Tag Archives: Music

Debussy’s Arabesque


Arabesque No.1, by Debussy,

stops me in my tracks, with its beauty;

stills me with its simplicity,

softens me with its fragility,

infects me with its poignancy.

And every time it does it to me,

my mother comes alive in my memory.


My mother, who played piano proficiently,

in spite of lack of opportunity.

Who became a dutiful housewife,

and devoted domestic slave, to her family.

Who spent her days toiling in the kitchen,

while we were dozing, or watching TV.


My mother, who sold her piano,

and never forgave herself for doing so.

Who loved flowers, and gardens, and trees.

Who loved Chopin, and paintings, and poetry.

My mother, who would have loved

Arabesque No.1, by Debussy.

The inspiration for this poem is simple enough to explain.  I listen to classical music most mornings, on BBC Radio3, and every time I hear a solo piano piece by Chopin, Debussy, Brahms, Schumann, or Grieg, memories of my mother automatically come into my mind.  Chopin was her particular favourite, and I don’t think she’d heard that much by Debussy; but I feel sure she would have loved his Arabesque Number One.


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Teddy Bears’ Picnic

Teddy Bears’ Picnic

Raggle-taggle music,
straight from a funfair,
roller-coasters in,
as you mope in your lair,
sullenly grooming your
existential despair.

You look out the window:
a shabby white van,
Mr. Softee, the ice-cream man,
Orange Maids, Mivvis,
Strawberry Splits.
Your childhood comes back;
the rough magic of it.
Noddy and Big Ears, Rupert Bear,
Nutwood, the animals living there.

Your sins, deceits,
little white lies,
all swallowed up
By a huge pair of eyes,
silver coins held
in small, grubby hands,
the wonder of
those fairytale lands.
Enid Blyton’s Famous Five,
perhaps, after all,
it is good to be alive.

It smashes into
your self-imposed shell,
frees you from the stress
of your personal Hell,
for you know it betokens
that all will be well,
and all shall be well,
and all manner of things
shall be well.

Long-time followers of this blog will be aware of the fact that I frequently get ideas for poems whilst relaxing in a warm bath, browsing through anthologies of poetry.  I was engaged in this activity recently, when the joyful sound of an ice-cream van suddenly intruded into my musings, and immediately provided the inspiration for the above poem.  Please excuse the fact that the last three lines are a blatant borrowing from Julian of Norwich’s “Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love”.  I have always loved those lines, and have finally found an appropriate place to quote them; besides, T.S.Eliot quoted them in “Little Gidding”, and if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me!

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Cambridge: The Bedsit


A sobering, saddening thought:
I could spend the next three years
of my life squeezed into this box,
this tiny room, complete with bed;
my family, my friends, a world away,
in South Yorkshire.

Omnipresent noise; busy, bustling traffic
on Mill Road, throughout the day,
throughout the night. The walls so thin;
interpenetration of outside and in.
The vans, the buses, the taxis, the trucks,
careering over the thin strip of pavement,
through the walls, into my life; into my dreams.

I plugged in my record-player;
lowered the needle onto the grooves
of “Our House” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
They sang of cosy rooms, of lighting a fire,
in a very, very, very nice house.
Nothing was right, yet it soothed me
through my sadness that first night.

A couple of months ago, I posted a poem entitled “Cambridge: Arrival”.  Triggered by the news reports of the latest GCSE results, it was a reminiscence of my arrival at Cambridge to start my degree course in “Humanities”.  Writing that poem started a fertile stream of memories and recollections, which has resulted in another two poems – with more to come, I hope!


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Monk Music


Mathematics and jazz; could the coupling be worse?
Jazz; not music of verse – chorus – verse.
Thelonious Monk – resonant name;
on “Bag’s Groove”, say, at the top of his game.
Marcus Du Sautoy listens, ecstatic.
Euclid’s Theorem! Infinite mathematics!
Monk’s random plonking is the key,
unlocking the secret. There could be
an infinite series of the primes;
chords in harmony, chords that chime.
This be the verse, these are the rhymes;
these are the numbers, by Monk in his prime.
Discordant tunes, escaping the ears;
creating the music of the spheres.

