Archy and Mehitabel -a rediscovery!

Had forgotten all about these classics – a couple of books I have – archy & mehitabel and archy’s life of mehitabel, which contain some witty, insightful and occasionally deep musings on life, in the voice of a cockroach, the lowliest and most despised life-form. This conceit allows Don Marquis the author to imbue the character of the cockroach with a feisty, frustrated doomed nobility in the face of terrible odds.

Archy is the spirit of a free-verse poet reincarnated in the body of a cockroach, one who head-butts the keys of a typewriter to express his thoughts in poetry. Mehitabel claims to be the reincarnation of Cleopatra in the body of a free-thinking, loose-living alley cat.
Here is the opener which sets the scene.

the coming of archy

By Don Marquis, in “archy and mehitabel,” 1927

The circumstances of Archy’s first appearance are narrated in the following extract from the Sun Dial column of the New York Sun:

Dobbs Ferry possesses a rat which slips out of his lair at night and runs a typewriting machine in a garage. Unfortunately, he has always been interrupted by the watchman before he could produce a complete story. It was at first thought that the power which made the typewriter run was a ghost, instead of a rat. It seems likely to us that it was both a ghost and a rat. Mme. Blavatsky’s ego went into a white horse after she passed over, and someone’s personality has undoubtedly gone into this rat. It is an era of belief in communications from the spirit land.

And since this matter has been reported in the public prints and seriously received we are no longer afraid of being ridiculed, and we do not mind making a statement of something that happened to our own typewriter only a couple of weeks ago.

We came into our room earlier than usual in the morning, and discovered a gigantic cockroach jumping about on the keys. He did not see us, and we watched him. He would climb painfully upon the framework of the machine and cast himself with all his force upon a key, head downward, and his weight and the impact of the blow were just sufficient to operate the machine, one slow letter after another. He could not work the capital letters, and he had a great deal of difficulty operating the mechanism that shifts the paper so that a fresh line may be started. We never saw a cockroach work so hard or perspire so freely in all our lives before. After about an hour of this frightfully difficult literary labor he fell to the floor exhausted, and we saw him creep feebly into a nest of the poems which are always there in profusion.

Congratulating ourself that we had left a sheet of paper in the machine the night before so that all this work had not been in vain, we made an examination, and this is what we found:

expression is the need of my soul
i was once a vers libre bard
but i died and my soul went into the body of a cockroach
it has given me a new outlook upon life
i see things from the under side now
thank you for the apple peelings in the wastepaper basket
but your paste is getting so stale i cant eat it
there is a cat here called mehitabel i wish you would have
removed she nearly ate me the other night why dont she
catch rats that is what she is supposed to be fore
there is a rat here she should get without delay

most of these rats here are just rats
but this rat is like me he has a human soul in him
he used to be a poet himself
night after night i have written poetry for you
on your typewriter
and this big brute of a rat who used to be a poet
comes out of his hole when it is done
and reads it and sniffs at it
he is jealous of my poetry
he used to make fun of it when we were both human
he was a punk poet himself
and after he has read it he sneers
and then he eats it

i wish you would have mehitabel kill that rat
or get a cat that is onto her job
and i will write you a series of poems showing how things look
to a cockroach
that rats name is freddy
the next time freddy dies i hope he wont be a rat
but something smaller i hope i will be a rat
in the next transmigration and freddy a cockroach
i will teach him to sneer at my poetry then

dont you ever eat any sandwiches in your office
i haven’t had a crumb of bread for i dont know how long
or a piece of ham or anything but apple parings
and paste and leave a piece of paper in your machine
every night you can call me archy

A nice edition with a cover illustration by the great George Herriman.

A nice edition with a cover illustration by the great George Herriman.

Probably all you need to know is here… Don

Thanks to all other enthusiasts who unknowingly provided content here.

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In the presence of greatness – Wilko Johnson live at The Greystones

Storming onstage with a cheery hello and his mighty band – Wilko rampaged through an hour and a half of solo and Feelgood classics, ranging from the opening Some Kind of Hero to the closing (extended version) of Bye Bye Johnny, revisiting such classics as Paradise, Sneakin’ Suspicion, Roxette, Out On The Western Plain, Cairo Blues, (the increasingly poignant) When I’m Gone, Back in the Night, Dr Dupree and She Does It Right – and others I’ve forgotten in the heat of the moment!
This man must have an extraordinary constitution as the pace barely let-up in all the time he was on stage, constantly darting back and forth, machine-gunning the crowd with his iconic tele – playing it behind his head (a cheap trick – but a good one!) and during an extended Don’t Let Your Daddy Know, holding it and talking to it as if it were his teen love, face to face.
By the end of the evening he was drenched in sweat (and some of the rest of us were a tad warm too) but we had experienced a night not to be missed, a legend still at the top of his game, accompanied by a blindingly good bass player – Norman – loved the bass solo, swing, taste and melodic wit, and a sterling drummer – Dylan Howe. A poignant end – with the crowd waving Bye Bye – WIlko has long connections with the city of Sheffield – after all half of the breakthrough Stupidity was recorded in the City Hall, it was only appropriate he come back to say goodbye, Farewell Sheffield, as the posters said.
Some Kind of Hero? Oh yes. And long may he remain so.

It was a bit like this -but in a tiny hot room in Sheffield!

