Want some Satchmo? Take five

800px-Louis_Armstrong_restored1Appearing on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs in 1968, Louis Armstrong was asked to pick the eight tracks he’d take as a castaway.

Satchmo, a man who could never be accused of not having a great welcome for himself, chose five of his own recordings.

And, lest he tire of hearing himself on record, Armstrong picked as his island luxury his trumpet. When it came to reading material he opted to bring the book closest to his heart…his autobiography.

Well, as the himself said: “There are some people that if they don’t know, you can’t tell them”.

As for me, I’m told. In the unlikely event that I ever shuffle onto Desert Island Discs Pops will make my list  – one of the few dead-cert tracks, in fact.

But what if I emulated him and picked my five favourite Louis recordings?

Well, Kirsty, I couldn’t resist.

1. Basin Street Blues

One of the great performances from jazz’s own Rosetta Stone, Armstrong’s Hot Five recording from 1928 takes a Dixieland standard and adds scat singing and then, two minutes in, that solo.

2. Stompin’ At The Savoy

No, not the London hotel. Instead it’s a celebration of the New York ballroom that Langston Hughes called “Harlem’s heartbeat”, and where Ella herself once fronted the house band.

3. West End Blues

From the top, the most famous solo in jazz. As for the rest of the performance, Billie Holiday put it best: “Sometimes the record would make me so sad, I’d cry up a storm…other times the same damn record would make me so happy.”

4.  St Louis Blues

WC Handy‘s groundbreaking mix of ragtime and blues, with a little tango thrown in, topped off with a Satchmo solo.

5. Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?

What else could a son of Storyville, who spent most of his life far from the French Quarter, sing?

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On turning 37

John Updike Pic: George Bush Presidential Library

John Updike
Pic: George Bush Presidential Library

After a decade’s work Gertrude Stein completed The Making of Americans, comparing the finished novel to Ulysses. It went unpublished, in any form, for 13 years.

While working as the head chef at the Grand Hotel in Monte Carlo Georges Auguste Escoffier met Cesar Ritz. The pair later formed a business partnership which commercialised gastronomy for the ordinary man – and led to the birth of the modern restaurant.

John Updike published his first collection of Henry Bech stories, writing that he modelled the character on Norman Mailer, J.D. Salinger and himself.

After spells in Berkeley, Belfast and Wicklow Seamus Heaney moved to Sandymount, Dublin, shortly after the publication of his ‘Troubles collection’, North. He would live there for the rest of his life, but rarely write about the area.

Lou Gehrig died of ALS at his home in New York. Two years earlier he had delivered his “The Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth” address at Yankee Stadium.

Joni Mitchell Pic: Paul C Babin

Joni Mitchell
Pic: Paul C Babin

Joni Mitchell released Shadows and Light, a live recording featuring jazz musicians Jaco Pastorius and Pat Metheny. It was her final album on the Asylum label, run by her Free Man in Paris.

Ten years after quitting his job as a crime reporter David Simon published The Corner, later praised as an “unblinking and agonizingly intimate” account of the urban drug trade on a single street corner in Baltimore.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel, having narrowly avoided death during the construction of the Thames Tunnel, almost choked when he inhaled a coin while performing a trick for his children. The disc was finally jerked free weeks later.

John Coltrane formed his classic quartet, with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones. After two years the group produce one of the most famous recordings in jazz, A Love Supreme.

Despite years of frustration at a lack of commercial or public interest in his work Edward Hopper continued to paint, working on seascapes during time spent on an island off the coast of Maine.

'Monhegan Houses, Maine' Edward Hopper (1916-1919)

‘Monhegan Houses, Maine’
Edward Hopper (1916-1919)

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Finding God in a clean, well-lighted place

'Our nada who art in nada'. A Clean, Well-Lighted Place - Ernest Hemingway

‘Our nada who art in nada’.
A Clean, Well-Lighted Place – Ernest Hemingway

Thinking of buying a new car? Don’t.

Trust me. Why? There is a theory that 21st century consumers value experiences, not products.

Unlike the boomer generation, the conspicuous consumers of the 1980s or the tech-fetishists of the 2000s, more of us now spend money to experience moments – as opposed to goods or services.

