After the Lecture

After the Lecture

After I delivered the lecture at London University, as it was back then, I caught the tube and descended at Paddington station. While waiting for the train back to Cardiff, I sat in the station bar and ordered a pint of beer and a Cornish pasty. An older man wearing a sweater and jeans asked if he could join me. I didn’t say ‘yes’ but he sat down anyway and straight away began to talk.
            I paid no attention to him until he rolled up his sleeve and showed me the collection of scars that ran crisscross, hard and welted, over his left wrist.
            “Failed attempts,” he said. “But I’ll get it right next time. “I wouldn’t want you to make the same mistakes I did. If you want to kill yourself, you must do it this way,” he reached across the table and picked up the knife I had used to cut my pasty. He pulled out a dirty hanky and wiped the knife in it. Then he laid the blade not cross-wise but parallel to the artery in his wrist. “And you must dig deep, first time, and at a slight angle.”
            “I’ve got to go,” I told him as a tinny voice came over the Tannoy. “That’s my train.” I stood up, leaving the remains of my pint and my pasty on the table.
            I got to the door of the station bar and looked back. Then I watched as my table companion finished my pasty and reached across the table to claim the remains of my beer.
            “Quite the lecture,” I thought. “Good job I didn’t spit in the glass.” Then I realized that both my day’s lectures had been effective, in one way or another.

Lamplighter

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Gas Lamps

When I was very young, a long time ago, in Swansea, many of our streets still had gas lamps.  The lamp-lighter would appear in winter around three or three-thirty to light those lamps. I remember him walking up the street with his long pole over his shoulder, moving from lamp to lamp. We had one outside our front door. He would turn on the gas, then light the lamp from the lighted wick at the end of his pole.  Sometimes he carried a ladder with him. Then, every so often, when the lamp needed tending, he would climb the ladder and adjust the wick. These gas lights were not very bright but they stood out like light houses between stretches of darkness and we would walk from pool to glowing pool, as if they were stepping stones leading us up the hill to home. We all knew the lamplighter and he would often wave to us as we sat in the front room window to watch him walk by. We rarely saw him in the mornings when he came back to turn off the lamps. We were all tucked safely into our beds. I remember that I wanted to be lamplighter. Later I realized that there are many ways to light a lamp and spread brightness through the world. When I grew up, I became teacher, a coach, a faculty adviser, a mentor, a creator, and those roles allowed me to establish myself as a lighter of a very different set of lamps.

 

 

Finisterre

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Finisterre

Nothing left now but this pain in my heart.
It makes me think about ageing, growing old,
that unstoppable process of the body’s slow,
inevitable breaking down from all to nothing.

I should probably go to the doctor, but what
can she, will she do? She can’t stop the hands
on my body clock and lop ten or twenty years
from my life. Nor can her pills, lotions, potions

gift me with the long-sought magic of the Fountain
of Youth. The truth, unwelcome as it is, is that
the day I was born I took my first steps on the path
to death, my own death, an inescapable law

that tells me that body and spirit will be forced
apart, that the flesh will wither and perish,
and that the person the world and I know as
me will no longer be able to hold together.

Comment: Finisterre, the Pillars of Hercules, the Nec Plus Ultra beyond which there is nothing, Terra Incognita … that spot in Newfoundland where my friend, Dr. Leo Ferrari, who founded the Flat Earth Society, stood at the edge of the world and looked at the horrible void below him which ended in nothingness.

Nihilism is the point of view that suspends belief in any or all general aspects of human life, which are culturally accepted. Most commonly, nihilism is presented in the form of existential nihilism, which argues that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value. Moral nihilists assert that morality does not exist at all. Nihilism may also take epistemological, ontological, or metaphysical forms, meaning respectively that, in some aspect, knowledge is not possible, or reality does not actually exist.

The term is sometimes used in association with anomie  to explain the general mood of  despair at a perceived pointlessness of existence that one may develop upon realizing there are no necessary norms, rules, or laws.

