The silver apples of the Moon, the golden apples of the Sun*

On Wednesday 25th June, I compèred my first public event at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory: an evening of poems about the Sun and the Moon.

I'm writing a book and show called 'Sunspots', and when I learned that my friend and colleague Liane Strauss was working on a new pamphlet of poems about the Moon, I decided (moons ago) that these two heavenly bodies could make for a perfect night. 

It took quite a while for me, Liane and Lucie Green to find an evening that suited us all and in the end the night we picked was smack bang in the middle of the National Astronomy Meeting at Portsmouth, which meant some of the MSSL staff were away. But some of them drove back especially for the event, which was very touching.

As well as staff and students from the lab, I'm also delighted that several local residents made the trip up the hill for our show (including a local book club, I believe). We were also joined by the mother of a good friend of mine who lives near Horsham, and by my 10-year-old goddaughter who came from Sunningdale with her dad and two brothers.

For me it was a beautiful blend of colleagues, friends, family, and new faces.

Liane and I drove from Tower Bridge to the lab and arrived in time for Lucie to give Liane a tour of the beautiful grounds, and to fill her in on some history and recent projects.

Lucie Green and Liane Strauss

Lucie Green and Liane Strauss

By 7 o'clock, around 30 of us had assembled around the wine and cheese table, and it was time to draw the common room curtains against the beautiful evening light, and begin.

After a typically warm introduction from Lucie, I introduced Liane and she guided us through seven or eight of the poems that will feature in 'All the Ways You Still Remind Me of the Moon' (Paekakariki Press, 2014).

As she read, she also drew neat parallels between what poets 'do' and what scientists 'do'. Things like: we're all trying to work things out; we're looking to answer a question; we're trying to define some phenomena; we're trying to understand the nature of something that intrigues or troubles us.

Here is Liane doing some of those things in one of the Moon poems she read for us:

 

Krakatoa Moon

Until that time, which you say will not come,
When one of us, or both, or none accepts
That we don’t feel the way, or depth, or sum
Of what we want to feel, with few regrets;
Until that time when I see you pretend,
Or feel myself at odds with my own will,
Pronouncing words that palliate or send
The truth under the tread of love’s true wheel;
Until that time I’ll toe the lover’s line
And we will live like islands on a fault
Where tremors sing until they are a sign
Of your reproach for my backstabbing thought:
     For I’m the earth the tide the moon the sun
     And you will be destroyed by what I’ve done.

After the interval, I was delighted that Tom Kitching of MSSL read from his clever and accomplished sequence of poems about the multiverse, which he's been working on since February. I think this was the first time Tom has read his poems in public and for me, as poet in residence, that was a proud moment. I was just as delighted that Jack Carlyle also stood up to read one of his excellent haiku.

I rounded off the evening with some poems from 'Sunspots', including this one, which I've since turned into a song for my show (video link below).

 

Photon

Photon, get a move on.

a million years or more

pushing through the crowds,

from the core;

not sure I can wait eight minutes more

for you to speed through space

and hit my eye.

Penetrate me, little one,

see right through me,

screen your favourite movies

in my skull,

light my way from east to west.

My usherette.

 

To finish on something a little different, I screened the film of 'Photon', which you can watch here and, after a little more milling and swilling, I think everybody left in a happy mood. I know Liane and I had a happy drive back to London. I look forward to more events as the year continues. Thanks to everybody who came.

*From 'The Song of Wandering Aengus' by William Butler Yeats

What if There Were No ( x )?

For my first poetry session at the Mullard Space Science Lab, I thought discussing some poems by the astronomer/writer Rebecca Elson would create a kind of 'singularity' of relevance. What could be more pertinent to us, collectively, than a professional astronomer who also published poetry that was frequently about astronomy?

I first encountered the work of Rebecca Elson in 2001 when a friend suggested we go to see a memorial reading of poems from her Carcanet collection A Responsibility to Awe (1999) at The Troubadour in Earl's Court.

I couldn't resist the lure of an astronomer poet but 'a memorial reading'? How sad to hear of a new poet and their early death (at 39) at the same moment. The evening was revelatory and moving, and I've been reading and teaching Elson's poems ever since.

For the space lab 'seminar', I sent out half a dozen poems to the members of MSSL a week ahead of time. I went for some of the more obvious titles: 'We Astronomers', 'Dark Matter', 'Explaining Relativity' and 'What if There Were No Moon?' and invited anybody interested to join me in the common room. I had no idea if I would be left sitting on my own, or swamped by eager poetry fans.

