How jazz shaped my philosophy of life

I’m not alone am I? I mean, most guys in their thirties … with a waistline you don’t want to be reminded of, and a knee-jerk cynicism about the world … most guys are wondering what happened to that little boy they once were: his focus, his energy, his passion, his fundamental optimism … his innocence?

A mid-life crisis? It’s basically a second adolescence where the question has changed from ‘who do I want to be?’ to ‘who have I become?’

There are a few things that make me feel sixteen. One of them is swimming in open water, another is listening to jazz, old jazz, New Orleans jazz from the early 20th century. That’s essentially the sound-track of my teens.

How do you rebel in a world of non-conformists?

It’s a strange choice, but honestly it was about the only avenue left open to express my rebellion, while I was trying to be a non-conformist like everyone else. My peers were listening to Nine Inch Nails, Portishead, House of Pain, Iron Maiden, Guns N’ Roses. My family (and music teachers) listened to baroque and classical music. Even the lefty teachers listened to New Model Army and The Levellers. I got captivated by the energy and optimism of jazz, and later found in it a voice for the melancholia and rebellion I treasured in my adolescent heart.

I started out taping jazz radio programs on BBC Radio 3. I ended up collecting photos of jazz musicians, reading every scrap of jazz history I could find and spending every break time on a piano in the music school. This music became one of my earliest mentors and I’m only discovering now how much it set my expectations and shaped my outlook. That boy I once was is still fundamentally running the show from speakeasy in the back of my mind.

Freelancing is the highest form of employment

For instance, I don’t think I’ve ever questioned my assumption that freelancing is the highest form of employment. I learned this from my trumpet-blowing heroes. At the end of the day, they had themselves, they had souls and a horn to blow it out from. They pitched up, they did their thing, then they disappeared back into the night, beholden to nobody. If they were good, they got booked; if they weren’t hot enough, they got cut. If they got into self-destructive habits, they burned their career, because they were inseparable from it.

Gentlemen prefer banjos

Gentlemen prefer banjos

That’s it, you know, these musicians stood or fell on the basis of something that it was quite impossible to fake. You can paint jazz by numbers, and I’ve heard plenty of these guys who have emerged from conservatories who can run up and down scales very prettily — but the elusive elements of soul, swing and hotness … sticks out a mile.

Of course I’m romanticising it – but it’s the myth that wired me to be a freelancer.

I have no idea what’s going to happen, and I love it

Then there’s my almost-pathological preference for spontaneity. My heroes were (and still are) improvisers. None of them would pitch up to a jam session and ask to see the score, or dream of showing up with a bunch of pre-rehearsed licks. They’d internalised the outer forms and the inner core of their art a long time before they stepped up to the mic.

I can’t see the problem with going by the seat of your pants as long as, you know, you made those pants yourself, you know they are up to the job, and you carry a sewing kit in case they get torn

I still believe that you’ve gotta be a sponge and soak in stuff, so when you get poked that’s what comes out. If it’s not in you already, it’s too darn late to start preparing now. Being an improviser isn’t about not being prepared, it’s about the preparation happening over years in the past.

Individualism can coexist with collectivism

Then take the matter of ‘teamwork’, ‘leadership’ and all those buzz words you’ll never find on the sleeve notes of a hot record. My take on these tings is still cast acccording to the loose categories of ‘ensemble’, ‘soloist’ and ‘bandleader’.

The feature that makes early New-Orlenian jazz so special compared to what followed is the ‘ensemble’. Everyone plays together – everyone improvises together. It’s not about the solos, like it is today. You might not hear any solos; sometimes the most a single instrumentalist gets to play in the limelight is a four-bar break to key the ensemble back in.

The phenomenon of a band leader is an interesting one in this egalitarian context. From my reading of early jazz history the bandleader is:

  •  needed by the entertainment industry so they have a name they can use to sell records and attract the punters (‘Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers’ is going to sell better than ‘some guys with horns and stuff who happened to be available on Friday afternoon’)
  • the one with the personal influence, the network and the contacts (in modern business terms) to convene an assortment of seasoned musicians who are going to sound good together (the cats dig him/her enough to pitch up)
  • someone who has to take care of that client-facing stuff, you know, and make sure everyone gets paid if they’ve been sober

None of that means the band leader is any kind of big-shot when it comes to the team performing (or the band playing).

Classic New-Orleans jazz is a shining example of how both individualism and collectivism can play loud and strong together in society. I guess I’m holding out for that.

That’s almost enough said … yup, enough. I’ll just let the music speak for itself. This is Black Bottom Stomp (it still raises the hairs on my neck):

A Post for the International Day of Happiness

I’m 15 years old, a schoolboy, and I’m walking onto a patch of light cast in a school courtyard by a street lamp.

