Augustus Young       light verse, poetry and prose
a webzine of new and unpublished work

Long Shorts: Bermudas

Literary Gloves

In my mid-twenties my godmother, who had hopes for me, gifted me a subscription to the London Library, the Mecca of bookworms. I cycled from West Hampstead to change my books every Saturday on a Mayday Raleigh that John Parsons, the polyvalent artist, de-rusted so the chrome rolls Royce-ed. The bike had been abandoned in a rotting shed in an overgrown garden. I think John must have used a metal detector to find it.

Veteran cyclists waxed poetical about my Mayday. It was said that it had ‘swan beats in its spokes’. Freewheeling downhill the bike came into its own. Its weight gave it drop-dead speed, and a caterpillar grip. I called it ‘my falling star’. However, John wouldn’t remove the heavy chain guard. He claimed it would spoil its vintage gravitas. This I did not appreciate when the chain came off in traffic. Getting it back on blacked the hands and spirits.

It happened again on a bitterly cold Saturday afternoon on my way to renewing long out of print editions of books which I believed contained traces of the fugitive gods. The library was not unlike a prison in an American movie, platforms of caged tomes, uniformly bound, which one could take out on parole for three weeks before returning to their life sentence. I surged through the serried ranks of mounting cells, having donned my fur lined leather gloves to protect the precious prisoners from my oily fingers, and was thumbing through Holderlin,  when the Governor came up behind me and barked something which woke the other browsers, unseen hitherto because their cobwebbed forms merged into the book cases.

My fellow bookworms coughed in embarrassment as he told me wearing gloves was forbidden, it damaged the books, and I was to deposit them in future in the cloakroom. I took the gloves off and thrust them at him as though handing over arms, painfully aware my gloves were much cleaner than my fingers. Gov, ignoring them, stomped off without examining my hands, muttering through the echoing chambers, something like ‘what has the world had come to when riffraff for a small sum can desecrate my panopticon….’.

My knuckles were truly rapped.

The Democratisation of Ideas

Everybody has their right to their opinion, so it’s said.

Everybody has an opinion whether they have a right or not. I see red.

Question it, and the opinion hardens but the source is likely to be vague (‘I read it somewhere').
At that point, even if you know the opinion is wrong, the wise retreat - change the subject or shrug a don’t care.

Only a fool or me doesn’t, and it’s a no-hear no-win.

You end up not having the right to have an opinion.

 ‘I have drunk and seen the spider’, Shakespeare

 Nothing is as difficult as uprooting ivy. Nothing is as easy as wiping a spider’s web. But spiders are living creatures. You never get rid of the webs, says the fly.

Spiritual presences (pace Rilke)

Sleepwalking I’m my own one. Sadly, on waking-up I can’t remember a thing. Usually I leave a trail like a snail…Once I filled a hot water bottle with wine. I suppose sleep-walking is a step towards inhabiting myself spiritually. However, on the rare occasion I’m observed, I’m told that I don’t look any different than usual, just more determined.

Feeding the beast

The pig in ancient Irish manuscripts is represented as a noble, athletic animal fit for a prince.

The English degraded the beast to fat slobs only fit for eating.

In nineteenth century, Ireland the pig was treasured as it paid the rent, and kept in the kitchen so it fattened in a warm environment. During the great famines of the 1840s export of pork from Ireland did not seriously decline. A fact that makes me thoughtful. 

New Wave Hair

The real contempt in Godard’s film Le Mepris (1965) was not Jack Palance using the small of Giorgia Moll’s back to write cheques to get Michel Piccolo to rewrite the script so he could have a clear run with Bridget Bardot, but Moll’s hair made to look like a perruque. Apart from Bardot, the New Wave was unkind to women’s hair. More often than not brunette helmet that made them look like a hibou, the owl with the pointy ears and crushed face. The style was the creation of the prince of coiffeurs, Alexandre de Paris. He must have hated women.


A Note on Words and Music

The libretto in 19th century opera often works better as scat rather than as poetry. Tchaikovsky wisely didn’t use Pushkin’s words for his Eugene Onegin. The most thankless task in the world must be translating them into English. I recall Richard Van Allan mournfully intoning ‘By Goodness I’ll be Great, By Goodness I’ll be Great’ in Handel. And a distressed Janet Baker shriek, ‘Peace, peace. Doth thou not see my baby’ in Mozart’s Il Seraglio. I think the singers sometimes improvised discreetly. Once I distinctly heard the irrepressible Welsh baritone, Geraint Evans, sing ‘The porous damp of night disponge on me’ (an improvement on Shakespeare’s ‘poisonous damp’ in Antony and Cleopatra).

Gilbert and Sullivan play with such absurdities. But Gilbert’s lyrics are too John Bullish. It’s Sullivan who had the light touch. While staying with a certain Dr Schneiders in Vienna he was dusting down the top of wardrobe with his hat when he disturbed some papers. Forty lost Schubert songs rained down on him, including the air from Rosamunde (‘Clear o’er the mountains sounds the evening bell/ Softly the echoes pleasure foretell’).

20th century Opera with atonality and chamber performances is more ambiguous about the relation between the libretto and the music. An extreme case is Zimmerman’s Requiem for a Poet’ (1968) when the music is more or less background to diverse texts, varying from snatches of poetry to quotes from political tracts.

Adorno saw Alban Berg’s Wozzeck as ‘a musical excavation of Buchner’s verse play to find the music. The score supersedes the written text to create the first great tone poem’. The manuscript left behind by Buchner when he  died of typhus at twenty-three was a husk which didn’t contain stage instructions. At first Berg wanted to do justice to it as a dramatic poem set to music. His teacher Arnold Schonberg discouraged him, saying even the word ‘Wozzeck’ was unsingable. And so, Berg cut the text down to the bone and fleshed it out with atonal music using the spoken word as recitative (the orchestration is the aria). He completed the first real tragedy of low life for Buchner. Up to then in opera epic-suffering was considered the privilege of people in high places.  

Sacred music has the best of both worlds with words and music. Especially with plainchant. Its incantations allow the poetry to register and at the same time sing. Palestrina and Monteverde ring true in churches, concert halls, or even piped by loud-speakers on a Good Friday processions, but above all in the quiet of my room. The psalms are light verse in the true sense. They raise the spirits.