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I was very please to be awarded Second Prize for my entry A Bonfire of Vanities. A bonfire of the vanities in fifteenth-century Italy was a ceremonial burning of objects condemned by religious authorities as occasions of (i.e. encouragements to) sin. The best known was that organised by Savonarola in Florence in 1497, in which books and works of art were publicly burned by their chastened owners.

A Bonfire of Vanities

The notes of music emerging from the chimney, blown away like the cries of gulls, brought the watchers. For years they had watched the cottage of the man who carved notes from the chopping of wood, the passing of clouds, the bursting forth of spring flowers, the flowing of water. Carved them, and set them up on plinths, hung them in trees, for all to walk among, to run their hands over the shapely crotchets and quavers, peer through the staves and signatures. He carved them in materials that had sometimes the grain of wood, sometimes the taste of metal, sometimes were as silky as smoke. And never heard. No sound in the wood except the sounds of the wood. The notes were presences that intervened but offered no commentary. The watchers wondered if he heard the notes as he collected, carved, made. Always the sound from the cottage of making, never the sound of notes.

And then one day the notes began to disappear from the wood. He was seen carrying them under his arm like strangely-shaped ladders, dragging them heavy as loaded sledges, enclosing them in his hands with the deftness of a magician’s touch, as he took them into the cottage and closed the door.

And then from the cottage a terrific commotion, of chopping and splitting and rending. No sound except the chopping and splitting and rending. Those brave enough to approach and look through the small window panes saw him wrestling with the notes, in contorted agony, in hysteria-edged laughter and joy, in focussed deliberate action, breaking up the notes and throwing them piece by piece onto the mounting pyre.

And then the notes of music emerging from the chimney, blown away like the cries of gulls.

And then the cottage silent. And the wood bereft. And never the same again.

 

My other two entries were

Photographs

I hadn’t seen Rosanne for years. Our affair had been brief, before she was married, but we’d kept in touch through her brother. Since my divorce she’d written more often, been more interested. Less in me, I realised, than in my situation, living alone, living my own life.

She showed me round the house. It was tastefully furnished, with a careful mix of the enduring old and the classically modern, an Eames chair next to a Tudor blanket box for example, each room finished, complete. Time standing still. Even the ticking of the long-case clock marked time. The boy’s playroom was formidably equipped and immaculately neat and tidy, uninhabited, silent. Mark was doing very well in his career, she emphasised. With not a little help, she implied, from herself.

Then she got out the photograph albums. Every photograph was dated and annotated. Monochrome gravestones and Kodacolor paving slabs from then to now. I was there, at their first party, pissed and glassy-eyed, looking at once naïve and corrupt, a fallen angel. And I’d thought I’d been one helluva guy, then. I can still feel the flashbulb exploding in my face.

Among the moments pinned down and named by Rosanne were the photographs Mark had taken in California, on his sabbatical, on his own. He showed them to me as Rosanne made tea. They lived and breathed. They rested on the page like butterflies. When he turned the page I felt them slipping away, living their own lives. Yet when the page was turned back, there they were, in place, glowing. He displayed a double spread that he was especially pleased with, proudly. The photographs were still. And then they were stirring, slipping free of the corner mounts, and fluttering up. The sun came out, a window opened, and the air flooding in was balmy and soft. The photographs rose up and fluttered around Mark’s head, dancing and shimmering. He sat, helpless and amazed, speechless.

‘Oh Mark, how wonderful!’ Rosanne exclaimed, approaching silently from the kitchen. She stood behind his chair. Then she moved her hand in a mesmeric circle and the fluttering photographs came to her hand. Very carefully she led them back to to the album, watched over them as they settled back into their places on the page, secured themselves under the corner mounts. Then she closed the album.

’Tea?’ she said, brightly.

 

The Writer

He wrote about the sky in celeste, the sea in aquamarine and cobalt, trees in different shades of green with half words in brown. The sun was yellow, tinting red at sunset, passions were purple, girls pink with letters in citron and turquoise. On his desk was the full range of coloured pens and, head down, his hand reached unerringly for the right one as he wrote. Objects, moods, nuances, all had their colours and colour combinations. Every aspect of his writing was colour-coded. And each page he wrote, letter by coloured letter, made, like a pointillist painting, a picture. After a printer’s plate had been made of a page, the page was framed and given a title by his gallery, whimsical, fanciful, metaphysical, mystical, depending on how his gallerist judged it could be best placed in the market. There seemed little obvious – indeed unobvious – relationship between picture and title. ‘Enigmatic’, said the discerning. They sold for thousands.

