Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Straight Life

The title of Art Pepper’s biography is loaded and layered with meaning. ‘Straight Life’ is the name of his best known composition: a virtuoso piece from one of the greats of twentieth century jazz. But the tune was always a contradiction; for Pepper’s body was wracked with addiction; his reasoning twisted by alcohol and heroin, and his life-path as crooked and fucked-up as they come.

Art Pepper was arguably the greatest alto saxophonist of the post war era. Born unwanted, brought-up unloved, the descriptions of his childhood are as grim as they are shocking. There can be little doubt that his later problems stemmed from a deeply rooted sense of isolation – a craving to be loved and accepted, by himself as much as anyone else.

What follows is a life story that is staggeringly sad. In an echo of his music, it’s as if Pepper is improvising on his own desperate existence: playing ever faster, increasingly off key, out of sync with himself and the world. Ostensibly he’s seeking redemption – but always, and inevitably, his actions resolve into a deeper and more pitiful hell.
It seems to me, that the narrative of Straight Life can be read in two ways.

At one level it is a chronicle of self-destruction, of a life spent in and out of prison, of failed relationships, petty and serious crime; it’s the story of years wasted, in more ways than one – the consequence of a wilful surrender to substance abuse.

At another, it’s a troubling reminder of the fine line between brilliance and the void. Pepper’s life is a tale of obsession, of an uncompromising (if seriously warped) view of the world and what constitutes right and wrong. By any normal standards Art Pepper is a foul individual; the nagging question is whether normal standards should apply.

The book’s format is a transcription of recorded interviews which he gave towards the end of his life. In Pepper’s voice there’s a disarming honesty and a declared self-criticism, but there’s also a less than subtle suggestion that his actions were a necessary consequence of his talent.

My suspicion is that fans of Pepper will sympathise. We often lionise our heroes, tempering our judgements and blind-eying actions that would be unacceptable in others. Art Pepper was as near to genius on the saxophone as they come. Whether that excuses behaviour we wouldn’t wish on ourselves, or for that matter our worst enemies, is a different matter.

Pepper, like his music, is difficult and mercurial – it takes time to figure him out. The book is much the same, and there’s a quality to Straight Life that took me a while to grasp – but which, once recognised, perhaps explains a lot.

Throughout the book, Pepper talks entirely ‘in the moment’ of his recollections. When he describes entering San Quentin prison, it’s as if he’s back there and his attitudes and opinions of the time are expressed as if he still held them now – by the end of the chapter they’ve evolved and moderated, but only as the tale unfolds. It’s as if each moment has to be fully relived – a sort of method acting as a means to honesty.

And just maybe that’s what’s required of great jazz musicians – the ability to live in the moment; achieving a creative dissonance that suspends reality; a sort of nirvana if you like. I don’t know if that’s true, but it seems plausible, and might explain the link between his destructive qualities and musical talent – the flowering of good and evil, but both from the same root.

Straight Life is not an easy read. It’s complex, self-indulgent and frankly, depressing. But there are moments of lucidity that make it worthwhile. The passage describing his first taking of heroin is piece of brilliance – it’s too long to quote in full, but here’s an extract to finish on.

I looked at myself in the mirror and looked at Sheila and I looked at the few remaining lines of heroin and I took the dollar bill and I horned the rest of them down. I said, “This is it. This is the only answer for me. If this is what it takes, then this is what I’m going to do, whatever dues I have to pay…”

Art Pepper died in 1982; his music lives on.

Straight Life
The story of Art Pepper
Mojo books: ISBN 9781841950648

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

On seals and boxing and deeply felt aesthetics

'Make the boy interested in natural history if you can - it's better than games'
Robert Falcon Scott in his last letter to his wife 
(quoted in today's Times Universal Register)

Last Friday I walked with my eldest son from Abereiddy near my home to St David’s Head – nine miles of rugged splendour: five seals in a bay, a kestrel at Carn Llidi; my first butterflies of the year.  The next day I drove to London with my middle son and cheered as Carl Froch bludgeoned George Groves with a right hand we could feel from the second tier of Wembley Stadium.

