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Friday, 21 November 2014

Earworms, maggots and bottoms

The word earworm is deservedly popular and refers to those tunes you just cannot get out of your head. One piece of advice is to hum God Save the Queen as a sure-fire antidote – like drinking from the opposite rim of a glass of cold water is a reputed fail-safe cure for hiccups. I’ve tried neither. 

There’s another word for the kind of tune that buzzes between the ears with no source of escape: Maggot. A seventeenth century word, perhaps older. It’s probably more accurate, too, because ‘worm’s are slow and tardy creatures. You’d probably have forgotten the tune before a worm had circuited your head. A maggot however turns into a fly that will buzz in your head until it drops from exhaustion. 

There are also visual maggots – one I cannot for the moment drive from my head. It’s KimKardashian’s bottom. And I don’t think singing God Save the Queen is going to have much effect.
 It’s everywhere, the meme of the moment, and peculiarly non-sexual. By that, I mean if Andy Wharhol had photographed and signed it – the image would probably fetch millions as art. And that’s how I see it – a product like Warhol’s soup tins, or four pictures of Marilyn. Soulless,(well that’s true of most bottoms,) a smart piece of design, and one firmly ensconsed in my head. 

Maybe, instead of singing God save the Queen I should try and intellectualise it – a sure kiss of death for almost everything.

 Maybe, in times of hardship and austerity, we are driven to the reassuringly large bottom – a kind of visual comfort food. That works for men perhaps, not too sure where it leaves women. Most men with fat bottoms are commonly called ‘lard-arse’.

 Nope, not working.

Carry on intellectualising. Is it a sin to objectify women or is it a recognition that women from prehistory have held men in thrall and awe? We objectify deities in stone and wood, limiting them in terms we can understand but nevertheless reflecting a need - here for example - the Kim Kardashian of its day.

Venus von Willendorf ; carved 24,000-22,000 BCE believed to have belonged to nomadic groups. Found near Willendorf, Austria and considered to be the earliest artistic form depicting the human body currently known to man
 Still not working. Kardashian remains. 

I remember when I was very much younger I had the same problem with Minoan women, where a different part of the anatomy was involved. That was easier to get over. You had to actively seek out Minoan art whereas Kim Kardashian is omnipresent, the Earth-mother of our day. Perhaps in time it will fade. I will give you progress reports. In the meantime I’ll pick out  Jack’s Maggot – a greedy and ruthless aural virus. It may mitigate the worst effects of Kardashian. And at least the dancers are dressed.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

A Spring Clean in November

The ultimate displacement activity: house cleaning – worse – the Spring Clean. Worse than that – a November Spring clean. Some of you will have already guessed it – yes - writing has hit a sticky patch. There is a hill of research to climb (to big to ignore) before I can go on. Nevertheless, I’m torn between the two competing impulses – to carry on writing, probably into a quagmire  – or stop and take stock. Research and think.

 I’d like to make this sound vaguely heroic using the metaphor of a traditional steppe torture:  tying the victim to two horses galloping in different directions. But in fact it’s pusillanimity squared, an indulgence, an effete quiver of the sensibilities. I could be in an office, down a coalmine - worse - teaching, or in Sierra Leone. And I’m worried about this? A module the size of a fridge has just landed on a comet 310 million miles away travelling 140,000 miles per hour. It puts my little hiccup into perspective.

But then, to be honest, I’m not worried. It’s a perfect excuse for a thorough spring clean, an approving wife and, biggest bonus of all Rock music in an empty house with volume right up to the ceiling. The house is shaking as I get to grips with duster and mops and various weird implements.

And, inadvertently, I’ve discovered the perfect play- list. No door or skirting board has been more vigorously washed than to the tune of Radar Love. Brushing proceeds at a frenzy to Hawkwind’s Silver Machine. Dusting demands the equally rhythmic but more delicate House of the king by Focus. Sweet Home Alabama is wonderful for toilets, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band’s Faithhealer - most excellent for windows. As the end approaches it’s one final strut to the kitchen to the strains of Tumbling Dice. I also hoovered the entire house but didn’t hear much with that. I think Rory Gallagher’s ‘Messing with the Kid’ was in there somewhere, but it doesn’t work with a Dyson - which is also rubbish for air guitar.

Now it’s back to the screen with an orange I’m finding hard to peel,  and a determination to write: a blog post. The sequal to The Gift can wait another day.