He live in a house built like a galleon, and his bed was an enormous nest. He had a lawn in his office, and sat cupped in a hand-shaped chair, at a desk that was a toughened-glass LED screen displaying the google earth image centred on his house. Smoke came out of his chimney in musical notes.

His books were best-sellers, and each publication date was an event. People crowded around the displays. How wonderful they looked, piled up, copy upon copy. How seductive, to riffle through the display copies. Such excitement to buy and carry home a copy, shrink-wrapped and snug in its custom-made and printed carrier bag. How thrilling to exchange knowing smiles with others carrying identical bags as they travelled home. Such expectation as one settled into a favourite chair, with an appropriate drink – a new one for each book. To take it out of the bag, split open the wrapping, turn the pages admiringly, hold a double page at arms’ length eyes half closed, perhaps with a slight squint, and ponder – what is it? – the image. But one never got far, reading. His books demanded, dictated, confused, didn’t allow the reader to do enough. Soon the reader would put it down and, at a loss, turn on the television. They were books you left around for visitors to pick up, books you bought as presents. He became very rich.

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At last, five days before the deadline, Dylan has delivered his Nobel Lecture. And what a lecture! Read it, or, even better listen to its 27 glorious, (apparently) rambling, mesmerising minutes at nobelprize.org.
There’s his encounter with Buddy Holly, two days before he died, and feeling that Buddy is passing on the baton.
There’s Dylan listening to and absorbing the vernacular of folk music.
And there are his reactions to three great books: Moby-Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Odyssey. His Moby-Dick piece is brilliant: ‘Everything is mixed in. All the myths: the Judeo Christian bible, Hindu myths, British legends, Saint George, Perseus, Hercules – they’re all whalers. Greek mythology, the gory business of cutting up a whale … everything thrown in and none of it hardly rational. Highbrow, lowbrow, chasing illusion, chasing death, the great white whale … We see only the surface of things. We can interpret what lies below any way we see fit. Crewmen walk around on deck listening for mermaids, and sharks and vultures follow the ship. Reading skulls and faces like you read a book. Here’s a face. I’ll put it in front of you. Read it if you can.’ And that’s just a brief extract.

He ends with, ‘So what does it all mean? Myself and a lot of other songwriters have been influenced by these very same themes. And they can mean a lot of different things. If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important. I don’t have to know what a song means. I’ve written all kinds of things into my songs. And I’m not going to worry about it – what it all means … I return once again to Homer, who says, “Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story.”‘

For more on Dylan and Melville, see my Bob Dylan and “The Confidence Man” page in Music. And for Buddy Holly, my Buddy Holly’s Apartment Tapes, and Buddy Holly ‘Please Don’t Tell’ pages, also in Music. But first – listen to the man!

My three entries in the Tears in the Fence Flash Fiction competition were all shortlisted – but, no prizes this time. Here they are.

Strange Creatures

There is a particular creature men fish for. Its unique quality is that it has no constant form. When caught and brought to the surface it may be one of a million startlingly different shapes, no two identical, but all having a resemblance, such that you know they are the same sort. It’s very strange.

The creature lives at great depths, in total darkness, and it seems that, at that depth, in the dark, its shape is ever changing. But the moment it is touched by anything external, be it hook, light or even the subtle vibration of microwave detection, it fixes in that shape. It is a most tantalising creature.

Some fish for it constantly, hoping that each one they catch, when they see its newly-fixed form, will be the one they have always been looking for. Others fish in order to build collections, in as great a variety as possible, or in certain shapes. Another group, rather more subtle, let down their lines and, when the creature’s hooked, try to divine its form, releasing it when they’ve checked; many and bizarre are the shapes these fishermen visualise. And there are those, heroic, foolish or mad, who plunge into the depths, the directionless blackness, to embrace these creatures directly. No one knows what they experience, as none ever returns.

If you have any sense, you will ignore these creatures.

But if you must go fishing for them, do this. Instead of bait, sensing devices, cameras, let down, on a long line, your imagination. Lie back, on a boat pitching in the storm’s ferocity, or undulating gently on a sea of soft glass, above you clouds moving slowly, stars shining, a typhoon spinning, with the line tied to your big toe, Huckleberry Finn fashion, and let your imagination explore. Be still. Move fast as light. Be passive as plankton. Follow, with senses sharp, every nuanced subtlety of your imagination’s exploring. Take all the time in the world.

