Winter, woods and water

Through the winter lockdown, I’ve taken to local walks by the River Thames, and into the local woods at Ham, common land that is some of the oldest surviving in England. Ham Woods is one of the loveliest and quietest nature reserves you can imagine within greater London. Quieter than neighbouring Richmond Park, there’s something of an eldrich feel, and that extends to the expressionist winter trees, especially the willows, drooping over the banks of the Thames.

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Garden Art

A visual diary through lockdown and beyond of the 2020 pandemic

I never felt as fortunate as I did in this year, the year of the plague, to have beyond my back door a small enclosed garden space in which to roam. No one else could enter. These are the paintings I made from the year of restricted movement. Let down your hair, and climb over into the light of Rapunzel’s garden

Some have already sold into private collections. Many are available, from between £50 and £100, and most of them are acrylic on A3 board or paper.

Well Loved Tales

Some events in life remix your colours in ways you can’t imagine. Mind and matter mix like pigments and it’s the strong colours that bleed through. Your gravity shifts, you hear a new bass line, and your moves change. Being adopted, exchanging one name for another, is like being mugged of your identity. There’s a violent wrench a long way beneath the surface and all this wreckage to deal with after the storm, except you can’t classify it as wreckage because you’re dealing with the basic material that makes up your life. And the most basic of all is that identity switch, the first dislocation, the unexplainable disappearance of the mother who bore you. It’s the plot of a fairy tale. Sublimate it and bury it as deep as you like in anger or acquiescence but it’s not going anywhere. It surrounds you, it’s your wagon train. It’s your story. How are you going to tell it?

The first story I ever read was Rapunzel, a Ladybird edition with watercolours on one side, 14-point text on the other. Whoever did the Ladybird watercolours were professionals of their craft. The tale is full of nasty forks and twists and I felt them all. The couple who can’t have children, the wife who conceives a child and pines for the old woman’s greens, the sustenance she lacks. The timorous husband who climbs the walled garden, way beyond his years, and picks the vivid salad greens from their beds of saturated colour, a colour so strong it has a life and movement of its own. His capture, their agreement. The birth of the child and its adoption by the old woman – with fairy tales, it’s amazing how many foundlings and orphans and adoptees blaze in their furnace.

The old couple disappear after that. Whatever they did was irrevocable, and it was done. They cross the line then fall into a vacuum of not here, never was. The woman will pine for the witch’s green rapunzel till the universe spins itself out to a series of dots and dashes. Rapunzel, Rapunzel… Let down your hair… The young beauty in the tower, the young wandering prince who climbs her tresses and makes her fat with sex and progeny. The old witch puts a measure to the girl’s waist. She is the hated Second Law of Thermodynamics. “Something from nothing? You dirty little bitch!”

The pictures in my mind of the witch’s garden, and the tower through the trees of the forest that the young prince sees, I’d feel them twang and vibrate and shimmer. They’d begin to move, and I’d see the old man creep through the darkness, enormous dark green leaves hanging in still air. Not a sound, not a breath of wind – and then the witch’s finger.

You!

I twitched, looked up from the first story I could read, climbing the fine hair pinned by a nail and ending in dead fingers, speaking in tongues. What was the girl virgin to the old witch? And when she was swollen with child and cast out into the thorny wilderness, I saw the skulls of Golgotha in dad’s painting above his bed, done some time between art school and the war. Christ on his knees at the mouth of a cave at night, black and grey but for his crimson djellaba. Dad’s voice from an underworld studio.

“Rose madder.” Madder from Friesland, a plant for the colour of panic and life and blood, the prince’s eyes bloodied by thorns, the thorns and petals of a red briar rose. I can remember learning to read the thorny black marks into words, the prince stepping through the parting wood and looking straight at me.

