David Green

David Green (Books) is the imprint under which I publish booklets of my own poems, when there are sufficient of them. Apart from that, the website has become what it is. I hope you find at least some of it worthwhile.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Why I Like Poetry

Of course, I don't like all poetry any more than I like all Northern Soul, all horse racing, everything about Scotland or Jacob Rees-Mogg. If I had to choose between books and music, I'd probably get it wrong and say books because eventually, I'm sure, I'd miss music more. But if I had to choose between music and poetry, poetry has no chance whatsoever. It's just that, at its best, poetry is a very wonderful thing, made only of words, on a page and/or heard aloud. It doesn't need an orchestra, amplification, paint, canvas and brushes or anything more solid than language. And language is not always a very solid thing.
Having been at various times, and in a low grade, footballer, cricketer, bike rider and other things to an even less exalted standard, poetry is what I'm left with, my output as frugal as it ever was and not much of it to be found these days beyond this website. I don't mind that. The answer to the question I was asked at a university interview in 1978 - 'Who do you write for- an audience or for yourself?'- is obvious now, it is for myself. And so as long as I'm happy, that is all that matters, except, on those rare occasions when I read my own poems, it can sometimes seem completely dreadful, sometimes look okay and then, once in a while I remember an apposite line, wonder who wrote it, realize it was me and then feel inordinately pleased with myself. The only real confirmation one gets is from a review or if someone takes the trouble to say that a particular piece struck them as being worthwhile. So, thanks to those that have ever done that.
But, poetry is not always a good thing and there is a misconception that calling something 'poetry' is an endorsement. While it might be meant that way, the fact that something is poetry is no guarantee of its worth. I don't mean Pam Ayers and the like. Pam is fine by me and I hope her teeth are now well maintained. I recently bought the Collected William Empson, a poet whose work I was sure was exactly my sort of thing, a book I possibly thought I already had before realizing I didn't and one of the few poets whose Collected Poems is shorter than mine would be. But I don't like it at all. Stiff, mannered and unrewardingly difficult, it might have been the fashion once but it's no surprise to find it isn't any longer.
Which makes me think of the vibrant, latest generation of poets that were born into a world of allusive cleverness. While they are admired for their individual 'voices', the new ways in which they see the world and all the benefit that many have accrued from their Creative Writing courses, so much bewildering variety, inventiveness and studied style eventually amounts to a sameness. Oh, no, don't tell me that this one is 'different', 'new' or somehow invigorating. All the others are like that, too.
The problem with poetry is that it is very precious- and rarely more precious than it is to its author. I'm not usually a fan of haiku in English but the late Brian Wells wrote one about a poetry reading at which every poet privately thinks their poems are the best. At least Brahms had the decency to destroy some of his music because he thought it didn't compare with Beethoven. But before this turns into 'Why I don't like poetry', here are some examples of why I like it.
Thom Gunn is the example that made me want to be a poet in the same way that George Best made me want to be a footballer. I find it hard to believe that anybody suddenly takes to any activity without the example of a precursor. The loosening of Gunn's attitude from existential, separate protagonist, through masterpieces like My Sad Captains, to his later poetry of empathy, community and sharing, reflected in the way he moves between strictly metrical and free verse and stations in between ended all the stand-off debate about whether poetry should rhyme and scan or not. Because there was one who did both consummately.
Poems like Stars Moving Westwards in a Winter Garden by Julia Copus, Martin Mooney's Dream of the Fisherman's Wife (amongst others), Muldoon's magnificent Incantata, the whole idea of Rosemary Tonks and much of Elizabeth Bishop, and, of course, Larkin in An Arundel Tomb and in any number of other places, were and remain ideals of some sort of artistic zenith with no other means of support than ideas exquisitely realized. But, to quote some lines, which I'll do from memory and only then check, the ending of Latinists by Sean O'Brien, his evocation of a schoolroom and the teacher of that dry, old, exhilarating essential language, explains the non-plussed with chiming erudition,
When the stare you award me
Takes longer than Rome did 
To flower and vanish, I notice
The bells are not working in heaven today.
And I very nearly got it right. There won't be many others who have the choice between checking it in a copy signed, 'Hull June '97' or one inscribed as 'Sean's reading copy' that I saved from e-Bay. Because I don't regard poetry as such as 'something I like' but rather something without which I wouldn't even be me. It isn't my own poetry I like that much, I still think I should have been a journalist, something even less reputable. No,
The great thing about poetry is that it was always the finest thing in school, university or ever after, to do whatever you wanted to do, be whatever you wanted to be and associate yourself with whoever you wanted to because even if a good many poets were reprobates, mavericks, ne'er-do-wells or even deeply conservative types of a religious disposition, it was 'homework' or 'culture' or highly respected and it is Shakespeare and so, somehow, one is credited with having the moral high ground. And, as Ken Dodd would say, 'they couldn't touch you for it'
And so, that seems like a good place to end Why I Like. I hope you've had at least a small fraction of the enjoyment I've had writing them if you've been reading them.
The illustration here is The Poet by Fernando Botero (1987). 

