Stinging Nettle Soup – The Revenge of Four Eyes

For skinny boys with big teeth and Joe 90 specs, danger lurks in every crevice.

When, at age 11, your antecedents pack you off to a boys-only, military boarding school, perched atop the tempest-scorched White Cliffs of Dover, unmanaged by gerontic pederasts and indifferent sociopaths … well, life instantly blossoms into a spastic sprint across a minefield under heavy fire carrying giant balloons of urine dressed as the mascot from El Pollo Loco. The odds of ending up head-first down a prewar toilet with one’s underpants round one’s ankles are about the same as having one’s breakfast sausage taken hostage, rubbed up-and-down some boy’s ass-crack then returned to one’s blazer pocket with the portentous warning that it should be consumed right here, right now, in front of everybody, unless one wants to end up head-first down a prewar toilet with one’s underpants … etc.. Year-in, year-out, across eternity; an infrangible Möbius strip of leering, juvenile savagery.

These are the fables Selwyn Lovely regales us with as he cackles over his steaming cauldron at Table on Ten every Thursday.

Four-Eyes, Specky. 1st Form, Kitchener House

Expunged from Dante’s Inferno at age 18, Specky Four-Eyes is fated to spend the rest of his life wandering the desert of low-grade post-traumatic stress syndrome, flinching at burly men being boisterous in public spaces, avoiding lavatories and breakfast sausages. Given this pathology, it is unsurprising that when Nettle Soup was mooted at a Tuesday ‘what to foist on the public’ huddle, the following exchange was witnessed:

Dutchy : Eh, what’s about Nettle Soup?
Lovely : (one eye twitching) You don’t mean … stinging nettles … right?
Dutchy : Eh? Yes, yes, stinging nettles, they’re in season right now, Katrin’s mom have whole bushes up at Valley View … eh, you okay?
Lovely : (gripping the slop sink with white knuckles) Whole bushes … of … stinging nettles?
Dutchy : Yeah, once of a sudden they are everywhere. I can made nettle pesto too, for special pizza, eh!

But Selwyn’s eyes had fogged over, he was no longer hearing the lilting shh’d s’s, as he vortexed backward down the time-tunnel of his past; to Andy (Bagger) Bowers behind the cricket pavilion after third-form Latin:

Bagger : Three Benson & Hedges after chapel tomorrow or you’re going in the stinging nettles.
Four-Eyes : But Bagger …
Bagger : Don’t ‘but Bagger’ me, you four-eyed cunt. Three Bensons or the stingers. And no trousers n’all.
Four-Eyes : But I don’t smoke …
Bagger : No underpants neither. By the end of Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer. Three. Bensons. Or you’re going to be scratching your knackers with a cheese-grater for a fortnight …

Oh. Those burgeoning, raggéd bushes-upon-bushes of horrid, bottle-green angiosperms. Vast oceans of them, obscene in their fecundity, their awful urchin abundance. With their bristly stalks and hairy leaves, evilly fringed by pinking shears like the snarky mouths of halloween lanterns.  And the fiery plains of white, weeping bumps on one’s buttocks and, oh, the itching, itching, itching …

~•~

STINGING NETTLE SOUP (with a nod to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who looks the kind of boy who might have ended up stuffed in a gym cupboard amongst the medicine-balls with a stalk of stinging nettles protruding from his urethra). Or ~ an opportunity to wreak pyrrhic revenge upon life, by hacking, ripping, scalding, boiling, liquidizing and ultimately eating one’s childhood enemies.

Nettle Soup. You complete bastards

A moment’s food-for-thought: on the sage advice of Catskills foragers, nettles harvested for fresh use (as opposed to being dried for future use) should be picked young, ie before the plants flower. After that they undergo chemical changes which can lead to stomach complaints in people not blessed with dreadnought intestines.

2 full Price Chopper bags of wild stinging nettles – go for young, green growth and for fuck’s sake wear gloves
3 yellow onions, chopped
6 small leeks, washed, chopped into thin roundels
4 sticks of celery, chopped
4 or 5 cloves of garlic, sliced fine
6 tablespoons white long-grain rice
3 litres good (maybe home-made) chicken or vegetable stock
fresh thyme, fine
a little fresh tarragon, fine
plain yoghurt to finish
chives or parsley to garnish

Keeping the gloves on, pluck the nettles and top buds and discard the central stalks. Sluice off the dirt and bugs. Melt the butter, sweat the onions, leeks, celery and garlic together until soft (15 minutes). Add the stock, then the rice.  Bring to a low boil then simmer for 10-15 minutes. Stir in the nettles, thyme and tarragon … it’s going to look like a lot, but nettles wilt theatrically, like spinach, and end up coiled like a dense rope in the broth.  Simmer for 5-10 minutes.  Season well with salt and cracked black pepper. Cool, blend to smooth, carefully reheat, add large dollup of yogurt and a few chives or thin chopped parsley. Serve with hearty, ripped bread.

Revenge, whilst not exactly sweet, is wonderfully robust, green, spinachy and earthy with a unique nettly tang.

January 28, 2014  • Posted in Reflections  •  Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , ,  •  1 Comment

Pastblast – Jerusalem Offertory – Nor Shall his Pork Sword Sleep in his Hand

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!