And then the witch vanishes, and so does the tower, and the rapunzel. Never here, never was. Just years in the wilderness, until he hears her sing and her tears heal his sight. Remote vision: I remember the ache and terror built in to that little paragraph: “And he wandered alone for many years.” So light on the tongue and the fingers, and so unendurable. I stared into the mouth of the story and never blinked. It was like staring into the mouth of a dark cave, one that had once been inhabited, and you could very faintly scent the habitation. The thorns, the prince and the old witch and the girl in the tower and the fearful husband and the greedy wife – they moved and flickered like figures on a cave wall under the light of a fat lamp. Fairy tales are the cave art of the ears and tongue. I think they are just as old, stirring in the minds of the young.

Every terror in life, and the terror of death, has been felt out first for us in fairy tales. A great scientist once acquainted them with stories for people afraid of the dark. One of his anti-religion raps. He didn’t know his subject. They are instructional, not escapist. They’re there to make us fear the dark, not protect us from it. Riddles wrapped inside an enigma dropped in to a well, and you hear a faint echo.

Like you’re on the way to Thebes, and there’s this floppy bitch with claws resting under her dugs, waiting to tear your head off and feed it to a ravenous, disc-shaped sawmill of a mouth. The name’s Oedipus, and you’re the original tragedy. The foundling marked by the claws of an eagle. All adoption stories pull in their thread from the labyrinth and they all end at the foot of Oedipus, the baby tossed in to the wilderness because of a promise and a curse.

“Motherfucker killed his father, sired his own brother.” Kept on punching holes in his social network. He married his mother and killed his father and solved the riddle. How would my fate slot in to that mythic template?

Because they are questions loaded with weapons, riddles feature large in myths and tales and songs, like holes in a Swiss cheese. The current academic fashion is to date nothing in folklore further back than its first documentation. It’s an odd twister of a position to take on an oral lineage of descent from the collective tales Carl Jung wrote about, the prince and the witch and the girl in the tower, forbidden fruits and blinding thorns. They live in a steady state, way older than written matter. It’s worth noting that one of the Grimm’s sources for the tales they collected was a neighbour woman who came to clean their house. Once, after telling them a tale, she returned, concerned that she had placed a word incorrectly, and in the tales she told and had heard and learnt, every word had a place as firmly fixed as the stars.

Songs, we know, are more protean; they’re carried to be spilled, and one song often pours through another. The devil riddles a young boy on the road; a gentleman lover puts life-changing riddles to the beautiful young sister who will take him to her bed; The Bells of Paradise is all riddle, drenched in the musk of grail imagery. “One half runs water, the other runs blood.” John Barleycorn, dealt with as if he was one of the bog people garrotted over the peat workings of ancestral neolithics. Barleycorn finds an antecedent in the Exeter Book of Riddles, pages of which were used, some time in the 10th century, as beer mats.

Cheers, and may the road rise to meet you.

Jimi – fifty years gone

Three views on Hendrix

Three excerpts from my interview transcript archive, and published in full for the first time anywhere. Articles on which these interviews were based first appeared in The Guardian, The Independent and The Arts Desk. Over the years, I’ve chatted to Robert Wyatt, Peter Hammill and Eddie Kramer about the genius of Jimi. To mark the 50th anniversary of his death, here’s a record of what they said:

Robert Wyatt on touring with Jimi:

“What Hendrix achieved, at the time I remember thinking God, how does he do that? And now I realise that hardly anyone achieved what Hendrix achieved,. Talk about hard act to follow. He was a pretty hard act to precede. He seemed to be able to claim a space in which to do what he wanted to do, he d improvise and really take stuff around the houses like jazz musicians like to do, and adapt to circumstances, it’s an internal process as far as I’m concerned and he was fantastically adept, and had a very canny sense of theatre, not in the cynical sense of audience manipulation, but in the sense of responsibility to the audience – that everyone in the room, at the back, at the sides, got their quote of Hendrix. he was able to measure a room to see what you had to do to fill it with excitement. He could scale it right down to a small club. It was just fantastic stagecraft really. But combined with this feeling that everything was quite private, you were watching somebody work in private. Quite amazing. I’ve never seen the like of it, before or since. I wouldn’t say it was an inspiration, in the sense of, you know ‘I could do that’ but it certainly did underline that fact that when you go on stage before 5000 kids in Texas waiting for Hendrix you’ve really got to put the pots on quickly. Get on with it. And stop when you’ve finished. Just simple professional things, ‘just get on with it.’ Just get on with it. That’s what I learned from Hendrix.”

