June 2011

There are two Kinsella poems on the old Leaving Cert. course: Mirror in February and Another September. Neither are among his best and the legend goes that Kinsella himself was discontent with the selection as he claimed not to be in control of what happens at the end of Another September. You and me both, dear.

All you have to know about Kinsella for the purposes of these poems is that he finds himself in Wexford and has some epiphanies. This is a great opportunity to learn all about epiphany, especially if the syllabus won’t let you read Joyce. An epiphany is a showing forth, a revelation of something that changes one’s position. The Feast of the Epiphany[1] celebrates the revelation of the infant Jesus to the Magi and similarly a discovery about oneself forces re-evaluation. Joyce’s short stories were originally called ‘epiphanies’ and written more about such revelation to a given character than about plot or resolution. That’s why people say very little happens in them. Those people are beneath contempt and should be shunned like lepers of old.

In Another September Kinsella finds himself in his wife’s childhood home in Wexford, and his position as an outsider from Dublin leads him to more general doubt about his place in the environments of nature, art and love. She is an ‘unspeaking daughter’ ‘growing less familiar’ to him as he understands more about the context in which she finds herself happy and in which he can’t sleep. His attempts to understand the world, whether through art or his relationship with her, become little more than intrusive attempts to impose himself: ‘planting [his] grammar in her yielding weather’. Filthy image, that.

What to say about the poem:

  1. God, why didn’t he just set it in the Gresham after a Christmas party? This is just the same as the end of Joyce’s The Dead. In that story Gabriel thinks he can get his end away with his wife Gretta, only to discover that she is mourning the loss of Michael Furey, a boy she knew and loved way before Gabriel came along. Time to get the lawyers out, Joyce estate.
  2. The whole interior/exterior thing is interesting in a post-Romantic way, as the artificial light offers false hope to the moth which then goes to ‘inhabit the living starlight’. The poetry, the ‘half-tolerated consciousness’ is obviously a reference to his distillation into reason of something that lies beyond the ken of consciousness, like. Note: anyone who says that the moth is bent on self-destruction needs to re-evaluate his/her notion that that is what moths are doing when they bang around light fittings—does it look like they’re depressed when they’re doing it? I’m interested on the take these people have on the psychology of Lepidoptera[2].
  3. I enjoyed reading that line: ‘Domestic Autumn… rubs her kind hide against the bedroom wall’ almost as much as I did when I read it first in Eliot’s Prufrock: ‘The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window panes’. Time to get the lawyers out, Eliot estate.
  4. The final lines, about being judged by ‘Justice, Truth, such figures’ show how Kinsella’s certainties have been undermined by his new surroundings. They’re not women, they’re ‘moving like women’, but how can an image traditionally depicted as female be ‘like’ a woman, too? It’s like Lou Reed describing Manhattan as ‘sinking like a rock’[3]: it is a rock, you big eejit.
  5. ‘Fragrant child’ is a reference to the natural recognition of the environment to a familiar scent; it’s not that she’s farting in bed (although that may well cause a newlywed husband to re-evaluate certain suppositions).
  6. Isn’t the conclusion nothing but an affirmation of transience and mortality, outside of nature? If the poet cannot understand it, he is excluded and judged too. He fears his lack of knowledge, of his wife, with whom he has ‘grown/less familiar’, and of his own understanding of his place. He’s got his ass kicked here, so he has.

Mirror in February is similarly dramatic, this time set in a bathroom mirror as he shaves. The time frame is successful here: ‘under the fading light’ is a fine image that shows attention to detail. Having a brain ‘half-dressed’ is an effective use of transferred epithet, where the brain’s function is expressed in language moved from another sign of haste or ill-preparation.

What to say about the poem:

  1. Firstly, the person who says that the ‘compulsive fantasy’ in line 4 is suicide is a spoofer[4]. Just because the poem seems to be a meditation on decay and death doesn’t mean that he wants to kill himself. Point out to such a person, as he’s wiping your spittle from his cheek, that the entire rest of the poem barks ‘ego’, so why would someone so up himself want to kill himself? ‘Compulsive’: something you must do without conscious knowledge of why; ‘fantasy’: a projection of something not real. It’s a dream, you tit.. A dream. You might as well say that the word ‘riveted’ refers not to his being struck with how bet down he looks but to a little rivet in the mirror which, when you move your face in the right way, makes you look like Kirk Douglas.
  2. God. What do you expect when you compare yourself to Christ? I mean, I’ve cut myself shaving quite badly when hungover, but it’s hardly a loss of blood commensurate with that Passion of the Christ movie, is it?
  3. He’s thirty three, for God’s sake. That’s not old. Wait until you have to pee every 45 minutes. And when you have an 18 month old waking you at half six to watch Peppa bloody Pig I’ll show you a ‘dark exhausted eye’.
  4. The trees mock our hero: they are ‘span for span… mutilated more’ than his face is when he ‘hack[s] it clean’. They ‘stand defaced/Suffering their brute necessities’, but they can bud again. Extra boredom points for noting that a ‘span’ is the distance from your thumb to the end of your little finger, and that the trees are ‘hacked clean for better bearing’: he really thinks he’s being readied for crucifixion. Get over yourself, Thomas, you big Mary.
  5. The poem’s real focus is the paradox in line nine: the human sets himself within an ‘untiring, crumbling place of growth’. This is a nice, if a little clunky, way to muse on the spiritual growth meant to compensate for physical dilapidation.
  6. The partial conclusion is good here: the ‘grace’ supposedly offered to transient, ageing Man by the crucifixion is difficult to settle for when all we can see is how the natural world refreshes and we age. He concludes with what grace he can, but he’s not happy. Tough.
  7. The conclusion is like the Woody Allen joke: I’d rather not achieve immortality through my art; I’d prefer to achieve it through not having to die’.