Nihilism has also been described as conspicuous in or constitutive of certain historical periods. Many have called post-modernity  a nihilistic epoch and some religious theologians and figures of religious authority have asserted that post-modernity and many aspects of modernity, represent a rejection of theism, and that such rejection of theistic doctrine entails nihilism. All the above is borrowed shamelessly from this Wikipedia article on nihilism.

What this leads to is the danger of losing our faith in these troubled times. G. K. Chesterton wrote, a long time ago, in the century before last, that people who lost their faith were inclined to believe anything. Please, do not believe everything and anything you hear. For example, no, Leo, my friend, the world is not flat. And no, my beloved readers, drinking Chlorox or Drano will do you much more harm than good. In fact it may well turn you into the nihil [Latin for nothing] from which nihil-ism is formed.

More important: believe in life, in positivity, in the light that will shine through this darkness. Believe, as Our Lord Don Quixote [thank you, don Miguel de Unamuno, for that wonderful book, and thank you also for gifting us with your philosophy in The Tragic Sense of Life] believed that yes, we can see all of this through and that yes, we are the children of our deeds, and that yes, as my friend Pedro Calderón de la Barca told me a long time ago, obrar bien, to do only good, be the best that we can be, that’s what really matters in this vale of tears and shadows, this tv reality show that we call life.

KIRA Creative Quarantine

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KIRA Creative Quarantine

The Kingsbrae International Residencies for Artists (KIRA) requested its alumni to consider creating a ten minute video of themselves offering an instructional lesson based  on themselves working in their specialist areas. You can click on the above link to see all the creative videos currently available. Note that two more are added each week. Here is a link to my own video on Writing a Poem. It is designed for people of any age and I hope that anyone who sees the video will enjoy it and be inspired to start putting together their own poems.

The photo above was taken by Geoff Slater, the Artistic Director at KIRA. He placed a selection of my books on the beach at Holt’s Point and Bingo: instant art from a master artist. My book Fundy Lines now sunbathes on a beach that has ready access to the beautiful Bay of Fundy.

Why?

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Why?

“Where are you going?” I ask again. “To see a man about a dog,” my father replies.  “Why?” I ask. “Hair of the dog,” his voice ghosts through the rapidly closing crack as the front door shuts behind him. “Why?” I cry out.

I recall the mud nest jammed tight against our garage roof. Tiny yellow beaks flap ceaselessly open. Parent birds sit on a vantage point of electric cable, their beaks moving in silent encouragement. A sudden rush, a clamour of wing and claw, a small body thudding down a ladder of air to crash beak first on the concrete.

“Why?” I ask.

The age-old answer comes back to me. “Wye is a river. It flows through Ross-on-Wye and marks the boundary between England and Wales.” The swallows perch on the rafters watching their fledgling as it struggles on the floor, the weakening wing flaps, the last slow kicks of the twitching legs.

“Why?” I ask.”

Y is a crooked letter invented by the Green Man of Wye,” my grandfather says.

“Why?” I repeat. “I want to know why.” Silence hangs a question mark over the unsatisfied spaces of my questing mind.

Comment: A golden oldie. We would all like to know why. But there are no answers. Just riddles cast, like two trunk-less legs of stone, on the sands of time. Nothing beside remains. Yet still we ask the age old question? Why? And still we get the age old answer from the ageing masters who rule our childhood lives and teach us everything they know: “Because.”

Writing a Poem Video

 

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Writing a Poem

The KIRA artists (Roger Moore, June, 2017) were invited to make a video on the ways in which they worked. Here is my KIRA video. This is the first time I have ever made a video of myself. I am not into selfies (wrong generation) and had to be ‘persuaded’ to do this. The instructions were simple: something easy that anyone could do under lock down or in a home-schooling situation. I hope you enjoy the show!

 

 

Learning Disabled Learning Troubled

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Learning Disabled Learning Troubled
by
Victor Hendricken
 

Like separate lives, they flow through our weekly meets.