Friday, 7 November 2014


Just off the Hereford to Abergavenny road (A465), between Wormbridge and Wormlow Tump lies the ancient parish of Kilpeck. It contains a pub, a few houses, the remains of a castle and a remarkable church. On a still summer’s day there is magic in climbing the motte to what remains of the castle (a wall), sit for a time and just look around. It is hard to believe that 1,500 years ago Celts and Saxons farmed these lands in relative harmony. Even the Normans, not noted for their pacifism, were seduced by something in the air – and Kilpeck church is witness to that.


In the Middle Ages Kilpeck was a thriving settlement with its church and castle. King John visited it three times in four years. Now little is left but a church that has survived everything history could throw at it: the Reformation, iconoclastic puritans, Victorian prudes (with the exception of one lady perhaps) even the weather. The church is built of Herefordshire red sandstone, which is usually susceptible to the corrosive effects of rain and ice. There are rational explanations. The Kilpeck sandstone has developed a hard patina that provides some protection, but however it is explained the church exudes a mysterious peace, and will probably be there for another thousand years.

Walking down from the motte to the church

The Normans arrived in Kilpeck soon after the Conquest and it was given to William fitz Norman, a kinsman of the Conqueror. William’s son, Hugh de Kilpeck was Keeper of the King’s Forests and in 1140 he built the church. With its three, clearly defined sections – nave, chancel and apse – it is now almost unique; especially with its semi circular apse. Most have been destroyed or replaced by small rectangular alternatives. Another point of interest is that instead of destroying the earlier Saxon Church - the usual Norman practise - Hugh de Kilpeck incorporated it. He also did something else in keeping with its history and perhaps in some inexplicable deference to the 'sense of place' which still exists.

There has been a church on this site since the earliest days of Christianity. The village's name of Kilpeck is probably derived from kil Pedic, the "cell of St Pedic," who is otherwise unknown but was likely a local Celtic holy man. Records in the Book of Llandaff indicate that "Kilpeck church with all its lands around" was given to that diocese in 650 AD. Not only did he retain elements of the previous church, he decorated it in a weird and wonderful melding of celtic, saxon and viking imagery.

Around the top of the Romanesque arch you can see chevron moulding, followed by Norman beakheads. Below that is the Tympanium with its carving of the Tree of Life.  On each door jamb you can see two warrior figures – not Norman knights but clearly celt, referred to now as the ‘Welsh Warriors’. Serpents slither up and down the two pillars. The serpents are hungrily devouring each others’ tails. This idea of evil consuming evil is reinforced on the left hand column with its carving of a basilisk and a lion in conflict. If you look really carefully - on the right - you will see the ubiquitous Green Man. 

Most medieval churches were painted so this would been a riot of colour, but, judging by microscopic flakes, celtic colours not Norman.

Inside the church the eye is drawn to the two romanesque arches leading to the altar in the apse.

Again, on each pillar you have carvings. One is clearly St Peter carrying the keys of Heaven. The others may be Evangelists though some of Celtic tonsures, others Roman.

The apse where the eye is drawn to an early example of rib vaulting. The ribs intersect in four identical heads called Cat Masks. You can find similar ones in Durham Cathedreal or Elkestone Church in Gloucestershire

The  exterior of the church burst with imagery with no less than 89 corbels. I have two favourites. Below is the Sheela Na Gig, gorgeous in its obscenity. And again, against all the odds – Puritans and Victorians to name just a few – it survived. One explanation is that it may have been depicted as a fool opening her heart to the devil. Another explanation – though dubious because the same story has been repeated elsewhere – was that it depicted the patron’s wife after he refused to pay the mason for work done. Whatever the case the fact that a Victorian lady objected to a corbel on the front of the church but made no objection to this is curious. Rumour has it that the offending corbel, subsequently erased, was that of a man with a big penis.

To the back of the church are carved crocodiles shown devouring their enemy, the Hydrus. The latter covered itself with mud, slid into the crocodile's mouth and split open in its belly. It thus represents Christ's Harrowing of Hell - when, between His crucifixion and resurrection, Christ descended into Hell to save the righteous imprisoned there since Adam. 

My camera doesn't do justice to these carvings. If you would like to see the full range in sharp focus and close up there is a wonderful link here

Friday, 31 October 2014

Making life easy by making it worse

Something I read recently depressed me, perhaps by its inevitability. Never underestimate man’s stupidity and greed, nor his ability to dress it up as enlightened altruism. It was the Los Angeles Times that reported the story of R Lamar Whitmer’s plans to build over 2,000 homes with 3 million square feet of commercial space along the rim of the Grand Canyon. People have to live somewhere, right? Even if there’s insufficient water to make it morally viable.  

