Five Old-Fashioned Home-made Hats

Since the mid-1970s I have been a closet Slav. I learned all about Russia through human rights and travel books, mainly. In 2008 I got the opportunity to visit that huge troubled country. On my last day there I stumbled on a ‘babushka’ selling gaudy coloured, acrylic knitted hats.

Illustration: katyazhu.com

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I.

A drab coat covered her plain pinafore,

her battered boots had seen better days

– unobtrusively, this old woman stood

on a St. Petersburg street corner,

silently holding up five crocheted hats.

 

She didn’t utter any plaintive, pleading pitch,

nor held any crude cardboard, Cyrillic sign,

advertising her five old-fashioned hats…

She showed no Soviet scowl,

nor naive hopeful smile:

– crushed by cruel Communism,

– pauperised by promising Perestroika

– conscripted into crony Capitalism…

 

No kindness offered from fellow citizens,

nor purchase made by this troubled tourist.

O, babushka! O, grandmother!

You waited on summer streets

offering gaudy-coloured hats for sale…

 

II.

I entered the Spilt Blood Church

where heaven-haunted old icons

glowed gold, heaven-blue and blood-red,

depicting Byzantine biblical characters

who entreated us to remember eternity:

parables reprimanded the rich.

 

At the church shop, assistants refused

to change my large rouble note.

O, babushka! I bought an unwanted beer

to brake my note and buy from you

a baby hat that I certainly did not need.

 

III.

O, babushka! I re-traced my journey

in the vain hope of making you smile.

O, babushka! Now apparently absent…

until suddenly, I spied your ghost

selling foil-wrapped garden flowers:

mere daisies, clovers and ferns.

I bought the second last bunch

and departed before change offered.

 

Again I spied your ghost, closing-up

a  well-travelled, stained suitcase,

filled with a blizzard of paper icons.

I prayed for you in pain, as I pressed

hope into your grubby-lined palm:

an act of inadequate atonement…

 

IV.

Who can I send to St. Petersburg?

Who can buy me five home-made hats?

Sing, minor-chord Orthodox mass-choirs!

O bell sequence riotously ring!

O gold-robed priest, let incense-censer swing!

Pained prayers ascend candle-lit icons.

 

O weeping widow – prostrate, praying

before the altar of the Everlasting

– do you now smile at the Saviour’s touch?

Are you succoured by His abundant care?

Did He open “heaven’s windows” for you?

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Heaven’s windows” is a reference to Malachi 3: 10: ‘I will open the windows of heaven for you. I will pour out a blessing so great you won’t have enough room to take it in….’

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Bookshops: places of adventure & discovery…

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                                              Phone at Carraig Books

                                             Dora Kazmierak https://www.instagram.com/dorakazmierak/

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Working In Carraig Books, a suburban second hand bookshop, had been a happy career accident. I had always been a reader. My mother had encouraged me to read Stendhal and other Penguin classics. Our sitting room was filled with books (and a bit of sheet music for the piano). I graduated from the French classics to Sartre, and other French existentialists. I had dropped out of secondary school: an academic-phobic, wanna-be hippy.

Prior to working Carraig Books, I had been working in Blackrock Printers, owned by the same family. It was situated at rear of the used bookshop. I was never going to make it as a printer, beyond apprenticeship level. To be a capable offset printer in the 70’s, you needed to be somewhat mathematician / somewhat scientist. I was neither.

It was with pleasure that I then heard that the bookshop assistant wished to get into the printing section. I wanted out of printing. We simply switched jobs. No interviews required! I spent two enjoyable years, baptised in the antiquarian, sweet scented atmosphere of used books.I learned to appreciate older typefaces, gorgeous prints, full calf covers, raised bands on leather spines and gilt edges.

One of my bookshop jobs, was picking and packing books to send to list subscribers. I became a self-taught salesman of historical reprints. Often I got the bus into town to sell these modest chapbook reprints, published by Carraig Books.

 

                                                  Postal catalogues and various Carraig chapbook reprints

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Other than that, I was serving calling customers, mostly men: geeky specialists, completists, obsessives and collectors. I also catalogued books on the electric “golf-ball” typewriter and swept the floor…

                                   Poetry Ireland journal editorial on my prize-winning entry

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In December 1981, I won the Poetry Ireland / Padric Colum poetry award. A change was needed in my very modest career. I was never going to make much money in a small family business. With my poetry prize money, which equalled three months wages, I took a “career break”. That term was a laughable concept, if you only knew my career to date: kitchen porter, cloth cutter in backstreet textile factory, art-shop assistant, packer in my parents textile company.

Later that Spring I was touting my self-published booklet of poetry and prose, The Homecoming, around the same Dublin bookshops that I had called to, on behalf of Carraig Books. Hodges Figgis gave me a small book order. I was pleased…from modest beginnings etc. Before I left that well-regarded bookshop, I asked the same Irish interest buyer were there any jobs going.

 

                               Samizdat-published booklet published with poetry prize money

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Seconds after I asked my job query, one of the Hodges Figgis directors happened to pass nearby. I was introduced to him and was told that I could drop in for an interview – but that no job promises were on offer. I was game for that proposition. The next day I presented myself for interview.

 

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                                                          Hodges Figgis, a long-established Dublin Bookshop, Dawson Street

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“And what schools did you attend?”

I always feared that question, as my grades had never been good and I had never completed my secondary school education. I mentioned my Dublin suburban national school, then my co-ed Quaker boarding school, Newtown School, Waterford.

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                               Newtown School, Waterford

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“Did you happen to know my sister, Wendy, who went there?”