So Thomas Kinsella is represented as a poet of reflection, of re-evaluation and epiphany. There are some late Romantic touches, a little bit of Modernist silent God bothering, but mostly a bit of moaning about growing old. The second poem is by far a stronger statement but both poems are on the difficult side.

[1] January 6th, the date of the Morkan’s party in The Dead. Hmmm.

[2] If you wish to get further into it there are several theories on why moths behave as they do around artificial light: it’s either a reaction to the infra-red spectrum confused with the vibrational frequencies of the female moth pheromone, that the moth files toward the light to take advantage of the distorting Mach band while it seeks camouflage, or a consequence of the moth’s use of transverse orientation to navigate based on celestial patterns. Come on, Kinsella, which one is it?

[3] Lou Reed, Romeo Had Juliette, from New York, 1988.

[4] Because of all the talk of transience in this book there ended up being way too much chat about suicide: it’s really quite dangerous to jump to such a conclusion in rooms full of teenagers.


There’s been quite a bit of chat about Soundings since its reissue last winter, so this will be brief. Augustine Martin, a professor in University College, Dublin, was charged in 1969 with compiling an anthology for second-level study in Ireland. The anthology, seen as a stopgap until a more permanent curriculum was drawn up, was called Soundings: Leaving Certificate Interim Anthology. Martin became a Senator in 1973, where he served until 1981, the last two years overlapping with his tenure as Chair of Anglo-Irish Literature in UCD. He died in 1995.

The book is a superb selection of the greats of the poetic tradition and there are few gripes one could have with the work here. Any selection will be subjective and one surely must stand beside the quality of what’s there as opposed to arguing in favour of the absence of something else. And that’s what Martin did. I find the inclusion of Thomas Hardy and George Herbert a little strange when there is no Byron or Coleridge, and we will move on to Thomas Kinsella soon enough. But there is much more success than failure, even if the omissions eventually killed the book off.

The 2010 reprint of Soundings

Martin’s introduction is as good an overview of poetry as one could wish for: in his introduction to the 2010 edition Joseph O’Connor is spot on in his praise. Martin’s thesis, that ‘…from the outset the study of poetry must be based on the reading of poems’ (xii) seems like an obvious thing to contend, but the intrusive nature of some annotation, especially in school texts, has to be seen to be believed. This thesis informs the book, with glossary kept at the end, biographical notes keeping the respectful distance that late 20th century criticism demanded and questions (termed ‘explorations’) ‘designed’, he notes, ‘to send the reader back to the poem in order to savour it more fully’ (xiii). The Introduction directs the reader to some points on prosody and structure but the concentration is much more on communication, on message, than on the craft of poetry. That approach might have dated a little, the enjoyment of the language of poetry now receiving much more attention at L.C. level than what Adrian Mole used to call ‘translating Shakespeare into English’[1]. Nothing Martin suggests here is wrong, however: it’s still an introduction well worth a student’s time.

It’s something of a joke that the ‘interim’ anthology lasted until the reinvention of the Leaving Cert. English syllabus in 2001, but there were probably several reasons not to change it. Principally, I’d say that the book’s longevity speaks to the careful and successful selection of a wide base of poetry; it certainly features much of what was seen as the canon’s greats at its time of compilation and the success of the recent reprinting is testament to its quality. Another possible reason for leaving the anthology there may lie in the undeniable link between politics and art in Ireland: Martin, as a former artistic director of the Abbey Theatre and the leading voice on Anglo-Irish studies, would certainly have been aware of the sensitivity needed to handle an artform so caught up in the birth of the Irish Republic. 1969 was a year of great upheaval in Ireland and it was followed by thirty years of troubles too clear in the mind to have to detail here. Amending the selection to either include or exclude poetry by Irish writers from the 20th century (one of the main criticisms of Martin’s choices) could have been seen as politically motivated and may have been avoided for this reason.

