Since Feeling is First: Steve Shepherd



Periodically over the last forty years I have tried to read about mathematics, physics, relativity and the like. I did quite well at maths at school without ever really understanding it, apart from one week in 1982 when quadratic equations made perfect sense. Physics left me cold at A Level and, later, statistics baffled and infuriated me. Despite this I have always been in awe of the hard stuff and, avoiding the psychology I was supposed to be studying, took a special interest in the philosophy of science at university.

"In Carlo Rovelli modern physics has found its poet", says John Banville in the Irish Times and suddenly I'm off again. One chapter in and The Order Of Time has my head spinning as common sense notions of time are systematically taken apart. It turns out that Rovelli is more ee cummings than Philip Larkin (I like both but can't pretend to understand much of the former).

The day after I started reading Rovelli I found myself in London being sociable for the first time in what felt like years and, despite Carlo's best efforts, was in fact years. I had arranged to meet two of my oldest friends and by a simple twist of fate both actually understand this stuff: one is a physicist, the other a mathematician who I met in the philosophy department at LSE all those years ago.

Robert treated me to an attempted explanation (from my perspective) of the theories of general and special relativity on his dining table with wine glasses and a salt cellar. The next day Sam tried to walk me through it without props in his favourite Turkish restaurant in West Hampstead. I had a wonderful if perplexing time with both, grappling with the nature of time for quite some time. Then I left Rovelli's book on the bedside table in the spare room of my daughter's flat in Camberwell. Is anything ever really an accident?

*****

So Rovelli is there and I am here and apparently time is passing differently for both of us. Especially for me though as, freed from The Order Of Time, I have returned to actual poetry in the form of The Fire Of Joy, Clive James' final contribution to a culture whose demise he foresaw and bemoaned. The book presents eighty poems Clive "got by heart", each with a short explanatory essay. Oh and here's John Banville again: "Few contemporary critics display the passionate commitment to the idea of poetry and to the idea of poetry's centrality to civilized life that James does."

Clive opens the book with the short anonymous 16th century verse "Western Wind":

"Western wind when wilt thou blow

That the small rain down can rain

Christ! If my love were in my arms

and I in my bed again."

"My guess is that it was written by a woman", he comments. "She wasn't the lady of a grand house; she's out there in the weather. What can get her warm again? Enter the lover. This neat little poem is packed with drama, like a tiny purse of gold."

*****

Not long ago I read Walter Tevis' 1980 sci fi masterpiece Mockingbird. Best known for his novels The Hustler (1959) and The Man Who Fell To Earth (1963), Oh and now for the recently adapted The Queen’s Gambit (1983), Walter is remarkable for both the quality and variety of his work.

I was initially attracted to Mockingbird by its epigraph, which is from the artist Edward Hopper:

"The inner life of a human being is a vast and varied realm and does not concern itself alone with stimulating arrangements of colour, form and design."

I've always liked artists (and people) who are happy to put themselves into perspective.

Mockingbird depicts a bleak future some centuries hence where humans have lost the ability to read or make art and exist in an environment saturated by electronic images (sound familiar?). Most are also kept in a drugged state by the robots they service.

Bentley and Mary Lou have managed to avoid the fate of most and by chance discover old films, books and, slowly, reading. Then on page seventy-six:

"All day yesterday she read a new kind of writing called poems. Some of them she read aloud. In places they were like chess – incomprehensible – and in other places they said strange and interesting things. She read this one to me twice:

'O Western wind, when will thou blow,

That the small rain down can rain?

Christ! That my love were in my arms

And I in my bed again!'

I had to look up 'thou' in Dictionary. The second time she read the lines I felt the feeling I have felt watching some of the strong scenes in films. An expansive feeling, painfully joyful, in my chest.

When she had finished I said for some strange reason 'Only the mockingbird sings at the edge of the woods.'

She looked up from the book and said 'What?' and I said it again: 'Only the mockingbird sings at the edge of the woods.'

'What does that mean?' she said.


'I don't know. It's from a film.'


She pursed her lips. 'It's like the words I just read, isn't it? It makes you feel something and you don't know what it is.'


'Yes', I said, astonished, almost awed to find that she had said what I wanted to say. 'Yes, exactly.'"

*****

When our culture falls, or is allowed to wither away by the super-intelligent robots who rule over us, archaeologists will find most of what they need on YouTube's dusty servers. We've made it easy for them. Even I, with absolutely no training as an archaeologist, can occasionally unearth jewels like the song above.

Neither Rickie Lee Jones nor The Blue Nile were ever mainstream. "Chuck E's in Love" and "Tinseltown in the Rain" were as close as they got. I was aware that they were fans of each other and had collaborated. I had never seen the featured clip though: The Blue Nile's heart-breaking "Easter Parade" followed by Rickie's "Flying Cowboys". To my ears, apart they were sublime, together they are even more so.

"Long coats on the prairie

Lying in the dust.

Who can I turn to?

Who can I trust?

Were you walking on the water?

Playing in the sun?

But the world is turning faster

Than it did when I was young."

If that doesn't generate an "expansive feeling, painfully joyful in your chest" it might be worth checking your pulse.


As for that last couplet... ain't it the truth.

There is no escape, it seems, from the order of time.



Steve Shepherd writes poems and takes photographs. He used to make radio programmes, mostly jazz.