Welcome to my 2021 blog, which at the moment looks to be even more occasional than the last couple of years.

As before the most recent will be first. Please scroll down for earlier posts.

Unforeseen Outcome of a Collaboration: July 13th 2021     /     Becoming: 29th June 2021     /     Torture: 14th June 2021     /     Levity (6): The Squaw in Attendance     /     Individualism: 16th May 2021     /     Levity (5) : The Golden Screw (as told by grandmothers generations past)    /    Hypergraphia (24th April 2021)     /     Levity (4) 12th April 2021    /    How to make money writing (28th March 2021)     /     Levity (3) 12th March 2021     /     A New and Necessary Empiricism (25th February 2021)   /    Levity (2) 1st January 2021

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Unforeseen Outcome of a Collaboration

One aspect of my collaboration with Mal Earl that took me by surprise was how the placement of a poem could pretty much dictate its format.

First allow me to explain how the collaboration came about.

Ever since I lived in Cumbria – Mal still lives there, near Whitehaven – we have been considering how we might put a collection together. After much intermittent back and forth we agreed a title, Map. But then couldn't come up with a visual theme/character to carry it through. Mal had moments of inspiration. But nothing stuck.

Meanwhile I'd moved to Wales and Mal had put together his – long time in consideration – homage to Edward Thomas. The full colour pamphlet, Dark Pastoral - https://malearl.com - had a select few of Edward Thomas's poems along with Mal's artwork. His blackbird for Adlestrop is truly a thing of beauty.

Mal's drawing of birds there in Dark Pastoral had him look again at the few bird poems I had sent him in Map. He asked if I could send more.

He selected a few, we agreed a title, in the hand; and he ran with them. Images first. The sketch of the raven prior to its being coloured for the Edward Thomas pamphlet, then a wren. Which, for me, was the clincher.

Here's the wren poem as I sent it to Mal.

     Every Day Begins Bravely

     When daybreak's cold light

     lies behind trees and hedges

      behind houses

     and roadside verges are dewsilvered

     a wren flies up to a thin ridge of roof

     or topmost cable

     and in his hard little voice

     shouts his defiance at all predators

     calls alive

     the colours of the day

 

     Rumpled

     floating above the gravity of sleep

     I tell myself to get up

     try again

 

Compare that to the poem with Mal's first drawing of the wren.

You will notice, as I immediately did, that he has centre-spaced the poem.

Now when as editor I receive centre-spaced poems for The Journal I pretty much know, just by virtue of their being centre-spaced, that I am likely to reject them. For little other reason than that over the years I have come to recognise centre-spacing and ornate fonts as the mark of the poet novice. Being unsure how to format the poem the novice sticks it in the middle of the page.

Yet here, with the layout of the drawing, my poem – now centre-spaced – filled the space perfectly and doesn't affect the rhythm. I consequently became happy to let Mal, with his design eye, decide the formatting of the poems. To begin with some stayed left-justified, and some became centred. The prose poems were of course easiest and stayed as blocks of print. Mal's most impressive initial change though came with the poem accompanying the peregrine. It went from left to right-justified, and damn me for my prejudices, it still worked.

Of course it didn't end there...

Copies of in the hand are available from me here - http://sites.google.com/site/samsmiththejournal/sam-smith-poetry

and here - https://samsmithbooks.weebly.com/poetry-chapbooks.html

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Becoming

Is every ending but a beginning, all a process of becoming, every resolution but a part of becoming?

A box of new books arrives from the printer. The author lays them out for a social media photo boast, carries around a smile for a couple of hours. That smile fades as public appearances are considered, arranged.

A bridge is built. A worthy cuts the ribbon to allow the first traffic to cross. Already rust has found a spot on one of the girders. Maintenance is being arranged and will be ongoing.

A love is schemed and fought for, and won. Cohabitation follows. And follows. What was briefly sublime becomes ordinary. If a heterosexual pair he might later hanker after firmer, younger female flesh. While she might hold in feminist contempt the man-child she struggles to remain with.

The war refugee finds sanctuary, seeks and is granted citizenship. Only to discover that during the process of settlement the government of his new country has changed and these new politicians are looking for a war to fight, unite their populace. The popular press now has the once-refugee seen as the enemy.

After the explosion at Chernobyl the surrounding land became a radioactive no-go area for human beings. That contaminated land became a wildlife sanctuary for European bison. That is not to say that every other disaster/inundation/firestorm results in at least one beneficial side-effect. Because of what we human beings have done, are doing to the planet, some species – having taken thousands of years to evolve – will never return. In many cases what we have created is a terminal wasteland.