There’s a theory that this is a natural progression; after the agrarian, industrial and service economies we are now part of the ‘experience economy‘.

So far, so Forbes. But could the same theory be shifted from Instagram snaps of a Michelin-starred meal or a Grand Canyon sunset and applied instead to The Big Question?

Last week I wrote about Stephen Fry’s attack on, as he sees it, a maniac God. An atheist, Fry doesn’t believe in an omniscient, cloud-dwelling Creator, loving, judging and punishing.

But still God exists – because we need Him, or Her; the bearded man in the sky is a reflection of our concept of defeating death, of love without any end, of natural justice and  order.

But if God wasn’t a being, a single entity, could He still exist? Hardly, you’d think (if you were a monotheist). He either is or He’s not. Either you believe in Him or you do not.

‘Night on the Dnieper River’ Archip Kuindshi (1882) Pic: Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Detail from ‘Night on the Dnieper River’
Archip Kuindshi (1882)
Pic: Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

But what if – instead – God was an experience? What if, instead of spending our lives trying to attain a relationship with Him, we can connect with God through our experiences and our environment?

One man famously accumulated experiences but was not as a believer in God was Ernest Hemingway.

Having witnessed the horrors of mechanised warfare in the First World War (and being blown up by a mortar shell on the Italian front) the concept of a ‘good’ God may have too much for Hemingway to stomach (his subsequent novel about the war contains the notable line “all thinking men are atheists”).

Instead he found ‘nada’, nothing, the void. He wrote of this in his short story A Clean, Well-Lighted Place. At it’s end the main character, a waiter in a cafe, broods on the difficulty of sleep, of facing what waited at the day’s end.

It was a nothing that he knew too well…Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada they will be nada in nada as it is in nada.

But nada is not all.

The same waiter has just closed up, sending home his last customer – an old man who sits on the terrace nightly, refusing to leave until closing time, one of “all those who need a light for the night”.

Facing his long night, in nada as it is in nada, the old man’s light is a simple human experience –  the cafe, the brandy, the routine, the human contact. The waiter thinks:

It was all a nothing and man was a nothing and a man was a nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order.

Here is God, not a cosmic figure reached by prayer or met after death but a connection here and now, an enlightened personal experience in this life in this world.

The human divine – only that.

'Sunlight in a Cafeteria' Edward Hopper (1958) Pic: Yale University Art Gallery

‘Sunlight in a Cafeteria’
Edward Hopper (1958)
Pic: Yale University Art Gallery

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God’s a maniac…but we really, really need him

Detail from ' Creation of the Sun and Moon' Michelangelo (1511) Sistine Chapel

Detail from ‘ Creation of the Sun and Moon’
Michelangelo (1511)

Well that’s Him told.

Comedian Stephen Fry reckons God is “utterly evil, capricious and monstrous”. He’s also “quite clearly a maniac” – one who inflicts unjust pain on people.

Something similar has occured to most rational people at some point, and even to the most devout, surely, on occasion. And yet we believe.

The believers were among the many who read and shared Fry’s remarks after they were reported this week.

But the comedian missed the point somewhat. It’s not God himself, a grumpy reactionary with odd, millennia-old, moral habits and preachy ground staff that we need, it’s the comfort believing in him offers us.

How would we get up in the morning (or face what’s lies before us at any other time of the day) without a repository for our fears, a cosmic counterweight to life’s unpredictable shifts?

God is an answer to the headline terrors: fear of death, fear of illness, fear of losing loved ones. “But he allows horrible cancers to kill children,” it’s pointed out. Well, we let that go.

We know most sin is bad and that some of the Ten Commandants have merit, but we seem less interested in holy box-ticking than in having an otherwordly comfort blanket to keep the bad stuff away.

Stephen Fry Pic: vpjayant

Stephen Fry
Pic: vpjayant

If we were guaranteed this comfort blanket we could do without the judgmental heavenly curmudgeon Himself, constantly watching and assessing us. But one comes with the other and – despite Stephen Fry’s outrage – most people find it hard to drop the lot.

There is a way out of this existential echo-chamber, of course, which doesn’t involve hoping, praying and queuing, fingers crossed, outside the Pearly Gates. This is to reject a God, accept the meaninglessness of life…and just get on with it.