Those who know my writing won’t be surprised by Friday’s walk, but I suspect they might be perplexed by the boxing. ‘How can you like such a violent sport?’ my mother in law often asks. ‘With what you’ve written about your father, I can’t understand it.’ Like many people, my mother law in law regards boxing as horrid; a form of institutionalised violence, which has no place in the athletic world – I’m paraphrasing here, but the sentiment will be familiar.

And I understand it too. Boxing is violent in the sense that the pugilists are – to put it plainly – trying to hit each other as hard and as accurately as they can. What’s more the obligatory trash talk before the fight creates an atmosphere of aggression that can be unsavoury to say the least. The crowd on Saturday was a disconcerting cocktail of gangster suits and fake tanned peacocks.

But then other sports are aggressive in different ways. My mother in law loves rugby – and I know of no one who is more vicarious and visceral in her support of the national team.  ‘Get him; punch him; get in there…grrr…’ Most rugby matches I see involve regular punch ups, often gruesome injuries – and here’s a point to ponder – behaviour that outside of a rugby pitch would invite criminal prosecution. Football is less violent on the pitch, but I’d not take my young son to a match because of the tribal intimidation of the crowds.

It’s interesting to me, that almost anyone I’ve spoken to about boxing – who has also been on the end of domestic violence – can see the distinction immediately. Violence is the unlawful use of physical aggression; it involves one party assaulting another; a resort to force to impose their will, whether that be on a playing field, a backstreet or a bedroom.

And that’s an entirely different thing to two adults entering a boxing ring, each voluntarily present, knowing what’s involved and happy to accept the outcome. I could go on about the adherence to rules, safety concerns and more, but it’s all a bit peripheral.  Better simply to declare that there is aggression in boxing, and lots of it - but it not uninvited, and that’s the key point.

For all this defence of Saturday night, I should point out that I don’t think my mother in law is entirely wrong. It seems to me that it’s possible to hold an iron clad objection to boxing on aesthetic grounds – it just feels wrong; and for all the talk of rules and safety and voluntary participation, the fact that grown men are punching each other is at odds with what we ought to consider as sport.

I don’t share that view, but I can understand it.  My dislike of fox-hunting is something similar – there are flaws and inconsistencies all over the place if I try and articulate it.  But deep down, I can’t reconcile myself to people taking pleasure from hunting a beautiful wild animal – uninvited violence of a different sort, perhaps?

Returning to Saturday. It seems to me there is something deeply pure about boxing, which, more than any sport I know, connects us to our most primitive emotions. As we watched from high in the new Wembley gantries, the crowd turned to cheer at Daniel Craig (who waved from the VIP box behind us). I said to my son – it’s not very different to the coliseum is it?

Then the fight began and we were lost in the noise.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

About writing

My writing desk in Wales

Cait O'Connor, a fellow blogger from Wales, has kindly asked that I say a few words about writing. It's part of a blog-tour cum round robin - though based on recent output, I should perhaps say a little on writer's block. 

Writing is a strange passion. One week you can't stop; the next, you're staring at a screensaver, fingers all fuddled, much to say but no way to...

And the odd thing is, there's no telling when it's going to happen.

Last week, my friend and former colleague passed away. He was one of the most genuine people I’ve known - a model of how to succeed without privilege, politics or the polished veneer that’s so easily mistaken for substance. Alan was 60 years old when he died - he'd retired three years ago.

I bet you weren't expecting that paragraph.

But then neither was I.

And for reasons I can't fully explain it is almost the last I piece I wrote.  I've drafted a dozen tributes to Alan since - each one is in the trash: too contrived; not enough structure; no conclusion of merit. Sometimes it's perhaps best to say it straight: Alan died, I was very sad, it affected me more than I realised; I think I've been trying too hard.

That last point is important.

When I studied for a degree in creative writing the most difficult process was restarting after receiving a high grade. It felt as if the only way was down - which on reflection, is a rather arrogant view of my own output. As a consequence, my next piece was often dreadful. On the positive side, the only way was then up - creative confidence restored!

All of which is a rambling excuse for the quality of this post and for not writing much recently.

I should add that the saxophone continues to obsess me; that I've lost two stones since January (can't be creative while dieting; can't explain why), have barely had a drink in all that time (whisky and writing are bedfellows), and despite all of this, have a deadline of December for a contribution to an anthology on 'Place'.

Meanwhile, Cait asked me to answer four questions; I'll keep this part brief:

What am I working on?

