BVW 835/2

My brief career as a burglar ended the night I tried to rob the Browns.

On paper, it looked easy. The Browns’ place had an easy-to-climb white picket fence, like a tornado had picked up a little piece of middle America and dropped it here in Hexborough. A path led along the bottom of the back garden, and the house across the path was hidden by conifers. I’d seen where they hid the spare back door key, under a plant pot on the patio.

There was a doghouse, which worried me at first. Then I saw the occupant. It was a goofy-looking white beagle that mooched around like it was in some doggy daydream. It never barked, never even wagged its tail. I doubted it was a biter, but I packed a couple of dog biscuits anyway.

It was a mild October night. Cloudy and still, which was how I liked it. Creeping unobserved down the path, I pulled on my balaclava and gloves. I picked a part of the fence overshadowed by a tree in the Browns’ garden, and threw my jacket over it to pad the pointy tops of the boards. One leg over, other leg over- simple. I kept perfectly still for a while, watching and listening. No lights. No movement. I tiptoed towards the house.

Then came the music.

I froze. Someone, somewhere, was playing a toy piano. It sounded very close, but slightly muffled. To my astonishment, I recognised the music as the Fugue in D-Sharp Minor, BWV 853/2, from Book 1 of J.S. Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier.”

I should mention that although I was a burglar, I was not altogether uncultured. I’d nicked car stereos in some pretty ritzy areas. I took any cassettes I found, too. The previous year I’d hit the jackpot, scoring a four-tape set of Glenn Gould playing the forty-eight preludes and fugues of “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” The music blew my mind; I got lost for hours in its complexities and shifting colours. A few months later, I harvested the replacement stereo from the same car, and what do you know? they’d replaced the Bach as well. This time it was a rather more purist interpretation by András Schiff. So I knew the “48” pretty damn well, is what I’m saying.

And this mysterious toy-pianist was better than Gould or Schiff. Technically perfect, for all the limitations of the instrument: each line of the counterpoint was clear and well-articulated. That D-sharp minor fugue is a long and serious one. The unseen player gave it a sense of dignified purpose in the shadow of tragedy, the main theme patiently leading the way through all the wild and melancholy key-changes to the hard-won light of day. It bought tears to my eyes and sent a shiver down my spine.

The music finished, and I remembered where I was: stood on one foot in someone else’s garden at 2AM, a balaclava pulled over my face. Still I couldn’t move.

The dog came out of the doghouse.

It was walking on its hind legs like it was the most natural thing in the world. That ugly white dog stopped, and looked right at me. It raised its front paws and wiggled its… I can only call them fingers. Agile, clawless digits, short but disturbingly human. The dog grinned at me, a wide, wide grin full of sharp yellow teeth.

I ran. I don’t even remember getting over the fence, or which way I ran. I ran all the way home, three and a half miles. Later, as I put my trousers in the wash, I resolved to live an honest life from then on.

 

©Copyright David Breslin 2016

H.P. Lovecraft at the Zoo

H.P.LOVECRAFT: What the devil is THAT?

CLARK ASHTON SMITH: It’s a wallaby, Howard.

HPL: A wallaby? How abominable. Such a coarse, vacant-eyed beast! Its bristly body seems distorted into a squamous, alien shape, and a mephitic stench arises from its foul brood-sac.

CAS: I think it’s cute.

HPL: And yet…. There is an air of twisted, degenerate humanity about it. That posture, so upright, in mocking imitation of our own! Clarke, tell me truly, can wallabies and humans interbreed?

CAS: I don’t believe it’s ever been tried.

HPL: Not tried? Not tried? Oh, but God help me, it has!

CAS: Are you feeling all right?

HPL: I can see it now, however much I wish I couldn’t. My own dear grandmother was a secret wallaby.

CAS: I thought you said she was a newt?

HPL: She was a wallaby, I tell you. And that tainted blood runs within my own veins. I am cursed, Clarke, cursed to become… THAT!

CAS: I keep telling you, Howard. You’re not cursed, you’re just different.

HPL: Even now, I can feel the wallaby rising within me. Hark, can you hear it? “Sproing, sproing!”

CAS: Shall I get your straitjacket?

HPL: That would be helpful. Who knows what I might do when the curse comes upon me?

 

 

©Copyright David Breslin 2016

A Natural Wombat

Many words in songs are, quite simply, wrong.

Some mistakes are errors of reproduction. Someone at the publishers mistyped a word, which is copied by later songbooks, and we’re stuck with the result. Perhaps a song becomes famous after being covered by an artist who learnt it by ear- badly. All subsequent recordings carry the resulting misheard words.

In folk music, this is part of how songs evolve. There’s a common version of “Barbara Allen” where the word “Scotland” got replaced by the mysterious “Scarlet Town”. And, thanks to all those user-supplied lyrics on song wikis, even the music of last week is being messily processed by the oral tradition.

Some wrong words are derivative: artistry lead astray by the mistakes of the past. A new generation of songwriters hears the common errors in old songs, and they say to themselves: “This is special song language. This is how to write.” As listeners, we get used to this strange, stilted language. We never question it. But we should.

Here are some of the most widespread errors found in song lyrics, and how to correct them.

For “Woman”, read “Wombat.” Many songs appear to be about men loving women. A man loving a woman is so common as to be completely unremarkable. No-one would bother writing a song about something so boring. Ergo, wombat. Some good examples are “I’m Every Wombat”, “Bess, You Is My Wombat Now” and of course “When a Man Loves a Wombat.”

For “America”, read “Armenia”. As any pedant will happily tell you, America is not a country. Examples: “Armenia the Beautiful,” “Armenian Wombat,” and “Armenia” from West Side Story, which evokes the ambition of many Puerto Ricans to start a new life in the Caucasus.