When you haul in your line, empty, of course, you will have no notion at all of the creatures’ shapes. But you will know all that’s important to know about these singular denizens of the deep.

And then, most serious piece of advice: do restrain yourself from telling others what you know. You won’t be understood. If you must tell, be very, very careful what you say, and to whom.

Newton’s Cradle

As soon as it was spotted, all the earth’s astronomers turned their attention to it. They quickly established that it was heading towards the earth unerringly, and that collision was inevitable. Further studies showed that it was identical in size and composition to the earth. By the time it could be distinguished with the naked eye it was clear that it was in every way – configuration of continents, location of cities, pattern of clouds – exactly like the earth. When it was the size of the moon in the sky it had become the most important thing in the world.

It was very beautiful, earth light. It was a new light, almost as bright as the sun, but without heat, and clear. You could stare full at it without being blinded. When it shone at night, night was banished. But people did not resent it. They walked placidly. Or slept in its healing light. Lunatics became lucid, in a new way. Mad dogs played rapturously with children. As the earth became larger in the sky, there was a great sense of exhilaration. Seeing the earth and feeling it, people knew at last what it was, the earth. They no longer felt orphaned. They no longer missed the god, whose absence had so disturbed them, with the earth in the sky.

But collision was inevitable. The moment had been calculated to the second. Now the earth filled the sky, blocked out the heavens. Now there was only earth, growing ever larger. The woman and man, at first hand in hand, then apart but close, stared up as the moment approached, saw clouds and mountains, fields and sheep, stream and wood. And figures, themselves, standing apart but close, by a stream near a wood.

At the moment of impact each saw herself exactly. Not as in a mirror. Or as others see her. But exactly herself seeing herself. Another, but herself. She said, ‘do you see?’ He said, ‘yes.’ At the moment of impact there was fusion, clarity, insight, truth.

And then a wrenching separation. For the other earth, from rushing towards theirs with such velocity, was now still in space. And their earth was moving away from it at the speed the other had arrived. Day by day they watched themselves recede, become smaller, the darkness of space grow around them, engulfing the world. Each shivered in a new aloneness.

The Third Moon

The third moon was the one that fascinated Regine and her friends.

The smallest of the moons, it had no commercial value. For it had neither the mineral resources of the second moon, nor the recreational possibilities – its low gravity and spongy vegetation making it a natural playground – of the first.

The quality that the third moon had was that it was weightless. Or, to be more accurate in the conditions of space, it had no mass. It was real, physical, composed of matter, and yet it had no more weight than a reflection of itself. It had, therefore, no gravity. It was neither drawn to the planet and the other moons by gravity, nor did it draw them to it. It hadn’t the gravity of a butterfly.

How was it there? What held it there? Why was it there? It was there. That was the beauty of its mystery.

It had a second strange quality: if any material was taken from it, that material rapidly acquired a mass appropriate to its composition. And any object that landed on the moon rapidly became weightless. The scientific implications were enormous.

But Regine and her friends were not concerned with scientific implications. They simply observed and contemplated the mystery of the body that hung in space, a form without mass, a presence that took no part in the physical relationships of the universe, which sometimes reflected, and sometimes glowed, which some called ‘the moon that is a window’ and some called ‘the moon that is a poem’.

Regine called it by no name. She observed and contemplated and waited, for the word to come that was the name of the third moon. And from that word, she knew, would come a new vocabulary. And from that vocabulary, a new language. And from that language, a new life.

Leonard Cohen

Another of the greats has passed. To commemorate Leonard Cohen, I’ve posted a piece I wrote after one of his first ‘comeback concerts’ in 2008 – a great night. Find it in the sidebar.

La Méridienne verte

In 2000, to mark the Millennium, the French government designated the Paris Meridian, la Méridienne verte, the Green Meridian. It was celebrated on Bastille Day with one long party, from Dunkirk to the Spanish border, and a ‘Grand Inauguration’ in the centre of France. Markers were put up in each of the 337 communes it passed through. 10,000 trees were to be planted, one every 100m, oaks in the North, pines in the Centre, olives in the South.

