I was looking up Peenemunde on the Internet this morning. I was interested in finding the exact location of a place I have known existed for a very long time. It sits on a small island in the Baltic off the North Coast of what was once the German Democratic Republic; or as many knew it; East Germany.

 I was doing this on Memorial Day because on this day and November the 11th, Armistice Day, I do remember. The task of remembering is not without some challenges for me. I lost no-one in any war, police action, or peace keeping exercise, or whatever you like to call occasions when young people die for reasons that they may not altogether understand. I have little personal connection with any of this. Growing up in Post War England I knew that the War was the last thing anyone wanted to talk about. It was still with us in rationing (until 1953) bombed out buildings and damaged people. But all my family wanted to do was get on with life and get away from the horror.

 My Father was very annoyed by anything that told what he thought was a lie about the war. And there were many around. He did not like the cartoon portrayals of brave and rugged British tommies killing fleeing hideously stereotyped Nazis that I read in my copies of British schoolboy weeklies. He did not like the endless stream of jingoistic and nationalistic American and British movies that flooded the movie screens. He thought war was foolish and told me to beware of any nationalism that crept into my way of life.

 He was not a pacifist, and would have killed anyone who harmed my Mother or me and my brothers. And he was clear that the second war had to be fought. But he would not tolerate my brothers and me saying that the Germans, Japanese and Italians were all evil monsters. Even when we were old enough to be aware of the horrors of the concentration camps in Europe and Asia and found our credulity stretched he implied that we could not fully understand the enormity of this unless we had been there. Unless we had been Germans, unless we had been Jews, or Japanese or anyone who had to make choices in the face of an unrelenting tyranny. He did not care for Germans or any other race. But he did not believe in the moral superiority of any one race or nation over any other, and now neither do I.

 And later when I came to know what my own people had done to other races around the world, in distant lands and as close as Ireland, I found it easier to comprehend my own flawed nature. And even later when I discovered that the very Elementary School I attended in my village was named after an18th century General part of whose fame rested on his strategic distribution of disease laden blankets to Native Americans in the fond hope that they would die. Then I too became more and more averse to nationalism; anyone’s nationalism.

And so on this day in spring and November 11th I put out a flag and give a lot of thought to the millions of men and women who died mostly unnecessarily because some warped and genuinely evil men and their dubious nationalism got out of control. I feel a deep sadness, and almost a sense of fatalism when I read the rhetoric published in our own newspapers and blasted across the internet and broadcast media, and on this day whose purpose is now nearly almost forgotten by a large proportion of the population I feel doubly affected.

 It was in the last years of the second war that my parents, having already endured the blitz, were bombed out of two apartments in succession. In the first case by a V-1, or doodlebug, and in the second by a V-2. Both attacks did nothing to change my Fathers outlook. His only comment to me about the rocket attacks was regret that a fine pinstripe suit he had bought recently using many precious clothing ration coupons had been lost in the debris of one of them.

 Both rocket weapons were developed and tested at Peenemunde by teams of scientists and engineers headed by Werner Von Braun, who went on to do many things in a different country. My Father and Von Braun never met. I wonder if my Father would have asked him for a new suit.

How to Drive Home

May 25, 2010

Suppose one day that you found yourself in Saratoga Springs, Utah and need to be in Portland, Oregon in say under three days. You have a car, a camera, a new journal and three hundred dollars in excess of travel needs. Describe your route and what you would do along the way. Let me know soon. It could happen.

Booting up ones computer can often be a frightening experience. Especially as the machine in question becomes shall we say, mature. If a dog year is like seven man years then what can we say about our copper-silicon buddies? Will it ever get to the point where we can point to a chipped and faded case in the corner saying something like “ten thousand boots and nary a crash”, or “two to the power ten trillion transactions and runs a smooth as silk”, or”picked this baby up at a garage sale in ’09, fixed ‘er up with a new sound board and fan case; good as new; watch this!”

Personally I think computers will become more like toasters. Banks will give them away with each new account you open.  As to their relative ageing I am think that a 20:1 ratio is about right. If the average life span of man in say California, is 70 years then the average compo. should last 3.5 years before it starts exhibiting the tell-tale signs of irreversible decay and a new future as the back up machine at the Church Library.

