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Archive for October, 2004

Cure for Melancholy

Anyone seeking a cure need not read this book. The title alone should do it.

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Fat Albert’s Ramble

When I was sixteen I started going to an open stage called Fat Albert’s. It was held every Wednesday night in the basement of the Bloor Street United Church in Toronto. It was started in 1967 and had seen the likes of Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Bob Snider and Bob Wiseman. It ran there in the church for 36 years, when their rent was increased so dramatically that they had to relocate. Up to the very end, the stage, backdrop, sound system, tables and chairs never changed. It’s one of the few things I miss about Toronto, and wish I had gone more often in the 90’s.

One of the singers that I particularly enjoyed was Sam Larkin. He’s written beautiful songs and deserves to be heard more widely. His “Sally On” was briefly heard in Highway 61, and a few people have recorded covers of his “Mirabeau Bridge”. Sam’s a very funny guy, and his website gives you an idea of his humour.

For the most part, people sang and played guitar. There was a piano to the side of the stage, and I remember Bob Wiseman when he was still with Blue Rodeo playing with his fists and elbows and even with his hand in a roll of masking tape.

Sometimes people got up and read poetry, which was invariably bad. It was a fashion at the time, I think, to repeat entire lines in a poem for no apparent reason. I remember one woman reading something that could be likened to the experience of going from one radio station to another, and her reciting at one point the following line two or three times:

I’ll give you two kittens if you tape if you tape Lou Reed.

Although it may have been three kittens. I don’t know.

One singer I always thought would be heard more widely was Caitlin Jenkins, but if Google is anything to go by, she no longer sings. She was the younger sister of the singer and actress Rebecca Jenkins, who was a regular before I showed up, and who complimented me on my set the one and only time I saw her there.

I loved listening to Bob Snider. His songs were either hilarious or beautifully touching. One of the best ones I recall was “What An Idiot He Is”:

He hasn’t bothered thinkin’

Since he was ten

He’ll tell you he already knew

What he had to know by then

Anyone who disagrees with him

Should be in prison

All he wants is what is his

Even if it isn’t

You can talk until you’re blue

But you’ll never make him listen

To what an idiot he is.

Bob must have been in his forties. He was tall and thin, with a kind, weathered face. I believe he told me that he had come from Nova Scotia and had worked in construction. He had a beard and was missing a few upper front teeth. This gave him a distinctive way of pronouncing things, which added to his charm. I liked Bob a lot and thought him very talented, but due to his image and his age, I never even considered him becoming successful or famous. About a year or two ago I was stunned to hear a couple of his songs on the radio here in Athens. (In my seven years here so far, I have heard Joni Mitchell and Neil Young on the radio, but not Gordon Lightfoot.)

Pat Harper was, I believe, an actor or a comedian. He would improvise. I only saw him perform two or three times, unfortunately. I have one of his performances on tape. One night he got up and said a few mediocre jokes and then suddenly burst into a rendition of Mark Antony’s funeral speech from Julius Caesar with such wide-eyed earnestness that my gut was sore and tears were streaming down my face. I remember that only Sam Larkin and I were laughing. Most people didn’t know what was going on.

Another time he held a piece of paper and did a television news anchorman reading a report about the Toronto Maple Leafs (then in their 1980s doldrums) making it to the Stanley Cup finals because they’d had a sack of potatoes playing defence. In the last game, the sack tears open, the potatoes spill out, and the Leafs lose. Up until this, it was average, mediocre comedic fare. But then he added:

“General Manager Cliff Fletcher had this to say about the near future.”

Here he put the paper down and looked around the room with the same earnest expression and droned this poem by Baudelaire:

When the low heavy sky weighs like a lid

Upon the groaning spirit, prey to long monotonies,

And embracing all the horizon’s compass

Pours us a black day, sadder than our nights.

When the earth is changed into a dank cell

Where Hope flees bat-like

Beating the walls with timid wings

Striking its head against the rotten roof;

When the rain spreads out its endless trains

Like the bars of a vast prison

And a silent race of loathsome spiders

Come spread their nets deep in our brains.

Suddenly the bells ring out in fury

And hurl against the sky a fearful scream

Like homeless wandering spirits

That stubbornly begin to groan.

And long hearses, without drum or note

Parade slowly through my soul; Hope beaten

Weeps, and dreadful Anguish, despotic

Upon my bowed skull plants its banner black.

I was in even greater hysterics than when he did Mark Antony.

