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.



The future is beige?

I am writing this on lined A4 paper with a black ballpoint pen. I’m listening to the Henry Cow album, Unrest. Later I’ll type up what I’ve written onto a laptop and upload it to the internet. It will be where you are reading it now.

Back around the time Henry Cow were recording that album, I remember reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. It was the thinnest of the crop of dystopian books the twentieth century was famous for. It envisaged a world in which the job of a fireman (and the firefighters in the book are men) was to burn books, not put out fires. Having no books, and no real sense of history, characters in the novel believe this had always been the way. A few brave, dissident souls took it upon themselves to commit works of literature to memory.

Life could be in the process of imitating fiction. This might seem an odd thing to say: since the advent of the internet there have been numerous projects aimed at converting literature into digital form. It is a simple matter, too, to print out books: books which were once rare can be created on demand. Much the same applies to music: the range of music available to anyone who wants to listen to it is more eclectic than ever.

So what’s the problem? It is this: solid artifacts are exactly that. Books and recorded music that are uploaded to the internet are merely information. I often hear people comment on how this change affects photography. Photos these days tend to be computer files rather than solid objects. People take and share more photos than ever but they remain ephemeral, unprinted. Where are the photos of today’s older children taken when they were small? It may be that, in a digital world, as in the world of Ray Bradbury’s novel, people live in the present, with only a vague grasp of the past. History, where it is preserved, becomes an unreliable mash of data. As I’ve said elsewhere on this blog, the internet would have been a gift to the pigs in Animal Farm. No need to creep out in the night to change the principles of animalism. Simply edit the farm website. Living in the present, for an individual, is often good for one’s wellbeing. For a society, it spells disaster.

Like it or not, the world has handed over much of its literature, images and music to the internet or, more specifically, to the corporations that run it. There is a wonderful aspect to this: the knowledge and creativity of the world is easily accessible via a communal, global exocortex or“brain extension”. It may be that we are living through a period of burgeoning free expression not unlike the 1960s. It may not be obvious, as a life lived online is a quiet life. It may only be obvious in retrospect, when it’s over. Then, when those who remember look back, they might do so with the same cynicism people apply to the 1960s: yes it appeared to be a time of freedom but it was always about commercialism. The 1960s was as much about entrepreneurs as it was about free spirits.


To return to Ray Bradbury. There are no book-burning firemen today (or are there?) but there doesn’t need to be. Whole folders of digitised books can be deleted by the twitch of a finger on a mousepad. For now, I can still listen to Henry Cow’s excellent album. I can access a whole diversity of literature, ideas and music simply by searching the internet for it.

A time might come -and it may not be far off- when the corporations which host this rich diversity simply decide to stop doing so. It’s the way things are going. Everything but the most commercially viable internet content could simply cease to exist or, more likely (they need our participation to harvest our data, after all) be consigned to a digital slow lane that consigns it to obscurity. In the meantime, the mainstream of the internet will be reduced to the bland, beige uniformity of commercial FM radio.

At least I don’t have to commit books to memory. All I need to do is not throw them away. And I think I better keep listening to Henry Cow while I still can…


Coughs and Sneezes…

I’ve picked up a cold, as I often do at this time of year. It’s inevitable. Since my job involves a lot of talking, my throat gets the brunt of it: I have to treat the infection with kid gloves. The mind over matter, just get on with it approach doesn’t work.  I’ve tried it: I end end with no voice for a couple of weeks. I’ve tried various exotic concoctions involving camomile tea, honey, whiskey, etc. Nothing seems to work except taking paracetamol and drinking a lot of water.

Taking it easy helps, too. No trudging round the shops in the cold, no off-road bike rides. This can be quite pleasant if properly managed. Vanilla custard pastries, real coffee. I’ve books to read: I’m currently making my way through Daemon Voices by Philip Pullman.It’s also been a good time for listening to music. Come to think of it, I ought to get a cold more often.

I’m still listening to a lot of Milhaud. His five piano concertos make a pretty striking cycle of pieces. The third has to be one of my favourite pieces of his.