A Walk on the Moon

Occasionally, I while away sleepless nights turning the pages of Zdeněk Kopal’s A New Photographic Atlas of the Moon. I discovered it in a second hand bookshop on the Isle of ManIt’s an intriguing book,  packed with full-page photos of the lunar surface, photos  dating from the earliest unmanned Russian missions to the Apollo programme. Especially interesting are the images of the elusive far side of the moon. (One cannot  help but be reminded how much the Russian space programme achieved where the moon is concerned,  despite the fact that no cosmonaut has yet set foot on it).

Reading it at night, on the verge of sleep, it is easy to imagine yourself dropping into the pages and walking on the surface, trecking, for example,  across the floor of the crater Ptolemeus, towards its distant,  mountainous rim, or traversing the uncanny,  double-walled basin of Schrodinger on the far side. Since the gravity of the moon is one sixth that of the Earth, it seems reasonable to assume one could cover, roughly,  six times the distance on a moon walk as one could walking on Earth.

However,  despite the fantastic landscape and the starlit sky, there is something missing from my moon walks.  They lack something I inevitably encounter on my real walks across the earth’s surface: signs of human activity.  It strikes me as interesting that,  although I seek out wild places,  there is a satisfaction to be found in encountering faint paths, ruins, the traces of earthworks and so on.

Thinking along these lines, I happened to pick up Robert  Macfarlane’s book, The Old Ways and read this quote from Emerson:

All things are engaged in writing their history… Not a foot steps into the snow, or along the ground, but prints in characters more or less lasting,  a map of its  march.  The ground is all memoranda and signatures; and every object covered over with hints.  In nature,  this self registration is incessant,  and the narrative is the print of a seal. 

Perhaps when out walking I’m seeking not wilderness but a wildness where my species’ presence feels not overwhelming but proportional, like the presence of  one species among many. And perhaps, although history can seem nightmarish when written or spoken about,  perhaps there is comfort to be found in the unspoken history, the traces. It strikes me that,  whether  or not I care to admit it, were I walking on the moon in real life,  even though I had travelled through space for days to get there,  to encounter the landing site of a probe or an Apollo mission would be a highlight of the trip.


My Imaginary Flying Machine

My imaginary flying machine
lifts me just high enough
to clear the garden fence
and carries me silently
through the darkness.
I control by telepathy
the invisible engine:
I tell it to follow
the line of the streetlights
along the empty streets
that lead out of town.
Once over the fields
I steer by the stars
until I hear but can’t see
the water flowing over the stones
in the dark chasm
of the stream-bed.

This I follow,
plunging with the waterfall,
leveling out
as the stream joins the river,
startling an owl
from its tree on the river-bank.

Sweeping under the arch
of a bridge, where all is invisible
and where the water
echoes for a moment, I emerge:
and here the river widens, merges
into the dark mass
of the sea and I turn
up into the sky,
banking to follow
the curve of Draco’s tail
as it weaves between the Bears.



Draco and Ursa Minor from Urania’s Mirror, a set of constellation cards by Sidney Hall, published in London c.1825


Poem copyright (c) Sackerson, 2018

The image is in the public domain.

Henry Cow

Everyone of my age must have memories of gigs they wanted to go to but couldn’t, for one reason or another. My parents wouldn’t let me go to a Genesis gig, I seem to remember. I just wasn’t old enough, they thought, to go  on the train to Birmingham at night without them. I can’t say I’m bothered, looking back. I think I tried to like the popular end of “prog rock” because my classmates liked it.

What I do regret, however, was missing a Henry Cow gig in Manchester a few years later. I’ve  forgotten why I couldn’t go. Some chaotic detail or other in my life as a student meant I didn’t make it. I did get to see Segovia, Nico, Ian Dury, Caravan and Frank Zappa back then so I can’t complain too much.

