Free Content From My Life

Episode V

When my wife and I got married, we decided to get in a hot-air balloon and see the world in more than 80 days. In short, have a very long honeymoon. We didn’t want to begin this new adventure by ordering the little drummer boy to play the same old tunes of: start a family, own a house, have matching luggage and careers, and vote in elections.

So, with the reckless spirit of Blake’s Flea, we sold all our belongings, raked blueberries in Washington County in Maine to make tons of money, and bought one-way tickets to Ireland.

We tried living in Galway at first, but that inn was full with students and tourists, so we travelled to Yeats Country. Well, the Gateway to Connemara, to live in a one-room apartment above a barn in Oughterard, the Gaelic words meaning in English the “the Upper Lower Place,” which had perfect meaning for us. We were living in the “Upper Place” of what Wordsworth describes as those “spots of time,” which I have always understood as key elements, both psychological and imaginative, in one’s life. It was also the “Lower Place,” too, since we had very little money and no real ambition for anything besides reading lots and living life from the daily visits with the postman to the encounters with frisky bulls and the roaming bands of long-horn Connemara sheep.

The place I’m living now, the one of writing is also the “Upper Place” of imagination and the time to get it done, since I have no immediate temptations of the working kind. But it is also the “Lower Place.” I could explain, but some things are best left to oneself even in the Age of Transparency.

I also remember a funny incident from that time, cooped up in a barn reading Tolstoy and Hamsun, Ursula Le Guin and Moorcock. It happened at night between my wife and I. We had just finished an evening of watching two Bond flicks on RTE. The wonderful couple who rented the barn to us had gone to bed long ago (they were farmers). My wife and I crawled into bed and fell into a deep sleep. We were woken some time later by footsteps in the courtyard below the single window, open to the scent of wild roses. Back and forth went the footsteps. We were still drowsy from dreams of secret agents and so to our active ears it sounded like a couple of crooks were stealing farming implements or hidden treasure in the barn below. We were so scared, neither one of us could move – not even to get closer to each other. We just listened to the footsteps coming and going and hauling off the loot. We stayed awake until a jaunty robin appeared in the roses. With at least some semblance of light, I was now determined to get up and find out what the hell was taking these thieves all night to rob a barn. Like a very early bird, armed with a frying pan and ready to catch the thieves red-handed, I tiptoed out.

There were no night-time burglars.

Trotting back and forth in the early morning courtyard was a horse. A big iron-shod horse who had escaped his field and thought he would spend the night terrifying a young couple of night owls.

I remember my wife and I sat on the steps of our garret among the rafters of an old barn and laughed until the sun came up.

Here’s a Cave named Nick.

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Feud for Thought

With the passing of the Augustan figure and intellectual bruiser Gore Vidal, I’ve had cause to think about literary rivalry.

It’s well known to each and every keyboard hitter about the hostility between Vidal and Norman Mailer(youtube.com/watch?v=C8m9vDRe8fw).  The Titans of Swing really had it in for each other in both the intellectual and literary ring. In some sense, their acerbic brawls overshadowed their literary outpouring — well almost. For me, they both seem marked, I think, by the immortality of posture that Milan Kundera wrote about.

As a young writer even I had my own bouts with writers. And it began with Hemingway. I never got what all the fuss over him was about. Yes, I got his use of economical language (but is writing solely about balancing the books?) and his great macho persona where each of his heavy testicles were raised high on the bookshelf of every poor male writer who seemed to have catkins between his legs in comparison. I never could bring myself to drink at Papa’s Hem’s animalistic trough of masculine greatness. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of a writer like Mervyn Peake, strolling around the Island of Sark in his cape and poet’s hat like he’d just stepped out from a Harry Clarke painting and was infused with the light of a pansexual being.

Oh, the spats I had with dead writers! You should have seen me, hidden away in my room, stomping the floorboards, shaking whatever writer’s book was du jour that day in my hand and railing against his or her departed spirit who I imagined took a break from the great library in the sky and popped down to have an argy-bargy with me. And I always lost the argument, callow writer that I was. Or maybe I made myself lose, cause who really could best the likes of Camus, Henry Miller, DH Lawrence, Tolkien, Peake, Ursula Le Guin, Simone de Beauvoir, Anais Nin, Satre, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Lloyd Alexander, Knut Hamsun, Hesse, Dylan Thomas, Angela Carter, Jeanette Winterson, Tove Jansson, Kundera, Joyce, Blake, Byron, Shelley, Arthur Machen, Tennessee Williams, Ted Hughes, Black Adder, Del Boy, Basil Fawlty, Judge Dredd, Fungus the Bogeyman, Morrissey, Ian McCulloch, Mick Jones, Paul Weller… and the list runs ever on, and on, and on.