Earlier in the day, in the same common room, I attended a seminar by Spiro Antiochos of NASA, an internationally recognised authority on solar and plasma physics. I also shared a car with him that morning but had no idea who he was till later. The theme of Spiro's presentation was 'The Role of Magnetic Reconnection in Solar Eruptions' and some of the best minds in solar physics were in attendance to hear his thoughts on the formation of solar filaments (also known as prominences) and the forces involved in their eruption.

The hard science, and the maths, were pitched way over the head of this poet, but as I understand it magnetic reconnection describes the way in which energy stored in a magnetic field is converted, sometimes explosively, into heat and kinetic release. It's fabulously more complex than this, of course.

Giant_prominence_on_the_sun_erupted (1024x576).jpg

In any case, it was thrilling to be on the periphery of the discussion and to hear new (to me) terms and concepts like magnetic islands, plasmoids, magnetic null points and bipolar arcades. If nothing else, as a writer, I took away a lot of suggestive and intriguing language.

It took a certain amount of courage (or plain front) to sit among the scientists at Spiro's seminar and try to look like I was meant to be there. I was also a little intimidated by the thought that just a few hours later I would be hosting a meeting in the very same space about Rebecca Elson's poetry.

But I realised that perhaps it would also be tricky for some of the staff and students to attend my poetry meeting and I did receive a few concerned enquiries about being compelled to read poetry aloud or being put on the spot to offer opinions and analyses of poems.

The aim of the session was to create a friendly, inclusive atmosphere in which we could simply read and reflect upon the poems, paying attention to Elson's choice of subject matter, titles, word choices, layout, rhythm, punctuation, etc: anything that struck us as noteworthy, whether good or not so good. Contributions were welcome but so was sitting quietly, listening, and thinking.

About a dozen staff and students showed up and over the course of 50 minutes we looked at four of Elson's poems, each of which prompted fascinating discussions about symbolism, ambiguity, how the layout of a poem reflects its ostensible 'subject', how certain immediate 'meanings' were undercut by a second reading, and what the poems implied about the role of scientists and astronomers.

In 'We Astronomers', Elson begins:

We astronomers are nomads,

Merchants, circus people,

All the earth our tent.

 

We are industrious.

We breed enthusiasms,

Honour our responsibility to awe.

and while the 'we' refers to all people (maybe all sentient beings), discussing the poem in the context of MSSL threw up many interesting discussions about the demands on astronomers to travel, to teach, to move from institution to institution, often in pursuit of funding. And all the time needing to honour their responsibility to awe. Is this responsibility a simple thing, a natural thing, or can it become a burden, an excuse for others not to honour their responsibility?

We discussed 'Dark Matter', a brief 14 word poem of 22 syllables:

Above a pond,

An unseen filament

Of spider's floss

Suspends a slowly

Spinning leaf.

and how its layout on the page (basically the top left-hand, leaving the vast majority of the page blank) said as much about the 'subject' of the poem as the words did. Elson studied dark matter as an astronomer but the title clearly alludes to things beyond the scope of her research. 

Why this pond? We asked. To give the poem some kind of scale, or backdrop: to create suspense, a ground of meaning over which this ambiguous leaf can spin.

We talked of the poem's sound patterns: all those 'O's and all those 'S' sounds that make this particular poem such a silent experience in comparison to the explosive opening of 'Explaining Relativity':

Forget the clatter of ballistics,

The monologue of falling stones,

The sharp vectors

And the stiff numbered grids.

So, in Spiro's seminar we discussed filaments and explosive force, and in the afternoon we discussed very similar things in relation to poetry. I was lucky enough to take the car and the train back to London with Spiro: my day was bookended by him.

At the end of the session, I set an assignment to write a new piece, after one of the poems we looked at, called 'What if There Were No (x)?',  where the x is a concept or object chosen by the poet. So far I've received some interesting drafts replacing the x with 'Contact', 'Stars', 'No Clear Skies', and others. I might write one myself called What if There Were No 'No'.

 

 

 

 

Tromsø and Sø Øn

In January, as part of my Sunspots research, I travelled to Tromsø in Norway to experience a week without the Sun. The follow-up article I wrote has just been published online in Pages Of magazine. Among other things it deals with northern lights-envy, knitwear, poetry, polar bears and beer halls.