Pat lived with Bob Snider in a house whose previous tenants had been a punk band called Bunchofuckingoofs. Pat invited some of the regulars at Fat Albert’s to a Christmas party at his house one year. Some of us sat in the kitchen while he told us that the Bunchofuckingoofs had had a dog which shit in the house because they’d never take it out. They would hoover up the dogshit with a heavy duty industrial vacuum cleaner. When someone expressed disbelief at this story, Pat went down to the basement and brought the vacuum cleaner up and turned it on for us. Within seconds the whole kitchen stank. He said there was no way to get rid of that smell.

Pat eventually moved to Washington with his girlfriend.

There was another guy who came by every once in a while. He wore a black fisherman’s cap and carried around a black hardcover notebook. He lived in my neighbourhood, and I often saw him at the bus-stop in the morning with the same hat and notebook. I was in university at the time, and he looked younger than me. I figured he was a high school student, filling up his notebook with poetry he’d someday inflict on us at Fat Albert’s. But I never saw him get up on stage. He knew Sam, and would stand around and talk to him whenever I saw him there. He must have performed, but never on a night that I’d happened to come by.

* * * * *

Around 1992 or 1993, I noticed that Sam Larkin had stopped coming to Fat Albert’s. I tried calling him, but his number was out of service. I couldn’t find him in the phone book. I had been losing interest in Fat Albert’s and in the idea of myself as a singer or songwriter. The two guys who had been running the place since 1967, Ray and Ed, retired and passed it on to someone else, but by that time it had already started to decline. I don’t know if Fat Albert’s is still running. Wherever it moved to in 2003, I’m sure it had very little to do with the Fat Albert’s we had known.

For me, when Sam stopped going regularly ten years before that, it had already begun to fade away.

Even the kid with the cap and notebook went away. I no longer saw him on the bus every morning.

* * * * *

I graduated from university in 1995. I knew that soon I’d be moving to Greece, although I didn’t leave till January of 1997. It was a strange time for me. I felt I’d already left Toronto behind, but hadn’t moved on to anywhere. I felt like a ghost haunting the city. I’d look around me at things as though they were all in the past, as if I’d already left and this was nothing more than a memory. I lost touch with people I’d known in high school and university, and I often found myself thinking about Sam, even though I’d never really known him that well.

One day I found a copy of Now Magazine on the subway. On the front cover was the kid with black fisherman’s cap. I picked it up and read the article about him. It turned out he wasn’t a writer, but a singer. His name was Ron Sexsmith. He had moved to Tennessee. In 1994 he had released his first album, but it hadn’t done well at all till Elvis Costello plugged it in an interview and appeared on the cover of a magazine holding the CD. That turned the tide for Sexsmith. In the article, he talked about a friend bringing Paul McCartney to his house for a pancake breakfast one day, and how they got out the guitars and jammed.

I was stunned. I’d thought he was just a high school kid. I used to ride the bus with him every morning, and we’d had a mutual acquaintance. What a wasted opportunity that was! I could have got to know him. Now it was all too late.

I went to a record shop a couple of days later and looked for the album. The CD had sold out. I was in such a hurry to hear it that I bought the cassette. I loved it right away. My favourite song on it is “Wasting Time”:

The day is long, many hours to kill

It’s all right if we let a few minutes spill

Where’s the crime in wasting time with you?

I would listen to the album all the time on my walkman. Many of the songs spoke to the nostalgia I was already feeling for the place I hadn’t left yet.

Some months later, either in the autumn of 1995 or the spring of 1996, I was sitting in a cafe on Queen Street called the Roastery. This was across the street from Kew Gardens, which led down to the beach. I was sitting inside, drinking out of a paper cup, listening to the Sexsmith tape. Whenever I see a famous person in the street, I never talk to them unless I have something interesting to say. There’s no point being the thousandth person to say, “I liked your film” or “I like your music”. As I sat there, I thought that if I ever saw Ron Sexsmith again, I’d definitely speak to him. I started to consider what I’d say to him if he should ever find himself back in Toronto again, in his old neighbourhood, and we should happen to cross paths. I would probably ask him if he knew what had ever happened to Sam Larkin.

And then, just as I was thinking this very thought, Ron Sexsmith passed by the cafe and crossed Queen Street into Kew Gardens.

I froze. I felt both amazed and also as though I had actually summoned him. I put the walkman into the bag I had with me, put the lid on my paper cup, and went after him.

Catching up to him was quite difficult. He walked much faster than I did, and I didn’t want to run up behind him. At one point he bent to pick up a stick, and I thought he looked back and saw me. I followed him for about ten minutes, trying to catch up without running. Later on, in another part of the neighbourhood, he dropped the stick he’d been carrying, and when he picked it up he looked back again. I thought that if he had noticed me both times he’d think I was stalking him, so I put my coffee down and ran up to him.

