Happy Birthday B. S. Johnson

Bryan

Born this day 1933.  Died 1973, aged 40.

Depression is a terrible condition.  Suicide a terrible conclusion.  Commercial success a chimera.  This was a man who dragged himself up by the bootstraps and gained himself a university degree.  He was a highly interesting and experimental writer and his legacy is now more recognised than in his lifetime.

If we had a Universal Basic Income would he have revealed even greater potential?  UBI would be especially beneficial in giving artists the leeway to create.

Love-All; by Bryan Stanley Johnson

The decorously informative church
Guide to Sex suggested that any urge
could well be controlled by playing tennis:
and the game provided also “many
harmless opportunities for healthy
social intercourse between the sexes.”

For weeks the drawings in the Guide misled
me as to what went where, but nonetheless
I booked the public courts and learnt the game
with other curious youths of my age:
and later joined a club, to lose six one,
six love, in the first round of the Open.

But the only girl I ever met had
her “energies channelled” far too bloody
“healthily”, and very quickly let me
know that love was merely another means
of saying nil. It was not as though I
became any good at tennis; either.

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High water mark

Severus210AD

Septimus Severus died on this day, in Eboracum, Britannia, (modern York, England), in 211 AD.  Under his reign the Roman Empire attained its high water mark as he extended borders in Asia, Africa and in Britain.

Had he survived for just one more year the History of Britain could have been quite different.  In 210 AD Severus laid the foundations for the complete conquest of Caledonia. He repaired Hadrian’s Wall.  Then he moved north and carried out extensive repair work on the Antonine Wall and secured the Scottish Lowlands between Hadrian’s Wall and the central belt from the Firth of Clyde to the Firth of Forth.

He then advanced up the east coast of Scotland, constructing forts along the way.  He advanced through modern Dundee, Aberdeen and around the Firth of Moray near Inverness.  The local clans refused to meet the legions and engaged in guerrilla tactics.  Even so it became clear by the winter of 210 that the Clans would have to make peace with these invaders, who seemed relentless.

How different would the history of Britain have been had Caledonia been romanised?  Clan structures, which endured to the rebellion of Bonny Prince Charles would have been replaced with a Roman administrative structure.

But Severus fell ill and withdrew south to Eboracum where he died.  The momentum of the campaign was lost.  His son, Caracalla, re-initiated the campaign, but within a short time sued for peace with the Caledonian tribes.  The Romans withdrew south of Hadrian’s wall and never again ranged north in conquest.

It would be nice, from a Celtic perspective, to depict this as a victory of Celtic passion over Roman organisation.  The truth though is that the Celts had the sense to steer clear of the legions.  They saw what happened in Britain.  So they withdrew to the mountains, woods and bogs.  They left the Romans to fight the cold, the wet, the relentless damp, the plagues of midges that rise on any sunny day.  Against these enemies the Romans had no defence.

 

Birthday Birthday

Joyce

Publishing a book is, according to some authors, like giving birth to a baby.  You release it into the world and cut the umbilical of control over your work.  Now it is out in the world to be interpreted by others.  It is no longer your vision and yours alone.

On this day in 1922, on his 40th birthday, James Joyce had Ulysses published.  Sylvia Beach published it in Paris because no good Irish Catholic press would dirty itself with this filth.  She received the first three copies from the press on Feb 2nd 1922.

A serialised publication of the Nausicaa episode led to an obscenity trial in the USA in 1921.  Copies imported in the post were burned by the US postal service.  Ultimately it took another legal case in the USA to rule that the book was not pornography.  United States V One Book called Ulysses eventually admitted the novel to the USA in 1934.  The novel was banned in Britain until 1936.  It was not available in Ireland until the 1960’s.  It now comprises mandatory reading for any degree in English.

Joyce’s reaction to all this is best conveyed in his poem, Gas from a Burner, in which he lampoons the printer John Falconer, who destroyed sheets of his earlier short story collection “Dubliners”.   It also takes a swing at George Roberts, publisher at Maunsel & Co.

The final part of this poem is a concerted and intentional blasphemy.  He has the printer keep the ashes of the burnt pages in an urn, and has his foreman daub a crucifix on his bum with them in a parody of the Ash Wednesday rite of the Catholic Church when the ashes of the palms from the previous Palm Sunday rite are used to signify the penance of Lent.