A third reason for leaving things as they were may have been linked to the Church and the inherent nature of much of the poetry of the 20th century. By the 1980’s there was a feeling that women poets were under-represented in the canon—the dead white males of the tradition were not, it was said, a full representation of the history of poetry. In a book featuring the work of 22 poets there is only one woman—Emily Dickinson—in Soundings. With an increasing number of female students and teachers and a growing sense of the entitlement of women to be represented in the canon, Soundings was seen as more than a little anachronistic, especially with significant poets like Elizabeth Barrett- Browning, Sylvia Plath and Eavan Boland left in the margins. But Martin, the Asssociation of English Teachers and the Department of Education were working within an education system founded by religious orders and, generally speaking, seen as a reflection of a fairly well-established and conservative value system. Poems detailing more adult themes and exploring gender issues might have met with opposition, and Martin had steered clear of much of this in the same way his Anglo-Irish poetry avoided all but the most established observations on the nation’s birth. In that light Martin’s inclusion of Thomas and Eliot, for example, could be seen as courageous.

The anthology had aged quite badly in places by its demise in 2001, though: Thomas Kinsella, the only living poet in the book, had not lived up to his promise (not to mention his own dissatisfaction at the poems included in the book) and had been outstripped by Seamus Heaney and several others as dominant voices in Irish poetry by the 1980’s. My wonderfully enthusiastic English teacher bought me a copy of The Haw Lantern in 1987 but I was writing essays about Tennyson at the same time. The omission of Heaney, Louis MacNeice, Derek Mahon, Michael Longley and James Stephens, many of whom were eloquent in their observations on the situation in the North, was becoming less defensible by the year. Most glaring, though, was the lack of women poets. In particular the slant in the selections from Dickinson, away from her more transcendental poetry towards the more psychological, depicted her among a particular generation of readers as mad, confirming to many a suspicion as old as Virginia Woolf that strong female voices are conveniently rendered insane by the establishment. I might not go that far, but when we get to Dickinson we’ll see how representative the sample really was. It was indefensible, though, to have equal numbers of male and female students sitting an exam where male voices were favoured to such an extent.

The rather embarrassing inside back cover of my Soundings. Note the use of egg language in the left centre.

I’ve kept my copy of it, though, and now it has eight years of teacherly notes in the margins and on post-it notes. When I’m working with poems I know are in there I’ll open it up and see what the younger versions thought then; sometimes when there’s a poem missing from the new course I’ll read aloud from it. This is the first time I’ll let anyone see my delightful cursive script of the title of Marillion’s first album, though. The truth commission has begun.

[1] Sue Townsend, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, aged 13¾ , 1982.

When my sisters bequeathed their copy of Soundings to me and I began reading from it in 1984 they described it as the ‘Doom and Gloom Anthology’. In a part of the decade where all the music we heard on the radio (U2, Simple Minds) was relentlessly anthemic and all the music we listened to was dour and rain sodden (Cure, Smiths, Joy Division) there was a lot to be said about a book with so many references to death. Except that when you got into Soundings it wasn’t really all about death at all: only the best bits were.

The Leaving Cert. course in those days involved two English papers, the second of which demanded study of a play (usually Shakespeare: Hamlet, Lear, Othello (a latter-day replacement for Coriolanus) and Macbeth), a novel (there was usually one for the boys and one for the girls: in my day it was The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, which probably straddles both camps, and Silas Marner by George Eliot, which succeeded as an equal opportunity soporific), along with some poetry. The anthology for the Poetry course, Soundings, was recently reissued to much nostalgic acclaim. The following few paragraphs are all the nostalgia I’ll get into, before setting out to give modern-day readers something pithy to say about each of the poems in the Anthology, the better to pass off as their own erudition when some boring wanker at the dinner table starts getting all Proustian about the only book from which he’s ever read poetry.

Flann O'Brien, a Dublin diversion

The music industry calculates 17 years as the optimum time for a band to get back out and milk the nostalgia circuit. You can set your calendar by it sometimes. The equivalent wags in the publishing industry must have smelt a similar demand accruing for Soundings last Christmas when they reprinted it, including in the new edition some doodles and a new introduction. Myles na nGopaleen once suggested in his Cruiskeen Lawn column in the Irish Times a Book Handling service, which involved paying a premium rate for a book into which someone wrote especial notes, annotations or, for the ultimate premium, a personal dedication from the writer herself.

Here’s an excerpt. It’s a bit long so I’ll shout when it’s over.

