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There’s nothing short of dying: an exhibition


I’d been listening to Bob Dylan talking about the song, ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down.’ It’s a great song and beautifully outlines the character of a Sunday. The song tells us about a man who awakes with a hangover and who then goes on to describe the distinctive feel of a Sunday. It’s an American song so there is the scent of frying chicken, a sidewalk, the distant sound of a church bell – and then there’s a small kid ‘cussin’ at a can that he is ‘kickin.’

But here’s the mood told by the singer – that Sunday mood:

‘… There’s something in a Sunday that makes a body feel alone –
And there’s nothing short of dying half as lonesome as the sound
On the sleeping city sidewalk – Sunday morning coming down.’

Perhaps, then, Sundays are always touched with a kind of reflective melancholia – of sobriety and of virtue on trial.

In fact, I don’t mind Sundays here in England. I don’t mind hearing the church bells and thinking about all the people who look forward to their special lunch – and I like pausing a bit – of stepping out and away from the ebb and flow of life. I like Sundays because I can live more easily in the company of my imagination. (It’s as if I switch off to switch on.) And one of the best aspects of my Sunday is the fact that, just down the road, the Oxfam Books and Music store is open all day. Along with the Art College and the old crumbling brick walls, the store is just about the best thing there is in the town in which I live.

Over the years I’ve found some enchanting music in the store. I picked up Mississippi John Hurt’s wonderful vinyl double album and Nina Simone’s ‘Little girl blue’ – and several ‘Blue Note’ records and lots of Neil Young and Bob Dylan. But the store is also packed full of terrific books. Most recently I bought Richard Ford’s ‘The lay of the land’ and Primo Levi’s ‘If Not Now, When?’ along with Janosch’s perfect ‘A Letter for Tiger.’ There are sofas in the store so anyone can choose a book, sit down and read whatsoever they wish. There’s a turntable too …

But on this most recent Sunday (14 July 2019) something different was there to delight me: I discovered that the Oxfam store had teamed up with the illustrators’ course at the local Art College to work on a really attractive project: The brief for the student illustrators was to take an old book – something with a plain and non-descript cover – and create a new design that would both reflect the content of the book and speak to a more contemporary audience. And the shop had a display featuring all the books along with the new designs created by the illustrators. I thought it was wonderful.

Each book had become a unique work of art. And each book cost 5 pounds sterling. I couldn’t make up my mind which out of several books to buy. So I will return to the store tomorrow. But, in the meantime, the photograph shows some of those designs. For me, this is a lovely example of how best to make use of the resources that we already have. Imagine: beautiful works of art for just 5 pounds.

Post script: Bob Dylan chose the song ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down‘ for an edition of his unusual radio show, ‘Theme time radio‘. It was broadcast a number of years ago. The song itself was written by Kris Kristofferson. It was recorded in 1969 by Ray Stevens before becoming a number one hit on the Billboard US Country charts for Johnny Cash.

Version 2

You’re always drawn to the crazy one


It’s a high school class in America. We’re in New York City. It’s all about Creative Writing and English. Language reveals the man; So, speak that I may see you!

A bell rings and the teacher begins the class:

Open your books. Turn to this poem, “My Papa’s Waltz,” by Theodore Roethke. If you don’t have a book look over someone’s shoulder. Stanley, would you read the poem aloud? Thanks.

And so Stanley reads the poem; it’s “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke:

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my waist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

Teacher: ‘Thanks again, Stanley. Take a few minutes to look over the poem again. Let it sink in. So, when you read the poem what happened?

The Class: ‘What do you mean, What happened?

Teacher: ‘You read the poem. Something happened, something moved in your head, in your body … Or nothing happened. You’re not required to respond to every stimulus in the universe. You are not weather vanes.

The Class: ‘Mr McCourt, what are you talking about?

Teacher: ‘I’m saying that you don’t have to respond to everything a teacher or anyone else sets before you.

But they look dubious: And collectively they seem to say: ‘Oh yeah, tell that to some of the teachers around here …

The Class: ‘Mr McCourt, do you want us to talk about what the poem means?