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Oblique Strategies 7


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Why a Duck?

Some of those among you may recognise the title of the blog post as being a tune by Stefan Grossman and John Renbourn – but they aren’t the subject of this post – oh no! Instead I would like to bring to your attention – if you are not already aware – of the phenomenon (!) that is …..Duck Baker!
What? (can one actually bake a duck?)

Duck was born Richard R. Baker IV in 1949 and grew up in Richmond, Virginia. He passed his teenage years playing in rock and blues bands before becoming interested in acoustic blues.

Ah – ok then – not a real duck. Instead, Mr Baker is possibly the finest and most versatile guitarist you have (probably) never heard!
I first discovered Duck playing on two tracks on John James’ excellent album Descriptive Guitar Instrumentals (nifty title John), firing off some jazzy swinging nylon strung duets. It took me a while but now I’ve worked my way through a lot of his albums (and there are a few!) and not yet discovered a clunker. He has done some superb duet work – with John Renbourn and Stefan grossman on guitars, Kieran Fahey – on fiddle and has produced a number of blindingly good recordings on his own. Moving deftly from Irish trad, to swing jazz, ragtime, blues, modern jazz and old-timer, he plays them all with a total conviction and panache which I find utterly compelling. To hear the guy playing something like Stomping at the Savoy, keeping the bottom end down relentlessly whilst improvising over the top with utter fluidity is truly stunning.

Here he rattles through Sweet Georgia Brown – just wait for him to take off at the 44 second mark – genius ensues!
He writes stuff too –

Duck has a lot of stuff on the net – much of it educational – here he runs through the Thelonious Monk compsosition Blue Monk

How about that standard by O’Carolan –

Love the way the walking bass is beautifully integrated too!
And this is truly beautiful too…

And to finish, a lovely version of The Blackbird..

Lovely tone from his Fylde acoustic too.
Check out his excellent website for more info.

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No Sleep Till Canvey Island – The Great Pub Rock Revolution by Will Birch

The next (5th?) in my (overdue) series of essential rock reads, this tome – originally published in 2000 (and my copy is now yellowing alarmingly) tackles the (then underrated if not ridiculed) Pub Rock scene of the early to mid 1970’s London. Only recently being re-assessed by the media movers and shakers at the Beeb (see the Punk Rock Britannia series – episode one), Will Birch’s insider status means he was well placed to be able to write with authority on the subject. Former drummer and songwriter with the Kursaal Flyers (and later The Records) he rubbed shoulders with many of the characters contained within these pages.

It’s all here, the story of Brinsley Schwarz’s ill fated trip to the states, their encounter with Eggs Over Easy playing low key sets in a London boozer, and the flourishing of a series of venues which gave a platform for so many bands from Kilburn and the High Roads, Ducks Deluxe, Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers(!) via Doctor Feelgood (hence Canvey Island) to ultimately the precursors of Punk with the 101’ers and Joe Strummer. It’s certainly arguable that without the trail blazed by the individuals in this book, Punk wouldn’t have happened in the way it did, and music as we know it may be quite different.

Fluent and amiable, like a beery enthusiastic mate, the tale unfolds through a series of encounters and anecdotes from those who were there, and the whole glorious saga unfolds, culminating with the first Stiff Records tour, which exploded the careers of Ian Dury and Elvis Costello, as good a place to finish as any, the point where the scene got a leg-up onto a national stage. Part of the fun though was obviously lost in this league change, and it’s so nice to hear from iconoclasts the like of Sean Tyla, Paul “Bassman” Riley, Charlie Hart et al. who never made the jump, but who were crucially “there”.

I was so pleased after reading this book when I first got hold of it, that I had to contact Will Birch with my enthusiastic response. “Thanks for the kind words”, came the response. Well Will, thanks for your words.

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Orford Ness from Orford

An extraordinary place in Suffolk, now visitable only by ferry across the Alde, partly an RSPB site, partly cold-war bomb experimentation site, now ruinous. A vast shingle spit out into the north sea. You can just about make out the concrete anti blast pagoda roofs on the headland.

Orford Ness – iPhone using Photosynth app.

More on the Cold-War role of Orford here and here..


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London, You’re Beautiful – David Gentleman

What a gorgeous little book! Was looking for this in Waterstone’s after seeing a few reproductions in a Guardian article, expecting a large coffee table format. No! What you get is a pocket size paperback, perfect for carrying around in the metropolis (if you feel inclined to do so) and refer to in order to assess how accurately Mr Gentleman has captured his (very) varied subjects.
Working in a variety of media, from pencil, through marker pen, dipping pen and watercolour, he has captured a beauty in the capital that perhaps only a true artist can see, leaving the rest of us to view things with fresh eyes. He tackles the complex – huge sweeping vistas from hilltops – to the intimate – portraits of individual people and things. His style varies from a rough almost naive sketchiness, (some of the monochrome pencil work) to a highly sophisticatedly skilful rendering of texture and colour in some of the capitals finest buildings, or even just atmospheric little corners. This is a little jewel of a book, travelling through the year, month by month, giving an airing to some of the less considered parts of the capital. If you are at all interested in the city, or urban sketching, I’d urge you to seek it out!
Here are a variety of images, sourced from the web…

Evening Camden Town – atmosphere or what!

And here’s a little film of the man himself! Charming!

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