Jerusalem Old City from the roof of the Austrian Hospice

November 13th – shuffled sheepishly through Israeli immigration, enduring a 30-second staring down by an unnervingly Aryan young woman in army fatigues. Last time an attractive girl looked at me like that I was wrapped in duct-tape, breathing through a piece of conduit. Why do I already feel like an imposter on this journey? That at any moment somebody will point and bellow ‘what’s that idiot doing here?’ and the whole grim crowd will turn …? Last night’s ElAl adventure was disconcerting, as if I had boarded the wrong plane: the regular one, in which people watched movies, slept and read books had departed from a different gate. I’d stumbled onto the one where everyone got tarted up like the Nativity, strapped boxes to their heads and vanished under sheets to bob and mumble like citizens of Bedlam. No sign of my special-order bacon-wrapped-scallops and only a sad shake of the attendant’s head when I inquired about Lexi Luvavich’s She Fiddled Me On The Roof, absent from the in-flight entertainment menu. What’s First Class come to? Grey beef like a poached hand, spheroid potatoes scalded into floury eyeballs, ashen green beans that dissolve on the tongue. Syrupy wine redolent of prunes. Almost made me feel guilty for having coerced 200,000 frequent flyer miles out of Micheal McLaughlin, spinning tales of mercy-missions to cleft-palate godchildren in Tegucigalpa sweating under the yoke of pig, bird and ass flu. He would scoff at these Zionist beanstalk-seeds, bartered for so many points, being accustomed to the pan-seared Bengal Tiger and complimentary analingus of China Air’s Tycoon Class. Minibus to Jerusalem was little better, squeezed into the wheel-well by a gentleman whose panoply of loin-fat threatened to overwhelm the entire van, like something from a John Carpenter film. By the time he was levered onto the sidewalk his food vacuole had begun digesting my hand-luggage. Finally expunged from this mobile body-odour laboratory a half-mile shy of the Old City, I sniffed around what gradually revealed itself to be Palestinian East Jerusalem, grimacing, waving off assistance lest my sparrowy chassis be rendered into baba ganoush before I’d squeezed my buttocks through The Damascus Gate. Eventually found rest at the Austrian Hospice, funereal guesthouse-come-convent with high notes of Berchtesgaden, scampering nuns and a drizzle of pallid Christians in teal fleece. Appealing floppy-haired desk-clerk – clearly straight off the seilbahn from Innsbruck – with missionary zeal in his eyes; might have tried to unholster the Lovely Brothers’ 5D but I suspect the Lord would have come between me and the lad’s tumescent weisswürst, staying my trigger finger like Abraham’s over Isaac. And wasn’t that Tomorrow Belongs to Me he was humming as he photocopied my passport? Second floor cell gazing out at a wall. Bed, upright chair, 60-watt bulb. Larkin would grin; though not at that bible, squatting like a toad. Succumbed to godless and lamentably sober exhaustion.

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5.30 am – What in the Aching Arse of Allah is that!?! Black as pitch outside and in. The crepuscular silence is shattered by sudden but sustained metallic wailing, not unlike John Lydon in his Flowers of Romance phase. But so much louder. And more enduring. Did I set my iPhone to Muezzin Shriek last night and accidentally stuff it in my ear? Listening more carefully, am able discern the presence of a second, similar wail, more distant, then another … and another. I lie on my nunnish bed in the dark, picking out each ululation as it weaves in and out of the whole; breaking, recovering in a kind of soaring, plaintive harmony. Part lament, part din, part incantation. I’m kaleidoscoping fragments of Paul Bowles dancing with Scheherazade on the back of my eyeballs. I want to hubble, I want to bubble, to ride camels across dunes with Debra Winger in nothing but a winding-sheet of diaphanous muslin. This is Jerusalem. Alone in a Christian Sanctuary built on Jewish bedrock listening to the Muslim call to prayer. Then just as the voices staggered one-by-one into being, so they cease; the song quieting by degrees to silence. The first blush of dawn rinses the walls of my cell, and I ooze backwards into the ragged embrace of jet-lag.

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Late Morning – Totter shabbily down the steps of the hospice and almost derail a caravan of pilgrims advancing in an imperious pavane down the Via Dolorosa. These are resolutely not the pilgrims of yore, clad in reverential sackcloth-and-ashes: these are Americans in cargo shorts and XXL Sweatshirts that proclaim Jesus Died for MySpace in Heaven and iGod – Who Are You Listening To?. Their taxonomy neatly bisects the pink/porcine and the sallow/bespectacled/studded-with-acne. They are united by the omnipresent fanny-pack and that aspect of pug-nosed sanctimoniousness culled from The Evangelist Handbook on How to Look Pious. At the head of the group is a buttery fatso wielding a mighty cross, doubtless a talisman for warding off unclean Arab traders who line the route trying to flog pairs of plastic praying hands to the suety flock. If there was an inter-faith stylathon played out on the streets of Jerusalem the Christian Evangelists wouldn’t lumber over the first hurdle. Those willowy, fast-moving Hasidic boys in their sharp frockcoats and fedoras leave these asthmatic pachyderms jiggling in their wake.