And todays useless Microsoft message. Upon booting up my rapidly decaying machine; come on old girl! has taken to displaying this message, ” Please wait while Windows configures Fax”. Why is this particular operation worthy of notifying the user? What obscure vulnerability exists that we should wait for this routine to complete before attempting anything else? Why is this important?

And no, I dont own a dog. But if I did I am sure it would get along fine with my computer.

The Negroni

May 23, 2010

 Hands up everyone who knows and loves the Negroni!

 In a summer long ago but it was called 1968, I was bored enough one lunchtime to sit and listen to a man in a pub tell me some nonsense. Pubs, of course, are and hopefully will always be constructed at least partly for the transfer of nonsense from one wannabe character to another. So the setting was right. And the particular pub, The Black Boy, had always been well stocked with wannabes. So the extras casting for my short drama was appropriate.

 This man who was roughly my own age had the slight advantage over me of actually having a career at that moment. Whilst I was a soon to be failed Chemistry student carrying only the price of one pint of what passed for beer in that pub in my jeans, he was a Purser of some modest level in the Merchant Navy with more than ten pounds sterling in cash upon his person! He was not in uniform, I was.

 He was bored, as homecoming seamen often are. Returning to their rural or suburban hometown to find that the local nightlife, not to mention the vacuum of daylight hours, does not quite match that of Caracas, Buenos Aries, Monte Carlo, or even Fort Lauderdale, they become impatient to get back to their ship, and pass their leave hanging around the saloon bars of pubs and golf clubs, hoping to find someone to talk to who would have even the remotest idea of what they had seen or experienced.

 As it happened I actually had a friend who was also in the Merchant Navy, and was also a Purser, for the Cunard Line, and so knew something of this man’s life before he even opened his mouth. And in a further coincidence I knew this man’s older sister and had fancied her awfully a few years before this incident.

 He was not much of a storyteller, and far from being fascinated by his revelations of shipboard shenanigans, beach parties with American girls of a certain type, how much money he made, and what his long term plans were, I fast become as bored as he already was.

 But he did buy me drinks. And since I had been brought up as a polite young man I felt it rude to snub the man. It was within half an hour of closing time; English pubs closed at 2.30 PM in those days; that he suggested we have a Negroni. It may have been a desperate move on his part to regain what he may have perceived as my wandering attention, or it may have been a desire on his part to get as drunk as he could before the pub did actually close.

 Up until this time my experience of cocktails was limited to the Gin and Tonic, and a taste of a Whiskey and Ginger (what my dear old Aunt Edna called a Whiskey Mac).

 It took quite lot of cajoling by my new acquaintance to get the barman to agree to mix Gin, Vermouth, and Campari together in equal parts, and find a suitable glass into which he could pour the concoction. And then there was an awkward moment as he calculated the price. But the barman was as intrigued as I was and once the price was settled he set about his task with enthusiasm. Economically it was the single most expensive drink I had ever enjoyed. And enjoy it I did. It was fabulous! Bitter, sweet, fruity and cool, consuming all the ice the pub had.

 The pub closed and I wandered off to the bus station to catch a bus home. I must have stunk. Getting of the bus at my village a girl I hardly knew stopped me to say how much she liked my sunglasses. I had forgotten that I was wearing any.

 Roughly 39 years later I sat at a roof top bar in a hotel in Naples close to the train station with my youngest brother. He’d never had a Negroni. The bartender here was adept at correcting this shortage in his experience, and we had two before setting off to find a restaurant for dinner amongst the piles of garbage that decorate the streets of that dense and fragrant city.

I have been asked by total strangers more than twice in parking lots if I would sell my primary car, a 2003 VW Jetta TDI , with around 160,000 on the clock, more or less on the spot. Even with the prices I pay for diesel fuel here in the Pacific NW (nearly always cheaper than premium gasoline) my cost per single passenger mile is way lower than most cars of the same size, many cars that are much smaller, and any that are larger. Adding in initial capital expenditure, not so cheap maintenance and curiously short-lived headlights, my base cost per mile traveled is probably better than hybrids as they are now. Of course diesel is just gasoline in another form and we should and must stop using it.

 And so I am waiting for the everyman hybrid, hydrogen car, electric car; whichever technology wins a race that our government should fund with investment bucks to at least two competing winners. It’s a fantasy of mine.