Julie Cart, the source of the story, stressed how scarce water was, and the damage to the entire eco system as the existing settlement of Tusayan (even before the proposed new development) is steadily sucking the aquifers dry. She tells a good though stark story:  the park's resident elk herd recently figured out how to operate the Grand Canyon's new water faucets and began serving themselves. The situation remained an amusing photo op until a young elk pair began to vigorously defend the water fountain, chasing away tourists. Obviously the answer is to cull the elks and bring on the gondolas.


The ‘altruistic’ gloss on the developer’s plans. A ‘gondola’ will transport punters to the canyon floor, transforming a ‘drive-by wilderness experience” to one accessible for the ‘average person.’How nice.

So the ‘average person’ can’t walk down the Grand Canyon and back up again. Well I was an average person in 1982 and one who over the previous few weeks had been mainlining alcohol on an Aventours trek of America. I’d classify most of my travelling companions as ‘average’ and yet we all walked down and back up on a searing hot August day.

 I moved on to another discussion on the same topic, the author looking at the pros and cons of the gondola idea: 

Returning to the top on the same day is…possible, for conditioned athletes…. Well, hush my pup, a ‘conditioned athlete’ eh. I read on already feeling a foot taller:  When I visited last year, there was a signboard on the North Rim with a picture of a woman on it. The sign said, "Could you run the Boston Marathon?" The basic message: the woman pictured had run the Boston Marathon. Then she came to hike in the Grand Canyon, misread her hiking route, underestimated the amount of water she would need, and died out there on the trail. The sympathy was there, but also a feeling of naked heroism. I had walked the Grand Canyon. Why the hell had I missed out on the Boston Marathon? They don’t even make the mules go down and  back up in one day…’ Hmm not too sure what to make of that comparison. From hero to mule. But then again mules are carrying deadweight humans and have to do this every day. For us it was a once in a lifetime experience – a watered down experience (irony warning) for future generations. In Dylan’s words, ‘Money doesn’t talk it swears’ Or as Kevin Ayers put it:

It begins with a blessing
And it ends with a curse;
Making life easy,
By making it worse;

I saw Kevin Ayers stoned and almost falling off the stage - him not me. It was in Swansea. This performance is in France. It's well worth watching but skip the first minute or two of some execrable French. 

Thursday, 23 October 2014

A spiritual Journey

 My brother is a man of strong opinions and impeccable taste so when he urged me to see ‘In to the Wild,’ and when, by pure serendipity, it was on television the following day….well, I had little choice.
It was an interesting experience because, like him no doubt, I was immediately seduced by the American wilderness and was – for a very brief time – body and soul with the protagonist Christopher McCandless – or as he preferred to call himself – Alexander Supertramp. 

For those new to the story the film is based on the life of Christopher McCandless who graduates from Emory University to please his dysfunctional parents, then abandons all his possessions and donates his life savings - $24,000 – to charity. He hitchhikes across America with the ultimate aim of living in the ‘pure’ wilderness of Alaska. Along the way, he meets so many generous souls who in their very different ways befriend and try to reach out to him. He rejects each of them and by now I’m realising I don’t like him very much. I think this is what makes the film so good. Like all great tragedies, it allows the viewer to reach their own conclusions. 

I confess I had my doubts about him when he gave his money away, which gets close to the heart of the issue. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.. Matthew 6:21 His champions might see my reservations as the typical materialistic response of one trapped in the shallows; snuffling for  treasure amongst the cockles and whelks. For Chris McCandless the awe inspiring beauty of 'Nature' was his treasure, something to be sought at any and every cost.

 Even so, as the film progresses, you’re struck by how – well – unlikeable he is. This may be a trait of all monomaniacs – revolutionary, political, creative, or scientific. There is little or no room in their hearts for anything that might dilute the grand passion and Christopher McCandless has no room in his heart for anyone who might step in his way. He’s never rude or ungracious but he has a callow and Teflon coated soul. This of course is just one response the film allows, along with an overwhelming sadness that he realises on his last breath what he has lost.

Nature might be a random construct of consequences, a reflection of God’s creativity, or both. Whatever the case, nature makes for mind-blowing magic, but in itself nature is also uncaring. It is beautiful, but just like fine whisky it is not the answer to everything, as Chris McCandless tragically learnt too late when he recorded that true happiness was only found when shared with others

Before Chris McCandless entered Alaska he weighed a hundred and forty pounds, or ten stone. When found he weighed sixty seven pounds or just under five stone. He paid everything in search of his 'treasure'. Was it worth it? It might have been, though not for his family. In that respect 'the wildnerness' proved a false god.

What’s really fascinating is how many different responses there are – to the original book by Jon Karakauer and to the film. Romantics and rebels can see in it ‘a rites of passage in our culture.’  They can empathise with his hatred of modern life and its easy pleasures. An earlier generation got off on the film Easy Rider. Most returned to their studies or mortgage. Some drifted into a similar monomaniac quest for an alternative, more meaningful life style – aided by drugs. What unites them is how ‘idealism’ segues into selfishness.