Teacher: ‘I’d like you to talk about whatever you’d like to talk about in the general neighbourhood of the poem. Bring in your grandmother if you like. Don’t worry about the “real” meaning of the poem. Even the poet won’t know that. When you read it something happened or nothing happened. Would you raise your hand if nothing happened. All right, no hands. So something happened, in your head or in your heart …

You’re a writer. What happens when you hear music? Chamber music, Rock? You see a couple arguing on the street. You look at a child rebelling against its mother. You see a homeless man begging. You see a politician giving a speech. You ask someone to go out with you. You observe the response of the other person. Because you’re a writer you ask yourself – always always always – What’s happening baby?

[I think he must mean: What’s happening to me – what’s it doing to me? and, What’s happening for them? What’s going on for them – or, what do I feel is going on for them? etc.]

And then the teacher succeeds in getting his students to respond to the poem by giving a first response:

Teacher: ‘Well, like this poem is about a father dancing with his kid and it’s not pleasant because the father is drunk and insensitive.

Brad responds: ‘If it’s not pleasant why does he hang on like death?

Monica: ‘There’s a lot going on here. The kid is dragged around the kitchen. He could be a rag doll for all the papa cares.

Brad, again: ‘There’s a giveaway word here: Romped. That’s a happy word, right? I mean he could have said danced, something ordinary. But he says romped, and, like you’re always telling us, a word can change the atmosphere of a sentence or a paragraph. So, romped creates a happy atmosphere.

Jonathon: ‘You can tell me if I’m out of order Mr McCourt but did your father ever dance you around the kitchen?

Teacher: ‘He never danced us around the kitchen, but he got us out of bed late at night to sing patriotic Irish songs and promise to die for Ireland.

Jonathon: ‘Yeah, I figured the poem had something to do with your childhood.

Teacher: ‘That’s partly true but I asked you to read this because it captures a moment, a mood, and … there might be a deeper meaning … What about the mother?

Sheila: ‘What’s going on in this poem is very simple. This guy has a hard job, coal miner or something. Comes home with a battered knuckle, hands caked with dirt. The mum sits over there – mad as hell – but she’s used to it. She knows it’s going to happen once a week when he gets paid. Like your dad, Mr McCourt. The kid loves his father because you’re always drawn to the crazy one. Doesn’t matter that the mother keeps the house going. Kid takes that for granted. So when the dad comes home, Oh, he’s all charged up from the drink and gets the kid all excited.

Teacher: ‘What happens when the poem finishes, David?

David: ‘The dad waltzes him off to bed. The mom puts the pans back on the kitchen shelf. Next day is Sunday and the dad gets up feeling lousy. The mom makes breakfast but won’t talk to anyone and the kid is caught between. He’s only about nine because he’s only tall enough to scrape his ear on the buckle. The mother would like to walk out and get a divorce because she’s sick of this lousy life but she can’t because she’s stuck in the middle of West Virginia and there’s no escape when you don’t have money.

And so it goes on … and the pupils’ responses to the poem begin to connect with how the text and meanings could be made into a film and how poems are great if they are taken as they are and not over-analysed.

It all finishes with a wonderful dispute between two of those high school classmates:

One takes the view that there would be nothing more boring than making a film about people falling out over the interpretation of a sonnet. The other retorts: ‘Teacher, tell him he can kiss my arse.

And to this the teacher replies: ‘That’s a message you’ll have to deliver yourself.

The bell rings. Life goes on.


Footnote: We used to try and work like this when we were ‘teaching’ things like ‘managing people’ or ‘personal ethics’; we didn’t have specified objectives; we wanted to let realities unfold and truths emerge. Of course, sooner or later, a more repressive regime took over. All the creative stuff was eliminated. And that was that.

This excerpt is taken from Frank McCourt’s book, ‘Teacher man.’ Frank McCourt is the teacher.

Version 2

A favourite poem


A man tells a story.

