Saturday, 27 August 2011

Fairport Convention, Cape Horn, and loving your life to the full

First off, a health warning. This song may be a bit folkyblokey, rollicking bollocking for some cool dudes who read this blog. (Not for me, I loves it.) And the sound quality is not so good, but that's all part of it.

I think it's a terrific song, but there is a point to this other than "Hope you enjoy the song." I'll come to that in a minute. But first, hats off to a bloke in the West Country who had a wonderful, simple idea.

So there's this bloke down in Somerset who offers his very large garden shed to musicians who want to record in there. Large shed, but too small for an audience, so he videos them and puts them on YouTube. And he records them just with his digital camcorder. No backline, no PA, more or less as you might hear the music wafting in from the bar over the road if you were strolling past. No lights, no DJs, just the chaps (in this case) and their instruments and their voices.

Apparently he thought he'd attract locals who'd fancy a bit more exposure. He did at first, then he got Seth Lakeman, Martha Tilston, Daft Monkeys, Ahab, Steve Knightley, and for the 100th session, he got - Fairport Convention. Big fish. I just love the idea that Fairport get 20,000 of us at Cropredy, and also are happy to do a home video in a garden shed with no-one and no gear apart from a little camcorder.

The website is, of course,

What a brilliant idea.

As for the song - well I love it. It's written by Ralp McTell, and it's on Fairport's latest album "Festival Bell," where of course it's well recorded, and Gerry Conway can play his full kit, pushing things along beautifully. Fairport are the band who can play anything, and watching their fluency and drive is one of the many great pleasures for me at Cropredy. And can they ever tell a story! As the above demonstrates.

The song itself is based on the home-made movie of Irving Johnson, a farm-boy from Massachussets who dreamed of sailing round the Horn on the square-rigger "Peking." So he did, and made a home movie, "Around Cape Horn."(1929.) He added a narration much later, and this inspired McTell to write a rattling good ditty about it. (If this stuff grabs your imagination as it does mine, your other text might be "The Last Grain Race," by the wonderful Eric Newby.)

And the song's relevance to this blog?

"If you want to love your life you have to flirt with death."

You don't have to sail round Cape Horn on "Peking" to do that, but perhaps somehow, you have to get close enough to the fact of your own mortality to understand and live the true wonder and intensity of your own, one-off, unique life. On this planet. Here. NOW.

"A First Content With The Universe..."

I know that at least one or two readers of this mighty blog have a powerful feeling for the cycle of seasons and for identification with the natural world in general. Robert Byron was probably the first modern travel writer, with his "The Road to Oxiana." He wrote this beautiful piece about British flora. We have to allow him the fact that he didn't seem to consider that he might have a daughter...but that was then and this is now. Anyway he was, according to Wikipedia, gay, so either this was written before he understood his own sexuality, or it represents simply a powerful imaginative reaching out towards something that was unlikely to happen. (Gay people did not adopt children back then.)

I was asked to read it at a funeral. I thought it was such a beautful way of saying "thank you" from a daughter to her mother, for an introduction to the web of life and cycle of the seasons.

But when I first started reading it, I thought it might simply be one of those over-delicate, precious Edwardian reveries, kind of sub-Kenneth Graham at his worst. By the time I'd finished it, I was intoxicated. Just let the names get to work, sit back and let go....

All These I Learnt

If I have a son, he shall salute the lords and ladies, who unfurl green hoods to the March rains, and shall know them afterwards by their scarlet fruit.

He shall know the celandine, and the frigid, sightless flowers of the woods, spurge and spurge laurel, dogs' mercury, wood-sorrel and queer four-leaved herb-paris fit to trim a bonnet with its purple dot.

He shall see the marshes gold with flags and kingcups and find shepherd's purse on a slag-heap. He shall know the tree-flowers, scented lime-tassels, blood-pink larch-tufts, white strands of the Spanish chestnut and tattered oak-plumes.

He shall know orchids, mauve-winged bees and claret-coloured flies climbing up from mottled leaves. He shall see June red and white with ragged robin and cow parsley and the two campions. He shall tell a dandelion from sow thistle or goat's beard. He shall know the field flowers, lady's bedstraw and lady's slipper, purple mallow, blue chicory and the cranesbills - dusky, bloody, and blue as heaven.

In the cool summer wind he shall listen to the rattle of harebells against the whistle of a distant train, shall watch clover blush and scabious nod, pinch the ample vetches, and savour the virgin turf. He shall know grasses, timothy and wag-wanton, and dust his finger-tips in Yorkshire fog.