Of course I knew Wendy! She was prefect, keeping order on my dining room table. From there on I had the feeling that it was almost a matter of “gentlemen, please adjust your school-ties!” A short while later I got a call from that director.

“Could you possibly start work in the bargain basement tomorrow, Friday?”

Certainly I could. Although not other staff member regarded working in bargain books as a “real bookselling job” – I jumped at it. What were bargain books, if not the close-cousins of “used books”.

On my first day working in the bargain basement of Hodges Figgis I noticed on the staff room notice board an intriguing notice. It stated that Hodges Figgis would be opening a religious bookshop. Not only that but it would be situated in an Anglican church, located a minute up the street, in St Ann’s Church of Ireland. It was directly across the road from The Hibernian Bible Society and long established theological bookseller.

 

                                                           St Ann’s romanesque-styled Anglican church, Dublin

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I went up that first-day lunch time and found the bookshop-to-be. It’s location was imaginatively placed in an unused side-entrance to St Ann’s church, via a Romanesque style stone porch. Being a Christian, as well as a bookseller, this project enthralled me. However, I thought it wise to bide my time for a few weeks. It might be looked on askance to apply for this managerial position, on my first day working in the bargain basement!

After two weeks, I made enquiries and was interviewed by the Managing Director of Hodges Figgis. From what I enthusiastically related about my Christian faith and my love of books, he surmised that I was a good fit for this position. I was soon introduced to canon Billy Wynne, the jovial, slightly rotund clergyman who was in charge of St. Ann’s Church. tn_billyHe wanted top open up the church in different ways by introducing evening concerts, a sandwich cafe, daily communion and confession booths (highly unusual for the usually low church perspective). The church bookshop-to-be was to be part of that opening up of a typically moribund Anglican church.

I met Canon Billy Wynne in a local hotel, just opposite government buildings. We had a meal and a pint of Guinness each. He quizzed me about my faith and my interest in books. He also thought me the best fit for the bookshop-to-be in his church.

Knowing quite a bit about bookshop politics, from a regular reading of The Bookseller, I knew that this scheme would fall at the first fence. The holding company of Hodges Figgis had recently dumped their investment in an English evangelical Christian publisher. Why on earth would they initiate the development of an Anglican based bookshop.

Shortly, after my meeting with the Canon, that church bookshop idea, spearheaded by Hodges Figgis, was shelved. The shop had been fully fitted out in a very tasteful manner. What I didn’t realise then was that the APCK board was considering re-entering religious bookselling in a modest way. They soon took on ownership of the church bookshop project.

I knew that no-one in the general bookshop trade was interested in going for the interviews, to managing this bookshop. Apart from a few retired and bored Church of Ireland parishoners, I was front runner for this job. I was inwardly convinced that I would get this job. Due to illness, I was unable to attend the one-day specific interview process. I was very soon interviewed by a robed bishop and a business manager during my bargain bookshop lunch break. Half an hour later I was approached in the bargain basement and congratulated on passing the interview.

 

APCK 3

                                                                                                                       Interior St. Ann’s Book Centre 1983

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I had a very kind, very patient manager,  during my two years in St Ann’s Book Centre. Every two weeks he caught the train from Lisburn to Dublin to brainstorm, guide, and chide – when necessary. He would arrive  at 10.30, inspect the sales and lodgement books, take us out to lunch, have wrap-up chat and then leave until another two weeks time. His name was Jim McAdams, and he mentored me well.

He was funding this start-up on the profits of selling red-top newspapers,  stationary, cigarettes and sweets! Albeit he had a small section of religious books for sale above this newsagent-styled shop. He let me try any section development possible, within rite and reason.

As an evangelical, emerging from a fundamentalist spiritual foundation, one of my modern Christian heroes, ironically, was

One of my bookshop jobs, was picking and packing books to send to list subscribers. I became a self-taught salesman of historical reprints. Often I got the bus into town to sell these modest chapbook reprints, published by Carraig Books. I took to heart one of Mother Theresa’s Order foundation Rules; apart from the daily Mass, and daily Scripture reading, was regular reading of church history. Her reason for this, was that all Christian denominations had made historical mistakes.

So, with this wonderful idea in mind, I started the first dedicated church history section in any Dublin bookshop that I knew of. I regularly trawled other Dublin bookshops with interest, to see what they were getting up to, in buying themes and promotions.

Among the cinderella-sections that I developed, were Christian Feminism, a bit of poetry (well, as I was a poet myself, this was an obvious move!). As I also had a strong Slavophile interest, I started stocking Russian Orthodox interest books and Orthodox liturgical records. (I had long interest in the unaccompanied Russian Orthodox choirs and lively church campanology. The first Orthodox liturgy LP that I bought was to celebrate my poetry award, previously mentioned.)

 

                                                   The first Russian Orthodox liturgical music that I bought

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On occasions the Irish School of Ecumenics held Orthodox study weekends. I would buy in multi volumes of authors from the recommended reading lists, on sale-or-return. It wouldn’t be unusual to sell a couple of hundred euros of books over a couple of hours.

Regular trade was usually in the newly published hymn books and prayer books, ordered by parishes in their hundreds. This was the bread-and-butter turn over of this shop.

During my time in St Ann’s Bookshop I had a few unusual encounters. One such encounter was with Brigette, a book restorer, who worked on old manuscripts in nearby Trinity College. She was a similar age to me and was a bright, easy-going young woman. I met her as we both sheltered in porch of the bookshop. She had been bought a catechism-type book by the church curate, who had baptised her the night before.

 

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                                                          Anglican adult baptism
                                                          __________________________

It is highly unusual for adults in the Anglican church to be baptised, even if it was common place in my church-of-choice, the Plymouth Brethren. I was intrigued at finding out this. Did she understand the significance of what she had done, I wondered? I tried to educate her a bit in biblical literacy.

