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By the crow
poem / letter / music
Here are some things for you, continuing broad themes from the last few months, in one of my semi-regular breaks from essaying. First, a poem and some avian drawings. Then a letter to a friend from a very strange week spent dog and cat sitting for rich Londoners, while trying to make ends meet, both from 2018.1 Lastly, I press a mixtape into your sweaty palm whilst mumbling something about ‘Brian Eno’s amazing harmony vocals on this one…’
By the Crow This year and a day is the non-doing of desire stopping no flows yet not overflowing a good hard koan for her today is a long strange verse not fully translated from the original the language of blood, pheromones, thirst threatened correspondence of the crow eyeing her from atop the cockpit opposite when she opens the galley door, first thing a massive surging in her like horses bolting on soft sand for the hell of it makes the loud boatyard cat rub and stretch angling for a belly stroke the crow calls six caws one minute after the palace clock chimes six she goes by the crow not the tower what does it want?
from a letter, 2018
It has taken 3 days to realise what makes me so uncomfortable here in this expensive flat, in this sought-after area, with its great transport links and well-stocked independent shops. Aside from the unnaturalness of two healthy cats being kept indoors, a dog that has deliberately not been toilet-trained and is treated openly as a human baby, and the lack of a single piece of art of any kind. With a garden that has no plants: grass and wooden slatted fences…
It is that there is only one hand-made thing in this entire dwelling, (if you do not count the linen basket, made ‘by hand’ on a production line in factory conditions in South East Asia). There is one small wooden ladle, in lovely pale maple or sycamore by the looks of it, charred from sitting in a pot that burned dry, perhaps. It is badly made, ungainly, too thick in the bowl and too small to be useful, too curved to stir well, with the bowl sitting at an angle where it cannot be of any use, and indeed, does not even sit upright on a flat surface. The transitions between bowl and handle stem are severe and unsmoothed, with tiny jags of grain protruding, so it is hard to get clean. The handle tip tapers off strangely, too soon. It is like a Lilliputian wooden pastiche of a certain kind of imported soup ladle, that would normally be made of bamboo and coconut shell. But still it is the only thing I can find to stir my morning porridge, my lunchtime soup or my evening pasta. It is surely a first attempt at carving, from an expensive and trendy spoon-making day in Dalston. Don’t get me wrong, I love making spoons, ladles, butter knives, and I use what I have made. But this is a totem of cack-handed realness, here in the flat of the machine, and so I am increasingly fond of it.
I have 26 hours more to stay here, and I will never again look after creatures in this way, for wealthy people who do not allow animals their natural behaviours. Shortly I will take the dog for a walk, and let him sniff and pee, which is the dog grapevine, newspaper, and health gossip, all in one.
In my boat, I could not begin to count the number of things made by hand. I wouldn’t know where to start, even with the things I had made myself. I would estimate that there are several hundred hand-made items in the 40 foot boat alone. Ah, perhaps all the fitted wardrobes in this apartment, with their handle-less surfaces, conceal scores of couture dresses, bespoke shirts and suits, hand-crafted shoes. I doubt it, but I am also not interested or invasive enough to go and look. I think I would get even more disheartened. It is not just class, or wealth, or age, that divides the home-owners and me, here. It is the realisation that what you look at all day, (if you have a say in that), does reflect what fills your mind. When one shares a space, or is travelling, when poor and desperate, homeless, squatting in insecure places, (all of which I have experienced at some point), then the décor is secondary to all other considerations. But when you can afford a television too big to watch comfortably from your sofa and there is ample wall space, and no minimalist aesthetic, would you not choose something you like to rest your eyes upon, besides pale grey emulsion paint? I out myself as a William Morrissian here, maybe that’s now perversely seen as elitist, but I do not care. In this home, where only two pots work on the induction hob, there is no bread knife, no chopping board, no wooden spoon, no dustbin; there are 300 DVDs including all of Disney’s children’s films (yet there are no children here), 1.2 metres of unread mainly ‘clean eating’ ‘cook’ books (no one actually seems to cook anything in them), and cupboards full of expensive party games, still plastic-wrapped.
