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Old boots, new adventures

February 19, 2016 1 comment

IMAG0555My old walking boots have given up. The uppers have finally split from the soles in a couple of places. I’m not surprised. I bought them in the late 1980s for about £10, a price I thought at the time was exorbitant. Over a quarter of a century they’ve taken me thousands of miles through South-east Asia, the US, Europe – and just down the road to the shops when it’s been snowing. So while they’ve been good and faithful footwear for much of my adult life, now I need some new boots. I’ll miss the old ones because they fit really well and were comfortable over all kinds of terrain, and a lot of good memories are attached to them. But I’ll still have those memories and I guess, when I buy new boots, I’ll have new adventures and start making good memories in those too.  

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Obscenity is in the ear of the listener

April 29, 2015 Leave a comment

I caught a BBC news report today that Jack Ely, lead singer of The Kingsmen in the 1960s, had died at the age of 71. The Kingsmen were best known for their song ‘Louie Louie’ – though I confess the song never registered with me until I heard a version of it by punk band Clash. I caught them at a gig sometime in the mid-80s so I’m guessing that’s where I first heard it.

One notable thing about the original version of the song was that the lyrics were sung fairly incoherently, apparently because the sound engineer wanted to create a ‘live’ atmosphere and put the mic above the singer, not in front of him. I guess that allowed for more of the guitars and drums to get picked up on the vocal mic and perhaps added a bit to echo and distortion?

At any rate, the other notable thing was that the song was fairly quickly reported to the FBI for ‘obscene’ lyrics, and a lengthy investigation followed. We probably shouldn’t be too surprised at that. Despite the advent of hippy and alternative culture in the 60s, it was still a time of rather conservative religious and political (or at least anti-communist) views and conservative individuals and groups seem to have regarded the odd investigation and prosecution for obscenity as a way of arresting the moral decline of the nation.

We’ve had other prosecutions since, both in the US and UK, for obscenity and other charges. They range from Lenny Bruce in the 1960s to 2 Live Crew in the 1990s (in the US), to the unsuccessful prosecution in 1990 of a Cincinnati museum for displaying a Robert Mapplethorpe photographic exhibition  and the 1997/8 investigation in the UK of whether a book containing those same photographs, in a UK university library, could be ruled obscene. In the UK, there have been more recent attempts to prosecute bloggers and social media users for a variety of offences including issuing ‘terrorist threats’ that turned out to be irate individuals whose planes were cancelled (e.g. the ‘Twitter joke trial’) and of course the older, 1982 attempt to prosecute a London play for obscenity.

We shouldn’t, I guess, be surprised that there are still people out there looking at social media, music and other areas of culture with a view to prosecuting what they regard as obscene – and of course increasingly to make accusations of terrorism. I could rant on about all this at some length, including the way prosecution decisions based on social media are apparently made and whether the current legal provisions really help people who are the victims of social media hate campaigns. But that would be a digression too far.

So, back to ‘Louie Louie’. The FBI carried out extensive tests on the record. The lyrics are, these days, available at places like Lyrics On Demand and the verses (I’ve omitted the chorus and some other bits) are in the left-hand column below. According to material in the now-published FBI file, the there were several complainants who believed they heard obscene lyrics and one example is the verses in the right-hand column below.

Fine little girl waits for me Catch a ship across the sea Sail that ship about, all alone Never know if I make it home Three nights and days I sail the sea Think of girl, constantly On that ship, I dream she’s there I smell the rose in her hair See Jamaica, the moon above It won’t be long, me see me love Take her in my arms again Tell her I’ll never leave again There is a fine little girl waiting for me She is just a girl across the way Then I take her all alone She’s never the girl I lay at home Tonight at ten I’ll lay her again We’ll fuck your girl and by the way And on the chair I’ll lay her there I felt my bone in her hair She had a ring on, I moved above It won’t be long, she’ll slip it off I held her in my arms and then I told her I’d rather lay her again

The FBI concluded that the lyrics weren’t understandable words when played at any speed, because they were too mumbled to make sense from them. They had a point, if you listen to the track without having any kind of crib sheet to tell you what lyrics to expect.

That said, the complainant’s version does seem weak, with ‘Tonight at ten’ versus ‘Three days and nights’, ‘She had a ring on’ versus ‘See Jamaica’ and so on. Later on in the file, in fact, there are other transcriptions of the lyrics by other people, some of whom had also played the vinyl single (normally designed for play at 45 rpm) at the vinyl album speed of 33 1/3 rpm, and they’d come up with different but still allegedly obscene versions.

Conclusion: it appears almost anything can be interpreted as obscene if the listener (or viewer, or whatever) has it in mind that it might be, and there is any room for ambiguity or misinterpretation. On the other hand, someone with a more surrealist cast of mind might come up with a different set of misheard lyrics.

None of this is particularly surprising, I guess. Just have a listen and see if you, like the surrealist version I’ve linked to, come up with lyrics concerning wigs and goats. The one surprising thing is probably that no artist has yet re-recorded the song with clearer vocals and using one or other version of the ‘explicit’ lyrics.

