Allen Toussaint, giant of New Orleans R&B, has died

Allen Toussaint, giant of New Orleans R&B, has died

Songwriter, producer and revered New Orleans R&B performer Allen Toussaint has died aged 77 after suffering a heart attack last night after a show in Madrid.

We saw him perform a great show just this summer at Ronnie Scott’sContinue reading “Allen Toussaint, giant of New Orleans R&B, has died”

Percy Sledge and Ben E King: dreams to remember

Percy Sledge and Ben E King: dreams to remember

Last week we lost two giants of soul music – Ben E King and Percy Sledge. Hearing the news brought back memories of listening to Radio Luxembourg under the bedclothes in the early sixties – back when the BBC Light Programme was a waste of time for teenagers, and before the advent of pirate radio.

It was ‘Spanish Harlem’ that really got to me.  Like most singles in those days (it was released in 1960) it was as light as air, far from over-produced, consisting of little more than tinkling vibes, a plucked bass – and Ben E King’s glorious, velvety vocal:

There is a rose in Spanish Harlem
A red rose up in Spanish Harlem
It is a special one, it’s never seen the sun
It only comes out when the moon is on the run
And all the stars are gleaming
It’s growing in the street right up through the concrete
But soft and sweet and dreamin’

There are subtly-stated strings, and the middle break features a soulful saxophone, but that’s basically all there is. But, for all that, it’s a miracle, as much of one as that rose pushing it’s way up through the concrete of the city streets.

King grew up in Harlem.  Born Benjamin Earl Nelson in a small town in North Carolina in 1938, he first sang with his church choir before the family moved to Harlem in 1947. In high school he began performing with a street corner doo-wop group which won second place in an Apollo Theatre talent contest.

Ben E King
Ben E King

By 1958, King was part of another doo-wop group, the Five Crowns, who were hired to become a fresh version of the Drifters when the group’s manager fired all the original members in an attempt to reinvigorate the act. King only lasted a year with the group, but in those months he sang lead on the Drifters’ biggest singles, including ‘This Magic Moment’, ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’ and ‘There Goes My Baby’.

Ben E King and the Drifters in 1959
Ben E King and the Drifters in 1959

That was 1959, and, barely a teenager, I was electrified by these songs. ‘There Goes My Baby’ was co-written by King and was his first lead vocal with the Drifters. The lush backing arrangement made use for almost the first time of a string section, and the single became a massive hit.

There’s a great moment in the 1978 film biography of the dee-jay Alan Freed, American Hot Wax, when Freed, doing his how in the studio, gets a disturbing phone call from his father. When his father hangs up, he just sits there, head in hands, until the engineer tells him it’s time to cue up another record. Freed says nothing, just leans over and cues up ‘There Goes My Baby’.  As it begins playing, speaking over the intro he says, ‘This is Alan Freed and I love you. You know what? It’s raining in Akron, Ohio, but it’s a beautiful night in New York City, and these are the Drifters and ‘There Goes My Baby”

For me, it’s a great moment because it captures perfectly the romanticism and the sense of liberation of those innocent, early days of pop radio and pop singles.  Produced by Leiber and Stoller, the single marked a significant moment in the evolution of rhythm and blues into soul music.

A few months later came ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’, for an adolescent the perfect combination of intoxicating sweetness and melancholy. Though I didn’t know it at the time, it had perfect pop DNA: written by the grerat songwriting team of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, and produced by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller for Atlantic Records. Some say Phil Spector was apprentice producer on the record.  Mix in Ben E King’s sad, yearning vocals the soaring violins, it was no wonder that it was a massive hit in 1960 in both America and the UK.

Another summer rolled around and I found myself swooning to the strains of ‘Stand By Me’ which would become Ben E King’s most famous, enduring recording.  By 1960, King had broken with the Drifters and launched his own solo career with ‘Spanish Harlem’, a hit written by Jerry Leiber and Phil Spector.  Now came ‘Stand By Me’, written by King along with Leiber and Stoller. ‘I walked into our office, and Jerry and Benny were working on the lyrics,’ Stoller later recalled. ‘Benny started to sing and I went to the piano and fleshed out the chords and came up with the bass pattern and Jerry said, ‘Ah, now we got a hit!’ And he was right.’

