Monday, 31 August 2015

Under Exmouth Skies (Part 27)


"Down by the shoreline with my back to the land, I felt my feet sink down in the sand..."

"Down by the harbour standing all alone, I felt my heart grow heavy as a stone..."

"I watched the swans in diesel river, I struck a match and watched it burn against the night. 
I almost prayed. I almost prayed..." - The Weather Prophets

Friday, 28 August 2015

Under Exmouth Skies (Part 26)


"There's a burning sun and it sets in the Western world but it rises in the East..."

"... And pretty soon it's gonna burn your temples down."

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Heart Of Darkness - Joseph Conrad


Don't know about you but I suspect it's not possible to read Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness nowadays without thinking of Apocalypse Now. There are obvious differences, of course, the main one being Conrad's novel is set in Africa whilst Coppola's film is set in Vietnam/Cambodia but there are episodes in the book that are fully translated into the film such as, for example, when the boat is attacked by a volley of arrows and the helmsman is killed by a spear. When reading this part of the book it's difficult to not envisage the scene from the film.
Kurtz is obviously there in both book and film as is also the character as played by Dennis Hopper though there are differences. Conrad describes Kurtz as being extremely tall - at least seven foot to be precise - and obviously that doesn't put you in mind of Brando. Hopper plays his character almost exactly as Conrad wrote it except that in the book he's actually a Russian, dressed like some kind of harlequin figure.
The really interesting thing about Heart Of Darkness, however, is in the way that over time the meaning of it has been interpreted and re-interpreted.

Conrad based the book on his own experiences when working as a captain on a steamboat travelling up the Congo, so with this in mind it can easily be read exactly as it comes off the page with nothing between the lines. Whilst this might be the way to read non-fiction, Heart Of Darkness is absolutely a work of fiction and should be read as such with all the layers, devices, subtext, metaphors and multiple dimensions that any good novel can come loaded with.

A huge amount has already been written about Heart Of Darkness and there's no end of analysis of it on the Internet so is there any point in me adding to the confusion, I wonder? Have I anything particularly insightful to say about it where so many of much better education than I have failed?
Let's give it a go, shall we?

The pivotal point of the book comes with Kurtz on his deathbed uttering the words "The horror! The horror!" and this can be taken as the summation of his vision of life and the world as a whole or of a certain aspect of it. Whatever suits the reader, really.
Just as significant, however, is when the narrator, Marlow, sees the heads on the stakes outside of Kurtz's house and he thinks to himself: 'I seemed at one bound to have been transported into some lightless region of subtle horrors, where pure, uncomplicated savagery was a positive relief, being something that had a right to exist - obviously - in the sunshine.'

If Heart Of Darkness is being read as a metaphor then time and place doesn't matter, hence it being successfully transferred in Apocalypse Now to 1970's Vietnam. So if this is the case then it can also be successfully transferred to our modern-day world as in, for example, the war in Iraq where over 500,000 people have died. Or to the civil war in Syria where so far over 210,000 people have died. Or to modern-day hunger and the fact that over 800 million people in the world don't have enough to eat. And so on and so forth.
These are the 'subtle horrors' that are barely considered by the majority of people yet are absolute realities.
The atrocities of Islamic State, the police killings of black people in America, the paedophilia of those in power in Britain; this is the 'pure, uncomplicated savagery' on full view 'in the sunshine'. The modern-day equivalent of Kurtz's heads on stakes. And in the book, the heads aren't facing outwards from Kurtz's house so as to serve as some kind of warning to others but are facing inwards, towards Kurtz's house...

Conrad ends his book with Marlow visiting Kurtz's fiancé so as to pass on some letters and when she asks him what Kurtz's last words were, rather than telling the truth he tells her the last word Kurtz pronounced was her name. It's a lie but Marlow feels the truth would be 'too dark - too dark altogether...'. He feels 'the horror' of Kurtz's vision is best left unmentioned and to let others remain oblivious of it, though ultimately he's unable to remain silent and ends up telling his story to fellow passengers on a boat on the river Thames, which is where the book begins.

