When you first encounter the lyrics of the Charlie Feathers 1950’s country song hit I Forgot To remember To Forget, you might reasonably expect the pending narrative to be characterised by a certain wayward, if not wilfully obstinate, tendency towards ellipsis.
And which is arguably also the case with this particular composition, putatively entitled A High Lonesome Frolic – suggesting, perhaps, an amber-tinted, warm-hearted, by-the-fireside narrative peregrination through the winding, noirish intersections of the Irish/American rural mind, its concomitant hint of communal wantonness and deep, glacial solitude among the ‘hills ‘n hollers’ notwithstanding.
Yes, a lyrical investigation of an imagination which, among other things, has been described as an ongoing cultural conspiracy against reality in favour of romance.
A thesis which, in my own case, may well be considered commendably accurate, given the number of disparate, particularly musical, references identifiable in my humble oeuvre over the course of some years - advocating sentiments familiar from, among others, Jim Reeves, John McCormack, Commander Cody & The Lost Planet Airmen, Towns Van Zandt - and, a perennial favourite, the Carter family.
And which might, conceivably, certainly the latter - seem a little strange for someone who was actually born in the mid-nineteen fifties, and having, culturally, come of age in the early nineteen-seventies.
But, as V.S. Naipaul, among others, has pointed out, it would be a mistake to underestimate the capacity for flight which is in the DNA of the remote mountain or rural mind* ,,of which my own might be considered a common-or-garden example – especially in these dying days when, more than ever, it is a caged bird yearning to soar, as the twenty-first century comes pouring over the hill.
That is, of course, if you happen to believe in a concept so quaint and convenient as that of ‘Time’.
With which Bob Dylan, amongst others, not least the film-maker David Lynch, plays fast and loose – as he does with the fluidity and interchangeability of ‘dimensions’.
And who also, in my view, with his astonishing recall, precision and fiercely enduring lack of pretension, may well be one of the finest commentators alive on the subject of art and its creation. For there can be few finer works in any language on the subject of art and the complications of creation than will find no finer than his masterwork Chronicles.
With his insights proceeding from his knowledge of the ‘heartland’ of his birthplace of Hibbing, Minnesota - both meta and physical.
Back when I was a boy, what used to be called Come-all-ye songs were routinely derided – as if both the matter of which they spoke and the treatment of it were of negligible currency – cheap tales about hillbillies leading circumscribed lives, far from the country club and all its attendant respectabilities.
But, if I was misfortunate enough to be forced to accept such glum appraisals of a bowed people routinely devaluing their own life-currency, I was also blessed to be around when a certain person had this to say: ‘I sang a lot of come-all-ye songs. There’s plenty of them. There’s way too many to be counted. ‘Come along boys and listen to my tale’ – I sang that.’
The author of Chronicles made those remarks only recently – as he did this: ‘Yeah, many’s the time I performed that mini-Shakespearean mystery play, which is what those songs are’.
Why, and how – Mr Dylan has the answer there too, as has Johnny Cash.
‘There’s nothing secret about it,’ Maestro Zimmermann contends, ‘You just do it subliminally and subconsciously’.
‘Get rhythm’, Cash urges, ‘get rhythm when you get the blues.’
Then, with luck, they’ll start making their way up to you, the soundings.
Those signals from the wavering, protean depths sitting there right in front of your eyes – in a country bar, in a mainstreet on market day.
In the heart of that elusive, ever-shifting but indomitably yet fixed enduring heartland country of the soul which, at once, is dark and, simultaneously, magnesium-bright.
Where you can hear the wild voices of the crowd at a cockfight melding into an eerie music as above it comes the shrill of the cocks crowing at a false dawn.
Throatpiercing in the night, there can be apprehended a vast and continental space, one that is chillingly existential, as lonely as America and yet at once as warm and homely as to break, like Hank Williams might have it, the heart of a child.
Quiet and still as the breath of a bird.
In a world – be it Wales or Scotland or Ireland or Indiana, which is rough and surly, not to say pitiless and will have no problem whatsoever drowning either man or woman and swallowing your ship like an infinitesimal grain of dust.
‘The Heartland’ of the Mc Peakes and Jim Reeves, of Slim Whitman, The Cramps and George Jones, is an endless flat plain that suddenly soars.
With tall grass blowing in the wind - as the whip-poor-will screeches and even the very prairie grass seems to wail. ‘Let us combine’, it conceivably might suggest, in the words of Brian Boyd while contemplating the method of Vladimir Nabokov, ‘the diamond-pattern of art and the muscles of memory in one strong and supple movement’.
As the funeral party of the Celtic long-dead shoulder a pine casket between the peaks of a pearl-white moon, soon to be bloodied.