The many speakers, special to their cause,

Marking trails with wise words and images

That surely we can follow through dense forest,

Where new growth, vibrant, verdant,

Fertilized by wisdoms, fed by lore,

Shines and sparkles to ever light our way.

They tell us who they are,

And hint at what we may become.

Guided by their telling,

Senses stir, touched by feelings

Long lost or never known

And yet we ask for more.

No stopping here, no rest from task.

Reflection does make wealth of all the learning,

So the last day is the first,

While still we reach, unending in our thirst.

 

Expectations of discovery:

Telling stories in old age,

Hoping to discover who we are,

Or who we might have been

Had we not been ourselves as we are now.

More than mental beings, physical too.

Bodies wracked by desire, not for human flesh,

But something sinister, demanding, unclean almost,

Liquid in form or hazy blue and drifting,

Wild in its ability to bring ecstacy

To crazed senses and convulsed parts.

We talk, confused by dialect

Long lost or perhaps newly made

That speaks of different times,

When different rivers ran and winds were not so cold.

And yet we tremble to recapture words

That tell our passing and the greatness that we might have been

But for our special needs.

 

Readers we are not, but thinkers and doers,

Now there shines a bright star.

But wild it is, yet tamed with nectar of the gods

In white coats with sealed bottles at their will,

And small round pebbles of human kindness to dispense.

Lethargic no; sleepless yes!

And still our thirst, never satisfied,

Coyly beckons to the spring.

Until at last, letters dancing

Like eggs, scrambled, with dots of pepper laced.

We close our eyes and listen

And hear the world conform, at last.

Though weary, we who hear so well,

Cannot raise the glass, or read the words

So simply carved upon our epitaph of stone.

 

Many have come calling,

None remained, none returned.

Yet through it all one stayed;

A beacon, to light the way through confusion,

Bringing us home through the darkness

Of our ignorance and of our bliss,

Where vision, too often blurred by regularity,

Sees not the forms that cast the shadows,

Nor the minds that hold the forms.

For we too are human, with needs,

Unique, special, and starving to be met.

 

How can we say without saying,

Do without doing?

What magic cleverly spins its charm

To turn the chore from task to deep desire,

So that, without seeming to accede,

Demands are met, and institutions no longer risk.

Answers are oft found in their own questions.

But questions must be disassembled,

Stripped, laid bare to each their naked parts;

Abundant clues that lead to hidden corridors of knowing

Reveal, upon examination, answers that flow

From the tips of fingers to places inside,

Where decisions are dreamed and voiced.

There, nestled in the gut, close by the heart,

Feelings are born, expressions lived.

 

Look to the question,

And, in the very asking find the answer.

Who educates?  Evaluates?  Decides?

Is it how well I did, or how good I am?

Did I get to play a part and why not?

Choosing is as real on the inside, as it is on the out.

Comment: I am posting some poems and texts by friends. This poem is the first on the list, written by my good friend Victor Hendricken. Congratulations, Victor: You’re #1 on the hit parade!

Day 23 CV-19

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Day 23 CV-19
Codes and Coding

“Languages: they say that to learn another language is to gain another soul and another set of eyes through which to view the world.” I wrote these words just yesterday [Day 22 CV-22]. The words are mine, but the idea belongs elsewhere. I have borrowed it and adopted it. I would willingly attribute it to a specific author, but I do not know who said it first. I offer my apologies to the to me unknown genius who first spoke these words.

Why codes and coding? A rhetorical question, of course. But codes and coding are the basic elements through which language transfers thought, our thoughts. What is a code? Well, we know all about Morse Code and the elaborate codes through which spies from all countries communicate their needs. A code is a way of converting language, changing it, making it available to those initiated in the code and unavailable to those who have not received such initiation. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

When I was travelling regularly to Spain for research in Spanish libraries, my first port of call was always the local barber shop. I did this for several reasons. In the first place, my Canadian haircut gave me away as a foreigner. This is the hairdresser’s code. The barber’s shop was always the centre of local gossip. Here, buzz words changed hands, politicians were discussed, all the local news was immediately available. Each of these items was a code, a code that made an insider (acceptable) versus an outsider (not to be spoken to). I remember, one summer in Madrid, not getting served in any bar or restaurant. Check haircut: okay. Check shoes: bought new pair. Check shirt, jacket, tie: all up to date. Inspect lucky customers … ah … they are all wearing a shiny brass pin showing the symbol of Madrid: El Oso y el Madroño, the bear and the strawberry tree, as seen in La Puerta del Sol.

