Graham Higgins Illustration - Literate Graffiti Dept.

Archive for March, 2010


March 28, 2010

28-3-10 Lyric rising

There’s a very simple chord shape you can move up and down the neck : E0-2-4-4-0-0e. It’s called a power-chord; it’s used a lot in rock. There’s no daintiness in it, it’s the lifting-gear to get the backing where you want it for the vocal to stand on.

Strumming around in the quiet house I was struck by the sound of it moved up to the 7th fret, E0-7-9-9-0-0e; a siren chord, open and harp-like, hovering on the brink of discord. Dropping that down two frets gave me a two-chord scaffolding for a verse and I dropped the bottom E string to a D for extra boom.

The descending chorus-chords followed, reminding me a bit of the three-chord groove of Sniff & The Tears’ ‘Driver’s Seat’.

(I note that only because it constantly surprises me to find ‘records’ stored in my memory. There’s only a ‘something about’ my chords that was enough to spark off a replay of a single from 1978. I’ve played with arrangements of it for acoustic but it would take more skill than I can bring to the Bm, A, G riff to make it worth the listen. It’s really a band-song or a showcase for a distinctive vocalist.)

I took a cue from my friend Jo, who does furious drives when she’s feeling mad at the world in general. I’ve done the same motorway therapy myself, cruising night roads to the sound of Palestrina, Janacek’s string quartets, The Fabulous Thunderbirds or Stevie Ray Vaughan. It’s a karma-wrecking selfish use of precious fossil fuel but high-speed solitude is a great healer. The silence when you pull into a Service Area car park, interrupted only by the ticking of the engine cooling after the rumble and body-boom of a drive can be profound, literally a breathing-space.

The lyric so far has settled into:-

Don’t dwell much on my transgressions

Familiarity wears me down

Breath I’ve wasted on confession

Time I’ve wasted in this town

That’s how it goes, pal,

No telling how the deck is stacked

That’s how it runs, kid,

The big wheels turn and the dominos fall…

Changing gear, acceleration

Taking me from the storm’s eye

No final destination

No lucky star to travel by

I’m out of explanation

Words fail when reason dies

I’ve had it with this conversation

The flim-flam farrago and the alibis

Wheels spin, the road unravels

In the rear-view movie and the lights ahead

Driving through the hours less travelled

From things undone and words unsaid.

Can’t outrun what’s in your head, son

Round and round and around it goes

Thoughts you can’t put to bed

When time hangs heavy and the clocks run slow.

I’m going to try this out tonight at The Acoustic Café, though I shall have to write out the lyrics to keep within sight. It won’t begin to become a song until the words fall into place automatically. I find that a song takes about three performances to begin to settle in.


March 15, 2010

15-3-10 Pause…

This will be the last post for a while. Moving premises and I’ll have to sort out new broadband connection etc. The dongle-solution seems, surprise, more tricky with a Mac, so for the moment it might be as well to hold off on responses because I expect to be shovelling away a spam mountain when I drop in again.


March 10, 2010

10-3-10 Back on the Block

Tuesday, my second day back at school and I stop in at a nearby convenience store for a bottle of water to refill the wiper-tank, a redundant break in my home run as it turns out. Must’ve been the morning frost that stopped the nozzles.

As I clap the bonnet shut and climb back into the car seat a young man emerges from the betting-shop: capped and bristle-headed, hands in his track-suit pants pockets, a sizable spliff bent over one ear as if by its own weight, staring up at the police helicopter I’d barely noticed curving in over the estate. I can hear the buzz overhead; he stares. His mate comes out to join him and they both stare. It’s a hybrid of blank-face and routine hostility.

There’s nothing new or uniquely contemporary about this snapshot. Mayhew or Rook would’ve recognised hooligans when they saw them. For gin read skunk, that’s about it.

In school The Usual Suspects call each other ‘dickhead’; ‘crackhead’ or ‘gay’, play at shanking (knifing) each other and discuss vendettas and feuds for which batterings are deserved or have been administered.

This is the local scene for our kids. No wonder some of them don’t ‘get’ school. They’re perfectly adapted for a feral life on the precinct and wasteground-parks where gang-life is Darwinist and full of predatory excitements.

We get that ‘come on then, teach me something’ stare in class. Our conduct is bounded by policies designed to defer sanctions such as exclusion from school (= time on the street) and allow time for reflection. That’s a laugh, and they do.