We ended up having lunch together in the hip-music playing Marks Brothers restaurant, on South Anne Street. We met up for lunch a few times. We also attended Handel’s Messiah, under the sad drooping, tattered military flags in St Patrick’s Cathedral. I walked her back to her apartment at Trinity College.

Under high-arched, baroque cathedral roof
choir-sung oratorio echoed, pathos pervaded;
our eyes articulately spoke emotional proof,
under regimental flags no longer paraded.

Later kissed proffered lips, moonlight reflected
college courtyards, I cupped your freckled face;
such bright-eyed eagerness, quite unexpected,
dumbfounded by such feminine-firm embrace…

It was sweet and short, a very short relationship….

A year later I started a relationship with Liz, who had attended the same co-ed boarding school that I had. After a short while I learned that Canon Billy Wynne was actually a childhood friend of my girlfriend’s mother, both living in County Wicklow, in the 1930s.

Billy was frequently lauding my hard work inthe bookshop, when in conversation with Liz’s mother. That diplomatic up-talk possibly helped me when I later approached Liz’s parents, asking her hand in marriage…

 

l &l wedding (1)

                                                                       Liz & Louis marriage September 10th 1985

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One day, the one-time managing director of Hodges Figgis called into the church bookshop. He informed me that he was opening a new bookshop, to be called Bookshop, in a suburban shopping centre, in Blackrock. He asked me would I like to join his team there. As a career bookseller, and later to be married, it was a no-brainer to accept another move, after two exciting, ground-breaking bookselling years in St. Ann’s.

Billy Wynne accompanied me to see the shell of the shopping centre bookshop-to-be. It had not even been kitted out by shop-fitters at that stage. He asked me to pause within the bare concrete structure while he prayed for my future there. A kind and prophetic gesture, as it later turned out. My over-earnest Christian faith caused a few small storms during that period of my bookselling career. I missed vital corporate-cultural clues from time to time, but was pleased to be part of an almost-franchise type of business culture

When I left St Ann’s Book Centre, the man who took over, Fergus McCullagh, was my part-time assistant there. He got this position in an unusual way. Over a year before he had come in one day, and ordered a book on the church and unemployment. When I phoned to tell him that his book had arrived, I asked him was he unemployed. He had been unemployed for a few years, he stated. I told him that I would keep his name on file.

Little did I know that I was very soon to undergo a minor but urgent surgical procedure. I quickly phoned him, asking would he like immediate work and he stayed on after my two week recuperation. I saw this, like many of the events around my career direction, as being directed by a caring, paternal-minded Father God.

 

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                                                  One of my window displays at Bookstop in the late 1980s.

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In time, I was to work again in my home town of Blackrock. I worked in Bookstop in different capacities for the next eighteen years. While there, I was championing the usual “cinderellas” of minority interest bookselling, developing a dynamic special order section, and doing creative window displays. It was hard work adjusting to working with a team, under a management that never seemed to want to excel above the average. Growing up in an immigrant, entrepreneurial family imbued me with passion and vision that was tolerated, rather than welcomed and celebrated. During that turbulent and mixed career  period I semi-retired, down-shifted to part-time work at Bookstop. I started selling used theological & Irish interest books online.

For the last ten years I have returned to work in Carraig Books, ad hoc style. As the shop slowly wound-down towards closure, I altered my working terms and conditions. Previously I had been “paid” in books but when I stopped selling books online, this was of no use to me. These days my “wages” are a sandwich/latte meal deal, by my choosing.

 

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Coffee meal deal example

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Sometimes there are very few customers, so I read a book, do some writing, or browse the internet, undisturbed in the main…

For me working in a bookshop is a special and unique vocation. It is a bit like being a patient counsellor, a burden-sharing confessor, and presenting actor on an unusual stage. You never know who exactly will push hard on the stiff, old fashioned door. It could be someone famous or someone unknown. What stories and dramas will these book browsers and buyers dare to share. Though I am a nuanced Christian, I have always try to let God direct the conversation direction in this unusual, one-scene bookshop setting…I will sorely miss the interaction with customers, the daily drama of a typical retailers day.

Catch dream delightful nasal whiff,

antique calf covers, pungent pages,

sentimental this second-hand sniff,

older books witness to past ages.

 

Second-hand bookshop unassuming,

frontage design from yester-year,

author arguments begin booming,

old fashioned, biblio atmosphere.

 

Piles of books, passage near-blocked,

some covers warped, or detached,

some printed contents worm-pocked,

older authors not quickly despatched.

 

Heritage honoured with due respect,

past authors offered warm embraces,

many ideas on pages freckle-specked,

playing hide and seek among bookcases.

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                                                                           Closing up Carraig Books, setting security screen in place

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Who holds the future, if it’s not the One who made us…

 

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The year was 1976. I had dropped out of secondary school, due to family fracturing and lack of academic engagement. I was pretty lost in direction. My goals were to immerse myself in music and female friendships. I’d had a small catalogue of sweethearts in my teens and quickly realised that volatile, nubile Pre-Raphelite beauties didn’t hold the answers that I sought.

I had grown up in a middle-class suburban housing estate. My parents were working-class-made-good textile entrepreneurs. Both of them also left school early, in the 1940s.

I had a series of short term jobs. I worked as a cafe kitchen porter, in a back-street textile factory as a pattern cutter, litho-printer. I was hard to fit in with my smoking, swearing and  binge-drinking working class work mates. I retreated into myself and music. Most weekends I stayed in my sitting room, smoking French scented cigarettes, and listening over and over to my revered  rock LPs.

