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A Vagabond

18 Feb


The gentleman depicted here is a vagabond, from the Latin vagari, to wander.

In English the term has almost disappeared in its original sense, although a quick internet search identifies the popularity of the term to help sell niche products, for example: a wine shop in London’s West End; a Swedish shoe manufacturer; an chic boutique in Philadelphia.

A Spanish Wikipedia entry on the word vagabundo (vagabond) begins like this:

“A vagabond is a lazy or idle person who wanders from one place to another, having neither a job, nor income, nor a fixed address. It is a type familiar from Castilian literature, which contains many examples of vagabond pícaros . . .

In the dialect of Lunfardo, which originated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries among the lower classes of Buenos Aires, the term ciruja is applied to vagabonds who collect rubbish and sort through it in search of something useful. The term derives from the word for a surgeon, cirujano. Popular wisdom has it that these vagabonds were compared to surgeons because of the way in which they carefully sought out objects of interest, picking them from trash containers and municipal tips, rather than from inside a human body. This last attribute – the meticulous extraction of some unexpected treasure from amid the rejected dross of the everyday – seems rather fitting.

In French chanson, vagabonds are typically depicted as materially impoverished characters possessed of an irresistible allure. The singer Lucienne Delyle (1917-62), one of the most popular French singers of the 1950s (her greatest hit was Mon amant de Saint-Jean) also had a song called Chanson vagabonde, which can be heard here.





Zorba and friends

8 Mar

A joyful retort to the Greek debt crisis. Watch out for the Ottawa Zorba Sweepers at the end. What professionals!









Old Ideas by Leonard Cohen

6 Feb

A new collection of Leonard Cohen songs is a rare event, and Old Ideas, which recycles some familiar themes from the archive, does not disappoint. Throughout Cohen speaks or intones, in his trademark gravelese, not really venturing to follow a tune anymore. Not surprisingly there is a weariness here at times – the guy is 77, after all – reflected in a handwritten scribble in the liner notes: ‘coming to the end of the book / but not quite yet / maybe when we reach the bottom.’ Whether or not this is the last recording by the Magus of Montreal, it has certainly been worth the wait.

If you come to this album expecting all the songs to be of the very highest quality you will be disappointed: they are uneven and the overriding effect is of mood music, Cohen-style, but there are three or four beauties. My favourites are tracks two and three, Amen and Show me the place, in which the singer enacts the role of slave in some religio-sexual psychodrama of the kind we have come to associate almost uniquely with the work of Leonard Cohen. There are also some wonderful, ironic self-references, beginning with the opening lines of the opening song: ‘I love to speak with Leonard / he’s a sportsman and a shepherd’.

‘Amen’ has a familiarity to it, one of those songs you feel you’ve heard before, a song that has always been around . . . I can’t make out whether it is because it bears an uncanny resemblance to a previous Cohen song, and therefore the circling melody and the slow-riding rhythm are so familiar, or simply, as so often with this writer, there is something archetypal in the song itself, as though Cohen were singing from the very bowels of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, brimming over with guilt or nostalgia for things that may or may not have happened. The lyrics alone barely do justice to the slowly churning melody, but I will copy them anyway, and follow it with a clip (unfortunately not from a live performance):


Tell me again

When I’ve been to the river

And I’ve taken the edge off my thirst

Tell me again

When we’re alone and I’m listening

I’m listening so hard that it hurts

Tell me again

When I’m clean and I’m sober

Tell me again

When I’ve seen through the horror

Tell me again

Tell me over and over

Tell me that you want me then








Seasonal Affective Disorder

1 Jan


Having gone out at the beginning of Christmas week and bought a box of a dozen (yes, 12) Krispy Kreme doughnuts and eaten seven (7) of them myself, I feel some changes are overdue.

Blanco actually has several New Year’s resolutions for a change but isn’t telling because clearly if you tell then you can be found lacking, whereas if you don’t tell no one is the wiser and you can still breathe the rarefied air that comes with being good. In any case, Blanco is fleeing the grey skies of Cardiff early tomorrow morning in order to spend ten days in a place far distant from the-land-where-the-sky-is-too-close-to-the-ground and although it will not be warm, there is a good chance of blueness in the heavenly vaults. And blue skies help Blanco to think, whereas the endless grey and drizzle of the-land-where-the-sky-is-too-close-to-the-ground only gives rise to a kind of anti-thought, a condition exacerbated by a constant need for potatoes and doughnuts and dumplings and chocolate and cake and biscuits and other stuff to feed the gap where thought might seep in if given half a chance or a modicum of sunlight.

Ah sunlight! I know we don’t have much to complain about compared with those poor bastards who live up near the North Pole, the Siberians and Norwegians and Finns and the Elfenfolk and so forth, but this isn’t a competition, I just need sunlight otherwise I start going bonkers and am liable to bite people, or even bite dogs, a habit I try to curb, but which flares up in an instant whenever my supply of potatoes/dumplings/doughnuts/chocolate dwindles and I feel the mordant urge creeping over me.  But neither do I wish to complain, it is always better to NOT complain.

So, on the brink of this new year I should announce that if there are no posts forthcoming in the next ten days or so it is because I am immersed in my work and because the house where I am going has no legal internet access, and neither is there mobile phone coverage. Which, all things considered, makes it a perfect place to go and write, or to read – or even to sleep. Or simply to disengage from the tweeting, gibbering world of nonstop noise for just a while and recuperate the forces that lie within.