Monday, 23 February 2015

Gig. Havant Friday.

Wendy Klein. Spring Arts Centre, Havant, Friday, Feb 27th, 7.45pm.

One of the 'local poets' on the undercard for this event is provisionally me.

Wendy's work looks well worth further investigation and it is about time I was out and about, involved with such things and so why not do a turn.
There are plenty of reasons why not, actually, but I hope to make it there anyway. I was looking through my recent poems to see which I might include alongside poems from The Perfect Murder and I thought they were all awful. Sometimes they do look awful. But sometimes they look okay and then I see that Never, the one about the graverobbers in Warblington churchyard, has been picked for South 51 and so it must be that one, then.


Friday, 20 February 2015

Cheltenham 2015 Preview

There are probably too many 'legends' accorded that status these days but there will be a few on view at Cheltenham, some of them for the last time. Nobody could deny it to A.P. McCoy whose 20 champion jockey titles was completely unthinkable before it comes about and will be completely unrepeatable. Hurricane Fly, with his litany of Grade One Hurdle wins, can't be denied it either. Sprinter Sacre was probably the best horse I've seen in the flesh (which includes Desert Orchid and Dancing Brave) but was denied an enormous dominance of the two-mile chase division by medical problems, Faugheen is quite likely to make a case for himself in the Champion Hurdle and there are potential legends-to-be lurking in the novice races, like Un De Sceaux.
Among the trainers, Paul Nicholls is a candidate for legendary status as is Willie Mullins although it is harder to admire those who manage things rather than those that actually do things.
Mullins could have three winners out of the first four races on Day One. He has the short-priced favourite in three but, statistically, the treble is not likely to happen.
I'm going to begin by opposing Douvan in the Supreme Novices while at the same time recording my gratitude for the way he sauntered all over the opposition in his last race at 1/3 and held together my great January betting coup. This race should the the one that Qewy turns up in, who was deeply impressive under A.P. at Newbury when leaving behind what had looked like a good class field. I've had a bit of 14/1 and put him in a yankee that would make me significantly richer if three other results came in along with him.
It is fondly gazing at my ante post Cheltenham bets that makes this such an entrancing time of year however less pretty they often look when the party is over.
Un De Sceaux got the most rapturous reviews of the season when leaving two respected novice chasers in another county last time out and however much Paul Nicholls likes Vibrato Valtat, there's not much you can do in the Arkle unless you want to lump on at 4/7. I don't particularly feel like doing that although for many Un De Sceaux will be an investment rather than a bet. And so we go to the handicap where I like Ned Stark but hope that Sausalito Sunrise can get some well deserved compensation for watching the back end of Kings Palace in the first part of the season.
In the Champion Hurdle, one quite readily these days puts a line through Hurricane Fly at Cheltenham and doesn't mean it when one says he is a 'flat track bully'. I can see why there is an argument for Jezki each way but each way isn't something I do at 6/1. I've followed The New One as if he was my own offspring ever since his first race over hurdles and everything he did, usually at odds of 1/6, this season looked fine until the jumping went horribly wrong in ground too soft at Haydock and, it has to be said, anything that The New One could do, Faugheen looked as if he could do it better. I'd be the happiest person not called Twiston-Davies if he could slipstream the favourite to the last and then burst past him up the hill. But Faugheen has looked like a machine and last week Blue Heron made a literal reading of the form book into a massive endorsement and so maybe last year was The New One's year and we can only think of what might have been. Which in my case would have been a handsome pile of cash.
But I will suggest another for Tuesday, in the last, because Sego Success was an essential part of my successful four trebles a few weeks ago when I carelessly omitted to do the accumulator. Even when you win, you know you should have won more. Down the back, I think it was at Haydock, I thought he was struggling to stay with the pace but he kept on galloping and jumping, which is all you ask of a stayer, and by the end he had seen them all off. This is further, I think, and so for those who like a 5/1 chance, I think it's one worth taking.
I don't think I've ever had a bet in a novice handicap and I won't start here but the RSA Chase has been a good race for me over the years. Some of my advance tickets have Kings Palace written on them even though I'm well aware he was a confident selection over hurdles this time last year and disappointed hugely. And so, with Don Poli, The Young Master and Coneygree up against him, I doubt if I'll be augmenting what I have already. Don Poli has been a friend to me before and might be a hedge bet but it mainly looks like a tremendous race in prospect if one can be satisfied with just the sport and no ulterior interest in the outcome. I think I can manage that.
