At Artichoke Music on Hawthorne Avenue in Portland, my adopted city, there is every other Thursday a songwriters roundup. A simple open mic. where local and visiting musicians can get up and try out a new song. It is a lovely, warm and welcoming place. The sound system is good, the lights flattering and the beer and wine are reasonable. It is a listening room, not a bar with music. People actually sit still and listen to the players. And on some evenings there is extraordinary music when the muse strikes one of the regulars or an out of town wiz takes the stage and lets it go. For the $5 entrance it is a bargain.

Sadly, the lease is up for the ‘Choke. The whole of Hawthorne Ave is being slowly redeveloped, boutiqued, in that hideous boxy, sterile style that local architects are foisting on us. In the same building as the ‘Choke is Crossroads Music, a funky vinyl emporium. And the ‘Choke shares the parking lot with Cubo, a sweet little Cuban food joint. So, the ‘Choke is moving to another part of town and will never be the same.

I started to go because my wife and musical partner became part of the scene there, and one songwriter’s roundup I got up and read one of my poems. I loved it. And after all, what is a songwriter but a poet with music. At least twice I have read poems that I actually wrote while sitting there listening. The deal at the ‘Choke is this. You pay your $5 and if you want to play you write your name on a slip of paper and leave it in a basket on the bar. The MC shuffles the slips, plays an opening song, and reads off the first three players. It can be a long wait and folk often leave at the break and the last player thanks everyone for opening the gig for him and sings to the holdouts.

I write my poems from prompts or ideas I have written in my notebook or fingered into my cell phone. And so it was last week that I had placed my slip in the basket and realized I had nothing to read. Nada. Zip. Zero. I had not even brought my notebook with me! On the table in front of me there was an announcement for one of the ‘Choke’s workshops. Its reverse side was blank. Perfect. On my cell phone some weeks ago I had entered the words ‘yellow cords’, remembering how much I had lusted after a pair long ago in unaffordable, trendy, hip, mod, Carnaby Street, London. The epicenter of cool clothes for the swinging sixties. Like all clothes in London, way out of reach for students like me. While the first three players were doing their thing on stage I wrote this poem and after the break read it to a bemused audience who had no idea where Carnaby Street is or what it was in those far distant days.

I always wanted yellow cords 

Since I saw them in a movie in 1965

Yellow cords

With a purple shirt

And a white man’s afro.

I had the ‘fro…then

Really…

Not now.

And I am truly over purple.

But yellow cords, man!

Deep creamy dreamy yellow cords.

Blue shirt

Sky blue linen shirt.

And red shoes, red shoes, yeah!

Fifty years ago in Carnaby Street

Trendy spendy hip clothing London street

Fifty years ago in Carnaby Street.

But…

Forty years in the corporate suit

Can do a number on you,

And yellow cords had to wait

For no GOOD reason

And for no GOOD reason I remain

Cordless, yellow-wise.

But I did get the red shoes

Oh yeah, dammit, I got the red shoes

Red-Suede-Chukka-Boots.

On line, ninety bucks,

Carnaby Street, eat your f*****g heart out!

 

It could use a little editing, which I will get to. I have to admit on reading it to the crowd I felt a sort of relief. As if I had been bottling up resentment against that street and its pretentiousness for all those years. Well, I wonder who or what is next?

“Once in Royal David’s city, stood a lowly cattle shed” are the opening lines of a well known Anglican Christmas carol. One which I knew by heart by the time was eight or nine. I had little idea who this David was. My youngest brother, David, had just been born, and I knew the song was not about him. This other David, apart from having a royal city was chiefly famous for having killed (slain, actually) a very large man with an exceedingly lucky hit from a slingshot. Amongst my urban savage friends there was a lively discussion of how he could have pulled this off. We doubted it could be done. We thought slingshots a very inaccurate and slow loading weapon. We all had our own hand made catapults, and argued that if this David had had any sense he would have had one and used it. Later on in our English Anglican education we learned that Jesus was distantly related to this giant killer, and this was supposed to be a good thing. We could not figure out why this was so and our teachers were superbly vague on the subject. Knowing what ultimately happened to Jesus we young cynics became ever more doubtful that being related to improperly armed minor royalty of any age could possibly be a good thing.

Fast forward many decades to a less cynical but very analytical man sitting in a recording booth narrating a book about King David into a microphone. ‘The Edge of Revolt’ by Uvi Posnanksy. One of a series of historical novels by her about this leader of Israel. Late in life I am learning a lot about King David and the history of an ancient land. I am also getting a geography lesson. The history and geography lessons are one of the pleasant parts of recording a book for Audible or any other audio-book service. The less easy challenges in this task are several if not multiple.

Imagine that you are reading the same book I am recording. As you read you will automatically construct an ambiance, an atmosphere of the locations in the book. You will create voices for each of the characters. Readers have no difficulty in returning to a book at any time and recreating these characters and feelings. For an audiobook narrator, he too must create that ambiance, those characters, in his mind, and then deliver them to you using only his voice. He has also to be utterly consistent in his delivery. He has to create a distinctive voice for each of the characters. He has to try and understand the authors intention as well or even better than they did when writing the book so as to be able to communicate every nuance of feeling, every subtle hint, every change of emotion the text contains, and then perhaps add some not foreseen or anticipated by the author. He is in fact a one-man theater. Playing all the characters, changing the scenery, the lighting, the mood, the pace, to an invisible and utterly silent audience. He is the theater. A virtual theater.

