Tuesday, 27 May 2008

days of 1973

It’s my birthday later this week. And here’s a photograph taken at a birthday dinner an alarming thirty-five years ago in May 1973. I’m second from the left with my friends Michael Darley, Terry Larsen and Greg McManus. The restaurant is probably Chez Marius in Sydney though it could easily have been Tony’s Bon Goût (named, as one partner Gay Bilson says in her memoir Plenty: Digressions on Food, in ‘a serious lapse of taste and respect for language’). The food at both restaurants was memorable (as memorable as food can be) but it was the atmosphere and the conviviality that seemed at that time and in Australia something different. There were older restaurants with fine chefs but these were not places that my friends and I would ever frequent. In this photograph our mismatched garments signal that dressing for dinner was not a serious matter, though we had nonetheless treated this particular evening as an ‘occasion’. What we didn’t realise at the time was that behind the scenes the restauranteurs were also flying blind (Tony Bilson had not at that stage been out of Australia though he had certainly read his Escoffier). The clientele in these Sydney institutions were often enough drawn from the tail end of a socio-political group known as the Push. These people were libertarians (of both the right and the left wing variety) mostly influenced by a now forgotten Scots-Australian philosopher John Anderson. By profession they were academics, journalists, racing enthusiasts and film world figures. My friends and I were too young for the Push (its most well-known figure outside Australia would probably be Germaine Greer) but we participated in a culture where the epicurean and the politically progressive were no longer seen as mutually exclusive interests. The Labor Party had assumed government the year before (they had been out of it since 1949, the year of my birth) and after years of backward-looking conservatism the possibilities of change had become real again. All of this was before so-called economic rationalism began to infect the parties on both sides of the spectrum (and the spectrum itself became a joke). The restaurants reflected this. As Gay Bilson says, it was a time ‘when the exhilaration of a fresh, different and confident informality was allowed to get into its stride without too much attention being paid to the accoutrements of the dining-room . . .The cutlery was nasty, the glasses even cheaper than the plates’. It was a moment that didn’t last. As Bilson herself says, ‘by the early eighties “good living” had become an aspiration on parade’.

Saturday, 24 May 2008

seven poems

nobody ever talks of their ‘wasted middle age’




poetry, once a potential cause of death,
has become ‘self-help’



her suit


Performance 2 (for Sean Bonney)

There are those who lean forward, into it
and those who lean back, out of it


to be driven at furiously
by a yellow duck on a tricycle


the smell of new mown

Friday, 23 May 2008

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

more doings at the lamb

Last Thursday Maurice Scully (left)and Lou Rowan (above) read at the regular Blue Bus gig. Maurice from work in MS, Lou from two books. The current issue of Lou's magazine Golden Handcuffs contains a feature on David Miller among other things.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Basil King

This is Basil King's most recent book, and there's a good review of it and other works by him at Galatea Resurrects. This one is introduced by the late Andrew Crozier. Mirage and the complete Miniatures are also well worth hunting out. There's a need to testify evident here, mediated by the years. These books matter. It's well worth seeking out sites to look at more of Basil King's visual work too. Try Rimbaud's Seaside.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Great Australian News Headlines #1


- Sydney Morning Herald, 11 May -

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Friday, 9 May 2008

tuesday or thursday #2

On Tuesday night John Welch (above) and Hazel Frow read at the Swedenborg. John was launching a substantial Collected Poems together with a wonderful memoir of psychoanalysis (both Shearsman Press). On Thursday at The Lamb, Alice Notley (below) read with Simon Pettet. A new book by Notley from Veer press, Above the Leaders had been rushed in from Birkbeck for the occasion.

local news

Thursday, 8 May 2008


A few years back I had a brief exchange with Ron Silliman concerning the sounds of Anglophone languages. Ron had said some nice things on his blog about an Australian poet (can’t remember who it was) then added that, in general, the recent Australian poems he’d looked at seemed to lack ‘music’. I’d responded that perhaps he couldn’t ‘hear’ the poems as they sounded to the locals, then, when he gave me a considered answer I probably put him offside by intimating that I was only joking. Well I was, and I wasn’t.

Americans are particularly insulated from the sounds of other English-speaking peoples. When Australian (or British) actors work in America they almost always need to become American in order to do so (so that only ‘we’ know they are ‘ours’). The Americans do have, from time to time, a kind of cartoon perception of ‘limey’ accents; hardly ever the perception of Australian or New Zealand varieties. Once when I was travelling in the States some people in the South just thought I was an American from elsewhere, some remote part like the Pacific north-west (is there anywhere else but America?). A friend from Massachusetts, having spent several years in Australia, alarmed her proper Bostonian relatives with an accent that seemed to them to be Texan.