Myles quotation or reference, Part The First:

IT WILL BE remembered (how, in Heaven’s name, could it be forgotten) that I was discoursing on Friday last on the subject of book-handling, my new service, which enables ignorant people who want to be suspected of reading books to have their books handled and mauled in a manner that will give the impression that their owner is very devoted to them. I des-cribed three grades of handling and promised to explain what you get under am Four–the Superb Handling, or the Traitement Superbe, as we lads who spent our honeymoon in Paris prefer to call it. It is the dearest of them all, of course, but far cheaper than dirt when you consider the amount of prestige you will gain in the eyes of your ridiculous friends. Here are the details.
Le Traitement Superbe‘. Every volume to be well and truly handled, first by a qualified handler and subsequently by a master-handler who shall have to his credit not less than 550 handling hours; suitable passages in not less than fifty per cent of the books to be underlined in good-quality red ink and an appropriate phrase from the following list inserted in the margin, viz:
Yes, indeedl
How true, how true!
I don’t agree at all.
Yes, but cf. Homer, Od., iii, 151.
Well, well, well.
Quite, but Boussuet in his Discours sur l’histoire Universelle has already established the same point and given much more forceful explanations.
Nonsense, nonsense!
A point well taken!
But why in heaven’s name?
I remember poor Joyce saying the very same thing to me.

Need I say that a special quotation may be obtained at any time for the supply of Special and Exclusive Phrases? The extra charge is not very much, really.

That, of course, is not all. Listen to this:
Not less than six volumes to be inscribed with forged messages of affection and gratitude from the author of each work, e.g.,
‘To my old friend and fellow-writer, A.B., in affectionate remembrance, from George Moore.’
‘In grateful recognition of your great kindness to me, dear A.B., I send you this copy of The Crock of Gold. Your old friend, James Stephens.’
‘Well, A.B., both of us are getting on. I am supposed to be a good writer now, but I am not old enough to forget the infinite patience you displayed in the old days when guiding my young feet on the path of literature. Accept this further book, poor as it may be, and please believe that I remain, as ever, your friend and admirer, G. Bernard Shaw.’
‘From your devoted friend and follower, K. Marx.’
‘Dear A.B.,-Your invaluable suggestions and assistance, not to mention your kindness, in entirely re-writing chapter 3, entitles you, surely, to this first copy of “Tess”. From your old friend T. Hardy.’
‘Short of the great pleasure of seeing you personally, I can only send you, dear A.B., this copy of “The Nigger”. I miss your company more than I can say… (signature undecipherable).’
Under the last inscription, the moron who owns the book will be asked to write (and shown how if necessary) the phrase ‘Poor old Conrad was not the worst.’
All this has taken me longer to say than I thought. There is far more than this to be had for the paltry £32 7s 6d that the Superb Handling will cast you. In a day or two I hope to explain about the old letters which are inserted in some of the books by way of forgotten book-marks, every one of them an exquisite piece of forgery. Order your copy now![1]

Conclusion of the foregoing.

For those who might like to avail of this service but who are not, unlike Flann’s friend ‘of great wealth and vulgarity’, I offer my footnotes to Soundings. I’m not calling you morons, though; you are to use this to beat the morons.

Biographical reminiscence, Part The First.

I was quite good at English. Well read, in fact, although the sorts of books on the course offered to me intersected only slightly with the sort of thing I liked to read. By the beginning of Fifth Year (11th Grade to those across the pond, although I was 15 at this stage) I was into Douglas Adams and beginning to read a little bit of Joyce, but my favourite was Myles Na nGopaleen. I never did dig on poetry that much, Myles’ iconoclasm seemingly diametrical in its opposition to the sort of flowery stuff about beauty, cruelty to animals and dying soldiers spoon fed then and now to junior kids. On reflection, though, I always loved wordplay, my first early favourites being Edward Lear’s A Book of Bosh[2] and Spike Milligan’s Silly Verse for Kids[3], so I wonder why it took me so long to get to poetry.

My two sisters were older than me and are both highly intelligent, but neither would tell you they maximised their potential when in school[4]. The eldest in my family was a little more studious, her notes in the margins mainly focussed and to the point (she even has the strength of opinion to cite reasons that Keats’ On The Sea is ‘poor poetry’). My second sister was a little wild in those days, though, and her main editorial contributions involve her respect and admiration for the music of UB40 and her undying adoration for a boy named Duck who drove her to the local boozer on the back of a Yamaha dirtbike in such a fashion that it remains my signifier when contemplating unthinkable futures for my own beautiful child. My notes were fine, a mixture of the two (although I didn’t really fancy Duck—he scared me, although he once lent me his big Rasta-coloured boombox) and a little more detailed on the poetry, but the inherited copy of Soundings remains a palimpsest of our combined experiences in the wonderful and now defunct Greendale Community School in Dublin. Come to think of it, I was in Fifth Year when my second sister was in Sixth Year so all the notes I took that year were inscribed when she sat in classes with no book. That might say more than I just did, or maybe not….

Anyhow. I’ll begin with a post about the book itself, much of which is common knowledge to those readers resident in Ireland. Then I’m going to go backwards, principally so that the completed task will then have all the poets in the same order as the book, but secretly because I want to avoid writing about Chaucer for as long as possible.