Writers are always going on about the importance of reading, and, yes, it is important if you want to write. But I would add it’s also important to get into intellectual scraps with the writers you love, even if you never ever meet them. And it’s especially important to rattle the bones of dead ones — if for no other reason than it keeps their work alive.

In fact, I have a secret rivalry of my very own, too. A bit of an Edwardian, gentleman’s feud with a writer that’s all imaginary cricket bats and cravats and smoking rooms and letter openers and spats and tops hats and stuffy libraries and port. But neither of us have ever admitted to the other that there’s anything between us but a book — if even that. It’s more a rivalry that’s all in my head with us two pygmies of the intellectual void wrestling and wrangling in muck like pagan fools both destined for a ritual killing. Writing about it now, the whole thing sounds petty, stupid, and enormously entertaining. Every writer needs distraction and the impulse to create. And god knows what we’d even spat about if we ever squared off with our six-shooter mouths and our saddlebags of favourite writers strapped to our hips. It would probably be over what flavour ice cream we prefer and insults that would probably go something like this:

Me: “Your book’s crap.

Him: “You haven’t even finished yours.”

Me: “I hate your hair. It’s like liver and onions.”

Him: “Shorn boy and sheep shagger!” (*)

Me: “And what’s with those testosterone tanks strapped between your legs? Do they give you a squirt?”

Him: “It’s better than your bottle of dandelion wine.”

Me: “Yeah, well, for all your hot oven of masculinity, why is it you turn out cupcakes.”

Him: “Pigeon breath.”

Me: “Hog anus.”

Him: “You write like a lobotomized squid.”

Me: “Is that the amount of your intellectual fireworks, a pathetic squid? You know what, I don’t even know why I have a rivalry with you. You’re a lousy writer who can only string together sentences that have been around the block so many times they’ve actually built a necropolis. Plus as a person, you register on the humanity scale as a single-celled organism. Go try another phylum or else pack up your DNA and take a holiday by the genetic deficiency gene pool. And one last thing: I just realized you’re not even worth the effort.”

Shit, I maybe on to something here.

*Author’s Note: For the record, I have never shagged a sheep. But I have eaten Sunday mutton.

Rhubarb

This country has reached an all time low. Last night I was at the grocery store and the check-out fellow didn’t know what rhubarb was!

What kind of system denies a young man the pleasure of rhubarb and custard? Or rhubarb crumble, cobbler, pie?

Did he never have the opportunity to recline beneath the plant’s big leaves and fantasize about married life with a wife who cooked rhubarb in his own special ramekin.

Or nights of stems cleaned and diced and a bubbling goulash on the burner, the aroma thick and inviting and his wife desperately trying to seduce him to a sordid rendezvous on the family couch.

Or his private stash suddenly gone from the fridge and the kids conveniently at a friend’s house, his wife complaining of a headache.

Or his coveted patch of wild rhubarb where he would go and try to put to music Blake’s “Songs Of Innocence” but end up humming a few bars of Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”

Or making a rudimentary shirt out of the leaves and being mistaken for a member of the Dock family.

Or tickling his wife with a French variety because he had read Anais Nin’s recipe for hot rhubarb sauce.

Or hiding luscious full-spread photos of the plant in all its bright red glory behind a copy of the latest bestseller on the train to work.

Or while making love to his mistress, dreaming of a bowl of steamed rhubarb dropping into the lap of his wife and she asking him to lick it out.

Or eating the bitter and tart young stems in the hopes of hallucinating and writing a fragmentary vision like Coleridge did with “Kubla Khan” after the poet had experimented with rhubarb peyote.

What kind of man is that young guy going to turn out to be?

The Great God Pan

An “ incoherent nightmare of sex,” is how Arthur Machen’s novella The Great God Pan (Watchmaker Publishing, Seaside, Oregon; 59 pages; $4.95) was described when it was first let loose on an unsuspecting, civilized, Edwardian society. But the up-tight, stuffy Edwardians gobbled up the Welshman’s mystical tale of horror.

In our modern-day hive of sexual arousal, Machen’s “sex” is more boudoir than Internet porn. But his “incoherent nightmare” epithet could easily give contemporary English writer J. G. Ballard a roll in the dystopian mud.