What has all of this got to do with writing, I hear you ask – and, if it’s the rarified world of the elegant artificer of the mid-to-late nineteenth century, scratching away in some Georgian pile, secure in the knowledge of the safety net of independent means, I accept I would have to admit, precious little.
A world, it has recently been suggested, to which we may well be in the process of returning, what with the over-representation of privileged, overgroomed thespians trading blithe ironies on popular talk shows revealing the intricacies of their character’s ‘journey’.–
often as not, it transpires,*that of Cyclops from the X-Men franchise or perhaps Doc Octopus, arch-villain of the Spiderman Marvel marquee movie ‘brand.’
It is no revelation that the world, in recent decades, has become more commodified than ever – in the arena of the arts, arguably, perhaps most of all. With little patience now evident for what I would regard as genuine ‘dissent’ – which, in previous decades and, indeed, epochs, always provided some measure of comfort to the aspirant artificer. Whether in the form of samizdat manifestoes or poetry ‘happenings’ in the Royal Albert Hall.
Scratchers and scribblers and paintpot pokers who – then, as now, once again – didn’t have a penny, beavering away in the course of pursuing their rarefied calling in some hovel up a lane – as Philip Larkin has observed, with ‘fires in a bucket.’
I am often asked why I persist in writing the books I do – why I insist wearily in analysing this patently ‘old-fashioned’ world – that, alternately, of the small town and the mountain, largely covering the period of the early nineteen-hundreds until now.
With the answer, distressingly, being tediously obvious and scarcely worth uttering. ‘This whole world is an ozone-blue shiver’, Nabokov writes.‘ And we are in the middle of it.’
Because, with luck, by describing it in words – for anyone who might be interested enough to listen – and that there’s your audience – somehow you might simultaneously comprehend it and even find a way out of it. By mimicking it, maybe, in all of its burlesque complexity.
It has been observed of Nikolai Gogol that, in his work, he never drew portraits – he used looking glasses and as a writer lived in his own looking-glass world, refracting the material through a mirror of his own making.
The author of Lolita wrote the foregoing, and I have to say that ever since first becoming acquainted with another work adopting a similar approach, namely (The Fabulous Adventures Of) Baron Munchausen in the old school third class Mellifont Reader, this philosophy has spoken out loud and clear to me – clarifying from an early age the importance of the writer seeking and locating one’s own essential nature – one’s personality, really – and finding the most comfortable means of expressing that worldview.
Whether that turns out to be akin to that of Paddy Kavanagh laying waste the Irish ‘Renaissance’ –or, as he described it in his own memorable, combative phrase: ‘the thoroughgoing, English-bred lie’ or any one of the following, which became favourites:
Elizabeth Bowen’s Ireland.
Eudora Welty’s American South.
Roddy Doyle’s Dublin.
Shane Mc Gowan’s London.
Dylan Thomas’s s Wales
‘Dylan’ Dylan’s Midwest.
Watch them as on every single page they entwine, both soul and style – indivisible, inextricable.
As Donleavy might have it, ‘in all their sins and graces’.
But I really must insist that it was Gogol who opened the door widest of all for me – yes, this particular Ukrainian genius, artificer with the upside-down glasses, always demonstrating that, in this fantastic world, the difference between the cosmic and the comic depends on but one sibilant.
Writing, for me, after that – and, most assuredly, when I first came to grips with Lord Snooty and Captain Hurricane, along with the deliriously gaudy panels of Classics Illustrated - Off On A Comet, The Count Of Monte Cristo – was always a ‘calling’ - and I figured from the start that, in all likelihood, it would be a lonesome one. How did I know that? Just read the biographies - the library was full of them. See under Oscar, Behan, the late, great Jean Rhys. Carson Mc Cullers, Tennessee Williams - with the latter being a writer who is ‘all’, Elia Kazan has remarked, ‘In the same way the lion is just that - all lion.’
Lots of qualities have been ascribed to the folks who scratch on the mountain: pig-iron proud, child-men where the primitive stuff of humanity lies very close to the surface. Prone to accepting what pleases him and rejecting what does not, and in general preferring the extravagant, the flashing, the brightly-coloured, perpetually suspended in the great haze of memory – poised, as it were, between the earth and sky – dwarfed underneath a colossal immensity, quoting Brendan Behan at a capricious God. ‘Up hell and down with heaven!’
Delusional, perhaps – but the pride and the honour, nonetheless – this tribal infantry of the hillside’s ancient heartland.
As they strive for that endless, elusive note that defines who they are and where they belong – high and lonesome, for sure – and which, one day – up yonder, when that bugle calls in heaven – they know that they will reach it. Lots of things have been said about writers down the years – not least among them, why do they do it.
Once, in an analysis of the songs of Bob Dylan, Greil Marcus the Rolling Stone journalist spoke of the ‘old weird America’.