He tells a story about the first book he bought. (Actually it’s an incredible book.) He then, as a result of his experience in a bookstore, makes an observation about himself: He realises that he has a deep-seated psychological disposition to react in a certain way. This is what he tells us about that book and that disposition:

‘When I was thirteen … I listened to Shakespeare plays on the radio of Mrs Purcell the blind woman who lived next door (in Limerick, Ireland). A fuse blew the night we listened to Julius Caesar and I was so eager to find out what happened to Brutus and Mark Antony I went to O’Mahoney’s bookshop to get the rest of the story. A sales clerk in the shop asked me in a superior way if I intended to buy that book and I told him I was thinking about it but first I’d have to find out what happened to everyone in the end, especially the one I liked, Brutus. The man said never mind, pulled the book away from me, and said this was not a library and would I kindly leave. I backed into the street, embarrassed and blushing – and wondering at the same time why people won’t stop bothering people. Even when I was small, eight or nine, I wondered why people won’t stop bothering people and I’ve been wondering ever since.’

That first book is ‘The works of William Shakespeare, gathered into one volume’ – and it was the only book that the man took with him to America. (He admits that he did not buy the book solely for its cultural value: he also recognised that, in those days, a man who knew some Shakespeare could impress the girls of New York.) And his psychological disposition is made clear: he simply does not like the fact that people bother other people. And that they won’t stop bothering other people.

The man moves on through life. He has all sorts of jobs. He ends up in New York teaching creative writing and English at a good New York school. But, as with every school in the USA, he’s up against the young Americans and it’s no easy task teaching them creative writing and english. He actually succeeds and even gets them to enjoy exploring, for example, the creative side of written recipes. But when he returns to consider some of the more formal aspects of creative writing he decides to tell the students about his favourite poem. Here is the poem and here are the students’ reactions:

‘They groan when I announce that I am going to read them my favourite poem. That pisses me off and I tell them. A shocked silence. Teacher using bad language. Never mind. Recite the poem:

Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep
And doesn’t know where to find them.
Leave then alone and they will come home
Wagging their tails behind them

The class reacts: ‘Hey, what’s going on here? That’s not a poem. This is high school and he’s giving us Mother Goose. Is he pulling our leg? Is he playing little games with us?

The man – the teacher responds:

I recite the poem again and encourage them to waste no time in digging for the deeper meaning.’

They respond again: ‘Aw come on. Is this a joke? Man, this is high school.’

The teacher replies:

On the surface the poem, or nursery rhyme, seems simple, a plain story of a little girl who has lost her sheep, but are you listening?

She has learned to leave them alone. Bo Peep is cool. She trusts her sheep. She doesn’t go bothering them as they nibble away in pasture, glen, vale and hillside. They need their grass, their roughage, and the occasional draught of water from a tinkling mountain stream. Also they have little lambs who need time for bonding with their mothers after they’ve frolicked all day with their peers. They don’t need the world barging in and destroying the mood. They might be sheep, they might be lambs, they might be ewes they might be rams, but they are entitled to a little communal happiness before they are transformed into the mutton we devour, the wool we wear.

And the pupils’ reaction? Well, they’d like to know if their teacher is trying to make some sort of point.

He replies: ‘No. I am not trying to make some point except to say I like this poem for its simple message.’

And they ask: ‘What’s that?

And his reply takes us back to that deep-seated disposition – a disposition that was beginning to be articulated when the man was 8 years old: ‘That people should stop bothering people.

He adds: Little Bo Peep backs off. She trusts her sheep. She leaves them alone and they come home and you can imagine their joyful reunion. Bo Peep knits by the fire happy in the knowledge that she has bothered nobody.

(In fact, there is much more going on in this account: the wider message (kept subliminal) is that the very children he is schooling will be ‘bothered’ by the educational system and turned into ‘mutton’ only to be devoured by the wider consumerist society.)

I like this account. I think this is an example of excellent teaching. The man goes on to tell us how to get going with creative writing.  Later in life he becomes an acclaimed author.



