Louis MacNiece

Bagpipe Music

It’s no go the merrygoround, it’s no go the rickshaw,
All we want is a limousine and a ticket for the peepshow.
Their knickers are made of crêpe-de-chine, their shoes are made of python,
Their halls are lined with tiger rugs and their walls with heads of bison.

John MacDonald found a corpse, put it under the sofa,
Waited till it came to life and hit it with a poker,
Sold its eyes for souvenirs, sold its blood for whiskey,
Kept its bones for dumb-bells to use when he was fifty.

It’s no go the Yogi-Man, it’s no go Blavatsky,
All we want is a bank balance and a bit of skirt in a taxi.

Annie MacDougall went to milk, caught her foot in the heather,
Woke to hear a dance record playing of Old Vienna.
It’s no go your maidenheads, it’s no go your culture,
All we want is a Dunlop tyre and the devil mend the puncture.

The Laird o’ Phelps spent Hogmanay declaring he was sober,
Counted his feet to prove the fact and found he had one foot over.
Mrs Carmichael had her fifth, looked at the job with repulsion,
Said to the midwife ‘Take it away; I’m through with overproduction’.

It’s no go the gossip column, it’s no go the Ceilidh,
All we want is a mother’s help and a sugar-stick for the baby.

Willie Murray cut his thumb, couldn’t count the damage,
Took the hide of an Ayrshire cow and used it for a bandage.
His brother caught three hundred cran when the seas were lavish,
Threw the bleeders back in the sea and went upon the parish.

It’s no go the Herring Board, it’s no go the Bible,
All we want is a packet of fags when our hands are idle.

It’s no go the picture palace, it’s no go the stadium,
It’s no go the country cot with a pot of pink geraniums,
It’s no go the Government grants, it’s no go the elections,
Sit on your arse for fifty years and hang your hat on a pension.

It’s no go my honey love, it’s no go my poppet;
Work your hands from day to day, the winds will blow the profit.
The glass is falling hour by hour, the glass will fall for ever,
But if you break the bloody glass you won’t hold up the weather


I remember as a young writer of twenty-two writing to NASA. They had a policy of looking into the feasibility of sending a journalist into orbit as they could write about the experience with a better understanding of words than their astronauts. A policy that died or was shelved. I wrote to them as a writer telling them if they sent a  children’s writer into orbit the resulting work would inspire generations of children to train as astronauts. They sent me a very pleasant package back with their entire educational literature. If I had been American I might have been given a better hearing.

The sadness of the shuttle missions is that they have ended without achieving the fire in the belly of the populations of the world for space exploration. It all seems to far, so distant. It isn’t the danger it’s just the inability to get anywhere in a lifetime that puts people off. But maybe that’s because we think of exploration in terms of finding things. Every explorer who has ever lived has always found out about themselves on their adventures.

Out there, without landing on anything, we could explore what it is to be extra-terrestrial. To touch infinity like Michelangelo’s Adam reaching out for the hand of creation. To float on a tide of history so immense it encompasses everything that will ever live. A place where no one turns anyone with a vision down because all visions become the possible.

Happy New Year

In the new Year prayers the supplicant asks god to take care of their enemies. It is a strange request that is born out of the Hebrew love of life, one of the great pillars of Judaism and two thousand years ahead of its time in the Western world. When you love life, you respect other life and you take pleasure in existence but you know, despite all the belief and hope, that it is up to god if this life continues after one is dead. So to all intents and purposes death could be the end of the universe for all of us. As the poet Houseman writes:

Good creatures, do you love your lives
And have you ears for sense?
Here is a knife like other knives,
That cost me eighteen pence.

I need but stick it in my heart
And down will come the sky,
And earth’s foundations will depart
And all you folk will die.

Knowing this we think about death and who in all the world can bring death to us faster than anyone else but our neighbours and enemies. Reading Judges you see the repeated phrases ‘and the people were oppressed’ ‘ and they oppressed them hard’, for ten, twenty, sixty years. It is because we have enemies that we ask god to quiet them, even bring an end to them, because without them, ironically, we can exalt in life all the more.

Shana Tova

The Philosophy of Antangonism

It is well known that huge advances in technology and sometimes in science occur during wars. Inventiveness takes off because a war brings about a whole different feeling in society. Instead of people vying for personal space they are all pulling in the same direction, and governments eager to remain viable give money to every idea that comes along. In fact it is during war that ideas become the currency.

This is wholly in accord with what we know of nature as evolution favours adaptations in animals that enable them to survive and breed the next generation and eliminates adaptations that leave the animal more vulnerable to attack and disease. This is because nature herself sets us challenges on a daily basis, from the single cell to the complex animal.

There are those who say there is no reason for this and others who look for reasons because we are geared up to find answers to any question that enters our heads. Since evolution in the universe is a continuous process it can hardly be said we have sufficient reasons to create a theory as to why antagonists vie for supremacy in the natural world over and above any immediate considerations of survival.

But since the universe is a complex, single system I wouldn’t mind betting there are such reasons and we will find them out one day.