But Henry Cow. I’ve been listening to them a lot recently.  Possibly the greatest underrated band of all time, I think. I shouldn’t worry too much about having missed them: I don’t think I would have appreciated them then as I do now. They created a kind of rock music (if that’s the right word for it – even ‘jazz rock’ doesn’t do justice to it) which was Bartok, Sun Ra, Kurt Weill, Schoenberg and Stravinsky rolled into one, with a dash of free improvisation thrown in. Much of their music was purely instrumental, although the German vocalist Dagmar Krause did join them for a while.

However, despite the brilliance of Krause’s contribution,  my favourite Henry Cow tracks are  still the instrumental ones. One of their strengths was the power they injected into their music without recourse to words. What the vocalist and film-maker Sally Potter said about the band’s bassoonist (yes, bassoonist) Lindsay Cooper could be said of the whole band:  “Her life was threaded through with political commitment and idealism – but her work was never didactic. She believed in the transcendental power of pure sound.” When the band were putting together the album Western Culture, they decided they wanted it to be an instrumental work. A number of them put together a second album, featuring the songs they were working on a the time. Good though it is, the music of Western Culture is deeper and darker, in my opinion. At times, listening to it, I found myself imagining I was watching a mime artist playing an apocalyptic game of charades.

Recently, someone shared on my Facebook page the phrase What a time to be alive: it’s like the collapse of Rome but with wifi. Forty years ago, Henry Cow wrote the soundtrack. What they had to say is as relevant now as it was then. The trouble is, I don’t think enough people want to listen to it. Personally, I don’t see the point of the arts if they ask me to believe the world to be other than it is. (That’s not an attack on fantasy and scifi, by the way: they can be great at drawing our attention to the way things are). The trick is to be honest and uplifting at the same time. Henry Cow were masters at performing it.



Today they came
to measure everything
to make sure it was long
or short enough.
They wear light suits,
they smile a lot and say
they’re here to help us. Then
they consult their laptops
and tell us everything
appears to be within
acceptable limits although
we might consider shaving off
a centimetre here
and there. They say
the same thing every year.
I wouldn’t mind so much
only no-one seems to care
what (in each case) lies
between the beginning
and the end.


Copyright (c) Sackerson, 2017





9th December, 2017

These are the last few minutes of today. Today is my granddaughter’s first birthday. Me, I’m 59 which, I guess, makes me nearly old. It’s strange to see my children the same age as I was when they were the same age as she was. I remember feeling no longer young, when I was that old. Little did I know.

When you look into people’s faces you can sometimes fancy you can see the children they were and when you look into their eyes you can sometimes fancy you can see that child still in there, wondering what the hell happened.

I am still the same as I ever was, I think, looking out. There are things I recollect. Memories are strange: fragmentary collages of images and sound, hard to distinguish from dreams. The common factor which unites mine is me. I seem to have been there, watching, all the time.

People say time flies but I don’t think so. Some things that happened years ago seem like yesterday and some things that happened recently could have happened years ago. It depends what it is you’re thinking about. Life is one long list of stuff to do. There’s loads of it.

Sometimes I wonder if I actually am getting older on the inside. Sat on a raft in an estuary in thick fog on a calm day, you wouldn’t know if the tide were going in or out: the raft would move with the water and all would seem to be still. If you were moored to a post, you’d see and feel  the water move round you. Am I moving with time? I am aware of it passing so perhaps I’m not: perhaps I’m moored, watching it pass from a fixed point. My eyes see, my ears hear, my brain files away the information as memories. My body gets older.

But, as I said, I’m still the same. Or. at least, I think I am.

One day, I guess, decades from now, my daughter and her husband will perhaps be feeling something like this, thinking about their 30-something daughter. Decades later, my granddaughter will probably feel something similar. The character that looks out of her eyes will still be there, looking out, wondering how the cute toddler, smiling so proudly because she can stand and walk, came to be doing whatever she is doing, wondering how her face came to tell the story she sees in the face she sees in the mirror.

May it be as happy and fulfilling a story as possible.