In The Heart of Rock and Soul, Dave Marsh wrote that ‘Stand By Me’ is ‘as timeless as a basic black dress.’ The theme was gospel, the bass and percussion Afro-Cuban, ‘but the riffing cellos and soft quartet harmonies, the way the arrangement builds, adding instruments and growing more lush at each stage, is all pure Leiber-Stoller.’ We can see now that it was ahead of its time, prefiguring the work of Leiber-Stoller protege Phil Spector and the sound of Tamla-Motown . In 2013, King told the Guardian:

It was 1960, but in my vocal I think you can hear something of my earlier times when I’d sing in subway halls for the echo, and perform doo-wop on street corners. But I had a lot of influences, too – singers like Sam Cooke, Brook Benton and Roy Hamilton. The song’s success lay in the way Leiber and Stoller took chances, though, borrowing from symphonic scores, and we had a brilliant string arranger in Stan Applebaum.

Ben E King was 76 when he died, Percy Sledge just a couple of years younger. Although his career stretched from the 1960s to well into this century, Percy Sledge will always be identified with his first and greatest hit, ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’.

Percy Sledge
Percy Sledge

Percy Sledge worked in a series of blue-collar jobs in Alabama before getting a job as a hospital nurse in the early 1960s. For several years, he toured as a member of the Southern soul vocal group the Esquires Combo on weekends, while working at the hospital during the week. On the advice of a former patient and local disc jockey Quin Ivy he went solo in 1966. His soulful voice was perfect for the series of soul ballads produced by Ivy and Marlin Greene, which rock critic Dave Marsh called ’emotional classics for romantics of all ages.’

‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ was Sledge’s first song recorded under the contract, and was released in March 1966. The song’s inspiration came when Sledge’s girlfriend left him for a modelling career after he was laid off from work in late 1965.

Driven by Sledge’s passionate, pleading delivery, the million-selling song topped the US pop and R&B charts in 1966 and reached No 4 in Britain. The song is perhaps the ultimate expression of deep Southern soul.  It became the first gold record released by Atlantic Records.

Because bassist Calvin Lewis and organist Andrew Wright helped him with the song, he gave all the song-writing credits to them. ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ was followed by ‘Warm and Tender Love’ (covered in the UK by Elkie Brooks in 1981), and ‘t Tears Me Up’, one of the great songs written by Dan Penn.

After the streak of hits represented by ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’, ‘Warm and Tender Love’ and ‘It Tears Me Up’, Sledge sank from view in the 1970s.

But he eventually returned to the limelight when a new generation discovered ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ through film and television soundtracks and a 1987 Levi’s TV commercial. On the back of the resurgence, Sledge released the 1994 album Blue Night, his first for a major label in two decades. Despite receiving positive reviews – including a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Blues Album – it proved to be Sledge’s last major project.  It was a fine album, and for me the standout track was ‘I’ve Got Dreams to Remember’. The pleading intensity of his voice remained just the same; the song, like ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’, was superficially romantic, but actually deeply wounded:

I’ve got dreams,
Dreams to remember
Honey I saw you there last night
Another man’s arms holding you tight
Nobody knows what I feel inside
All I know, I walked away and cried
I’ve got dreams,
Dreams to remember

Jane Bown: looking for the light

Jane Bown: looking for the light

Jane Bown, self-portrait, c1986

Jane Bown, self-portrait, c 1986

‘I was terrified, I don’t think I even knew who he was. But the light was good …’

That was the photographer Jane Bown who died yesterday, speaking of her first commission for the Observer in 1949 – a portrait of the philosopher Bertrand Russell.  Her words, writes Luke Dodds today in his tender and funny Guardian obituary of one of Britain’s finest post-war photographers, ‘classic Jane: concise, self-deprecating and modestly assured’.

Bertrand Russell by Jane Bown

Bown differed from her male colleagues in the world of photo-journalism in many ways, Dodds tell us. She was intuitive, worked fast, and lacked all interest in camera equipment. In a typical shoot she exposed no more than a roll and a half of film, often in just 15 minutes.

Once, in a dark alleyway down the side of the Royal Court theatre in London, she cornered Samuel Beckett, who was notorious for refusing to be photographed. ‘With simmering hostility’, he stood long enough for Jane to expose five frames – the middle one, says Dodds, ‘is one of her most recognisable portraits and the best portrait of the playwright’.

Samuel Beckett, in 1976 by Jane Bown

Samuel Beckett, in 1976 by Jane Bown

In 1969, Jane produced another iconic portrait – of Billie Whitelaw, who also died yesterday. Best known for her work with Samuel Beckett, she has been described as his ‘muse’, and will always be associated with the three major works – Not I (1973), Footfalls (1976) and Rockaby (1981) – that Beckett wrote specifically for her, roles that placed enormous technical and psychological demands on the actress. ‘She doesn’t ask any damn-fool questions,’ Beckett once said wryly, explaining his preference for the unpretentious woman, daughter of a Liverpool electrician and his wife, who grew up in Bradford.