© Sam Smith 29th June 2021

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Torture

As noted by Charles Dickens the last government to officially reintroduce torture was that of Italy's Francis IV, 1779-1846. Now, here in 2021, we have had Boris Johnson and his Tory gang trying to do the same, regardless of the UK being a signatory to the Geneva Convention, which holds torture to be illegal.

Simple minds seek simple (and quick) solutions. The belief that torture might work also accords with Johnson's laziness: if it's too much bother to obey an international law, ignore it, while also blithely dismissing as irrelevant electoral law, parliamentary procedures or the recent customs protocols agreed with the European Union, and casually waving aside the Geneva Convention itself as of little consequence.

Neither torture nor capital punishment work. A person being tortured will ultimately confess to anything. Frantz Fanon's work on torture should be required reading for all seeking political office. Or they should at least take a look at how not to get lumbered with a Guantanamo full of prisoners kept there on the strength of torture-induced, and therefore legally dubious, confessions.

As torture is no route to the truth likewise capital punishment has been proved to be no deterrent to crime. Here I am in agreement with Dostoyevsky's 'Idiot', in that capital punishment is of itself the premeditated and therefore the greater crime. Yet US states and right wing politicians here, and the several kinds of idiot who make up so many of the world's governments, still attempt to seduce their simpleminded electorates by calling for the 'death penalty,' regardless of the wider consequences. (One consequence being that those US states with the death penalty have the highest per capita murder rates.)

Thankfully when the bill approving torture – retrospectively – came before Parliament here, there were sufficient law-abiding and conscience stricken Tory MPs that doubted the wisdom, and legality of it, that even if they didn't vote against the bill, they abstained.

The torture bill failed.

Phew!

© Sam Smith 14th June 2021

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Levity (6): The Squaw in Attendance

 What with Custer's Last Stand, the nymphomaniac's preference and now this, I might seem to have an obsession with native Americans. Not so. It's just the way the tales fell into my joke lexicon, and that unfortunately some kinds of humour are reliant on tropes and stereotypes.

-*-

In this tale we have the Chief of a Northern people, who are on their annual migration North to South. The Chief is slowly walking around their temporary encampment with his four year old son.

“Dad,” the boy says, “tell me again how we get our names.”

“I've told you this before son. Several times now.”

“Tell me again Dad. I've forgotten.”

His father sighs, but accepts that children learn by repetition.

“OK son,” he says. “The moment a child is born the squaw in attendance – not the mother, she'd be too exhausted. No, the squaw in attendance lifts the flap of the wigwam.”

“A flap like that Dad?” They are passing a tepee painted with buffaloes and crescent moons.

“Yes, like that. The squaw in attendance lifts the flap, and the very first thing that she sees is how the child gets his name. Or her name. That is how your uncle, born in the cold north, got his name, Standing Bear. Your cousin got called Running Elk. While your graceful elder sister became Starlight on Water. She was born when we were beside that lake. Remember the lake?”

“Yes. From shore to shore.”

“Do you understand now?”

“Yes. Thank you Dad.”

“Good. Now go and join Fleeing Wolf and the others at the stream.”

Two days later the people have made camp near an expanse of sage brush. The father and son again take an evening stroll around the temporary encampment. And again the four year old boy asks to be told how their people get their names.

Unhappy with the camp's closeness to the whispering sage brush, and with a lingering displeasure at the ancient squaw who attended his son's birth, and now exasperated with his son asking again how their people get their names, he kneels before his son and, grabbing him by both shoulders, he speaks angrily straight into his face: “You are not a stupid boy.”

“I forgot what you said,” the boy begins, trying to squirm out of his father's grip.

“You are not forgetful in other ways.” The father's grip tightens. “I will not go to the bother of telling you again.”

“Please Dad. Please. One last time.” He staggers backwards on being released as his father stands. “Please Dad. Please. How do we get our names? How?”

“No.” His father turns away. “Enough is enough, Two Dogs Fucking.”

 

© Sam Smith 25th May 2021

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Individualism

Although all my life I have been an uneasy part of any grouping, uncomfortable belonging, I have had an equal distrust of individualism, of belief and pride in the self.

The fundamental falsity of individualism is that it ignores our reliance on so many others. Whatever our civilisation, whatever our society or class, within that civilisation we rely on unknown others to provide us with foodstuffs, clothing, housing, even coherent transport systems. As individuals we cannot escape that intricate interdependence. When ill some unknown other will nurse us. When dead some anonymous other will dispose of our carcass.

Yet the myth of the lone individual persists, is even celebrated. But can any individual be truly self-reliant? Even a hermit has to rely on the rest of us keeping our distance. Not only that the would-be hermit in his or her remote mountain cave still cannot remain unaffected by the rest of humanity. Nowadays for instance they will have to cope with the changes in climate caused by the rest of us.