[1] Excerpted from The Best of Myles. Appropriated from this site.

[2] Edward Lear (1812-1888) was a quintessential Victorian madman. An artist most famous for his depitions of exotic birds, Lear also wrote huge quantities of what were called ‘nonsense verse’. The one you know is The Owl and the Pussycat.

[3] Spike Milligan (1918-2002) was a comedian and writer who came to prominence with The Goon Show on BBC World Service radio. He wrote and illustrated books, clearly influenced by Lear, and his Silly Verse for Kids, first published in 1959, is truly silly. He’s madder than Lear: here’s The Ning Nang Nong:

[4] The Plain People Of Ireland: ‘Yeah, bighead, like you did’. Touché.

So, Gentle Reader, here’s a thing about evolution and education. If you get bored half way through (as I’m sure you will), make sure you click through the link at the end: it’s really impressive and concise in a way I could never be.

In a week where contestants for the Miss USA pageant were asked their views on evolution in schools (via Ben Goldacre, ta), we once again find ourselves baffled by the answers given by otherwise sentient human beings. While we should really feel a little gratified that the eventual winner was the self-confessed ‘huge science geek’ from California who was forthright in her support for evolution and the Big Bang theory, we should also be chastened by the answers given by most of the other empowered, alert women cross examined in the piece. Most declared it to be a choice, that both should be taught in schools, while the women from more conservative states predictably noted that God made them with a purpose (Miss Alaska, presumably refrerring to the swimsuit section) and that evolution was therefore something with which they could not agree, even though ‘you can never have too much knowledge’ (Miss. Kentucky). If you get the chance to see Miss Indiana, about 4.35 in the full video, do: a classic kick to touch that convinces no-one. Big shout out to Miss Minnesota, who might as well have lit up a crack pipe when she references the Pope on the subject. You go, Catholic girl.

The recent debate to find the most right-wing person in America

I have several problems with this issue, not least having to watch the women squirm a little when asked a question they knew had to be answered in a certain way: letting the whiff of success get in the way of one’s beliefs indicts the whole process. Of course the Miss USA pageant is not the place to air one’s leftfield views (or so we thought until the leftie Californian actually won), but it does show how such controversy has a chilling effect on expression. Look at the Republican contenders for next year’s Presidential election and you’ll see a selection of intelligent people all vying to be more extremely right-wing than the others. It’s under this penumbra that mad laws get passed, that ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’ become terms of abuse. It helps nobody. But look at the premise behind most of these answers: evolution and creationism are posited as rival beliefs. I find this intriguing.

This issue is one which has the potential to rive education in America, an issue that already has. When evolution as a theory is posited alongside creationism, as either a science or a matter of religious faith, I have to draw a line. It’s been said many times and much more eloquently than I can declare it, but evolution is not a matter of faith and should in no way involve one having to compromise one’s belief. It’s science, and we evaluate science based on how the theory stands up to scrutiny, how well evidence supports it and whether exceptions outweigh the rule. It allows us to change our minds, to step back, to step down.

Religion is your own business. If you’re secure in your beliefs I think there’s little I can do to sway you but I wouldn’t want to, so we’re both good to go. On the other hand, there is little to be said for the attempts of those on the fundamentalist side of things to block the teaching of evolution in schools. Evolution is a theory, and a well developed one as theories go. If you look at the evidence of fossils, of embryology and of plant and animal life all around us and can’t see how the theory of evolution actually increases the awe we should feel at the complexity and love of creation then you’re really putting the cart before the horse. Instead of God having created a world where life adapts and develops to meet different challenges offered by other developments, what fundamentalist belief offers is that fossils were left there to test our faith, that scientific progress is not a gift from God but some kind of human imperfection from which true believers will be raptured one of these days. So the implication is that God puts some stuff out there to take the mickey out of us? Shouldn’t the argument for God’s abiding love be strengthened by the theory of evolution? It’s no more provable than denying God’s abiding love so it remains a question of faith, but nobody is offering (well, nobody in science classes, anyway) evolution as a faith. It’s a theory. I keep saying it. Learn about it in Science class and then go across the hall and ponder the metaphysical implications of what you’ve learned.

A great man: Al Panuska, SJ

For years science and religion have gone hand in hand: sometimes, as in the case of Galileo, progress met with opposition from Church elders; sometimes the most prominent proponents of scientific advance were men of the cloth: look at Gregor Mendel, for one. The Jesuits struck me as particularly important in the development of science in the religious context, and when I discovered that the great man who was president of the university I attended was most famous (so famous that he’d been on Oprah, I’ll have you know) for his work in cryogenics I didn’t see it as a conflict, no more than I see medical science as an abberation of God’s will to kill people at His whim. My father’s generation believed the letter of the Bible: the creation theory of the Garden of Eden and the Flood were literally understood. But when I explained to my father how something scientific worked he was genuinely impressed, despite his lack of pretty much any formal education. We were taught about creation theories and flood allegories in different religions, but the message was the same. It now fit in with the understanding progress gave us of how the universe came to being. God didn’t give us fossils to test our faith, he gave us Newton, Einstein and Darwin to explain creation to us, all the better to stand on the shoulders of these giants and bellow out the first verse of How Great Thou Art. Why does science threaten religion now when people used to be able to discriminate between the two, just like Miss Minnesota?