If only it were that easy. Even those of us who profess disbelief, who can’t see through the celestial curtain to whatever lies beyond, have an occasional ‘what if’ moment.

What if there is a God? What if he’s reading my mind, putting me on His List or taking me off it? And if I believed would have to go through this tortuous second guessing every time I have insomnia, or am stuck at the traffic light, or walking on a beach?

There may well be a God. if it’s not each of us, or Stephen Fry, it may – to pick one contender among millions – be Randy Newman.

After all, didn’t He sing:

I burn down your cities-how blind you must be
I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we
You all must be crazy to put your faith in me
That’s why I love mankind
You really need me

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Walking out of the body and into the mountain

Lugnaquilla, January 2015. Pic: Cormac Looney

Lugnaquilla, January 2015.
Pic: Cormac Looney

By influence habitual to the mind
The mountain’s outline and its steady form
Gives a pure grandeur; and its presence shapes
The measure and the prospect of the soul
To majesty; such virtue have the forms
Perennial of the ancient hills; nor less
The changeful language of their countenances
Gives movement to the thoughts, and multitude,
With order and relation.

So wrote William Wordsworth, a man familiar with the ‘ancient hills’ and the trudge of a long hike (he would reputedly think nothing of walking 30 miles across the Lake District to visit his pal Samuel Taylor Coleridge).

Walking nine miles across Glenmalure to the top of Lugnaquilla last Saturday my mind was void of such majestic thoughts. I had arrived at the mountain, as often happens, with a garbaged mind – too tired or preoccupied or unmotivated to look beyond the top of my boots.

Lacking order and relation what mountain thoughts I had concerned only with the sub-zero wind and the best route up over the loose snow and rime ice on the slopes above the Fraughan Rock Glen.

An hour will surely fix me, I thought.

But that hour passed and most of the next. And still Lugnaquilla, a boon companion over the years through all weathers and moods, did not work its magic. Racing, my mind remained back in the city.

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Descending Djouce Mountain, February 2008. Pic: Cormac Looney

Descending Djouce mountain, February 2008.
Pic: Cormac Looney

Before I began climbing mountains I had little conception of the mental silence that could be achieved amidst freezing wind, driving rain, searing bright suns and movement ever, ever upwards.

This was something that rose slowly, within; a silent, solitary realisation, it came in marked moments: descending Djouce as a February sun set behind Scarr mountain; turning to look back at the summit of Mont Blanc as the sun rose over the Col de la Brenva; standing alone on the summit of Carrauntoohil.

Years after I first ventured into the uplands I read Nan Shepherd’s ode to the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain –  which provides a true account of this effect.

Here then may be lived a life of senses so pure…that the body may be said to think.
Each sense heightened to its most exquisite awareness is in itself total experience.
This is the innocence we have lost, living in one sense at a time to live all the way through.

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Had I lost this? Last weekend, amid doubt and disillusionment, I suspected so.

Until, cresting out onto the summit plateau onto a field of ice, it rose through. Perfect focus descended, my body and mind and breath were one.

I was thereHere I was.

Shepherd called this “walking out of the body and into the mountain”.

Wordsworth wrote of peaks whose “presence shapes, The measure and the prospect of the soul, To majesty”.

To majesty, eventually. For now: to clarity, to peace, to silence.

Summit plateau, Lugnaquilla, January 2015. Pic: Cormac Looney

Summit plateau, Lugnaquilla, January 2015.
Pic: Cormac Looney

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‘A few will think of this day’

WB Yeats, 1923

WB Yeats, 1923

“He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.”

So begins WH Auden’s elegy for the poet WB Yeats, who died on a late January day in 1939 in his room at the Hôtel Idéal Séjour, in the town of Menton on the French Riviera.

A great deal will be heard about Yeats this year, due to the Irish Government-funded commemoration Yeats2015 – a 12-month celebration of the poet’s life and work.

Not that the Yeats has faded from view in the 76 years since his death. Few poets command attention like he does.

This stretches beyond the poetry to the man himself and his life – the fairy-courting mysticism, the obsession with Maud Gonne, the Celtic Revival manifested in the Abbey Theatre.

