christopher james

Poems and prattle

Month: May, 2012

The world according to Noah

This is the latest update on the four year old wit and wisdom of my son, Noah.

‘Dad,’ he informed me the other morning, ‘I left my Ben 10 watch on the compiano, but it is not there anymore.’  This is, presumably, a poetic mix of computer and piano, which I’m sure Casio would love to trade mark for their digital keyboards.

Later on, we were looking at his dinosaur book together. ‘If I look at that Stegasaurus very hard,’ he said, ‘Ican see his skelebone.’

Finally, sitting down to dinner he glanced at his dinner before making a solemn announcement to the family:

‘Chillis are called chillis because chillies are chilly.’



Weird and wonderful wood

To the Weird and Wonderful Wood festival at Haughton Hall in deepest darkest Suffolk. A tribal gathering for all wood-ish folk, there were wood turners, instrument makers, carpenters, arts and craft people and lots of wigwams, it was a blissful day out – a sort of music festival without the music. Presumably it was only unable to call itself Woodstock for legal reasons.

The children soon got into the spirit of things; Noah, 4, and friend, made an impressive fish from water softened willow, with a little help from Dad.  He was keen to move into the scrap wood area where fathers, sons and daughters were busy hammering their thumbs and driving long splinters into their palms. Noah walked away with an impressive coat rack which he devised himself, with four nasty nails sticking out the other side. He also created a sort of modern art sculpture consisting of three blocks of wood secured with a single nail. He is still sleeping with this artefact.

The street performers are also coming back into season – a waitress on stilts wheeled a ten foot hostess trolley through the crowds, executing a death defying sprint down a steep hill; two identical  park wardens tut-tutted their way around the park pretending to look for heath and safety hazards, while alarmingly, two trees roamed about, which thoroughly terrified two year old Martha.

Perhaps most impressive were the crafts-men and -women demonstrating their skills; a long haired, giant of a man chopped and hewed a log with an axe before a crowd of transfixed onlookers. It was the most unusual form of entertainment, but entertaining none the less – we simply don’t see this work being done. Chairs appear in Ikea and we take them home. There was also the obvious truth that something created with love, care and attention by skilled folk is going to be a) more beautiful b) last much longer.

It was marvellous not only to be outside when it wasn’t raining, but to connect with a simpler way of life. The final memory was of those returning to the muddy field where we parked our cars trying to bundle giant wood sculptures and tables made from tree trunks, into their boots – only to find them too large. So just like a trip to Ikea after all.

State of the Union live – Haverhill, 4 May 2012

On paper, Boo Hewerdine and Brooks Williams appear to have little in common. Boo, a quintessential English singer songwriter, is famed for a proper burst of eighties’ stardom as front man of The Bible (you’ll know Graceland – the one that isn’t anything to do with the Mississippi Delta). He is now well on the road to national treasure status, having penned hits for Eddi Reader (The Patience of Angels) and with Chris Difford (on his fine set, The Last Temptation of Chris). He has also been notching up brilliant albums of his own – most notably God Bless the Pretty Ones, where tuneful, heartfelt fare like Geography and Muddy Water are grown up songs about life on the road, wondering if this indeed is any job for a grown up.

Perhaps so he doesn’t need to think so hard about these things, he has teamed up with US acoustic gunslinger Brooks Williams for an album and tour as State of the Union. It’s a loose affair and one that isn’t easy to categorise. The song is at the heart of what they do, and they write good ones – both together and alone. They appear simply to concentrate on well played, occasionally harmonised old fashioned songs that venture in and out of pop, country, jazz, folk and blues, which actually doesn’t leave much else.  

Boo is an affable presence and shambling on in crumpled jeans and shirt he immediately ingratiates himself by dispensing hit The Patience of Angels – which is angelic only in the sense Michael the Archangel might still be considered angelic the morning after a session. The affection and respect he is held in is immediately obvious – justifying the slightly self parodying silver BOO stencilled into the neck of his guitar. He soon introduces Williams – a completely different beast – a pencil thin early fifty something with the elegant remains of his long dark hair. His playing is superb – a mix of dextrous finger picking and expert slide guitar that gives a funky sheen to everything he turns his hand to. Brooks it transpires is also something of a mover – snaking his hips as he plays, obviously in sheer delight; Boo is anchored in comparison. The real revelation however is Brooks’ voice, which is an expressive, mellifluous thing, not unlike James Taylor.