But narrator beware! Strongly emoting, acting, is not always appreciated by listeners. Many remain interested in populating the drama, the story, the scene, with their own interior voices and emotions. They are not always interested in your interpretation of the text, only needing the reading of the text as a prompt for their own imaginations. They don’t want much theatricality. It is a fine balance and the narrator needs to listen to the author and use his own experience before turning the microphone on.

What this means is that the selection of a narrator by an author has to be a carefully considered process. Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley, as talented as they are, are not suited for every book. Not to mention their cost! I myself have to think very carefully about what books I can genuinely and honestly produce and achieve that balance. However, this does not prevent me from accepting challenges that stretch my own perception of my strengths and skills. Authors may hear something in a narrators voice and style they themselves did not know or even suspect they possessed, and want it for their book.

In recording Uvi Posnanzky’s book ‘The Edge of Revolt’ about the mid-life and final moments of King David, I avoided none of these challenges, and faced a few additions. Uvi found my voice on the Amazon managed site, Audible Creative Exchange. Narrators can create a profile, including samples of their voice, and authors can post a summary of their book and the narrator they are looking for. It’s a literary dating site!

Male narrators are often called to produce recordings with both male and female voices. In ‘The Edge of Revolt’ there are more than a few female voices and they are of differing ages and temperament. For some of these voices I dip into my family history and find the voices of my aunts, with their London accents. And for others the comic genius of Monty Pythons Flying Circus is a rich source. The same was useful for the variety of male characters; my relatives, theatre and broadcast personalities. And in doing so I find a special challenge. If a narrator uses an immediately recognizable character voice he may run the risk of distracting the listener from the flow of the story. It has to be done with care. Using the voice of Richard Nixon for King David, whilst amusing, is just not going to work.

I had to find at least three voices for King David. The first is that of a proud and confident man. A man enjoying his power and status. The next is of the same man but humbled and frustrated by the unfolding of events he himself has caused. A man at the mercy of the complications of reconciling paternal love, succession, and national unity. And another is of the man breathily composing or reciting poetry and psalms he regards as his legacy. Finally, I have to make him into an older, tired man, waiting on death.

And of course, the names of all the characters in the book are pronounced not as I grew up thinking they should be! And there are Hebrew names I have never seen or heard before. This is when I am grateful for the patience and attention to detail that Uvi Posnansky shows. I can rely on her to send me guidance and corrections very quickly. This is important. It makes editing so much simpler when the context is still fresh in the mind, echoing. Editing sound tracks with edits sent much later one can easily lose the continuity of expression and pace needed for a good recording. For every hour of recording there is usually at least thirty minutes of editing to be done, and keeping it from encroaching on recording time is always on my mind.

And as I wrote earlier the balance to be found between over and under emoting was always present in recording this work. Again, I found Uvi Posnansky to be the kind of author a narrator needs, providing enough guidance to correct mistakes but not so much as to prevent creativity on my part. And now I must go and practice my seductive Bathsheba voice. All in a days work for a narrator of audio books.

 

Since 1972, when I began to travel in earnest, I have been exposed to, endured, enjoyed and sampled some of the best and worst of air travel experiences in many countries. In no order other than how I recalled them I offer you these snapshots.

I have shot dangerously through the air on Garuda Airlines, notorious for several if not hundreds of I.A.T.A. safety infractions, as several hundred of my fellow travelers lit up their ‘Kretek’ (clove cigarettes) in the laughably misnamed nonsmoking section.

I have been asked for twenty dollars American money for an unnecessary immunization shot on arrival at Manila via Philippine Airlines, whose flight insignia, PAL, was at the time regionally construed as ‘plane always late’.

I have flown almost upside down on approach to Kuala Lumpur on Malaysian Airlines. But the weather may have had something to do with that.

I have been kept waiting in a glass cubicle in Cairo airport for an hour until a senior Egyptian immigration policeman could spare the time to confirm that I was indeed as harmless as I had already claimed to a series of his subordinates.

I have been similarly held incommunicado for hours in Portland, Oregon because my green card was ‘too near’ its renewal date.

Also in Portland, my whole family was delayed by a TSA inspector who was flummoxed by my carry-on Christmas Pudding. Supposing it to be plastic explosives of some kind after I had told him it was ‘pudding’. The TSA definition of pudding assumes it is a liquid, and of course no self-respecting Christmas Pudding is ever less than a whopping sixteen ounces. Far in excess of the three-ounce limit!  I had to reveal my family recipe to him before he re-scanned it and let us pass. Curiously he did not use the mass spectrometer which would have identified explosives. And so, I could have actually gotten a device aboard hidden in my pudding.

I was warned that my welcome to Djakarta might soon disappear should I not apply for a very expensive business visa available only today and from this particular immigration officer.

My first journey to the United States was on a Dan-Air charter flight. The Boeing 707 was unable to make it from Heathrow to Kennedy without stopping in Gander to refuel. If you are familiar with Gander you may know that it is in the rugged North East of Newfoundland. After refueling the pilot taxis to the other end of the runway and revs up the engines for what seemed an unnecessary length of time. With a lurch, we shoot off. But for whatever reason we are unable to get airborne, and come to a halt at the far end. The pilot comes on the squawk box, and in that laconic tone so practiced by generations of British pilots, tells us that he didn’t like the way the engines felt and is going back to “give it another try”. The atmosphere in the cabin is tense, and you can imagine the relief as we do indeed manage to get airborne and gaze down upon the hills where we might have become permanently installed.