It’s a game of Prisoners and Warders. The Warders have to enforce the rules; The Prisoners simply have to ignore them or derail the routine in any petty way and they win. Self-sabotaging their education is a game they can win day after day, ‘outsmarting’ the staged procedures that we’re obliged to enact.

We’re supposed to tell the younger ones that bad behaviour makes us ‘very sad’. The result is that ‘That makes me very SAD!!’ redefines the word as a synonym for ‘angry’. Any gesture of physical restraint is high-risk, even if another kid has to endure casual slaps while we do the verbals.

All these policies designed to embody respect and irreproachable non-violent resolutions serve mostly to highlight the laughably ineffectual ‘consequences’. Nothing a blank stare can’t match.

What would happen if by some fluke we managed to convey a liking for Bach or The Pre-Raph collection in town? Who would they share it with?

There’s no shortage of decent kids and decent parents holding the line, and extra credit to them in the circumstances. The enemies of ambition don’t hover in helicopters, they live down the street.

LOVE, left on your knuckles and HATE your right

No room for indifference

Which is in your bones.

A keen of air drawn through the stained teeth of high-rise silos

Kicks about under concrete porticos, what you looking at?

Echoes in your marrow

And in those hollows, footsteps

Following closer in the dim shark-scented underpass

Through the submarine body-boom of traffic on its gumflecked rainbowslicked tarmac skin.

The ghosts of dead ambition

As seen on grainy grey-screen CCTV

Haunt every other jumpcut second, unwitnessed.

A neutral view of cake-shop pink and yellow slabs

In forced perspectives, narrow vanishing points.

No incidents are noted

Between statistics recorded in the Plaza.

Every other second

Is more time killed, laid out on waxy sofas

Dissolved on blackened spoons

In burnt-out tinfoil troughs,

Time not put aside for rainy days.

Slack-bellied binbags by the door

Heavy with empty bottles filled with vacant hours,

Spiked with punctured cans you can’t refill.

When you’ve time you’ll hoy them down the chute –

Off the balcony if you’re out of it.

Your frowning brow and tattooed tears

Tell me two stories I don’t want to hear.


March 6, 2010

6-3-10 Entertaining Angels

Yesterday’s entry prompted me to take a bit of noetry – I may preserve that affectation for my writing that’s probably not poetry and clearly not prose but which I’ve at least bothered to note down* – from an email to an Appleworks file and then to a dump-folder of these pieces lodged on an external drive.

That in turn ended up in a couple of hours retrieving older ones from a format I can only open now with NeoOffice and transferring them to easy-to-get-at Appleworks notepaper. There are stacks; I’d forgotten a lot of them.

*noetry, n.:see definition above. I plant my expeditionary flag here, you heard it here first; when noetry becomes an industry standard category, OED please note.

This one was a note of an exhibition of Tiepolo sketches and cartoons in their original sense – the sketches used to prick out outlines for paintings; the throwaway preparatory work – at Berlin’s Kupferstichkabinett, the gallery for a huge archive of graphic work in its broadest sense.

It stuck in my mind because in the gallery’s vitrines under carefully regulated light, the preserved drawings were plainly the functional preparation for grander altar pieces and murals, very likely to show clients.

They looked like catalogue items from which a commissioning cleric or aristo could decide whether an attendant angel in his Annunciation would spread its arms thus, or unfurl a scroll thus (‘your message here’); whether his Madonna would raise her hands in supplication or lower her palms in a benediction, press them together centrally in prayer or meekly to one side, presumably to allow for the downward glance of adoration.

There were sketches of rough hands grasping staffs – humble shepherds’ crooks or anachronistic bishops’ croziers – and several with two fingertips raised in blessing or index fingers pointed heavenwards typically involving a tricky bit of life-drawing convention, a slight twist to the wrist to indicate that the saint or angel merely draws your attention to Heaven, because of course it would be rude to point at God. Unless of course you’re Moses, in which case you return from the mountain with heavy slabs of Maker’s Instructions to discover the mass breakout of naughtiness amongst your frivolling people, when it’s perfectly acceptable to quite forcefully point out who’s watching.

There were misc. wings (adult and children’s sizes) and drapery samples – clingy wetfold-work to describe the limbs beneath and opulent robe-cloth swags – but there was something oddly familiar about this inventory of gesture that only struck me halfway round. My moment of connection was the recognition of the graphic and functional similarity to the kind of style-sheets I’d get from US comic publishers, showing the costume and proportions of characters from their respective pantheons. The Tiepolo sketches certainly aimed to draw attention to his standard of technical know-how and achievement as presiding Master and mentor to his staff, but these too were style-sheets, displaying the house-style. Your chapel diptych will look like this.