Every generation some more are led to believe that they are uniquely themselves, wholly independent of all around them. Such delusion, such false belief, will lie at the root of their future dissonance, and will have them, when they try to impose their myth onto others, at odds with all about them and – sadly – their own self.

One encounters this false individualism these days mostly in the prolonged adolescence of middle-class USA, their emphasis on identity, their similar celebrations of individuality. Bosses particularly suffer from this myth, usually men who have made themselves, who have found themselves important, that is those men who have given themselves a greater importance than those around them. Which brings us to patriarchy and even within age-old patriarchy the inability of some men to control those around them, inevitably leading to domestic abuse.

Once one of those individual and self-important men achieves political power, Trump for instance, their myth of individualism becomes a dissonance that gets inflicted on the rest of us. Or here in the UK one 'individual' – both men with affected hairstyles – but this one ambitious for a prime ministerial title, imposes his incompetence on the rest of us. To our misfortune during a pandemic.

© Sam Smith 16th May 2021

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Levity (5): The Golden Screw (as told by grandmothers generations past)

I once hand-wrote a version of this in an old exercise book for my daughter, with drawings. No drawings here.

-*-

Once upon a time, but not so very long ago, a young mother was undressing her toddler daughter at bath-time. When she pulled her daughter's vest up the mother was shocked to discover a golden screw where her daughter's belly button should have been. The mother's first instinct was to try to pull it out. But her daughter cried, “Stop! Stop! You're hurting me! Hurting me!”

This was in the older old days. The bath was a tin bath in front of a coal fire. And it was before the NHS, before X-rays even, when you had to pay just to be seen by a doctor. Fortunately, aside from when the mother occasionally tried to pull/squeeze/tug/grease the golden screw out of her daughter's belly button, her having it there didn't bother the little girl at all. Indeed she liked to wear it sometimes exposed like a jewel.

The father worked extra shifts in the factory, the mother took in more sewing, and after several months they had saved enough money to pay for a visit to the doctor. Who said that he had never seen anything like it. “But definitely gold,” he said. “Fortunately an inert metal.”

The doctor seemed more interested in the gold than in their daughter. Unable himself to remove the golden screw the doctor recommended the parents take their daughter to a belly-button specialist. The doctor wrote a letter for them to take. He charged extra for writing the letter.

Mother, father and daughter talked over what to do next. The 'specialist' fees were four times what the doctor's had been. The daughter didn't want to go: the doctor's prodding and pulling at the golden screw had hurt her. And the letter to the 'specialist' said that the doctor's own medical library contained 'not the least reference to...' '...such a peculiar affliction.' “So what's the point?” the father tiredly said.

Years passed. The girl's seventh year had in its middle a long hot summer. The girl and her two younger brothers had the tin bath outside and were taking turns to jump in and out of the cold water. They were wearing only their underpants.

A tinker's handcart came rattling along the road, the tinker shouting out that he'd mend pots and pans. Wondering at the shouting the girl's mother came to her door. When the clinking and clattering tinker came abreast her door he gestured to her daughter splashing in and out of the tin bath.

“Seen that before,” he said loudly. “Want to know how to get rid?”

“You know how?”

“Not easy,” he said. “Timing's everything. On the full moon you have to be in Wicklow's eight turret castle. And you have to lay your daughter to sleep in the top room of the seventh turret. That's the turret right on the cliff's edge. Only on the full moon mind. In the morning the screw'll be gone.”

The mother didn't know where Wicklow was. The tinker explained.

“Can't afford the fare there,” the mother started to turn back indoors.

“Go the tinker ways,” he told her. “We travel cheap.”

“How so?” she eyed him doubtfully.

“A fair bit of walking, and a wee bit of sneakage.” And he proceeded to tell her how and where to go.

A week or so before the full moon mother and daughter set off following the tinker's instructions. Father was left at home looking after the two boys.

Tramping back lanes and by-ways, and cadging more than a few lifts from lonely carters, mother and daughter reached Holyhead after four days and slipped unseen aboard a ferry. Next day they sneaked ashore in Dublin. Two days of walking later they reached Wicklow and found the castle with eight turrets.

The castle though was in a sorry state of repair. What was left of it however was vast when compared to their tiny terrace house.

Exploring it room by empty room there didn't seem to be anyone living there, until on the evening of the sixth day they chanced upon an old man in a dark room in the basement of the seventh turret.

“What you a'doing here?” He squinted through wrinkles and whiskers at them. The mother explained to him about the tinker and her daughter's 'condition.'

“Oh,” the old man said to the daughter, “you'm one of them. Best hurry then. Moon rises early tonight.”

“Where do we go?” the mother asked.

“Only her. Won't work if you're both there. Shy, you see. She has to sleep alone.”