The Great God Pan is incoherent: if by that we mean it doesn’t follow a direct and appropriate narrative arc or a formal, linear plot. It plays with time and space. (The perfect form for a pre-Christian, pagan mystic like Machen.) Machen switches back and forth in time, creating fragments of a story, unlimiting himself, drifting from the opening scene of the wealthy benefactor Dr. Raymond and the innocent Mr. Clarke to several other characters who pop up like the chorus from a Greek play to indoctrinate a reader’s fear and loathing in fin-de-siècle London.

And the sex is no Sex in the City! This is wild, metaphysical Eros. A shapeless, shifting act, the way Eve in the biblical tale is never sexual, but all sin. Machen’s sex is prurient without being lecherous because he restrains himself; he doesn’t give into the physical. His “sex” is a voracious avatar of seduction, the offspring of a diabolical experiment in brain surgery, and an amorphous deity of nature. So it’s a bit of surprise to find out that she is a woman, and a beautiful one at that. But Machen isn’t crude enough to be so materialistic, or even gender specific. Yes she is a woman named Helen Vaughan, but at the heart of the novel, she is a force of nature, a pagan spirit born to a new life.

The story begins naturally enough with an interaction between a Dr. Raymond and his witness, a Mr. Clarke, in a lovely bucolic setting. But it doesn’t take long for the Gothic, phantasmagoric elements to rip apart this tenuous reality. Mr. Clarke says to Dr. Raymond: “We are standing on the brink of a strange world, Raymond, if what you say is true. I suppose the knife is absolutely necessary?”

The knife turns out to be a scalpel that the doctor wields to cut a lesion in a working-class waif’s grey matter. The woman is named Mary and was saved by the good doctor from a life of misfortune and is now his guinea pig in a fantastic experiment: “Yes, the knife is necessary; but think what that knife will effect. It will level utterly the solid wall of sense, and probably, for the first time since man was made, a spirit will gaze on a spirit-world. Clarke, Mary will see the god Pan!”

She does — and becomes a drooling imbecile. “Yes it is a great pity; she is a hopeless idiot. However, it could not be helped; and, after all, she has seen the Great God Pan.”

As a reader, it’s not impossible to believe that seeing the pagan god Pan will have its price. But Machen wants you to see more; he wants you to cleanse the doors of perception, William Blake-style. So if you expect the rest of the book to be easy, think again. There’s cleansing going on, and you can’t get redemption in a Gothic tale without getting a lot of metaphysical evil and mayhem out of the way first.

Enter Helen Vaughan, the daughter of Mary, who is never physically described. She simply flits like some macabre succubus leaving a trail of bodies through fashionable London. And when she is described, it is vague, alluring, confusing, haunting: “She would be called very handsome, I suppose, and yet there is something about her face…. The features are exquisite, but the expression is strange.”

Strange, indeed, for a Victorian woman to have such power over men, infuriating, frustrating, alluring, seducing, and then killing them. She is a woman of the haute bourgeoisie, married to a Mr. Herbert, who now wanders the streets of London in rags and who says his wife corrupted him body and soul. And then there are the dead bodies. Mysterious deaths around which a certain Mrs. Beaumont, the toast of society, is associated. Men who are either struck down by sheer terror or else hang themselves.

Murder, madness, and a malevolent spirit. Who can it be, seducing and, like the god Pan, striking terror into mortal man?

It’s Helen Vaughan, daughter of Mary and the offspring of the nature spirit and cloven-hoofed god Pan. Helen is on one hand a rampant symbol of pagan nature let loose on civilized London with its enlightened ideas of science and its obsessive reliance on the material. Her terror-gaze nothing more than the mirror that the real Medusa, London society, holds up to itself. But this is perhaps relying too heavily on symbolic suggestion and reading too much into Arthur Machen’s own predilections with the world around him that had forgotten its pagan past, its spiritual inheritance, and was so easily squandering it to the gods of science and industry.

This could be a moral tale, but it’s far more enjoyable as a supernatural thriller that produces, even now in our contemporary world, bursts of horripilation for Helen Vaughan, the pagan temptress of chaos, a nameless apparition from a wild wood on the borders of Wales, the vengeful spirit who is cast out as an orphan to make her way in a cold, heartless world of men. Pan’s child,  “changing and melting from woman to man, from man to beast, and from beast to worse than beast.”

And it is as if Helen Vaughan knows she’s cursed because at the end of the book, through the machinations of Villiers and Austin, both bent on discovering the identity of this mysterious woman who is followed by death, Villiers sends her the “best hempen cord.”