Garde La Victoire deserves the Coral Cup, who is an unusual horse in that I love him even though he loses when I tip him or back him and wins when I don't. I hope I coincide with him one day and I'll probably have a shilling on him on the day because I like him much more than I like the Coral Cup.
Whereas the tip for Wednesday is definitely Mr Mole in the Champion Chase. 8/1 with Paddy as I write, I much prefer the up-and-coming potential to the comeback horses. Sire de Grugy runs tomorrow and we will know more after that but, remembering how I said last year to keep More of That on your side in the World Hurdle, 8/1 looks good to me. Sprinter Sacre perhaps did run a decent race at Sandown and 'just got tired' but I also remember Istabraq pulling up after two hurdles in a comeback race. You don't get 8/1 if you don't take anything on, so I think Mr Mole is worth a go.
And then, for reasons beyond me, we have the Cross Country Chase, a handicap hurdle and the bumper. Oh, yes, now I remember. The festival needs must be 4 days long.
It might be a better idea to hold the JLT Chase in Ireland unless Ptit Zig can outgun the invaders but I can't get involved too much in that treacherous water until the day. The Pertemps Hurdle is another episode of hurly burly in which I hope rather than expect Big Easy might finally win rather finish second for reasons beyond his control. But the Ryanair Chase is a race that chasers have at that distance which is sadly not available to hurdlers despite the number of makeweight races in the four-day festival. Listen up, Cheltenham. Which race was the late Oscar Whisky supposed to go for, not being smart enough for the Champion Hurdle but not quite staying the World Hurdle distance. And there is Wonderful Charm sitting in there somewhat forlornly at 16/1, a little bit overlooked perhaps.
But I'll gladly advise Saphir de Rheu for Thursday's World Hurdle, at 11/2, with a bit of a motley history but going the Big Bucks route without necessarily being Big Bucks. But, who can say. He might have a few World Hurdles in him in what suddenly doesn't look as competitive a discipline as it did last year.
And eventually it will be Friday, but make sure you have saved enough to back Peace & Co (pictured, nap) because he was hugely impressive first time out, saw off better opposition comfortably next time, could be absolutely anything in the future and is surely bigger and better than tough, little fighter and stablemate, Hargam. They should know. In olden days, the Triumph Hurdle was a torrential throng of 4yo talent, nobody knew what was going to happen and it often threw up a 16/1 winner. But it's not so much that nowadays. There is some science to it, Peace & Co looks absolutely solid and unless signals go out that suggest any doubt, I'll probably add to my small portfolio of modest investments about him.
The novice stayers hurdle is a favourite race, bringing back memories of the great Black Jack Ketchum, but this year it might be a matter of choosing between some good form shown by Vyta du Roc or the fact that Beast of Burden is trained by the lovely Rebecca and shares his name with the Rolling Stones' best record. Sometimes you just want to have a couple of quid and care less.
Garde La Victoire is in the County Hurdle as well and the same applies as above and then, just when you thought you'd had enough, it's the Gold Cup.
I've been a massive fan of Silviniaco Conti for a long time, not for any flashy talent, but for his way of defying and outstaying all boarders. He cost me first time out this year, for sure, but he has been forgiven that. This year's Gold Cup reminds me of Little Polveir's eventual success in the Grand National. He fell and he unseated but I believed he was a National horse and, sticking with him a third time, I had a 33/1 winner. We won't be getting 33/1 about Silviniaco Conti but I did flag up on this website before Christmas that the 8/1 was to be had. I have a nice little ante post double that says Faugheen 2/1, Silviniaco Conti 8/1 and I don't feel like selling it back to Paddy.
He fell when travelling well in behind Bobsworth two years ago and then looked all over the winner last year until veering across the course in an awful Gold Cup which, we are led to understand, was due to an abcess in his foot. I'll buy that from Paul Nicholls but we have since seen Many Clouds look quite good and, I think, Carlingford Lough look possibly better. I will hedge a little bit against my long term bets with a few quid on A.P. winning one more Gold Cup.
So, the genuine suggestions are those in bold type and the treble this year is not a treble, it's a yankee and it is Peace & Co, Sego Success, Mr Mole and Saphir du Rheu.
I won't see you in Barbados once they've all won because I've taken against hot weather and my passport is about to run out. But I will see you, vaguely, in a champagne bar.
And, after that, I'll not want to watch another horse race for a while. I might appreciate a walk on the seafront, consider whether I should take a wife and decide against it and then it will be time for the Grand National in which I have taken 25/1 about Unioniste which remains the tip despite the possibility that most of the top weights won't run and he might be given too much to carry but he's done everything right, just like all those National winners that I backed until it came to a sorry end after Comply or Die, backed at 25/1 and tipped to anybody who wanted to know until it won at 8/1 fav. I don't think I've been closer than fifth since and my planned book on How to Back the Grand National Winner has not yet been written.