Peter Hammill of Van der Graaf Generator, on watching Jimi from the side of the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in 1969

“That was the first time I’d been at the side of the stage. There was a stack of Marshall amps and I think his road crew numbered two, and the image that has stuck with me forever is of these two big roadies behind the Marshall stacks peering over at Hendrix at the front of the stage holding his Strat in the air. He looked so incredibly frail, and then he came towards them and the next image I have is of these two burly guys reeling back as he topples the whole lot over. That is my memory of him, to be honest. That was the entire deal about Hendrix. He was an elemental source. Somehow he evoked this force – I’m not talking about magic or the counter-culture or anything – but he was invoking the force that he imposed when he was on stage, especially in that era.”

Producer Eddie Kramer on Jimi, Buddy, Billy and the Band of Gypsies

“Band of Gypsies was such a one-off. It was announced at Woodstock, wasn’t it – ‘we’re nothing but a band of gypsies’ – and that was the beginning of him putting this band together. He wanted to have something that was funky. Roots blues, R&B-based – which was all, obviously, a part of his musical DNA. And I think the time was right for him to put that band together. He liked playing with Buddy. Buddy was the polar opposite of Mitch, in terms of feel. You know that classic statement Mitch made, ‘he’s like a fucking cement mixer inne?’ And it was true, and Buddy was the right fit for this trio. Together, they were just incredible. Just so tight. It was the right band for the right moment in time, and Jimi really enjoyed playing with them, he really enjoyed the moment. I think it took a left turn right after that, though. I think Jimi wanted to get back to the Experience, and interestingly enough if you listen to what Mitch was doing after the band of gypsies, you can hear a distinct change in his drumming, it was much funkier. It was like he thought, hmmm yeah I see the direction, I’m gonna simplify some of what I’m doing, and put a lot more funk in it, and you really hear that in the next few months leading up to Cry of Love. And by the way I thought that band was fantastic. Mitch and Billy and Jimi were remarkable together. Not to take away from Band of Gypsies of course.”

A painting, a poem, a film

The painting was made over the second weekend of September, the end of summer, and the piano was recorded in a rehearsal room at Dublin’s National Concert Hall, before interviewing the Dublin band Lankum for a magazine feature, and watching them perform later that night. The stills of the painting were made into a film the day after painting it and the voice added the morning after.

Enjoy this short 1.11m film poem.

Dylan’s Rough and Ready Ways

I received digital files of Bob Dylan’s new album on Monday. Rough and Rowdy Ways is a masterpiece, a grand reinvention of his art for Dylan, and packed with sublime moments, great wit, savage violence, unbearable feeling. It’s something else. Now read on – this is the longer version of my review for The Arts Desk

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When “Murder Most Foul” was dropped into an unsuspecting world under lockdown, the surprise among Dylan fans was palpable, given that eight years had passed since Tempest, filled by all those Sinatra covers and seasonal tours.

That it was a 16-minute epic that took Dylan’s writing into new areas (including No1 on Billboard) – and this on the verge of his eightieth year – is also astonishing. Mixing the modes of popular verse with his own telling twists of imagery and narrative, “Murder Most Foul” was at once a widescreen, mythological retelling of the Kennedy assassination, enveloped by a bird’s-eye, camera-obscura view of its impact on the day and in history, all wrapped up in a majestic, seemingly unending ‘king list’ of players, songs and singers, the list of names extending way before and after Kennedy’s death as if to suggest some kind of immortal flow through 20th-century popular music’s Elysium Fields. Against a circling, filigree piano accompaniment and delicate touches of cello and bass, and recorded so that you can all but feel the air in the room, Dylan’s voice and lyric does all sorts of things with time, combining the linear progress of the murder ballad with the circular time of the king list-cum playlist.