It was almost dusk by the time mother and daughter had climbed all the stone stairs to the very top of the turret. The single room there, as they'd been told, had a stone bench for a bed.

“They said you're to sleep here,” the mother told her daughter. “You can have my coat to lie on. I'll be on the landing below. If you need me, just cry out.”

The daughter, a kind girl, was concerned that her mother would be cold without her coat. They had shivered together nights on their journey there. She gave her mother her small coat. “Will at least keep your legs warm,” she said.

“You're a good girl,” the mother tearfully said; and whispering endearments to one another they reluctantly parted.

On the below-landing the mother couldn't find anywhere even semi-comfortable where she could go to sleep. All was cold grey stone. Worried for her daughter she spent the night sitting on the cold stone steps, or she walked in small circles on the small circular landing, rubbing her arms to keep warm.

The daughter meanwhile – it had been a tiring week for an eight year old who had never left home before – carefully did as she had been instructed. With her mother's coat under her she laid herself down on the stone bench and she pulled up her top so that her bare belly was exposed. Almost straight away she fell into the deepest of deep sleeps.

As the whiskery old man had said the moon rose almost as dusk fell. A moon beam, coming through the turret's narrow window, began to travel around the daughter's bedchamber. When the silver moonbeam reached the girl's knees a miniature man with curly golden hair squeezed himself sideways through the narrow window and came walking down the moonbeam. He was carrying, for him, a huge golden screwdriver. (For us, a moderately large screwdriver.)

The little man with the curly golden hair smiled to see the young girl's dreaming smile, and he whistled a quiet tune while waiting for the silver moonbeam to reach her belly. As soon as it did he set to work, struggling to turn the huge, for him, screwdriver.

His solid gold screwdriver had no ratchet like modern screwdrivers, and was almost the same size as himself. And he had to hurry. According to the tinker the screw could only be got out when lit by the moonbeam.

Struggle furiously though the little man did, and the golden screw came out. He tucked it inside his bodice and, pausing just the once to smile down on the still dream-smiling girl, the little man walked up the narrow moonbeam and squeezed out the narrow turret window.

When the grey dawn came it woke three raucous seagulls. The three raucous seagulls woke the girl. Sleepily she felt down her tummy.

“Mum!” she shouted. “It's gone!”

Her mother, also part-woken by the three raucous seagulls, came up the stairs as quickly as her cold-stiffened legs would allow. Staggering into the room she saw her daughter's completely bare belly. Giving a cry of joy she gathered her girl-child up into her arms. And her bum fell off.

© Sam Smith 3rd May 2021

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Hypergraphia

We all to some extent suffer from this, a thought failing to fully exist for us unless we have written it down. It is what happens after that that concerns me here. Because hypergraphia, the deep desire to write, has led – courtesy of the latest technology – to a proliferation of self-published books.

Hypergraphia in and of itself doesn't mean unfortunately that the author has anything original to say, nor that they are burning to put into words their life experience. No, they simply want to lose themselves in the act of writing.

Like weekend watercolourists hypergraphics want only to produce a kind of writing, writing that's in the style of, writing that's like their favourite/trendy author... Nothing new being said, considered; writing solely for the sake of writing it emerges like the diluted clay that dribbles out of old mine workings, reasons for long gone.

Fortunately some hypergraphics don't seek publication. Oh they may have once, and have been so upset by an off-hand rejection (not one fantasy of adoring readership fulfilled) that they have never risked rejection again, preferring the mild endorsements of their drop-in writing group.

The writing of the self-absorbed hypergraphic is meant to be looked at and admired, not critiqued. Their outrage at negative comments in an Amazon review: “So unfair,” they cry. I'm supposing therefore that a hypergraphic's writing is not intended to have an impact, is not meant to elicit a reaction, even possibly – perish the thought! - cause offence. A hypergraphic's is writing with no ping or zing to it. And there is a digital mountain of it.

So very easy now for serious writers to find their work lost in this fog of verbiage, while at the same time being excluded from the mainstream's ever-recycled few. But still we, being ourselves hypergraphics, write.

So be it.

 

© Sam Smith 24th April 2021

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Levity (4): Chicken and the...

Returning from an early morning walk I was approaching the branch library in Maryport when I noticed a red hen waiting for the library's door sensor to register her presence. The hen had to jump up a couple times to get the door's electric eye to notice her. When finally the glass door did slide back the red hen, with a stately pace at odds with her flapping jumps, crossed the rubber mat onto the mottled blue carpet and up to the counter.

Maryport branch library, a low grey building, has a large plate glass window beside the door. I saw the library assistant lean forward over the counter and appear to ask the hen what she wanted. The assistant listened, nodded, reached down behind the desk and, bending from the waist over the counter, awkwardly helped the red hen to tuck a single book securely under each wing. Thus laden the hen turned about and left through the library's automatic door. She came down the wheelchair slope, and turned left.