The tarmac is black, the light is yellow and I’m seeing both colours simultaneously from the same surface. I register the matter of one and the energy of the other with no sense of duality. Perhaps that is what cuts me free for this moment in time. Because suddenly I have a taste of something for which there is no name: ‘contentment’, ‘awareness’, ‘union’ or ‘bliss’ could be used clumsily.

Maybe it’s just that I actually feel ‘happy’, and this is the new definition for that word.

I imagine that a bit of dust is caught in the groove of my life, causing the needle to skip back and replay those ten steps I take through the light, again and again, forever – it would be enough for me.

I am aware of other things that make the moment perfect. It is not anticipated or sought after, and it has not been added to by memory.

My shoes have rhythm – I wear black lace ups like Fred Astaire – and my limbs are supple and relaxed. This patch of light is triangulated upon three loci that are especially significant to my coagulating sense of identity: bordered on one side by the churchyard wall, a stone’s throw from the parish church, 50 paces from the school theatre and 30 paces from the English department. I belong here; this is my territory.

Place and time have come together. I am the lord of the night air and the emperor of this pool of light. I spin around on my heels, walk backwards for a few paces, rejoicing.

The dark receives me again and I walk on, down the hill towards the boarding house.

Copy of WP_20150207_10_05_17_ProMoments that are impossible to recreate, unasked-for, not divorced from the past or the future but somehow complete in the present, as if some prankster balanced a bucket of grace on the lintel of a doorway and I was the fool that got drenched   – I think this is how happiness is for us.

About twenty years later, I’m lying in bed.

I’m constructing the argument I should have made earlier in the day during a conversation. It feels water tight. I’ve started with a couple of ethical givens and I’m going through the logical steps to my conclusion.

But the steps are also taking me to the edge of sleep, and suddenly I’m there, toeing the border line. My internal dialogue stops but it’s as if I step onto the platonic form of all arguments in all times and places and continue. Vividly in my mind I see a ruler stretching over an abyss and a dividing compass pacing along it.

When the compass gets to the end of the ruler, I see something else that lasts for a couple of seconds. It’s like the dot of light that would shrink and disappear in the moments after turning off an old television set. But I see it with my whole being, as if my mind has become a single organ of sight.

In that moment, I KNOW all the answers to everything: all paradoxes and problems that have befuddled humans for millenia. I have the answer to the problem of evil, the resolution of determinism vs. free will, the goal of every koan, the last word on why we are here at all. I feel what it’s like to be omniscient for the tiniest sliver of a moment, and then it flits away into the abyss.

I pull myself back into wakefulness to see if I’ve been able to retain any of the knowledge, but the moment was too short for my memory to turn it into brain-code and store it. Nevertheless I feel a soaring sense of contentment. It’s enough for me to know that the answers DO exist and that they are real.

The afterglow of that revelation lasts to this day.

May this International Day of Happiness for you be booby trapped with unsolicited delight.

Swifts for the tacit longings of our adult years

As we approach middle age, is it normal for birds to become more fascinating to us? We start feeding them, watching them, doodling them. Do they represent our longing to shed the earthbound web we’ve woven for ourselves and to be as light as air? Maybe it’s just me.

Once again my scratchpad (the notebook I keep strictly for rough work/business notes, lists of action items and phone calls) has been invaded by the doodling dreamer.

try to make a swift with as few strokes of the pen as possible.

try to make a swift with as few strokes of the pen as possible.

A Mysterious Message from Avebury

Last night, I had occasion to share my postcard collection with a room of some twenty people.

“Find me a picture that speaks to you of God,” I asked them.

At the top of the first cluster of cards I picked through was this:



Although this wasn’t the card I chose for myself in the end, it struck me how the sacred stone circles of Britain have played a part in my own journey towards Divine Mysteries. I flipped it over …

The back side of the card brought a flood of memories from my 18-year-old self, who sits like a lodestone in my consciousness and frequently pulls at my internal compass needle.

05-09-2014 11;38;03AM

Dear Seymour, We are sitting in a pub with our local draughts, (beer not women!) having journeyed to the sacred stones – and halfway back. Meeting bearded bards and chalkened travellers, Listening to tails From near and Far. Met the sacred guitarist of Avebury, Played a beautiful song to me as the moon danced upon the clouds and shone incandescent against the stones. LUV Owain, Meic, Rob Surtees :-) Robin.

I include a scan of the original to show how my messengers clearly passed the card around, each adding their own lines in the true spirit of the bards of old. They would have been excellent company: one of my English teachers (the biggest single influence on my education), his two sons (companions on many woodland adventures) and another pal from school (an occasional co-conspirator in mischief).

Ahhh … the summer of  ’95.