wall

The Fourth Station of the Cross, where Jesus purportedly bumped into his Mum (an encounter sadly absent from the Bible) is conveniently situated opposite the door to my hostel allowing me to watch the burlesque whilst munching on the end of an awful croissant. A puddingy hermaphrodite with ginger comb-over edges to the front of the group and falls to his/her knees, blubbering ‘We adore you O Christ and we praise you!’ over-and-over whilst attendant manatees nod in agreement and massage his shoulders as if commiserating with him over a lost pencil. This behaviour is neither alarming nor distressing, merely morbidly embarrassing. Regathering his sullen composure, he is assisted to his feet with grimaces of sympathy and treacly mutterings of ‘bless you, bless you’. It is the kind of infantile exhibitionism that causes one’s innards to spontaneously jellify. I find myself trying to make eye-contact with nearby Arabs to apologise with my eyebrows for Christianity; but they seem unperturbed. They have seen this idiocy before and are impervious to it. I fall into line as the lardy procession trundles up the street to Station Five (the otherwise unheard-of Simon of Cyrene asks Jesus ‘Can I give you a hand with that?’), Station Six (Jesus asks Veronica for a turkey sub) and Seven (Simon the Lisper reveals the sandwich-maker hath no turkey, will a tuna melt do?). The whole thing is, naturally, an utter fiasco. There’s as much chance that Jesus plodded down this mediæval alleyway with or without half a tree on his back as there is of Golda Meir being retroactively elected Pope. But the theatre is delightful and the trinkets are going like hot cakes! I disembark the Ship of Fools and head straight to Station Ten which naturally – it’s where Jesus had his underpants pulled down – turns out to be in a Catholic Chapel within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre itself. To get to this point one is forced to dodge gaggles of peroxided Russian women hurling themselves on all fours, snogging the Stone of Unction – an unctuous slab of hanky-panky set in place 1800 years after the Good Shepherd was purportedly oiled-up on it.

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If the fictional melodramas of the Via Dolorosa seem a bit bananas, the constellation of doolally that litters the Church of the Holy Sepulchre renders them bastions of Kantian Reason. It’s a complete, wonderful fucking nuthouse, my dears. Cave upon cave of sanctified fabulism and goggle-eyed voodoo. We have yer actual Rock of Golgotha, guv’nor, fingerable through a greasy hole in the glass: we have a hunk of yer authentic True Cross, now under lock-and-key since the ever-kissing pilgrims starting nibbling off pieces to take home under their tongues. For those leery of ecclesiastical herpes we have yer verifiable Adam’s Tomb, ooh yes missus, that Adam, handily situated directly beneath the spot where Our Lord was crucified. And if you look carefully through that little window there you’ll see the crack made by the earthquake that spontaneously erupted at the moment of his passing. There’s even a suitably Hogwarts Treasure Room, not in this instance filled with gold doubloons and a parrot squawking ‘Pieces of Eight’. Instead sweetmeats less lurid: St Agatha’s toenails, for instance: the tongue of the infant St Barnabus: John the Baptist’s loincloth: the knobbles of St Galagnus’s scrotum. It is nothing less than a phantasmagorical pre-Renaissance Christian theme park, complete with creaking sound-effects, bizarre pyrotechnics and splendidly costumed and bearded attendants. One almost expects to ride the water-flume into a fiberglass depiction of the Immaculate Uterus. Furthermore, it suppurates and crumbles under the weight of centuries of neglect and internecine rancour. Each pocket of this rotten old Christmas cake is under the rabid protectorate of a different orthodoxy and is jealously coveted by all the others. The Greeks loathe the Armenians who scowl at the Franciscans who kick the Coptics who piss in the chalices of the Syrians. The poor fucking Ethiopians have been exiled to the roof, where they subsist in a cluster of lean-to’s. I swear as I passed through their diminutive chapel I heard a monk whisper ‘you wan’ buy ganja, man?’. The Copts have set up what appears to be a fleamarket booth, glued to the rump of the Holy Edicule, fashioned from wrought-iron gates, brocade curtains and plastic sheeting. It groans with liturgical tchotchke, manual typewriter bodies, Home Pong consoles and those rubber shower attachments that fit onto bath faucets. Inside squats an ornery witch, hacking and passing gas. One false move by any of the bewildering array of combatants and all hell breaks loose. As recently as 2008 the Greeks and Armenians went at it in full vestments over the issue of a monk loitering in a funny way. In 2004 the Greeks and Russians tag-teamed the Franciscans because somebody left a door open. Both cases involved the exchange of ecclesiastical kicks and punches, throwing of artifacts, blood-letting and police intervention. Most wonderfully, in a 2002 reinterpretation of the Christian precept do as Thou wouldst be done by, the Ethiopians opened a can of whoop-ass with the Egyptian Coptics on the church’s roof after a monk moved his chair into the shade on a sunny day. Iron bars and paving stones were put to canonical use, resulting in several hospitalizations. In the run up to the 1989 Feast of the Holy Cross it was rumoured the Armenians had engaged the services of WWF’s Jim (The Anvil) Neidhart in false beard and cassock, to man the dodgy corner by the stairs to Calvary.

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All the competing attractions within the Church, however, pale into insignificance in the face of the eponymous Holy Sepulchre itself. TripAdvisor gives it four-and-a-half thumbs. At the core of a peculiar, dusky, public lavatory-sized crypt – not unlike a rococo rendering of Doctor Who’s Tardis held together by metal girders stamped Bombay Metal Company and isolated at the centre of a chasmal rotunda – lurks Jesus of Nazareth’s one-and-only, honest-to-God tomb (not to be confused with his other one-and-only, honest-to-God tomb, half a mile away, imagined into being by General Gordon of Khartoum whilst sipping Singapore Slings at the American Colony in 1883). Within its marble confines, Gentle Pilgrim, beyond its Hobbity doorway, lies the final resting place of the Lamb of God. Well, that’s not strictly true, what with him hopping that moonbeam to the stars and all … but still … the ultimate, sacred repository of his corporeal self. Christianity’s innermost sanctum. Having diddled the Rock, licked the walls, made out with the floor and sniffed St Sebastian’s leathery foreskin I’ll be damned if I’m leaving without a trip inside Christ’s Big Kahuna.

