Really looking

I attended a mindfulness meditation retreat a couple of weeks ago. As I lay on my back forming an intention not to prod the meditator below me with my foot again, some writing on the rafters caught my eye:

A work of art can only be comprehended by looking at it and no description is a substitute for this.

— Gervase of Canterbury, c. 1141–1210.

That seemed like a pretty good definition to me.

Dopamine Dream

Here’s a new track, ‘Dopamine Dream’. It’s essentially a five minute guitar solo. I learnt to play guitar during the Britpop years when such monstrous grandstanding was forbidden. A shame really, as the guitar is one of the most expressive instruments there is. Anyway, there’s something to be said for monstrous grandstanding when you’re the one who’s doing it.

It’ll be on the next Uffmoor Woods Music Club release, People Are Guitars.

Shigeru’s Cave


When Shigeru was twelve, he found a cave
no one else had explored. The other boys
avoided that part of the wood. Their base
bordered the hillside near a soldier’s grave
now used as a bookmark for civic grief
but Shigeru went on deeper forays
into the forest. He staged one man plays
under the teeming emptiness. He tried to carve
murals in loneliness and what was slight
became whole, wider than the cave itself.
Even the dust made shadows when he lit
an oil lamp and ghosts rose to a swarm.
Their dreams were parables in low relief,
unknowable but easy to transform.


Shigeru blew out the flame and black verbs
gathered the unlit part of their burden,
climbing like fireworks with each blink, hidden
like smoke wrapped in a darker sky. Suburbs
called him from beyond the wood, offering bribes
of long stillness when the clearing was done.
A blind thief arrived. He made his den
out of insults, heartbeats and rubies.
He polished their blood-beauty like you would shoes,
counting them over decades, relieved
to find company in his own echoes.
For all the thief’s effort his only prize
was a hundred smooth-dull stones. Shigeru breathed
from the forest, smiled and opened his eyes.


The silence became floodwater, so bright
it glittered between branches yet so dense
it pulled the cave inside out and blindness,
regrets and blessings tumbled free. Black roots
erupted from the ground. Bare branches wrote
poetry in their scrawl against a wilderness
where swallows flew. Shigeru watched them dance.
Small deafenings and tensions came apart
as he stepped into a larger, deeper cave.
Meandering home and late for his tea,
a schoolboy paused for a minute and gave
his hands to the slow part of the river
to feel its cool alignment with the sea;
a darting, unexpected scale; quicksilver.


‘Shigeru’s Cave’ was shortlisted for the 2014 Live Canon Poetry Competition and appears in the competition anthology, available from Amazon. It was inspired by the formative experiences of Nintendo game designer, Shigeru Miyamoto.

The meaning of the one ring

Possessiveness is a recurring theme in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. At the beginning, Bilbo is attached to his quiet way of life. His daily trials are no more strenuous than avoiding the Sackville-Bagginses and no more rewarding than a pint of ale and a hearty repast. He has a quotidian existence and Gandalf’s invitation to re-order his life in the shape of a quest is a troubling challenge.

We learn that this bother with Smaug is the upshot of greed: the greed of Thorin Oakenshield’s father and grandfather, and their coveting of the arkenstone. Later, when they seize Smaug’s stronghold, their lust for gold has the potential to bring all to ruin were it not for a clever burglar. A burglar is someone who relieves the burden of possession. Bilbo relieved Gollum of the ring, though after too many years for the darkness-dweller to adjust to the burden of not having it. Gollum might not possess the ring, but the ring still possesses him. In Jungian terms, Gollum is Bilbo’s shadow: the repressed part of himself that he cannot consciously acknowledge but will come face to face with through his quest. Gollum is wild and violent; he also takes Bilbo’s anti-social, obsessive tendencies to an extreme. Like Bilbo, he enjoys small comforts and games – but of a darker shade. Smaug, too, is shadow. He represents more than the dwarves’ uninterrogated greed. He is an usurping serpent in the heart of the mountain and the human heart. His possessiveness of gold is witness to his colossal covetousness of his own self, his massive ego. He loathes nothing more than a thief who might relieve him of his burden and has no greater blindspot than flattery.

When Frodo comes to bear the ring we see exactly how a possession may possess its owner. Like Bilbo, Frodo begins to echo Gollum’s speech: my own, mine. We learn that the ring, though forged, cannot be unmade except in special circumstances. It’s this idea of the ring as a discrete object, whole, existing objectively and immutably as fact, that forms part of its attractiveness (contrast with the Buddhist concept of emptiness). It represents something absolute, apart from other objects, and so able to satisfy dark longings for power and security that all other possessions have failed to quench. The hobbits’ relative resistance to the one ring has its root in their humility; the allure of the ring is the support it lends to the assumption at the root of possessiveness: that there is an enduring ego that gains security through possession. It literally prolongs the life of its bearer, but in doing so unites them with the shadow of their nature. Ultimately, Tolkien dissolves the deadlock between possessor and possession as the ring melts in the belly of Mt. Doom.