Some pictures from the space lab

The Mullard Space Science Lab is crammed with all manner of space paraphernalia and technical equipment, and nitrogen tanks, and bits of rocket, as you might expect. But I wanted to share some photos of the building and the grounds and the other day it happened to stop raining for a while.

So this entry is more of a gallery than a blog. Click on a picture to see the next one.


Someone left the space lab cake out in the rain...

So far, each time I've been to the Mullard Space Science Lab it has been pouring down with rain and there has been cake. Scientists, engineers, and PhD students are partial to tea and cake around 3 p.m. it seems.

On Wednesday January 29th, myself and Lucie Green launched our 'poet in residence' project. Staff and students at the lab number around 160 and they're often away on teaching and research assignments, so we were delighted to see around 50 of them in the common room. The lure of cake and, of course, poetry, is strong. And it's good to be indoors in this rainy part of Surrey.

Lucie and I spoke about our aims and intentions for the year and I read my poem Saturn on Seventh, which was the first 'astronomical' poem I ever published, but it was the conversations which followed that really excited me.

While it was all a bit of a blur, with lots of new faces and names from many different departments and parts of the world (the lab is a vibrantly international place to work and study), many fascinating themes emerged from the proximity of science and poetry.

Do terms like 'dark matter' and 'dark energy' have a subliminally melancholic effect on those studying them? Would we be a little happier if we used different, 'lighter' terms?

Isn't it interesting how, when trying to get to grips with extraterrestrial phenomena, we use terrestrial metaphors, like 'Sunquakes' and plasma 'islands'? What would it mean to create extraterrestrial terms and metaphors?

What would happen to the content, style, and meaning of a scientific paper if we rewrote it as a Shakespearean sonnet? Would it be a wrecked and useless hull or a new work of art with something unexpected to offer?

What kinds of poems could we create by performing 'cut-ups' on scientific articles, or redacting words and passages to see the poetry peeping beneath?

We'll be exploring these ideas and methods over the course of the year starting with a discussion group on the poetry of astronomer Rebecca Elson. More on that later.

One of the most amusing chats I had was with an astrophysicist who teased me about my focus on Sunspots: that it's too limited, that the Sun is just a tiny speck in the whole cosmos and I should write about all these other things instead.

Of course he's right, but the great thing about about the Sun is that it enables you to write about anything and everything if you take the right approach.

The Color of Money: Grady Seasons

Scorsese's hugely underrated 'The Color of Money' is on BBC One right now. I'm reminded of when my friend Beril challenged me and Luke Heeley to write poems about the sleazy bit-part hustler Grady Seasons, who's on screen for a few minutes only but leaves a memorable smear. Our prize was dinner at Beril's. This is my poem, published in my book, Neptune Blue.

 

Grady Seasons

It’s grady season,

the night snakes into sheer bri-nylon,

static sparks from pits, and nipples

redden from the friction.

 

It’s grady season,

the day wriggles into tight tan slacks,

gets sweaty round the crotch,

makes a buckle of the Sun.

 

It’s grady season,

the rain slants down like pool cues

or the cues slant down like rain,

in any case

 

it’s grady season,

and wood bees pollinate

a million billiard orchids

with blue chalk dust

 

as the gods rack up

a diamond of misfortune

for you to cut your teeth upon

during grady season,

 

season of fists and sallow hopelessness,

close-fitting bosoms

round the ring-stained tables

and the cue tip-ripped-up-baize.

 

It’s grady season.

If you didn’t sink your nine-ball

as you breached your mother’s

birth wall you’re rolling

 

round the small towns,

the pool halls, the cheap highs,

the comedowns, the dives

of grady season,

 

the three score years and ten

of it before the axis tips you

in the ditch, life’s a bitch,

the balls roll funny for everyone, sonny.

 

It’s like a nightmare, isn’t it?

The halls decay, the halls decay and fall

and that’s not all, it’s grady season:

on the snap, go for broke, don’t choke.

 

The Color of Money on IMDb

 

New residency at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory

I have just begun a one-year stint as poet in residence at UCL's Surrey-based Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL for short). This is my first big new (ad)venture in a while and I'm tinglier than 'Space Dust Alka-Seltzer', if there were such a thing.

It all began in March 2013 when I read at The Purcell Room as part of 'Notes from the Universe' along with Public Astronomer Marek Kukula and the artist Honor Harger.

Actually, it began a lot longer ago than that.