Whenever I look at finished paintings in this tradition – conventions preserved 200 years after the High Renaissance – my eye scans for hidden geometries. Circles are for perfection; single points and those pointed fingers indicate The One True…; twos, the sacred and profane, the celestial and the carnal; triangles, The Trinity of course; squares, in the words of the song, for The Gospel Makers. After that it becomes more difficult to decide whether you’re trying to imagine lines of composition in.

These geometric subtexts nowadays appear esoteric because they’ve fallen out of use, but as a gallery viewer spotting them is a throwback to the puzzle-books of my childhood: find seven rabbits concealed in the branches of this tree.

As a child I enjoyed these puzzles, in particular those that didn’t make it easy for you. Even then it struck me, I’d now say ‘as a model of learning’, that these were one-use puzzles. However long it seemed to take you to count off the concealed objects at first sight, once you’d registered them you couldn’t afterwards ‘unsee’ the bunnies in the tree, even as you flicked past to get to another page.

Anyway, this was a written snapshot from a Sunday in Berlin and a little salute to an exceptional craftsman’s some-old same-old day at his trade.

The pencil point laid down searches for the eloquent line

Its scuff of graphite, caught in the tooth of the surface

A particle-trace of a neutrino moment, a bombardment

Of moments that can last for hours. Conjuring with chaos,

You need some science on your side.

The Renaissance, Islam, and the Hassidim

Have much to say of pattern as a handprint:

A Voyager plaque offered to whomever would read.

Be it so simple that Tiepolo, considering

A routine cartoon of the Madonna took due care

That the forehead and the hands, spread in supplication

Were equilaterally spaced: the Trinity of course.

The palms pierced as it were, prefiguring

The Crucifixion: that final hammer-blow

To aspiration, on another axis.

The centre of the aureole, a locus

Above her head, which holds a herald beckoning –

with finger’s tip precisely twice the distance

of the apex to the base:

Heaven and Earth in equilibrium

Joined at her brow where her eyebrows steeple

For her son to be, and all the walking stillborn.

Understood, it can be said in the displacement of four


Classical anatomy also fortuitously betrays

Divine geometry, those other equilaterals:

Outer brow to nasal septum;

Nose to outer jaw;

Jaw to pit of neck;

Neck to nipples;

Nipples to navel;

Navel to hips

And hips to pubis.

Seven times three devolves to the Trinity immutable.

These are not mysteries but standard trade



March 5, 2010

5-3-10 Autowriting

With all the usual boilerplate caveats about minimal claims to literary merit, this began with an image that occurred in the approaches to sleep, a little after midnight, plus some internal prompt to write it down and see if it went anywhere further. Line suggested line until it became the following.

I wonder where these things come from. Even as I wrote the words in the semi-dark in handwriting I had to squint at in the morning, the conscious front-of-house part of my mind noted that, hmm, here come those woodland and sea-and-shoreline images again, as much for their sound as for their background scenery. They may simply be expressions of nostalgia for days in such settings; if they have any deeper symbolic payload I’m not sure if I’m interested. Like Winnie-the-Pooh’s ‘pounds, shillings an ounces’, the shillings wanted to come in, so I let them.

This is a curio of thought that I notice particularly when ‘I’ write something that makes me laugh in, say, the course of an email. Humour comes from an element of surprise – the unexpected phrase; an expectation derailed – so how do I manage to surprise myself? The idea springs onto what Daniel Dennett (in ‘Consciousness Explained’) calls the Cartesian Stage of consciousness. My conscious mind’s-I just recognises and applauds it. What was it doing before it leapt through the trap-door in a wisp of smoke?

Reading this back, I kind-of ‘got’ what it was ‘about’ in the same way that I ‘get’ the landscape of the Malverns in Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro. I grew up with the LP of the angular Barbirolli/Hallé Orchestra version, which is my definitive recording. When I went through that collective spasm of the shift from vinyl to cd I picked up a recording by a Scottish orchestra with, if I remember, an Italian-sounding conductor, who smoothed out the edges and transformed it into a movement from a Beethoven Pastorale. It was so lacking in drama I couldn’t be bothered to replay it.

Later I found the piece on a tape by the Virgin-sponsored London Chamber Orchestra (‘Good Music Played Bloody Loud’) which substituted the monumantal Barbirolli take with a breathless scramble up the Malvern ridge seen through a handheld camera. It made an interesting contrast-and-compare exercise and while I owned the cassette I could choose a version to suit my mood.