And so I fall in line behind a beautiful girl and await my turn for rapture. As the queue shuffles forward I cannot help but cast repeated sidelong glances at her. She really is beautiful: clear, unpretentiously elegant, radiating calm and poise, her hair pulled back from her face and tucked sweetly into a headscarf. Albanian? Azerbaijani? I’m already envisioning under-the-table no panty shots when I am struck by a dreadful realisation: that isn’t a headscarf. It’s a wimple. She’s a nun. I’m about to duck into Christianity’s Holiest of Holies and all I can think about is a nun’s vagina? As I crouch to pass through the doorway, she turns, smiles and places her palm on my head, shielding it from glancing contact with the stone lintel. And I want to weep. I’m inside the Holy Edicule with an actual saint and my mind is just one, vast stinking reservoir of turd. I’m sure they can smell it in Tel Aviv. I want to beg her forgiveness and retreat from the crypt, but the space is miniscule, she’s facing away from me and there’s a leopard-printed Ukrainian stabbing at my buttocks trying to get her camera-phone to work in the funereal gloom. A couple of seconds and we are propelled forward through the low gap in the antechamber wall … and we’re in the tiny, candlelit Sepulchre itself, three of us squeezed together like pilchards. My heart is pounding: this is all wrong. And she’s down. Down at my shins. Crumpled, on her knees, her cheek on the small, smooth slab, her hand tenderly stroking the stone, eyes closed, lips mouthing little supplications; pure, transparent, radiant ecstasy. A hundred-thousand secular, snorting mockeries evaporate in an instant. And I am an enormous, hapless Stinkosaurus, annihilated in the presence of such Love.

January 19, 2014  • Posted in Reflections  •  Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,  •  Leave a comment

Villanelle

You are the dogshit pressed into my shoe,
I wander down each path and you are there;
At every turn my foot encounters you.

Each day your nasty smell recurs anew,
A fecal bouquet wafting through the air;
You are the dogshit pressed into my shoe.

Every fucking useless thing you do,
Charming as encrusted anal hair;
At every turn my foot encounters you.

I wish you’d fuck right off to Timbuktu,
Be mauled and eaten by a grizzly bear;
You are the dogshit pressed into my shoe.

A rotten piece of bread in the fondue,
A desiccated cat turd on the chair;
At every turn my foot encounters you.

Suppose I took a tub of louse shampoo,
Massaged my life with penitential care;
You’d still be dogshit pressed into my shoe.
At every turn my foot encounters you.

July 9, 2013  • Posted in Announcements  •  3 Comments

Pastblast – Gerard Hopkins: The Manley Burden of Responsibility

‘Enough: corruption was the world’s first woe.
What need I strain my heart beyond my ken?
O but I bear my burning witness though
Against the wild and wanton work of men.’

Olympic Garden | The Lovely Brothers

Olympic Garden | The Lovely Brothers

Minutes from the annual general meeting of Julian Richards’ shareholders, backstage at their old haunt; the Gaiety in Times Square. It’s now an American Eagle Outfitters, but if you gather on the second floor in the corner by ladies’ smalls you can still scent ejaculate in the glade. Other than collective back-and-bottom slapping on the subject of 2012′s accelerated workload, the primary issue on the agenda appears to have been the benefits reaped – and pitfalls encountered – by adopting an active, irreverent profile in social media, and the birthing of bloggish organs such as the one you, Dear Reader, have inadvertently stumbled upon whilst searching for unholy eggplant insertions (welcome back, by the way). Beginning at a low rumble, voices were soon raised to an extent that we were required to pause and pretend to be browsing ‘Peace on Earth’ Graphic T’s. Sentiments to the effect of ‘Nobody gives a dog’s cock about Keats, dude, can you score me a fucking Nike campaign?’ along with ‘All this poetry shit, everybody’s gonna think we’re a bunch of queers, sorry Deano, no offence man’ and ‘The Lovely Brothers’ vaginas are freaking out the Pottery Barn people’ all expressed in strangulated whispers so as not to arouse the suspicions of a densely pancaked shopgirl from Secaucus. Which all begs the question: how does one pin down the shifting battle-lines that govern the artist/agent relationship? Where does one thing end and another begin? Is collaboration just another word for nobody’s called about your shit in two months? For those who are churning through the industry like paddle-steamers up the Zambezi, it’s something of a moot point: in such cases the approach is essentially to keep doing what one is doing, and try not to ignore the nagging voice that says ‘maintenance, renewal, pruning, new growth’ (all made much easier by the heady presence of money). But what of the at-any-given-time-unannointed? How does one alchemize interest out of its polar opposite? From the photographer’s point-of-view is it perhaps ‘look, I’ gave you loads of great shit; I gave it to you more than half a decade ago, now go knock on more doors. Or take them up some fucking Krispy Kremes for breakfast or whatever it is’?  One is reminded of Withnail in the Cumbrian telephone booth:

‘Well, lick ten percent of the arses for me then!  Hello?  Hello?  How dare you!  Fuck you!’

Withnail

Withnail

Whereas from the agent’s perspective, it might be more along the lines of ‘If I try to show people the same fucking sack of potatoes for the three-hundredth time, rudely wiped, reshuffled, the spine patched, with your name in a different font, not only are they going to make a note explicitly never to use you at all for anything ever, but they’ll probably start to wonder if anything I say about anybody anywhere contains the slightest grain of truth. And before you say it, a baker’s dozen snapshots of crew-members taken on an afternoon off from shooting Cialis alongside TV in Cleveland doesn’t constitute a new body of work’.