Serendipity is often influential in the creation of a poem, I find.  I was listening to an interview on the radio with the British mathematician and writer Marcus du Sautoy, in which he spoke of his enthusiasm for all forms of music, including jazz (he plays the trumpet himself, and several other instruments).  He was also publicising his latest book, and he spoke of the excitement engendered by recent developments in mathematics that hinted at a possible infinite series of prime numbers.  Later on, that same day, I heard an interview with the British poet Ian McMillan.  He was enthusing about his love of jazz music – particularly Thelonious Monk – and said that listening to Monk gave him the impression that, at any time, an infinite number of improvisations could emerge.  The random occurrence of these two interviews produced the above poem.


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Jools Holland’s “Later”


Jools Holland’s “Later”; Friday night TV.
Kick-back, chill-out, knock back the booze;
sit back, see who’s on, who’s playing,
anything for me?

The same old, hackneyed crowd.
The overrated, the has-beens,
the callow wannabees. The rowdies
for rowdiness’ sake; nothing for me.
I cannot connect; am unable to emote.
I sigh; extend my arm for the remote. . .

But wait . . . the girl singer:
soft, honeyed vocals;
soaring, swooping,
effortless range.
Singing with passion;
commanding the stage.
She’s here, from nowhere;
a sudden, new star.
Behind her, a guy
on acoustic guitar,
softly strumming
shimmering chords.
She closes her eyes,
sings herself
into the dream.
Sings me, too,
into the dream.
The dream I remember,
the dream of sheer bliss;
watching singers,
artists like this.
The dream I would have,
watching them sing;
expressing their essence,
their inner being.
The dream I now try
to enact every day;
making words dance,
making them play.

The British singer Adele is in the news today, announcing the dates of her next tour in 2016.  A couple of weeks ago I – along with millions of others – watched, enthralled, as she was interviewed on TV by Graham Norton, and sang songs from her new album.  The show was on BBC, and I was reminded of the fact that Adele got her first breakthrough by appearing on the BBC programme “Later, with Jools Holland”.  I must have watched most of the editions of “Later”, over the years; it’s become part of the fabric of late-night viewing on a Friday.  I was watching one of the programmes a few weeks ago, when I was suddenly transfixed by a relatively unknown female vocalist – not Adele, in this case, needless to say, but a girl performing under the name “Jones”.  I hope she becomes successful, although I doubt whether she’ll be able to emulate Adele and become a global superstar.  Anyway, it was watching her performance on “Later” that inspired the above poem.

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The Ballad of Ginger and Charlie


Ginger and Charlie were stick men,
way back then, back in the day.
Back in the day, that glorious day,
after Dizzy, Mingus, Billy Stray-
horn, Thelonious Monk. Who would have
thought it? Who would have thunk, that these
were the geezers, these were the dudes,
who’d pin down the rhythm, shake up the blues,
a million miles from them Blue Suede Shoes.

Ginger, with Jack, and freaky Slowhand,
Charlie, with Mick, and spooky Keith:
these were the guys, these were the bands,
to give music that vital kick in the teeth.

No Bonham or Moon-type excesses;
no histrionics or frenetic flailing.
These guys knew the way to success;
never going to be ones for failing.

Cockneys, hard eyes, working-class roots;
memories of demob, con-men, Zoot Suits.
They were schooled in Jazz, steeped in Swing;
these guys, these geezers, were the real thing.

Not the preening wordsmiths, dabbling with rhyme,
not the hell-raisers, destined for the hot coals,
but these dudes, chips of ice in their souls;
controlling the rhythms, mastering time.

I watched a fascinating documentary on BBC1 recently; it was entitled “Beware Mr Baker”.  The Mr Baker in question was Ginger Baker, the legendary rock drummer who formed Cream, with Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton, in the 60s.  This feature-length documentary was made by a young American journalist, and was composed partly of excellent vintage footage of Baker in his prime, and partly of an interview conducted fairly recently with the man himself, now in his mid-seventies, and even more irascible than ever.  The film opened, and concluded, with a scene of Baker – goaded and enraged by the rather callow journalist – lashing out at the film-maker with his cane, slashing a gaping wound in his nose.  As you will gather, the documentary was highly entertaining, and some of the scenes from the sixties, featuring Baker and his fellow-drummer Charlie Watts of The Rolling Stones, gave me pause for thought.  It was an interesting fact, and quite a coincidence, I thought, that these two vitally important rock bands of the sixties – Cream and The Rolling Stones – both happened to have drummers who were hard-eyed cockneys steeped in jazz.  No sooner had I had this idea, than the first few lines of the above poem began churning away in my mind.