I called out to him and explained that I’d been listening to his music when he walked past the cafe. He was surprised at the coincidence, even though I had decided not to mention that I’d been thinking about what I’d do if I ever saw him. We walked for a bit.

“You’re a fast walker,” I said. “I’ve been trying to catch up to you since you went into the park.”

“I guess all those years of working as a courier paid off,” he said.

I told him I remembered him from the bus and Fat Albert’s and he said I looked familiar to him too. I asked him about Sam, and he told me he’d lost touch with him too, and all he knew was that Sam had moved to some part of north Ontario. I asked him if he was playing anywhere in town, and I think he said he was opening for Sarah McLachlan. He was going to visit some friends of his that lived in the neighbourhood, and we said goodbye. I turned on my walkman again and watched him walk away.

* * * * *

Last year, Ron Sexsmith became the fourth Fat Albert’s alumnus that I’ve heard on the radio here in Athens. So far, he has released eight albums.

* * * * *

Postscript: I was very sad to learn that on Monday 28 October, 2013, Sam Larkin passed away.

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Great verses

When I was in high school, an English teacher I couldn't stand, but who managed to exercise a considerable amount of influence over me, told us that the fourth verse in Shakespeare's 73rd sonnet is considered to be the greatest in English literature:

That time of year thou may'st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold;
Bare ruin'd choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

I don't remember ever coming across this claim again, but certainly it has captivated people. I was struck then by the sound of the words, although the true meaning of the verse escaped me completely. Or at least the generally accepted meaning. But it wasn't till I was in university, studying Hopkins, that I came to be dazzled by it.

Originally, the 1609 Quarto version had it:

Bare rn'wd quiers, where late the ſweet birds ſang.

The general consensus is that the choirs are the chancels, where the choristers stood. Since the publication of William Empson's Seven Kinds of Ambiguity, many believe that this refers also to the ruins of churches and abbeys after Henry VIII's destruction of monasteries. But I found an interesting discussion at Languagehat of an entry at Eudaemonist, which states that a "quire" was

A set of four sheets of parchment or paper doubled so as to form eight leaves, a common unit in mediæval manuscripts; hence, any collection or gathering of leaves, one within the other, in a manuscript or printed book.

The entry continues:

For Shakespeare […] it’s almost impossible to deny the pun. The yellow leaves lingering on the branches might just as well be the leaves of a book—pages which must be unwritten, of course, when the poet dies (just as the branches ‘where late the sweet birds sang’ become ‘bare ruin’d choirs’). The full quires containing the sonnets, however, will continue their serenade (dare I say, ‘twittering’?) despite the changing seasons, despite death, in a typical declaration of immortality…

When I was studying Hopkins, I had an excellent professor, Joaquin Kuhn, who made prosody fascinating, and as interesting as any other aspect of poetry. (How sad that such a statement should need to be made. He was the only professor I had who spent any time on prosody, and knew more about it than others I've known who call themselves poets.) I also studied Shakespeare's sonnets in one of his courses. I tried applying what I knew to the fourth verse of the 73rd sonnet, and things got very confusing.

Possibly, "rn'wd" was pronounced as two syllables, but I doubt it. Many, many words which seem to be disyllabic are actually monosyllabic in poetry. "Heaven" is the first one that comes to mind. This is why so many editions write it as "heav'n". "Choirs" would also be monosyllabic, as it should always be, so each word in the verse is only one syllable.

As there are only nine words, there are only nine syllables, one too few. (Trying to talk about about feet here is pointless.)

Try to scan it, and your real difficulties begin. There's absolutely nothing iambic about the line. It looks like a classic example of sprung rhythm. If you make the stressed syllables bold, you could get

Bare ruin'd choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

But I prefer

Bare ruin'd choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

Seven out of the nine syllables are stressed! And twice there are three consecutive stressed syllables. It reminds me of Hopkins, as I imagine him, pounding his fist on the table as he recites

The heart grows wings bold and bolder.

How does Shakespeare manage to depart so dramatically from the prosody of his sonnet without drawing any attention to the fact? Why does the verse work, when it really it shouldn't? I have not, in the over ten years since I first struggled with the question, been able to answer it.