Contemplating this riddle whilst browsing the thumbnails of Jacquie et Michel, Amatrices Françaises at three in the morning, I was struck by an analogous situation described in a letter I had read in last month’s Ecumenical Spanker pertaining to that most stygian of the Victorian Vicar Poets, the Undisputed Nonpareil of Sprung Rhythm, the Jumpin’ Jesuit himself … Reverend Gerard Manley Hopkins. Now boys, boys … you’re not going to tell me everybody isn’t frothing at the bit for a dose of G-Hop the Manley? C’mon now, he wrote the poem That Nature Is A Heraclitean Fire! It has the word clit in it! He didn’t have the easiest time of it, Gerard. Deeply religious from an early age, he was somewhat disconcerted upon his arrival at Balliol, Oxford, to discover himself pining for the seventeen year-old buttocks of the handsomely monikered Digby Mackworth Dolben. His not inconsiderable consternation was only marginally relieved by young Diggers drowning in the River Welland whilst frolicking with the ten year-old son of his tutor, Reverend C.E. Pritchard (who may or may not have been watching from the bushes).

Hopkins understandable reaction was to swear an oath of celibacy, convert from Anglicanism to Catholicism (they know on which side an altar boy’s bottom is buttered) and enter the Priesthood. He also took to recording his sins in a diary, which I believe can be reverentially beaten-off to in the Bodleian every Tuesday afternoon in January. Oddly, he also suffered from lifelong diahorreah – which had to be a bit tiresome – and the poor bastard lived in Dublin. I’m not making this up. His poetry was both his solace and his torment, passing largely unnoticed in his lifetime despite the patronage of his friend (and soon-to-be Poet Laureate) Robert Bridges. Hopkins viewed Bridges, with his wealth of contacts in London poetry circles, as a kind of advocate for him; almost (dare I say it) … his agent. The poet wrote long letters to Bridges, imploring him to push some poem or other under the noses of Tennyson or Newman or (for heaven’s sake) Charles Darwin, whose only recorded contribution to the canon of world poetry is a scatalogical limerick about a gibbon. Bridges would write back unfailingly, always attentive and encouraging, even in the face of his contemporaries’ seamless indifference to Hopkins’ work. The following is a letter dated September 1881, from Bridges to Hopkins. It follows a period of intense frustration on the part of the poet. He felt he had written some excellent poems over the years and yet scant interest could be engendered in them from anybody who might have the wherewithal to help him pay the rent. To some extent he seems to be holding Bridges culpable for this failure: the latter wasn’t getting his material to the right people, wasn’t pushing hard enough, had become bored and complacent, focussed on other poets or his home in the provinces. Had he considered doing a Sonnet Breakfast, for instance? Taking along some Butterscotch Bulls Eyes and a flagon or two of mead to some secretaries in a tall building in High Holborn? The poet had gone so far as to remove himself from Bridges’ patronage and place himself under the wing of one Seamus Baggage, hawker of minstrels, who had once carried Wordsworth’s easel up Helvellyn. What follows is Bridges’ response to his denunciation at the hands of an old friend. I think it draws an interesting parallel.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Thursday September 29, The Knotty Pines, Lickham Bottom

My Dear Gerard

Thank you for your correspondence regarding the return of that small stock of pamphlets held in my office for clients to retain after discussion of your work. I find myself saddened by the idea of you taking these items (which, as you know, bear my name and address) gluing a label over said information and replacing it with that of Messrs. Baggage & Baggage. Does this not seem a tad shoddy in your estimation? An item made to my own specifications, of which I was comprehensively a contributor, hastily pasted over and attributed to another? If some person brought such an item to me I am afraid I would reject it out of hand, precisely because it would be so clearly associated with my hypothetical predecessor. Really, my dear Hopkins, it is a trifle tawdry. I would rather, in all honesty, you began afresh; the Baggages are going to need at least that from you – a wholly different approach and plan of attack – if they are going to make headway where I have not been able. You could with certainty have new pamphlets printed in little more than a fortnight, it is a remarkably straightforward affair: and if these pieces are to serve simply as a reminder to their recipients of your talent and earnestness, a keep-sake of sorts, then you will surely need but few; truthfully such items are seldom retained unless they constitute a published volume of some measure. That said, I see no reason as to why you should not produce such a formidable volume for yourself; a remarkable piece, cut and bound in Morocco, something to surprise and elate the viewer and stir him from his erstwhile complacency. It would certainly require earnest investment on your part; which is the reason I have always shied from broaching the matter with you. But in the prevailing climate of difficulty, and bearing in mind that you are already a known (though frequently passed-over) quantity, I do not see that you are presented with an alternative. Baggage’s sphere of influence – along with his reservoir of goodwill -  is demonstrably no greater than anyone else. If he plies the same narrative he will reap the same rewards; which should be your greatest fear, because the truth, I’m afraid, is that he has precisely no magic at his fingertips whatsoever, none: but, my dear Hopkins, you do. You have your works and your passion. It is you that will make this happen, not he. All the paths he treads have been trodden before him (even though it seems it is this very point that you dispute).