By the river he shall know pink willow-herb and purple spikes of loosestrife, and the sweetshop smell of water-mint where the rat dives silently from its hole. He shall know the velvet leaves and yellow spike of the old dowager, mullein, recognise the whole company of thistles, and greet the relatives of the nettle, wound-wort and hore-hound, yellow rattle, betony, bugle and archangel.

In autumn, he shall know the hedge lanterns, hips and haws and bryony. At Christmas he shall climb an old apple-tree for mistletoe, and know whom to kiss and how.

He shall know the butterflies that suck the brambles, common whites and marbled white, orange-tip, brimstone, and the carnivorous clouded yellows. He shall watch fritillaries, pearl-bordered and silver-washed, flit like fireballs across the sunlit rides. He shall run to the glint of silver on a chalk-hill blue - glint of a breeze on water beneath an open sky - and shall follow the brown explorers, meadow brown, brown argus, speckled wood and ringlet.

All these I learnt when I was a child and each recalls a place or occasion that might otherwise be lost. They were my own discoveries. They taught me to look at the world with my own eyes and with attention. They gave me a first content with the universe.

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Saturday, 20 August 2011

A Mindful Poem

Here's a really rather wonderful poem by a fellow funeral celebrant, Jonathan Taylor, who works down in Devon. He is part of the Green Fuse network. It seems to me a mindfulness primer, a miniature tutorial in how to live well; I think I'd trust a man who can write this to see me off under the ground! The "hinge" in the middle works so well, and the last word makes what seems to me, coming after the rest of the poem, a profound point.

Well, see what you think.

My Last Day

They say live each day as if it were your last.

Well, I ask you, how impractical can you get?
If today had been my last day
I wouldn't have wasted it going to work!
I'd have gone to see my loved ones
to tell them of the joy they give me;
how their love has enriched my life;
how sad I am to be leaving them alone without me;
to be leaving the world where they live;
how full of regret I'm feeling.

They'd get pretty pissed off with me if I did that every day.

I've got a better idea.
Why not live each day as if it were your first?
You'd spend your life marvelling
at the fabulous, vibrant, living world around you.
Taking nothing for granted
you'd rediscover love every day.
You'd always be aware of what your loved ones mean to you,
how they delight you even when they're being horrible.
You'd want to give all of your love
to anyone who cared to receive it,
to share in the miracle of life with every solitary and universal heartbeat.
You'd trust anyone,
unless they proved themselves unworthy;
and you wouldn't care if they did -
wisdom would be their gift to you.
You'd be happy,
and free,
and every moment would overflow
with ridiculous promise.

Let the first be first
and the last be first.
And then move on,

Friday, 19 August 2011

Unmindful hedonism, futile destruction

Seems to me a more mindful approach to living in the present, a truer acceptance of our mortality, is actually at the opposite end of the sort of socially dangerous hedonism that exploded in our cities recently.

I mention this because "living in the moment" can be misinterpreted as living for the moment and the hell with the consequences. And because the rioters and looters I heard interviewed were really enjoying themselves. One of them said that of course he could afford to buy the trainers he'd nicked, but he'd enjoyed taking them for free. (Least, I think that's what he said - he was a little over-excited.) He also seemed to feel completely invulnerable, and certain the police wouldn't catch up with him, even when he was told that they had arrested 700 of his playmates.

I'm not touting a lack of mindfulness as "the cause" of what happened, but there is a link to be drawn, I think, between a directionless hedonism and our lack of insight into the nature of human life and death. Hovering your cursor over my title will take you a really good post on the GFG that has interesting things to say about this, and I've repeated my own comment just in case you don't go to the GFG post!

"What a great post. Cadaverous has got it, and so has his mate, with his pithy note that “consumer capitalism is driven by death energy.” The hedonic cycle is a displacement mania to avoid the truth of our life and its end.

We commoditise human relationships, even friendship, at our peril; we look for fulfilment in new things, where it can’t be found for long.

If we can accept the fact of our own mortality and live in full understanding that life is limited and full of risk and imperfection, rather than trying to turn ourselves into shiny things; if we can confront the fact of our own deaths, we might just live truly in the present a little more. We might understand that happiness isn’t free electronic gear."

And now hundreds of young people have seriosuly damaged their life choices for a night's fun and a flat-screen telly, and thousands of people damaged in various ways by those nights are left wondering...why?