I have to confess that I was so astonished by all that I had just witnessed that, the hen having left, I first looked back through the plate glass window to the library assistant for possible explanation. But the assistant had wandered away to another task; and, by the time I roused myself to wonder just where the hen might have gone and I hastened up to the corner by the riverside allotments, the red hen and her two books was nowhere to be seen.

Returning to the library I found the female assistant with a trolley of returned books slotting them back into their alphabetical – by author – shelf homes.

“I saw you give two books to a chicken,” I whispered. Though why I whispered, and in such an accusatory manner, I know not. That early there was but the two of us in the library.

“Yes,” she said, searching alphabetically along the S section. “Comes in first thing. Always asks for two books.”

“Really?” I said disbelievingly, while also accepting what mine own eyes had witnessed but moments before.

“Every day?”

“Not every day.” The assistant slipped a copy of Marraton home. “Once or twice a week.” While the assistant wheeled her trolley along to the Ws I stood transfixed, endeavouring to absorb this information. When I did rouse myself to catch up with the assistant I again couldn't seem to help whispering. Came from being in a library I suppose.

“I didn't,” I said, again accusingly (a cross-examining lawyer doubting her testimony?), “see the hen bring any books back.”

“Never brings them back. I keep a stack just for her below the counter. Those that've been damaged, that'll be sent for recycling.”

Despite the evidence of mine own eyes I still found it hard to believe that I was having this conversation.

“Once or twice a week?” I said.

“Usually,” she said; and she was called away by a recently arrived ragged-looking man wanting to use one of the computer terminals.

-*-

Two mornings later found me loitering on the corner opposite the library. Yesterday night and morning it had been raining and I had figured that even a bibliophile hen wouldn't have ventured out in such a Cumbrian downpour.

This grey but dry morning the red hen arrived just before opening and, as when I had first seen her, she stood waiting for the door sensor to register her presence. This morning she only had to do her flapping jump once.

I scurried into the library hot on her heels – if hens can be said to have heels. I didn't though follow her up to the counter. Once through the sliding door I stepped aside and stayed waiting, hoping to witness the transaction entire.

The hen, as before, approached the counter. As before she waited for the library assistant to notice her. Then she said simply, “Buk Buk.”

The library assistant, as before, reached down to her – I now knew – stack of dog-eared and about-to-be recycled books, leant over the counter and tucked one of those books securely under each of the red hen's wings.

I slipped out the same open door as the hen, but held back a few steps as I followed her up to the riverside allotments. I had assumed that one of those allotment sheds would be her destination. The allotments were a drop down from the terrace row. But no, the hen – at her stately pace – went along to the main road and, keeping to the near pavement, she proceeded over the river bridge.

I nearly lost sight of her when, head down, she suddenly dashed between the traffic. I caught a glimpse of her however as she went under the iron gate into the woods on the opposite side.

Worried that I would lose sight of her in the brambly undergrowth of the woods I ran to catch up, was relieved to find her keeping to the well-trodden path.

The River Ellen curves through this wood before going under the road bridge. The path, more or less straight, took me through the trees and between massed Himalayan balsam before turning to run alongside the river.

The hen suddenly disappeared from view. Again I ran to catch up, arrived breathless above a slant path going down the muddy riverbank.

We were at that part of the river where there used to be an old weir. Like many of Maryport's other industrial remains hard to find an actual explanation for the weir's having once been.

On this side of the river were some part submerged slabs of rock. An extremely large frog was crouched on one of those slant-submerged rocks; and the red hen was picking her way from rock to rock towards the frog. When she arrived on his rock the frog grabbed, I thought rudely, the books from under the hen's wings. Saying “Reddit Reddit,” the frog then carelessly cast each book into the river.

 

© Sam Smith 12th April 2021

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How to make money writing

 If your most earnest wish is to make money out of writing you will first have to have a large print headline saying How To Make Money Writing. This will advertise the subsequent book or course that will tell your customers How To Make Money Writing. Both book and course will ultimately direct the would-be authors to those publishers and periodicals in need of formulaic writing.

The book, or the advertising for the course, will carry testimonials from those who bought the book, or completed the course, telling how by following your instructions they made lots of money from formulaic writing and/or greeting card verses.

There will be no comments from those writers who didn't want to expend their time or talent on formulaic writing or greeting card verses, and so didn't make any money. Should any writers complain to your course organisers that what they wanted was to sell their own original writing they will be told, in a sad and sympathetic voice, that their lack of success in placing their work has probably been down to their not understanding the [formulaic] market and/or their own lack of talent and/or lack of enterprise.