‘The Windhover’ has been ever an exemplary piece and I am most gratified that you have finally decided to forge it into the cornerstone of a book; but I am compelled to point out that this is a matter we spoke about at some length several years ago, and on which I was most pressing and encouraging; but which you nonetheless neglected. Not to mention several other ideas and fancies set out in your correspondence. If I display an air of astonishment at any of this, you should understand that it emanates entirely from the feeling of having myself tried to wake these concepts in you on so many occasions, knowing that only a fresh approach could garner the interest of the people to whom I was referring your work; and that I arrived nowhere with my pressing. No new volume from you. Rarely new material of any sort, and then merely a line here, line there, nothing of breadth or of substance. Now you have decided to gather your belongings and move on, to try the same hand elsewhere; and it is the inspirational figure of Baggage that you have alighted upon to parlay this into commercial success. Please don’t misunderstand me; I cannot say I am displeased to see you go. The relief from guilt, from the inability to speak honestly about these matters, from not being free to express myself with candour about certain bodies of work, from having to display implied support for your actions even when I did not believe my own words; my Friend, this is consummate relief indeed. Such an epiphany is troubling only inasmuch as it has caused me to consider other relationships in this light and wonder whether a more joyous life, one less sullied by inner vexation, would be within reach if matters in general were more steeped in honesty. Yet this is likely impossible. Such, I fear, is the lot of an advocate.

What, my dear Gerard, of Baggage? Perhaps my sentiment is best echoed by Cordelia:

‘But yet, alas, stood I within his grace,
I would prefer him to a better place.’

I might have wished your apparent awakening had alighted upon a more worthy recipient. It is not that he is perfectly vulgar and dreadful; but he is by no means deserving, not in the manner of say Miss Nellie Kagan or Mr Ronald Magenta, these being good people with the gall to apply themselves to the development of talent in its nascent form. The Baggages have ever advocated for doggerel. Now it appears they are poaching established (but underachieving) artists in an effort to embroider their gaudy ranks with a veneer of sophistication. But respect is not won through plundering the decade-long endeavours of others; neither by preying upon an artist’s sense of vulnerability during times of trouble. Finding patrons for artists is important, but so too is integrity; and I suspect that ultimately one does not come without the other. Having said that, my desire to see cynicism fail does not extend to you; above all I wish you the success your work deserves. I have invested too much heart and soul to wish it any other way.

I am compelled, however, to address a particular point expressed in your letter. You said your commercial career had dwindled at a time when you felt it should have flourished. This bewildered me, as it bewilders me with other artists; because more often than not I am at a loss to understand what it is they believe they have been doing, in practical, game-changing terms to engender such an anticipated flourishing. Some novel, entertaining, exhilarating body of material, beautifully formulated, fastidiously distributed, augmented by a refreshed, challenging portfolio of works? A renewed passion for lasting, productive working relationships with appropriate luminaries in the field? I can say with due humility that I am able to wrangle a certain quantity of patronage from the community each year by my direct recommendation alone, trusting that the client in question will, when all is said and done, be delighted with the result of placing his trust in me. This has been true for the lion’s share of this year’s successes. Unfortunately you were not able to partake of this, your style and approach being too remote to fit the work at hand. I would have seemed a liar and a scoundrel had I recommended you for work for which you were not suited; and I would in the process have risked killing the Golden Eggéd Goose of Trust. But for the remainder, all an advocate can effectively do is prepare the way for the artist, open the door. It is the artist himself; his work, his personality, his desire, ideas, charms, passions, work ethic, intellect and humour; these are the elements that must combine to bring the matter to fruition. An advocate can almost pretend to be the artist, to create a chimera of enthusiasm and passion which is ultimately attributed to the artist himself. An advocate can fill the gaps, explain away the contradictions, excuse the missteps; but there is a moment at which his influence ceases and the artist must step up, take the baton and sprint to the finish. This is not to say that I am seldom confronted by this vexing enigma. Quite the contrary, it occurs with remarkable frequency. When I ask the artist what it is he has actually done to deserve the spoils he so ardently desires, what more than the scores of other artists who are working so diligently, he will usually respond in the manner of “Because I am good!”.  As if what is required to drink from the Ambrosial Cup is that an artist be ‘good’. That they deserve it all because they are a ‘good artist’ perhaps even more naturally gifted than some of their contemporaries, who have slaved like Hercules to do what is required to win the prize. But believe me, Dear Hopkins, when I state that if an artist could spend but a few weeks in the place of his advocate observing what is required to garner the spoils of victory in the face of such competition; then they would swallow the words ‘because I am good’ before they dribbled out. Few are rewarded with rooms of gold for simply being there and making pleasing work; and rightly so. The artist who truly understands what is needed goes diligently about his business untroubled by the howling and moaning of his contemporaries who sit upon the shoddy laurels of self-proclaimed talent.

I have come to believe that I have on occasion been too close to some of my artists. I have invested emotionally in them as friends and been culpable in fostering the delusion that they were doing what it takes to be successful, when I should surely have been reporting the truth of what I was seeing; namely that they were off the back of the pack and falling farther behind by the day. Perhaps in a small number of cases I should have stepped forward and brought matters to a close, spent my hours and my concern (every hour of the day, though you may doubt it) on subjects more likely to respond with vigour. But I confess to being lily-liver’d in these matters. No decent person enjoys being the bearer of bad news. Instead I have endeavored to enthuse over any grain of possibility the artist produces, even amidst a wilderness of indifference. And after that, embarrassed silence. But it might actually have been kinder (and less cowardly) to tell the truth. Less wasteful too. With less sting when the whole affair culminated in an ironic charade.