In 2015, to mark my 70th birthday, and 50 years since I first cycled in France, I cycled the length of the Green Meridian. I wanted to see how France’s millennial ‘green spine’ had developed in fifteen years. And to travel through the length of the country, from the Flemish-speaking North Sea coast to the Catalan-speaking high Pyrenees, through langue d’oïl, and langue d’oc, a dozen cultures, a dozen cuisines.

You can read my account of my 1400 mile ride at

http://www.greenmeridian.wordpress.com.

The Divided Wood

My new novella, The Divided Wood, is now out. It’s available free from http://www.brimstonepress.co.uk.

“The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”

A ruined splendour, a white wasteland … what has happened in the great wood?When his overbearing magnate father dies, Geoffrey believes that he has inherited everything and can at last come into his own. But the old man’s will contains a shock: he has left the estate’s ancient wood, Geoffrey’s secret place, to be “divided equally” between his son and Rolf, a mysterious stranger.

Geoffrey and Rolf meet, divide the wood, and build a fence between them. Each seeks in his half of the wood to realise his deepest dreams: Geoffrey creates at first a realm of solitude, then of culture, finally of spirituality; while Rolf begins from primitive simplicity, evolving his realm into successive expressions of his personality. Different worlds.
But, although separate, their individual paths lead them ineluctably to their interlocked destinies in the ancient wood.

In this tale, told with style and erudition, we share in the making of new worlds, while registering the deep undercurrents of generational and sibling rivalry.

January 1959, late at night in a Greenwich village apartment, his pregnant wife asleep, Buddy Holly is recording. He’s been recording obsessively since he was 14, and for the last couple of years camped in the studio in Clovis, New Mexico, learning how to write, how to record, what makes a record. He has style and command, as strong in his way as Elvis. He is a master of the catchy look, the catchy song, the catchy sound. He is ambitious. He is 22.

Buddy’s last official recordings, made in New York in October 1958, were string arrangements of two songs written by professional writers, in which his only contribution was to sing. He hadn’t recorded like this since his frustrating and abortive time with Decca in Nashville – after which he returned to Clovis, and wrote, arranged, played guitar, sang and recorded ‘That’ll be the Day’, his first hit. In the next 18 months he established the template for the adventurous pop musicians of the next generation – the need for a look, a sound, and control.

He recorded 12 songs in his apartment. What to make of these tapes, as enigmatic and suggestive in their way as Dylan’s basement tapes? The six songs he’d written, ‘among the most angst-ridden in the entire canon of rock’, ‘clearly reveal that Holly was not a happy Buddy.’ (Julian Lloyd Webber, Daily Telegraph, 3 Feb 2015.) And at first they seem to be the songs of a lost soul: refusing to accept another’s marriage; doubting that true love exists; expressing the pain of being dumped; helplessly longing for a lost love; unable to get over a high-school romance; realising that love is ‘a game’. And seemingly confirmed by the story put across by the Crickets, and other home-town friends left behind in Texas: small-town boy Buddy, seduced by a New York Latina beauty who’s taken over his life, separated him from his old buddies and childhood sweetheart, and dragged him off to New York. The 6 songs as the 2 a.m. howls of a man trapped in a loveless marriage by a controlling wife. Maybe, even, the plane flight was a desperate man flirting with death? It fits the image of the artist as tortured autobiographer, his art a distorted mirror of his life. And it feeds off the jealousy of those who were left behind, who hadn’t dared break away.

But, listen to the songs. They were so well written and recorded that, overdubbed with (unfortunate) accompaniments, they sustained a posthumous career. So, listen to the originals, with the intimacy of Buddy switching the tape on and off, false starts, alternate takes, chatter from Maria Elena. Hear them at edsel.myrmid.com. They are carefully worked, ready for studio recording. For Holly was a professional. And a professional writer, for a specific market, the teens of the late 1950s, self-absorbed, anxious, tasting a new freedom, obsessed with love, extravagant nursers of broken hearts. Just as Paul Anka, Neil Sedaka, Felice Bryant could write ‘Lonely Boy’, ‘Breaking up is Hard to Do’, and ‘Love Hurts’, songs that strike directly the adolescent heart, without being emotional wrecks, so could Buddy write ‘Crying, Waiting, Hoping’. His 6 songs are well-worked expressions of the adolescent experience, by one who understands it, but has passed beyond it.

