Friday, 28 July 2017

A Lump in the Throat

In the last couple of months, something very strange and upsetting has happened to me. It might sound as if I’m being melodramatic when I say it was this: I lost my voice. I don’t mean ‘lost’ in the sense of a post-viral huskiness, or tired and shagged out after a long squawk, like a Norwegian Blue.

I mean, it broke (not in the adolescent sense) it was shagged (ditto) packed up and gone for good. At least that’s how it felt. One day it was fine, I was singing throughout my full range; the next day, I tried to do something and realised I could only use my chest voice. I could still speak, but could only sing in the comparative range of my speaking voice. We’re talking – and only just – from a low D to an octave above.
My highest note a few weeks ago!
These days I don’t do much work as a professional singer, yet my voice is essential in all the things I do. From spoken-word performance, presenting or hosting events, to interviewing people, having discussions or meetings, without my voice I feel like a rudderless ship. The Biblical analogy (if the tongue is a metaphor for the voice) is true: it is a small piece of gear, but has power to steer us through life... or (to mix in another metaphor) de-rail us.

For singers, however, the voice is something far more. It is our identity, our instrument, our raison d’être. Losing my voice always feels as if I’ve got a missing limb. So for me to find my voice not just temporarily gone but seriously ill was a shock. Even more distressing was that nobody seemed to know what had happened. I was worried that this sudden ailment was an indicator that there was something more serious wrong with me, and went to the Doctor.

Not an actual Singer

After several blood tests, a chest x-ray, breathing diagnoses, various medical discussions and a camera shoved up my nose and down my throat, no conclusion was reached other than I must have strained my voice, overworked it, or it had simply given up on account of stress and fatigue. I’d had a lot of work on, and my long hours often ended at dawn.

I wasn’t exactly giving my body a chance to recover... I’m not sure I was as honest as I could have been when my G.P. asked about my alcohol intake. Were I not a singer, I wouldn’t have noticed anything. But being classically trained, I was convinced there would be a medical reason. The Doctor at the ENT clinic assured me that my vocal chords were in fine fettle; my technique was impeccable, and there were no lurgies down there causing any problems.

The implication was that my voice would eventually get back into action. After some rest it was suggested I should start exercising again, slowly building up on my higher notes. Next thing, almost as suddenly as it went away, I began to gain some range; a few more notes, then more – as high as a middle C – but still a major fifth short of my full range. (My low notes rumbled away, but they have limited use in choral repertoire.)
Not an actual choir!
I’ve started singing again, just for a few services, but I know that things still aren’t right, and I am at a loss to know why. And yet, it has been an interesting – if testing – experience. If I may use another metaphor... as a writer I have been made to think about my ‘voice.’ If I can no longer perform, my writing will be the only voice I have.

Given my recent propensity to churn out doggerel and entertaining ditties for the stage, I have been given an incentive to re-hone my style. Also, to think carefully about my claim that all my writing is fiction. During my vocal sabbatical, I used a real episode from my life to write a story called ‘The Singer and The Soprano.’ It is the closest I’ve come to pure autobiography. Several of my musical friends will know exactly who it’s about.

Examining the reason for my decision to write this piece, apart from the loss of my actual voice, is not too difficult. In the past, many people have tried to silence me. Either because they can’t cope with parts of my personal history, or are afraid that what I have to say is true (albeit shrouded in fiction.) Perhaps out of malicious judgement or envy, people may continue to attempt to take my voice away from me. They will fail.

In the days of Stalin, when the henchmen of Art, hiding behind the façade of state-endorsed terror, continually threatened Shostakovich, he didn’t give up. “Even if they cut off my hands I will continue to compose,” he famously said. Hopefully I will get back my singing voice, and be able to perform to my full capability soon. My voice as a writer has never been stronger.
He who has ears...


Wednesday, 7 June 2017

A total eclipse of The Sun?