 I live in neighborhood populated by a significant number of people still actively living in the fifties and sixties; at least from an automotive point of view. Huge trucks with empty cargo beds, uncomfortable seats, lousy rides and appalling mileage are often in my mirror or ahead of me. Perhaps the empty cargo area improves their AM radio reception; which would be appropriate, since that’s the era in which they are living. America can do better than this. But auto makers are still in heavy denial and are still even now pumping their anachronistic message to the market. What a weird business.

 And my other car? A 1995 Subaru Legacy Wagon with 250,000 miles on the clock. Made in Indiana, made in Indiana, folks, and still gets 28 mpg. Not as good as the 47 mpg the Jetta routinely achieves, but so much better than so many much newer rides. Arigato gozei mashita, Indiana! Viele Danke Wolfsburg!

I was churning through pieces I had written last year and came across this little gem which I wrote as an answer to an article by D.K. Row, the Art Critic of the Oregonian. I sent a copy to the Oregonian. They chose not to publish it and D.K. Row did not reply.  I don’t have a copy of the original article, but it is probably available from the paper.

Dear D.K. Row,

          Your very welcome and appreciated article in today’s Oregonian (July 27th 2009) sideswiped a very large issue. How America views art; of any discipline; cheaply, is the truth. As a performing artist married to another performing artist we are always being asked to “donate” our work or accept levels of payment which if you take into account the time spent preparing for the performance and any other costs, yields an hourly pay rate that makes the state minimum wage look like a Wall Street bonus.

 It is one of the awful things that creative professionals have to live with. American society values professional corporate gamblers more highly than artists of any kind. Even now despite the revelations of the past year and continued excesses in financial sector pay.

 We creative people have to endure much talk of the value of our work and how it enhances the lives of many, decorates our cities, making them more livable, attractive; how it excites the imagination of the young and provides solace for the old; and all the while be paid wages that undocumented migrant field workers would hesitate to accept.

 And I am not forgetting the enormous range in quality; whatever that word may mean; that exists in creative work. But there is an equal range of ‘quality’ in accounting, banking, medicine, the church (and how!), politics, engineering, and every profession or vocation. And yet the idea of a starving priest or doctor or pharmacist or broker seems to have disappeared with the characters in the novels and stories of Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham.

 I provide sales and marketing workshops for artists through RACC, the Clackamas County Arts Alliance and other groups. In every workshop I ask, “How many of you make a living from your art?” Out of the nearly one thousand individual artists I have met at these events, and events like them, less than ten said they had achieved self-sufficiency, and most added that it was precarious and uncertain.

 There will have to be a huge tectonic shift in the way Americans view art to change the way artists live. I do not have any easy answers to this, and I am not so interested in what happens in other parts of the world, although there may be examples from which we can learn. We really require an American solution. Until that miraculous time we will all remain at the anxious crossroads of which you wrote. Without belittling the noble efforts of local heroes working to find more money to sustain creative work, nothing much will change.

 It is the national consciousness, which continues to insist that artists will work for nothing or close to nothing because they love what they do. That is the erroneous assumption that must be challenged. Of course we love what we do, but like everyone else we also are human and love groceries and a roof over our head.

 Perhaps you can be a catalyst in that shift? Think globally, work locally.

 Yours sincerely,

In the nineteen thirties much of North Africa became a target for Mussolini’s colonial aspirations. Libya and the North Eastern lands were invaded and were held by the Italians for a short and fascinating period. The Second World War effectively ended this short second ‘Roman’ empire.

Almost accidentally I have read, in the last three months, three authors accounts of the mess Mussolini made of it. You may remember Evelyn Waugh as the author of Brideshead Revisited, which was made int o a very successful TV drama. Before the war he enjoyed a spell as a very amateur war correspondent in 1935 sent to cover the invasion of Abyssinia. He wrote it up in Waugh in Abyssinia and also transformed it into a hilarious spoof of the stupidity of not just the military and political fools who started the war but the same condition in the press corps in his novel Scoop. I first read Scoop in my twenties, a period now covered in dust and cobwebs. I finished Waugh in Abyssinia last week.

Alberto denti di Pirajno was an Italian medical officer whose account of his life in Eritrea and Libya, A Cure for Serpents,  portrays a humanity and kindness toward the residents of those countries that was not witnessed later by Colonel Vladimir Peliakof, an Belgian born Russian fighting the Germans and Italians in Libya for the British Army. Their accounts of the same events are not the same. for every story of Italian generosity and colonial wisdom we hear from diPirajno we hear of harshness, including several atrocities, from Peliakof in his book, Popski’s Private Army.