The next bar I entered saw me sporting El Oso y el Madroño in my lapel. Qué quiere el señor? Immediate service and with a smile. These are social codes, the codes that include the winks and nudges of the upper class, the secret handshakes and foot positions, the names dropped so gently and quietly that they never shatter when they hit the floor. There are also language codes. Northrop Frye wrote The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, a study of the mythology and structure of the Bible was published in 1982. In this wonderful study, Frye showed how themes and language from the bible have influenced the structure of Western Literature, particularly that written in English. Within this code, names, themes, miracles, parables, psalms form a body of are common knowledge available to all readers who are christian and whose first language is English.

But there are other codes. Think Petracharism. Petrarch’s poetry, originally written in Italian, was widely imitated throughout Europe. Italian literature, Spanish, French, English, all dip into that code, as does Shakespeare among so many others. Think the Great Chain of Being. Shakespeare is incomprehensible in places unless you unlock this particular code. Think Platonism, Neo-Platonism, Stoicism, Existentialism … okay, so all this is academic, and I do not want to lose you in a sea of academia. So think NFL, think NBA, think NHL, think baseball, think cricket, think rugby, think darts, think all of the things we manipulate on a daily basis in our lives and think how they include some people (those who know and share our codes) and exclude others (those who are unaware of them). LBW, c&b,  c. A, b. B, st. A b. B, w, W, b, lb, dec., rsp …

This is a wonderful line of discussion. It follows along the lines of micro-language and macro-language. Macro-language is accessible to all who happen to speak that language. Micro-language in its multidinous forms incarnadine belongs ONLY to those who share the micro community, be it family, household, village, town, county, region … all that is closest and dearest to our micro-hearts.

Self-Isolation Day 22 / Ducks

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Self-Isolation Day 22
22 =Ducks, Patos in Spanish.

Ducks, because the 2 and the 2 seem to float together like a pair of ducks or a pair of Swans. How did Swansea get it’s name? Some say it was because handsome white swans used to swim on the salt waters of the bay: Swan+sea. Other’s say that  was on account of a battle where a man called Swain lost his eye: Swain’s Eye = Swansea. Oh dear, it’s so much easier in Welsh: Abertawe, the mouth of the river Tawe.

Speaking of Welsh, this is the 290th consecutive day that I have done my Welsh lessons. I guess the pandemic has helped over the last few weeks. Nowhere to go, nothing to do, and all those Welsh memories bringing a fresh light to enlighten the darkness that is Corona Virus aka Covidis-19.

Language Teaching: never easy. And I should know after 43 years of teaching Spanish in Canadian universities (1966-2009). Relevance and irrelevance: how do we teach meaningful things? Good question. Dw i eisiau prynu’r crwban ddu fach / I want to buy the little black tortoise. Very useful. I bet they use that phrase on the streets of Llanelli and Abertawe every day of the week. How about Mae’r ddraig coch yn callu smwddio bob wythnos / The red dragon is able to do the ironing every week. Well, well: I suppose I did remember these two wonderful phrases. I am sure I will use them the next time I go to Cardiff.

I much prefer the Welsh of St. David: Gwnewch y pethau bychain mewn bywyd / Do ye the little things in life or Byddwch lawen a chadwch eich ffyd a’ch credd / Be joyful and keep your faith and creed. These two quotes from the patron saint of Wales are full of meaning, especially at this oh-so-difficult juncture in all our lives. Funny really: I laugh at the first two, the dragon and the tortoise, but without them, I would probably never have arrived at the Original Welsh of St. David / Dewi Sant.