I remain, as ever, your friend and firm adherent,

Robert Bridges

March 17, 2013  • Posted in Reflections  •  Tagged with: , , , , , , ,  •  Leave a comment

Pastblast – The Raft of the Medusa

‘O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.’

Theodore Gericault – Le Radeau de la Meduse

It is possible for life to be a bowl of shit. Or it can be a much smaller saucer of shit. Conventional wisdom holds the latter to have the edge over the former, less shit being by definition preferable to more. But I’m not convinced. See, the constant, the common denominator, is still shit. Perhaps shit saucer apologists are working from the premise that if you only have a saucerful, there must be space at the table for other crockery; presumably full of things other than shit. You can turn away from the shit for a bit and stick a spoon in something else. Gazpacho, for instance. But what if there’s only a saucer? What if there’s nothing else on the table? What if there’s no fucking table? What if there’s just a standard-size saucer, brim-full to the meniscus with shit, hurtling through an otherwise barren and sterile universe? Maybe then it would be better to have a whole bowl, right? If only for the sake of variety? I mean, if the choice was shit of a single feather or a shit potpourri, perhaps the latter would hold more possibilities? More to ponder. More to learn from. Not to mention the vagaries of texture and discovery: the bowl might feasibly offer more than the saucer’s single skinny nugget of half-digested corn and lone parasitic nematode thinly versed in Keith Jarrett’s Köln Konzert or elementary string theory (or at least capable of waxing bollocks about it until three in the morning whilst sucking down one’s unsuspecting nutrients).

The occupants of the Raft of the Medusa understood this. Having begun their voyage in June 1816 aboard a great big galleon of shit (the Medusa itself) out of Rochefort for Senegal under the command of the serially inept Viscount Hugues Duroy de Chaumereys, they soon found themselves a hundred miles off course and snagged rotten on a sandbank somewhere off Mauritania. Anyone familiar with the animated segment from The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle for the song Friggin’ in the Riggin’ will have a pretty clear idea of how this must have looked at ground zero; including (but not limited to) some gallic Steve Jones, lurching from the crow’s nest, hammered on Pernod, belting out:

‘The second mate was Andy
By Christ, he had a dandy
Till they crushed his cock with a jagged rock
For coming in the brandy’

(‘Le deuxième compagnon était Andy
Par le Christ, il a eu un dandy
Jusqu’à ce qu’ils aient écrasé son robinet avec un déchiqueté basculez
Pour éjaculer dans l’eau-de-vie fine’)

Trailways Station, New Paltz – Henrik Knudsen

As their lumbering Bateau de Merde became wedged deeper into the Arguin Bank by the tides, so its 400 increasingly miserable occupants were presented with a conundrum; to sit tight, neck deep in shit (but still breathing) and await rescue, or to aggregate themselves onto an armada of smaller Canots de Merde and row the sixty long miles to the African coast. The pitch turned out to be fatally queered though: absence of foresight had allowed for only 253 bottom-spaces on the sturdy benches of les Canots. Which left 146 men and a lone woman (total fucking bummer for her, you’d think) to hastily fashion a raft of their own salvation (un Radeau de Merde) from hunks of the ailing Bateau itself, along with items of luggage, pots, pans, bed-sheets. The plan was to toss this ramshackle affair into the ocean, load it up with the 147 unfortunates and tow it behind the flotilla of Canots to terra firma and a warm welcome from cheerful negroes with enormous holes in their earlobes and plates in their lower lips. At first things appeared not all that bad; the raft floated, roughly. But as as the passengers began to pile on, so it began abruptly to sink. And here we have the watershed moment; the fulcrum shit bowl > shit saucer event. Our heroes had gambled what appeared to be a great big bowl of shit – albeit one with a kind of steady shitty equilibrium (and the hope of eventual extrication) – against a truly shitty little saucer of shit, rapidly disintegrating and barreling downhill. The only food on board was a single bag of biscuits, devoured within minutes. The last two barrels of water went straight overboard, casualties of early squabbling: the single cask of wine was consumed exclusively by Steve Jones and Paul Cook. Furthermore, towing the hapless raft proved more than les Canots could handle, so it was cut adrift with cheerful ’au revoirs!’ and promises of future salvation somewhere down the line.

And then what happens in any given Raft of the Medusa situation, happened. Internecine bickering broke out amongst the inhabitants; allegiances were formed and broken; duplicity, morbid self-pity and back-stabbing became the order of the day. Passengers imprudent enough to attempt sleep were booted into the sea without ceremony. Others, despairing of isolation and the worthlessness of their fellow man, hurled themselves off the raft to certain death rather than endure yet another encounter with some goitred eunuch pontificating dully on the seamlessness of misery, the absence of a God and self-proclaimed talent overlooked. As numbers dwindled, so the survivors clung together, only to find themselves throttled by the ceaseless neediness of their neighbours. Febrile madness took hold; those callow enough to assign decency where there was none quickly paid the price. Cannibalism followed hard upon murder, broad bedimpled buttocks and man-breasts being the snacks of choice. The viscous shit in the saucer festered, condensed, became thickened and crusted at the centre, liquefied at the rim.

When, thirteen days later, The Raft of the Medusa was ultimately chanced upon by The Argus (ironically sent out to search for a cargo of gold assumed to be still in the belly of the broken Medusa itself), only 15 of the original 146 men aboard remained, all in an advanced state of lunacy and sepsis. The woman was long gone, presumably defiled and whittled into jerky.

