Tag Archives: story

Under the Spell

I believe in magic: the power of language, history, and story. This potent brew whipped-up a perfect storm of understanding and insight when one of my favourite podcasters featured on another of my favs the other day.

littlest_witch___halloween_spell_practice_by_brandrificus-d6qc0o2Both podcasts are in-depth histories by enthusiastic amateurs. One, an Englishman called David, spends weekends in his shed telling a wonderfully good-humoured history of England (in the summer you can hear the birds in the trees). The other is a lawyer called Kevin composing a marvellously detailed history of the English language from somewhere in South Carolina. linguistic-treeBoth have posted over 100 episodes. I have learned so much about the quirks and fun of a gripping story. I now know bits of Indo-European, Old Germanic, Old Norse, Frankish, Old English, Celtic (all which made the killer TV series Vikings more thrilling). It has been a treat to listen to these passionate enthusiasts as I painted the house and pottered away at renovations.Vikings_S02P12,_cast

So when my fav amateur language geek did a guest spot on the latest History of England episode last week (which has just made it to the end of the 100 Years’ War) I was thrilled. His topic? The word ‘spell’. Here’s the magic.

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The Indo-European languages

Spell is derived from Indo-European (the parent language of many Eurasian languages). It originally meant to recite, tell or speak. In Old Germanic it came to mean a tale, fable or saying. The Anglo-Saxons brought it to England in the 400s to refer to ‘story’, especially a good or ‘true’ story (gospel is a contraction of ‘good story’). Over the next few hundred years it slowly applied to short phrases or sayings that held special truth or magic (think how we spout short phrases as if they contain a truth or agency ‘do the crime do the time’, ‘touch wood’, ‘I do’, ‘Go Broncos!’ etc).How-to-Spell-Success

When the Normans invaded in 1066 they brought the same Germanic word via their Norse and Frankish (the Germanic founders of France) roots. Except for them spell meant to break a difficult text or idea into its parts so that it may be understood i.e. to ‘spell it out’ and reveal the truth.

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By the 1400s that meaning was refined to include breaking words down into the letters used to represent it. Dictionaries came later, and the spelling of words lost the fluidity they had always had (even the most educated people routinely varied spelling).MagicSpellBook

Today, all these meanings still exist in English. We refer to truth as gospel even in a non-religious sense. We spell things out to explain them. We break down words into letters to spell them. We talk of being under a spell (albeit of love, an idea, celebrity or charisma, as opposed to magic).

Even those who claim not to believe in magic use the idea in the old Anglo-Saxon sense, repeating phrases they believe hold a power. Think of all the hashtags amended to causes and sent out into the world. Does hash-tagging a phrase, cause, belief, or favourite sports team have a measurable effect on a physical object or outcome? It depends if you believe in magic and the power of language.

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The History of England                                                     The History of English Podcast


To What End

Stupid Death, stupid Death,

Hope it doesn’t find you

I started blogging a year ago to clear my head of recurring themes in my life. I wanted to use it like a journal, making sketches of things that take my fancy, to salve recurring fears, to beat a pathway out of the clusterhump of grief that has surrounded my existence in the last few years and stroll back into the arms of fiction.

child heads with symbols

I’m loathe to list it all that has happened, it’s all been referred to in various blogs over the year, and I have always intended to (and managed to) write about other things.

But it’s been a funny 10 days or so and some things can’t be avoided.

On Sunday morning, as I lay in the darkness, scrolling through news sites I saw an article about a woman I briefly met about 8 years ago. She’s a very distinctive ex-pat Brazilian model who has just attained a degree in psychology (something she was doing part-time when I met her at a party of Brazilian ex-pats in Auckland, all those years ago).

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Grace on the job

When I met her, I was working in television, doing a programme on Brazilian food. It’s was a great week and I ate many things I had never tried before. But that is not this story, and she wasn’t on Stuff because she had finished a degree. The point was she was familiar to people, and was dedicating her degree to her husband, who died 2 years ago.

Reading that, many parts of my life converged and I immediately wanted to leap out of bed and start writing it out of my head. I knew I would not be able to rest until I did it. But it was 6am on a cold winter morning and my 6 year-old would soon be clambering in to join me.