Yes, it’s Polling Week yet again. And yet again, we have a rigged election called by a corrupt Government, led by an unelected Prime Minister who has lied and cheated her way through her entire campaign – simply because she can. At least, that’s what she thinks.
The real truth (not an expression familiar to politics) is that not only will many have seen through her sleight of hand machinations, but also, her shambolic behaviour has highlighted what strong and stable leaders we have among the opposition.
Even if the Tories still get in tomorrow, I only hope they’ll have lost enough seats to de-throne that sour-faced puppet from her self-constructed position. For the first time in years, we might have a decent, socialist opposition – although what difference that will make to Scotland, who can say?
I prefer socialists to Nationalists any day.
Anyone reading this from beyond the United Kingdom may be wondering what my little rant is about, since I’ve mentioned no names, nor have I been explicit about political parties – except the ‘Tories’ which, for me, has always been a generic swear-word since the 1980s when I first became aware of politics.

Well, that’s less vague, name-wise! Perhaps it’s facile to pin everything onto Thatcher’s legacy. However, I saw a post on Facebook recently which ran like this:
Overheard at the bus stop:

Elderly woman: "Who are you planning on voting for?"
Elderly man: "The Conservatives. I've been a home owner for a very long time and I'm not going to let a bunch of young liberals steal my house."
Don't worry, there's no way any of us are going to be able to afford houses.
While I can’t even start to question the Elderly man’s logic or rhetoric, I have to remind him that it’s the Tories who have stolen pretty much everything from the ‘liberals’ as he calls them. It started in the 1980s, and continues today, with the crippling of public services.
From my latest set of sestudes (62-word studies) reflecting on the symbolism of doors, here are two that sum up what I feel at the moment. First, this door           (No. 13 – unlucky for some?) on a housing-scheme:
from 26 Doors Between My House and Yours...

13, Viewcraig Gardens
In 1980’s Britain, Thatcher’s
Government sold off
the Social Housing
to the Nouveaux Riche,
for little cash.
New front doors appeared
on Housing Schemes –
symbols of new-found wealth –
while the Lumpen Proletariat
remained in ill-health, socially,
financially, domestically.
Unluckily for some,
the markets crashed….
As we guessed, the poor
remained the same,
Tories prospered,
while the rest, dis-enfranchised,
had their homes re-possessed.
For the next door in this sequence, I have a newsagent’s shop with a bright red lintel. While there are websites such as - giving voters a directive on how to oust the Tories (which, in Scotland, means voting SNP in almost every ward) the fact remains that too many ignorant people cast their ballot according to the bullshit they read in the papers.
Filthy, shitty lying rags like the Daily Mail can print what they like; The Sun will claim it won the election (whether a Tory or New Labour Government is elected – it is a fickle piece of shit) and as for the News of the World or Evening Standard – don’t get me started!
 Ever since the Hillsborough disaster, it has been nigh impossible to buy The Sun in Liverpool (the subsequent enquiry proving unequivocally that this toilet-paper lied through its tabloid teeth.) Two weeks ago, after a disgracefully insensitive front page after the Manchester attack, a similar boycott was mooted.
I wonder what it will take to get every newsagent in every major city throughout the nation to refuse to stock every nasty red-top publication.
Ben’s Newsagent, Pleasance
Not because it isn’t convenient,
nor may sell what I need
from morning ’til night…
Nor because it’s local –
on the proverbial street corner…
Nor because of religion or ethnicity –
this is not a problem to me…
Nor because adverts lure
me to purchase something
I’d not bargained for… No:
I refuse to enter this shop
because it has a Red Top.
This Thursday I will do my bit by voting (tactically?) according to my conscience. And every day I’ll do my bit by never reading a tabloid newspaper. That said, you can’t trust anything you read in any paper. If you do, you’re probably not fit to vote. 

And now, to name names...