Gas from a Burner: by James Joyce

Ladies and gents, you are here assembled
To hear why earth and heaven trembled
Because of the black and sinister arts
Of an Irish writer in foreign parts.
He sent me a book ten years ago
I read it a hundred times or so,
Backwards and forwards, down and up,
Through both the ends of a telescope.
I printed it all to the very last word
But by the mercy of the Lord
The darkness of my mind was rent
And I saw the writer’s foul intent.
But I owe a duty to Ireland:
I held her honour in my hand,
This lovely land that always sent
Her writers and artists to banishment
And in a spirit of Irish fun
Betrayed her own leaders, one by one.
‘Twas Irish humour, wet and dry,
Flung quicklime into Parnell’s eye;
‘Tis Irish brains that save from doom
The leaky barge of the Bishop of Rome
For everyone knows the Pope can’t belch
Without the consent of Billy Walsh.
O Ireland my first and only love
Where Christ and Caesar are hand and glove!
O lovely land where the shamrock grows!
(Allow me, ladies, to blow my nose)
To show you for strictures I don’t care a button
I printed the poems of Mountainy Mutton
And a play he wrote (you’ve read it I’m sure)
Where they talk of bastard, bugger and whore
And a play on the Word and Holy Paul
And some woman’s legs that I can’t recall
Written by Moore, a genuine gent
That lives on his property’s ten per cent:
I printed mystical books in dozens:
I printed the table-book of Cousins
Though (asking your pardon) as for the verse
‘Twould give you a heartburn on your arse:
I printed folklore from North and South
By Gregory of the Golden Mouth:
I printed poets, sad, silly and solemn:
I printed Patrick What-do-you-Colm:
I printed the great John Milicent Synge
Who soars above on an angel’s wing
In the playboy shift that he pinched as swag
From Maunsel’s manager’s travelling-bag.
But I draw the line at that bloody fellow
That was over here dressed in Austrian yellow,
Spouting Italian by the hour
To O’Leary Curtis and John Wyse Power
And writing of Dublin, dirty and dear,
In a manner no blackamoor printer could bear.
Shite and onions! Do you think I’ll print
The name of the Wellington Monument,
Sydney Parade and Sandymount tram,
Downes’s cakeshop and Williams’s jam?
I’m damned if I do–I’m damned to blazes!
Talk about Irish Names of Places!
It’s a wonder to me, upon my soul,
He forgot to mention Curly’s Hole.
No, ladies, my press shall have no share in
So gross a libel on Stepmother Erin.
I pity the poor–that’s why I took
A red-headed Scotchman to keep my book.
Poor sister Scotland! Her doom is fell;
She cannot find any more Stuarts to sell.
My conscience is fine as Chinese silk:
My heart is as soft as buttermilk.
Colm can tell you I made a rebate
Of one hundred pounds on the estimate
I gave him for his Irish Review.
I love my country–by herrings I do!
I wish you could see what tears I weep
When I think of the emigrant train and ship.
That’s why I publish far and wide
My quite illegible railway guide,
In the porch of my printing institute
The poor and deserving prostitute
Plays every night at catch-as-catch-can
With her tight-breeched British artilleryman
And the foreigner learns the gift of the gab
From the drunken draggletail Dublin drab.
Who was it said: Resist not evil?
I’ll burn that book, so help me devil.
I’ll sing a psalm as I watch it burn
And the ashes I’ll keep in a one-handled urn.
I’ll penance do with farts and groans
Kneeling upon my marrowbones.
This very next lent I will unbare
My penitent buttocks to the air
And sobbing beside my printing press
My awful sin I will confess.
My Irish foreman from Bannockburn
Shall dip his right hand in the urn
And sign crisscross with reverent thumb
Memento homo upon my bum.

Groundhog eve

Spring

Guess what just sprung?

Yes it is Feb 1st, Feast of Brigid, the Celtic Goddess of Fertility, or St Brigid if you are a Christian revisionist.  Celtic festival of Imbolc, thought to drive from “i mBolg” which means “in the belly” where all the spring lambs, calves and babies are.

Outside my window I hear a colt nickering in the field next door, full of the joys of the burgeoning summer.

Spring And All: by William Carlos Williams

By the road to the contagious hospital

under the surge of the blue

mottled clouds driven from the

northeast —

a cold wind. Beyond, the

waste of broad, muddy fields

brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

 

patches of standing water

the scattering of tall trees

 

All along the road the reddish

purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy

stuff of bushes and small trees

with dead, brown leaves under them

leafless vines —

 

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish

dazed spring approaches —

 

They enter the new world naked,

cold, uncertain of all

save that they enter. All about them

the cold, familiar wind —

 

Now the grass, tomorrow

the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf

One by one objects are defined —

 

It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf

 

But now the stark dignity of
entrance —

Still, the profound change

has come upon them: rooted they

grip down and begin to awaken

Bit of a commotion.

Cole

Back in the 1980’s it was very important for musicians to look serious about their craft.  Otherwise they would be lumped in with Wham or Yazz.  The way to look like a serious musician was to have a portrait of yourself or band in black and white, staring into the distance.  Very cool, very artistic.

Lloyd Cole was born on this day in 1961.  He is probably best remembered for that Lost Weekend in a Hotel room in Amsterdam.  That’s how I remember him anyway, from those days in the college disco, throwing shapes in front of girls, mouthing the lyrics, staring into the distance, artistically.

Lost Weekend

 

Serendipity

Serendip

In the year 1754, on this day, Horace Walpole invented the word Serendipity.  He was an art historian who discovered a lost painting.  In a letter to his friend Horace Mann he explained the fortunate discovery by reference to the fable of the 3 princes of Serendip.

Serendip is an old name for Sri Lanka.  The three princes in question had many adventures where they made good fortunes by figuring out things by good chance or through wisdom.  Some of the stories are a bit like Sherlock Homes stories where they use logic to figure out puzzles.

Serendipity is considered to be one of the most difficult words in the English language to translate.  It is a ‘fortunate and unplanned happy coincidence’.

I wish a serendipitous 2018 to anyone patient enough to read my scribbles.  Hope you enjoy them.

Now, since the word was written from one Horace to another we have to end with another Horace.  This time THE Horace, the Roman poet.  A poem on a similar theme.  Live in the now, let the future come and may it be serendipitous.

Ode I. 11: by Horace (Burton Raffel, Trans)

Leucon, no one’s allowed to know his fate,
not you, not me: don’t ask, don’t hunt for answers
in tea leaves or palms. Be patient with whatever comes.
This could be our last winter, it could be many
more, pounding the Tuscan Sea on these rocks:
Do what you must, be wise, cut your vines
and forget about hope. Time goes running, even
as we talk. Take the present, the future’s no one’s affair.