I recently read with interest an article about faith-based schools in Ireland. One of the worries that the Church has with regard to a push towards non-denominational schools by our current Minister for Education is that religious belief is being seen as anti-intellectual, a barrier to educational progress. Perhaps the disgust felt by a generation determined to learn the lessons of clerical abuse is clouding the appreciation of the role ethos plays in education: these views have the effect of (to borrow someone else’s words) ‘mischaracterising religion as inherently or distinctly irrational, divisive, anti-intellectual and a constraint on the development of an individual’s full potential’. For me, working as I do in a Jesuit institution, nothing could be further from the truth. Students are encouraged to develop critical thought and to make value judgements of their own, sometimes at odds with the strict doctrinal line of the denomination supporting the institution. As long as they’re considered, mature and reflective, opinions are respected. The American model, based on the extreme position of some church groups to curricular issues, suggests that the Church offers nothing but interference, a very sad characterisation indeed. When the age-old story of the Texas Board of Education (which approves content for its state schools and, as the largest market in the US, consequently influences curriculum throughout the state system[1]) resurfaces as it did last year, it again posits education as the enemy of religion. To some, that suggests that education threatens our values; to others it suggests that religion likes to keep its followers in the intellectual dark. Nobody wins and, in the vast majority of cases, it’s not accurate anyway.

Anyway, here’s a truly tremendous post from a man so talented he couldn’t have been put here by accident and is consequently proof of the abiding love of a Supreme Being: British artist Darryl Cunningham explains in a comic strip the broad theories of evolution and natural selection. Why can’t this be seen in wonder as evidence of an even more carefully-considered creation? It’s plausible, no?

[1] Although apparently the iPad’s use in State schools has reduced the Texan influence: now content can be changed much more easily in states not controlled by seven mad people. Hurrah for technology.

Frankfurt’s Zoom Club, October 13 1972. It seems to be a small venue, with glasses clinking and people talking, but after about two and a half minutes the audience either shuts up or is too dwarfed by the ascending fury of Lark’s Tongues in Aspic part 1 to matter anymore. What had begun with a circular guitar pattern many seem to have mistaken for tuning up turns into an instrumental that is at turns syncopated nearly to funk and furious banging with ornamentation from Bill Bruford’s overspilling tom-toms.

This is the astounding public debut of a new King Crimson lineup, the previous band having disintegrated the previous April. This Frankfurt show is impressive for its courage, containing as it does Zoom and Zoom Zoom, two huge pieces of improvised music, not to mention the new Larks’ Tongues pieceswhich were  yet to be rounded off and recorded for the album of that name. When Spinal Tap couldn’t cover a concert’s worth of Nigel songs we got Jazz Odyssey; when Robert Fripp breaks in a new band we get this, and this is no Jazz Odyssey.

In the absence of the sort of caveat that would seem only fair on the sleeve of a live document like this (although admittedly the limited availability of these releases ensures that the buyer has already committed to their limitations), it should be pointed out that this is a bootleg-standard recording. Not as abysmal as the 1969 Marquee release, but certainly not the clear-cut precision offered by Stephen Wilson et al’s excellent job remastering studio work from the early days of Crimson. It’s sometimes difficult to differentiate between violin and guitar, for example, and although the Mellotron isn’t really at the core of much of this anyway, it’s hard to spot. The two drummers are  easier to discern, more to do with their style than the sound quality.

Jamie Muir is a man described in hushed tones even by Fripp, who conceded that it was difficult to play with him however exhilarating it might have been. Muir reflected in 1991-2 that

Fripp was definitely the boss, there’s no question about it. And that was fine, he seemed to me to be a very good band leader. I think I was a wee bit too much for him, simply because I was so involved in improvisation. He was very much concerned with logic and function, he always worked his solos out before playing them. He had very fastidious and tight sort of habits.

Muir stayed with the band for under a year before decamping, as you do, to a Tibetan monastery in Scotland[1]. While he was in the band he offered a range of percussion not at all confined to stitting with one’s back straight and counting. At times you hear him splashing around on cymbals where Bruford favours toms (Bruford eventually took the cymbals out of his kit, but not for a while yet). At the end of the plaintive Book of Saturdays he signals an ‘All Change!’ with the shrill of a police whistle as the band embark on the wild ride of Zoom. Almost immediately it’s a flurry of floor toms as the drummers fill in in answer to the theme every couple of bars. Things slow down and a funky Fripp riff emerges, the drummers getting out of the way until the crashing starts again. Bruford’s metronomic work allows the space into which Muir smacks at his array of cymbals and chimes. Less appealingly, there also features some scat singing from bass player and vocalist John Wetton but it doesn’t dominate, overtaken at the 12 minute mark by a furious solo from Fripp. The last few minutes are relatively uneventful but feature a nice sustained tension from Wetton and Fripp.