And, to celebrate the wonderful Xmas gift I received from Mrs Blanco, the Mariachi El Bronx CD, here is a clip of the boys singing ‘Cell Mates’.







Death is Not the End

30 Dec

I cannot vouch for the accuracy of this statement, which reminds me briefly (of course) of a novel I read a while ago, Eternity is Temporary, which started well, but fizzled out by exploding the sexual tension too quickly. Is that an allegory for something? Is that what eternity is really like? Very exciting for the first half hour or so and then immensely tedious? Or should we go along with Bob Dylan, who no doubt wrote the song Death is Not the End in one of the religious phases that have speckled his career, thereby launching a host of cover versions. Another sly allegory.

The version here is performed by Nick Cave, with guests Kylie Minogue, Shane MacGowan and a chap with a very fetching accent. I recall driving around Europe with this on the car CD player a decade or more ago, the young Blanco daughters singing along merrily in the back seat. How pungently ironic. The mind begins to boggle at the prospect of an eternity spent with the motley crewage of miscreants and addicts assembled in this video  But then again, the performance has a unique charm, and serves as Blanco’s contribution to the end of year festivities.





Advice to aspiring writers, and smoking by the riverside

14 Dec

The question – the recurrent question – asked at those events (after a reading, say, or at a literary festival) when the author is expected to wax lyrical and wise on all manner of subjects is ‘what advice would you give to a writer who is just starting out?’ I asked it myself last Monday of Peter Finch, and he gave a damn good answer – the same answer I always give – which is to read more.

Andrés Neuman. According to Roberto Bolaño "The literature of the 21st century will belong to Neuman and a handful of his blood brothers."

On his blog, Argentinian poet and prizewinning novelist Andrés Neuman (whose fabulous novel, Traveller of the Century will be available in English from February next year) says he was recently asked by a magazine to give six items of advice to beginners, and his perplexed reply was, in my loose translation, as follows:

1. Don’t conform to the patronising attitudes of older writers. They were also young, and in all probability more clueless.

2. Tradition doesn’t weigh on us, but invites us in. We write as we read: writing is a supreme form of re-reading.

3. Try, make mistakes and try again. A bad manuscript is worth far more than a supposed genius who abstains from writing, just to be on the safe side.

4. Keep correcting, to the limits of your patience.

5. Remember that we are all beginners: writing is an inaugural art and lacks experts.

6. Don’t accept six pieces of advice from anyone. One is already too many.

Otherwise – and this is completely unrelated, I was flicking through the cyberworld yesterday, and I discovered that Joseph Hill of the reggae band Culture died five years ago already, when I wasn’t looking. At the risk of going on like an old fart I remember going to see Culture at the 100 Club in Oxford Street, must have been 1977, and being knocked for six, unless that was just from inhaling the fumes from all the people who had been consorting with Mr Bong and Mr Spliff. Anyway, here is a song to remember him by.






A State of Wonder, Part Two: Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Glenn Gould

9 Nov

I have two recordings of Glenn Gould playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations on the piano. The first was made in 1955, the year before I was born, and the second in 1981, shortly before the pianist’s death, the same year that I left London and went to live in Crete. The second version is quite different from the first, and lasts several minutes longer. I think of the earlier recording as a day-time piece, and the second as nocturnal. They are both sublime, but in the first Gould is the young concert pianist on a mission, and he dazzles with his technical brilliance, his impeccable sense of timing. By the time he made the later recording he had nothing to prove, he had achieved everything a virtuoso pianist might reasonably be expected to achieve and more, and while there is no trace of complacency to the playing, it exudes a certain detached or entranced quality. Possibly the second version is more exacting, more profound, he lingers over the notes of the first variation with a confidence that is not to be confused with arrogance, a confidence that conveys a total acquaintance with, and mastery of, the music, a familiarity with every phrase, every musical innuendo, the fruit of years of study, and he is able to hover, and to hoist the listener into a space above and beyond the music, to linger there in a state of wonder, a phrase the pianist himself made use of. The album notes carry a quote from Gould: “The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenalin but rather the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.”

There are two photographs of the artist, taken in the respective years the recordings were made. In the first he is young, quite handsome even, or dashing, his hair flopping over his eyes, while in the later photo his hair has thinned and he is wearing glasses. In both pictures his concentration is almost palpable, and in both his mouth is open, not significantly, not gawping, but open, as though he was concentrating so hard that he had forgotten to close it, or had opened it to say something, and forgotten his lines – or to groan (his recordings are marked by these occasional groans, which should be disturbing, but are not).

Glenn Gould’s recordings of Bach keep me company for long hours, while I sit at my desk. He is a faultless companion, especially when I am struggling to impose order on my thoughts. I would like to catch some of the fallout from his playing, inform my own thought with some of that rigour, that clarity of intent, employ his music as a force-field against the fatigue that overtakes me as I type away, as a weapon against the viral dance, against the affliction of sleeplessness, in an inverse sense to the one in which they were first intended: for, ironically, Bach is supposed to have written the Goldberg Variations around 1741 to ease his patron, Count Keyserling’s nights of insomnia.


From The Vagabond’s Breakfast pp 133-4











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