Well, I have always felt that, from birth to death this world is quite unknowable – as is the little lump of rock I was born into, called Ireland.
As for readers and one’s responsibility to them – I defer to Degas, who said that he painted his pictures for ‘three’ - three people, that is.
For me, these days, that’s about right,
I don’t consider I have a duty of any kind – except that of a general morality. But I do have a need. And so, tediously, the response to the question: why? must be the one routinely advanced by authors – one has to.
You want to be set free of it – willingly co-operating with the whirlpools of the subconscious, until that moment, hopefully, comes when an emotional experience often as not maddeningly uncrystallised, somehow fuses with one from the present – when you can sense some kind of a thing taking shape.
Something like John Mc Gahern described concerning the writing of one of his stories, when the play of light on a fantail of woodchips in a wood in Leitrim somehow combined with an unfocussed memory from childhood – hastening past, unanticipatedly, to give him – well, essentially, whatever his story was.
With the most important thing being that he hadn’t been expecting it – as you so often don’t. And why you are always in a state of what might best be described as ‘lying in wait for yourself’.
Like some poor sad red-nose slurring in a dingy bar: ‘Tomorrow’s the day I’m going to take the plunge – this will be the last drink I’ll ever have.’
The very last time I’ll ever hold a pen.
Because I’m sick of leaving family gatherings to make up non-existent rubbish, scratch out ‘characters’ spouting gibberish across a room – or, just as likely, on an oil-rig on Jupiter or the moon.
Yes, exasperated sitting there all alone, growing pale in ‘the writer’s room.’
Of trawling the murky, unco-operative depths of half-dreams searching for – well what, exactly?
So this is the last word, in my life, I’ll ever-...
I’m nauseated by this search for the right word in rote order business. ) It makes me sick – go get me a drink.
Sure, at times, you might make some money.
But then it dries up.
‘Not quite there, I’m afraid’, they will say to you then – regarding you with some small measure of what looks suspiciously like pity.
Because The Muse comes and goes.
So that’s why, this time, I’m giving it all up for good – and will never again be seen to type: ‘The End.’
Or, indeed: ‘The Beginning’, for that matter.
Aye, or unzip an Ipad, either – with the only tablets on view in the artist’s study thenceforth being the tried-and-trusted old reliables, the hallucinogenics –complemented by a substantial quantity of Benzedrine and Nembuttal, so significant in the preparation of Mr Burroughs’ various masterpieces – The Naked Lunch, most notably – along with On the Road by Kerouac, and indeed maybe Howl by his friend and fellow arts agitator Allen Ginsberg.
Except that, if you believe that, the only book you need to read, I’m afraid, is ‘Go & Get Your Head Examined’ – as I’ve long since learned that all you ever succeed in getting out of such indulgences, creatively, are snake-like squiggles such as your grandchildren might possibly contrive with the assistance of a crayon on a bedroom wall.
With the Doors Of Perception - while interesting, up to a point, proving in the end little more than a form of literary experimentation and diversion – a little comedic dalliance. What was it Philip Larkin used to say about Picasso? That he got fed up with looking at two eyes on the same side of a nose, and preferred to write about things the way they actually seem to a normal person.
Was he right?
That’s a long debate, but I sure do find his impertinence invigorating. With his wry and weary demolitions of sixties narcissism being essential to someone who, in their youth, perhaps permitted it a little too much latitude.
Depending on shock and greedy, incremental irrationality, it is fated not to last, he claimed – and in which to, some degree, he was accurate. But it also must be remembered that he was among the first to laud the young Dylan.
So, for whatever reason, as they say, or used to: DRUGS OUT.
No tablets then, most emphatically – no tap-tap-tap on an Ipad or Android.
Not even so much as clicketty-click on an old half-remembered eighties Olivetti.
Because this is the day, at long last – goodbye words!
So long exegesis, deconstruction and ennui – and goodbye one two three four five star reviews – because, at last – hee hee! – it’s all over, I’m signing myself into rehab tomorrow!
Even if you know that, properly, you never will – not until the very last handful of clay goes down – or whumph!, goes the flaring Swan vesta on top of the polished pine casket.
Underneath the impassive lamp of the world – whether it be pearled or crimson.
And, idiot that you are, even after that – pursuing to the very limits of your capacity that briefest of elusive moments when you might somehow hold that old, weird, Celtic heart captive, in your own particular snare of words – perhaps, as regards i, best described as Ulysses meets Oor Wullie.
Or, should you prefer, The Carter Family still hard at it out there somewhere in space, sawing up wild polkas beyond the blue – a galaxy distant from the caprice of fashion and the admirable solidity of the well-made tale – located, paradoxically,somewhere between Blue Velvet and Mr Bleaney – David Lynch watched and tempered by a sepulchral Philip Larkin.
High upon the moon, up where the mystery of fiction properly belongs.