The bones of a song

2014-09-15 19.23.27

Six new Uffmoor Woods Music Club tracks have come along, currently in various states of completion. I like the way Ableton Live enables you to capture ideas quickly that will then become the bones of a song. I’ve been recording melodies and immediately playing along to find accompanying parts while the inspiration is still there. That’s really handy when you have a small window of time in which to work. For the most part, this record will be quite guitar heavy, though that doesn’t mean heavy guitar. Clean, interlocking tones predominate so far. In fact, the working title is People Are Guitars. I won’t venture a release date just yet.

The Roses of Heliogabalus

The Roses of Heliogabalus by Lawrence Alma-TademaThe Roses of Heliogabalus by Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

The Roses of Heliogabalus

We were talking about art
and taking wine with our
sensuous king when a slave
released the canopy and petals –
their blush-making softness,
their deafening of the skin –
continued falling through us.
And when the late sun reddened,
guards turned the litter
over itself continually
until the ground was bruised
and whether they spoke of it
or patrolled their memories,
or held themselves alert
or felt their way to excuses
that bore their tentative hurt,
I cannot say, except that
these men walked a quiet palace
where all those able had
given themselves to love.




The Cave Diver: a Halloween story

Leaves are streaming from the trees and the long nights are drawing in. At this time of year the weather keeps us indoors, our mood becomes more introspective and, perhaps, our taste for the macabre grows. It’s in this spirit (ooOOoo!) that I offer this chilling tale.

The Cave Diver

The pumpkin curdles on the porch. Its innards are cooked by candle heat, its rind-crown open to the autumn air. Trees crack and groan behind the garden fence. I remember the story Dad told us in our gloomy garage one Halloween about his friend: the cave diver whose buddy line went slack. Like everything Dad said, it was given to us as true. A master story-teller, he’d chosen the garage as the coldest, darkest, eeriest place in our suburban home. We were surrounded by the spare parts of our lives: an unused treadmill, punctured footballs, broken action figures and drawers of tools, cables and half-dead batteries with too much charge to throw away. Satisfied with this claustrophobic setting, my father began to tell the story as it was told to him.

I can’t recall exactly how the two divers were separated, however. There was a sharp tug on the line and then nothing. These submerged catacombs were not much wider than a man and Dad’s friend, who was the lead diver, had no way of turning or wriggling backwards. It was only when he emerged into a larger chamber that the line came free and the cave diver realised his friend was gone. Had he gotten into difficulty and cut the line to make a break for the exit? Or had it snagged on razor-edged rocks? He retraced their route. Bubbles stirred a cloud of sediment everytime he exhaled. His oxygen tank clinked and boomed on stalactites as he squeezed through ever narrower spaces. Then, while exploring one of the side tunnels his torch lit up a discarded weight belt. His friend was lost and running out of air.

Suddenly a beam of diluted light shone through a hole in the rock wall no bigger than a fist. The cave diver flashed his torch through the gap and, on the other side, the lost man gestured to his air gauge with slow hands and wild eyes. So the diver passed his regulator through the gap, holding his breath while the lost man clamped down on the mouthpiece and breathed the air withheld from him. The cave diver held his breath until the lost man returned the mouthpiece. Then – in a cruel twist – the other’s torch blinked out. The cave diver pointed the way out as he remembered it, and passed his own torch through the gap. The beam caught his lost friend shaking his head, pupils shrinking in its light. He was in a separate tunnel system. They’d both had the same air, had both been down for the same time but the lost man had panicked and used up more oxygen. The cave diver struggled to stay calm. He had to get to the surface now or they’d both drown. They shook hands through the gap in the wall and parted.

Grim minutes passed under the permanent granite night. The cave diver felt his way through the forest of rocks with palms, elbows and knees. At last, he was birthed into open water and able to breathe stale dregs of air that expanded in the cylinder as he rose. Then the last fumes were gone. Having pulled himself, exhausted, onto land, he waited for ten minutes at the edge. The lost man’s air had run out long ago. He knew that his friend was drowned – until a cloud of dim torchlight and bubbles broke the surface. The lost man clambered out, dumping his tanks and torch in the mud. He staggered to his jeep and drove away without a word. The cave diver checked the abandoned cylinders where the torch beam still shone into the rain. The air gauge read empty.

“Was it a ghost?” We asked, sitting in the dark garage at home.
Dad lowered his voice, “Who’s to say? No one ever heard from him again”. Then, with one sudden movement, he whipped a flashlight from behind his back, lighting it under his chin. He grinned like a pumpkin filled with candlelight and cackled, “But I still have his torch”.

Shigeru’s Cave shortlisted for Live Canon 2014

Poetry news! ‘Shigeru’s Cave’ has been shortlisted for this year’s Live Canon International Poetry Competition. It’s a series of three Italian sonnets imagining one of the fathers of modern gaming, Shigeru Miyamoto, as a kind of schoolboy hermit exploring Platonic territories. Miyamoto is (of course) the creator of the Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda games. Much has been made of his formative, solitary childhood playing in woods, caves and streams in the hills behind his family’s suburban home. Shigeru himself suggests a mysterious link between these early experiences of nature and the playful, tactile exploration that characterises his game design. The poem was inspired by this article in The New Yorker.