Billie Whitelaw by Jane Bown

Billie Whitelaw by Jane Bown

Jane Bown’s main preoccupation on any shoot was the light. She worked almost exclusively with natural light and in a completely intuitive way, preferring to ignore the camera’s light meter. Many of her best pictures involved a single exposure and she once remarked: ‘I was always a one-shot photographer … where I’m good is that I am very quick.’

Jane Bown at Guildford School of Art, c 1947

Jane Bown at Guildford School of Art, c 1947

In his obituary, Luke Dodds adds this little vignette of her working method:

She liked to be at the same height or slightly higher than her subjects: given her diminutive stature, this sometimes led to unorthodox requests – Michael Parkinson reclining on the floor of ITN’s reception; Björk perched on rubbish bins outside the MTV studios in Camden Town. Then she would begin to circle the subject, gently clicking all the time. She knew instinctively if she had captured a good frame and would often say: “Ah, there you are.” Jane liked nothing better than to concentrate on the eyes, often using such a limited depth of field that one of the subject’s eyes is slightly out of focus.

David Hockney by Jane Bown

David Hockney by Jane Bown

I enjoyed Dobbs’ story of when Jane photographed Tony Blair just before he became prime minister in 1997. He writes:

Looking at the contact sheets it is clear that she struggled. When I asked her about it she replied: ‘It was impossible … he was nice and he allowed me to follow him upstairs so that he could try on a different shirt.’ When I pressed further, she scrunched up her face trying to remember the day and eventually said: ‘It was impossible, because there was nothing real there.’

Maya Angelou by Jane Bown

Maya Angelou, who also died this year, by Jane Bown

WH Auden

WH Auden by Jane Bown

John Betjeman by Jane Bown

John Betjeman by Jane Bown

Mick Jagger

Mick Jagger by Jane Bown

Lucian Freud by Jane Bown

Lucian Freud by Jane Bown

Keith Richards by Jane Bown

Keith Richards by Jane Bown

John Lennon by Jane Bown

John Lennon by Jane Bown

Joan Baez by Jane Bown

Joan Baez by Jane Bown

Doris Lessing by Jane Bown

Doris Lessing by Jane Bown

Church cleaner, Ashbrittle, Somerset, 1950s by Jane Bown

Church cleaner, Ashbrittle, Somerset, 1950s by Jane Bown

Beryl Bainbridge by Jane Bown

Beryl Bainbridge by Jane Bown

Eamonn McCabe, one time picture editor at the Guardian adds an affectionate footnote to Luke Dodds’ obituary, in which he writes:

Nobody has taken so many wonderful photographs of so many great faces with such little fuss as Jane Bown. She was a reluctant star, hating the attention of being well-known herself. She hated being photographed too. I was lucky she trusted me, but she watched me like a hawk when I photographed her at 80. She photographed the Queen that year and I photographed the queen of photography.

I worked alongside her at the Observer for nearly 15 years and she was as nervous as the rest of us every time she went out to take a picture, but unlike many of us, she prepared meticulously. Light was the most important thing in her life. She never used flash, probably didn’t know how it worked.

If you look at many of Jane’s pictures, the subject is often smiling and relaxed. That was because they were often taken after a long lunch, at which Jane would never drink, and shot by a light-filled window. But the real reason was that they all loved Jane. I often see her kind of picture when I look through a lens now, and think to myself, I can’t take that … it’s a Jane Bown.

Jane Bown in 2006.

Jane Bown in 2006 by Eamonn McCabe

Germaine Greer once wrote of Jane Bown: ‘If we are to assess the best of her photojournalism it is to Cartier-Bresson that we must turn to find her soulmate.’

See also

Maya Angelou: do not be wedded forever to fear

Maya Angelou: do not be wedded forever to fear

Maya Angelou history

What you looking at me for?
I didn’t come to stay…

So, in the space of six months two beacons of justice and equality have flickered out.  First Nelson Mandela, now Maya Angelou. Confirming her death today, Maya Angelou’s son said: ‘She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace’.

Maya Angelou’s life was a s remarkable as Nelson Mandela’s: born in St Louis, Missouri, in 1928, she survived the trials of a terrible childhood. Born into poverty in the depression and the racist, segregated American south, she survived a childhood rape, gave birth as a teenager, and was, at one time, a prostitute. The opening section of her 1969 memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, an indictment of the racial discrimination she experienced during her childhood, closes with this vivid assertion:

Growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an
unnecessary insult.