Hidden Behind the News

Recently in the UK a major provider of residential care went bankrupt. The news reported accurately that the company plan to sell off their houses and rent them back backfired in the economic climate. But no one in the news pointed out that every care home in the UK applies some form of salary subsidy to its care staff, or that the amount some publicly funded residents pay is capped by government policy.

Part of the financial strains which brought down the company were the frozen amounts they could pay. These sums had been frozen for years and no one when making decisions had thought they would be frozen for so long.  The result for homes that are functioning, like the one I visited yesterday, is that there are empty beds available but not enough workers who accept the low pay to be trained to staff them, so people who want care cannot receive it.

I wonder why these things escape journalists who report avidly the major reasons why something happens, but miss secondary reasons that, if they were corrected, would ensure stability. We all know foundations are essential to a building but you do not get anywhere without the walls. And in these situations I always fear journalists are covering up for government mistakes.

Bling Or Animal?

My friend and I were discussing dogs and she said in her opinion they are the ultimate bling. For the most part dogs today should not exist as we have bred them to look the way they do and in nature there are only three wild dog types from which we have over-bred so many dogs. On one level I could not argue with her, in that over breeding is the cause of a great many diseases and ailments that no healthy animals should ever suffer.

Equally she is right that the styles and breeds are all our creations and we continue to breed as in America where they are now breeding domestic cats into bigger and bigger animals.  This is all to do with fashion and eye candy. Then as she says the cost of producing the food to feed the animals is very high – typically the produce one dog’s food for a year emits more carbon than to run a family car. And I have to say I have always thought zoos, whilst not bling, a sign of the decadent way in which we view the animal kingdom.

This doesn’t detract from the few ways – seeing dogs, working dogs – in which we harness their innate abilities. Nor does it detract from the love and affection companionships create. But it finally explains for me why we are so easily able to kill off healthy dogs that are not being looked after by individuals.

Bling is, after all, something to throw away after a while.

Café Our Way

I was recently sitting talking to an artist about her work in a café, supposedly we were having lunch though I don’t think I finished the lentil soup or the glass of water for that matter, when it became obvious the place shut at 5.00pm and we had to leave. On a  very wet day we found another café a few doors away which did not close until 6.00pm. Now I know in the cities you can sit in a  café all day but here in Cornwall there seems to be a lack of places friends can drink and talk unless it is in a pub, but pubs are not to everyone’s liking.

And it is strange that in Cornwall which has a healthy tourist trade even in September that places close early and even stranger that they were not very busy. I have always thought the sound of French society where people sit al fresco and talk (a tradition all across the Mediterranean) to be fascinating. But I get the distinct feeling that in the UK they feel those are places where revolutionaries traded ideas and great writers began their careers and that’s quite enough of that, thank you.

 It is one of the joys of friendship to sit and talk and have places to meet especially when one has to travel an hour to get around the county.


I was surprised, though I really should not have been, when I started chatting to people around the world on the Internet, at how many women have faced deep physical and emotional abuse from men. Not only that but the very men closest to them, the very men one assumes (and that shows how dangerous assumptions are) who would normally be expected to be most protective.

Along with this realisation came another, that where I had considered there to be abuse because it is brutish behaviour I accredited the most brutish people I could think of in society as being abusers but I could not have been more wrong. Men who hit their girlfriends and wives span all strata of society.

So to understand what goes on I have to consider wider human characteristics and fall back on the ideas of self-confidence, hatred of mothers, abuse as children any of  dozens of reasons why any man, anywhere would hit a woman he also makes love too. Why any man (and a few women) would hit their partner at all even in fury and anger. I want to call these men cowards because they are but some of them do extremely dangerous jobs – the army is no stranger to assaults and soldiers are hardy cowards.

It is a puzzle I have not yet fathomed.


To really take the Michael out of someone you need a few things. First and foremost you need a witty sense of the ridiculous so you can highlight those elements in every kind of profession and life that can be made funny. Along with a sense for the ridiculous you need am apposite target. There are a couple of things with choosing your target: the first is you have to go along with public opinion because the public of one generation will gladly make fun of those the previous generation thought untouchable. There are always boundaries. The second is you need to make sure there is something funny to be said.

Slapstick lampooning is of course ancient and to pretend that the great and famous slip on banana skins is always hilarious – it is what made the silent movie industry work. Then you may need a quick one liner as with the soaps in America although they lack the depth of a great lampoon. For there is a moment when making fun of something becomes satire and when it reaches those heights it almost becomes an art form.

To make people laugh at one thing whilst they know it is about something else, and that is what makes it even funnier, takes great skill. Of course some of the finest examples have been people who lampoon themselves. This goes beyond wit, into the sublime realms of laughter so well demonstrated by Spike Millighan.

The God Particle

I am interested as much by the money spent on the Hadron Collider as the physics behind the exploration of trying to find something so small that it passes through matter. It actually sounds vaguely ridiculous because that makes it to all intents and purposes invisible. Like particles that have no mass and the idea of the neutrinos which pass right through the planet.

I know scientists say that the universe they create on paper has to reflect the universe in which the planet Earth could be created – a way of saying that we embody the secrets we are trying to unlock. But I wonder sometimes if the mathematics becomes so arcane that very few people actually understand it and those who do are just trying to feel their way forward. A little like the various string theories that were confusing everyone until one physicist came along and proved they were all the same string theory.

