Monday, 31 October 2016

Siddartha - Hermann Hesse


Hermann Hesse goes into the Mystic and returns clutching a tale about searching for the only One. It's a divine light mission in the proper sense, once again mining themes familiar to all his works.
Essentially, all of Hesse's books are vehicles to convey his thoughts, his ideas and his beliefs; Siddartha being one of the most popular he's ever written. There's no real reason why it should be one of his best received books as there's nothing particularly unusual about it or anything that makes it particularly better than any of his others, though that's not to say it isn't any good, and in fact - it's very good indeed.

It's the story of a young man by the name of Siddartha, the son of a Brahmin, who leaves his family home to venture out into the world in a search for enlightenment. He spends a period of his life in absolute poverty, living in the woods with no roof over his head, no possessions and hardly any clothes to stand up in. A total ascetic.
From this period in his life he learns to think, wait and fast; though he comes to understand also that by continuing down this path of denial of all worldly matters he will still not attain Nirvana and a return to Godhead.

He gets to meet a living Buddha who many seekers after the Truth are following but sees that if he was to follow him too, still he would not become a living Buddha himself but would remain a disciple. He chooses instead to take a completely opposite path and throws himself headlong into the world of pleasure and material gain. After some years, however, he discovers that wealth is a ghetto leading ultimately to the extinguishing of the soul.

Where then might lay the answer? Battered and bruised by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and contemplating suicide, he rests by a river and it is here he has a revelation: 'The river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere, and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past, nor the shadow of the future.'
He sees his life also as a river where Siddartha the boy, Siddartha the mature man and Siddartha the old man are only separated by shadows, not through reality. He sees his previous lives were also not in the past, and his death and return to Brahma not in the future. 'Nothing was, nothing will be, everything has reality and presence'.
So he becomes a ferryman, spending the remainder of his days learning from the river and listening to its many voices, which when heard in totality becomes just the one voice and the one word: Om.

Hesse concludes that there is such a thing as an Ultimate Truth but that there's no single path to it, and that it isn't anything that can actually be taught, only realised. Everyone must be allowed to live their own life and to follow their own path even if it might cause them harm, though with the proviso that it shouldn't cause harm to others.
Siddartha concludes that 'love is the most important thing in the world. It may be important to great thinkers to examine the world, to explain and despise it. But I think it is only important to love the world, not to despise it, not for us to hate each other, but to be able to regard the world and ourselves and all beings with love, admiration and respect.'

Siddartha is a good book and Hermann Hesse was a very good storyteller. For further reading on the subjects he writes about here I'd recommend anyone to go to the primary sources, those being the Baghavad Gita and the Upanishads. For all that, however, Siddartha by Hermann Hesse is a good place to start.

John Serpico

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Wholly Communion


On the 11th of June 1965, 7000 people packed into the Royal Albert Hall in London for an evening of poetry. Hardly imaginable these days, of course: 7000 people? To hear some poems? It was, however, a pivotal event. An accidentally momentous occasion. Arguably, it was the moment when in Britain the Sixties began and British counterculture birthed.
The event was titled the International Poetry Reading and was organised by (among others) poet and film maker John Esam and artist Dan Richter. Coinciding with a visit to England by Allen Ginsberg, the idea was hatched to book for one evening the biggest venue in London so as to host him and to stage what was in effect, a Happening. So, just two weeks before the arrival of Ginsberg, the Albert Hall was booked, leaving very little time for publicity or for general organising.
The spontaneity of it all, however, acted as fuel to the rocket and within that short space not only had all the mainstream media (including, even, the bastion of the Establishment, the Times newspaper) been successfully approached and publicity garnered but a number of other internationally known poets and artists stepped up and offered their support, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, Michael Horovitz, and Alexander Trocchi.