Yet that volume opens with the words quoted at the top of this post: ‘What you looking at me for? I didn’t come to stay’ – a suggestion of her fierce determination to transcend her circumstances. It’s the same spirit that burns through her wonderful poem ‘Still I Rise’  – the determination to rise above ‘history’s shame’, the past of pain, terror and fear, of terrible suffering. But the shared history of her people has also yielded so much pride and beauty:

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

Maya Angelou

Like Mandela, Maya Angelou did rise – above the hatefulness and suffering, the violence and prejudice directed against herself and her people, to write inspirational texts such as ‘Human Family’:

I note the obvious differences
in the human family.
Some of us are serious,
some thrive on comedy.

Some declare their lives are lived
as true profundity,
and others claim they really live
the real reality.

The variety of our skin tones
can confuse, bemuse, delight,
brown and pink and beige and purple,
tan and blue and white.

I’ve sailed upon the seven seas
and stopped in every land,
I’ve seen the wonders of the world
not yet one common man.

I know ten thousand women
called Jane and Mary Jane,
but I’ve not seen any two
who really were the same.

Mirror twins are different
although their features jibe,
and lovers think quite different thoughts
while lying side by side.

We love and lose in China,
we weep on England’s moors,
and laugh and moan in Guinea,
and thrive on Spanish shores.

We seek success in Finland,
are born and die in Maine.
In minor ways we differ,
in major we’re the same.

I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.
We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

At the same time, in memoirs such as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou wrote with brutal directness of the racism she had endured: of  ‘the rust on the razor that threatens the throat’:

A light shade had been pulled down between the Black community and all things white, but one could see through it enough to develop a fear-admiration-contempt for the white “things”—white folks’ cars and white glistening houses and their children and their women. But above all, their wealth that allowed them to waste was the most enviable.

In one scene that she describes, Maya is among a crowd gathered around a store radio with the rest of her community to listen to Joe Louis, ‘the Brown Bomber’, defend his world heavyweight boxing title. In a passage that conjures black pride in the face of oppression, she writes:

My race groaned. It was our people falling. It was another lynching,yet another Black man hanging on a tree. One more woman ambushed and raped. . . . This might be the end of the world. If Joe lost we were back in slavery and beyond help. It would all be true, the accusations that we were lower types of human beings. Only a little higher than the apes.

As Lyn Innes writes in her obituary for the Guardian:

The book is also a celebration of the strength and integrity of black women such as Angelou’s grandmother, who enforced the respect of white adults and endured the impudence of white children. […] It gives a sympathetic and compassionate account of a beleaguered black community while also humorously dramatising Angelou’s need to find self-fulfilment outside it.

And what a fulfilling life she achieved for herself.  Lyn Innes summarizes the bare outline of an amazing story in her obituary.  It’s a story narrated by Angelou in the several volumes of autobiography that began with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings:

While this first volume of her memoirs is generally considered to be the best, the subsequent instalments – Gather Together in My Name (1974), Singin’ and Swingin‘ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976), The Heart of a Woman (1981), All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes (1986), A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002) and Mom & Me & Mom (2013) – have also achieved a large and appreciative audience. Collectively, they portray Angelou’s experience as a young single mother; her travels in Europe and Africa with the cast of Porgy and Bess; her involvement with the civil rights movement and meetings with iconic figures such as King, Malcolm X and Billie Holiday; her life in Ghana, her son’s car accident and her decision to leave him in Ghana to recover; and finally the years after her return to the US in 1965 and her decision to begin writing her first book.

Also in the Guardian, there’s a lovely appreciation by Gary Younge which begins with his memory of a day spent in her company in 2002.  He recalls:

She was 74 and high on life. I honestly couldn’t tell if she was drunk or not. There’d been plenty of serious talk throughout the day. But she’d also been singing and laughing since the morning. Anyone who knows her work and her life story – which is a huge part of her work – knows that this is a huge part of her currency. Those maxims that people learn on their death bed – that you only have one life, that it is brief and frail, and if you don’t take ownership of it nobody else will – were the tenets by which she lived.

Angelou was, Younge writes:

A woman determined to give voice to both frustration and a militancy without being so consumed by either that she could not connect with those who did not instinctively relate to it. A woman who, in her own words, was determined to go through life with “passion, compassion, humour and some style”.

Finally – was there ever any moment in our lives more inspiring than Maya Angelou’s recitation of her poem ‘On the Pulse of the Morning‘ at President Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993?  Those lines:

Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.