It was only by spotting our bags being thrown into the hold of an ageing Nepal Airlines BAC Viscount that enabled me to run shouting at the plane on the tarmac to wait for me and my wife and two-year-old child en-route to Pokhara and actually catch the flight. On which flight they actually handed out barley sugar candy as an antidote for air sickness.

A hotel desk clerk in Mexico City informed me that he had no room at his hotel, despite my waving a confirmation in his face printed on the hotels own stationary. But that is not an air travel story!

I was the unlucky, or shall we say, lucky person who informed the flight attendant that our Delta flight to Cincinnati had a serious air leak from the malfunctioning rear door. We returned to Syracuse immediately.

Apart, perhaps, for the air leak, none of these were life threatening and at worst caused me a delay, loss of fractional stomach lining and temporary irritation.

It must be part of the human character that we often seem to remember the worst things that happen to us, and not the best. And when we do hear of acts of kindness, or good service, or friendly staff and trouble free travel, we are always dubious and skeptical. We wonder if the person relating these positive experiences has their head screwed on or is perhaps just boasting about the level of service he or she actually expects rather than having actually tasted it.

So, I shall tempt your credulity with a few examples of more positive, or at least revealing, travel experiences.

While People Xpress shuttle flights between Newark and Boston in the eighties could barely manage to sell and serve coffee and peanuts during the flight, Singapore Airlines served free drinks and a simple dinner en route from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore. A journey of about the same duration.

Arriving late and breathless from Syracuse at Cincinnati after running for my connection to Portland I smiled at the Delta gate agent and said, “I am exhausted, I need an upgrade!” and she said, “Of course, why not?” and lo I was soon quaffing my free whiskey and soda at the sharp end of the plane.

On a British Airways flite from Brisbane to Singapore via Sydney, the pilot invited me and one other passenger in Business Class to join him on the flight deck to watch him land his Boeing 747-400 at Kingsford Smith field manually, with no automation, as he was periodically required to do. This after a short seminar on how he preferred four engines to two and scoffed at the thought of flying across any ocean with only two. In addition to his standard BA uniform he wore a flat peaked hat, giving the impression of a slightly irritable but competent gentleman farmer driving a very large tractor. I am sure he, and the Chief Steward, contravened several IATA and company regulations with passengers in the cockpit, but I was delighted. And yes, we landed safely.

Flying on July Fourth is often a good plan. Going from Newark to Los Angeles there were fewer than twenty of us on the whole plane. Two bored flight attendants sat with me and chatted about their work and we celebrated the national holiday with United Airlines champagne. Well, I did. They had juice!

I discovered one of the best chicken recipes I have ever enjoyed on Japan Air Lines Tokyo to Beijing service. It was in the English language version of their in-flight magazine.

In the nineteen nineties domestic air travel in India was not always an airborne delight. But one morning in Vadodara I had a deep inexplicable sense of calm as I stood with the other passengers on the tarmac under a shade tree waiting for the arrival of an ageing Air India Boeing 737 to take us to New Delhi. Our baggage stood with us on an old flatbed horse cart. There was no horse, just the airport staff heaving away. It fitted the ambiance perfectly at an airport that closely resembled a converted railway station of a previous age.

The Varig flight from Mexico City to Rio de Janeiro had to stop at Manaus to either refuel or take on passengers, or even a new engine. It was not explained. There was no jetway and the door was left open allowing the fragrance of the Amazon forest to seep into the cabin. I have never smelt anything like it. A confusing mixture of life and death. Combined with the odor of kerosene fuel and my nascent jet lag it felt wonderfully hallucinatory.

I don’t travel anywhere near as much as I used to and sometimes I miss it. But a recent transcontinental trip to Boston on a plane seemingly designed for midgets but loaded with elephants was all it took to discourage thoughts of more frequent journeys.

IMG_2579Recording audio books is acting to an invisible and silent audience. Closeted inside a sound proof box it is just you, the text and the microphone. Every emotion, meaning and nuance written on the page before you, ever character, every ambiance intended by the author has to come from you and your voice. Not only are you the actor(s) you are the theater.

It is not just about understanding the authors intention or hopes for the work. It is also about what you can add as an actor to what is perhaps an already interesting or fascinating piece of art. And if it is not, you have to work even harder to add that interest.

So of course, I read the book, carefully. I record some pieces of it and ask for feedback. I record again and often the author will want a different emphasis, a different pronunciation, a stronger accent. Then we get into editing a track which is so long you don’t want to rerecord for one or two words needing attention. Thank goodness for modern recording software cut and paste tools. Even so, for an hour of recorded material there is usually at least another hour of editing and audio processing.

And then there are the special challenges. A book I am currently recording for Amazon and Audible.com is heavily larded with Hebrew words and phrases, and Israeli Army slang. Suddenly I am learning a new language. The author and I talk a lot about the book and his hopes for it and from this I get an inspiration of how to project those hopes through my voice.

And we voice actors do all of this in a small sound proofed closet like room. Acting to an invisible and silent audience. It is a serious challenge and I love and relish it.

My next audio-book is now available on Amazon and Audible.com. ‘The Private Life of Michael Foot’ is a biography of the leader of the British Labour Party in the 1980’s. The author, Carl E. Rollyson, is professor of journalism at Baruch College in New York City. He is the biographer of Marilyn Monroe, Martha Gelhorn, Susan Sontag, Dana Andrews and many others. He has been called ‘A Serial Biographer’.