And on: the nationalist politics, the automatic writing and spirit guides, the Nobel Prize and finally, the old man of later years. And – throughout all – the poetry.

WH Auden, 1939. Pic: Library of Congress

WH Auden, 1939.
Pic: Library of Congress

Amidst the celebration of his life Yeats’ death, and its effects, may not attract much mention.

But the pure change that happened in that Riviera hotel room elicited one of the 20th century’s great elegies.

The loss was harvested by WH Auden, one at the few poets of the time who could – at his best – go stanza to stanza with the Irishman.

Like readers and writers, generations and governments since, Auden’s poem celebrates the man.

But as he casts Yeats as an fount, a culture and “a mouth”, he leaves a residue of something else – an observation of the mundanity of death.

“Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays…
But for him it was his last afternoon as himself”.

Two years earlier Auden had confronted the same subject, writing on Brueghel’s painting The Fall of Icarus.

'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' Pieter Brueghel (1558) Pic: Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’
Pieter Brueghel (1558)
Pic: Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

“About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along…”

And so no death is greater than any other, and most pass unnoticed.

Auden’s Icarus attempts something unknown, unbelievable, in trying to fly. As he fails:

“…everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure.”

But, if death is often unremarked, memory is not. So it was for WB Yeats.

Amidst the wide world’s daily drudge, in places where hearing of a poet’s passing is as momentous as walking dully along, a handful would remember.

“In the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the
Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly
accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his
freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.”

A dark, cold day.

 

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Round the Cape with Ishmael, in a one man tent

FullSizeRenderIn the end Chuck D had the last word.

For the past decade we’ve read of the decline of print and the rise of the e-book. Bookshops would close, paper was dead, the Kindle was king.

It turns out that was wrong. Or, as Public Enemy had it, ‘don’t believe the hype’.

Sales of physical books are back on the rise. According to Waterstones, demand for the e-reader has disappeared.

It seems we’ve entered a brave new world of the post-book book. All those over excited tech predictions appear to have been just that.

After being gifted a Kindle three years ago I assumed I’d grow to love it. I bought e-books, read them, used the clunky notetaking system, even synced it with my iPad so I could wistfully view the covers in colour.

But I never felt it a replacement for a book, piles of which continuing to grow – mysteriously – around our apartment.

It wasn’t just a lifelong habit of reading on the printed page, or of scribbling notes in the margins. Nor was it the feeling of satisfaction in  re-reading sections of a book to catch up, or dip back in.

It wasn’t even the physical book itself.

What kept me returning to print was the feeling of a book as an artefact, an item with a history outside of its pages, an object linked to a time or a place or a state of mind.

FullSizeRenderThe two paperbacks above are each an artefact – my reading, marking, spine-breaking and scratching of both linked to a certain time and place.

My old IR£1 copy of The Great Gatsby has margin notes for an all-but-forgotten American literature course, taken at university almost 20 years ago.

Each time I re-read it (and it’s the book I return to more often than almost any other) I wonder exactly why 18-year-old me bothered to notate that specific passage…

But I refuse to replace it.

My Moby Dick contains marks of a different order, elemental ones that Melville may have favoured more than dry academic scribblings.

Many of the pages are curled and stained by water, after the book somehow spent a wet night outdoors during a camping trip I took to the Adirondacks.

I rounded the Cape of Good Hope with Ishmael as rain and wind blew, in a one-man tent.

My memories of Midnight’s Children are drier, dating back to a beach on the shores of Lake Tahoe, where I spent afternoons of a 90s’ summer recovering from working 12 hour standing shifts at a casino the previous night.

My sun-baked copy may still have sand between the pages. Blame the heat or the slots but, alas, I never finished it. (As with books, no reader is perfect.)

Rushdie’s novel, like my Fitzgerald and Melville, lies fading on a bookshelf. It will be picked up, but rarely. Instead it will remain with the others, shelved, untouched and gathering dust.

Not read, but not replaced by an e-version either. After all, how could they be?

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And through it all the river, clearing the heart

River Shannon, Athlone, January 2015. Pic: Cormac Looney

River Shannon, Athlone, January 2015.
Pic: Cormac Looney

A place to start.