Barter Books, Alnwick, Northumberland

Some 18 leagues due north from my front door lies one of the largest second-hand bookstores in Europe: Barter Books, lodestar of literary pilgrimage and home to the original “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster as well as an impressive mural of authors.

Ah, you know, between those shelves it is possible to forget the passage of time; I can’t remember the last time I was so distracted by the present. Here are a few of the things I saw this afternoon on my voyage along the platforms of the old train station that houses the shop.

A glimpse of an old pal

A glimpse of an old pal

Biographies are front and centre as you walk into the main part of the store  and this volume was on display. The author is a friend; I had the pleasure of getting to know him a bit while he was training as a minister in the Church of England. Tom fed me westerns and frontier-flavoured theology, warned me off crappy writing gigs (said I’d be be happier going back to nursing) and encouraged me on every level in a series of conversations that are burned into my soul. Seeing this reminded me that I still have not followed up on his recommendation to read more … Raymond Chandler.

Kipling and his "swastika"

Kipling and his “swastika”

Now here’s something you won’t find on any editions of Kipling’s work these days, nor even any editions later than 1935. Rudyard Kipling adopted the symbol, which is an ancient Sanskrit symbol for wellbeing, long before the Nazis got hold of it.

Two of Kipling’s books stand out in my life as a reader. I read “Kim” when I was about 12 and it proved an extremely significant influence on my unfurling spirituality and lead me into further reading and an early exposure to eastern philosophy and religion that has coloured everything that has happened since.

When I was much younger I read a wonderful collection of Kipling stories told from a dog’s point of view, called “Thy Servant a Dog”, which was easily one of my favourite childhood reads. I’ve never been able to find myself a copy of the book, but I keep my eyes peeled in second-hand bookstores.

An untellable treasure

An untellable treasure

This was the hardest book to replace on the shelf: the price tag of £39 was more than I’ve ever paid for a book, but if any book were to come close to having that kind of value to me, this would be it.  GM is the brightest burning star in my literary galaxy and “Donal Grant” (quoted on this page) certainly my favourite of his “novels”. His shadow has presided over a latter unfurling in my spirituality but, apart from his “Diary of an Old Soul”, I have read very little of his poetry. Ahhhh … well … another time, perhaps.

Woodcut by Nora Unwin

Woodcut by Nora Unwin

The woodcut illustrations by Nora S. Unwin were just the icing on the MacDonaldian cake!

The Bible in Gaelic

The New Testament in Gaelic

Merely four books sat on the Gaelic shelf, including this New Testament. I don’t read Gaelic (yet) but feel as if I have had a lot of exposure to it in recent weeks through getting deeper into celtic music. I’ve given some serious thought to studying the language because it sounds so beautiful when spoken and I’d really like to solve once-and-for-all the ongoing dispute in my band over the correct pronunciation of the names of tunes like  Chi Mi Na Morbehanna and An Phis Fliuch.

Wesley and Swedenborg in reformed spelling

Wesley and Swedenborg in reformed spelling

This ranks among the most curious finds of the day. A book on Swedenborg and John Wesley is coming from left field to begin with, but this one uses “reformed spelling”! Yes, published in the earlier part of the twentieth century before two world wars gave us something more serious to think about than spelling reform.

Something more suited ...

Something more suited …

After about three hours of browsing, I walked off with this in my rucksack. At £1:50 it was kind of in that sweet spot of providing a decent number of hours of rewarding reading of something I knew I’d like at a price I could manage. I’ve been on a D.H. Lawrence kick since Xe Sands reawakened my dormant interest in his poetry with some of her readings. I’m hoping this will bring a dose of bygone  English summers to the remaining days of winter for me.

The Leibster Award

Gillian at Skybluepinkish nominated me for a Liebster Award. The Leibster highlights up-and-coming blogs and helps to feed the content dragon. How kind! Responding to this nomination involves a lot of work, but its also rather fun. As exemplified in Gillian’s post, the lucky blogger shares 11 random facts about themselves from the endearing …

I used to make tar lollipops in the summer when the tar melted and seeped into the gutter.

… to the historic …

I have sat on John Lennon’s and Yoko Ono’s knees.

… and then answers 11 questions from the nominatorator, wherein we may discover some surprising facts:

We have 5 cats, 3 dogs, 1 parrot, 2 goldfish, 2 geese and assorted chickens.

Finally the nominee poses 11 unique questions and nominates 11 other bloggers for the award – simples!