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Честит имен ден

One of the wonderful things about studying at a Music Conservatoire – as long ago as the early 1990s – was being among the company of many overseas students. For me, it was a novelty that I suspect many now take for granted at our universities.
Even so, in the petty annexing that right-wing politics seem to favour, our economy has shot itself in the foot regarding the breaking-down of barriers between nations and states. I will return to this anon...
Something I learned, possibly from my Greek or Catalan friends, was that these people enjoyed celebrating their ‘name-day’ as much as their birthday. With my Gaelic/Celtic heritage, it would be hard to find a Saint to pin my name on and a hagiographical calendar to appropriate an extra feast.
(My first name is not – as many maybe think – derived from ‘James,’ so his saint’s day is off-limits.)
In the last year or so, I have come to know (through a close friend) that in Bulgaria, name-days are a Big Thing – possibly more than anywhere else. There is a whole custom centred on these celebrations which borders on folklore.
There are particular traditions, sayings, and greetings which are as familiar to Bulgaria as “many happy returns” is to Britain (or wherever that expression is from.)
Being from the Eastern part of Europe, Bulgaria’s Saints have different feast-days to those of the west. Today, my friend, Елена, celebrates her name-day according to the Eastern Orthodox calendar. In accordance with Bulgarian tradition, I would like to greet my much-loved friend with a salutation from her homeland: “May your name be healthy.”
But life is never that simple. Neither is poetry...
Честит имен ден
            for Елена
Today is your Name-Day – at least
it is so in the East. In your
adopted land you’ll have to wait
until August to celebrate.
While you inspire, enlighten and
illuminate with your warm heart
and bright enquiring mind, today –
of all days – you cannot find your insight.
In honour of your name, I search
for her and soon discover how
Елена and her lover, Samuel,
though slain upon their wedding-day,
both gave their name to an area
in your Homeland, Bulgaria.
It seems, besides your gentle soul,
perceptive eyes and tiny frame, you are
the valleys, rivers, hills and woods
that skirt the Balkan Mountain Range.
Your insight may be lost or hurt,
but ‘may your name be healthy,’ for
it flowers – even in the darker hours.
I will embrace you and your name,
and offer you this gift… Time.
For when the day is done and darkness
falls, look up, Елена. The stars
enlighten with eternal shine.
Three years ago, Елена held a traditional name-day gathering, partly as a wrap-party for her latest film. Although I wasn’t involved with the production, I was invited and, as she introduced all her friends, she explained their role in the film: “This is, X, the DOP, Y, the co-director, A & B the actors, Z the producer...” and then she came to me.
Unsure of how to introduce me to the company, Елена said, “This is Jamie...” then stumbling, said: “He’s just a poet.” It has been a standing joke between us all ever since.
Laughter aside, Елена has been more than just a friend to me over the last few years. She has been an inspiration. I’ve been honoured to be a part of her film-projects, and to be on hand when she’s needed help (often, in panic, when looking for the right word – it seems I’m more than just a poet) or to simply ‘be there’ somewhere in the background.
I’ve had a fair few female friends who have fucked me up over the years. These so-called friends have abused my head, or heart, or some other part of my body; used it for their own ends, screwed me up, broken me, and spat me out.
Two, in particular, masqueraded as lovers, but turned out to be fraudulent and fake as I came – too late – to discover. Елена, thank god, is not like these fraudsters.
Here are three poems on various meanings of ‘gift.’
Festival Fireworks
                for ‘The Soprano’
The floodlights of Meadowbank Stadium are still
in the rain-sodden sky, like stuck fireworks.
The weather worse than dreich,
I venture out in the soggy streets
to Sainsbury’s for toilet-roll and gin –
life’s essentials – and imagine the spectators
at the Castle Tattoo; the rhythm of dancers and
as the best of Scottish beats down on both.
If Meadowbank - once host to others games,
given its stay of execution -
had hosted the same military pomp,
would equal crowds have flocked,
or Hogmanay’s Great Display
fallen to the axe for a gust of Dunedin’s wind?
History and tradition keep folk
afloat, even in this diluvian Festival.
Sometimes we long for fireworks.
Now, all I crave as the water soaks my shoes,