It began with the dark skies over West Yorkshire when I was a boy; lavishly illustrated books on cosmology in the school library; Carl Sagan's 'Cosmos' and 'The Sky at Night' on television; and a modest but much loved telescope my parents bought me one Christmas.

I was fascinated by astronomy but had no idea that one could become an astronomer, so I focused on my other great love: literature. Over the years and the publications, I started to write more around astronomy and physics and cosmology, with a little knowledge and lashings of poetic licence.

The planet poems in 'Neptune Blue' led to my new ongoing project, 'Sunspots', and eventually to an invitation to talk at the Purcell Room as part of the 'Light Show' programme at the South Bank.

After the event I spoke with Marek about meeting some actual solar scientists and he suggested I contact the eminent astronomer and TV presenter Dr. Lucie Green, who invited me to visit MSSL.

The delightfully stately exterior of the Mullard Space Science Lab

The delightfully stately exterior of the Mullard Space Science Lab

At first, I thought a relationship with the lab would be good for my solar book but I soon realised that there is far more to explore in the lab than I expected. As well as the 'solar group', there is the 'plasma group', the 'astrophysics group', the 'climate group', the 'cryogenics' group and several other areas and specialisms.

There is also the history of the building itself, its people, the projects they're involved with and the fascinating objects and displays dotted throughout the lab. When I saw a gamma-ray detector that had been in space being used as a paperweight, I knew I wanted to write about the place and the people. What an incredible place to work! And I felt strangely at home, even if only to make the tea.

So Lucie and I began planning for a wider ranging 'residency' which would consider all aspects of the lab, its staff and their work, and which would involve events, workshops, discussion groups, some public interaction and some schools work. 

I have two broad goals: to write a new 'poetic inventory' of the lab (more exciting title to be defined) and to edit an anthology of writing by MSSL staff and perhaps visitors. In pursuit of these goals I'm going to orbit and haunt the lab, sowing seeds of poetry through various events, meetings, and interventions.

I'll be blogging regularly about the experience and inviting you to some events. My next piece will be about my first visit last Wednesday, when I officially introduced myself and met many brilliant scientists and researchers over tea and cake.

If you would like another view, Lucie Green has also blogged about the project here.

The residency is supported by the Science & Technology Facilities Council. 

Hiroshima & Nagasaki & Tsutomu Yamaguchi

August 6th and August 9th: Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tsutomu Yamaguchi was caught up in both horrific events. In Hiroshima on business on the 6th, he returned to Nagasaki for the 9th, already carrying injuries from the first bomb. A remarkable tale and a remarkable man.  In January 2010, BBC 3's 'The Verb' programme commissioned me to write about Tsutomu.  

 

In Memoriam Tsutomu Yamaguchi (1916–2010)

A man whom both the waters and the wind,

In that vast tennis-court, have made the ball

For them to play upon — Pericles


General Groves smacked balls around the court

to stop the thought recurring: will it work?

Tibbets badged his plane with his mother’s name,

the superego’s superfortress cradling its Little Boy

and Oppie’s heart was plucked out by the God of Trinity

who battered it and burnished it and pinned it to his breast.

 

And all the while the hibakusha waited

for the flash of maths so recondite it passed

right through their understanding, lodging in the marrow

where it ran down every body clock to nought.

 

But Yamaguchi-san, the luckiest of luckless men,

sidestepped it all despite the ticket in his hand

that took him from Ground Zero to Ground Zero,

moving through the crowds of citizens

who gathered up their skins and draped their limbs

like silent senators in togas of themselves,

and swaddled in twelve years of bandages,

he lived two times to tell the tale.

 

From Neptune Blue and Bonjour Tetris 

It's Me, O Lord

...standing in the need of prayer. Well it felt that way in the warm-up room of Jacques Samuel Pianos on Edgware Road. I was there last Tuesday afternoon for my ABRSM jazz trumpet grade one exam. It's been a very musical week, starting with 'Simoraine' and ending on my music teacher's recital at The Guildhall School of Music. In-between, my music exam lay in wait, like one of the crocodiles in Live and Let Die.

I felt like I'd breezed through my mock exam on the Monday and I was feeling confident the next day. I did, however, wear my lucky green fox socks and my wooden Italian 'angelo custode': I get a bit superstitious in times of stress or desire.