The fourth job that I landed was my happiest. It was a step up from factories. That job lasted only a year, when the elderly owner died, and the family shut down the shop. However, in that shop entered a ninety year old lady, who had recently started to paint! She shared gospel faith with me and wanted me to go a Cliff Richard / Billy Graham film event, run by a local Plymouth Brethren Hall. I declined. Why would I even consider going watch such a twat?? However, I didn’t mock or disdain that kind-hearted lady. And she didn’t give up on me either. She prayed and schemed to get a young Christian couple to take me on. That worked!

In time, I became an over-optimistic, evangelical Christian convert. A Northern Ireland “plain-spade” evangelist played his part in my first-time commitment. There was lots to learn and unlearn in my life. After all the euphoria, I struggled quite a bit, adjusting to the clap-happy atmosphere of unabashed church life. My background story was darkened by a family murder / suicide in the 1940s, and my parents bitter divorce in the 1970s.

Music was a central part of my pre-conversion life. It was an important part of my uncertain identity. It was the closest to a limited hope, offered by seventies singer-songwriter saviours. Confessional music was favoured most by this lost teen poet. Having started writing poetry at co-ed boarding school, I was entranced by the introverted and sombre Cohen’s ‘Songs From a Room’. Having learned piano I was also drawn to the emotionally-nuanced, feminine perspectives of Joni Mitchell even more.

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Now I was being challenged to find my identity in a more apparently-nebulous Christ. At that time, I was working in an evangelical religious bookshop in Dublin. I was paid modestly: bus-fares and sandwiches. That shop sold a victorious-only message. The books and records were flavoured by strident certainties. I immersed myself in this new life with zeal of the convert. I had unwisely traded my earlier, aesthetic musical interest for abstract, little-nuanced rock-hymns by musician-missionaries.

One day, flicking through the LP covers, I saw one cover that showed an abstract plant with fire in the background. It was called ‘Fireflake’ – I thought – what is this?? I turned it over to read the sleeve notes and saw an incredible quote from Jack Clemo, a Cornish poet. I had come across Clemo in one or two Christian magazine articles.

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I quickly bought that LP and played it over and over. I was dumbfounded. The poetic, piano-based tracks had me entranced, the lyrics were poetic, the delivery was more downbeat than upbeat. I had found a musically melancholic substitute to my secular singer songwriters at last! Adrian Snell seemed to successfully integrate the broader spiritual quest in well-crafted poetic songs. Snell was classically trained, like many of the members of Yes. What’s not to like? All my critically important boxes were ticked.

Why was music so critically important for me? I was vainly trying to integrate my heart and mind with a culture-clueless Irish Christianity. I had grown up reading New Musical Express, Melody Maker and Rolling Stone. My father was a self-taught jazz pianist, who had privately recorded his own 78 blues disc. Various family members sang in school and church choirs. My brothers and I were made to learn piano, with varying degrees of success.

But rock music was altogether another thing. I was intense enough about music, to take a working day “off” to buy Stevie Wonders ‘Inner-visions’, on release date. My mother was away on business and I reported in “sick” to my employer. I played ‘Innervisions’ on auto-repeat all day. The backstory of Stevie Wonder’s near death and the element of spirit in these songs captivated me.

Steviewonder_innervisions

Adrian Snell’s ‘Fireflake’ lyrics were (almost) on a par with Joni Mitchell’s thoughtful reflections. His piano playing certain equally hers. Many of Snell’s lyrics were stark, and his music was very dramatic, sometimes bleak…

‘Judas Song’

Where can I run to hide myself?

The world has fallen dark

What can I do to help myself

To save me from the dark?

I have tried to kill the light

And now it grows so dark-

I was smacked between the eyes, I was hooked by such awkwardly painful lyrics,  all passionately sung to a repeated cascade of slightly dissonated chords. Wow!

I followed Adrian’s musical career with interest and bought each record as soon as it was released. But my interest cooled when some of his concept albums appeared. In particular, his LP about Mary, an anathema for any biblically-literate Irish evangelical. Aesthetically-ugly Marian statues abounded in Ireland, both in churches and outside.

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But all was not lost, my wife-to-be, bought me a copy of ‘The Passion’. It was recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra. It had an extravagant and beautiful gate-fold sleeve and booklet of lyrics and drawings of the gospel drama. I regained audio interest in Adrian. I saw him perform at Greenbelt, as well as in Dublin’s National Concert Hall, in the late 70s.

With Adrian’s lighter-touch more “commercial” albums my audio-ardour waned again.  One track ’Moments of Eternity’ on his on his album, ‘The Cut’ grabbed my attention. Its dramatic drumming and complicated keyboard structure helped me keep faith with Adrian’s output.

I had married in 1985, and after three years my wife and I started a family. It was a sweet time for me, to have a boy, being able to refashion family in God’s good image, rather than in my family’s emotionally-violent fraught pattern. Four family years passed, and soon another child was due to be born. All went well, until ten days before my daughter was due. We patiently waited…

Adrian had just released his ‘Beautiful, or What?’  Oh flip, not another “concept” rock opera album, I quietly groaned! It was reviewed enthusiastically in the UK but was reluctantly listened to by me. It was “a thematic pop/rock opera which uses the allegorical tale of a girl and her rag doll to bring a profound message about handicapped children and our attitude towards them”. I gave it one unsympathetic listen and quickly put it aside.

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Oh dear, what will I do with this recording now?? I certainly don’t want it. …I know… seeing as it is about handicapped kids, I will send it to my friend, who works in L’Arche”.