Maybe it’s Jeff Buckley’s voice at 2 o’clock in an almost-empty Sean’s Bar: Iheardtherewasabrokenchord – broken like the afternoon.
The sun of that day, July of ’98, hanging high over the Shannon, sifting, and the green-topped Peter and Paul’s.

Or a June morning, 4am and sleepless, sitting with my mother on the porch, the light already up.
I’d trade 100 other early mornings for whatever that conversation contained. It remains, somewhere.

Then the fog, always always the fog, murk in summer, freezing in winter.
Friday nights at St Mel’s Park and no idea what was coming from the white, the dirt floors of the stands, the roars.
Feet frozen eyes blinded. Fog there and fog home.

And when there was no fog and no rain the sky, huge above the flatlands and the river, a canvas for stars, for purples and reds, marked by high cirrus and vapour trails.
When people left that’s where they went.

‘I just can’t recallll San Francisco at alllll’ sang Bob one summer, all the month long before I left the town for that city.
The afternoon I left spent with my best pal in a pub on the Left Bank, ‘one more for the road lads one more we’ve time’.

Or further back, to years sinking away from me into the Callows. 1,000s of days of childhood, classrooms, soccer, tree gum on hands, bicycles and books.
Churches, halls, pitches, paths. Chilly Christmas Eves in a hotel on the main street of a town that was the only town.

And through it all the river, clearing the heart of that country. Taking it all, all of us and all we were, west – carrying us to open water.
And I was carried too. But there I was, at the start.

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New year? It’s time to turn to Plan Be

One thing at a time... 'René Descartes with Queen Christina of Sweden' Pierre-Louis Dumesnil

One thing at a time…
‘René Descartes with Queen Christina of Sweden’
Pierre-Louis Dumesnil

Be.

Did you wake up this morning with a list of resolutions? Are you about to eat less/drink less/spend less, work more/exercise more/sleep more?

Good idea. There’s a strong chance that, in a week’s time, you’ll be fitter, happier and more productive.

Over here…I’m going to be.

Planning forward, dwelling back, trying to think through more than one task in the here and now – this is my usual daily MO.

And so for the first few hours, and hopefully days, of this new year I’ll be sitting here, or there, trying to be.

The word sits atop a multitude of philosophical and psychological concepts and practices, from Rene Descartes ‘corgito ergo sum‘ (can we trust any sense beyond thought?) to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s ‘moment-to-moment awareness‘.

In my case it means focusing wholly on a single task in a single moment. One concept, one piece of work, one memory, one sensation, one thought.

Focusing on this ‘one’ also avoids the pull of distraction, a mentally-toxic wrench which corrodes clear thinking. (And makes us unhappier as a result).

This resolution is more than the usual casual advice to ‘live in the moment’ – the moment being something ephemeral and impossible to grasp (existentialist me asks if it even exists).

It’s to focus, to notice, to accept, to process, here and now.

This is Plan Be for 2015.

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‘He wanted to stay in that cafe forever’

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/e68/32178517/files/2014/12/img_4851-1.jpg
If Christmas means anything it means home – a place or a sense of home.

The lucky ones will find themselves there today, at home, among friends, family or even alone.

I woke this chilly Christmas morning in one place I can call home, Wexford, the town where I was born. Lucky, I rose with a sense of peace, my wife alongside me, other family members stirring.

The feeling of home struck me so strongly that I was brought to another place, taken from the streets of Wexford to a snow-struck hill town in North Carolina.

A young man sat in a cafe there, in a poem by Charles Bukowski. There’s no mention of Christmas, or home, but the verse is suffused with peace, a feeling of contentment and acceptance, the Christmas spirit.

“…the meal was
particularly
good
and the
coffee.
the waitress was
unlike the women
he had
known.
she was unaffected,
there was a natural
humor which came
from her.
the fry cook said
crazy things.
the dishwasher,
in back,
laughed, a good
clean
pleasant
laugh.
the young man watched
the snow through the
windows.
he wanted to stay
in that cafe
forever.
the curious feeling
swam through him
that everything
was
beautiful
there,
that it would always
stay beautiful
there.”*

—–
*Charles Bukowski, “Nirvana”.

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