If you have a book, a documentary, an announcement that needs a professional voice, I would be delighted to help. Listen to my demo tracks on my website and give me a call. The number is on the home page.

I wrote this on the evening of August 4th. On August 5th a former C.I.A. Director’s article was published in the New York Times suggesting that Trump is a de facto Putin agent. I cannot claim any prescience but my timing is uncanny.

Long time apparatchik and highly intelligent soviet creature Leonid Brezhnev is perusing reports from his operatives in the USA. Brezhnev.jpgThey worry him. His concerns are suddenly crystallized into a terrifying fact when an aide enters the room and informs him that the Americans have elected a half-wit movie actor to be their President. While it is not exactly a surprise, and he appreciates that his own position is not exactly an elected one, he wonders what these fools will do next. Soon after his wonderment is answered. Reagan.jpgA meeting with the half-wit had been arranged. In Brezhnev’s mind it is like being asked to settle the affairs of the world with the Kremlin janitor. His eyes are rolling as fast as a Las Vegas fruit machine cherry.

Years later long time apparatchik and highly intelligent soviet creature Vladimir Putin is perusing reports from his operatives in the USA. He is delighted. Putin.jpgAnother half-wit has seized the political stage and will perhaps meet with him in the coming years. Things could not be better.

Unlike Brezhnev, Putin understands that a half-wit in the White House could be a de facto soviet agent. And yes, I use the word soviet since so little has changed politically in the Russian world.Trump.jpg

And so instead of rolling his eyes at the idiocy of Western democracy, Putin sees the game more clearly and will move to manipulate the new half-wit for the benefit of himself and his global ambitions.”

Absent Gorilla

May 20, 2016

The question of how to properly develop Portland in one particular was the topic of today’s Portland City Club Friday Forum. Are the arts getting squeezed out by the rapidly rising property rents? The answer currently is, yes. All of those east-side and other industrial properties that owners were so glad to rent at what might be termed reasonable or even very low rates are now, predictably, more valuable. A cynic might say that the artistic community got a great deal for many years. Yet another cynic might say that the artistic community paid the taxes for all those owners in the lean years and perhaps some gratitude is in order. Not being either a property owner or one who rents space in the city, living outside of the city, but with a strong interest in it, I can only comment as follows.

At today’s forum I doubt there was a single person in the room who was not a supporter of the general idea that art in a very general sense is essential to the life of the city. Absolutely essential if the city is not to become a monotonous, monolithic money machine. There is a sense that our city can become a striking example of what an American city could be. Everyone in the room at today’s forum at the Sentinel Hotel (decent lunch by the way!) likely shared something of that feeling. And they felt or know that the artistic community, or should I say creative community, is already part of the reason Portland is experiencing; I won’t yet say enjoying; such rapid growth.

The panel spoke about ideas they have. Artists from a variety of endeavors spoke of their rent hardships. One could almost feel the consensus in the room that yes, this part of our community, our civic life, must be supported somehow.

What was missing from the discussion was the ‘gorilla’. There was no-one in the room, on the panel, who was presenting the case or ideas from owners and developers. The ‘gorilla’ did not even make it to the meeting. To have a meaningful discussion all interested parties should be present. Otherwise we are just nodding our heads at our joint analysis that we agree the situation is challenging and something must be done.

If you are going to have a discussion about property and its developments it is probably a good idea to invite owners, developers, and maybe even bankers to the table. Some ‘gorillas’ are surely very creative themselves and if anything is needed in this issue it is that, creativity. Persuading owners and developers to forego revenue for art’s sake is hard. Inviting them to be part of solutions is not. Who speaks for them as one? I do not know, but I’ll bet they would be interested.

Nevertheless, I congratulate the City Club for beginning or continuing the discussion, I enjoyed the meeting. It confirmed my feeling that Portland can be that striking example. Gorillas and Artists hand in hand!

Sausage Wars, Part One

April 29, 2016

I did not begin to write this story with any idea that it should reflect things in the real world. But, as the rather depressing Presidential election campaigns competed to see how dumb the average voter might be, I found the story doing just that. Here is Part One…

Sausage Wars, Part One

Once upon a time in land so far away it might not even exist there were two bordering sovereign States.  In the State which we shall call A there was supposedly complete freedom of thought and ideas freely exchanged in the media, public places and homes. The Prince of A through the usual channels continuously issued Statements to the effect that this was so. People were by and large content. Content, but for one very large and unusually glaring exception. Whereas ideas on almost any subject were allowed to be openly and often fervently discussed, there was a strict prohibition on the exchange, discussion or sharing of any recipe for sausages. Not only this, but no one was permitted to even make a sausage of any kind whatsoever. The only sausage allowed in the State was the State sausage, produced by a small number of licensed Charcutiers belonging to the Guild of State Sausage. Less than ten in number they guarded the recipe for the State sausage with almost murderous vigor. Any person found either talking about sausage or worse making an unlicensed sausage was immediately charged with a crime against the State. The punishment was severe. For a first offense six months imprisonment with only the State sausage to eat. Since the State sausage itself was a greasy, flavorless, offensive, slimy sack of mystery meats, moldy bread and sawdust, grey in color and of revolting odor, one could imagine the horror. Second offenders, and there were some, were sent to remote farms were they not only had to eat the State sausage exclusively but were employed by the Guild for no pay in the manufacture of the thing itself.