Such was the scene of french national shame depicted in oils by Théodore Géricault in 1818-1819.  Interestingly, at the time the artist commenced work on the painting, he was a mere 27 years old and had been forced to break off a nine year affair with his somewhat older Aunt Alexandrine, his unflinching patron, flinching bedfellow and surrogate mother since the death of his actual mum in 1808. In late 1817 she had become rather awkwardly pregnant with what would naturally turn out to be both Géricault’s nephew and his son. Freaked out by the near-Oedipal shame of his situation, he retired to his studio, shaved his head and – deprived for the first time of an indulgent mother-figure – pursued a monastic existence with only his teenage assistant Louis-Alexis Jamar (they slept together in an adjacent lavatory) for company. He immersed himself in his depiction of The Raft of the Medusa, presumably finding a certain consonance in its themes of incestuousness, abandonment, lost hope and all-round shit-saucery. And yearning, of course. He painted from life, employing the naked Jamar for many of the characters (including the supine figure with shriveled genitals in the foreground), as well as three survivors of the actual shipwreck, Messrs Corréard, Lavillette and Savigny, whose lurid tales imbued Géricault with an additional reservoir of romantic horror, evident in the final work. According to the the art historian Georges-Antoine Borias, throughout the eighteen months it took to complete the painting “Géricault … began a mournful descent. Behind locked doors he threw himself into his work. Nothing repulsed him. He was dreaded and avoided”.  Sadly, it seems this lifelong capacity to inspire avoidance never left him. Following a brief sojourn in London, he returned to Paris in 1821 and proceeded to hurt himself rather badly by falling off a horse, an injury exacerbated by his being stomped in the chest by a goat at a petting zoo in Amiens a year later. He died three years after this from complications of tuberculosis, the fall and ensuing cloven-hoof-stomping, and is buried in Père Lachaise, alongside the tragic lovers Abélard and Héloïse (the former sans génitales through eternity) and the novelist Honoré de Balzac, whose talents were more than commensurate with his, but whose name is much funnier.

Le Radeau de la Meduse – Henrik Knudsen

Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa has fascinated, held and horrified generations of observers since it was first exhibited at the 1819 Paris SalonThe novelist Julian Barnes devoted an entire chapter of his A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters to Géricault’s magnum opus (and magnum it is, weighing in at 16 feet tall, 23 feet wide). In summary, he made the following observation:

‘All that straining – to what end? There is no formal response to the painting’s main surge, just as there is no response to most human feelings. Not merely hope, but any burdensome yearning: ambition, hatred, love (especially love) – how rarely do our emotions meet the object they seem to deserve? How hopelessly we signal; how dark the sky; how big the waves. We are all lost at sea, washed between hope and despair, hailing something that may never come to rescue us.’

His sentiment echoes Stevie Smith’s Not Waving But Drowning:

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking 
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always 
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

Despair squats where the present is mired in the participle. It’s not that ‘Shit Happens (to others)’. It’s that ‘Shit is Happening (to me)’. Géricault knew this; the slogan ‘La Merde se Produit’ was splattered on his studio wall in bitumen. His initial sketches for The Raft of the Medusa include a clear depiction of The Argus in the near background, offering rescue, representing salvation. Subsequent renditions moved the ship further and further into the distance. In the finished painting it is no more than a futile speck on the horizon. The passengers of The Raft of the Medusa marooned on a seamless ocean, slowly eating each other, knew it too. And so too do the passengers of every other lost and lonely Raft of the Medusa floundering upon its tawdry, parochial puddle of history. From Milan to Yucatan. Every woman, every man.

March 10, 2013  • Posted in Reflections  •  Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,  •  Leave a comment

The Foreboding

This poem causes actual pain. With thanks to the ever-luminous Paul Bromley-Slocombe.

***

Looking by chance in at the open window
I saw my own self seated in his chair
With gaze abstracted, furrowed forehead,
Unkempt hair.

I thought that I had suddenly come to die,
That to a cold corpse this was my farewell,
Until the pen moved slowly on the paper
And tears fell.

He had written a name, yours, in printed letters
One word on which bemusedly to pore:
No protest, no desire, your naked name,
Nothing more.

Would it be tomorrow, would it be next year?
But the vision was not false, this much I knew;
And I turned angrily from the open window
Aghast at you.

Why never a warning, either by speech or look,
That the love you cruelly gave me could not last?
Already it was too late: the bait swallowed,
The hook fast.

Robert Graves

January 27, 2013  • Posted in Reflections  •  1 Comment

In Paris With You

Don’t talk to me of love. I’ve had an earful
And I get tearful when I’ve downed a drink or two.
I’m one of your talking wounded.
I’m a hostage. I’m maroonded.
But I’m in Paris with you.

Yes I’m angry at the way I’ve been bamboozled
And resentful at the mess I’ve been through.
I admit I’m on the rebound
And I don’t care where are we bound.
I’m in Paris with you.

Do you mind if we do not go to the Louvre
If we say sod off to sodding Notre Dame,
If we skip the Champs Elysées
And remain here in this sleazy

Old hotel room
Doing this and that
To what and whom
Learning who you are,
Learning what I am.

Don’t talk to me of love. Let’s talk of Paris,
The little bit of Paris in our view.
There’s that crack across the ceiling
And the hotel walls are peeling
And I’m in Paris with you.

Don’t talk to me of love. Let’s talk of Paris.
I’m in Paris with the slightest thing you do.
I’m in Paris with your eyes, your mouth,
I’m in Paris with… all points south.
Am I embarrassing you?
I’m in Paris with you.

James Fenton

January 21, 2013  • Posted in Reflections  •  Leave a comment