We soon got the bad news that our daughter, Holly, was dead in the womb. In between tearful hospital visits and vigil time alone, I decided to listen to this new composition, in the light of our devastating news. perhaps it can speak to me. As I listened, I thought, this could have been my child, physically or mentally handicapped. What then…?

My family’s psychic foundation was already over-burdened by mid-WW2 era suicides and the murder of a young relative. Then there was my parent’s acrimonious divorce. To add to that crying-catalogue, my wife and I now had the trauma of a stillbirth…

What other accidental existential pain is lurking?? Is this not enough, already? But little did I know that God, and his angels of empathy were waiting in the wings of this new domestic drama.

As I began to think about my daughter’s funeral, I wondered how to present this loss and pain in a meaningful way. I had written a rather wooden poem about her short life. I wanted hymns for her, of course, and chose ‘O the Deep Deep Love of Jesus’ for its deep Slavic-tinged pathos.

I had the inspired idea of contacting Adrian Snell, and asking him for permission to use two  tracks of ‘Beautiful or What?’ I thought that those tracks would make very appropriate  entrance / exit music at this funeral. Adrian quickly and kindly agreed. I was deeply, tearfully touched at such generosity of spirit.

Twenty one years later, those same musical tracks were also granted permission, to be used on my video-short about Holly, ‘Goodbye, Au Revoir Slan. My video-short was to “celebrate” her would-have-been 21st birthday. I had always wanted a daughter. I had long-associated with the  tender-gender, more easily than alpha macho-males.

goodbye

That Vimeo video short was illustrated by my Russian friend, and artist, Katya Zhu. She had been through her own personal life pain and, although not particularly engaged with children, managed to convey the right spirit in her images.

Holly had changed my life….and so had Adrian Snell, and also Katya Zhu. That video ended up on Minnie Driver’s indie-movie dvd about stillbirth, called Return to Zero. It was broadcast on German religious TV. To top all that, I was interviewed about Holly and my booklet in the Sunday Independent (readership 900,000).

I stayed in touch with Adrian Snell from time to time. The vagaries of music downloads, and falling CD sales in the music industry, impacted Adrian’s more old-school approach. His inspiration to compose new songs diminished quite considerably. I peppered him with ideas for songs. He was gracious enough to stay in touch with this over-insistent blue-sky, Snell music enthusiast.

One email reply lit a fuse. He hinted that if he could replace his well-worn piano, bought over forty years before, he might just get inspired again. His current life was in music  therapy, with children, rather than in Christian music ministry.

Around that time, I had ended up with undreamt-of wealth. I was very aware of the biblical responsibility that goes with that blessing. Money is not ours to hoard in banks. I offered to help a bit in the cost of a replacement piano, for Adrian.

When the piano salesman in London heard about Adrian’s piano-playing pilgrimage he knocked £10,000 off the £26,000 purchase price!  I’m sure that Adrian was gobsmacked at such blessing. In 2013, he went on to record and release ‘Fierce Love’ . That cd was mostly based on his experiences as a music therapist. It was Adrian’s first album after a seven year sabbatical.

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The extraordinary range of instruments that are central to his music therapy contribute to the unique soundscape of the album. It was a privilege to visit to Bath and attend the launch party of that CD. I also visited the special school, Three Ways, where Adrian works., teaching music therapy class to profoundly handicapped children. Seeing that had me quietly crying in the back of one of those classes…Any of these profoundly impacted children could have been my daughter, Holly….

In early 2017, Adrian set up a crowd fund site to re-record his ‘Alpha and Omega’. This is a project, a journey of discovery along the roots of his Christian faith. The concept of that recording tries to grasp the meaning of conflict in the world, specifically WWII and the Holocaust, in light of his Christian faith.

Though I have moved away from earlier firm evangelical certainties, I decided to commit a bit of kick-start cash to this latest Snell project. Adrian is an oft-overlooked contributor to meaningful Christian music.

Besides, where would many minds and hearts be in the absence of such a thoughtful musician? Personally, I can safely say that Adrian’s music has made be part of who I am, and what I believe…

It’s the passion, the poignancy, the piano “singing true” along with the appropriate orchestration that engages my heart, soul and mind. Finally, It’s the redemption-reminding lyrics, calling aliens and strangers home:

“Who holds tomorrow, if its not the One who made us…”?

All this makes Christ so much more compelling, so right an answer, so compassionate of doubt and failures…and more…

http://www.adrian-snell.com/another-clip-kadesh

http://www.crossrhythms.co.uk/articles/music/Adrian_Snell_Fireflake_to_Father__The_life_and_times_of_a_UK_CCM_institution/36294/p1/AS_AO_ogh8vr

First Night ‘Lights Out’

I had always been an adventurous child. Being the youngest of three, I was frequently the first for any new experience: smoking, kissing girls, solo travels and boarding school. That boarding school experience was both the making and unmaking of me. I have an unutterable fondness for all that Newtown School gave me…

Illustrations: KatyaZhu.com

trunk

My petite mother and I heaved

the heavy trunk, patterned with studs,

thick leather handles almost cleaved

soft-skinned palms – but drew no blood.

 

To Goods carriage, down platform tiled,

we lifted the labelled, elephantine case –

farewell faces through train window smiled,

no tears on this boy boarder’s face.

 

carriage

Rowdy rail carriage, specially booked,

male-female friendships quickly made;

this loner quite content, if overlooked:

an individualist, not in the least afraid.

 

Outside the train window, passed

dark outlined fields, and lamp-lit towns

two hours later, Waterford at last,

and one old friend accidentally found.

 

 

dorm

Our bus entered granite gates,

engine stopped, shoving started,

in Autumn darkness I couldn’t locate

my dorm, slightly down-hearted.