Many societies suffer taboos of an amazing variety, but few go so far as to make such a simple food item the focus or singular prohibition. One can perhaps imagine the atmosphere in the cities of State A. Schizophrenic might be a suitable word. It was so easy to let the word sausage slip from ones lips and then become a victim of the informers who made a living welching their friends and family to the Guild Police. The pressure to conform worked to stifle conversation on any subject. And so the much vaunted freedom of thought and ideas was not so much vaunted as valueless.

The Guild Police were not so many in number but had money to spend on informants and as with all repressive police forces became corrupt. The Guild itself reported only to the Prince of A whose heraldic arms depicted a sausage rampant on a field of gruel supported by a single scroll allegedly bearing the recipe of the State sausage in an ancient language. The Prince himself was not clever enough to question the State of affairs, and as is so often the case was under the control of his chief advisor, who himself was directly related to the Grand Stuffer or Chairman of the Guild.

A scant fifty kilometers from the capital of State A lay the heavily patrolled border with State B. Elite soldiery of State A bearing the Guild emblem, a black meat grinder, were stationed here to prevent the crime of ‘Recipika’, or the passage of prohibited contraband sausage recipes or even worse an actual sausage from State B or the world beyond.

Across a barren one hundred meter no man’s land another soldiery marched up and down in a strict swaggering goose step. They bore the emblem of their own feared thought police, a blue question mark struck through by a thick dark red line. Both forces glared at each other whatever the weather.

In State B ideas were rigorously controlled. The people were crushed under the weight of an oppressive regime. A regime scared of its own shadow. So scared that it had made half of its populace mentally ill and the other half instruments of the State paranoia. Life here was grey. Here there was nothing to talk about. Nothing to discuss, Nothing to enjoy. Nothing except that is the amazing variety of sausages available for very small amounts. They were delicious and celebrated. New recipes were published nearly every day by the Guild of Sausagemakers and eagerly tried by the otherwise manic and depressed populace. If anything was allowed in discussion it was the amazing explosion of culinary creativity. Nothing else. Nothing, or risk the inquisitive attentions of the thought police. Reporting directly to the Prince of B, they were in fact controlled, as is so often the case, by his chief adviser, who was related to the Chief Stuffer or Chairman of the Guild of Sausagemakers.

As in State A, one can easily imagine the atmosphere in State B; a genuine paranoia about everything but one thing; sausage. The Guild of State B of course flourished. Supported by the regime as a sort of office of the State opiate, they enjoyed special privileges. The Guild of State A also flourished, funded by the regime as a handy brake to apply to freedom when it might threaten the status quo.

The border was not so impervious that ideas and sausage never made the perilous crossing. On the contrary a highly profitable and one might say professional black market, the Recipikastano, had evolved. No-one knew who ran the operation, but everyone knew it existed. While no-one knew the identity of the head smuggler, his agents were known to more than a few. The agents were most often spies from both Guilds or foreigners and exiles from beyond the horizon, living a dangerous life.

As is nearly always the case it was the rich and influential who benefited from the Recipikastano. A small but significant number of succulent sausages made their way from B to A, and a turbulent stream of subversive thoughts, poetry and literature made the reverse journey. While it was possible that there was an exchange rate; so many sausages for so many words; hard cash or gold was quite naturally preferred.

As you can imagine both Princes and both chief advisors and both heads of Guild and the mysterious head of the Recipikastano knew each other through a network of intermediaries and conspired to maintain things just so without actually trusting any of the others to do the same.

And so for hundreds of years the two States had sat side by side eyeing each other warily. From time to time each State had accused the other of seeking to destabilize it. Occasionally the exchange of accusations had risen to a fevered pitch and thinly veiled threats of military action ensured the approval of increased defense and security budgets in both States further cementing the power of the two opposing regimes and the profit margin of the Recipikastano. It was a carefully managed and cynical balancing act performed by two sets of cynical, greedy and fearful men, watched carefully by an even more cynical and greedier third.

While no-one in either State knew exactly why they hated each other so much many stories about how it came to pass were circulated. One story, which seems plausible, was that long ago the two States had been a single State. A single State governed by a King with twin sons. It was said that the people adored their King and he ruled wisely and carefully. Ideas and sausages of all kinds permeated the country freely. In many ways the sausage became the symbol of freedom of expression. As new ideas and recipes came and went with refreshing rapidity the mind and the palate were for ever and always entertained.

But if you know anything about dynastic strife you can almost predict what happened as the King grew older and his offspring began plotting against each other’s succession to the throne. Each son had become a Prince at the age of sixteen and by law had to have a small entourage or court. Naturally men and some women of ample means became part of the two courts. And even more naturally they began to plot how to eliminate each other. But such was the level of contentment among the people that neither side could find a suitable issue around which a more permanent and festering argument could be created. The people listened to each court and laughed at them. After all they had been exposed to nearly every kind of idea and knew the difference between a good one and a clumsy attempt to gain undue influence.

And yet fate was ultimately unkind and gave the two Princely courts the issue they had longed for. It was at a celebration banquet for the Kings fiftieth year of rule that the blow was struck. Unsurprisingly there had been much anticipation of a new celebration sausage to be served along with some new poetry and songs to mark the achievement. And indeed a new recipe had been developed in the royal kitchens and at the right moment a fragrant aroma of indescribably appetizing strength was released into the dining hall of the King preceding the introduction of the new sausage.