As the two finally come together as State of The Union the magic starts to happen. Their voices interlock and they become the sublime musical expression of the cross-Atlantic special relationship. The songs, supposedly written in just a few days, are surprisingly sturdy things, repleat with hooks and the two back each other up like old cowboys. ‘Darkness’ is the missing some from the O Brother Where Art Thou Soundtrack, a Southern country blues; 23 Skidoo is a melodic delight with some deft picking from Brooks and gentlemanly harmonies. The lyrics are light hearted pokes at mortality (‘All the women and all the men, all you get is three score and ten’). Boo delivers smoky, surprising complex numbers like ‘Distant Memory’ (‘I was listening to Andy Williams all day’) while Brooks’ Union Jack is a delightfully jaunty love letter to London, his wife and his mother-in-law, as it is turns out. Boo’s offer dress up as a pearly queen is declined.

There are substantial, moving songs like Brooks’ Empty House and even a low key gospel sing along in Sweet Honey in the Rocks, where the slightly reluctant audience joins in as gently as a primary school choir. We even get a glimpse of Boo as pop-star as he loses the guitar, clutches the mike on its stand and belts out a dark, slide led version of the Pet Shop Boys’ Rent.    

Boo’s patter is brilliantly surreal throughout (‘This would be our theme song if there was ever a clay-motion film made of State of the Union’ he announces at one point) but Brooks holds his own musically and vocally. The huge difference in their musical DNA is what makes the collaboration so healthy. Whether the Union will dissolve after this album is yet to be seen, but if you simply want great songs, sweetly sung, then seek these guys out while they’re still on the road. Sizzling stuff.

Louis MacNeice trapped overnight at flower show

It’s like a scenario supplied at a creative writing workshop or a bizarre Sunday tabloid headline. However in his amusing and unusual late poem, Flower Show (1961), the Anglo Irish poet Louis MacNeice examines precisely this scenario, focussing in particular on the intense feeling of being alone.

As if to acknowledge the absurdity of the situation, he begins with an iambic octometer – a line tripping over itself with puns and pairings. The bulbs refer to both bright lights and flowers, while marooned hints at the spray of colour as much as his predicament. The fullness of the line also says something of the scale of the show – the endless aisles, and the paring of canvas cathedral and bare bulbs tells us something about how the regimented rows are laid out.        

As always, MacNeice sets up opposites and contradictions – amplifying the silence with the blaring musicality of brass bands of flowers (referring not just to their shape, but their extraordinary presence around him.) In such overwhelming numbers, they somehow take on a malevolence, not normally associated with these symbols of beauty and he does not dare close one eye. He also contrasts the natural with the artificial – these blooms made of paper and cream cheese, have forgotten, if they ever knew the sky.  

His descriptions of their variety: fanged or whaleboned is as expansive and extravagant as the opening salvo. Perhaps because this hapless visitor has time on his hands, he can afford to go overboard with his comparisons. His descriptions could also easily apply to the crowds which have now departed hypnotic, idiotic, wattled or balding and there is even some sexual menace in those which are squidlike, phallic or vulvar. None of this is making him feel any more comfortable.

It is the overriding sensation that he is being watched, however, that is most unsettling. The flowers are ogling; they all/keep him in their blind sights. Together their dead and artificial presence is greater than his solitary, living presence; despite their variety they work together as an effective unit: their aims are one; they do not want him there and in his spiralling paranoia, he believes are somehow planning his extermination. They have the same irrational menace as Hitchcock’s Birds

The reference bandage his eyes in the third stanza refers again to the firing party and MacNeice seems to take the conceit all the way – does the visitor really believe there is no way out?  As if to reassure and console himself behind his closed eyes, the man summons more benign scenes of the natural world – the nettled orchard and tousled hedge where flowers still speak a living language. There is a sense that the flowers are taking their revenge for being forced and uprooted .

 The poem seems slightly satirical of the middle class institution that is the flower show. His collision of the imposed artificial world against the natural order of things hints that there is something inherently misguided about modern life and his obsessive need to control and present –  (echoed in the three stanzas of identical shape and regular rhyme pattern of the second and fifth lines) It is about our persistent – and ultimately doomed – urge to assert our dominance over creation.