My favourite verse in English literature yields its pleasures more readily, but I never tire of letting it roll of my tongue. It's from Arnold's "Dover Beach", and I quote the entire stanza it's found in.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

The fifth verse shows what can be done with a language where vowels can have such different sounds, something which cannot be done in Greek, for example. Each vowel in that verse, with the exception of the y in "melancholy", grows more and more expansive, till you swear you can hear the sea retreating and leaving nothing but a vast emptiness.

Say it aloud. Say it again. Slowly.

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So, what do you know?

I was talking recently to an ex-colleague on the telephone and he mentioned that he had recently seen Farenheit 9/11. He said he was amazed at how many lies Americans are willing to believe and I lamented how times like these so dramatically divide people. I reminded him of the scene where Lila Lipscomb is standing in front of the White House listening to a protester in a tent, and another woman comes up and tells her not to listen, it’s all staged. Lipscomb tells her it’s not, and that she lost her son in Iraq. The woman seems embarrassed and adds, “Blame al-Qaida.” Lipscomb comments shortly afterwards that this is the sort of ignorance she has to deal with it. “She thinks she knows,” she says (I’m quoting from memory), “but she doesn’t know. I thought I knew.”

At this point my ex-colleague took it a few steps further and said we never really know anything. He gave World War II as an example. He’s British, and said he had been taught that Britain and its allies were the good guys and German the bad guys. “But who really knows? Who’s to say it was really like that?”

Regardless of whether this is an oversimplification, I was rather surprised to hear the comparison and told him that despite the fact that the US, for example, may have had ulterior motives for entering the war, and did so rather late, to stand by and do nothing would have been morally reprehensible.

Still he clung to his scepticism. Surely no one can doubt that Germany invaded Poland, I said. How can we overlook so many first-hand accounts? History books are held up to academic scrutiny and reputations can be made by people who are able to find holes in other people’s research. You can’t compare the Second World War to what’s going on in Iraq. History is not the evening news on television.

When I first met this colleague, we were talking about books and he said he wasn’t very interested in literature. He was more interested in gaining knowledge and learning about ideas. He mentioned Krishnamurti. Years ago, someone recommended Freedom from the Known to me, and I borrowed it from the library. I read some of it but soon became impatient with it. The basic idea was that very little of what we know is first-hand knowledge, and in itself this is a good point. But where do you go with it? (Krishnamurti also says that we must live in the present and forget the past, and forget the teachers of the past.)

I think it was Wittgenstein who ironically asked what it would look like if the sun revolved around the earth. He was implying that it would look exactly the way it does now. It is important to realise that much of what we believe we know about the world we have accepted on someone else’s authority. I believe that the earth revolves around the sun because physicists who know more than I do say so. I believe that my heart pumps blood around my body because I trust the doctors and biologists who say so. If I waited until I knew these things myself, I’d never get anywhere. It is important to understand the limitations of my knowledge, but it is vanity to extend this conclusion to knowledge in general.

Some months ago a Bangladeshi immigrant stopped me on the street and tried to sell me some flowers. When I attempted to give him some change, tears welled in his eyes and he explained to me in broken English that he needed 35 euros to buy medicine for his child. I told him I couldn’t afford to give him any more. Although I had about 60 euros in my wallet, it was true: it was a financially difficult time for me. Nevertheless, that day I had spent 18 euros on a hardcover notebook I ended up throwing away, and now I was preparing to go to a bar and drink 4-euro beers. “You have money,” he said. “I know you do. You have big money.”

I was speechless. He was, of course, right. Compared to him, I had big money. I was ashamed to to tell him that I had more expenses than he did. I felt weighed down by all kinds of superfluous things.

I was faced with a dilemma. Should I refuse although he might be telling the truth, or give him the money although he might be lying? If those two were the only possibilities, which would I choose? After all how could I know if he was telling the truth. (I gave him 20.)

The question of what we know should be a practical one. What do I choose to believe?

On the telephone with my ex-colleague, I began to get irritated and impatient. We spoke in raised voices. I said the logical conclusion of his argument is that we can never know if we’re not really nothing more than a brain in a jar in a lab somewhere. What do we gain from this exercise in doubt? What does he construct after he’s finished tearing down? I happened to be reading Primo Levi at the time. What does it say about me if I choose to say, although there is nothing to recommend the theory except that it’s merely possible, that Levi was wrong or not telling the truth? How should I know?*

Am I being naive in choosing to trust such documents? How is one person naive because he chooses to believe what Levi says, and another person wise because he doubts what Krishnamurti tells him to?

*At one point in the conversation, he surprised me by saying one way of getting first-hand experience of things in the past would be through some kind of cosmic travel. “But that,” he said, “is for another conversation.”