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Chopin on the Radio


Chopin on the radio: “Ballade No’ 3”.
Strong feelings, strange thoughts stir within me.
Thoughts about consciousness, and “the last breath”;
my mother’s “survival”, long after her “death”.

The Ballades mattered, to my mother and me.
The hours we spent, listening; those old LP’s.
The two of us, silent, by the gramophone;
the music, sinking into flesh and bone.
The emotional impact; urge to laugh, to cry;
she’d dab the occasional tear from her eye.

My rational mind finds no relief
In the “immortal soul”.  I have no belief
in artificial panaceas for grief;
mental devices to allay our fears
when loved ones depart from this vale of tears.
But when I hear music, have memories like this,
I can’t help but hope: perhaps something persists?

Music is mystery; no-one really knows
where it comes from, where it goes.
Patterns of sound are formed, ascend
into the ether; world without end.

Consciousness is mystery.  When the vital spark
is extinguished, blanketed by the dark,
does spirit, with matter, fragment, disperse,
into particles, waves, the universe?

As these waves of sound from the radio,
emerge, pulsing, wherever they go
when they dissolve, into the air,
could they, perhaps, interact somewhere?
Could some part of her consciousness, now far-flung;
some last, lost, minute molecule of Mum,
vibrate, register, recognise with me,
this music of Chopin: “Ballade No’ 3”?

Looking back through my “oeuvre”, I can’t help noticing that I have written an alarming number of poems trying to express what certain pieces of music mean to me.  I say “alarming” because, essentially, all these poems are attempting an impossible task: how can you hope to explain, in words, the “meaning” of a piece of music!  With “Chopin on the Radio”, however, I am not making yet another attempt at achieving the impossible.  With this poem, I am describing my thoughts and emotions upon hearing a piece of music, and trying to explain how these thoughts and feelings mingle with memories of my mother, resulting in speculations about a certain type of “afterlife”.  Although this sounds complicated it is, I think, a simple, universal experience.

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Travelling Home for Christmas

“Driving Home for Christmas” by Chris Rea is one of those pop songs – like “Mistletoe and Wine”, “Last Christmas I Gave You My Heart”, “Stop the Cavalry” and a few others – that are resuscitated every year and played on the radio and in shops solely over the Christmas period.  It is relatively more low-key and meditative than most songs of this ilk, but still induces the appropriate warm glow of festive cheer and nostalgia.  I heard it around this time last year, just before setting off on my own journey back to my home town, and it was the stimulus that led to my poem “Travelling Home for Christmas”.


“Driving Home for Christmas”; a song, by Chris Rea,
celebrates a rite, enacted every year.
He’s cruising along, radio on; softly falling snow.
Tail-lights gently glimmer; he feels a warming glow.
1,000 memories, cascading in his brain.
He doesn’t mind the holdups; he’ll soon be home again.
Other drivers, just like him, gathered, all around.
Homing, like pigeons, to get their feet on holy ground.

I’m travelling home for Christmas, too; sitting on a train.
Dank air, grey sky, pouring down with rain.
Magical memories; Christmas as a child.
Little Baby Jesus; the lamb, so meek and mild.
Our annual pilgrimage, to mass at midnight.
Waking, to a morning brimful of delight.
Mother in the kitchen; festive table heaving.
Friends, neighbours, relatives, arriving, leaving . . .

My Christmas is less lavish now, more austere.
Numbers of visitors declining, each year.
On Christmas Day, there will be a total of three:
one brother, one reprobate uncle, and me.
We will sit down uneasily, our sins unshriven.
The reprobate uncle will smile, and be forgiven.
Our glasses raised, we will then commence to dine.
The food will be praised; tongues loosened by wine.
A measure of peace and goodwill will be found.
A fitting ceremony, on this holy ground.