The perennial power of Arthur Machen’s story of unleashed, pagan terror is the fragmentary way in which he presents information to a reader. He is sly, much like the woodland god, slowly giving snippets of the fantastic until everything is revealed at the end. The full circle of horror is complete as we return to the doctor, the progenitor of the unleashed terror, the man who held he knife, that made the incision, that lifted the veil. “I have played with energies which I do not understand,” Dr. Raymond admits at the end of the novel. And he reveals the truth about Helen Vaughan. “I knew what I had done the moment the child was born, and when it was scarcely five years old, I surprised it with a playmate. You may guess of what kind.”

But who, you may wonder, has the more seductive powers? The great god Pan or the great Welsh writer of the macabre, Arthur Machen?

Let’s Celebrate!

Before I begin the celebrations, though, I would like to take off my writer’s hat and offer a big bow to the wonderful writer Cat Valente, who recently wrote a blog about the importance of ritual in our lives. It was her generous, open heart that made mine flutter.

Why is it that a part of our humanity wishes to deny others the chance to love?

We do it by refusing to let gay couples marry. We do it when we become sanctimonious and moralizing and snigger at holidays like  St. Valentine’s Day or Christmas or even St. Patrick’s Day — although you will generally never hear these same people criticizing Flag Day or the Fourth of July. I guess patriotism is above ridicule and well below any honest ritual.

That’s why this whole mass of inertia against gay marriage will not win in the end. (And isn’t that what damn Christianity is based on, Love and Forgiveness?)

Do we really think in our arrogance that we can deny people the chance to love?

Thing is, why do any of us have to agree to do what others do? Is it just so we can get along? But here lies the irony: we actually don’t get along with each other (look at wars, look at violent crimes, look at the blatant bigotry and racism that surrounds us in this bleak and awful and also wonderful world).

Okay, let’s consider Valentine’s Day. My wife and I celebrate this holiday with slices of neapolitan cake (ah, that marzipan and cake is like love’s “ever-fixed mark”). If someone else wants to get a Hallmark card, okay, do it, that’s their way of honouring the day. I don’t want to do that (it’s not me), but why should I stomp on their way?

Plus, that kind of ego-driven desire to squash another person, to make them feel like their choices in life are worthless and petty and risible, simply misses the whole point of ritual and celebration. The most important thing is that we celebrate the sacred that allows us to transcend the monotony of the every day. It’s our way to stay human and not become machines. And we also connect with the past and the future this way, and can for a brief time sense everything that has come before, making it special, making the past not dead, but alive, making it a living presence that was once full of people so much like us who lived and suffered, too.

If we deny rituals and holidays, we just cut off the past, which is a bad thing. We won’t even recognize the others who came before us also had great ideas, imagination, and invented and loved and married and celebrated and died.

Contrary to common belief: We are not the only century with the greatest inventions, the greatest stories to tell, the greatest achievements, the greatest visions, the greatest lifestyles, the greatest ad infinitum.

If the past tells us anything, it is to continually remind us to stay humble. Death is coming for me, I always hear the past whisper. I am not a monument. I am a life. And lives pass — which is our burden and our lightness of being. We inherit death from others. Why, then, do we think we can deny anyone anything? We cannot deny. Death teaches us this. Life, too, if we look at it with our doors of perception cleansed, as the great Poet Blake wisely tells us to do.

That is why it is so important for us to celebrate, to revel in the fleeting, mutable world that rushes on even though we try to keep it with us. Even at our most intimate moments (sex, sharing a meal together, and reading a book, being three), we are reminded that tempus fugit; and the world comes in like a giant with a bone to pick.

Do away with our celebratory nature and we might as well do away with our hearts. Pickle them in jars and hide them away all winter long and bring them out only in summer, when times are good, when there is harvest and bounty, and show them off to the world. But how will we know that summer is upon is if we refuse to celebrate?

Refusing to mark off time is like refusing to signpost a road. If we did that, then all roads would lead nowhere and all would be the same. It would be like saying we should all just exist as DNA, since this is what carries all our genetic make-up and makes us who we are. Great. But where would we be without a heart and a mind? And what room does that leave for the soul?

So go and buy the person you love a box of chocolates if it makes you feel alive, if it makes you feel like love is a living not dead emotion within you. Like the great poet Rilke has written: “To love is also good, for love is hard. Love between one person and another: that is perhaps the hardest thing it is laid on us to do, the utmost, the ultimate trial and test, the work for which all other work is just preparation.” I would add to celebrate is also hard, but it is needed if we hope to have any chance at leading tragic and comedic lives.

And if we want to romance the naysayers back into love with St. Valentine’s Day, let’s reinvigorate it. Let’s make it into a contemporary Lupercalia festival of fertility and purification with milk and blood and wool.