So I waited and she joined me within minutes, complaining of a nightmare where giants wanted to eat her. I cuddled, listened, diverted by saying it was just a bad dream and could she remember any good dreams? She smiled and said, yeah, she had one where her princess castle had turned into a rocket ship. With a TV! It was AWESOME!!!

But my self-congratulation at diversion was short-lived as she immediately changed back to her sad tone and said her snuggles had bad dreams, too. Gorilla Lilli had dreamed she/he was a baby and …and…a hyena was trying to eat him/her (Gorilla Lilli is a boy AND a girl). While Bucky (a giraffe/something hybrid) had dreamed of being chased by tigers. I kept quiet, a little shocked, letting the story continue, while she danced the two soft toys on the bed singing the song at the top of this blog.

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Bucky and Gorilla Lilli

Stunned, I said I had to get up to go to the toilet and wrote down the musical refrain.

The thing is, 10 days before that I had one of those dreams that affects your whole day. Someone I didn’t recognize had come to me, claiming to be someone I knew who had died in the Christchurch earthquake. She was so sincere, I didn’t want to contradict her. But, even in the dream, I was unsettled.

That day, I worked in a venue that was, likewise, unsettling. The weekend before an adventurous university student had stepped onto a skylight, falling through onto the hard floor 10m below. While he had not died immediately there was still a pall over the place from the stupid, accidental death. The skylight he went through had not yet been replaced, with only a bit of loose plastic keeping the rain and hail from our heads.

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The skylights

Throughout the day, workmates and members of the public quietly looked up to the flapping plastic and down to the floor at a gaffer tape X.

I so wanted to pull it off.

The next day I was working at a different venue, one where the roof, co-incidentally, had just been fixed to remedy persistent leaks. There is no other connection to the previous day. But something happened, linking the narrative in my head.

I had just put the needle in a donor’s arm and gone to the next donor (it was a busy day and we were short-staffed due to illness). When I turned to look at the donor I had just left I saw he had fainted, eyes rolled back, tongue pushed forward, looking like death. I called for help and as soon as I got to him he stared to fit, arms flapping; body flexing. I threw myself on his arm to prevent the needle from doing damage. As my colleagues put themselves on his other limbs I pulled out the needle, doing everything not to be stabbed (or stab him). He has big and there weren’t enough of us, so his arm became loose, spraying blood all around.

Of course, we exuded calm and control, not wanting to distress the other donors, and he soon came round with a smile. However, it was one of the worst faints I have seen in my 5 years as a phlebotomist, and I was wrecked for the rest of the shift.

The following day was a day off. And despite the continually foul stormy weather, I headed to the pool to aqua-jog away the stress. As I waited for the bus, a good friend called who needed to talk. She/he was distressed, facing an awfully mortal health scare, unable to talk to anyone else. I listened to their distress, knowing there was little I could say. Awaiting results from tests, I was sworn to secrecy.

The next day I crashed hard. Exhausted, tonsils swollen, black rings under my eyes, I was certain I was coming down with one of the myriad of ailments that has taken out all my colleagues over the previous month. But with rest, and the news that my friend’s results were clear (plus a bottle of beautifully medicinal cider each day of the weekend) my body rallied and I was not taken by any lurgy.

Nevertheless, on the Monday night after work I fell asleep as soon as my daughter was in bed, waking to the noise of a strange sit-com featuring Sarah Michelle Geller and Robin Williams. It was set in an ad agency and they were trying to re-brand Australia to some densely comic Australians. It was pretty funny. I hadn’t heard of the show and was surprised to see Robin Williams doing TV.

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The Crazy Ones

The next day, as I aqua-jogged in the pool, rehabbing the ankle and Achilles I had surgery on over summer I thought about the challenging 3 days of the previous week. How each illustrated how close we are to not being here. How my friend’s scare was by far the worst. How 2 years ago, as I watched my parents struggle for life (and the release of death) over a few short months, a mix of 6 old colleagues/friends/acquaintances from various past lives had all chosen suicide. How could such a cluster happen? And why…

Though they seemed randomly connected (all male, all around my age), I know that we are built to inject meaning into seemingly-related events.