Two more songs have since been released, “I Contain Multitudes”, and “False Prophet”. Both have a lot to unpack, and turn out to be bigger on the inside than the outside. “Multitudes”, especially, brushes through a plethora of places, characters and times, and as the first song on Rough and Rowdy Ways, opens the door onto one of the strangest, strongest and plain weirdest of all Dylan’s albums. It’s a first-person song, but the ‘I’ has never felt less individual, packed as it is with the inner multitudes of experience, age, persona, projection, association and shared culture.

And so it is throughout this magnificent album, where the first person singular is a fractured entity, blown open wide, what’s left alive comprising a procession of tiny figures in huge landscapes, cityscapes, timescapes. There’s not a lot of shade in these songs. They stand in direct heat and light, exposed to the elements and tooled up with a striking arsenal of weaponry. At times I feel the influence of Western Lands-era William Burroughs, not that Dylan’s taking from him so much as expanding on the principles and the results of Burroughs’ methods, embedding them in the structure of the songs.

As serene as the surface of the music often is, there’s a restless and protean poetry broiling down below, embracing multitudes and leaving plenty of loose ends to tease out and chew over.

False Prophet” carries Dylan’s heavily barked voice on a slow march, a beat as heavy as nails being hammered into a coffin. The lyrics are a bragging, proclaiming blizzard of end-time tableaux, pulled up in the songwriter’s nets and slopped out without any of the rules of time to separate them, the imagery slipping between Iron Age and classic film noir, peopled by the folk and blues traditions’ stock company of players and settings.

My Own Version of You” is a gentle, funny, creepy, evocative – a weird Frankenstein-meets-Reanimator tale, set to a descending spiral staircase of a rhythm, at times with some of the spirit of Oh Mercy’s “Man In The Long Black Coat”. The opening lines are darkly funny, and brilliantly delivered: “All through the summer into January, I’ve been visiting morgues and monasteries, looking for the necessary body parts, limbs and livers and brains and hearts.” It’s hardly a Valentine’s, and its later verses take in Scarface and Rambo and even slavery in the ancient world (“Stand over there by the cypress tree, where the Trojan women were sold into slavery, long before the first Crusade, way back before England or America were made”). Verse after great verse lead off at tangents into who knows where before returning to the shifting chorus – “I’ll bring someone to life, use all of my powers, do it in the dark, in the wee small hours...” It’s a genius song that roams far but holds tight.

Similarly, “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself To You” is sung gorgeously, captured perfectly, played subtly, and set up on a circling vocal chorus. This slow, stately ballad breathes in all those Sinatra songs from the past few years and breathes out new and strange, Dylan playing with the mores of sentimental verse like a cat plays with its prey. It’s a song of devotion, but not necessarily devotion to any human object of affection, but to something otherworldly, the worlds of death and the Elysium Fields, or as Dylan calls it on the album’s last track, Key West.

But before we get there, meet “The Black Rider”, a song possibly drawing from the play of the same name by William Burroughs, Tom Waits and Robert Wilson, in which Marianne Faithfull starred as The Devil. It’s a song that seems to circle around the figure of death, for sure, its wagons hitched up to all the fleeting and ruling passions emptying out of life – rage, love, suffering, fortitude, fear. It’s beautifully spare in instrumentation – one of the few Dylan band recordings without a drummer – and hauntingly sung.

Cranking it up as the Black Rider departs is a raucous tribute to legendary bluesman Jimmy Reed, a Highway 61-style rocker in which the singer finds a creed in the music of the great man. Along the way, there’s plenty of arresting, crackling, lascivious, vampiric verses to trample through – “Transparent woman in a transparent dress, suits you well I must confess, I’ll break open your grapes and suck out your juice, I need you like a head needs a noose.