Almost at once a discussion broke out amongst the courtiers as to what could possibly be the tasty volatile components contributing to this overwhelming experience. Such was the astonishment of the diners, accompanied by their inability to identify any of the aromatic sources that a new atmosphere began to insert tendrils of an unfamiliar emotion. It was anger. Anger, fed by the feeling that one was being made a fool of.  The discussion grew louder and louder and moved from discussion to argument and from there to a fully-fledged row. The King seemed powerless to calm either his own courtiers or those of his two sons, and it was a this moment that in a brief lull of the tumult one of the courtiers of Prince A shouted to one of the courtiers of Prince B that he could no more tell the difference between a sausage and stick of celery than he could between a donkey and an elephant (no-one had actually ever seen an elephant). There was a short moment of silent horror. No-one had ever heard such ill manners before. But then a courtier of Prince B shouted that there was none in the court of Prince A who even knew what a good sausage was. Uproar. Weapons were not drawn because none were allowed, but fists were raised, and it was only because the King had fainted that a tense calm was restored. Conversation slowly resumed as the King was helped to his chambers, and the new sausage served to enthusiastic but somehow muted applause. The poems were read and the songs sung, but the damage had been done. The courtiers had their issue. It has been staring them in the face. Sausage. The people loved their sausage and their ideas and would go to lengths to make sure neither was endangered.

Over the next few months the more venal courtiers of Prince A began saying in public that it was shame that Prince B had so many new recipes for sausage when he had not had a new idea since escaping diapers. Similarly inclined courtiers of Prince B responded by publishing fictional accounts of Prince A’s inability to invent a recipe for hot water let alone sausage since his mind was overstuffed with pointless ideas.

It did not take long for the general populace to take sides as the opposing courtiers fanned their increasingly raw emotions with further Statements and revelations from well paid-off court servants. Over an amazingly short period of time a deep divide was created in society. It went so deep as to divide families. Regional differences of opinion sprang up. Notable citizens who had heretofore avoided any public stance on any subject now made their feelings known.

The King himself was of course at a considerable impasse. He loved his two sons equally well and detested both their courts. He dared not make a Statement favoring one or the other and as his age began to tell on him more and more he could only encourage people to sit and think for a moment as they ate their sausage. The simple thing that so far had united them but now threatened to do the opposite.

It was after a series of riots in several cities where book waving supporters of Prince A fought hand to hand with sausage waving supporters of Prince B, and more than a few heads were cracked that the King roused himself from inaction and confronted his sons. He asked them what the fragrant stuffing they thought they were doing. They each replied that they were protecting cherished traditions of the country. The King countered that they were doing it at the expense of the stability of their country. He went on to say that freedom of ideas and sausage had existed side by side since he could remember. They replied that times had changed. Prince A claimed that free ideas were paramount and sausage could go to hell. Prince B said that complete freedom of ideas was a dangerous fallacy and the communities understanding of sausage held them together. The King was furious. He saw his reign, his peaceful and prosperous reign of fifty years, being washed away by the greed and lust for power of a few individuals manipulating his sons. He turned on his heel and left his sons shouting over his head that their Mother was turning in her grave. They both laughed. The King’s heart hardened.

It took another few weeks of increased rioting to begin to affect the trade on which the country depended. Both sides blamed the other. Truth, already on a vacation, extended her absence. Finally after two children were seriously hurt during a riot and foreign arms dealers began to make calls on the courts of both Princes, the King took his last stand. Calling his own court together, along with some heavily, but discretely armed friends from his days in exile, he invited his sons to attend him. They came thinking it was just another pathetic appeal by the old man for them to make peace with each other.

The King welcomed both sons and asked them for a vision of their country that they could work for once he had died. Prince A said that he wanted a land where ideas were free as the wind and not tied to old icons and recipes. Prince B said he saw a land where ideas though useful were the prerogative of the State excepting of course anything to do with the historic sausage. The King exclaimed that this was marvelous and that they would have their wish. The Princes were confused. It was then that the King produced two scrolls, one for each Prince. They were maps.

The King stood up and raised his eyes to the sky, handed each Prince their scroll, and said, “Here is your land, Princes, do with it as you please!”

The Princes unrolled their scrolls and found that the King had neatly divided the country into two States of equal area and wealth. One half for each Prince. The King had meant this as a final chance for his sons to reconsider their disagreement. But sadly his appeal failed and both Princes, though miffed at not having the whole country, thought the idea a good one.

The following day the King issued all the orders needed to divide his once happy land into two. He then left the country and returned into exile in another land. It resembled the bosky town of Sevenoaks in England, but we shall call it Xanadu. The two Princes set up capitals in their respective States and let the enmity fester for centuries. State A, supposedly free ideas and lousy sausage. State B, no ideas and superlative sausage. And centuries later this is where we catch up with the story

One day, just when tempers had been inflamed in both States by carefully worded editorials and Princely pronouncements a few weeks ahead of annual treasury audits of security spending, a curious thing happened.

 

Stay tuned for Part Two, and possibly Three. 

 

 

I had not noticed them before but driving north on I-5 coming into Seattle from the the south the other day they became a rhythmic  mantra. It was the information sign boards advising not just the temporary speed limit you must obey but the additional warning, ‘heavy traffic merging’. Almost superfluous warnings as anyone with eyes could see the sluggish flow of vehicles doing just that as we crawled along. And almost without warning this song came into my head. Combining not just the craziness of Seattle traffic but a similar ailment in American politics.