The next-to-last was the closest, a former bandmate from my formative years. The day before his funeral a colleague had picked up a guitar pick from the floor of the hall where we were working, saying to me, ‘you’re a musician, you must have a use for this.’ I took it with me to Auckland, and when my (then) 4 year-old daughter insisted on viewing Stephen in his coffin, I gave her the guitar pick to place with him.

Later, at his wake, while my daughter played and ate food, I uncovered the final stanza of this inexplicable group. A friend’s partner had lost her fashion-shoot photographer to suicide in the months before. As he said his name I knew that I would know him. What I didn’t know was that Craig had married the Brazilian model I had met at that party in Auckland. Small world. Strange life.

When I got out of the pool last Tuesday after thinking about that strange year, I checked my phone, succumbing to dumb addiction. That’s when I saw that Robin Williams had died.

I felt sad, yet unsurprised. Not because of the co-incidences. More because I had been thinking of that year of loss of those I had known. How it sat in such a strange cluster. Which thankfully ended. Why? Why?!

When I came back to bed and my daughter on Sunday morning, I asked about the Stupid Death song… had she made it up? No, she said, it’s from Horrible Histories! I was so relieved.

Craig was a wild-card, a crack-up, full of life. Stephen was clever and caring; sharing so much beauty with the world.

There’s a Chinese saying I am fond of, ‘no co-incidence, no story’.

I don’t believe that gaffer tape X was marking where the student fell. It was for something else, surely.

People chose death for different reasons. Everyone who expressed pain and loss (or anger) when the beloved Mork left us looked to different, personal explanations.

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Rocket-ship Castle (TV not included)

When, later on Sunday, my daughter went to stay with her mother for the next 2 weeks, I knew what I had to write. As soon as she went I started bashing it out but it was too bleak, I was exhausted. I didn’t want to show this face to the world, it would serve no good. But why did I feel this need, to what end?

Instead I went to the couch and dozed to the bland noise of silence. I awoke feeling awful. The only thing I could do was write or exercise, and as I still could not face this topic, I marched off to the beach to stretch-out my slowly recovering Achilles.

At the top of the path down to the sand, full of anxiety and impotent distress, I found this new piece of graffito.

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At Bay

I think I laughed.

I had something difficult to write. It’s taken a bit. But some things can’t be avoided.

Music Is A Story

Having lived a life in music and story I am increasingly convinced that they are not separate entities but differing shades of the same thing.

Sorry Steven Pinker, music is not “cheesecake for the mind”, it is quite clearly part of what makes the mind. And to bend his metaphor for the purposes of this blog, it is not the icing on the cake; it is part of the cake. If you regard it as the former then you miss a great opportunity to nourish.

Earlier this week I watched the LCD Soundsystem documentary ‘Shut Up and Play the Hits’ which is about their farewell concert at Madison Square Gardens in 2011. It’s a great film and the band was clearly wonderful live. I knew little about them, only being familiar with their rocking wee track ‘North American Scum’.

That said, they were one of the acts that was a must-see at the 2008 Big Day Out, a concert I got tickets to but didn’t attend as my partner at the time was due to give birth to our child within the following couple of weeks. That in itself wasn’t the only reason we didn’t drive up to Auckland from Wellington to see the great line-up that included Arcade Fire, Battles, Hilltop Hoods, Dizzee Rascal and Bjork, it because on top of the immanent child we also had no place to live. And no jobs. It just seemed to be tempting fate to head into a sea of 30, 000 revellers in that situation.

But this blog isn’t about that story, nor is it a review of ‘Shut Up’. It’s about the power of the unexpected to throw a new slant on what you have just enjoyed.

I’m referring to the outro songs that often get played over the credits of a movie or TV show. More often than not they are very obvious and add little to the experience of the drama: show’s over folks, here’s a bouncy tune you all know to see you out the door with a smile on your face.

But increasingly there is an acknowledgement that punters aren’t necessarily all sheep to herded elsewhere; that credits offer a chance to play to those folks who actually read the words as they digest what has just transpired.