Why I Like Jacob Rees Mogg

The star of the BBC's documentary series, The House of Commons, has been the MP for North Somerset. He is known in parliament as the 'member for the C18th' and I've rarely seen anybody happier in their work, gleefully filibustering to deliberately subvert the work of the democratic process, glorying in arcane procedure and checking his speeches in the draft of Hansard to correct any errata and re-enjoy the flow his own 'mellifluous' prose. Although apparently very self-conscious, he is either blissfully unaware of the absurdity of it all or, more likely, he relishes it.
Jacob Rees Mogg might be regarded as a throwback to a bygone age but which age that exactly was is hard to say, and perhaps there has always been a vogue for fogeyism that he would have followed whatever age he had lived in. If you think you've seen him somewhere before, it might be Cuthbert Cringeworthy you are thinking of, the swot in The Bash Street Kids. 
Of course, I'm not a devoted fan and I'd be reluctant to vote for his euro-sceptic and other right-wing principles if there was a sack of gravel standing against him but his quaint demeanour, intense desire to express himself in carefully considered, grammatically correct sentences sets him apart from his colleagues, the sinister Michael Gove and the equally unpleasant George Osborne whose role seems to be to make David Cameron look statesmanlike. And they do.
I was lucky enough to catch an old Have I Got News for You on Dave last night and I was impressed by Jacob's performance. He remained demure and unflappable in the company of Jo Brand, Hislop, Merton and Kevin Bridges. He raised his eyebrows a lot, looked about a little nervously but, honestly, it didn't look as if he knew what Jo was talking about most of the time. He might not know much about gangsta rap but he knew all the stuff about Westminster. He is infinitely preferable to the bluster and bombast of Boris and his innate sense of entitlement inures him against any criticism of unworldliness, Old Etonian privilege or downright weirdness. That is all a part of the act. And it is probably not even an act, not a bit of it.
The BBC programme highlighted the great ovation accorded to Ed Miliband by the Conservative members whenever he enters the Commons, it being their way of indicating that he is their greatest electoral asset. The Labour Party could do worse than reply with posters featuring Gove, Osborne and Rees Mogg if the election campaign is to be as negative as expected.
But Jacob's devotion to Westminster and the political process is likely to mean that we don't get to see enough celebrity appearances. He is probably not going to follow the populist strategy of Boris, for who (and Jacob would say 'for whom', I dare say) any and every publicity stunt is the air that he breathes. Both model themselves on classical templates but from very different positions. Jacob's studied antiquity is a fine and elegant thing whereas Boris is boorish, muddled and incoherent. And so it is unlikely that, if I were to become controller of BBC1, I could realize my ambition of replacing the dull, ex-pro pundits on Match of the Day with a panel of Jacob Rees Mogg and John Cooper-Clarke.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Why I Like Scotland

I don't like whisky, I don't like bagpipes and I didn't used to like Billy Bremner but I like Scotland. I used to like haggis very much before becoming vegetarian although was less impressed at a Bed & Breakfast place that the vegetarian option was fish pie.  There is such a thing as a vegetarian haggis but that seems to miss the point.
Of the tiny fraction of my life that has been spent outside of England, inevitably the most visits have been to nearby Wales, France and Scotland and I found no evidence for the racial stereotype of parsimoniousness north of the border and was met with the most generous hospitality each time. I'm not much of an admirer of nationalism of any kind and it would be better to define Scotland by its Scottishness rather than that it is 'not England' in much the same way that UKIP might benefit from celebrating the United Kingdom, by which many seem to mean 'England', rather than just 'not Europe'. But if the Nationalists don't want to be part of the UK, perhaps they could be re-branded as South West Norway. If you follow the lines of Loch Ness and the highlands one can see that geologically, the North Sea is a mere aberration in what would otherwise be a coherent land mass.
But I always had the impression that Scotland had a more rigorous education system, a clearer setting out of certain laws and a culture in which being a poet, a 'makar', was not something that needed excusing or regarded as marginal but was naturally a part of their lives. In England it is treated as 'highbrow' or a bit different and there would be a difficulty in assimilating the idea that Pat Nevin could appear on a quiz show about art while also being a professional footballer.
It's not all scenery and photogenic landscapes although even the cities have a doughty authority, from Arthur's Seat and the well-mannered architectural design of Edinburgh where Miss Jean Brodie speaks a finer English than anyone in England, or Glasgow's imposing necropolis. From the kingdom of Fife and the lilting accent of Kirkcaldy, one can move up the coast to the historic glamour of St. Andrews (sadly, to their slight demerit, the Scots are credited with the invention of golf) to Inverness, which is a hidden treasure, not far from where I picked some of the best food I've ever had, their raspberries. Down the west coast, Oban is an impressive gateway to Mull and the Western Isles by the formidable Caledonian MacBrayne ferries, to the haven of Iona, the legendary Fingal's Cave and all those places like Benbecula from the shipping forecast.
I believe that now the long, last stretch up to John O'Groats is economically not viable and is mainly there for cyclists and other End-to-End travellers to have to cover before arriving to find the John O'Groats Hotel is boarded up and there is a postcard shop and a small fleet of fishing boats in the harbour.
Scotland wouldn't be the only country with a romantic view of itself, nor without an abrasive element that finds itself a little too proud of being who they are. I was at Hampden Park for the match that marked the opening of the refurbished stadium when World Champions, France, were the guests who turned up with Thierry Henri, Laurent Blanc, Lilian Thuram and those casually took the hosts apart by two goals to nil. It was just my luck, having heard all the stories about the friendliness and sporting Scottish supporters to sit next to the only two exceptions to the rule. The racism, bile and hatred that came out of the little vermin and his girlfriend can't be repeated here but at the end, he turned to the French people sitting behind us and offered some kind words of congratulation. But for 90 minutes we had been invoked to stand up if you hated England, heard repeated choruses of how Edward I had been sent back 'tae think again' some 700 years earlier and Kevin Keegan was advised to cheer up, to the tune of Daydream Believer, despite being England manager.
But the storm-lashed islands that look so idyllic in better weather and the dreich cities on rainy days are home to an admirable resilience and clarity. On arriving in Edinburgh once (it might have been Glasgow) we were walking through a shopping precinct on Friday lunchtime and a man came flying backwards out of a pub door. Nobody seemed to mind. By 1 pm, it wasn't easy to find a spare table in the pub. It was hard to say if the weekend had begun early or if the previous ones had never ended. Nobody seemed too concerned that such a session followed by a Mars Bar in batter supper resulted in some English advice that life expectancy in some areas was less than 60. And I admire that attitude.
I admire the Old Man of Hoy; the last inhabitants of St. Kilda; Ochilview Park, home of Stenhousemuir FC, with its eponymous view of the Ochil Hills; Don Paterson, James Macmillan and the Jesus & Mary Chain.
On a coach excursion in Austria, the tour guide had to go through the bus checking the nationality of each of our party.
'Are you English?' 'Yes.'
'Are you English?' 'Yes.'
'Are you English?' 'No. I'm Scottish.'
Well, exactly.