Listening to Haydn (5)

There is an argument to be had as to how many symphonies Josef Haydn wrote. There are 104 numbered symphonies but Anthony von Hoboken, who catalogued Haydn’s works and broke them down into categories, included a few other works in the “symphony” category, notably two works known as Symphony A and Symphony B and a Sinfonia Concertante in Bb, for violin, cello, oboe, bassoon and orchestra. It was composed in England in 1792, during the period when Haydn was working on the late symphonies known as the London Symphonies.

A sinfonia concertante is essentially a cross between a concerto (usually for one soloist and orchestra) and a symphony (usually for orchestra alone). It employs two or more soloists and resembles the Baroque form, the concerto grosso. Several of my favourite Haydn symphonies include strong concertante elements (for example, No. 6 and No. 31, which I included in earlier posts). I was not at all surprised to find myself drawn to this work and to find myself listening to it again and again. Hoboken had the right idea, I think. As for how many symphonies Haydn wrote, does it matter? Do you include the single movement often used as an overture to The Fisherwomen? Lists of symphonies by Schubert and Borodin include incomplete,  two-movement works. It’s a bit like counting the planets. Should Pluto have been demoted? How many rocks of a similar size are out there?



Making Existentialist Waves (2)

A few weeks ago, I was thinking aloud about the similarities that struck me between Virginia Woolf’s The Waves and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, published some seven years after Woolf’s book. The more I read the Woolf, the more striking the similarities seemed. Two more examples struck me forcibly. Bernard, towards the end of the book, almost quotes Edmund Husserl’s famous phenomenological dictum, “to the things themselves”:

How much better is silence; the coffee-cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself like the solitary sea-bird that opens its wings on the stake. Let me sit here for ever with bare things, this coffee-cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself. Do not come and worry me with your hints that it is time to shut the shop and be gone. I would willingly give all my money that you should not disturb me but will let me sit on and on, silent, alone.

Virginia Woolf: The Waves

The second concerns Sartre’s preoccupation with biography in Nausea. His character Roquentin discovers (as I described in my last post on the subject) that, for him, writing biography is impossible since the chaos of real life bore little resemblance to the recorded anecdotes told of a life. Woolf’s character Bernard makes several references to his biographer, all of which carry echoes of Sartre’s preoccupations, including this:

‘Once I had a biographer, dead long since, but if he still followed my footsteps with his old flattering intensity he would here say, “About this time Bernard married and bought a house . . . His friends observed in him a growing tendency to domesticity . . . The birth of children made it highly desirable that he should augment his income.” That is the biographic style, and it does to tack together torn bits of stuff, stuff with raw edges. After all, one cannot find fault with the biographic style if one begins letters “Dear Sir”, ends them “your faithfully”; one cannot despise these phrases laid like Roman roads across the tumult of our lives, since they compel us to walk in step like civilized people with the slow and measured tread of policemen though one may be humming any nonsense under one’s breath at the same time- …’

Virginia Woolf: The Waves

It is intriguing to speculate how not only Woolf’s stream of consciousness style might have influenced Sartre but also, subconsciously or otherwise,  the ideas she was writing about. As TS Eliot probably said, “good writers borrow, great writers steal.” It often pays for artists to play down their most significant influences. Draw attention to them and they risk commentators endlessly speculating on the similarities and differences between the artist and their model. This can be a distraction.

I know this might only be interesting to a small group of people who have read and enjoyed both of the books concerned. There is, I think, though, a more general point. I, for one, being a casual reader, was surprised to find the similarities I found. Rightly or wrongly, I kept Woolf and Sartre in quite separate compartments in my view of things: although I thought of both as Modernist novelists I had not made the connections between them I discovered by reading their work side by side. Partly, I think, this is to do with their very different backgrounds and with the very different backgrounds of the characters they invented. It is also to do with what they set out to achieve: for example, Sartre, I read, was very influenced by American “hard boiled” fiction. There is also the matter of the use of the “existentialist” label: the words existentialism and Sartre are inseparably wedded. Occasionally, the word is linked with Woolf, but not often: I may be missing something but in a quick search I found only one or two footnotes to essays suggesting that it would be interesting to explore existentialist ideas in Woolf’s writing.