The cleverest is ‘Peggy Sue got Married.’ I’ve written a separate blog on it – see ‘Buddy Holly “Please Don’t Tell”’. He must have been squeezing himself at the development in his craft in the 18 months since ‘Peggy Sue’!
What to Do?’ in 8 lines encapsulates the desolation of the adolescent lost love, ‘what to do, now that she doesn’t want me, that’s what haunts me, what to do? … the record hops and all the happy times we had, the soda shop, the walks to school now make me sad.’ Devastated, haunted, lonely, sad, heartbroken, the end of the world. Buddy’s nostalgia is as strong as ‘Bob Dylan’s Dream’, similarly written from the point of view of having moved on.
Crying, Waiting, Hoping’ catches all the vainglorious self-absorption of adolescent desolation, ‘crying, my tears keep falling, waiting, it feels so useless … hoping you’ll come back, maybe sometime soon.’
That’s what They Say’ examines society’s promise, that true love will come. It’s the adolescent questioning for the first time, the beginning of existential angst. What if it’s not true, a story to keep us believing in family, to keep us conforming? It’s the older brother, gently hinting. ‘That’s what they tell us, that’s what they say. I didn’t hear them say a word of when that time will be.’
That makes it Tough’ is another break-up song, ‘memories will follow me for ever, though I know our dreams can’t be true. All those precious things we shared together, time goes by, I’ll remember you.’ Here there’s the moving on, from the rawness of pain, to the enclosure of the raw place so it’s preserved as an access point to that golden past, which we can visit as nostalgia, which means ‘the pain of returning home’.
Learning the Game’ is a tiny gem, of music, words and performance. ‘Hearts that are broken, and love that’s untrue, these go with learning the game.’It’s that growing–up point, the loss of innocence – life, love is a game, that you have to learn the rules of, and how to play.
Five of the songs have upbeat, jaunty tunes, the sixth the cowboy lope that could easily become a close dance.

I don’t see these as midnight revelations of a broken heart, rather carefully crafted, ninety-second lessons in life, offering the solid advice of the older brother who’s been through the mill of adolescence, and is beginning to come out the other side. You grew up much earlier in those days – a twenty-two year old was supposed to be past all that; being married with a child on the way was the norm.

So, what would have happened, if Buddy had given his seat on that plane to his bass player, Waylon Jennings? Yes, that Waylon Jennings. Nashville would have lost one of its future Outlaws. And Buddy? He was ambitious, professional. He’d already started his own production company, signed an artist. Maybe he would, like Paul Anka, Neil Sedaka, Bobby Darin, have settled profitably into comfortable song-writing, and supper-club singing. Maybe, like Roy Orbison and the Everly Brothers, he would have settled into his carefully made image and style, and traded off it as long as he could.

But other songs on the apartment tapes make me doubt it. ‘Wait for the sunshine, Nellie’ was his mother’s favourite – and he lifted the tune for ‘That’s what they Say’. ‘Love is Strange’ and ‘Dearest’ are songs for Maria Elena, but with curious phrasing that sound like a vocal experiments. He was always experimenting. ‘Slipping and Sliding’ is a Little Richard song – he made 4 recordings, each in a different style. And he’d shown, with his version ‘Bo Diddley’ that he was happy to use Black music and translate it for the White market. And ‘Smokey Joe’s Café’, a lovingly crafted performance of a classic Leiber and Stoller song show his interest in story-telling and the craft of song-writing.

Maybe he would have settled into middle-age, that began in those days in one’s mid-twenties. Maybe he was just the wrong side of the age divide that separates those who could embrace the sixties, and those who couldn’t. Although he was the template that John Lennon and Paul McCartney modelled themselves on, perhaps Buddy was just too old.
But Willie Nelson was 3 years older, and Waylon Jennings just a year younger, and they did it. Maybe we’d be seeing Buddy, a bright-eyed 78-year-old, still thin as a whip, big grin, big glasses, performing with Willie. Or perhaps Phil Spector is the model, and he would have become the great producer and impresario of the sixties. Maybe he was already exploring the music of Greenwich village, the jazz and the folk. Maybe he would still have been there when Dylan arrived the following year …

Instead of the glutinous, sentimental confection of ‘American Pie’, we need to listen to the Apartment tapes to hear Buddy’s possible future, his death not the day the music died, but when one of the most vital growing shoots of possibility was snapped off, a future music silenced, lost.