EDITED to add: after I originally posted this I stumbled across a version that did indeed have, if not ‘obscene’ lyrics, then explicit anti-capitalist ones. It’s by Iggy Pop and the Stooges. I guess it’s a deliberate nod at the original controversy, though it contains lines like: ‘the communist world is fallin apart / the capitalists are just breakin hearts / money is the reason to be / it makes me just wanna sing louie louie’ and, later, ‘life after bush & gorbachev / the wall is down but something is lost / turn on the news it looks like a movie / it makes me wanna sing louie louie’. See all the lyrics of this version at AZ lyrics.

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Novel-writing and thought-forms

January 7, 2015 2 comments

Happy Christmas, New Year, etc. etc. Yes, I know I haven’t posted for a couple of months and it’s well past that time now but I’ve been distracted by writing criminology teaching materials (and entertaining friends and celebrating the holidays myself and so on – real life sometimes takes me away from blogging).

In between times I’ve also been playing with a story that involves thought-forms. Wikipedia tells me these have been part of Tibetan Buddhist belief for a very long time, where they’re called ‘tulpa’, but came to the attention of Western mystics, occultists and so on in the 1920s. There is however an interesting book (well, I thought it was interesting) from the Theosophical Society: Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater, Thought-forms, published in 1901 by The Theosophical Publishing House Ltd. in London. If you’re sufficiently motivated to read it, it’s available via the Gutenberg Project or indeed as a free PDF from the Theosophical Society itself, which appears to continue to be quite active.

I won’t bore you with a detailed explanation of what thought-forms ‘are’, because any number of sources will give to imaginative and conflicting descriptions and explanations. I should also point out that I read an awful lot of stuff without actually believing it, and have a healthy scepticism about mystical topics. That said, thought-forms struck me as a useful plot device and I may or may not find a reasonable way to finish off the story. However, along the way, I was somewhat amused by the following description in Besant and Leadbeater, in the section of the book on ‘Three Class of Thought-forms’, of how novelists create and are affected by thought forms:

‘The novelist in the same way [i.e. the same way as painters or other artists] builds images of his character in mental matter, and by the exercise of his will moves these puppets from one position or grouping to another, so that the plot of his story is literally acted out before him. With our curiously inverted conceptions of reality it is hard for us to understand that these mental images actually exist, and are so entirely objective that they may readily be seen by the clairvoyant, and can even be rearranged by some one other than their creator. Some novelists have been dimly aware of such a process, and have testified that their characters when once created developed a will of their own, and insisted on carrying the plot of the story along lines quite different from those originally intended by the author. This has actually happened, sometimes because the thought-forms were ensouled by playful nature-spirits, or more often because some ‘dead’ novelist, watching on the astral plane the development of the plan of his fellow-author, thought that he could improve upon it, and chose this method of putting forward his suggestions.
Well, yes, I think most people who write stories do find their characters can be almost like ‘imaginary friends’ who have some sort of independent life, at least in the writer’s head. But should I be amused at the recursive nature of my story, thought-forms discussing thought-forms, or be more concerned that I could be subconsiously channelling some dead novelist?

Poetry, or something like it

August 31, 2014 Leave a comment

Poetry isn’t my thing, really. Flash fiction, stories and so on, yes. Poetry no. If you don’t like it as poetry just think of these two things as flash fic. Or blame Stevie Smith for inspiring the first one, if you remember her ‘Not Waving But Drowning‘. Though mine isn’t as good. Oh, and yes, they’re about real people. But you don’t know them.

 

1. Waving/drowning

He’s waving but drowning
Sinking in crashing and speedy surf.
He wants to be saved.

From the sea? From himself?
He waves like he’s giving the finger.

I swim against hard swell.
He fights as if his life depends on it.
As if it’s all he’s ever known.

On the beach exhausted, wet and cold
I watch him cough water, spit blood,
Recover strength.

Soon he’ll stand and walk
to the end of the jetty
Jump in again. And wave.

If this is a test, I’ve failed.
If he’s testing himself, it’s to destruction.
If I try to save him again
Both of us will drown.

 

2. Hydrocortisone

We all die sometime
But medication speeds the process.

She needs enough to cope with the stress
But enough is too much for her body.

The medicine helps her stay together
When tragedy unfolds around her.

And yet it makes her fall apart.
Her skin grows fragile, and bleeds.

What will happen when it’s as weak
As a dried-out leaf in autumn?

 

Leicester street art

I’ve been having a quiet time. Actually a noisy quiet time since much of it has been spent doing things like putting in a new garden fence (much hammering, sawing and swearing). But I thought I’d share these, following a recent visit to Leicester. Materials: chalk on paving slabs. Artist: I have no idea, but I hope he – it was a guy working on them, anyway – does well.

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Street art, Leicester, May 2013

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Street art, leicester, May 2013

Writing on Walls – the stick!