Although I played quite a lot of music as a child, mainly in Lockwood Junior Brass Band, I managed to dodge music exams. Having prepared well, I expected my first official exam to be reasonably straightforward, and I had only the normal and necessary nerves one needs before any kind of performance.

As I entered the piano shop, my nerves became a little keener. The tuning slide of my anxiety was slowly pulled out, making everything sharper. I imagined a world in which dentists work out of the basements of piano shops.

There's something about piano keys and teeth. In Dario Argento's Profondo Rosso, David Hemmings's character jokes about hitting his piano keys being like bashing his father's teeth out (someone's teeth are indeed bashed out later in the film).

Anyway, downstairs to the 'music dentist' I go where there is both a waiting room and a warm-up room.  The waiting room looks something like a creche, full as it is with young children and anxious parents.

After filling out a few details and the list of my three musical pieces ('It's Me, O Lord', 'Moonglow' and 'Jungle Bit') I'm shown to the warm-up room. 

My trumpet with its doppelgänger and a worryingly symbolic waste paper bin.

My trumpet with its doppelgänger and a worryingly symbolic waste paper bin.

Mirrors are a staple of horror films and music rooms (music and horror again!) and on being called in for my exam I managed to ding the bell of my trumpet against this one. No dent, though, and no seven years bad luck.

In my piece on 'Simoraine' I described how the tuba players seemed to be kept alive by their instruments, a bit like John Hurt and the face-hugger in Alien. A neat analogy perhaps but it didn't prepare for me the next 12 minutes in which I felt I was being drowned with only this coil of brass to breathe through.

I suddenly felt eight years old again and panic obliterated my memory of what on earth 'Dorian on A' and 'F major to a fifth' mean. I filleted my first scale and added some interesting new notes, but I was generously allowed to play it again (I think they allow for nerves on your first short test).  

After my scales I went for my three prepared pieces and solos with wanton gusto because by now I almost felt I'd failed the exam (in the way you always know when you've failed your driving exam: usually because the instructor has slammed on the dual brakes). Thankfully, in a music exam there's no such thing as a 'dual trumpet' into which the examiner can blow when you clam a note. 

My clapping was okay, my singing was fine, but my sight reading test was a write-off. Not only had I forgotten how to get a B-flat out of my trumpet, but my trumpet swore it had never heard of this note 'B': flat or otherwise.

Mercifully, these exams are quite short and I was soon thrown back onto the beach, still breathing, still alive, clinging to my brassy life-preserver. I felt disappointed, a little battered, and a little dented, as some of the simplest elements had turned out to be the trickiest. 

Back in the shop, putting my trumpet back in its case and gathering my bits of paper and music, I heard a man's voice ask me, "So how did it go?" I didn't look up. "Not as well as I'd hoped." "Oh. How was the teacher? Was he nice?" "He was neither nice nor unpleasant, he was kind of neutral." "Ah." 

At that point I did look up and saw a youthful father, casually dressed, smiling, and holding the hand of his daughter who was clutching an alto sax almost as tall as she was. She was wide-eyed with nerves.

I realised I should have said something more encouraging to help the girl with her nerves, but I didn't know she was there. Of course, it's unwise to expect someone who's just taken a potentially catastrophic exam to provide upbeat cues and tips for your child, but I hope that little girl had a great exam and came out invigorated and proud of herself.   

As for me, in 12 minutes I had gone from dreaming of a Distinction to praying for a Pass. You learn a lot about yourself in these exams. I heard last Friday that I got a Distinction after all. Shows how much I know. Press on with gusto.

 

Byron's 'Darkness' and the Summer of No Sun

[Given the Sun's reluctance to appear this year, I thought it was a good time to revive a piece I wrote for Birkbeck College's splendid Writer's Hub. This article first appeared there in June 2012.]

Among other things, I’m writing 121 poems about the Sun, and Byron’s pitch-black meditation feels like the reverse of my star struck project. Or perhaps its inky lining. I‘ve struggled a little with Byron over the years but this poem, this dark matter, immediately gripped me.

It’s an epic disquisition upon sunless desolation. A long, elaborate accumulation of ‘less-ness’ dispatched in five long bravura sentences (six sentences in all when you count the short opening line: “I had a dream, which was not all a dream.”)