Miley Cyrus – superstar



Rock journalism is a specialist and rather esoteric art. I used to study with a young man who was hell-bent on becoming a rock journalist; he was the kind of person who would spend hours on the telephone or internet trying to get tickets for the Glastonbury festival. He reckoned that no one could be an authentic rock journalist unless they had direct experience of Glastonbury and many other other rock festivals. He had a point. (In fact, when he did actually get to Glastonbury he drank such a huge amount of beer that he became oblivious to much of what was going on.)  I’ve been struck by the fact that the rock music scene must be one of the few places where ‘looks’ don’t matter too much. It means that talent actually counts for something.

Anyway, one of the cultural success stories of the UK is the quality of its rock music and the buzz of its festival scene. Of course, a few days ago we had the high excess – the super-abundance – of Glastonbury to enjoy. I noticed how the rock journalists reviewed the various acts: how Stormzy ‘tore up’ the stage, how Kylie ‘beguiled and charmed’ her massive audience, how the strangely melancholic and ghostly plangent chords of headliners The Cure re-created moments of rock poetry. But for me the outstanding, the stunningly mesmerising performance was given by Miley Cyrus. She looked super-sensational; she sounded super-sensational; she was super-sensational; her’s was one of the most sustained and powerful rock performances imaginable. I was delighted for her. She was breathtaking. Miley even managed to include her monumental ‘Nothing breaks like a heart‘ along with a mesmerising tribute – a kind of homage – to Amy Winehouse with a stunning version of ‘Back to Black‘.

I think Miley Cyrus showed us how rock stars become super stars. As she performed it was, quite frankly, simply impossible to take one’s eyes off her. And I discovered that I was not alone: A journalist from the ‘Spectator’ told us that, as her performance unfolded, he ‘stayed to worship’ her; and then he added: ‘Of the 500 or so performances I’ve seen at Glastonbury over the years, this was up with the very best. She did ‘Jolene’ as twangily as her godmother Dolly Parton, Zeppelin’s ‘Black Dog’ with a banshee wail as mighty as Robert Plant’s, ‘Back to Black’ as debauchedly as Amy Winehouse, ‘Nothing Else Matters’ as heavily as Metallica … Then her dad Billy Ray Cyrus came on with rapper Lil Nas X to perform the recent viral number one hit ‘Old Town Road’. I do feel sorry for all those of you who missed it.

And here is another review from the Guardian newspaper: It begins:
 ‘The narrative around Miley Cyrus has always been about how she picks up one sound – hip-hop, pure pop, gnarly authenticity – and then “rejects” it as she moves on to the next thing. Her current styling is “hard rock karaoke at a gritty midwest bar” …

Well, that’s a bit mean-spirited! I would have said that her current style is ultra-fashion blitzkrieg rock. Better still, it’s simply star-spangled rock. But the Guardian review went on to capture a little bit more of the phenomenon that is Miley Cyrus as follows:

… Miley … stomps around the Pyramid stage in wet-look leather and a tiny skin-tight vest, yet spouts new-age wisdom … and cries as she sings ‘The Most’, a song about her mum.
The glorious thing about Miley is that she doesn’t really make any sense, and her chaotic energy is the thing that binds it all together and keeps everyone goggling even when she makes moves that would traditionally result in shedding followers – She covers Amy Winehouse and Dolly Parton, brings out her dad Billy Ray and rapper Lil Nas X for the latter’s ‘Old Town Road’, and wears a lilac wig to play ‘On a Roll’, the “hit” from the episode of Black Mirror where she plays ill-fated pop star Ashley O. Played half in its original synth-pop style, half as the Nine Inch Nails song it riffs on, it becomes a hard-rock battering ram yowled so mightily that she makes Steven Tyler sound like Aled Jones. As insane as it is brilliant.’

Well, yes! She really was astonishingly brilliant and for years to come, when the history of Glastonbury and rock is written and re-written, there will always be the recognition of Miley Cyrus at Glastonbury 2019. What’s more, in a striking concluding gesture, she suggested a willingness to sacrifice herself for art.