And the concluding verse:

Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning.

Remembering Stuart Hall and The Unfinished Conversation

Remembering Stuart Hall and The Unfinished Conversation

Stuart Hall

Stuart Hall

Sad news today of the death of Staurt Hall, a giant force in post-war intellectual life on the left in Britain.  Born in Kingston into an aspiring Jamaican family, Hall received a classical English education in Kingston before winning a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford University.

Hall arrived in Britain in 1951, part of the Windrush wave of Caribbean migration. He found himself in a country that was both familiar and yet one to which he never entirely felt he belonged: he once recalled that when he took the train from Bristol to Paddington station in London, he saw a landscape familiar to him from the novels of Thomas Hardy.

Throughout his career as academic, activist and polemicist, Hall produced countless articles, essays and collectively written volume, as well as radio and television talks.  In 1979 he became professor of sociology at the Open University, attracted by the idea of teaching those who had previously missed out on educational opportunity. He remained at the OU until 1998, focussing on questions of race and postcolonialism, and on theorising British society and culture from a migrant perspective.

From the mid-50s he wrote for New Left Review (he was a founder member) and Marxism Today in the company of such figures as EP Thompson, author of The Making of the English Working Class, Raymond Williams and Ralph Miliband.  The impact of his writing on race, gender, sexuality and identity, and the links between racial prejudice and the media was felt far beyond academia.

Stuart Hall explains racism on British TV

The Spectre of Marxism: 1983 Thames TV documentary written and presented by Stuart Hall

Last autumn a documentary about his life by the film-maker John Akomfrah, called The Stuart Hall Project, was released. Writing in the Observer, Tim Adams wrote of the film:

You come to see how pivotal his voice has been in shaping the progressive debates of our times – around race, gender and sexuality – and how an increasingly conservative culture has worked lately to marginalise his nuanced understanding of this country.

That film grew out of The Unfinished Conversation, a three-screen video installation that I had the privilege of seeing at the Bluecoat Arts Centre in 2012.

Here is the post I wrote in celebration of Stuart Hall after seeing The Unfinished Conversation:

John Akomfrah’s The Unfinished Conversation

In one of his last interviews, with the Guardian two years ago, Staurt Hall expressed his pessimism about politics generally and the Labour party specifically (in a fine assessment of Stuart Hall’s legacy for the Guardian, Stuart Jeffries reminded me of that line of Gramsci’s that Hall would quote with approval – the one about ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the spirit’):

The left is in trouble. It has not got any ideas, it has not got any independent analysis of its own, and therefore it has got no vision. It just takes the temperature: ‘Whoa, that’s no good, let’s move to the right.’ It has no sense of politics being educative, of politics changing the way people see things.

Amen to that. A great voice is silenced.  The conversation left unfinished.

See also

Seamus Heaney: Out of the Marvellous

Seamus Heaney: Out of the Marvellous
Seamus Heaney in 1970
Seamus Heaney in 1970

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
– from Digging, 1966

And he did. From 1965, when Death of a Naturalist, the collection that contained Digging, to his death on 30 August 2013 Seamus Heaney dug with his pen into the rich loam of experience, history and memory to bring forth great poems, just as his father and grandfather before him had dug with a spade for potatoes and peat.

Between my finger and my thumb   
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound   
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:   
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds   
Bends low, comes up twenty years away   
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills   
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft   
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.   
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

Heaney was born in 1939 near Castledawson in Co Derry, a remote corner of a remote part of Northern Ireland.

I come from scraggy farm and moss,
Old patchworks that the pitch and toss
Of history have left dishevelled ….
– from A Peacock’s Feather

He was the eldest of nine children, and grew up immersed in the calendar of the farming year and the rituals of rural Catholic life.  In his address on winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 he said:

In the nineteen forties, when I was the eldest child of an ever-growing family in rural Co. Derry, we crowded together in the three rooms of a traditional thatched farmstead and lived a kind of den-life which was more or less emotionally and intellectually proofed against the outside world. It was an intimate, physical, creaturely existence in which the night sounds of the horse in the stable beyond one bedroom wall mingled with the sounds of adult conversation from the kitchen beyond the other. We took in everything that was going on, of course – rain in the trees, mice on the ceiling, a steam train rumbling along the railway line one field back from the house – but we took it in as if we were in the doze of hibernation.