The matter of this half-dream is that “the bright sun was extinguish’d” and what follows is a tour de force of focused negativity and despairing detail. The withering suffix “—less” returns again and again to depopulate and pick clean the Universe, like a piranha: “Rayless”, “pathless”, “moonless”, “useless”, “stingless”, building towards the remorseless funeral cortege of trochaic falls:

          Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless —

By this late stage of the poem you have entered a world far more wretched than that glimpsed by Coleridge’s accursed mariner. Rather has this world enclosed you in suffocating gloom:

                                        The world was void,

          The populous and powerful was a lump,

          Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless —

          A lump of death—a chaos of hard clay.

          The rivers, lakes and ocean all stood still,

          And nothing stirr’d within their silent depths;

          Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea,

Whatever else was going on in the life and mind of Byron, we know that 1816 was called ‘the year without a summer’ as temperatures and levels of sunlight plummeted across Europe and America. The culprit? Mount Tambora in the East Indies erupting and filling the atmosphere with volcanic ash. Much like the wonderfully named Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 (our recent ‘spring without air travel’).

So perhaps this is, among other things, a poem about globalisation: how an event in some distant place on the globe can affect everyone and everything. Around this time, interest in the fossil record and the emergence of palaeontology were further undermining theories of creation and our sense of species-security.

          Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day,

          And men forgot their passions in the dread

          Of this their desolation; and all hearts

          Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light:

And deprived of light, humankind has no nobility to fall back upon. Instead it falls into despair, paranoia, bloodlust and perhaps cannibalism: “The meagre by the meagre were devour’d”. 

But this is just to hint at the narrative details of the poem; listen to its sounds instead:

          They fell and faded—and the crackling trunks

          Extinguish’d with a crash—and all was black.

The whole of nature is cowed and corrupted and all creatures (this is a great poem of levelling) are accursed and stripped of their former prowess:

                                        the wild birds shriek’d

          And, terrified, did flutter on the ground,

          And flap their useless wings; the wildest brutes

          Came tame and tremulous; and vipers crawl’d

          And twin’d themselves among the multitude,

          Hissing, but stingless—they were slain for food.

I’ve no idea if Byron was familiar with Erasmus Darwin’s recently published Zoonomia but there’s something in the poem of Darwin’s theory of the three desires of every organism: “lust, hunger, and security”. There’s a base materialism in this poem and no religious redemption to be found. It recycles elements of The Book of Revelation but whereas that crazy book offers a ‘New Jerusalem’ and 1000 years of peace, this is what Byron offers:

          And War, which for a moment was no more,

          Did glut himself again: a meal was bought

          With blood, and each sate sullenly apart

          Gorging himself with gloom; no love was left;

          All earth was but one thought—and that was death

          Immediate and inglorious;

In 1816, the Sun was little understood. We didn’t know how old it was or how it generated its phenomenal power or how long it would last. We now know it’s in fine middle age and has another 4.5 billion years or so of fuel left. Surely not knowing these things about the Sun made its existence more precarious.  Although it still will not avoid a portion of the terrible fate that Byron dwells upon.

While it teeters on the brink of near-comical hyperbole, this poem sends my thoughts in two opposite temporal directions. Back to Milton’s overwhelming, distraught passages on blindness in ‘Samson Agonistes’ and forwards to the purported ‘heat death of the Universe’, when all thermodynamic energy will be depleted and Byron’s darkness will descend:

          The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,

          The moon, their mistress, had expir’d before;

          The winds were wither’d in the stagnant air,

          And the clouds perish’d; Darkness had no need

          Of aid from them—She was the Universe.

Ultimately, for me the poem conjures up not despair but delight and enormous relief that another day has dawned and that we’re living in the creative prime of the Universe, for now.

Darkness

by Lord Byron (George Gordon)

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.

The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars

Did wander darkling in the eternal space,

Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth

Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;

Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day,

And men forgot their passions in the dread

Of this their desolation; and all hearts

Were chill'd into a selfish prayer for light:

And they did live by watchfires—and the thrones,

The palaces of crowned kings—the huts,

The habitations of all things which dwell,

Were burnt for beacons; cities were consum'd,

And men were gather'd round their blazing homes

To look once more into each other's face;

Happy were those who dwelt within the eye

Of the volcanos, and their mountain-torch:

A fearful hope was all the world contain'd;

Forests were set on fire—but hour by hour

They fell and faded—and the crackling trunks

Extinguish'd with a crash—and all was black.