Heavy Traffic Merging from the Right

Heavy traffic merging from the right
Heavy traffic merging from the right
They could have gone another way
The jokers causing my delay
As heavy traffic merging from the right

Heavy traffic merging from the right
Heavy traffic merging from the right
Flying along at seventy nine
Suddenly you see that sign
Heavy traffic merging from the right

Heavy traffic merging from the right
Heavy traffic merging from the right
When I need to be there soon
Must I run into these loons?
Heavy traffic merging from the right

Neo fascist voices from the right
Neo fascist voices from the right
It will pass you may say
But I’m afraid they’re here to stay
And we’ll wake up in a darker night

Heavy traffic merging from the right
Heavy traffic merging from the right
They could vote another way
But they’re hell bent to make you pay
Like heavy traffic merging from the right.

A friend recently posted a blog episode that spoke of the wisdom of mothers and the wonders of small village primary schools in 1950’s England. His Mother seems to have been determined to get him educated and the small school he attended cooperated. Since he and I are of the same age, bar a few months, and from the same county in England, the educational system we came face to face with for thirteen years was also the same. However, that system was still in its infancy following the revolutionary Butler Education Act of 1944, and the philosophy of the county education authority found itself expressed in as many ways as there were locations.

His post caused me to reflect on my own experiences going into that system and to wonder how much has changed. It would be foolish to pretend that little has changed and even more foolish to suppose that many things did not need changing. They did. But changes good and bad, need or not, are not why I am writing. It is to remind myself of what I went through. Not that it was particularly arduous or fraught with disaster but worth reliving in writing for a while.

I was barely five when I first walked to the far end of my street, turned left up a short hill bordering a cemetery, turned right at the crest to cross a high bridge over a railway line, a line that went to London and everyday carried the fabled Golden Arrow to and from Paris, and trudged through smelly cabbage, Brussels sprouts and sugar beet fields, all of which separated the small prefabricated house in which I and my parents lived from the Kevington Primary School.

Prefab

Typical Post War Prefab

Standing alone surrounded by those fields there was a huge difference in the scale of the building to the prefabs of Barnfield Road.

Kevington Manor

Kevington Manor

While the school building was a fine Palladian style villa dating from the 18th century now adapted to an educational function the contents were not so well ordered, and reading more recent accounts of the school it seems to have deteriorated badly until 2008 when it was sold to a private party. The school had only been in operation a few years under Headmistress G.M. Roope when I entered in 1951. Although the school stood surrounded by agriculture and bordered the beginnings of North West Kentish countryside, the intake was mostly suburban from the light industrial villages of St. Mary Cray and St. Paul’s Cray. They were what my mother would call “those rough children from Hearns Rise!”  In 1951 many of the children were barely toilet trained and stenchy accidents were common.  Teaching seemed to occur between outbreaks of crying and clean up.

In a less malodorous but excretory incident I was caught spitting profusely one day in a contest with George Jeffries (?) and being sent to Ms. Roope siting in her very lovely office overlooking a sweeping lawn we were invited to each fill a jam jar with spittle or vow not to ever again spit. Obviously we took the vow and spat privately from then on.

There was a school lunch program. I suppose the ladies responsible did their best with post war rationing still in force, but I could not bring myself to eat much of it and would often arrive home famished. I can even now summon the almost rancid flavor of what was announced as mincemeat. Gristly, grey and lukewarm, it defied me. I ate the carrots and a white substance which may or may not have been mashed potatoes. I suppose I was not hungry enough to overcome my distaste.

Like many schools after the war there were ‘temporary’ schoolroom huts attached to the main building. The ‘baby boom’ had apparently caught the authorities unawares and huts of various designs were hastily erected. The word temporary being a euphemistic term for hopefully not permanent. Indeed the prefab in which I and my parents lived was one of about twenty or thirty in one road of ‘temporary’ accommodations scheduled to last only a ten or so years before more being torn down for ‘proper’ houses. 156,000 were built as a solution to the appalling housing shortage in London and surrounding areas after the Second World War. They often lasted thirty, forty or more years. There are less than dozen in South London still inhabited after seventy years. The school huts lasted as long if not longer and were a feature of so many schools well into the twenty first century.

In tests applied to all the children I was found to be somehow above average and despite my very young age got ‘bumped’ a whole year, and found myself in a class with kids some of whom were nearly two years older than me and a lot bigger. I can still remember some of the test questions. Simple problem solving, spelling, basic arithmetic. It all seemed so straightforward. I did not understand what the fuss was about and was not too sure I wanted to be with ‘big’ kids.

Nevertheless I stayed at Kevington until the summer of 1955 when my Father found a new job and we had to move. I was devastated. I had my ‘gang’ of friends who ran wild in the neighborhood and the woods and the rubbish tip. The woods, scrublands really, with a disused sandpit where stag-beetles roamed. The municipal rubbish tip was where many interesting items could be found if one dared climb the smoldering mountains of trash.