[Stop Press serendipity: I had to leave this document to visit a solicitor – this is not unrelated to the storage boxes – and then visit a cashpoint to withdraw a three-figure wad of banknotes and find something to buy to break a tenner as the last figure of the fee was £..7.25p. Tried the next-door Oxfam book shop and found the LCO cd ‘Power’ on a shelf at eye-level. The Elgar is the final track.]

I think the soundtrack to this writing is somewhere in the range of Pat Metheny and Charlie Haden’s ‘Beyond The Missouri Sky’.

On a ribbon round her neck

A key hangs, made to fit

The locked box she has yet to find

Containing notes she writes

Inviting Summer skies, eggshell blue

Days riddled with searching breezes

Exploring numberless shadowed limbs

Of broadleaved woods

Threaded with birdsong and

The tidal hush of currents

Flooding from blue distant hillcrests.

The unfound chest holds photographs

Imagined into focus:

Rooms as makeshift stages

Set to act out fictions illustrating

Dreams she has yet to wake from and remember;

Figures caught in tableaux and

Entwined in choreographies of songs

Borne on shared breath and secret pulses.

She moves through crowded streets and public places

Her key concealed close to her

Anticipating the lock it will open

Imagining textures: seashells, salt-scented driftwood

Sea-tumbled stones; costume fabrics

Coins kept for games of chance

And on another ribbon

Keys to other boxes that she hopes to find.


March 4, 2010

4-3-10 Born Under A Bad Sign

In the High St. today, buying storage boxes – there will be more about storage boxes – I was leaving the shop and noticed by the door a ‘Jumbo Drinking Chess Set’. This is…?

A chess board large enough to accommodate sixteen shot-glasses a side with chess symbols marked on them. What kind of game is that? If you want to stand a chance of winning you take as few shots as possible and sacrifice as many as you can at speed. By the time Black has cleared your pawns your endgame’s going to be a cavalry charge against a drunk who’ll likely have forgotten the moves and may challenge you to fisticuffs. I’ve known some hardened drinkers but I’ve never known anyone to roll out of the pub dying for a game of chess.

This evening I took a look at Albert King on YouTube playing Born Under A Bad Sign. My friend Michelle used his line ‘if it wasn’t for bad luck you’d have none at all.’ Not strictly true but… maybe later on that one.

Albert’s a fellow left-hander but like Elizabeth Cotten (‘Freight Train’) he leaves the right-handed strings in place and plays upside-down, specialising in stinging little licks and magisterial riffs. In the clip I looked at he made it a little more interesting for himself with his middle-finger taped up in a splint and still played better than I could dream of on a good night.

There have been nights of desolation when I’ve plugged in my electric guitar to let it all out in some blues-bending into neighbour-friendly headphones. What comes out is intermediate proficiency with the scales, no wailing cry from the heart, and I end up feeling more despondent and merely competent.

However the aural illusion of playing really loud can be therapeutic, even if youthful doses of high-decibel thrills have left their tinnitus traces and urged low-volume caution in my advancing years.

I hesitate to record my smitten-ness with the Radio 4 sitcom “Fags, Mags and Bags” because my vulnerabilities to music and comedy in particular seem to be box-office death. It’s running on Play Again as I type. Who says men can’t multi-task?

I play it several times a week while it’s available because there’s no sign of a cd collection so far. At some point I imagine the complete F,M&B will turn up as Pocasts. I don’t own an iPod yet but surely it’s only a matter of time before, like the mobile phone, they’re mandatory.

At least they don’t tssk-tssk like the Walkman of old and on a recent shopping-trip I passed a black girl with a happy-happy grin dancing at the bus-stop to some music all her own and it cheered me up all the way to the Co-op, so I shall save my rant about the insular slack-acne-jawed torpor that seems to pass for cool amongst the plugged-in rank-and-file Barbour-capped yout’.

The use of English in F,M&B washes over me with the same pleasure as Viv Stanshall’s “Sir Henry At Rawlinson End”, an immersion in Stanshall’s word-world and Times Roman vocal style I’ve returned to over decades. I should know it by heart. It’s always reassuringly familiar but apart from a few phrases (‘That was inedible and there wasn’t enough of it’) I’ve never committed it to memory as a party-piece.

So, anyway, so as not to curse the series with my recommendation, that’s just a note.