The brows of men by the despairing light

Wore an unearthly aspect, as by fits

The flashes fell upon them; some lay down

And hid their eyes and wept; and some did rest

Their chins upon their clenched hands, and smil'd;

And others hurried to and fro, and fed

Their funeral piles with fuel, and look'd up

With mad disquietude on the dull sky,

The pall of a past world; and then again

With curses cast them down upon the dust,

And gnash'd their teeth and howl'd: the wild birds shriek'd

And, terrified, did flutter on the ground,

And flap their useless wings; the wildest brutes

Came tame and tremulous; and vipers crawl'd

And twin'd themselves among the multitude,

Hissing, but stingless—they were slain for food.

And War, which for a moment was no more,

Did glut himself again: a meal was bought

With blood, and each sate sullenly apart

Gorging himself in gloom: no love was left;

All earth was but one thought—and that was death

Immediate and inglorious; and the pang

Of famine fed upon all entrails—men

Died, and their bones were tombless as their flesh;

The meagre by the meagre were devour'd,

Even dogs assail'd their masters, all save one,

And he was faithful to a corse, and kept

The birds and beasts and famish'd men at bay,

Till hunger clung them, or the dropping dead

Lur'd their lank jaws; himself sought out no food,

But with a piteous and perpetual moan,

And a quick desolate cry, licking the hand

Which answer'd not with a caress—he died.

The crowd was famish'd by degrees; but two

Of an enormous city did survive,

And they were enemies: they met beside

The dying embers of an altar-place

Where had been heap'd a mass of holy things

For an unholy usage; they rak'd up,

And shivering scrap'd with their cold skeleton hands

The feeble ashes, and their feeble breath

Blew for a little life, and made a flame

Which was a mockery; then they lifted up

Their eyes as it grew lighter, and beheld

Each other's aspects—saw, and shriek'd, and died—

Even of their mutual hideousness they died,

Unknowing who he was upon whose brow

Famine had written Fiend. The world was void,

The populous and the powerful was a lump,

Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless—

A lump of death—a chaos of hard clay.

The rivers, lakes and ocean all stood still,

And nothing stirr'd within their silent depths;

Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea,

And their masts fell down piecemeal: as they dropp'd

They slept on the abyss without a surge—

The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,

The moon, their mistress, had expir'd before;

The winds were wither'd in the stagnant air,

And the clouds perish'd; Darkness had no need

Of aid from them—She was the Universe.

 

Remembering 'Simoraine'

Every Father's Day I think about funeral music, a theme that's played through my mind ever since October 1997, when I heard the pieces that my musician father, Clive Barraclough, had selected for his final 'appearance'.

That bright and brittle day a water main burst in the centre of Huddersfield and the funeral cars were diverted through the vertiginous village of Scapegoat Hill. Unplanned, we drove past dad's first home, first school, and the practice rooms of his first brass band. Dad joined Scapegoat Hill Brass Band as a small but precocious nine-year-old, already good enough to play baritone horn with the grownups.

Most of Dad’s family were musical. My grandma worked as a mender in the slowly failing textiles industry but also gave piano lessons in an effort to “see both sides of the coin”, as thrifty living was known. In his teens, Dad joined the Coldstream Guards, got to see a fair chunk of the world, and played at various state ceremonies including The Changing of the Guard.

My childhood home was full of records. My sister Lorraine and I worked our way through Dad’s eclectic collection, devising our own ‘sitting room ballets’ to Holst’s Mars or Stravinksy’s The Rite of Spring. Our choreography was fairly rough: these performances didn’t make me want to become a dancer or conductor; they made me want to become a Hollywood stunt man.

For various lamentable reasons, I hadn’t seen Dad very often over the previous 15 years and his sudden death was a jarring chord in the background music of our lives. I wasn’t sure I should even be at the funeral. I felt I hadn’t tried hard enough to patch things up, despite our recent letters.

As he lay there in the chapel, my sister kissed him on the cheek and I fought my emotional paralysis to touch his hands, crossed upon his rather dapper waistcoat. At that moment I would have loved him to fire some sarcastic quip at me but later on in the service, his musical choices spoke eloquently enough.

The first piece to seep out of the chapel’s modest speakers was the slow, honeyed intermezzo from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. My uncle tells me this is a family favourite, although I know it best from Raging Bull and the poignant super-8 flashbacks that conjure Jake La Motta’s brief golden years.

If his first choice moved me, the second piece struck me like a blow from La Motta. Two and a half minutes of rousing, restless brass band music, weaving in a couple of muted melodic passages and sprinting towards a triumphant ending.