‘Shut Up’ is both wonderful and sad. It shows someone gaining fame, adulation and respect without asking for it, who then finds it all too much so he pulls-the-pin (this isn’t meant to be a spoiler; the film is about a farewell concert).

James Murphy, the kingpin, is the one who calls time. He’s one of those great singers and performers who struggles with his gift. The self-consciousness is as agonising to watch as is his performance is wonderful.

He needs it to end but feels great loss and wonders if he’s making a mistake. The final song ‘New York I love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down’ is amazing. I had never heard it before but it knocked my socks off, especially when viewed in the context of what it meant in this situation… being in NY and the last song they would ever play… the final part of the documentary.

It went to black and the credits rolled. It wasn’t an LCD song but one I recognized from the distant past. It took a few bars before I realized the voice singing the final track on an LP I hadn’t played since the early 80s.

“Standing in the door of the Pink Flamingo crying in the rain…” it was Marc Almond, Soft Cell c.1981 and I knew all the words.

I never really liked the song or the album but when you’re 14 and just spent $10 on a piece of vinyl you play the album to bits hoping it will take your fancy. While some the keyboard sounds on the track (and album) clearly haven’t stood the test of time often sounding like a Farfisa organ trying to be hip, the song just builds and builds and once it got to the chorus (I still knew the lyrics without knowing that I did) I understood why the track had been chosen.

Maybe James Murphy is a Soft Cell fan but there is so much about ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’ that is directly relevant to the documentary and the tortured ambivalence of Murphy that what I had just seen kept opening up to further and further layers.

Afterwards, I pulled out ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’ and listened to it. Just the once. Yikes. But I have played ‘Say Hello’ every day (and sometimes several times) since I saw the movie 5 days ago. Do I think about Soft Cell? Not a lot. But I go into those lyrics (and Marc Almond’s performance) further and further.

“It was a kind of so-so love, and I’m gonna make sure it never happens again”

So apt to the movie, Murphy and the ambivalence of love.

It’s not the first time this sort of opening-up has happened to me. The other was in the first series of Girls (a brilliant, fun, clever show). I can’t remember what happened in the twisted and funny relationships but the ending was a bit of a shocker and I was dumb-founded. The screen went to black and credits started with a very retro 80s-sounding electronic track I did not know. It was either very old, or trying to sound old: cold boom-smack-boom-smack drum machine laying down an unvarying beat ‘even white folk can dance to’ (as the saying goes). The lyrics were about seeing your ex with someone else, hence why it was chosen.

It was “Dancing on My Own” by Robyn. So it wasn’t old, being from 2010, it was just trying to sound like it. I fell instantly in love with the Scandinavian coldness of the lyrics and production and it has been in my top 5 tracks ever since (“stilettos and brok-en bott-les” being my unchallenged fav lyrical image of the last year). It has gone past the dramatic moment in Girls which it was juxtaposing (I can’t even remember who it was about) and become a song of strength, resilience and defiance.

In my head, I relate these moments to the famous, infamous and (of course) outstanding final scene of The Sopranos where Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ is played over the mundane family moments at the diner, waiting for onion rings and Meadow to park the car. Let me just say, I really don’t like Journey but I have listened to that song many, many times since. Why? Because that scene (and song) seem to encapsulate the whole 6 seasons, the hopes of the well-loved characters etc and I get to relive all that in the course of Steve Perry’s pompous bellowing and Journey’s overblown and average FM rock.

I just re-watched the scene and realised that, unlike the above, it doesn’t play over the credits. However, the credits were silent, and this was done to further the story (as opposed to ushering you out the door). What’s even more unusual about this is that there is dialogue all over the lyrics in the final scene… something which is very rare as most punters find it hard to focus. But it’s all part of the telling, and opening up, the story. Just brilliant.

I still have my ticket to the Big Day Out where LCD played. The ticket is worthless and having now seen ‘Shut Up’ I wish I had gone, despite the pressing concerns of my situation. Maybe LCD will reform after some time off and I will get to see them somewhere else.

Either way, this isn’t the end of the story.