 

At first night ‘Lights-Out’ some quietly wept

but not this boy! Boarder by choice;

school scenes still revered, treasure-kept:

fond memories recalled in quavery voice.

 

train

At first night ‘lights-out’ some quietly wept –

(but not this boy!) boarder by choice;

school scenes still revered, treasure-kept:

fond memories recalled in quavery voice.

 

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Gospel Hall Brethren

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We were the faithful, we were true:

we never knelt or sat in pews,

all seated in a circle broken,

long prayers in Ulster accents spoken;

repeated cliches too well-known:

the Quaker silence we disowned.

 

‘Sacred Songs’  sung as best able,

bap bun  on ‘worldly’ card table:

the beaded-doily covered sherry glass

rang bell-like, echoed frowned-on Mass.

 

Oh! The lisp of India-paper pages,

we were the Brethren, scriptural sages’

  • all the ladies’ heads were covered,

all the children’s giggles smothered.

We sang unaccompanied, scripture shared

but rarely was a vulnerable heart bared.

 

Sometimes scripture was properly set alight,

our ‘Upper Room” filled with holy might,

sometimes, even I, plain prayer would utter;

sheer nervous intensity caused my stutter.

 

In the summer zealous “youth teams” came –

Northern adolescents making strident claims;

uncompromising accents in small-town squares,

shouting “dear sinner-friend”, ignoring any stares.

 

‘Authorised’ black Bibles, undiplomatic tracts

presented the truth – the foursquare facts;

most ill-at-ease under these “grey skies”,

they never quite exploded “Romish lies”.

What did their “prayer letters” report?

What did local “unsaved” sinners retort?

 

Protestant plain, we were seen as a sect,

From small-minded locals, what did I expect?

Nick-named “white mice” by local people

dominated by Romanesque-style steeple.

 

Our non-conformist views gave offence;

we even made the “C of I” parish tense.

The hymns we droned failed to inspire:

no roaring trade winds, no tongues of fire.

Even the holy bun finished up with hens!

But I still believe – more than back then.

________________________________________________

NOTE: “Grey skies” is part of Paisley’s dictum: “We shall not exchange the blue skies of Ulster for the grey skies of the Republic.”

Familia

She vice grips her hero-husband’s hand,

heaving hormones issue high demands,

pity cannot calm deep contraction pain,

birth-waters gush, sheet shows graffiti stain:

primitive her pant, newborn stirs within,

propelled the push – let baby’s birth begin!

Lar birth

Thighs hinge, tendons rack-stretched,

ejection-effort on her red face etched;

the father’s futile fears, hopeless his tears,

abruptly a damp, dark-haired head appears:

shocked arrival – open one sceptical eye,

instinctive suckle soon silenced primal cries.

Tabula Rasa

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Did unwanted visitor carry viral curse?

Unborn baby wrestled, now in need of nurse.

 

Scan-monitor stated heart-beat missing:

unrequited, fond tummy hugs and kissing.

 

Soon her faecal-tinted tide dam-broke,

no newborn wail, deathly silence spoke.

 

Tabula Rasa* – mouth mute, empty her gaze,

baby body floppy – little for poet to praise…

 

Little girl gone, gone – listless limbs held,

pointless heart-plead, dumb tears welled.

 

Unsure guarantee: harsh natured womb,

daffodil scent, death’s unhappy perfume.

 

Petal-peeled her flesh, just womb souvenir;

tentative my embrace, many paternal tears.

 

My lips didn’t linger, porcelain-cold her cheeks;

what empty words can this poet now speak?

 

We stoic parents sobbed, pained our prayer;

no nappy changes,  her funeral to prepare.

 

Cruel joker smirked again, that April first –

Easter-empty tomb defiant, death reversed.

 

God not mocked, feeble faith rebounded,

young sibling spoke hope, parents astounded…

__________________________________________________

*Tabula rasa (Latin: “scraped tablet”, though often translated “blank slate”) is the notion that individual human beings are born “blank” (with no built-in mental content), and that their identity is defined entirely by events after birth.

My stillborn girl, Holly, was born April 1st. She was buried on Easter Monday, five days later.

illustration by Neringa Normantaite https://www.facebook.com/artistneringa/

An Online / Offline Encounter with Russia and Russians, 1975 – 2017

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Going to Russia in 2008 was a dream come true for me, I being a confirmed closet Slavophile. I first got interested in that very misunderstood continent through the suffering Christians, the dissident authors and the underground artists, in the mid-1970’s.

Then, I had become a part-time, one-man protest band, on behalf of Soviet human rights. Letters to newspaper and magazine editors were written. Window displays were created for the book ‘Three Generations of Suffering’. Banners were painted for protest marches to the Soviet Embassy. Poems about persecution were written, one or two published in religious rights magazines. Prayers were painfully uttered.

My life gained purpose and was filled with this zealous energy. I became a spiritual subversive, immersed in those Slavic prison and persecution dramas. I avidly read many translated samizdat documents detailing show-trials, unjust imprisonments, poems and sermons. I identified with those suffering citizens and those censored creatives, who went against the grain of Soviet society.

A Russian Romantic, 1975 

Dr Zhivago’s revolutionary tale of hope and loss beckoned me to this immense Slavic landscape. I longed to tramp Russia’s snow-forest landscape with the wandering Orthodox holy fools. Or, sit on a sledge, covered in furs, pulled by a troika of horses. Hear their hundred harness bells in major and minor tones, joyously ringing. Percussive horse hooves tamp frozen snow, as a sledge speeds, sliding homeward.