is a warm sofa, Bombay Sapphire, and a kiss,
a breath, a touch of your soft, soft face.
Or better, the ecstasy of your voice
igniting the wet, black sky.
The Gift
Dark brown
softly tanned
lightly pungent
long and hard
I pondered
this weighted gift 
sat on my shelf
gathering dust
symbol of a rift
a leathery musk
of what might
have perhaps been
as the bright sun
enlightened its fibres
She called it cute
it was dispensable
‘Keep it if you want
or give it to charity’
she said indifferent.
If only I had seen
something significant
a present meant
for further future
guarded relevance.
One year on
re-opening wounds
I pick at the scars
where lies began
now truth unwinds
the past unfolds
as poppers snap
on empty contents
thirteen pockets
each intended for
gallery/theatre tickets
photos, credit cards
secret messages
till-receipts, bills
restaurant checks
scribbled scraps
of emails, texts
loyalty cards for
bookshops, cinemas
In the top folds
wads of bank-notes
stolen wealth
that some call filth
while others revel in
the power of purchase.
Against this love
the Bible warns
yet Society nurtures.
To close the book
reveals yet more
evidence of love
or what was meant
by this past present?
Was this for coins,
loose change, trinkets
chances, hedged-bets
trust purloined while
in a pocket zipped,
a secret store
of love abused:
the condom that
she never used.
Finally a zone
left empty, void
of what my daft
imagination vied
for or believed or
dared to think as love.
It wasn’t intended
for money stolen
sold, or tendered
but a metaphor
as sick and empty
as a wallet forged
of unspoken gratitude
- a perverse token
for services rendered.
I’m stuck with it
this leather wallet.
If only it displayed
a little more than
fifty silver pieces
of a love betrayed.
for e, naturally
It’s always the smell that gets me.
Sit on a leather sofa,
and I’m back with that soprano
I attempted to give my heart to.
The ecstasy of her voice is gone,
but the memory lingers on.
Wave a wallet in front of my nose,
and a painful surge emerges.
That photographer who,
unlike her camera, lied and lied
and lied. To her I gave a piece of me:
purchased with that wallet’s mendacity.
And then, a leather-bound booklet
reminds me, whenever I look at it,
of my film-maker-friend and muse.
I hesitated, momentarily, as its pungency
punished my olfactory intrusions.
How could I use this gift?
By filling its soft pages with reciprocated
affection, that saw past pain eradicated.
What did I fill the soft pages with? I wandered between my house and where Елена (then) lived and took pictures of doors. Contemplating the symbolism of doors, and meditating on friendship, the imagination, and truths beyond this journeying, I jotted down ideas in that leather-bound notebook. I then selected 26 pictures and I wrote a sestude on each.
(Regular readers of this blog know what a sestude is...)
Here are three of these 62-word studies, each picking up on the current political situation. I could re-visit the dark subject of last month’s blog by quoting from Tippett’s A Child of Our Time (“Burn down their houses! Beat in their heads! Break them in pieces on the wheel!”) but... today is a celebration of life.
And someone’s special name...
from 26 Doors Between My House and Yours...
            for e
52, Rankeillor Street
From your window you
observed this door.
You’d never considered
the artwork before,
adorned with jars,
a lampshade, or
discarded satellite dish.
You watched the
‘drinky people’ come and go,
in and out of taxis,
fearing more that they
would prang themselves
on the dried-out branches
than miss any artistic significance.
It seems whatever I perceive,
you make my eyes see differently.
Fire Door, The Parliament Building
the impenetrability
of the Parliamentary
process is laid bare.
Behind a concrete façade
lies a complex charade:
more rooms than
a Father’s Mansion,
where debate, controversy,
conversation and bureaucracy
float about like hot air,
fanned by the fickle whim
of public opinion.
This building isn’t
about democracy
or political transparency.
It’s about how power
and fear can threaten
our National Security.
The World’s End Pub
It’s not the end of the world
as we know it. It’s an illusion;
a mural on the front of a pub
marking the position of the
Old Town Gate which barred
the exit to the Burghers too
poor to emigrate to James
Craig’s New Town Utopia.
At the real world’s end, all
imaginary doors, borders,
walls will open, lift, or fall.
In life, the personal is always political. So I will end – if the reader of this page lives in a British country that wishes to impose barriers, borders, walls, and doors – with this plea: don’t vote TORY!
But to end on a happier note, to all those people named Елена: Happy name-day.

May your name be healthy.