What full-blooded modern man or woman wouldn’t like to strip naked and spank each other with strips of goat flesh?

Last of the Gang to Realize

In my twenties, I got this crazy notion. I suppose all of us get those at some time. Mine was that I wanted to be a writer. But I had no idea where to begin — besides reading.

So I read. Anything, anywhere, everywhere, and then some more. I think a lot of people I knew thought I was either crazy or delusional or else depressed.

I was ecstatic — an electric light with no off switch and alone with myself.

At some point I tried writing my own stuff, imitations of the masters and, as is expected, it was lousy crap that now I wince at but at the time I thought was something — the way you think death is something that always happens to others.

Then something odd happened. I stopped writing. But I didn’t stop reading. This wasn’t the odd thing. It was that I started to believe that emulating the crazy lives of the writers I loved (like Henry Miller, Dylan Thomas, DH Lawrence, Oscar Wilde, Ted Hughes, Jack Kerouac, Knut Hamsun, James Joyce, Tolstoy, Dickens, Steinbeck, Joseph Conrad, Blake, Shelley, Byron, Rimbaud, Thomas Hardy, Herman Hesse, Baudelaire, etc, etc) would make me a writer. That adventure was more important than writing. All I needed to do was jot things down in a fancy notebook and recite poetry or shock people with irreverent and diabolical ideas and thoughts all stolen from the writers I loved. It was my homage to them, proof that I was their blood brother in waiting and in writing.

The problem was, I was too timid to be like my heroes. Their lives were such a huge undertaking and too big of a call to life for me. I just didn’t have that kind of spirit in me, at least not physically, although I now realize it was beginning to emerge creatively, even spiritually.

But the biggest problem of all was that I didn’t write!

I just created a fictional me who had aimlessly stepped out from a novel. And still nobody recognized me. Did nobody read Miller or Thomas or Wilde or Hamsun, I kept shouting to the stars? How could they not recognize the writer in me? Blind fools!

It was a sort of mystical time period when I look back at it. I wasn’t writing a damn thing, just jotting ideas and quotes down and living an itinerant sort of life, not keeping a job for long, and reading lots, and trying to create this real, tangible persona of a writer without doing a bit of writing.

I blame the writers I admired. They always seemed to be off having adventures in Paris or London or Laugharne, leading wild lives, and then having a brief moment of frenzied writing that was immediately published to great acclaim and fanfare. They all made it look so damn easy! And I wanted that.

Which is a shame really, since twenty years later, I’m still struggling to free myself from that myth. Although now I look at it with a good dose of humour. Now I know the writing life isn’t anything like that. I only wish someone had told me instead of ridiculing or ignoring or worse telling me to give it up and that only a certain breed of gifted individuals become writers. Or I wish I could have woken up and smelled the book spines. Or do I?

My apprentice years have been longer, I think, because I had to work myself out of two writers: the real and the imagined. Although now I look back fondly on that imagined one. I think without that callow youth who thought he knew what it took to be a writer was simply having joie de vivre and elan and moxie and passion and irreverence and balls and attitude and despair and misery and poverty and magnetism and personality and a reckless heart and a joyful soul, I don’t think I would have found the real writer in me.

And in truth, I was already training my mind to be more imaginative. By seeing myself like a character out of a book,  I was helping the writer along by always reaching for something witty to say or practising some idea out on a stranger to see how they reacted. It was all training, the way I look at it.

In a way, I’m thankful for that young man. Grateful that he made a fool of himself then so I don’t have to make a bigger fool of myself now.

And as the writer Jeanette Winterson has said, what is the “I” but a fiction, or Rimbaud with his “I is someone else.” We tell stories every day to others and ourselves.

The only difference now is that I’m much more serious about jotting those stories down. I’m becoming that writer I always wanted to be. Which is what I set out to do in my twenties, it’s just taken me a bit longer to arrive.

But arrive I will, one way or another.

A Tonic for the Troops

Not to tip my own velvet — wait, is that the correct phrase? — but my short story in DAW Books’ sci-fi anthology goes on sale tomorrow at Amazon.

www.amazon.com/Timeshares-Book-Collectors-Jean-Rabe/dp/0756406153

Tell your friends, tell your enemies, and if you can’t find any wood bring in the whole fucking shed.

Whoops went into Withnail mode there, sorry.

It’s $8 for a collection of 19 stories from big names in the Fantasy and sci-fi genre. Big names, I tell you.

And what’s $8? You could get green eggs and ham for breakfast or you could read my story and learn why the English poet William Blake has poppy seeds in his trench coat and is stuck in the Bish o Prick section of the trenches during WW1.