Overhead the star-field’s celebratory twinkling canopy smiles down a blessing. An ancient wooden church with bulbous onion dome is passed. The silence is showered with the poly-rhythmical sequence of tolling church bells. A steaming samovar of tea awaits this pilgrim at journey’s end.

I listened to Orthodox liturgies with their rumbling, resurrection echoes of religious ecstasy. I joyfully listened to the lively bright Russian campanology: such contrast to our boring tin-pot parish mono-tone bells. My feet walked Irish pavements but my soul was rooted in a Russia that probably never existed.

A Russian Pilgrimage, 2008

It had taken me thirty years to visit my adopted spiritual homeland. I travelled there with an Irish Christian NGO work-team. Our task was to help turn a big old barn into a religious retreat centre in Murmansky Verotta, near the town of Volhov, a few hours east of St Petersburg.

When we arrived in St. Petersburg, I discovered that I had to travel to separately from the rest of the Irish team. Apparently this was to avoid possible police inspection of my insufficient paperwork. The others went to the country retreat by train. I travelled with Vera, the Russian team leader, in her car.

This alteration of travel plans was to have interesting and creative long- term consequences for me. Little did I know, that when Vera brought me back to her 1930s-era apartment my later literary life was to quite dramatically change. I met her daughter, Katya, for the first time. She was 17 years old, a slightly melancholic only child.

For two hot Russian summer weeks in 2008, I helped measure wood, learned how to use a chop-saw, and helped fill attic space with fibre glass wool. Quite unconfidently, I also climbed a home-made ladder to creosote high exterior barn timbers.

From this high vantage point I looked out over the surrounding rural landscape. Abandoned farms dominated the countryside, their tidal seas of uncut grass swayed in the breeze. Nearby neighbours ate al fresco under fruit trees. Local kids cycled on the car-free roads. To top it all, many train horns randomly sounded all day, beckoning to me from behind a small forest.

As we were confined to the compound by Vera, anxious to not draw undue attention to “rich Westerners”, we met few local people. As a life-long cyclist, I convinced our Russian host to let me try out her Soviet- era cast-iron bicycle. What a bone shaker that was! I had one or two races against local children, zig-zagging around the pothole pools, letting them win, most of the time.

Another day, I escaped the claustrophobic confines of our compound, for a cycle tour of the village town-lands. I cycled that gear-less bike fast, past many barking guard dogs, chained and unchained, behind rickety fences. I cycled in figure-of-eights, around potholes on sand-topped lanes. I idled by the gigantic railway depot, taking in that vast industrial terminal view. I reluctantly turned back to the host’s house and high compound walls.

A Young Female Russian Artist Befriended Online, 2010  and onwards

Two years later I discovered Katya on Facebook and “friended” her. A lot of our early email exchanges concerned her thesis presentation. The year that she graduated I gave her my first few commissions, even though I hadn’t seen any of her art. I hadn’t a clue what she was capable of. A small financial initial risk was worth the adventurous gamble.

Katya, now in early twenties, was a post-Christian goth and wanted to be a computer-graphics artist. Over time we established a working artistic and personal friendship. She was to aptly capture many emotionally evocative images for my poems. Together we gained an expansive internet readership. In turn, my payments for her art helped her be financially independent.

My commission propositions accelerated after Katya illustrated my Russian rural poem, Summer Pastoral Scene in Rural Russia

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https://kickstartyourheart.wordpress.com/2016/05/13/summer-pastoral-scene-in-rural-russia/

Such was my awe for that iconic image, I had it printed on a T-shirt, on a canvas and on a watch face. On her behalf, I also submitted this image to the annual Royal Hibernian Academy exhibition.

First Collaborative Problems and Their Resolution

Just after that successful start we had a falling out. Unthinkingly, I had asked her to illustrate one of my marriage poems. Talk about a trouble maker! The role of the creative writer is to challenge society, but not to cause others to stumble in the process. There became a fraught tension between us. Because of all that internal psychological and spiritual strife, I got shingles.

“All of us have become like one who is unclean, and our righteousness acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf and like the wind our sins sweep us away” – Isaiah 64: 6

One autumn day, during this season of psychic pain, I cycled out to the country to pick blackberries. I reflected on our complicated situation and poignantly prayed. I hated the idea of our fracturing. I knew that I needed her art and hoped that she still needed my email friendship.

An email alert sounded on my mobile phone, shortly after my supplication. We were back on track again. I was relieved. I seem to almost fall off many dangerous “precipices” in my personal life… but circumstances usually grab me, just before any perilous tumbling descent.

Katya and I then collaborated on many more poetry projects, too many to mention. One project was her cover design of my father’s texile memoir that I published. The inside covers showed an advert featuring two models snuggling under a mohair blanket. When she saw that photo, she described to me how she and her friends used to snuggle under a blanket, listening to music, giggling and drinking cups of tea. I sensed a poignancy in her telling. Based on her written images, I wrote an evocative poem for her: Stop the Clocks! https://kickstartyourheart.wordpress.com/2016/05/13/stop-the-clocks/

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She informed me that she cried on reading it. No one had ever admitted such an open emotional reaction to my poetry in that way before. I didn’t realise the powerful emotion that some of my writing was capable of stirring. Her reaction gave me new confidence in my poetry.

Holly: A Video Short Project, about My Stillborn Daughter

In 2014, I asked Katya to help me commemorate the 21st anniversary of my daughter’s stillbirth. Regardless of having little empathy for children, she drew many stunning illustrations for the Goodbye, Au Revoir, Slan stillbirth project https://vimeo.com/77928404

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teddy

A section of our video ended up being used as dvd extra on Return to Zero, the first ever stillbirth movie. It was broadcast on religious TV in Germany in 2015. Little did I know that my “little grenade of hope” would “explode” a measure of blessing in many hearts and minds around the world.