I could hardly expect these three alone to provide me with anything like complete picture of the events between 1930 and 1945 in North Africa. But what these authors have again reminded me is that you cannot really trust any single voice to relate the truth about any single or series of incidents, even those who were there.

As left leaning person I am sad to see that the Tories have once more weaseled their way into power. The odd thing about the new government is that it is a coalition of the Tories, the historical party of the privileged, and whatever the old Liberal party became, the Liberal Democrats. Very strange bedfellows and the opportunities for chaos not mention satirical humor are vast. The last coalition in the UK happened in 1974, one year after I left the island. I do not imagine there is any connection. The 1974 deal did not last and I do not see this one going anywhere either. A further reason for my sadness is the implication that a swing to the right in the oldest parliament might mean further swings to the right in our own country. I don’t pray in the religious sense, but fervently hope this is not so. The politics of fear are the special purview of right-wing politicians. In this group I will of course include Stalin, Mao Tse Tung ( not really communists after all) and quite a large number of G.O.P. incumbents and hopefuls. The politics of hope are in the wings waiting for a cue, and it has always been that way. But fear is easier to arouse than hope.

Buying second-hand books is fascinating not just because the book is new to you, and not even because of the stains and marks that suggest the messy history of previous ownership. In a book recently purchased at Powell’s a piece of note paper from the Inn at Spanish Head held the handwritten notes on two dreams. Here they are:-

At Beach with my Parents

Dream One: Nazi Germany – I had to go out to work each day and getting home, we had to run through a maze of tunnels – hiding all the way. There was a serious threat – danger.

Dream Two: Group of men in a house in the country with me. There were other houses, we were held prisoner by one of the men. He was the one I was in love with. When we tried to escape he felt betrayed and threw away food he was cooking for us.

No date on the note, but the paper is not old.

If the author were by chance to light upon this blog what would they do? What would you do if you found a piece of your writing on someone elses blog?

 Some time ago, say three or four years, I was dared to do something. And I did it. When the dare was voiced it seemed like a huge challenge. But now, with that awful analytical tool of hindsight, I see that it was just a tiny hop on a much longer race.

 The dare was thus. Develop a one man show that incorporates your own poetry and the sung music of Jacques Brel and make it happen in under a year. Brel was an iconic Franco-Belgian singer songwriter. His songs are not always easy and the translations from the original languages; French, Dutch and Flemish; are not always satisfactory. But his work could be said to cover almost every human emotion, collective or singular. The last time they had any success in the U.S. was in the late sixties and early seventies, when a review was launched at The Village Gate in New York City. “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris”. I named my show, “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Visiting the Pearl”. The Pearl is a rapidly boutiqued district in the NW sector of Portland, Oregon.

 At the time of the dare I was just beginning to resume singing lessons from a locally known and loved Jazz singer. Before this my instruction had been in the classical style and I could sing Lieder. Wow! Which I may still do one day. But Brel is not lieder, and neither is Tom Lehrer or Flanders and Swan, or Kurt Weil whose songs I added to my show later. The lessons gave me the confidence to just do it. I don’t have a wonderful voice, I don’t learn music easily, I cannot even read a score, and don’t start to talk to me about keys.

 What I have is a good voice. Not special. But a good and interesting voice. I have moxie. I have a profound sense of humor and good timing. I can’t wait to get on stage. My place, where I belong. On stage, performing I am relaxed and happy.

 In my show, which I have put on now five times to a paying public, I intersect the songs with poetry. A lot of Billy Collins, and of course my own. It makes an interesting show. Satire, Cynicism, Humor, Love, Anger and flat out Belly Laughs.

 My next show will be on Sunday afternoon, July 25th at the listening room of Sherman Clay Pianos in Portland. It is called “May also Contain Tom Lehrer”, in honor of a great satirist of the sixties.

 The dare took me to the entrance of a place where I should be. But the sad part of the story is that I do not so this anywhere as much as I should. And this is where I see that what I have done so far is hop into the weakest orbits of performance art. I need to go much further. My poetry, my voice and my writing, so long waiting in some metaphorical wing may need crutches to get on stage at this rate.

 What to do? As   if   I   did   not   know……