Languages: they say that to learn another language is to gain another soul and another set of eyes through which to view the world. We view the world through our languages. Limit the language and we limit the world. Reduce the language, any language, to its lowest common denominator, and we reduce and diminish the world around us. Sparrows, juncos, chickadees, Cedar Waxwings, robins, mourning doves, crows, hawks (Cooper’s Hawk, Sharp-Shinned Hawk, Marsh Hawk) are all reduced to birds. Mountain Ash (Russian or European), Birch, Hackmatack, Tamarack, Spruce … all these are reduced to trees, nothing more and nothing less than trees.

Think about language. Savor language. Roll it round your mouth. Taste it on your tongue. Use the correct names for things. Expand your vocabulary. Do not be satisfied with Grade 9 English. Learn. Advance. Develop. Carry a dictionary (Y geiriadur Gymraeg newydd) and look up words, learn their meanings, learn how to spell them. Never give up. Do not be satisfied, ever, with the lowest level of existence. Flower, flourish, rise up and fight for your own self-education, for your own language, for your own destiny, for your own rights!

Self-Isolation Day 18

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Self-Isolation Day 18

So we are in the eighteenth day of our Self-Isolation. Yesterday I added a fifth book to my group around the table: The Art of the Middle Game by Paul Keres and Alexander Kotov, translated by Harry Golombek. I have had this book since 1964 when it was first published in Penguin Books. Once upon a time, I played serious chess, was president of a chess club, and read widely about the game. But I have not played any serious, face to face chess since I came to Canada and the last games I played were in 1994, when I visited the Dominican Republic, although I did pay a couple of games in Oaxaca on my first visits there.

I dipped in and out of this book yesterday, playing sample games here and there. It was a joy to rediscover the movement of the pieces and to see how great minds viewed the chess board. Sharpe’s Riflemen are wonderful to watch on YouTube, but they cannot rival the two sixteen piece armies that wage battle on the sixty-four squares of the chess-board!

The Art of the Middle Game uses descriptional notation. This means that when the King Pawn takes two steps forwards, it moves from King two to King four. In descriptional notation, this becomes P-K4. If it is the first move of the game, by white, then it becomes 1. P-K4. If the opposition follows suit, then his move is also transcribed as P-K4. This gives us 1. P-K4   P-K4. And this is where the confusion arises: each side has a K-4, and a Q-4 and every other square is doubled up as well in a mirror image of army facing army. After such a long time away from the game, I found my concentration wavering in places and thus I had pieces on the wrong squares and had to start all over again. Very frustrating.

When I played chess in Spain, also back in the sixties, I was faced with algebraic notation, long in use on the continent of Europe. The eight ranks are lettered a-h, from left to right, and the eight files are numbered 1-8 from bottom to top, with ‘white on the right’ i.e. h-1 always white. This means that each square has a single, plotted designation and it is much easier to follow the game as there is no mirror imaging. In this fashion, 1. P-K4 would become e2 – e4 followed by e7 – e5. None of this changes the nature of the game, but it does change the speed and ease with which it is transcribed and followed.

I remember buying my first pocket chess set, in Boots the Chemist (!) when I was 9 or 10 years old. It is an old cardboard set with red and white squares and pieces. I still have it and I am using it now. The scrawl that I call my handwriting is still unmistakable, after all these years. That same day I bought Harry Golombek’s The Game of Chess, and I taught myself how to play, based on that book. I remember looking at the descriptional notation and not understanding how the system worked, even after days of memorization. Then, one morning, as Dylan Thomas, another Swansea Boy once wrote, ‘light broke where no light shone’ and as all the squares fell miraculously into place, the system of descriptional notation suddenly made sense to me. “Threshold knowledge is a term in the study of higher education used to describe core concepts — or threshold concepts — which, once understood, transform perception of a given subject, phenomenon, or experience” (Wikipedia). The discovery of the key to descriptional notation was indeed a threshold experience, as was the transition to algebraic notation. What a wonderful world we live in.