“…there’s a consistent pattern of finding an elevated rate of mood disorders in artists and writers….mood disorders may also confer a kind of creative advantage….(these) People tend to be more intense, more mercurial; they see the world differently…”

Touched by Fire: Manic – Depressive Illness & the Artistic Temperament, Kay Redfield Jamison.

In December 2013 I said that I wanted to “press pause” for a while. We were trying to work on a project together which became very stop-start. I wished that I could wave a magic wand over all her self doubt and depression.

I had no intention of changing Katya, as she sometimes supposed. As the father-figure that she never had, I wished to encourage her art career. It was a bonus that Katya trusted me. She stated that I “kept my word and had shown examples of how a parent could act, apart from what she knew about her family”.

I wanted to introduce her to artist friends. I suggested a visit to Ireland. Getting out of Russia for a short while, and meeting lots of creatives might do something wonderful, sending her back to Russia rejuvenated. That idea almost worked.

Later Katya emerged from a period of silence and made me a lovely video-short tribute, using images that we had collaborated on. I was very touched by this unexpected gestures.

It was gratifying to read that her growth and faith in herself had increased, on account of our collaboration. She had wished that I was more critical about her art, as she was herself. I had proven to her that her pictures can talk to people’s hearts, even if she sometimes considered them as nothing special.

We Decide to Press Pause with Our Online Exchanges

Then she suddenly asked for a communications break, stating that she was tired of my constant attention. My attempts at benevolent care and her independent streak were possibly at odds with each other. We held different perspectives, opposite genders, very divergent ages and cultures.

I was trying to be a proxy parent but it turned out that my suggestions were not now welcome. It’s hard to get the balance between a biblical hope and naivety. I tried to capture aspects of my enthusiasm for her art in I am Your Impossible Friend

https://kickstartyourheart.wordpress.com/2016/05/13/i-am-your-impossible-friend/

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I wondered would our collaborations continue. I had just sent her some money, as down payment for another graphics commission. I decided not demand that back. I told her to keep it, use it for counselling and a few relaxing massages. She replied: ”that’s a true act of care and I will spend that money the way you ask, because it’s what I really need…”

Our friendship had been very interesting and eventful, even if a bit tumultuous on both our parts, for very different reasons. I had thought and prayed about her life dilemmas and crises. She, in turn, gave me lots of challenges to consider.

Her younger, atheistic outlook challenged my long-standing conservative Christian certainties. She introduced me to modern Goth-rock bands that she listened to. Her brash and mythic Deviantart art preferences starkly contrasted with my default of narrative art.

“….the best way to challenge our assumptions and prejudices, and develop new ways of looking at the world, is to surround ourselves with people whose views and lifestyles differ from our own. …..The challenge is to spread our conversational wings and spend time with those whose values and experiences contrast with our own….” – Roman Krznaric

An Online Art Patron Reflects on Age, Gender and Culture

What had I tried to be to Katya? An art patron? Yes, because Katya needed support and thrived on artistic opportunities. Was I trying to be a parent figure? Definitely. I believed that she once badly needed such. Should I have cared less? Should I have pulled back, as some suggested? Was I really helping her? Was I possibly hindering her from personal growth?

Our last big project was a booklet collection of my poems, using her illustrations. I had promised her this publishing opportunity a few years ago. Now I had finally organised it. Twelve poems, accompanied by twelve illustrations.

Of course, I had wanted Katya to come to Dublin for the launch. I was very keen to make this happen but circumstances outside her control interrupted that grand plan. Katya kindly recorded me a video response to the booklet. To see and hear her again, after nine years, was a rewarding delight https://vimeo.com/182629151

We have had so many adventures together. We have significantly helped each other in different ways. Over many years we have tramped an adventurous and tenacious terrain together.

Her images added extra depth to what my poems were attempting to convey. Will I ever able to replace someone like her? I doubt it. Our last of many collaborations concluded recently. She spent many hours illustratiing my piano poem How to Make Stubborn Pianos Sing True. 

Piano

https://kickstartyourheart.wordpress.com/2016/05/13/how-to-make-stubborn-pianos-sing-true/

She poured so much of her heart and soul into her illustrations for me, over the past nine years. She was the one who perceptively “baptised” me with the appellation of “emotional nudist”. If my poems continue to rhyme with some empathy in peoples lives, I will possibly have fulfilled my life’s mission…

After seven years of successful collaborating, Katya Zhu happily moves on with her life and her art. She deeply enriched my encounter with Russia…

Gallery of Katya’s images: https://louishemmings.com/gallery/katya/

Life-long aquatic dread

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Neither parents present at first swim,

pale-pathetic, goose-bumped skin,

life-long aquatic dread quickly set in.

Arm motions awkward, geek-clumsy,

turbulent thrashed pool,  sudsy,

lungfuls of water, Louis unlucky.

 

Showers, menacing macho laughs:

swear-shouting, working class lads;

brutal cold bulk, hated Blackrock baths.

Un-muscular, myopic, merely six,

misplaced middleclass, un-virile, thick:

nude nervous, fearful sausage-pricks.

2.

Final failure at boarding school,

dog-paddle pupil sank like metal tool,

panic-paralysed at bottom of pool.

Flailing futile – is drowning my end?

Fully-clothed first-aider: poolside friend

prepared to jump… slowly I ascend.

3.

Fifty years on, feet still stupidly flap,

short-sighted blur, tight swimming cap,

infrequently visited, deep-end death-trap.

Pool-roof echoes, potent chlorine smell:

nauseated this ninny, active echo hell,

carillon relief, end-of-session bell.