An anthology of Place; a book on writing in business; a response to my sons leaving home. The latter two are largely just ideas - see 'my process' below.

How does my work differ?

I like to think it's plain and honest - and it's carefully crafted, the tone especially so

Why do I write?

Because there's much I want to say - if only to myself.  And because I know of no better way to clarify what's spinning and shaping in my mind.

How does my process of writing work?

In part, I've covered this above.

More directly, I write a lot in my head; I seldom take notes; I think a great deal - getting it down requires days alone;  hours at the keyboard; words moving till the light dies.

'Word's moving till the light dies'....  Gosh, it's 10.30pm; seems an appropriate ending for now.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

After the storm

Near to my house is the beautiful cove of Abereiddy. The picture above is a stock shot from the Internet - it was probably taken about ten years ago, but that doesn't matter - the important thing is the line of the sea wall and where it joins the headland.

Compare this to the picture I took this morning.

To be fair the sea walls were removed a couple of year ago and the car park has receded a few meters each winter - but the recent storms did the equivalent of ten years' work in a night.  There was room for five cars today!

To the south is Newgale, a mile of sands backed with a bank of cobbles. The picture below was taken at Christmas.

The same spot this morning...

It's common for the winter storms to lower the sand, but in twenty years I've never seen it so denuded. A little further down, the petrified trunks of an ancient forest have been exposed for the first time in decades.

Above the usual shoreline, the putative defence is being replaced after the tide had brushed it aside.

And yet today all was calm, as beautiful and wondrous as ever - in some ways more so.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Feeling good

I did it.

And I have to say I'm quite proud of myself.

I've taken part in the NaBloPoMo (national blog posting month) challenge for each the last four years. The idea is to write a blog every day during November - more difficult than it sounds, but good discipline, and something I ought to do more.

I almost never pre-plan what I write; this year I wasn't even sure if I was taking part until half way through...  And so it's been a rambling sort of NaBloPoMo - but I've enjoyed it all the more for that. I'm aware there's been a lot of philosophy and politics - apologies, if I've gone on a bit; I guess that's because I've been clearing my mind. Then there was also scotch eggs...

But actually, I did it, and I'm quite proud of myself for another reason.

At the start of November I promised my friend and fellow blogger Michelle that if I completed the challenge I'd post a video of me playing the saxophone.

Well, last night, despite the head cold and very limited talent, I made my first ever public appearance playing an instrument.  Here's me and some fellow students, blowing our rendition of Feeling Good.


Friday, November 29, 2013

Nigella and the Gogglebox

I returned to work yesterday having recovered (almost) from this dreadful man-flu. It was good to see my colleagues again and enjoy a little office banter.

Topic of the day was Nigella Lawson and whether she's 'a lovely lady with a dreadful ex-husband who's using a court case to destroy her reputation'  or  'a coke-head and a bad role model at odds with her public image.'  I've simplified the two positions of course, but I'd say opinion was fairly evenly divided.

Frankly, I'm not taking sides but I did ponder on two thoughts on my way home.

The first was to note the relatively restrained tone of the assessments towards Nigella - in the press as well as by many of my colleagues - compared to that meted out to other cocaine users: the disgraced former chief of the Coop bank would be a good example. If the allegations are true I'm not sure there's much difference in what either was up to?

The second was a remark I overheard, claiming that to describe Nigella's drug habit as criminal wasn't correct. Excuse me - buying huge amounts of cocaine, and allegedly for her daughter too? Yes but she wasn't dealing! I can understand why someone might regard dealing as more serious, but possession of a Class A drug carries a seven year sentence - that's a criminal offence in my book. Whether it ought to be is a different issue - in the meantime see yesterday's post on truth and logic.

But much more fun than Nigella was the chat about Gogglebox.

Universally loved by everyone in the office - it's the most weirdly compulsive programme I've seen in years. The format, if you don't already know, is a fly on the wall of various couples and families watching television. This week the cameras captured their reactions to Doctor Who, the Ashes defeat, a Star Wars Movie...

The characters are all larger than life and I guess everybody has their favourite - I especially like Leon and June the retired teachers from Liverpool; Jane likes the posh hoteliers who are always sloshed. Evidently Gogglebox has proved so popular they've already sold the rights to America, and China is considering a series.