Mother of Muses” like “Black Rider”, and “Multitudes” are the only band tracks I know of Dylan’s that don’t feature a drummer. It’s spare and skeletal, slow and stately, its arrangement leaving plenty of air and space in the song, which adds to its profound sense of timelessness. The lyrics are steeped in classical mythology – nymphs of the forest, women of the chorus, a plea to Calliope, the patron of epic poetry. “Take me to the river and release its charms,” he croons, “Let me lay down a while in your sweet loving arms.” He sings, too, of Sherman, Patton and co, the American generals who, for Dylan or at least for this song, “laid the path for Presley to sing, who carved the path for Martin Luther King”. Subjects of epic verse, and epic history, for sure.

Crossing The Rubicon” features the album’s big burst of harmonica, alongside a blow or two between verses in “Goodbye Jimmy Reed”, cranking up to become another highlight, ranking with ease with the best of his work. Dylan is at his mercurial best here, at his own pace but as fast a gun as you ever saw, declaiming vivid tableaux over a blues steeped in the blood of the ancients, the heroes of Homer’s and Julius Caesar slitting the throats of their foe. Over seven and half glorious minutes, verses return again and again to that point of no return, and all the irreversible ways of getting there, and crossing the Rubicon.

Which brings us, in the end, to “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)”, the first disc’s final song (“Murder Most Foul” stands alone on the second), and its longest, at nine-and-a-half minutes. It’s carried on a soft, see-sawing, wave-like riff overlaid by the welcome sound of an accordion, it’s atmospherics summoning up an American road trip into the Elysium Fields, its climate of endless summer casting dark shadows over the brightness and heat. The likes of Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and Shel Silverstein once found homes here. Maybe Dylan has a home there too. Maybe he’s got some real estate he wants to boost, because he sure makes Key West sound welcoming. It’s casual, metaphysical, full of detail, wonderfully sung – I heard touches of Blood on the Tracks and even Nashville Skyline rise out of the music here and there – with Dylan the lyricist making his spring-heeled way through a plethora of times, faces and places, all returning to roost on that two-word sign, Key West.

What to make of it? It’s a masterpiece. Even after many listens, it feels endless and bottomless. What a piece of work. It’s bizarre, eccentric, unlike anything else he or anyone else has done. It ranks with the very best of his work. Entropy is meant to be the third universal law, so for a 79-year-old artist to produce a work of such expansiveness, humanity and mystery – well that might be the greatest mystery of all.

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Dylan audience RAH003

Bob Dylan’s audience at the Royal Albert Hall, 27 November, 2013

Wisteria Time

Continuing garden art in lockdown, where the borders of the known world edge into the unknown, set amid a cascading jewellery of bird song, bee buzz, the evening exhalation of scent and the changing face of the light through the day, and what it does, and so here’s a gallery of this spring’s manifestation of wisteria from first bud and first leaf to flower-fall and the big wind that will take the last of the drying blooms over the hills and far away.

 

Thirteen faces of Spring

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Entering the sixth week of lockdown, May Day now behind us and a midsummer solstice not far off, and confinement under occupation continues with no discernible unlocking. All the while I’ve been painting the spring into colour, followed the daily changes in the greening and the opening up of colour as spring breaks out of her winter wardrobe across the garden and beyond. Now wisteria hangs in the air, breaking open its scent at dusk with an orchestra of undiluted birdsong.

I’ve made a video of the thirteen paintings of Spring, put to brush and board in the act of its becoming, and Metamorph, the poem that goes with it, is itself a reflection on the act of reflecting, in its own medium. We’re moving through interior space, trailing the world we know behind us, towards a world we’re yet to know. I carry the palette you can see above, it’s one I’ve had since I was a teenager, and it’s still here, and I’m still mixing paint on it. It’s what I know …

Here are the stills, the lucky thirteen faces of spring, and the text of Metamorph, follows.