Heart Of Darkness is claustrophobic, haunting, and grim but stands as a masterpiece of twentieth-century writing. If, as some academics have said that Conrad's intention was to expose the crimes of imperialism then the book does indeed do that but that's just one aspect of it. The power of Heart Of Darkness and what keeps it remaining a subject of academic discussion to this day is that for a book that deals almost exclusively in black and white with no grey areas in-between, its true intention and meaning isn't black and white in the slightest. Which means that all anyone can do is to read it themselves and draw their own conclusions from it.

So - sorry about this - but essentially if you've not done so already then you're just going to have to read Heart Of Darkness yourself one day...
John Serpico

'Read it myself? Oh, the horror, the horror..'

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Under Exmouth Skies (Part 25)


"Row, fisherman row, keep on rowing your boat. Row, fisherman row, we've got to reach a higher ground..."

"Living in a bamboo hut in a little seaport town. Day, day by day, I man step it along the sea shore..." - The Congos

Monday, 10 August 2015

The Coral Sea / Woolgathering - Patti Smith


I always felt Patti Smith's great curse - the cross she's had to bear - is in being born American. She was like a strange and exotic flower growing in a cabbage patch. The cuckoo in the nest.
She grew up in New Jersey before moving to New York where she met Robert Mappelthorpe, and it was her relationship with him that crystallised her destiny to be what she's now become: a near-holy person, as near to a saint that anyone can be in this day and age.
I'll admit it now - I've always been a bit of a fan of Patti Smith.

She was influenced by the best - the Stones, Dylan, Hendrix, The Doors, etc - and she's never been shy of citing those influences but it was Mappelthorpe who cemented her will to be an artist. He was her friend, her mentor and her comrade-in-arms. Being American, however, was like an obstacle to overcome because the themes she was always aiming for were so un-American. She had so much more to prove and had a much harder battle to show she was serious. America has Walt Whitman but France has Baudellaire and Rimbaud, and England has William Blake. Of the four, it would probably have been easier for her to have Whitman as a spiritual guide but instead she chose the European poets and in doing so aimed far beyond her own culture.
In Europe she's now recognised as an absolute artist but I suspect that in America she's not viewed in quite the same way. What is it they say? A prophet is never recognised in their own land?

What Patti has built up over the decades is a huge canon of work and it's this that is going to be her legacy for humankind when she passes. I remember her once saying that in the end, you won't be remembered for your looks or for taking a lot of drugs; only the work will remain - so make it good.
Patti has stayed faithful to this idea and when it comes to her recorded output the only dud album she's ever made (in my opinion) is Twelve, her covers album. I remember her also saying about when she met William Burroughs when she was very young and him telling her to build up her name by the merit of her deeds and her work. Again, this is what she's stayed faithful to (which is why Twelve is a dud album - the songs are all straight covers and there's nothing really of herself put into them, so consequently they have little artistic merit).

Her recorded output is, however, just one aspect of her work. There is also her photography and her written work. Of her books, there's one in particular with the title Complete that I can always go to if ever I need inspiration as it contains both her lyrics and her photographs. It never fails. And then there's her memoir, Just Kids, of course. And then her lesser known books such as The Coral Sea and Woolgathering.

The Coral Sea is basically an ode to Robert Mappelthorpe, composed after his death in 1989. It's a deeply personal collection of poems - a season in grief, Patti describes them as - telling the story of a man on an ocean journey to see the constellation of the Southern Cross. The man is called simply 'M' and he's fighting an illness that's consuming him. Mappelthorpe, of course, died of AIDS.
"When he passed away I could not weep so I wrote," says Patti as an introduction, so as you might imagine it's not a light or an easy read. An interesting thing is that Patti makes no attempt to be communicative and instead it seems that the poems are the point in themselves. She's not trying to talk to an audience, a readership, or to anyone, really; and to understand The Coral Sea, it helps if you can recognise this.
Some years later, Patti performed it live at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London accompanied by Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine on guitar, later releasing it as a double CD. Like the book, it's not an easy experience but it's brilliantly mesmerising in its intensity and in many ways works far better than the printed version.