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Beads of Melancholy

When Allah, through his emissary the Archangel Gabriel, gave the Koran to Mohammed, he explained the importance of communion between God and man, and the importance of prayer. The longer a prayer lasts, the calmer the mind and soul of man become. He ordered that the prayers the faithful recite should be ninety-nine, as many as Allah’s names, or attributes. They were to recite these names twenty times a day.

Mohammed felt, however, that this was too much, and negotiated through Gabriel until Allah consented to five prayers a day.

Mohammed then turned to the problem of making it easier for the faithful to keep track of the attributes they were counting. He called a council and they searched for a solution for three days and nights. At last they hit upon the idea of making a sort of abacus by passing a string through ninety-nine beans or peas. As they slipped them through their fingers one by one, they could keep count. They called it misbaha, which means “I recite.”

As time passed, the misbaha became more elaborate. Wooden beads were made, and a larger, longer one was added, but not counted. This bead was called Allah. There was a small gap between the beads, the size of a single bead, so that one could easily slip one past as one counted.

Wherever Islam spread, so did the misbaha. Precious stones were sometimes used, as well as black coral, ebony, camel bone, solid amber. New materials were made, especially in Egypt, often named after their inventors: Ambrasit, Resanit, Resan. The greatest of these was Faturan, a compound of amber resin, bakelite, mastich, and colophony. These ingredients are immersed in acetone, which leaves only the solid parts of the resins, and then placed in high-pressure hydraulic presses until they are as hard as stone again. During this process, colour was also added. Faturan beads could be yellow, orange, red, or purple. The classic is a dark red, like wine.

The idea of prayer beads spread to the west, as well, in the form of the rosary, although here the beads are not mobile. And already they existed in the east, in the form of the Buddhist mala, used in India and China.

A strange offshoot of this tradition can be found in Greece. During the Ottoman occupation, Greeks would see the Turks carrying these long strings of beads. No one knows how it happened, but they acquired some themselves. Only the Greeks had no religious need for them. They became playthings. The number of beads was reduced (though it must always be an odd number) and the gap was increased, so that the beads could slide around more. It became the komboloi, known among tourists as “worry beads”.

The most common etymology is from kombos (κόμβος) and logion (λόγιον). Kombos is the word for “knot” and the second part of the word could best be explained here as meaning “bunch of”. (Greek monks use a knotted bracelet to count prayers on.) The problem with this etymology is that the word for knot is pronounced komvos, and komboloi would more properly be written kompoloi. So the root is more likely kompos (κόμπος), which is the sound of two things hitting each other.

Curiously, the word can be found in Liddell & Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon. Kompos, it says, means “a noise, din, clash, esp. such as is caused by the collision of two hard bodies, as of a boar’s tusks when he whets them.” A second definition is a boast or vaunt. But what is interesting is a verb, kompologeo (κομπολογέω), to speak boastfully. The noun of this verb is kompologia (κομπολογία).

One needs to forget, for a moment, the modern gaudy plastic toy or souvenir known as worry beads. There was a time when they were a sign of laziness (since one played with them instead of working) and rough machismo (since only men had them). Only men of the lower classes could be found handling a komboloi, with the exception of priests, who needed something to do in their idleness. It is a remnant of a world in which men were dominant and yet spent most of their time in coffee-houses. They would either hold it and let its beads slip through their fingers and listen to the slow clicking sound they made, or would swing them about with a flourish. It was the seated equivalent of a swagger.

A good komboloi is judged by three criteria: its feel, its look, and its sound. Some might add a fourth criterion: its smell. Amber, when rubbed, produces a faint pleasant smell, and many beads are made with incense as well. The piece I own, probably 60 to 100 years old, is made of a mixture of amber and mastich, with some frankincense added to it.

The greatest materials are rare, and most of the methods of making them have been forgotten. After decades of cheap plastic trinkets, the traditional komboloi has come back into fashion, but the demand is greater than the supply, and people often carry around plastic pieces that they have spent a small fortune on. Meanwhile, the prices of the real thing keep rising. This summer I held an old faturan komboloi that cost 1,300 euros.

Although there has been an increased awareness of what materials make an authentic komboloi, it is once again being vulgarised. One can see yuppies walk down streets in Athens with expensive imitations, or (much worse) silver ones. In the crowded city streets, one can no longer hear the beautiful sound of bead hitting bead. Few seem to know that the komboloi was meant to be company in one’s loneliness, consolation in one’s suffering, relief in one’s anxiety, a small measure of cheer in one’s melancholy.

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