So here goes:

11 facts about me

1. When I was 12, I wanted to be a “tree surgeon” because I thought that was someone who cares for sick trees.
2. My first bicycle was called “Froggie Moore”, after a tune by Jelly Roll Morton; my next bike was called “Amiahaz”, after a runner in the Bible; and my first car was called “Lucy”, after an early fossil hominid.
3. My grandfather played rugby for South Africa but I took up sailing in order to get out of playing rugby at school.
4. According to my media player stats, J.S. Bach wrote about 30% of what I listen to.
5. I don’t like long sleeves; they make my arms feel inhibited and I always think I’d have the advantage without them – in a fight.
6. My favourite scent is sandalwood.
7. People struggle to get my name right: I have been called Selwyn, Secombe, Semen, Simon and Sigfried in my time.
8. I prefer brandy over whiskey.
9. I didn’t like kindergarten: much to my mother’s chagrin, I upped and walked home at break time – twice.
10. There are gaps in my cultural education: I have never read ‘Harry Potter’, watched ‘Jaws’ or played ‘Angry Birds’.
11. I have a nasty scar on my right knee from tripping over a dog and landing on barbed wire when I was 12.


1. Have you ever had a dream come true? How?  … I once dreamed that I was roller-blading; it was fun so I bought some roller blades the next day.
2. What was your most serious misdemeanour at school? Were you caught?  … I wore dark glasses in a school photo; it was difficult not to be caught.
3. Do you snore? Have you ever voluntarily or involuntarily tried any cures?  … Yes, but a neti pot helps.
4. What was the last song that stuck in your head?  … The Derry Hornpipe; my brain has an internal juke box of traditional airs.
5. Tulips or daffodils? Why? …  Tulips – they seem more exotic and remind me of a happy holiday in the Netherlands.
6. Do you prefer to cook or to eat? …  On balance, I prefer to cook; I enjoy it and I like to have control over what goes in my food.
7. Are you a Townie or a Country bumpkin? Not in reality but in your heart.  … Definitely a country bumpkin – I long for the chalk downs of the South on a daily basis.
8. What is in your handbag/briefcase/rucksack/pockets right now? Chose one or more.  … At this very moment, my man-bag contains a small Moleskine notebook, a pencil case full of whiteboard markers and an egg timer; I have not unpacked it since the last workshop I gave.
9. Do you think beauty is in the eye of the beholder or are some things inherently ugly?  … The effects of violence are inherently ugly.
10. Do you have a party trick? (And what is it?)  … Cossack dancing
11. What do you do when faced with a big spider staring back at you from the bath?  … I calmly fetch a glass and a piece of card and relocate the creature to the garden.

My Questions

1. Tattoo? (Yes, no, maybe one day)
2. Have you ever collected anything a bit odd? (What was it?)
3. If you had the time and money to further your education, what would you study?
4. In the Hollywood feature film of your life, who would you like to play the title role?
5. What was the last song or piece of music you listened to?
6. If you were stuck in a lift for an hour, which historical figure would you most like to have for company?
7. What is the next book you hope to read?
8. In a house fire,which of your possessions would you most like to save (apart from the house)?
9. What would be your ultimate comfort food?
10. Where do you stand on politicians, from “I don’t vote” to “they are our only hope”?
11. Could you summarise how you see your mission in life in a single sentence? (What would it be?)

My Nominations

  1. Jess at thefilthycomma
  2. Ben at These Thoughts of Mine
  3. Emily at throughthelattice
  4. Eugene at 27th Street
  5. Tom at The Blog
  6. Aliya at Three Magical
  7. Dr J at Heart Soul Mind and Strength
  8. Matt at Confessions of an Undercover Theologian
  9. Jon at Mish-mashed Mind
  10. Kat at Pondering Pancakes
  11. John at Not Built With Hands

Love in a Mist and other Spring-related Juvenilia

Love-in-a-mist, devil in the bush Español: Ara...


It’s a morning in May 1993, I’m 16 years old. I step out into our garden after breakfast. Beyond the garden fence, there is an orchard and then a steep, treed slope down to the river Thames. It is spring; I can hear skylarks and boats chugging lazily up the river. There is still dew on the grass. Somewhere between the flowerbeds of giant poppies, Love in a Mist, and Borage, I am struck by a feeling of  “at-one-ness” that I have never forgotten – everything seems stitched together. There have been several moments like this in my life (another one was in a pool of light under a streetlamp in Reading one rainy night), and I often feel closer to them at this time of year … Spring.

Quite soon after this intimation, I stitched together a naive poem that I still don’t really understand but which seemed to fix that moment in the garden like a photograph for me. I grew Nigella damascena (Love in a Mist) in my flowerbed when I was a youngster, and it is probably my favourite cultivated flower.

Here is an audio of the poem, “Love in a Mist” by my 16 year-old self, read by my 20-years-later self. This is followed by “A Daydream”, written the following year while I was travelling in Africa – somehow the two always seem to have come from the same stable in my psyche. Both seem to be haunted by a mermaid of some sort …


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