Come the evening, to the surprise of everyone (not least the organisers) 7000 people turned up; this being the largest audience ever assembled to hear poetry in the country. Flowers from nearby Covent Garden market were handed out to everyone on entry by girls with painted faces, whilst inside the Hall, the robot creations of artist Bruce Lacey whirled around as a recording of William Burroughs' dry, reptile voice crackled over a pall of pot smoke.
"I don't want that sort of filth here." said the Albert Hall's manager "Would you send your teenage daughter to hear that sort of thing?" But his was the voice of culture past and Allen Ginsberg et al were the voices of the future, the audience being the forward thinkers aware of something in the air signifying the times they were a-changin'.

Wholly Communion, published shortly after the event, is a mixture of photographs of the various poets performing there along with some of the poems they recited. Such was the significance of the event, however, that to capture and convey it is no easy task though it should be said the book doesn't purport this to be its aim. Rather, it's a snapshot or rather still, a version of the event. Just as film maker Peter Whitehead describes the documentary film he made of it (which is up on YouTube) , it's an "impression of a unique evening".
Up against some stiff competition, Lawrence Ferlinghetti's poem To Fuck Is To love Again stands out but the poet that steals the show is Adrian Mitchell, in particular with his poem To Whom It May Concern.

What the International Poetry Reading at the Royal Albert Hall (and subsequently the book, Wholly Communion) teaches us is that a small number of people when they come together to act, can achieve great things. Booking the biggest venue in London for a few poets to perform at was a case of taking the bull by the horns and simply going for it. They were probably daunted and no doubt scared but their enthusiasm and belief in what they were doing carried them through - and they won.

Up until that evening in June of 1965 there were all these thousands of people in their homes and communities, all isolated and unaware of each other's existence. The Poetry Reading brought them all together under one roof and showed there were others like them and that they were not alone. Inspired by this revelation all number of activities and ventures were launched, not least the publication of what was to become a leading voice of the British counterculture, the International Times newspaper.

And then there's the power and importance of the written and spoken word. The importance of poems, songs, books, magazines and any other medium that might carry words. The primacy of the words being the key. The medium not being the message but the words within and the message and meaning that those words convey. And then the imagination, the belief, and the courage to externalise those words into real life and into living action.
                                                                                                                                                                             John Serpico

Monday, 17 October 2016

The Beat Scene - Edited by Elias Wilentz


When you go to the music section of any bookshop nowadays you'll see any number of books detailing and documenting in photos the story of a plethora of bands, solo singers, musical events and scenes. It's an industry and it goes with the territory that where there are photos available there will one day be published a book of them; and long may it be so, I say, as it's a genre of books I quite enjoy.
The Internet has obviously had an effect on this once-cornered market of photo-documentary books, particularly platforms such as tumblr, which is a very good thing, I think. For all that, however, you still can't beat the physical medium of looking at photos in a book (or a magazine) as opposed to viewing them on a screen. And you never will.

Published in 1960, The Beat Scene is probably one of the first of this kind of book. Edited by Eliaz Wilentz, it documents as it says in the blurb on the back cover, 'the world of the young bohemian writers of New York's Greenwich Village'. To this end, it includes a large number of black and white photographs of all the poets of that time who whether by accident or design had picked up the mantel of 'Beatnik'. Alongside the photos there is also one poem from each of them plus essays from others describing the beat scene.

The photographs themselves capture a sense of something very fresh and exciting happening, particularly in those depicting the poets in full flow, reciting their poems to a rapt and attentive audience. All the usual suspects are here - Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky - but also a whole host of others that I'd never heard of before.
Regarding the poems themselves, two stand out: Playmates by Ted Jones, and Tentative Description of a Dinner Given to Promote the Impeachment of President Eisenhower by Lawrence Ferlinghetti; both for the simple reason of having a political edge to them. And being politicised - much to the chagrin of Jack Kerouac - was what gave the Beats an edge which without having would have left them as being just a bunch of would-be-poets writing about clouds and chasing butterflys with nets in the countryside.