A breather, then we’re into the longer of the improv’s on this set. Mellotron begins this, reminiscent of the calm before the storm towards the end of Supper’s Ready[2]. Here comes the bass solo,  filled out by some more floor tom flurries, rattling to abrupt halts à la Indiscipline. The band initially pulls in different directions, the bass thudding against an angular rhythm guitar that gradually replaces David Cross’s lyrical violin line. On 14 minutes a furious Fripp solo breaks out, sounding far more metallic than any music of this vintage has a right to. Two minutes later he’s noodling, a warm sound replacing the angularity, then the thing begins to build once more. It’s at times like this you can really hear the Larks’ Tounges music peeking through, almost out as far as Starless two years into the future. Even further: the guitar line developing from 27 mins. in could be an early incarnation of Thela Hun Gingeet, but probably isn’t.

Muir’s percussion begins to really separate itself from Bruford’s work as we go through this 44-minute piece. Not that Muir is doodling as Bruford does all the work; there are two drummers working hard here, the gracenotes from Muir’s cymbals, bells and whatever comes to hand allowing Bruford freedom to syncopate beneath. Look at the cover for a visual indication of what’s offered within: on the left are Wetton and Bruford, hunched together around Bruford’s tight, compact kit, while on the other side is Muir, stretching up to an array of cymbals and wearing what looks like some sort of sheepskin. As we hit the 38-minute mark things get a little more traditionally bluesy, before one final violin solo turns into an almighty flurry and we’re spent.

After that it’s admittedly difficult to settle down into the more orthadox sounds from disc 2. Easy Money is uninteresting apart from some nice guitar work, and even though I’m no fan of this lyric the murkiness of the vocals is annoying here. The Fallen Angel jam picks up steam nicely, though, rolling down into a spacey but mostly uneventful third improv, this time titled Z’Zoom. Exiles appears here for one of its first outings and, to be honest, sounds a little clunky, drifting off into The Talking Drum. Muir and Bruford come alive again here as the title would indicate, the urgency building to the final rage of Larks’s Tongues II.

However enthralling the music sounds now, it’s tempered by our knowledge of how it eventually turned out. But while there are moments where Wetton misses or the songs peter out the very knowledge that this was a band truly swinging without a net in their first outing makes this an astounding release for a fan of all things Crimson. And like the Mole’s Club set, you wish you were there to see it. The final word from Jamie Muir:

Well, the intention was, as I recall, to go somewhere small where there was no particular publicity so we could just feel how it was going to be playing together in front of an audience. And I think we actually just improvised the whole thing. I think Robert persuaded everybody that it would be a good idea that we should go an improvise. So we just went on and improvised from the start. And it was interesting. Robert’s somebody who tends to work things out quite a lot first of all. But he dived in and sort of went on. So that’s what we did. It was kind of interesting. It was good. It thought it was all right.

[1] There’s a nice interview with Muir, from which I’ve culled loads of bits, here on the Elephant Talk site.

[2] In fairness, every mellotron apart from Strawberry Fields Forever sounds like some part of Supper’s Ready.

When he plucks away in this minor key, as Keiji Haino does about 22 minutes into this 68 minute guitar, voice and noisy effects improvisation from 2006, it sounds like one of those little cyclical songs you hear in seventies horror movies, where they take a nursery rhyme and render it in a way that puts the heart crossways in you, sung as it is by a choir of demented little children who were Never Seen Again.

This album’s title, translated by the man himself, is Won’t Becomes Can’t.  This very solo improvisation with a minimum of fuss, in opposition to the clattering digital Theremins and devices that came to characterise his solo work over the last few years, begins with a circular strumming riff, sometimes, it seems, augmented by a chorus pedal or some more echo, maybe some digital delay, until some noises intrude on 21 minutes played over the same open strumming. Then things go quiet and there’s a high, plaintive vocal followed by some scary whispering. A contrapuntal development follows, this time definitely using some sort of delay. At 30 mins or so there’s a change as the guitar lines mount and the pace increases. Then we find a purer sound, feeding back as it’s sustained; you realise how loudly he’s playing, despite the fact that the volume at which you’re playing it might be quite restrained.

On 37 mins he’s back down to a squeaky, squally understatement. It’s easy to get things done with Haino’s solo stuff. It can loop around you, sometimes beaming down into your conscious mind when there’s a sudden change or a louder bit. For the most part it’s there to unfold quite slowly. But there’s times when you stop what you’re doing as the noise insists you do. His rattling noises dominate and you’re stuck there until he stops.

