picked up the Last Scripture:

What can I tell you further? I once lived among Humankind, and found them in their generality to be cruel and cold, and yet could mention the names of two or three or four that were like angels. I suppose we measure the importance of our days by those few angels we spy among us, and yet aren’t like them.

So Rosanne McNulty tells us in the The Secret Scripture. Roseanne is a hundred years old, and has been the patient of an insane asylum since her twenties, but for no reason her psychiatrist, the kindly Doctor Greene can adequately get at. Her records have been lost and no one seems to remember anything about her. And unlike many of the sad demented creatures in his care, he finds Roseanne articulate, and gifted,… but also elusive. Told between the pages of Rosanne’s secret and not always reliable diary, her “accounting of herself”, as she puts it, and the pages of Greene’s daybook, we learn of a woman deeply wronged. We learn of the fiery divisions of the Irish civil war, and of a pathological theocratic religiosity that has turned people into stones of unfeeling cruelty, all in the name of a dubious respectability, and an ungodly godliness.

In spite of her great age, there remains sufficient evidence of the beauty she once possessed. Indeed Roseanne’s beauty was always a knife to her throat. Married to Tom McNulty in her youth, but disapproved of by his mother, Roseanne is wrongly suspected of infidelity, and banished by the McNulty clan to a lonely existence in a tin shack on the edge of nowhere.

The parish priest, affronted by her refusal to convert to Catholicism becomes her Nemesis. He petitions Rome and has her marriage annulled, so Tom can wed again. Roseanne is nominally a Presbyterian, though not religious, but identity is everything in the Ireland of the nineteen twenties and the thirties – Catholic, Nationalist, Protestant, Loyalist,… your choice could get you a bullet in the back, or a price on your head. And for a woman labelled “immoral” by the priesthood, the fate could be even worse,…

Tom’s brother, Eneas, haunts the story in the background. Briefly a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary, for lack of other work, there’s now a price on his head and he spends his life on the run, but makes a brief appearance in Roseanne’s story, sufficient to leave her with child, before he disappears for good into the conclusion of his own tumultuous history, as told in “The Whereabouts”.

The next thing we know Roseanne is committed to the asylum, the fate of her child unknown. And now the asylum is crumbling, like Rosanne’s own life, stumbling towards it end. Doctor green must oversee the removal of his charges to a new hospital, or put as many as possible out into the community in order to save money. Will Rosanne survive moving to a new place after so long in the old one? And if she has been wrongly committed, as Green begins to suspect, how can she possibly be released at so great an age, and with no one to own her?

Roseanne and Doctor Greene have known each other for a very long time, but for all the natural sympathy and mutual respect between them, he knows very little about her life before the asylum, her secrets held close to a degree he finds almost pathological. Slowly, and in the midst of his own private tragedy, and personal failings, Greene begins to unpick the mystery of Roseanne’s life,…

Winner of the Costa Award in 2008, this is a well loved story, much respected by critics. There is a film version knocking about but I’ve not seen it. It’s not well spoken of and a rotten tomatoes rating of just 32% suggests much subtlety was lost in the translation. If you haven’t encountered the book yet, do look out for it. It’s a deeply moving and life-affirming story, beautifully written.