I belong in the less sympathetic group. I respect his resourcefulness and sense of adventure, and wince at the ‘spoiled white brat’ tag some have labelled him with. We’ve all been through that phase in our lives. Well, many of us, and on their deathbeds some may wish they'd had a more Janis Joplin/Hendrix kind of life, and judge McCandless differently.  But why does the ‘mystery’ of his flight to the wild and ultimate death intrigue so many people? We seek explanations. One writer discerns OCD in his actions, another Aspergers. Why not go for aToxoplasma gondii?

For a fine and interesting analysis of  Christopher McCandless's death (and it wasn’t a simple case of starvation) go to the New Yorker article by Jon Karakauerwho highlights Ronald Hamilton’s research on Vapniarca and the seeds of the grass pea Lathyrus sativus… Read it to find out more. And to the person who led me on this journey - thank you.

He had these books with him:
Tanaina Plantlore' by Priscilla Russel Kari
'Education of a Wandering Man' by Louis L'Amour
-Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
-Death of Ivan Ilych (Tolstoy)
-Call of the Wild (London)
-White Fang (London)
-Moon-Face (London)
-Brown Wolf (London)
-To Build a Fire (London)
-Doctor Zhivago (Boris Pasternak)
-Terminal Man (Michael Crichton)
-O Jersualem! (Larry Collins & Dominique Lapierre)
-War and Peace (Tolstoy)
-Walden (Henry David Thoreau)
But took only a small caliber rifle, no map and no axe. For some this reveals a spiritual journey. Ray Mears he wasn't. 

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Five year old boys can be stupid

When I was young, I hated the dentist. It was never as bad as this

 but bad enough. Drills were fearsomely large on ungainly arms - attacked the teeth with the amiable precision of a bee seeking honey, and made a very loud noise.

My other bĂȘte noire was the barbers – or hairdressers as we metropolitans have gotten use to call them. I was thinking of that during my last hair-cut, watching drifts of what was once plentiful fall on to the floor. The hairdresser had soft, fragrant hands, and whilst she was busy with my hair I slipped into day-dream – why bother with meditation – and wondered why I was so scared of the barbers as a child.

It may have been the ‘ceremony’ attached to it all, the overheard discussions between my parents as to whether I was ready or not. I’d been happy enough with the home haircut involving basin and scissors, now I picked up on their worry.
In those days, barbers smelled of tobacco and sweat, burnt hair, talc, various weird pomades - and Brylcreme of course. 

 I flirted briefly with Brylcreem when older, but was never able to hold a telephone so convincingly - nor with such a menacing sneer

 I sat ensconced between two old men, one of whom lacked a leg. It was my first experience of the peculiar British queuing experience, where everyone observes each other from the corner of the eye to make sure no one steps up out of turn. I was also obsessing on the large sinister chairs,  elderly necks, and feeling a terrible fear.
Every neck there was dry and red, and creviced like World War 1 trenches. Shears buzzed over them, alien doom-ships blasting the skin. Worse was to come: the singeing of hair, a burning taper that frizzled the neckline into shape. I wanted to run out – as I had with the dentist – convinced that I had entered this place with a smooth neck, and would leave with one dry and red and deeply lined. Five year old boys can be stupid.

Friday, 10 October 2014

I am not lost!

A friend showed me this walk last year. It involves walking through fiields and then some circuitous uphill paths through King's Wood. At the top you can see almost to Hereford. My family were reasonably hopeful I'd remember the way though I sensed doubt. Hmm.

Well the first part seems easy enough.

King's wood is directly ahead

I take one last look back before entering.

So far, so good. I sense renewed confidence in my sense of direction.

Hansel and Gretal laid a trail of crumbs. I think the iPone is almost as good

Take a good look. We have to come back this way

Yes. Okay. I'll recognise this again

The summit is almost there, but I'm worried. There were many cross-paths and turn-offs on the way up.
To complicate things, we'll be approaching them from a different direction on a circular route down.

And here we are. I've got us here. Now to find the way back. Our house is a speck just out of picture far right.

Morale is falling. Doubt sets in. My daughter takes a rest while I ponder.

Leadership is called for. Confidence must be restored!

Eureka. I recognise this field. I check my iPhone behind a tree

Definitely the one...I think...

And damn-it I'm relieved.

* Interesting rehearsal out-take when the two were barely speaking. This is a more polished version from the film 'Let it Be' . More polished, less chemistry. I'm rambling, much like the walk through King's Wood.