It would be fascinating to live in a universe where there were invisible particles (and we mean invisible to other particles because they don’t inter-react) but is that significant?  Why should there only be one such particle? And why does mass matter at the level of particles? And maybe invisible particles exist but are trapped inside other particles?

I hope they find it but right now it all sounds a little bit like magic…

I’m Not As Good As Grandfather

One of the stranger aspects of art, apart from the ‘flowerings’ that happen unexpectedly every few hundred years when a plethora of artists all come along at the same time, is the way in which generations follow that imitate but never achieve equality of excellence. And not just in Art there comes a time (usually reached when leaders are younger than you are) when politicians all seem lightweight. Though this is as much to do with geopolitical events as much as with individual character.

But maybe that’s the problem with artists as well because it is talent and character that determines how one pursues one’s art, and if one is influencing others the others are at an immediate disadvantage. Are followers always destined to be less in achievement than the founders of anything? Because if they are then we are all lost because we can never live up to the expectation of the founding fathers and mothers of anything we do.

I do not know if it is because we are following, or because we lack the fire of first finding something or establishing a new way of doing things but whatever the reason it is a severe problem to the peoples of the world. We may find achievement of the whole is shackled by the fact of our limited life-spans and our inability to rekindle the passion in the new because it was yesterday.

The Great Dilemma

As thinking beings we have always discussed amongst ourselves how we should interact with each other and the world around us. There is an old saying that my freedom ends where another person’s begins and most of our discussion surrounding ethics are all to do with how we should comport ourselves. It is an ideal of course and much is there in laws to serve purposes wholly other than ethical but we do have a fundamental dilemmas.

Life feeds on life.

Since it become impossible to live without something dying (and before macrobiotic specialists tell me you can I would remind them their houses have been built on the bodies of millions of insects and even the Jains have recognised breathing is dangerous to minute animals in the air) we can never live up to the ideal of living without killing. We can never live without depriving some other animal of a home or its life.

So the ideal is unachievable but balance is not. We don’t have to kill everything or stop thinking about what we kill and steal. We don’t have to lose sight of the importance of life and believe all other animals are insignificant. Ethical behaviour is about how we think. It demonstrates just how deep a hold we have on life as a shared experience.

If we have no hold on another’s life, we have not even begun to think.

Growing Greatness

There are thousands of books written about men and women who have been considered to be great – and reams more about why people consider them great. There are those who historians say were in the right place for the times in which they lived and leadership came to them almost by chance but they proved themselves up to its rigours. There are those who dedicated their entire lives to pursuing leadership and achieved it at a time of great significance. Then there are the many who had a gift for knowing what to do and when; and rebellion or war or change caught up with them. But there is far less written about what really makes a leader.

We are so involved in looking at the character of the individual we forget that populations are trained to look for leaders. That modern societies cannot function without a clique of leaders (and as far as we know that has been true of every society ever) and people, nations, make their leaders.

They say we all give a little bit of power to a figurehead, signified by the voting process in democratic society,  but we actually create the system and the reasoning that makes leadership possible.

To this degree no leader has greatness in them, but an aura of greatness painted over them by the millions of citizens they lead.


I know that in the past it is easy to see human life as a scrabble for food, water and shelter because it is hard for us to have any idea how past generations actually lived although ancient cave paintings should give us an idea that not everything was continuous struggle. As groups of people came together in ever increasing numbers the relative ease increased and in fact it is possible to suppose that advances in societies are directly correlated to the increase in populations.

We should remember that this focus is still with us but softened, and now we can focus upon other aspects of life. In fact anyone who can direct their focus away from these could be considered rich. And maybe we can also suggest that these other aspects are what makes life worth living, as opposed to our simply existing.

That given, it is what we do that enriches our brains that enriches our societies and ourselves. I am sure many of these things are hobbies because most people have exchanged food, water and shelter for scrabbling for money with the same ruthless efficiency to survive as past generations. But it is when we creep to the back of the cave to paint, that is when we reach out and tell people that a thinker was here, a feeling person was here, a human being had been born.

September 11th

Today all over the Western world and in the rest of the world sympathetic to some western values, people have remembered one of the most shocking, thought provoking and history-making mass murders in the history of terrorism. The attack on New York’s twin towers was no just unbelievable for its audacity but also because it was successful. The very first question was not who did this because those who loathe America are all known, but how could the authorities let this get by them? It took years to plan, month to build up but a feeling of complacency in the authorities not following up the few clues they had, ended in the deaths of thousands of people and two major wars.

 During the Crusades the Saracens changed history when one assassin murdered the heir to the throne of Jerusalem on the streets of the city. One audacious act resulted in the West losing Jerusalem and a hundred years later Antioch followed. It isn’t a question of whether that was desirable or not but a simple question of what one person properly motivated can achieve.

If you look at how rapacious people go after money, think about their next deal, plan, spend most of their lives adding up, working out scams to save tax and increase profits, then think that that same energy, that same dedication is going into killing westerners around the world.

Never allow yourself to believe there are no more assassins.

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