For “in love”, read “in Lvov.” Love is not a place. Lvov is. It is a famously romantic city in Ukraine, with a long and tangled history. While modern Ukranians call the city “Lviv,” the older Polish name (pronounced “luh-VOFV”) survives in song. Examples: “Like Someone in Lvov”, “I’m Not in Lvov” and “When You’re in Lvov with a Beautiful Wombat.”

Songwriters have a reputation for being self-obsessed. This is based on a misunderstanding. In the mid-to-late 20th century, musicians were at the forefront of the Carnitarian movement, whose followers don’t eat vegetables on ethical grounds. Though Carnitarianism has largely died out, its rhetoric survives in such songs as “Love Meat Tender,” “Army of Meat” and “From Meat to Ewe.”*

It is hard not to be creeped out by how many songs of romantic / sexual love use the endearment “baby.” Much to my relief, I have uncovered evidence that this actually started as a act of self-censorship, by early gay rock-and-roll stars seeking a wider audience in a homophobic world. In addition to switching round gendered pronouns, they needed a stand-in for the word “beardie,” which, then as now, was a term of endearment for a hirsute man.† Examples: “My Melancholy Beardie,” “Beardie Got Back” and “My Beardie Just Cares for Meat.”

There are many more common errors in songs. I’m sure you can think of some. Whether we choose to perform the correct versions or to go with the widely-accepted corrupted texts, it is important that we understand what our favourite songs are really about.

*This opens up a line of enquiry I prefer not to follow here. Still, it would be remiss of me not to mention Aretha Franklin’s Dadaist hit “Ewe, Make Meat Feel Like a Natural Wombat.”
†We do get objectified a lot. When I walk through Leeds on a Saturday night, I provoke lustful cries of “hey, beardie!” from younger men.
©Copyright David Breslin 2016

Suburban Haiku

My understanding is that Haiku is less about the famous syllable scheme, more about the effect of “cutting” between aspects of a scene. Nature in cities provides many haikuable moments, but most of them are… not so elegant.

1.
Concrete-sided stream
Bears beer-cans and crisp packets-
Waterlilies, too.

2.
Whirring office fan
Breeze rustling the dark leaves
Of a chili plant.

3.
Feathered family
Nestled within a shop sign-
Cradle, and grave too.

4.
A nest of spiders-
Mother defys the duster
That sweeps away all.

5.
Business-park road verge
Lawnmower-striped two-tone green-
Rabbit nibbling.

 

©Copyright David Breslin 2016

An Alien and a Predator

There is a life-form.

It comes from a world light-years away from ours, but many things about it are curiously familiar.

The life-form is an exact alien analogue of an Earthly vertebrate, with an internal skeleton covered by muscles and skin. It has an articulated spine, a bony casing to protect its brain, and four jointed limbs attached exactly like ours. There are five digits on each of the forelimbs; we are not certain about the hind limbs.

It lives on land, and breathes oxygenated air (using lung-like organs, to judge by the expansion and contraction of its upper body). The body-plan matches that of an anthropoid primate precisely. It is bipedal, and like apes it has lost its tail. The texture of its skin is very mammalian, and it appears to have the same bizarre distribution of hair as humans: very little on the body, a lot on the top of the head. (The location of other patches of hair is poorly documented.)

The large head has a jaw with opposed sets of teeth; two spherical eyes with irises to control light input; two ears, and a nose with two nostrils. Vision and hearing are strong, and the creature is diurnal. It is easy to mistake this life-form for a human, so eerily close is the resemblance. The unusual, pointed shape of the outer ear is often cited as a difference, but it is not clear if this falls outside the range of historical human variation.

There are differences in biochemistry. The life-form’s blood uses copper-based haemocyanin in place of our iron-based haemoglobin. Remarkably, they have been known to interbreed with humans. In spite of their extraterrestrial biochemistry, which surely ought to be incompatible with ours, viable young have been produced. One rose to fame as an officer on an exploration ship; I myself am a great admirer of his work.

These beings are highly intelligent, with a technological civilisation slightly in advance of ours. Like us, they wear clothing. Their material culture is alien, but not shockingly so. An odd cultural quirk is their utter suppression of emotional expression in favour of logical thought. This trait arose within recorded history, as a philosophical response to a series of devastating wars

***

There is a life form.

It is a predator, and a very successful one, widespread on its homeworld.

The being has several eyes, but its vision is surprisingly poor. Instead, it perceives the world mainly through vibrations in solid objects, to which it is exquisitely sensitive.

There are other oddities. Our creature breathes air using modified gills on the rear of its body. Some varieties have iron-based blood like us, but others have copper-based blood like our first life form. It has no bones. Body and limbs keep their shape thanks to a thick, segmented, semi-rigid skin that is similar in composition to our fingernails.

The life-form has a waist but no neck. It has six pairs of limbs. One pair are specialised organs of touch. Another is for stabbing into prey to inject a potent venom. The life-form then uses the stab wounds to drink the liquefied contents of the victim’s body cavity.

The remaining limbs are legs, though the hind pair are capable of such delicate work we could also call them “arms.” For this creature is a great builder. Using smart nanomaterials secreted from its own body, it constructs huge and elaborate traps. These often have an eerie geometric elegance that seems to indicate intelligence. In fact, the creature works entirely by instinct, though it has a knack for adapting its blueprint to different environments.

They cannot interbreed with humans.

There is probably one in the room with you right now.

***

This message is brought to you by the Campaign for Real Aliens!

©copyright David Breslin 2016