Thursday, 12 February 2015

Tasmin's Mendelssohn/BSO

Tasmin Little, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Daniele Rustioni, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Portsmouth Guildhall, Feb 12th.

We were aware of empty seats around us in the Guildhall and after the interval there were noises off which might have spoiled the atmosphere for some. A special offer of a reduced price of 19 pounds rather than, I think, 21.50 was not enough enticement to make people come and fill the place but the obvious appreciation of those that do go, plus some of the knowledgeable conversation one can overhear at the bus-stop afterwards, should be enough to ensure the BSO keep coming to Portsmouth for some time yet.
The well-known Lieutenant Kije Suite filled the dreaded opening position on the programme, the piece one is least likely to remember afterwards. It is familiar enough not to need remembering but the Andante was new to me, or seemed so, and a gentle movement it will be worth returning to. On an evening when not all was to be bravura and dramatic, the principal cello, Jesper Svedberg, had a prominent part, as he was to do also in the symphony later on.
Then Tasmin made her entrance, at first apparently dressed as a Terry's Chocolate Orange. It was an eye-catching frock and you need to be good to carry such things off. That wasn't a worry. This was at least the fifth time I've seen her and she's never less than wonderful. There's never any doubt that she's enjoying it as much if not more than her audience, which was particularly clear in the dazzling third movement.
The Mendelssohn Violin Concerto (in E. It was news to me that there's an earlier one in D minor), insinuates itself quietly but immediately before soon raising the tone. It's one of the most memorable openings of any concerto, not for its fortissimo or grand entrance but for its confidence not to do that. There is plenty to thrill to coming up and Mendelssohn's first bars here are a contained masterstroke. Again, the Andante was a treasure with Tasmin trilling on one note while bowing others, illustrating perfectly one of many reasons why it is so much better to see such music played live rather than merely hear a recording or broadcast. But in the third movement, the fingerwork in the nimble dance of the vivace finale, was even better. Not that it needed to be any better in a great, lyrical account of one of the greatest in a deep repertoire of violin concertos.
But, what, no encore. We were out late, as it happened- the BSO concerts are usually a 9.30 finish on the dot- and so one can see why, but, if I was to be really over-demanding, I'd have swapped the Kije for a Bach Partita or even a sonata by Veracini.
Some recompense was soon had, though, when Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 1, 'Winter Daydreams', proved to be some way ahead of what I vaguely remembered it being. I had gone because it was Tasmin and the Mendelssohn and was making no secret of the fact that there were any number of other symphonies I'd rather have to accompany them. However, Tchaikovsky 1 was raised up in my estimation (and I hope it's pleased about that). Somehow reminding me of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, which is a very good thing to do, in not only its opening but at other times, too, and it did very much what it set out to do if the evocation of winter daydreams was a programmatic intention. Luckily, my homemade musical vocabulary consists mostly in a lack of any musical expertise but also, I hope, a determined avoidance of pretension and so I will not be advising that I thought it 'occupied the same soundscape' as the Berlioz and so I'm a bit surprised to find that Symphonie Fantastique was written in 1830 but Tchaikovsky 1 not until 1866. But perhaps things moved more slowly then. But I think it's fair to say that Russia and France were culturally more akin in the C19th than either shared with England.
David Daly, as principal double bass, also had a fine evening with some resonant, considered pizzicato.
But it was by no means all pacific, soporific and redolent of reverie. Tchaikovsky was to write some much bigger and louder pieces than this and he began to get warmed up by building to a few crescendos before the final, biggest, crashing one here during which the young conductor, Daniele Rustioni, became more animated before excelling himself by jumping round to face the audience on the last chord and I'm sure everybody enjoyed that. You can check You Tube for as long as you want but I don't think you'll find Karajan or Sir Malcolm Sargent doing that.
It's never anything less than a great evening with the BSO and/or Tasmin and I never tire of saying so. Portsmouth needs them a bit more than they need Portsmouth, perhaps, as well as any more of their kind. Honestly, we are never less than grateful.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Record Review