What no course advertising How To Make Money Writing will tell the writer ambitious to make money from writing is that of all published writers only about 0.002% of authors make enough to support the average household. That 0.002% will invariably have their books with one of the mainstream publishers as well as, probably, a literary agent actively seeking out and selling rights. Because, and unless an author has a serious stroke of luck and their one title goes viral, to make money the author needs the mainstream publisher's seed money. Not just the contacts but the money required to get the title into the bestseller listings.

The author needs the mainstream publisher's salespeople to go to the bookshops and to get each bookshop to stock the book. Those publishers may well pay, or agree a further discount, to have a title featured on the bookshop's 'table', or in the bookshop's window. All of which is after the publisher has calculated sufficient funds to agree to the basic 40% bookshop take, and with cash reserves enough to be able to pulp those unsold, shop-soiled books returned under the sale-or-return contract with the bookshops.

Small independent publishers don't have funds enough for any of the above. Their new authors however often begin with exactly those expectations – a copy in every bookshop, copies sent for review, et cetera. Ergo: if you want to feel unappreciated become a small press publisher; and, if you want to make serious money from writing, title your next book, How To Make Money Writing.

© Sam Smith 28th March 2021

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Levity (3) Jack the Lad

 Forgive frequent flyer me, I'm wont to boast. But what I'm about to tell you did happen. Honest.

I'm in my prime, an international salesman, and I was again US bound, had managed to get a last minute seat on a double-decker flight. Albeit that the seat was in the unpopular middle set of seats. I consoled myself that I had the seat next to me empty. Must have been a cancellation – my one being half a pair? Whatever the reason it allowed me some space.

Space that I was already making the most of when a flustered woman arrived on the deck and was being directed to that one spare seat by a steward.

Flustered maybe, but what a woman. Imagine a young Naomi Campbell merged with an equally young Charlize Theron. Being hurried along her poise mind you was a little off, but that was hardly a detraction. Whispering sorry after sorry - for making the fat family of holidaying Americans get ungraciously to their fat feet (white socks!) - this vision of earthly delights squeezed her way, apology by apology, towards little ol' me.

Have to confess I was struggling to disguise my increased heart-rate, didn't want to appear gauche. Moving my jacket off her seat to the floor and quickly kicking it back under my seat, super-cool me smiled a casual hello and said, “Just made it then?”

“Hate flying,” she chattily responded. “Try to delay it long as I can. Actually,” she wriggled what looked to be a compact backside into the seat, “it's only the take-off that has me in pieces. Every single time I think we're not,” she dropped her voice to a whisper, “we're never going to make it. Then, once we're up, then I can relax. God I hate this.”

She buckled her seat-belt across her luscious lap.

“Tell you what,” I said, “talk to me. While we take off. Tell me about yourself. You're going to the US, what for?”

I assumed business. Not shopping. If wealthy enough for that she'd have gone on a less cramped flight.

“I'm to speak at a conference,” she said. “Principal speaker. In Houston. They're paying.” She indicated her crowded surroundings as if in explanation.

My own connection wasn't to Houston. I cursed my luck, but the conversation once begun I kept it up by asking, “What's the conference?”

“Annual INC.”

“INC? What's that?”

“International Nymphomania Conference.”

“Really?” I so very casually said. (Be still my beating heart.) “There is such a thing?”

“Most certainly.” She turned on me two of the most candid eyes in the world. I felt my heart do a flip. “It is vitally necessary,” she so seriously told me, “for us to know all that we can about our own urges and about the men who can best satisfy them.”

“Well... yes... you would.” Held by those eyes I was, for one of the few times in my life, almost at a loss for words. “And you're one of the speakers?”

“Keynote even.” The eyes still held me. “As you can imagine there are at the conference the usual talks and tips. On all the things that you would expect for a grouping such as ours. Talks on sexual health, on contraception, how to keep ourselves safe. How to make ourselves attractive.”

“You've done well.”

“Thank you.” I liked that non-coy acknowledgement. “So what's your talk on? Specifically?” I asked.

“As keynote speaker I'm to,” she has put on a posh voice, “address conference on stereotypes. Which,” she looked worriedly around the deck at the other passengers, “ has me as nervous as now.”

“Stereotypes?” I said. The eyes came back to me.

“Yes. Stereotypes.” She picked up her thread, “Many of our members get themselves into all kinds of muddles and scrapes following stereotypes. Stereotypes that are frankly incorrect.”

“Incorrect how?” This actually had salesman me interested.

“For instance,” she said, voice lowered and as she leant towards me the bulge of her breast almost touching my upper arm, “the stereotype of the indigenous African penis being the weightiest and the longest. It is emphatically not so. That physical peculiarity belongs to the Native Americans.”