I had almost forgotten this great march. Simoraine was named after me and my sister Lorraine and is the most successful of my Dad’s compositions. Where Cavalleria Rusticana is good for a montage of memories for somebody I never knew, Simoraine provides the score to a series of short films about children, parents and music that are always playing somewhere in my mind’s multiplex.

In one, I creep towards the closed door of Dad’s composing room. I can just about hear the scratching of metal nib on paper lined with orderly staves, the lines hand-rolled with a special tool dipped in black India ink. The ink jar seems to swallow light, the liquid within sticky as coagulating blood. To knock this jar over would be a capital crime. I want the door to open.

The awfulness of bedtime approaches. The hinge of the bureau creaks and the wooden desk lid snaps shut. Sometimes he emerges with a smile of progress, sometimes an angry and exhausted frown. Composing is like that. Writing music by hand used to be called “dry nacking”, a term that rings of the knacker’s yard. There’s no need for it these days, it’s all done with software.

One evening the dog goes barmy when a journalist and photographer arrive from The Huddersfield Examiner. They’re here to take Dad’s photo and talk to him about this new march, which has already won first prize in four local competitions. Dad wears a tight-fitting beige sweater. He’s still young and lean, about 30, a sparkle of ambition in his eye, a keen edge to the planes of his face.

The photographer insists on a rather clichéd pose, at his writing desk, gazing into the middle distance, quill touching his lip. This picture is framed and graces the mantelpiece in our home and his future homes.

What prompted him to take up composing, they ask? He says he “just wanted to give it a go” and “hopes to do it professionally”. This piece does make him a little money. It’s embraced by bands around the world and is recorded by one of the giants of the county, The Black Dyke Mills Band.

The first time I encounter Lockwood Band, where Dad was principal euphonium, I find the bandsmen splendid in their livery; piped and braided and smart as tightly skinned snare drums. They open musty, velvet-lined cases and slot their instruments together with the precision of cinema hit men: sliding out pistons, oiling valves with spit, slipping them back into their chambers and loosening up the keys with lightning fast fingers. They could do all this blindfold and be ready for the conductor’s baton taps in 30 seconds flat.

The double bass players are especially awesome: Atlases, the foundations of each musical edifice. The muscular curves of the mighty bass horns curl like constrictors, limbs and tubes intertwine and mouthpieces meld with lips. In full flight, they seem inseparable, an alloy of copper, zinc and flesh. The instruments might be keeping the players alive, providing them with oxygen in return for music.

Soon enough, Dad wants me to play too, and an ancient B-flat cornet is procured from some member of the ranks. It’s so old that its leather case is as limp as chicken skin but I like the beautiful engravings on the bell. At the other end, the mouthpiece is pinched and bitter and strangles my attempted notes at birth.

I join Lockwood Junior Band and sometimes I play second or even first cornet, but I’m happiest plodding along with the third cornet parts. I’m uneasy in the band, can’t keep time with the jokes and the antics of the other boys. I envy the way they seem to breeze through the sheet music.

But watching Dad in his element was a joy. Although afflicted by nerves, he was a tremendous soloist, composer and arranger. He formed a small ensemble called The Brass Monkeys and arranged pop songs and standards, filling many a club and gathering a loyal fan base. He continued to compose but the newspaper clippings and royalty cheques thinned out over time.

Simoraine is still played around the world by school, amateur and professional bands. A friend says he “likes the way it moves from Star Wars to the Hovis theme tune in the space of a few bars”. Another thinks it has the prototype “loud-quiet-loud” structure of a Pixies song.

There are several videos of Simoraine on Youtube and in one, filmed at the annual Whit Friday Contest, the camcorder pans around to the audience as the march draws to its climax. Dad would have been delighted to see the smiles on their faces and hear the wave of applause that meets the final note.

Funny how you never shake off these early inspirations, early fears, early challenges: this week I'm taking a trumpet exam. Jazz. Perhaps my first music exam ever (I think I managed to dodge them through school). Today I'll think of dad as I tackle my improvised solos for 'Moonglow' and 'It's Me O Lord', but I'll have 'Simoraine' in mind as well.

To hear 'Simoraine', click below.

 

[A version of this piece was first broadcast, with music, on BBC Radio 3's The Verb on October 24th 2008] 

 

New blog

A few years ago I had a blog called 'Fallout'. We fell out. This is going to be the new blog. Life, literature, culture, my struggles playing the trumpet, which I took up last summer.