Machaut, The Dart of Love, The Orlando Consort (Hyperion); Veracini, Violin Sonatas, Valerio Losito, Federico Del Santo (Brilliant Classics)

.I thought we were in the same area as the Gothic Voices' Castle of Fair Welcome with Guillaume de Machaut, but not really. Machaut died in 1377 whereas the stars of the other album are Robert Morton, born c 1430, Gilles de Binchois, born c 1400, and Guillaume Dufay, 1397. But I hope it's fair to say that stylistic change between generations was not quite as rapid as it has become six hundred years later.
Machaut, or at least the account of these ballades and motets by the Orlando Consort, takes a more rarified account of love than the sensual Le Souvenir de vous me tue of Morton or the general tenor of the Castle. It would appear to be a more academic and studied business for Machaut, which is not to say that these pieces are necessarily cold but they have a more monastic air about them.
Why I was interested in it was the quartet setting of countertenor, two tenors and baritone. I was expecting something more like string quartets for voices but that was my mistake since the string quartet was still 400 years ahead of Machaut. So it is something much barer that we get here, sometimes almost forbiddingly so, but greater familiarity and closer listening reveal harmonies and interplay weaving their pattern of expression, most unusually in the one piece questionably attributed not to Machaut but to Denis Le Grant.
Track 11, Ballade 17, Sans cuer, m'en vois/Amis dolens/Dame, par vous, creates a hypnotic, glowing bell-like cantus firmus, full of conventional complaints of sorrow but ending in some resolution that the lady being addressed comforts the poet, quite possibly Machaut himself, 'for all the miseries it has been his lot to experience' and that he is 'brought to life again by her, transported to paradise from the hell he formerly inhabited'. It doesn't always work but it's worth a try. Such a gambit is always likely to backfire, though, if she was looking for someone with a bit more adventure in them.
I'm not disappointed in the album but these pieces are not going to displace Robert Morton as favourites from this distant epoch, all of which comes to us sounding so clear and clean and wholesome.
Whereas I am utterly exhilarated by Veracini, who I heard twice on the radio two weekends ago by some odd quirk of programme planning, never having heard of him before. It is said that when Tartini heard Veracini play in 1716, he was so impressed that he retreated from Venice to Ancona to further improve his own technique. And that is the Tartini famous for his own 'devil's trill'.
Accompanied by a harpsichord that is always doing its bit without being intrusive, Valerio Losito must be quite some player, too, to take on the challenge of these sonatas 'from unpublished manuscripts'.
As so often proves to be the case with these virtuoso players and composers, Veracini has some extraordinary biographical notes to add to his musical ones, he
survived a fall from the second floor window of a house, and lost all that he had in a shipwreck.
The recording, in a chiesa in Rieti, is captured perfectly with a close-up of the baroque violin's string tone but also a sense of space around it. As it moves through its ever widening themes, slow, fast and ultimately, at times, flamboyant, I had to eventually stop and concentrate a bit harder, knowing that this was the first time I'd ever heard these pieces. I'm not sure if great music is more impressive the first time you hear it or when you know what's coming but I'm sure that the best things are impressive first time out and it was immediately apparent that Veracini belonged in that top bracket of baroque violin music with the Bach Sonatas and Partitas, the Heinrich Biber, and then the Buxtehude, the Westhoff and Thomas Baltzar I only found out about in recent years and, of course, Corelli and Vivaldi. I am ashamed it took me so long to find out.
It is, by now, a slightly specialist area and not everybody in Europe in the first half of the C18th knew about this music. They needed to be affluent enough to be able to hear it played live and couldn't return to whichever composer they wanted to listen to on a CD. So, one great advantage of technological progress and a genuine improvement in the way we live now is that even a lowly clerk like me can listen to it whenever they want.
This is the most impressive music I have found out about, and one of the best discs I have bought, in recent years.
John Peel used to say he was always more interested in the music he hadn't heard than that which he had. I never agreed with that. I wasn't prepared to swap the Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Tallis, Shostakovich, Sibelius and the Motown, reggae, T. Rex, Jesus & Mary Chain and the Magnetic Fields for a whole pile of stuff I had not yet come across, no matter how widely I had been looking.
But on Track 12 here, the Allegro from the prosaically entitled Sonata in A, it is just pure showing off, without even any contribution from the harpsichord, and one begins to wonder if Peel had a point.
But, thank heavens, we don't have to choose. If you didn't have what you knew already, you would have nothing to judge the rest by to know how brilliant this is. I've no idea how much it cost, probably less than a tenner, but it was worth all of that and all of it a few more times over.
Absolutely sensational. It is a shame it is dated 2014 or it would be long odds on to be the best disc of this year.     