In 2010, in an interview for The NewsHouse (below), Heaney spoke of ‘a first life far from books, far from literature which was in a far-off time, really’. Though mid-way through the 20th century, the life he knew as a child was one unchanged in most respects since medieval times. In his poems, repeatedly, he tried to make sense of that experience.  Notably, in the poem Alphabets written in 1984, Heaney recalled how the process of learning – to write and to read – began what he described in his Nobel speech as ‘a journey into the wideness of the world’:


A shadow his father makes with joined hands
And thumbs and fingers nibbles on the wall
Like a rabbit’s head. He understands
He will understand more when he goes to school.

There he draws smoke with chalk the whole first week,
Then draws the forked stick that they call a Y.
This is writing. A swan’s neck and swan’s back
Make the 2 he can see now as well as say.

Two rafters and a cross-tie on the slate
Are the letter some call ah, some call ay.
There are charts, there are headlines, there is a right
Way to hold the pen and a wrong way.

First it is ‘copying out,’ and then ‘English,’
Marked correct with a little leaning hoe.
Smells of inkwells rise in the classroom hush.
A globe in the window tilts like a coloured O.


Declensions sang on air like a hosanna
As, column after stratified column,
Book One of Elementa Latina,
Marbled and minatory, rose up in him.

For he was fostered next in a stricter school
Named for the patron saint of the oak wood
Where classes switched to the pealing of a bell
And he left the Latin forum for the shade

Of new calligraphy that felt like home.
The letters of this alphabet were trees.
The capitals were orchards in full bloom,
The lines of script like briars coiled in ditches.

Here in her snooded garment and bare feet,
All ringleted in assonance and woodnotes,
The poet’s dream stole over him like sunlight
And passed into the tenebrous thickets.

He learns this other writing. He is the scribe
Who drove a team of quills on his white field.
Round his cell door the blackbirds dart and dab.
Then self-denial, fasting, the pure cold.

By rules that hardened the farther they reached north
He bends to his desk and begins again.
Christ’s sickle has been in the undergrowth.
The script grows bare and Merovingian.


The globe has spun. He stands in a wooden O.
He alludes to Shakespeare. He alludes to Graves.
Time has bulldozed the school and school window.
Balers drop bales like printouts where stooked sheaves

Made lambdas on the stubble once at harvest
And the delta face of each potato pit
Was patted straight and moulded against frost.
All gone, with the omega that kept

Watch above each door, the good-luck horseshoe.
Yet shape-note language, absolute on air
As Constantine’s sky-lettered IN HOC SIGNO
Can still command him; or the necromancer

Who would hang from the domed ceiling of his house
A figure of the world with colours in it
So that the figure of the universe
And ‘not just single things’ would meet his sight

When he walked abroad. As from his small window
The astronaut sees all that he has sprung from,
The risen, aqueous, singular, lucent O
Like a magnified and buoyant ovum –

Or like my own wide pre-reflective stare
All agog at the plasterer on his ladder
Skimming our gable and writing our name there
With his trowel point, letter by strange letter.

Seamus Heaney in 2004

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, delivered in Stockholm in 1995, Heaney recalled his first encounter with European languages via the radio in the kitchen of his home during wartime. Overhearing fragments of foreign sentences, he said, as the dial was moved from one accustomed station to another, ‘I had already begun a journey into the wideness of the world. This in turn became a journey into the wideness of language, a journey where each point of arrival – whether in one’s poetry or one’s life – turned out to be a stepping stone rather than a destination, and it is that journey which has brought me now to this honoured spot.’

The characteristic mode of Heaney’s poetry – its insistent recounting and reflection on experience – was singled out by his friend and fellow poet Lachlan Mackinnon in a tribute in the Telegraph:

“Hwaet” is the first word of Beowulf, which Heaney translated to wide acclaim in 1999. It is a notorious stumbling block for translators, like the first sentence of Proust’s A la recherche. “Wait”, it suggests, but it also means something like “Listen”. Heaney’s ingenious solution is “So”. The word gathers to it everything that has gone before, but also implies that there is much to come. It marks the beginning of reflection. It represents the characteristic mode of Heaney’s poems, to recount and reflect on experience.

Writing for two decades against the backdrop of bombings and shootings, riots and brutality, internment and hunger strikes in Northern Ireland, Heaney’s poetry often spoke explicitly about the Troubles and the divided society into which he had been born. In Funeral Rights (from the collection North, 1975) he wrote:

Now as news come in
of each neighbourly murder
we pine for ceremony,
customary rhythms:
the temperate footsteps
of a cortege, winding past
each blinded home.

