The Milky WayIntroduction

At the age of eighty-four, using a walking stick, glasses and hearing aids, I have begun to think a little more about the meaning of death, and I have been surprised to find how much relevant material I had already written when I was much younger.

What follows is a collection of songs and verses, some of which I wrote when I was my forties. In spite of their serious themes, they are mostly light-hearted and sometimes funny.

The Scrapyard (1973) was written for the Dartington Hall School choir and contrasts work and retirement. The Best Job in the World (1973) is a cheerful musical which was written for The Dartington Playgoers, a local amateur dramatic group, and is largely about death as an escape from a meaningless life. Science Rules (1969). is a mini-musical about a war between scientists and activist proponents of natural health, and concludes with the end of the world. The Guinea-pig, one of a set of three songs about children's pets that were set to music by Nicholas Marshall in the 1980s, compares the relationship between child and pet with the relationship between man and god. We don't believe is a song from The Message (1997), another musical I wrote for The Playgoers which focuses on fringe religions. Foister (1970) is a large-scale musical written the Dartington Hall Senior School, and is a modern version of the Faustus story.

I conclude with three short poems, written at the beginning of the 2000s, that were not written to be set to music.

The Scrapyard

In this song cycle various items of scrap in a scrapyard are interviewed for a survey. It was set to music by Timothy Moore and published by the Oxford University Press.

The Questions and the Answers

Why is a scrapyard considered romantic?
Do you think that the scrap in a scrapyard agrees?
We've made a survey of scrapyard opinion
Asking the throw-outs such questions as these:
What do you do when the children don't need you?
What do you do when your springs start to creak?
What do you do when you're finished, and empty?
What do you do when they can't mend the leak?

The Barrels

Yo ho ho!
Twenty barrels from Bordeaux-eaux-eaux.
From Bordeaux port they shipped us.
The crane came down and gripped us
And we had to go
Down below,
With a yo ho ho!
Twenty barrels from Bordeaux-eaux-eaux,
As patriarchs should,
There we stood,
Row on stately row.

I remember the buyer who thought us too young
For a serious, dignified wine.
I remember when Bert here burst his bung
And the whole hold smelt divine.
I remember the sailor who sat on the kegs
And told us about his dreams.
I remember the rat that got drunk on the dregs
That leaked through Alfie's seams.

With a yo ho ho!
Twenty barrels of Bordeaux-eaux-eaux.
The men securely tied us
But the wine slopped inside us
And the heaving sea
Broke us free
With a yo ho ho!
Twenty barrels of Bordeaux-eaux-eaux,
We merrily rolled
In the hold
In a drunken spree.

Our ship survived the sea's assaults
And that was the end of the fun.
In a day we were locked in silent vaults.
In a week the bottling was done.
The drops of wine that were left inside
Wouldn't make a kitten drunk,
So without a thought for our injured pride
They threw us out as junk.

With an oh, my, my!
Twenty barrels of geraniums.
A pitiful sight
Painted white
Full of roots and grubs.

The Geyser
A monumental geyser
As white as tiger's teeth,
I hung upon the wall to guard
The pallid bath beneath.
At my window my pilot light
Like a guiding candle shone
Till, shivering in his dressing-gown
My master turned me on.
The gas lit up with a boom.
My flame-filled belly roared.
Into the icy room
Out of my steaming, gleaming tap
The scalding water poured.

But now, deposed and banished,
Expatriate I lie
Against a pile of broken steel
Beneath a cruel sky.
All around me the brambles twine
And concealing nettles sprout.
My tap is now a streaky brown.
My pilot light is out.
No flames will fill me again.
My worn enamel chips.
When there is mist or rain
Among my twisted, rusty pipes
The icy water drips.

The Pram
Morning after morning
Underneath a frilly awning
I dumbly used to trundle
An impassive, slimy bundle.
Oh, how I hated it
With all my heart,
But some day soon
I'll be a soap-box cart.

Chuck away my carriage,
Strip me to my wheels,
Fit me to a soap-box,
Let me know how freedom feels.
Keep my axles oiled,
Paint me brilliant red.
Keep me with your dad's things
In the garden shed.