 

Metamorph

Observing the intricacy
of surface appearances
descending through
their wavelengths
to physical manifestation,
I should have been rapt
but I was not all there,
barely solid in fact,
staring into space after
wandering astray through
a passage in a book
about teeth, tongue and skin
in the medieval imagination.
On the radio, chamber
music from Beethoven
and me on the back step,
kitchen door wide open,
with tobacco and wine
and a palette of colours,
barely paying attention
to any other phenomenon
but my own. So is our
reality inlaid with
wonders and signs,
mediums of mind
stretched across the hour
to the tautness
of a drum. I don’t
talk much but
I know the body’s
strongest muscle
is the tongue,
finding its length
and setting into motion
small words to cross
an ocean, wave after
wave flowing through
the head to the hand
like wind through grass,
wine poured into a glass
blown from one lung of air,
filling the head
with hidden rooms
and winding stairs
to lose yourself upon,
to find your place
and settle there.

Politics of isolation II

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Painting the bushes and flowers in your  back yard. Hardly revolutionary, is it? Or is it? Vuillard did it, Bonnard did it – two of my favourite post Impressionists. No one serious does it now, though, do they? Do they? They DO?

We’re a society in lockdown, largely voluntarily, for the good of the greater whole. I can only imagine at what the empty city centre must be like to experience and make art from, but imagine is all I do, being not a key worker but a sub editor and writer, working from home. And when I’m not working, I sit on a stool at the windows onto the back, out to the 60 or so feet of rear garden, private space, secluded self-isolation chamber, its boundaries laid out from orchard land in the 1930s. The bushes are mature – camellias, heavenly bamboo,  jasmine, California lilac.

So garden art becomes political in lockdown. It becomes inner commentary and outer reflection. Who knows how long I’ll be sitting there, as the red blooms die off and the purple reign of May’s wisteria flowering begins, and I slip another board onto the easel, and squeeze out some pigments, and mix them in solitary.

If the pictures are good, I’ll add to them here.

Update, Easter Sunday

We are now entering the third week of Spring in lockdown, a riot of birdsong, pollen, flowering, and bud burst. Traffic is more or less back to 1970s levels, and there’s a quality in the air I haven’t sensed since the 1970s. Olfactory time and space travel amid daily death counts approaching the thousand mark. Terror and a strange peace, rimmed with a dark edge. The immediate surroundings have been fully internalised. Here’s the next five.

 

 

and here are the previous four.

To order K N U CK L E

“Devastatingly acute” – The Irish Times’ books of the year

 

Review, Live Encounters, Ireland

Knuckle from Pitt Street Poetry is Tim Cumming’s eighth collection. The book begins with a stunning sequence on the planets, each one different, each suffused with humour, eroticism and Cumming’s trademark scientific focus.

The title poem ‘The Knuckle End’ comes from the sweetest meat on a leg of lamb and it is equally sweet in the way that great music is sweet. There are no wrong notes, no sentimentality, “I am struck by how little/ food waste there is in Mum’s/slops bucket…’.

A wider sense of waste returns with great force in his fine poem, ‘Bag’, “Nothing says forever like plastic.” All of Cumming’s preoccupations are here— music, destiny, love, travel and history enhanced by his terrific ‘End Note’ which reads like a manifesto, an essay or a lesson for poetry.

Cumming’s clear, cerebral poetry has never been finer while his short poem ‘Stylus’ operates like a coda, ‘The only diamond I ever owned/was set in the stylus of a turntable,/its arm falling into the groove/of one great album after/another. I held them close/as I would a lover.’

Martina Evans

 

To get hold of Knuckle, you can do three things:
Go to The London Review Bookshop in Bury Place near the British Museum,
to Belgravia Books on Ebury Street, near Victoria Station,
write directly to me via this site or at tim.cumming@talk21.com
or write to the publishers, Pitt Street Poetry in Sydney, Australia, and ask them
to put this lovely book of theirs on their website so it can be ordered online!

Thank you

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