I see adult children, well-meaning, adrift, lacking any practical skills, infantilised and infantilising, consuming, wasteful, cut off from nature. And apparently this is all entirely normal, and I am the freak, with my plants, veggie beds, and home-made furnishings. I grew up with very little money, no holidays, no Art (except for mum’s beautiful embroideries, and some great local watercolours), no books either, unless from the library. I am no middle-class snob, and art college did not much mould my character, (little that I had to mould). And so I will allow myself to say this: I hate it here and cannot wait to leave.2
When I get to the bottom I go back to the top
When I first started this Substack, I wanted to share more music, but each week so many other good things have stolen the spot at the foot of my weekly posts. So, I have begun to compile a first playlist for readers of, and listeners to, Uncivil Savant. You should be able to use this link to listen to music on Spotify, if that appeals to you. This first playlist is still under construction and I will add to it all through Lent, (as I have given up scrolling through other people’s crafts and art on Instagram, wish me luck). All the music on this list makes me feel strangely uplifted, yet also slightly yearning, usually resulting in me dancing around my bedroom or harmonising along, exactly as you would expect from someone who went to art college in the clifftop mansion that once housed Mary Shelley. I was about to write, ‘Don’t judge me’, but that is not possible, and the mix tapes we gave each other in the 1980s were exactly how you judged where your friends were at. So, judge away.
In the 1990s for three years I worked in the legendary, now defunct, Helter Skelter Music Bookstore, in Denmark Street, London (also known as Tin Pan Alley, home to many musical instrument shops). Our diverse customers included Jonny Greenwood, Bernard Sumner, Berry Gordy and Lol Coxhill. Staff mixtapes were a source of pride, rivalry and discovery. Einstürzende Neubauten and Nick Cave were on heavy rotation when manager Michael was at the desk, REM and American Music Club were on owner and writer Sean Body’s regular tapes. I played lots of Dead Can Dance, King Crimson and even my own band’s mixes, to hear them on a different hifi set up. This was all much to the annoyance of the Dylanologists3 who congregated each Saturday, and who only wanted to hear Classic Rock. The shop was full of great writers and musicians most weekends; Paolo Hewitt, ex Record Collector editor Peter Doggett, Renaissance man Julian Cope and a very dour John Cale all came in and signed piles of books for us in our haven full of new and vintage volumes on music.
Karen O’Brien was the only female music writer I met while working there. I just looked up her books about women in rock, Joni Mitchell, and Kirsty MacColl online, and found an article she wrote about music fandom in The Independent. It surprised me by featuring an opinionated young musician, ‘Caroline “Nevi” Ross’. Never heard of her. Two of the proudest musical moments of my life were when in one month both Johnny Marr and Elvis Costello walked out of the store with my demo tapes in their hands after stopping and asking me, ‘This is great. What are you playing?’ Imagine High Fidelity but in a bookshop, that was us. It was inevitably bloke-heavy, customer-wise, but with two women and two men as the complete staff, there was balance and harmony behind the scenes and on the tape machine. It remains the only proper job I ever had, regularly working for a company. Sean was the greatest boss, and is much missed.
Enjoy the Uncivil Savant mix, it’s growing. See you next week.
This week’s good thing is really the playlist. So an extra thing is the video of, Alastair MacIntosh, Dougie Strang and myself talking at Galgael in Glasgow in early February, to launch At Work In the Ruins. D asked me to talk about wu wei, no pressure, then. But watching back, I think the ways in which we all spoke, wove something good together. Many thanks to Em Strang for the awesome poncho I am wearing in the video. It was needed!
I have been writing, singing and making art against the Machine since about 1986, when I think back, with a blip where I got bamboozled between 1992-1996.
I am not always joyful and wholesome, sometimes I even whinge like a true Brit.