What concerns me about this is that if we can’t ‘hear’ each other, what are we to make of poems that depend so much upon sound? There are often complete vowel-shifts, like the differences (for example) between broad Australian and broad New Zealand accents (‘this’, spoken by a New Zealander, sounds like ‘thus’ to me; ‘that’ sounds like ‘thet’). These differences might be a problem in themselves but a major problem they illustrate only too well is that of linguistic imperialism. English speakers outside the United States hear American accents and intonations all the time; at least enough to be able to mimic roughly the sounds of several different regions. People in Britain are used to regional accents, especially since the BBC dropped its ‘standard’ version. Most non-Americans are constantly subjected to American film, television and popular music; the Americans absorb next to nothing in return (only ten percent of them have passports and many who do travel expect that we all accept $US ).

I realise that it might seem silly to ramble on about this, but what happens on a medium like the web, where we are no longer corralled by nationality and might not even signal where we come from? It’s an area of course, where vizpo is in its element (I think here of work by people like Geof Huth and Mark Young: all power to them), but it may also be a place where the ‘rest of us’ become second class citizens.

Monday, 5 May 2008

against purism

Here are some records I’ve been listening to lately. These were all recorded between 1967 and 1972 in that odd period between the beat boom and the slump of the mid seventies and they all bring together different varieties of music in a manner that was common through that period with a kind of audacity that the later music shied away from. This is what I like about them. I suppose in more recent times they would all be seen as part of the ‘world music’ phenomenon.

Trees were not the first band to electrify British folk (they formed in 1969 and folded in 1972) but, like Fairport Convention they managed over a short period to make music that wasn’t simply tradition plus amplification (traditional musicians had often, unlike their sixties admirers, played loud: bagpipes can be deafening and some instruments, like the dobro, were specifically designed to be heard in uncongenial spaces). Like the Fairports (on Unhalfbricking especially),Trees made use of extended improvisation often achieving a drone-like intertwining of sounds. Most of the bands involved in this kind of music later retreated from open-ended improvisation to become (in Fairport’s case very good) modern interpreters of a perceived tradition rather than purveyors of something quite new.

The use of sounds from the Subcontinent and the Middle East precedes by a couple of decades the World Music thing. The Kinks were, surprisingly, the first pop group to introduce ‘Indian’ sounds on a record (‘See my friends’), some months before the Beatles caught on. Even stranger perhaps is the story of Surf Music which, in its purely instrumental form, I’d argue, derives largely from Middle-Eastern sounds. Dick Dale, whose disks are commonly seen as the earliest example of this style was of Lebanese background and his playing reflects this clearly (think of ‘Miserlou’, the piece later to appear in the Pulp Fiction soundtrack). The prime Australian instrumental group, the Atlantics, were themselves of Greek and Croatian background and their surf hit ‘Bombora’ reflects this too (guitars as electronic bazoukis).

In the mid sixties the Carribean-English saxophonist Joe Harriott, who had played ‘free’ experimented with a double quintet where jazz musicians would play alongside Indian musicians. I heard one of Harriott’s Indo-Jazz Fusion records in the early seventies, then not again until recently. The music has for the most part stood up well, even if the term ‘fusion’ gradually came to mean wallpaper music as performed by Tom Scott’s LA Express and various anaemic Jazz-Rock groups (the term has died a lingering death as the description of a cuisine). Though some of these bands didn’t do the music any favours it was also the victim of a fashion for purism. In an illustrated guide to jazz put out in the mid-seventies Brian Case made the breathtaking statement that Miles Davis’ music after In A Silent Way was ‘no longer of interest to the jazz listener’. The same fate would have befallen the late sixties work of the American saxophonist Steve Marcus who, over several albums, played versions of the Byrds’ ‘Eight Miles High’ (itself influenced by John Coltrane), the Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, even the Troggs’ ‘Wild Thing’ and Donovan’s ‘Mellow Yellow’. Marcus’s band (including Larry Coryell and the wonderful New Zealand pianist Mike Nock) had reacted against concealing as a guilty pleasure their love of the current pop.

You might have thought that purism would have died alongside high-modernism yet it persists across the arts. In music it took some time before many who hadn’t embraced ‘freedom’ were rehabilitated (and then there are purists like Wynton Marsalis who don’t believe ‘free jazz’ should have even existed). The current popular mix, match and scratch music, for all its own faults, is largely responsible for us listening again to those artefacts that were airbrushed from the canon, though at the same time it compartmentalises music by function (dance, chill out, lounge &c) tending also to reduce it to beats or grooves. And I can’t help but feel that in poetry it’s a strong element of purism that unites some of the Language writers with those they consider their polar opposites, the School of Quietude.

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Thursday, 1 May 2008