   

Friday, 6 February 2015

Why I Like Astronomy

The Sun is 400 times bigger then the Moon and also 400 times further away and that is why a total eclipse is as remarkable as it is, the Sun blacked out by the dark side of the Moon, which we otherwise couldn't see, but still the fiery corona visible, lashing out from its surface.
I was a junior astronomer with my plastic telescope that cost 3/6, having had my dad explain the Plough, Orion and Cassiopeia on dark winter nights in Nottingham. I was taken to a department store to see Father Christmas, aged 5 or 6, and was told to think of what I wanted for Christmas because that was what he would ask.
I said I'd like some books on Astronomy.
Well, ask him for that, then, I was advised. But I knew he wouldn't have any and I felt a bit embarrassed about it, either on my own account or for him, so when the moment came, I just said I'd like some books. And when I unwrapped it, it was a pop-up book of Cinderella. I was disappointed but it was my fault. But Father Christmas did bring the Observers Book of Astronomy and another one called  Stars, both of which I still have as well as one I authored myself at school, called Space.
There is less point in stargazing now, living in the city, whose lights don't shine but glare. Anything below a second magnitude star is barely visible and so once you've looked at the main constellations, and checked if any planets are about, that's it. But it is still a minor thrill to follow the tail of the Great Bear down to find Arcturus, alpha Bootes, which was always my favourite star. I thought I'd once seen Antares, in Scorpio, and even Fomalhaut, low down on the horizon, not usually very easy to see from our latitude but the days of comet Halle-Bopp were probably a highlight, in the 1990's, a smear of light over in the East for a few weeks.
Betelgeuse, in Orion's shoulder, is likely to come to the end of its life soon, which means any time in the next million years. It would be a supernova, visible in the day time, for a short while before disappearing from sight. It would be odd to see Orion with Betelgeuse suddenly missing and in a way I hope I don't live to see that, although it would be quite an occasion. It's unlikely we will see that, none of us, no human at all.
Because all the speculation about space travel and properly colonizing any other place in space is absurd. It takes eight minutes for light to get here from the Sun, over three quarters of an hour from Jupiter and 7.8 years from Sirius. It does seem amazing that it is only just over 100 years since the Wright brothers achieved any sort of flight and sixty years later men had flown to the Moon and back. And, thus, if such progress could continue exponentially, perhaps we could fly at the speed of light and reach nearby stars in a decade but they might not have suitably accommodating planets to land on when we got there.
The length of time we have been on this planet is a microscopic fraction of the time the Earth has been here and there is every chance we might not last as long again into the future. We will have come and gone in a blink and our chances of being here when any passing visiting aliens arrive are thus very slim indeed, never mind any chance we might have of finding anybody else out there.
We speculate and imagine ourselves the measure of it, measuring everything, quite naturally, in terms of ourselves. But we are not clever enough. A chair isn't clever enough to know it is a chair and that it was made by a carpenter and the same applies to us, we are not meant to know why we are here, and can't.
And so, rather than resort to existential anxiety, it is preferable to look and enjoy. All the stars that make up the constellations are in our galaxy, the rest of the galaxy being in the Milky Way, the blurry band of light that is our view of the spiral of stars that we are somewhere towards the edge of. The Arcturus that we see is Arcturus 37 years ago, but the Andromeda Galaxy we see is the Andromeda Galaxy of 2.5 million years ago, and the furthest known galaxy is apparently 13 billion light years away, so, realistically, travelling at the speed of light for 13 billion years, we are not going to get there, are we. According to much science fiction, if we did get there, we would find beings living there that looked like highly magnified locusts or mosquitoes. I don't think we would. I just think that shows the limits of our imagination, based as it is on things we have seen.
But whether one enjoys the glorious pictures of such things, wonders if one could do a good time trial on a bike with the 1000 mph winds on Neptune behind you, or just appreciate the art work of a little Nottingham schoolboy from the 1960's, I will always be grateful for the nights out in the garden when my dad showed me the Plough.
The other good thing about Astronomy, of course, is that by studying the stars, you know what is going to happen to you every day, or you can just look it up in the paper. I'm a Libra and I've just looked up my horoscope on horoscope.com and it says,
Obstacles may arise in the course of your chores when machines break down and interfere with your efficiency.
And, there you go, that proves it. The stars know what the computers are like in our office. Although, to be fair, they could say that every day.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Green on Villon