But what I find most fascinating about Gogglebox, is the uncomfortable realisation that we've come to the point where TV is so dull, we'd rather watch other people viewing it, than sit through the programmes ourselves!

I wonder if that principle could ever apply to blogs - don't bother reading the Bike Shed, just click the webcam to watch me typing... and sneezing (though not from cocaine I assure you).

 Somehow I don't think it would catch on.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Truth and logic

The other week I read a quote in passing which went something like: 'think wrongly if you wish; but whatever you do, think clearly.'  The exact words aren't important; it's the distinction between truth and logic which is.

I often meet people who say If it's not true, then how can it be logical?  The reason is important to all critical thinking, and especially to philosophy - it's not difficult to grasp, though to some it is clearly counter-intuitive.

One of the characteristics of studying philosophy is that it teaches us to evaluate arguments, not only in relation to evidence (which remains vital too), but also by reference to their consistency. For an argument to be logically sound it need to expressed in a way that the constituent parts are compatible and not contradictory.  Being logical does not mean that you are 'right' in the sense of the facts and evidence  - but it does mean that you 'could be right' in 'some possible situation'.

Let's take an examples.

George believes that the threat of prison makes no difference to the way people behave. At the same time he thinks we should give tough sentences to those selling heroin  because it might  deter young people from becoming dealers.

George may well be right in his conclusions that tougher sentences would deter drug dealers - but his reasoning is not logical.  If the threat of prison makes no difference to the way people behave, then it follows that tougher sentences would not deter a young person from becoming a dealer. The two beliefs are incompatible because in no possible circumstance can they both be true.

Here's a different slant.

Susan explained she held five dinner parties last year; at every one she undercooked the main course and on three occasions her guests suffered food poisoning - the puddings were so inedible they've become a standing joke amongst her crowd.  Despite this Susan says she's an excellent cook - she's just been over ambitious in her choices given she's had no formal training.

Now Susan is almost certainly delusional- all the evidence suggests she's a dreadful cook and ought to get the caterers in. But although her assessment may be silly and irresponsible, it is not illogical in a formal sense. That's because her view is not strictly incompatible with her attempts at entertaining - there is some possible (albeit highly improbable) scenario in which she is correct.

The test of consistency can be applied to simpler beliefs too.

For example, if I say  'all the males in Lincoln are dowagers,' then I'm saying something that is inherently contradictory (only women can be dowagers) and therefore, necessarily untrue.

We need also to watch out for the trivial - some beliefs can be logical and true - but frankly, they don't say much.

Saying 'all eligible bachelors are men,' is self evident because to be a man is a requirement of being an 'eligible bachelor' -  dropping 'are men' from the sentence wouldn't change its meaning or truth.

These are but a few examples, but hopefully they illustrate the distinction.  The key point is that logic requires our beliefs to be consistent with each other; for conclusions to be compatible with the premises.  It is possible to be logical in our reasoning but get the facts wrong and vice versa.

So why does all this matter?

Because in the real world, many things we debate are not 'true' or 'false' in the sense they can be proved. And even when there is persuasive evidence it may be disputed, the factors weighed differently, interpretation coloured by cultural or political bias...

Economic theory is a contemporary example of this - you'd think by now we could simply measure the 'facts' and determine what's the best route to achieve a given set of objectives? But in reality, extremely intelligent professors are regularly at loggerheads over the importance and implications of one statistic or another. Despite decades of study, there is no agreement akin to that in say, chemistry.

And when we come to examine issues such as 'morality' or 'wellbeing' or 'justice' then we've moved even further from any possibility of pinning down 'truth'. Here consistency especially matters in testing the compatibility of our beliefs across different but related issues. For example if we believe in freedom of information, then that has implications for our policy on the press, the internet, accessibility to government documents, etc.

The reality is that only a small percentage of our beliefs are evidence based - many more, and especially those related to our views on right and wrong, derive from a cocktail of intuition, emotion, cultural background, personal bias, self interest, ignorance, and sometimes, plain old confusion..

What philosophy tries to do, is bring some order to the jumble - to rationalise the inconsistencies and create as coherent a system of beliefs as is possible. It regularly fails of course - and philosophers are as apt to think wrongly as the next man.  But to be fair - most of them will at least try to think clearly.