September 20, 2012 Leave a comment
The stick from the 'Mabon Whores' story - photo credit Chris Cafferkey

The stick from the ‘Mabon Whores’ story – photo credit Chris Cafferkey

A few years ago I went to a local science fiction society meeting – probably Starbase Leicester – to attend a talk by an SF/fantasy novelist. I’m afraid my memory is poor about who the writer actually was, though someone may be able to remind me from the details I’m about to give. The key thing I took away from the talk was the idea that in order to get inside the head of his characters, he made puppets of them. Properly carved wooden puppets, about two feet tall, the kind on strings that you can use in a puppet theatre.

My memory says he’d learned the art of woodcarving from a family member (father? grandfather? uncle? I don’t know) and got into puppetry as a hobby from an early age. So when he started writing, it was a natural strategy for him to get a sense of his characters’ physique, looks and characters by carving and constructing them as puppets.

That is, I think, dedication – because I’d imagine it takes quite a time to get a puppet looking exactly the way you think it should.

The pics in this blog represent almost the reverse process, however. Because my Writing on Walls collection has a story in it titled ‘Mabon Whores’. Mabon is the pagan (some say primarily Wiccan, but there you go) name for the autumnal equinox and the story has references to various magical items made by dirt-poor people in a small rural community. One of those items is a magical stick.

In writing the story I  tried to imagine what such an item would look like. There are of course a range of possible variations – staffs, wands, etc. but I wanted it just to be a stick, the kind of thing you could pick up from a hedgerow or as fallen wood in a copse. And I didn’t want it to be well-constructed, made with craft and finesse. Not because the makers wouldn’t have had the resources to do that, because they’d be able to whittle and make home-made varnish and suchlike, but because they understood that the point and power of such an object lies in the intent with which it’s made. It’s the kind of WI Thomas logic at work here: if I pick up a random stick or twig and tell you it has powerful magic in it, and I’m convincing and you believe me, then for all practical purposes it does have powerful magic in it. If I tell you it can send out a force like a hurricane and wave it at you, you’d probably fall over (and think it was the stick that did it, not the power of suggestion).

The stick from the 'Mabon Whores' story, moodier image. Credit: Chris Cafferkey

The stick from the ‘Mabon Whores’ story, moodier image. Credit: Chris Cafferkey

So to cut to the chase, after I wrote the story I made the stick out of curiosity. And that’s what the pics are.

It came from the back garden, was painted with old spray paints from the shed, and decorated with random things lying about the house – some ribbon and beads, a plastic dragonfly (I said it was random, it’s that kind of household), an old keyring, the printing from the inside of a cigarette packet that looks almost-but-not-quite like buttons on a TV remote control.

If you read the story, the stick probably won’t knock you over. But the eviscerator might make you cross your legs…

Oh, and the pics were taken by Chris Cafferkey, who normally shoots far more elegant and beautiful things like flowers.

Are writers ‘credible sources’?

September 8, 2012 Leave a comment

Here’s a slightly weird story.

Philip Roth – who’s pretty well-known as an author – wrote a novel, The Human Stain, published in 2000. No, I haven’t read it, but that’s not important.

Wikipedia has a page about the novel – not surprising, because it has pages on many novels. The page was generated in 2002 by a contributor and has been revised and added to on many occasions since. The page mentioned speculation by various critics that the principal character was based on the life of a literary critic, Anatole Broyard. Roth approached Wikipedia to offer a correction: despite the critics’ speculations, he’d drawn the events surrounding the principal character, and character elements, from the experiences of his friend Melvin Tumin.

The Wikipedia administrators refused to amend the entry on the basis that there was no second source to support this claim and he ‘was not a credible source’.

The entry has now been amended to reflect this exchange, but it raises interesting questions.

To what extent is any author a ‘credible source’ when discussing their own work? I’m not talking here about slips of memory or deliberately misleading statements – though those can happen – but the extent to which any literary work draws on material from a writer’s unconscious and perhaps touches on matters of which the writer was not consciously aware. I can give an old example from a piece I wrote and performed as a student: I was pleased with it, but the feedback I got after the event was that it was an interesting retelling of a Biblical story. One that wasn’t in my mind when I wrote it, and that I’d never consciously paid attention to since religious education classes in primary school. (I might add that I never kept a copy of the piece and couldn’t now tell you which Biblical story.)

What (or who) constitutes a ‘credible source’ anyway for a work of imagination? And with the passage of time, is it really possible for anyone – even with access to an author’s personal manuscripts and notes, etc. – to tell what was really in their mind when they wrote something? Does it even matter?  Because meaning is context-bound and if the book survives and is read years later, does the meaning even remain intelligible within the context of the time it was written?

As you may have seen in previous blog posts, I recently self-published a short collection of horror stories. And I’d hate to think what kinds of stuff people would find in there that I wasn’t aware I was writing, because a lot of my stories start from a single mental image, a fragment of life, or as much of a dream as I can remember when I wake up, and I try to re-imagine their contexts and consequences.

If you want to read the whole BBC story, here’s a link.

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