The Beats, of course, begat the hippies and the hippies begat the punks; with the punks being the full-stop at the end of the exclamation mark. That's putting it very simply as there was obviously very many other factors and influences involved in the process but without the Beats there would never have been Punk and without Punk I wouldn't be the person I am today and I wouldn't be writing this and you, child, wouldn't be reading it.
As George Santayana once said: 'Those who fail to remember the past are condemned to repeat it'.
John Serpico

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Guilty Pleasures (Part 14)


Purists might scoff but I'd bet my bottom dollar that Bowie himself would have approved of Bowie Experience. He was always an arbiter of good taste though, wasn't he? He raised the bar by being an early champion of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop (among others), though the slight problem that arose for him later on in his career was that he'd made such an impact upon pop culture that any band or artist of any merit would always have been influenced by him in one way or another, so the bands he later touted (such as Placebo, Arcade Fire, the Pixies even) were always cut from his own cloth.
So with this in mind it was bound to have eventually brought him round full circle to appreciating a tribute act to himself - the Bowie Experience.

Now that he's passed away, watching a tribute act to him is the closest we're going to get to experiencing him live. So will it be worth it? I hope so. The guy who impersonates him must be doing a good job of it for him to be touring the UK in what is actually quite decent-sized venues.
Of course, we've always got the records, the videos and the films of Bowie to help keep the flame alive; and of course, we've always got the bands and artists that were influenced by him. I'm thinking Momus here in particular for some reason.

I wonder if Bowie Experience will come on all loaded, man? Well hung and snow white tan?

Friday, 7 October 2016

Howl - Allen Ginsberg


Sitting watching the sun go down over Exmouth after reading Howl, I wondered what might have become of Allen Ginsberg had he not acquired world-wide fame as a poet? If Howl had not been picked up on and published by City Lights Books in 1956 and had it not caused such a scandal, would Ginsberg have remained working as a market researcher and kept his homosexuality a secret? Would he have followed his mother's advice to be good, to get married and to stay away from drugs? Would one of the world's greatest poems have gone undiscovered?

'I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked...' And with those words a door was shut on the 1950s and a new one opened leading to the Sixties. Not just by themselves alone, of course, but without these words and the life pursuits of Allen Ginsberg the world wouldn't be quite the same as it is today.
The Fifties bawled and the Fifties screamed, stamping its feet like a petulant child saying "No, I won't! No, I won't! (The world) is mine! It's mine!" And in a fit of temper it lashed out at Howl - at words on a page - to try and make Ginsberg's poem go away. When it failed to do so, thanks to an Amendment called 'Freedom of expression', the Fifties sloped away and sulked, gnashing it's teeth and festering resentment.
Ginsberg and his friends stepped forward and into the sunlight of a new era where they said Yes! to freedom, Yes! to love, Yes! to peace, Yes! to drugs and - just as importantly - No! to Moloch.

'Holy! Holy! Holy!... Everything is holy! everybody’s holy! everywhere is holy! everyday is in eternity! Everyman's an angel!' And a million young people agreed whilst J Edgar Hoover and his kind said "What the fuck?" and made plans to claw back the ground they had lost by the use of guns, cheap heroin and Cointelpro.

And here we all are today. Ginsberg's dead but so is Hoover, Nixon, Reagan and a whole host of others just like them. The same fight, however, continues in a myriad of different forms. La lotta continua. It's a never-ending tug-of-war between light and dark, love and hate, peace and war; an inch gained here and a mile lost there but through it all Howl stands as a shining example of the power of words. As a shining example of the importance of words and art in matters of changing the world. As proof positive that Ginsberg was (almost, though not entirely) on the side of the angels whilst Hoover and Nixon et al were on the side of... at best you could call it repression but at worst you could call it death.

For anyone who's never read Howl, I'd advise they do so - at least twice. Then rather than appeasing the forces of the conservative Right and their remorseless quest for the subordination of the human race; grow a beard, rumple your clothes, wear sandals, play a bongo drum, start listening to jazz, become sexually immoral and up your drug intake - if that's your bag. Either way, take heart from Ginsberg's poem - and indeed his life - and be inspired.
John Serpico