Heaney never always sought the wider view, contextualised by history and the general human situation. Arguably, his outlook was summed up best in this passage from his Nobel speech:

The external reality and inner dynamic of happenings in Northern Ireland between 1968 and 1974 were symptomatic of change, violent change admittedly, but change nevertheless, and for the minority living there, change had been long overdue. It should have come early, as the result of the ferment of protest on the streets in the late sixties, but that was not to be and the eggs of danger which were always incubating got hatched out very quickly. While the Christian moralist in oneself was impelled to deplore the atrocious nature of the IRA’s campaign of bombings and killings, and the “mere Irish” in oneself was appalled by the ruthlessness of the British Army on occasions like Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972, the minority citizen in oneself, the one who had grown up conscious that his group was distrusted and discriminated against in all kinds of official and unofficial ways, this citizen’s perception was at one with the poetic truth of the situation in recognizing that if life in Northern Ireland were ever really to flourish, change had to take place. But that citizen’s perception was also at one with the truth in recognizing that the very brutality of the means by which the IRA were pursuing change was destructive of the trust upon which new possibilities would have to be based.

The most arresting moment in Heaney’s Nobel speech came when he recalled, in his words, ‘one of the most harrowing moments in the whole history of the harrowing of the heart in Northern Ireland’, when a minibus full of workers being driven home one January evening in 1976 was held up by armed and masked men and the occupants of the van ordered at gunpoint to line up at the side of the road:

Then one of the masked executioners said to them, “Any Catholics among you, step out here”. As it happened, this particular group, with one exception, were all Protestants, so the presumption must have been that the masked men were Protestant paramilitaries about to carry out a tit-for-tat sectarian killing of the Catholic as the odd man out, the one who would have been presumed to be in sympathy with the IRA and all its actions. It was a terrible moment for him, caught between dread and witness, but he did make a motion to step forward. Then, the story goes, in that split second of decision, and in the relative cover of the winter evening darkness, he felt the hand of the Protestant worker next to him take his hand and squeeze it in a signal that said no, don’t move, we’ll not betray you, nobody need know what faith or party you belong to. All in vain, however, for the man stepped out of the line; but instead of finding a gun at his temple, he was thrown backward and away as the gunmen opened fire on those remaining in the line, for these were not Protestant terrorists, but members, presumably, of the Provisional IRA.

Heaney continued:

It is difficult at times to repress the thought that history is about as instructive as an abattoir; that Tacitus was right and that peace is merely the desolation left behind after the decisive operations of merciless power.

But, on another occasion, reflecting on the 1994 IRA ceasefire, he said:

I do believe, whatever happens, a corner was turned historically in 1994. We’ve passed from the atrocious to the messy, but the messy is a perfectly okay place to live.

Perhaps his position was best summed up by the line from his play The Cure at Troy (1990) concerning those times when ‘hope and history rhyme’.  It is a line which has been invoked frequently  – during the 1990s peace process in Northern Ireland, and at other times, in other situations:

Human beings suffer,
they torture one another,
they get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
can fully right a wrong
inflicted or endured.

The innocent in gaols
beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker’s father
stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
faints at the funeral home.
History says, Don’t hope
on this side of the grave.

But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
on the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
is reachable from here.

Believe in miracles
and cures and healing wells.
Call the miracle self-healing:
The utter self-revealing
double-take of feeling.

If there’s fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky
That means someone is hearing
the outcry and the birth-cry
of new life at its term.

This week I watched RTE One’s brilliant documentary Seamus Heaney: Out of the Marvellous.. It’s on their iPlayer for another fortnight; a pity it can’t be available permanently.

The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.

The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,

A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’

The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.
– Lightenings viii, 1991

Update 7 September: there’s an excellent of appreciation of Heaney by Blake Morrison today in the Guardian Review in which he quotes Lightenings, adding:

His later poems make room for everyday miracles and otherworldly wisdom. … For Heaney, there were marvels enough in this world, and never mind the next. Ordinary objects and places – a sofa, a wireless, a satchel, a gust of wind, the sound of rain – were sanctified. His Catholicism ran deep: in his teens he made pilgrimages to Lough Derg and Lourdes, and he thought of writing as a sacred act: “When I sit opposite the desk, it’s like being an altar boy in the sacristy getting ready to go out on to the main altar.” Religion taught him reverence but the gods of the hearth were what he revered – the den-life he had known as a child. He kept coming back to it and finding new things, or seeing the same things in a new light.