We moved ten miles south to Riverhead. A village attached to Sevenoaks. The  town of Sevenoaks was very old and had grown up around Knole House, a palace built by an Archbishop of Canterbury in the 15th century, and around Sevenoaks School. A school started by a poor orphan who had made money for other orphans but by the time moved there had become a rather upmarket ‘Public School’. The town itself had become a dormitory town feeding workers to London every day by rail.Amherst School Riverhead 1

The Riverhead Primary School was a much more modest building than Kevington. It had been built as a school in red brick, and of course it had a ‘temporary’ hut on the east side of the tarmac playground. It also had two air raid shelters and a vegetable garden that bordered the church cemetery. Renewable life nudging the unrenewable as it were. In the photo the building to the left of the school was a blacksmith or farrier. The owner did re-shoe horses but probably made more money from the decorative wrought ironwork he made.

On the exterior chimney breast of the building could be seen the coat of arms of Lord Jeffrey Amherst. The same Lord Amherst who helped General Wolf defeat the French in Canada, and was said to have encouraged the genocide of Native Americans using smallpox tainted blankets offered as gifts. I did not learn this last piece until much later in life.

The School Headmaster was a certain Mr. Godly. I loathed him on sight. Stern and unbending he seemed the sort of person who should not be allowed near small children and impressionable minds. He seemed to take no pleasure in his work. Thankfully he never taught me. I was taught by young recently graduated from a Teachers’ College Ron Acott. He was the complete antithesis to his boss. He truly loved his work and cared deeply about children.

For I don’t actually know how long, maybe six months I was in a class that Ron taught that comprised two years. There were only about fifteen or twenty of us in one half of a large room that could be divided by a folding partition. It doubled as the assembly room. When the older children left and moved on to secondary schools there were even less of us, despite the baby boom, and we moved to a small upstairs classroom. Then began some of the best times of my childhood.  I don’t think I was precocious but I was certainly head and shoulders above everyone in that room except my friend Christopher Armitage and my first childhood sweetheart, who cared less than naught for me, June Henwood. Ron was a creative teacher and his students responded.

It was announced that Mr. Godly was going to retire, and in our childish minds we rejoiced. I certainly did. He was the only man who has ever made me piss in my pants. One morning I was intent on solving some problem in arithmetic that Ron had set us. Mr. Godly made a surprise visit and as custom demanded the class rose from its seats. I was so intent on my work I was slow to do so and was hit sharply on the head for my impertinence. I was utterly dumbfounded and pissed myself. Mr. Godly, a man most ungodly and unsuited to his work. As I remarked, a man who should never have been allowed near children. He got a television as a gift from the village for his service.

He was replaced by a man who with Ron Acott put Riverhead Primary firmly on the map as a progressive school, Mr. Crowest. Under Crowest I think Ron Acott blossomed and along with the school helped many children get a better education than was thought possible before. I certainly did.

But I must have peaked early. In the late spring of 1957 I sat and took the infamous eleven-plus examination. In a class ridden society this test added an extra academic discriminator to those already in place based on birth and accent. Thanks to the Butler Act a child at the age of eleven who ‘passed’ this test would attend a ‘grammar school’ where ‘smarter’ children went. Failing the test a child would attend a ‘secondary modern school’. Pass and Fail were not the words used by the education authority. The exam was supposed merely to separate the academically inclined from the rest.

In many towns the ‘secondary modern schools’ were to be avoided. Parents would try to pull all kinds of strings to help their children ‘pass’. Nobody wanted their child to end up with ‘the rest’. The grammar schools were a mixture of new schools built just for the purpose of educating those who ‘passed’, and older establishments that may have been fee paying until the 1944. The tension felt by parents naturally trickled down to their children and we spoke of pass and fail.

I took the test and to everyone’s amazement did not pass. I did not utterly fail and there seemed to be wiggle room. It was in this ‘room’ that Ron Acott and I suspect the village vicar persuaded the vaunted Sevenoaks School to interview me independently for a place. And so one afternoon I took the bus to the town, and walked the half mile to the school where I was faced with a panel of about five adults. I was terrified. They asked questions, and the one I remember, and likely the one which got me turned down was, “what does this painting mean to you?” It was an abstract. Perhaps a print of Jean Miro or Picasso. It meant nothing to me. I was after all not quite eleven years old.

I am not sure how I felt except confused. For so long I had been told how clever I was and how I would certainly sail through these tests and interviews. My friends Christopher and June had ‘passed’. Even my Cousin Maureen had done so. I know now that I do not do well in written examinations, and have proven it to myself time and again.

But the ‘wiggle room’ had not closed its doors and once again the vicar and Ron Acott persuaded a grammar school in far Tunbridge Wells to take me. It was the Skinners’ Company School for Boys. skinners-photoMore about this interesting school another time. But it was there that I went every day from September 1957 to December 1964 taking two buses on the way. And I found that even though I had not ‘passed’ the stupid exam I was at least as smart, likely even smarter than half the boys I met here. It was I am sure thanks to Ron Acott; who was an old boy of the school; and the need for the school to get as many ‘bums on benches’ as possible and take the cash the county authority would pay for them to be there.

So string pulling placed me in a school of which much has been written, and which I alternately loathed and liked, and it was the end of my elementary education and the beginning of something entirely different.

**********

More about Prefabs at these links;

http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/jun/05/war-prefabs-and-an-unlikely-friendship-between-opposing-soldiers

http://www.prefabmuseum.uk/

More about the Skinners School at this link:

http://www.skinners-school.co.uk/

 

 

 

 

 

Vernal Equinox

March 20, 2016

Spring arrived early here in the Pacific NW. Climate change undeniably, unless you care to pick and choose which parts of science you accept. Here is a short poem, Vernal Equinox, reflecting the scene from the valley floor.