Woolgathering stems from 1992 and is another collection of Patti's prose poems, this time being a meditation on her childhood. Quite simply, it's accessible, it's beautiful and it's sublime. It's a joy to read.
One of the pieces by the name of Nineteen Fifty-Seven concerns itself with the year that Patti's younger sister, Kimberley, was born, beginning with the subject of her neighbour - an elderly man who would sit out in all weathers outside his house selling fish bait. As a child, Patti believes there are people out in the field near her home at night, working away at some strange task. She can see movement in the grass and she can catch glimpses and hear the sound of talking but can never fully see them. One day she asks her neighbour who these people are and he replies "They be the woolgatherers...", and from this Patti's imagination is fired. She goes on to describe the death of her pet dog and the fire that consumes a large black barn near to her home one night. She stands watching the fire as she holds her baby sister in her arms, knowing that the woolgatherers will protect the field from the fire just as she was protecting her sister.
If you know Patti Smith then you'll know this is connecting to the song Kimberley, from her Horses début album: "The wall is high, the black barn, the babe in my arms in her swaddling clothes. And I know soon that the sky will split, and the planets will shift. Balls of jade will drop and existence will stop. Little sister, the sky is falling, I don't mind, I don't mind. Little sister the fates are calling on you... The palm trees fall into the sea, it doesn't matter much to me, as long as you're safe, Kimberley. And I can gaze deep, into you starry eyes, into your starry eyes."

There's a line in one of the poems, Barndance, that catches childhood so well: "The child, mystified by the commonplace, moves effortlessly into the strange," and when you juxtapose this to, as an example, her indictment of George W Bush in the film Dream Of Life then you can see the sheer breadth of her consciousness. There it all is. A beautiful and clear insight into innocence and a scathing, coruscating anger against the abuse of power.

I rest my case: Patti Smith is as near to a saint that anyone can be in this day and age.
John Serpico

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Under Exmouth Skies (Part 24)


"That cloud... That cloud looks like Ireland. C'mon now and blow it a kiss - but quick! Cos it's changing in the big sky..."

"We're looking at the big sky... You never understood me, you never really tried..."

"You want my reply? What was the question? I was looking at the big sky." - Kate Bush

Saturday, 1 August 2015

The Tower - Richard Martin Stern


One hundred dignitaries and VIPs gather on the top floor of New York's newest, grandest and tallest skyscraper to celebrate its completion and official opening. As crowds and television cameras gather on the street outside to watch, unbeknownst to everyone is that a disgruntled sheet-metal worker is setting a bomb off in the basement. Unbeknownst to him is that the skyscraper is riddled with cut-price electrical wiring so when his bomb explodes it causes a power surge, setting off fires throughout the whole building. The people on the top floor become trapped and suddenly it's a race against time to save them as fire roars ever upwards towards them, turning the tower into an unapproachable fiery column of death.

And that's the plot of The Tower by Richard Martin Stern, basically. It's a relatively simple idea for a story but it just so happens that Richard Stern thought of it first and subsequently it was turned into the film The Towering Inferno starring Steve McQueen, Paul Newman and a cast of Hollywood A-listers.
The year was 1974 and the fashion in Hollywood was for all things 'Disaster', so you had The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake, Airport and so on; films in which truck loads of Hollywood actors were put into impossible-to-escape-from situations just so audiences could flock to the cinema to watch them all suffer. And flock they did, turning The Towering Inferno into the highest grossing film for that year and earning eight Oscar nominations.

On reading The Tower today, it's impossible to not make comparisons to 9/11 and indeed the World Trade Center is featured in the book as playing an important role in the attempt to rescue the trapped dignitaries.
Through the dialogue of the characters, the author asks all kinds of questions that would naturally be raised in such a situation although no answers are even attempted to be given. Instead, what we get is 303 pages of what reads like a script for an American, daytime television soap series. In hindsight, you can see that it's perfect material for a Hollywood blockbuster.

Sometimes I read these books so that no-one else has to.
John Serpico