Seamus Heaney

Though the poet and man who (all the elegies of past days reveal) was greatly loved has gone, there is much to savour on YouTube. Here’s a selection:

Seamus Heaney’s lecture on being awarded Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995:

Melvyn Bragg and Seamus Heaney, South Bank Show 1992 (Spanish subtitles):

Making Sense of a Life: conversation with Seamus Heaney (The NewsHouse):

When all the others were away …(Clearances iii)

Digging (BBC TV)

Scaffolding: ‘there’s a lad entering the state of matrimony with great ebullience’:

Punishment: ‘the exact and tribal, intimate revenge’:

Beowulf read by Heaney (audio – complete, 2 parts):

At his funeral we learned from his son that his last words, ‘written a few minutes before he passed away’, took the form of a text message to his wife Marie. It read: ‘Noli timere. Don’t be afraid.’

In District and Circle, his 2006 collection, there is a poem that conjures a private image of the couple savouring the morning sun in the garden they have planted:

At the back of a garden, in earshot of river water,
In a corner walled off like the baths or bake-house
Of an unroofed abbey or broken-floored Roman villa,
They have planted their birch grove. Planted it recently only,
But already each morning it puts forth in the sun
Like their own long grown-up selves, the white of the bark
As suffused and cool as the white of the satin nightdress
She bends and straightens up in, pouring tea,
Sitting across from where he dandles a sandal
On his big time-keeping foot, as bare as an abbot’s.
Red brick and slate, plum tree and apple retain
Their credibility, a CD of Bach is making the rounds
Of the common or garden air. Above them a jet trail
Tapers and waves like a willow wand or a taper.
“If art teaches us anything,” he says, trumping life
With a quote, “it’s that the human condition is private.”
The Birch Grove, from District and Circle, 2006

Timperley to Warrington 11

See also

James Gandolfini: ‘one in a million’

James Gandolfini: ‘one in a million’

James Gandolfini

For those of us who followed The Sopranos through 86 episodes from 1999 to 2007, news that James Gandolfini has died at the cruelly young age of 51 is sad indeed.  The quality of the writing in that series was matched by acting of the highest order, not least from Gandolfini who managed to portray a violent, bullying, murderous, vulgar, serial adulterer, whilst at the same time eliciting sympathy and understanding from the audience. At its best, The Sopranos came close to being Shakespearian.

Now a Guardian journalist has done a tremendous job of sifting through a multitude of YouTube clips to find over a dozen examples of classic Gandolfini scenes from the 86 episodes.  You can hear Tony Soprano remarking, ‘They really pay you for doing this?’

Go here to see The Guardian’s selection of classic scenes, or here for the Huffington Post selection, while the Mirror’s selection is here.

And how about this brilliant duel between James Gandolfini and Peter Capaldi from In the Loop, the big screen outing for The Thick of It?

The combination of great writing and acting was there right from the off: we knew from the pilot episode that The Sopranos was going to amount to a lot more than just the story of a Mafia family when Tony was moved by seeing wild ducks in his swimming pool and – unheard of for a Mafia boss – he went to a psychiatrist to confront his struggle with depression. Real.

Tony Soprano: You know where I was yesterday when you called?… I was outside a whorehouse, while a guy that works for me was inside beating the shit out of a guy that owes me money. Broke his arm. Put a bullet in his kneecap.

Dr Jennifer Melfi: How’d that make you feel?

Tony Soprano Sr.: Wished it was me in there.

Dr Jennifer Melfi: Giving the beating or taking it?

Tony and Dr Melfi

Dr Jennifer Melfi: Are you still taking the lithium?

Tony Soprano Sr.: Lithium, Prozac. When’s it gonna end?

Dr Jennifer Melfi: We’re trying to give a jolt to your system. Give it a… a little kick-start.

Tony Soprano Sr.: Why don’t you kick me in the fuckin’ head?

Dr Jennifer Melfi: I know what you’re going through must be painful.

Tony Soprano Sr.: This isn’t painful. Getting shot is painful. Getting stabbed in the ribs is painful. This shit isn’t painful. It’s empty… dead.

The last scene

(The dean of a college that Meadow is applying to is asking Tony for a $10,000 donation)

Carmela Soprano: I think you should pay him, Tony.

Tony Soprano Sr.: No fucking way!

Carmela Soprano: What, your daughter’s future isn’t worth 10,000 dollars?

Tony Soprano Sr.: That’s not it. That motherfucker’s full of shit. He’s shaking me down.

Carmela Soprano: No, he’s not.

Tony Soprano Sr.: Oh, yeah? Who knows more about extortion, me or you?

Tony Soprano and ducks

Woke up this mornin’
Got yourself a gun
Mama always said you’d be the chosen one
She said, ‘You’re one in a million
You got to burn to shine’

The Guardian’s obituary of James Gandolfini is here.