Towards the middle the vocal is very closely miked and he sounds a little rueful (although I can’t tell what on earth he’s actually singing about). The music undulates for another ten minutes and then gets very quiet indeed, very introspective. More surges and then a sweet little coda as we’re brought back to earth. He’s at his most threatening when he’s quiet, is Haino, and as he whispers right at the end of this the horror has abated, but only slightly.

Not the worst place to start, then, but more typical of solo works like Afffection or 2002’s excellent I Said This Is the Son of Nihilism than of the work Haino has done of late, and probably not as good as either.

El Bulli, the Spanish restaurant regarded as the best in the world, is no more. The Observer reported this week that it closed with a meal for fifty people consisting of fifty courses drawn from its many years of culinary genius, all devised by chef Ferran Adrià.

I’ve never eaten in El Bulli (no shit), although I, like many others, own a copy of the big heavy book that came out (A Day at El Bulli) so that people could drool in the privacy of their own homes over food they couldn’t possibly afford. Not for nothing has this type of book been described as a form of pornography: what your taste buds do when reading this is pretty much the same thing the other end of you does when you consult what is decorously known down our way as a one-handed website.

A big mofo–The Fat Duck Cookbook

My favourite such book is The Fat Duck Cookbook, a book that’s a great deal more imaginatively named than it first appears. It’s huge—I have the first hardback edition—a big mother of a thing that weighs a ton. It’s got some chat about chef Heston Blumenthal’s life and work, a section on the restaurant and the science behind it and an impossibly detailed set of recipes. Calling it a cookbook supposes that anyone will be able to secure the relevant trace elements and mass spectroscopy hardware needed to get any of this stuff out on a plate, so to continue the analogy to the more traditional type of pornography, it’s like reading about what turns Miss October on—like you’ll ever be given a chance to test this knowledge in the field, or in this case, on the beach at dusk after a screening of Pretty Woman, away from fake people and rudeness. Snail porridge may be a famous dish, but reading about its preparation makes you appreciate all the more the effort that went into it. We’ll never manage it, and most of us will never try. We might copy some of the techniques but we’ll never get to put them all together and charge people like the big chefs and porn stars do.

Similarly the details of the last meal at El Bulli read impossibly well—the thought of tucking into an air baguette makes my mouth water despite my almost total ignorance of what the hell an air baguette is[1]. Their website features a long list of principles and aphorisms titled ‘a synthesis of El Bulli cuisine’: here’s the first bullet point:

Cooking is a language through which all the following properties may be expressed: harmony, creativity, happiness, beauty, poetry, complexity, magic, humour, provocation and culture.

I’ve never been provoked by food—a woman once prodded me with a bag of chips so I have been provoked with food—but I’m willing to put myself in the hands of a chef who promises me poetry, complexity and magic. And there seemed to be quite a lot of this sort of thing on display that fateful night last week. Along with seven vintages of Dom Perignon (and if you supply even one I promise not to give a shit what sort of slop you serve up in the guise of food or philiosophy) there were several incomprehensibles, among which featured ‘parmesan frozen air with muesli’, ‘pine nuts shabu shabu’ and my personal favourite, ‘mimetic peanuts’. Not the sort of place for someone who can fake a nut allergy, then.

Heather sucks in the gut after a hectic evening at El Bulli.

This sort of food is bound to attract superlatives, not to mention the attentions of those people rich enough to jet into Roses, Spain for the privilege. Short on details of the guest list, the Observer reserved a little snipe for Hollywood bombshell Heather Graham who, having been taken by her millionaire producer beau to Spain, was seen at dinner (thankfully we are spared the details of her ingestion at the 50 course meal) decorously passing her food onto his plate and eating a strawberry kebab. Now notwithstanding the dream of a girl who’d be happy with a kebab when out on a date, I suppose this is yet another way of regarding the world of fine dining as pornography. What better way to indulge yourself than by doing so at a table with a woman your industry promotes as an ideal of some form of beauty but who is too paranoid to eat any of it? You can look but you’d better not touch, Heather. El Bulli’s tables have turned.

And finally in this fusion of food and porn, the Catalan News Agency reported last Saturday that the restaurant is opening again for a while next summer. The reason? Someone’s making a film about it. Let’s hope it’s tastefully done and Heather keeps her shirt on unless the menu specifically demands it.

Stop press: Heather spoke to reporters at the dinner, reports wwd.com, giving us a scoop almost designed for this post:
“In a cream-colored Donna Karan dress, Graham talked up her next film, an indie production co-starring James Franco called “Cherry.” The U.S. actress said, “I play a lesbian porno movie director.”
You can’t make this shit up.

[1] It’s explained in the Observer piece’s extensive and sycophantic gallery, but I’m still none the wiser, save that it features hollowed-out bread.

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