I will be addressing the Portsmouth Poetry Society on the subject of Francois Villon on Weds night,
7.30 pm, St. Mark's Church, North End. If you are in the area and have an interest in poetry, please consider yourself invited.
I might be overstating the case a little bit to give a more grandiose impression of what I might be doing. I am no specialist in Medieval French Poetry and what I'll be doing is reading a short prepared introduction, most of which is taken from elsewhere, and hoping that the usual keenness and perspicacity of the PPS members will take the discussion on from there.
There is no new insight due to be delivered that will take Villon Studies into a new era. His name came up last year in a poem and so I took the trouble to look him up and found a character I thought was worthy of further attention. And so that is what we will do.

New Candidate for Sonnets Dedication

Once in a while, but with a certain regularity, there is another story in the news about a new discovery that sheds light on the life of Shakespeare or even claims to answer once and for all one of the several unresolved questions about it. They can often be dismissed as the work of an academic with too much time on their hands and the need to publish something, anything, to fulfil their remit.
I can remember the discovery of a pipe with traces of drugs on it proving that Shakespeare was a user; that the use of French in a history play proved that the author had been to France and was thus identified as Sir Henry Neville and that Shakespeare was not the father of Hamnet and Judith, the twins attributed to him. (Actually, although that last theory wasn't mine, it appears on this website with further ideas in support of it and I still subscribe to it).
One might have thought the field had by now been exhausted of possible new discoveries and that nothing new would be found worth adding, that all that remains uncertain will remain uncertain forever. But yesterday's Observer featured a piece on new research, by Geoffrey Caveney, that is plausible, useful and could quite possibly cut out and simplify a whole area of debate. His contention is that Mr W.H., the dedicatee of the Sonnets, is the publisher William Holme, who died in 1607, who might have had some involvement in procuring the poems for publication or to whom their publication was a memorial.
Thus far, the main candidates, in order of likelihood, have been the two main candidates for the role of the 'fair youth', William Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke, whose initials have the advantage of being in the right order; Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, whose initials need to be reversed for the sake of making them fit, and then it is also suggested in more imaginative theories that the compositor missed out the S in a dedication to Mr. W. SH. Compositors seem to take an undue amount of blame in the cause of explaining away the pet manifestos of scholars who came later. Whenever a spelling is convenient, it is readily thought to be wrong whereas the rest of the text is apparently trusted implicitly.
As so often in the documentary evidence left to those trying to trace Shakespeare's life through it, like the will, the text is mysterious and can be read a number of ways by those with a mission to prove a point. In this dedication, the word 'begetter' is both complex and unfathomable. Surely, the poet begets a sonnet but, there again, the muse that inspires them could also be said to do so, which is roughly as far as the debate has gone until now. But the new suggestion, identifying a publisher, though not the one who put them through the press, might seem like an outside chance at first but gains credibility in the light of contemporary attitudes to copyright and ownership of texts. Whereas now the author asserts their right as such and puts a © with a date next to it on their work to say as much, the texts of Shakespeare's plays belonged firstly to the theatre company and most writers, it seems, were less proprietorial about their work. Ben Jonson oversees the publication of his plays for posterity and Shakespeare possibly puts his theatre friends in charge of the posthumous first folio but actual ownership of the text resides more with the businessman printer/publisher than the mere composer.
Thus, the candidacy of William Holme looks strong and will deserve the attention of the scholars involved in Shakespeare biography and not only I, for my marginal part, but also the doyen, Stanley Wells, look favourably upon it.
Taking up this theory as a genuine contribution to the biography doesn't discount or undermine the cases for either Herbert or Southampton as the 'fair youth'. In the first eighteen sonnets, a handsome young man is being encouraged to marry and reproduce his good looks and that isn't going to be Holme but the new differentiation of Holme and William Holmes, a publisher but not the same, makes him an attractive candidate for the dedication not only because it cuts out all the unresolvable speculation about which aristocrat Shakespeare was flattering but mainly because it has a solider look about it, we don't have to read it as a dedication from the poet and, as is explained in the article, to address Herbert or Wriothesley as 'Mr.' would have been an insult to their social standing rather than a fawning compliment.
And so, for once, I might have begun reading the latest revelation with a world-weary shrug and wondered 'what have they come up with now', but this time, I'm prepared to buy it and, you never know, perhaps one day it might be widely accepted that Shakespeare fathered one daughter, Susannah, but his wife was also mother to twins, Hamnet and Judith, whose father was in Stratford when Shakespeare might not have been.