“Really?” I said. “The Native Americans, that is a surprise. What other stereotypes?”

"The best lovers for instance aren't French. Not by a long shot. The very best lovers, those most attentive to their partner's needs, are Greek.”

At that point the sign came on telling us that we could undo our seat belts.

“We're up.” I told her.

“So we are.” She relaxed back into her seat away from me, but turned to smile gratefully at me: “Thank you so much. You got me chattering on and I really never noticed our taking off. Letting you in on all those trade secrets, and I don't even know your name.”

“It's Tonto.” I held out my hand: “Tonto Popadopalous.”

 

© Sam Smith 12th March 2021

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A New and Necessary Empiricism

Empiricism – the system which, rejecting all a priori knowledge, rests solely on experience and induction.

Empiricist – one whose knowledge is got from experience only.

-*-

The time has come to forego and forfeit all other fond isms whereby the human world has been governed. Capitalism, communism, socialism; the totalitarianism of religions; all have led us to this sorry state, to the climate collapsing about ourselves and with another new pestilence at every turn.

Fifteen year old Greta Thunberg was right, continues to be right, we should now be governed only by science, by research, by examination. By what works. Realism, provable fact, has to be the basis of our every new policy, every new law.

Decades of open-minded, speculative science fiction, of rise-and-fall historical narratives, have taught us that the collapse of any civilisation can come about very easily. Easter Island's deforestation and depopulation usually cited here.

Also consider modern warfare: one consequence always cholera.

Bombs destroy sewage systems and rupture water supplies. Cholera ensues. And once that disease has weakened the population other infectious diseases more easily take hold, and work back towards the 'victors', whose spending on health care was curtailed by their spending on war. Ergo: peace is essential for any civilisation here to endure.

A post-apocalyptic book of mine, Once Were Windows Once Were Doors, is sitting at Wordcatcher Publishing waiting for the UK economy to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit. Once Were Windows Once Were Doors tells of a life long after climate change and pestilence. (The first 10 pages of Once Were Windows Once Were Doors can be read here – http://samsmithbooks.weebly.com/first-10-pages.html )

The present pestilence, Covid-19, was caused not by war, but certainly by a lack of empiricism. Sars, ebola, bird-flu, and possibly other flu-like and coronavirus contagions, have likely been caused by viruses crossing over from animal to human; and while we continue to eat animals there exists the likelihood of yet more cross-overs. Or BSE-type diseases, resulting from our meddling with the food chain.

Will this cause us to stop using known-to-be-dangerous pesticides? Will we stop growing food to feed to hormone-enhanced animals and then feed those animals to humans? No, we will not stop. Not while the world's impoverished are made to depend on factory-farmed meat, be it beef, pig or chicken. Empiricism is telling us that the time has come to reverse that dependence.

On the bright side (despair tells me that there has to be a bright side) could all these global crises mean an end at last to the nation state? From an historical perspective the nation state has to already be a brief phenomena. Will ongoing international commerce, shared concerns and cross-border communication see a de facto end to the 20th Century's petty divisions? Will a new empiricism create a sense of belonging to this our one planet, our one people?

-*-

NB. A cautionary note. In many dictionaries an alternative meaning for empiricism is given as quackery. This is because in the 19th Century new scientists, calling themselves empiricists, began questioning what had then passed for medical practice, which was based on traditional methods and followed time-honoured practice, whether their treatments effected a cure or not.

The empiricists held that new medical practice should be based on provable outcomes. Established doctors though had made a good living from wealthy patients who still expected to be bled or have hot cups stuck to their backs. So those doctors, turning the meaning on its head, called the new empiricists 'quacks', accusing them and their new-fangled provable outcomes 'quackery.' Which has become these days a common political ploy – accuse your opponents of the practice that you yourself are guilty of.

In their campaign against wasteful medicine the empiricists often cited the Rockefellers calling their 'Nujol' a cure for cancer. 'Nujol' didn't provably cure cancer. What 'Nujol' did was give the patient diarrhoea, was supposed therefore to be purging them of the disease.

Despite this twisted mirror-version of Empiricism the joint definition still persists in many dictionaries and lexicons. Please disregard.

© Sam Smith 25h February 2021

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Levity (2)

Don't know who I have to thank for this shaggy dog story. Possibly Frank Muir – I seem to remember his slight lisp - on BBC's Radio Four. Whoever was first with the tale it's definitely one for big band enthusiasts.

-*-

Those big band fans will know that songwriters Mack Gordon and Hal Warren often worked together. What those fans might not know is that in November 1941 Glen Miller had a prestigious gig coming up in New York's Grand Central Station. He asked the songwriting duo Mack Gordon and Hal Warren to come up with a new tune. Glen said that he wanted it to be 'startlingly new.'