Yes, we’re travelling home for Christmas; Chris Rea and I.
Flat fenland countryside; 1,000 memories flit by.
Rain teems down, from an unforgiving sky.


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I Could Be Happy

The weather forcasters are currently forecasting snow for my part of the country, and it was the thought of snow – or, more specifically, hailstones – that reminded me of a poem I wrote a few years ago.  I was walking home, one day in May, when a shower of rain suddenly turned into hail.  I kept on walking, trying to ignore the hail, but the hailstones increased in size and velocity, and started “pinging” off the top of my head.  I ended up running the final stretch home, humming – for some unaccountable reason – an old pop song from my youth called “I Could Be Happy”.  I got home and switched the radio on – to hear none other than exactly the same song, immediately coming out of the speakers!  I stood, like a statue, listening until the song finished.  I remembered the name of the band that had the original hit: “Altered Images”, and that their lead singer was an attractive girl with a child-like voice.  I was then shocked by the rado presenter informing me that the song had been Number One in the pop charts on Christmas Day 1981.  I then started musing, sadly, about the ravages of time, and it was these thoughts, combined with the hailstones and the pop song, that inspired the following poem.


White dandruff flakes
float down, scratched
from ashen curls
of the grey sky-god.

Then, cascading
white pellets.
A rapid fusillade,
pinging, stinging.

I run for home,
for some reason singing
“I could be happy.
I could be happy.”

Hailstones in May.
I open the door.
There is no way
this is funny any more.

Huge wet blotches
on my clothes.
I could be happy.
I could be happy.

Switch on the radio,
what do I hear?
“I could be happy.
I could be happy.”

Infectious rhythms,
washing over me.
Girl-child jigging
in front of my eyes.

Recall so vivid,
could be yesterday.
D.J. says “From
1981, Christmas Day.”

Twenty five years
have gone by!
In twenty five years
I shall be eighty!

Tears drop huge wet
blotches on my clothes.
I could be happy.
I could be happy.

Red eyes in the mirror
stare at grey stubble.
I could be happy.
I could be happy.

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Every Time

I am not a great lover of jazz singers, jazz songs, or songs from “The Great American Songbook”.  One exception to this, however, is the song “Every Time we say Goodbye”, by Cole Porter.  I first heard it, ages ago, on an old album of songs by Cole Porter and Irving Berlin; the singer was Ella Fitzgerald.  On that very first hearing, it moved me to tears.  It still does so, to this day.  I think it’s the combination of Ella’s immaculate vocal delivery, the lyrics, and the sweeping – almost lush – orchestral arrangement.  I first thought the arrangement was by the well-known George Shearing; only to find, after researching into it, that it was by a guy I’d never heard of before, called Buddy Bregman.

That old album was lost, or mislaid, long ago.  I never replaced it, and the only time I get to hear the song nowadays is on the rare occasion when it is played on some radio programme like “Desert Island Discs” or “Private Passions”.  I’ve written before about the influence of music on poetry; about the death of my mother, and the universality of the mother-son relationship.  The poem “Every Time” brings all these themes together.

Every Time:

“Every time we say goodbye, I die a little.
Every time we say goodbye, I wonder why, a little. . . .”*

Every time I hear Ella sing
“Every Time We Say Goodbye”;
such emotional pull on my heartstrings,
I’m transfixed, undone, want to cry.

Only the Buddy Bregman arrangement,
of course, it goes without saying,
wreaks such emotional derangement.
“Play it again!  Please!”  I am praying.

The inevitable image arises;
is held, fixed, in my mind’s eye.
The so infrequent visits to my mother,
and their ending, with the sad sigh.

“TaTa for now, love”, she would say.
“TaTa.  Let’s not say goodbye”.
I’d kiss her; slowly walk away.
Turn my face to the impassive sky.

And that’s why Ella gets to me.
That’s why she makes me want to cry.
Because I really did die, a little,
every time Mum and I said goodbye.

*”Every Time we say Goodbye” by Cole Porter.



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