“As far out of left field as can be,” Glen told them. “And I need it in three days.” And he left the pair to it in their Sun Valley hotel. Glen was paying.

So far as record sales went the European war had thus far been kind to Glen. Mack and Hal consequently had a suite that took up a whole floor, paid for in advance, unlimited room service, reams of blank score sheets, plus a baby grand.

Soon as the suite door had closed behind Glen, Hal and Mack tried to settle to composing. They tinkered for a bit, but nothing felt worth developing. Hal decided he'd benefit from a change of air. Mack had had a heavy session the night before, laid himself on one of the chaise-longues for a snooze.

He was woken by Hal excitedly showing him a brand new pair of brown and white spats.

“Not much of a town,” Hal told Mack, “but one helluva shoe shop. Old-fashioned, and quality leather. Top quality.”

Hal had sat on the chaise-longue opposite to try on the spats.

“New shoes.” He went dancing and sliding across the hotel carpet. “Leather stitched soles.” He lifted his left foot to show Mack, who smiling took himself over to the baby grand, converted 'leather soles' to four chords, tried two for 'new shoes.'

“Again,” Hal said, leaning in beside Mack. He added two more chords.

“OK,” Mack took up a sharpened pencil, scribbled on a blank score sheet.

For the next couple of hours the pair built up a tune, put in repeats, until Mack called a halt.

“Let it settle,” he said. Both knew from long practice that the musical subconscious (recently discovered by an Austrian cove) often emerged with a subtle development. “I'm going to order us up a celebratory feast.” Mack reached for the hotel phone: “ Glen's paying. What you fancy?”

Hal held up his hand, said that he'd like to get out from four walls again, would try the diner he'd passed on his walk.

“Never seen a town with so many cats,” Hal said as he retied his laces. “Cats on windowsills. Cats in doorways. Everywhere I looked a cat.”

“Won't see many now.” Mack pointed out the window at the rain. “You sure about the diner?”

Hal however was uncomfortable with foreign-sounding hotel food. He preferred run-of-the-mill cafeterias where he knew from the pictures he'd get what he asked for.

Mack was still cheerfully lifting covers and sampling dishes when Hal, drenched, got back.

“Look at my new shoes.” Hal held out his right foot to show Mack. The front of both spats were covered in greasy grey mud.

“Ran back across the green,” Hal said. “Was squelchy all the way.”

Mack, his mouth full, told Hal to put the spats outside the suite door: “Boot boy'll clean 'em.”

Hal changed into dry trousers and jacket, and – letting their different dinners settle – they ordered up coffee and listened to the news from Europe.

When the chambermaid came to turn down the bedsheets she seemed a little afraid of the two men who had gone back to working at the piano.

“Anything the matter?” Mack asked her.

“Your shoes,” the maid said. “I had to chase a cat away from them. They get in sometimes. Can't blame them. They're so hungry, and its so wet out.”

Hal had gone to the door, came back with a ripped and torn apart spat.

“Looks like,” he examined the torn upper, “a tooth must have got stuck in one of the perforations and the cat had to claw its self free. Shame though,” he tried to be philosophical – the chambermaid was actually trembling and he didn't want to add to her worries - “was the last pair my size in the shop. Still, easy come easy go.” He ceremonially dropped both spats in among crumpled score sheets in the wastebasket.

With the apologetic chambermaid gone Mack and Hal returned to the tune, tweaked a chord here, added a pause there. Glen would have to complete the arrangement for his band.

“All we need now,” Mack decided before they took themselves to bed, “are lyrics and a title.”

“Let us consult the Austrian,” Hal yawned.

The rain had stopped by the morning, and Mack accompanied Hal to the diner for what he called a 'Good 'ol American breakfast.' Neither had known what to order from the hotel menu.

With the early sun glinting on last night's raindrops Mack also kept noticing the cats that Hal had mentioned; and he got to saying at sight of every new cat – in a porch, on a windowsill - “Hey Hal, think that's the cat who clawed your new shoes?” Mack even kept it up when they left the diner. Until Hal excitedly grabbed his arm: “That's it Mack! That's our title.” And he sang it, “Pardon me Hal, is that the cat who chewed your new shoes? Left field or what?”

The duo hurried back to their hotel suite, where they scribbled cat and shoe lyrics over the score. Took them a giddy hour.

They phoned Glen to sing and whistle it to him.

“Love the tune,” Glen said. “But the gig's on the station concourse. A train theme'd be better.”

-*-

© Sam Smith 1st January 2021

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see also

 

http://samsmithbooks.weebly.com

http://sites.google.com/site/samsmiththejournal/

http://thesamsmith.webs.com