Take me to a hilltop,
Get aboard and go.
They tell me speed's exhilarating
And I want to know.
Don't slow down on corners,
Don't give way to cars.
Drive me like a space-ship
Half-way to the stars.

When I'm old and creaking
Give me one more try.
Race me like you used to,
Let me feel the wind rush by.
Turn a sudden corner
Too fast to take the bend.
Smash me into a brick wall.
That's the way to end.

Babies sucking dummies
With shopping on their tummies,
Slobbering and spitting
In their dribbly, yellow knitting.
Oh how I hated it
With all my heart,
But some day soon
I'll be a soap-box cart.

The Bed
My tarnished brass
Has peeled.
Tall grass
Turns my springs to a field.
I long to be useful,
But I don't know how.
Who's going to sleep on me now?

We are, we are, we are, we are.
A hundred yards of telephone wire
In a tangle,
Two broken bumpers
And a mangle,
Some broken bits of lath
And right on top,
A hip bath.

The Austin tourer

A 1938 Austin tourer,
I was a clattering, muttering, bucketing, stuttering road hog.

Torn seats, broken windows, hood rotted away,
Moss grows on my axles,
Ragwort round my cylinder block,
No battery, bonnet off,
No lamps, no wheels,
And in my glove compartment
There's a robin's nest.

The barrels, who had loved their boozy lifetime, are humiliated by having to spend their last years as plant pots. There is an implication that their purpose in life allowed enjoyable excitement which was forbidden to them after their retirement. Nevertheless, although they are now dissatisfied themselves, they are giving quiet enjoyment to gardeners. Although elderly humans may have had to give up on many of the activities they enjoyed in the past, they may still give quiet enjoyment to family and friends.
The geyser is less optimistic. After a career of flaming arrogance there is nothing left but melancholy. The pram, on the other hand, hated its work, but once it has retired, it triumphantly builds a new, adventurous career that will be delightful in itself, and can be ended briskly when such shenanigans are no longer possible.
The pile on the bed is a slight reassurance for older people who feel useless. Although they grumble that they are ignored, there may be plenty of others who depend on their existence. The Austin tourer, almost entirely reduced to scrap metal, is concealing a hope for the future.

Reading all this some forty years later I wondered how I would answer the survey questions myself.

What do you do when the children don't need you?

Our children have grown up, and have generally shown themselves to be able to live their lives without us. We are available in emergencies, but these are more likely to involve grandchildren than their grown-up parents. We need our children more than our children need us.

What do you do when your springs start to creak?

My springs have definitely started to creak. I see and hear less well and I can't walk far or fast, but my life is still enjoyable. I read a lot, I play the piano, I write books and edit articles for the Libertarian Education website, I watch the Channel 4 news, I do crosswords with Lynette and play patience. Before my sight deteriorated I made a catalogue of our jigsaw collection. I no longer do the cooking, but I still do the washing-up. I gave up driving some years ago after two minor accidents that were entirely my fault, and I was developing a complete inability to judge distance. I depend on Lynette or other family members for transport. My creaking springs are definitely a nuisance, but they do not destroy my life.

What will you do when you're finished and empty?

I am not expecting to feel finished and empty for some time yet.

What will you do when they can't mend the leak?

At the moment I see no signs of that coming. When it does, I hope my life will soon be over. If they can't mend the leak it will be best to die quickly and quietly.
Those are my responses to the actual questions, but, like the scrap in the scrapyard, I used to do useful things that I am proud of - teaching, visiting schools around the world, writing about them, giving lectures in various countries, writing musicals - and there were things that I particularly enjoyed, such as reading to my children by firelight, going for walks on the moor before breakfast, weeks with our family in the hut we borrowed on the cliffs near Branscombe, accompanying the singing of one of my grand-daughters, learning to play the saxophone, taking part in my own musicals, sharing my life with Lynette.

Many of these things I can no longer do. My past was far richer than my present, but I have not yet been banished to the scrapyard.

 

All I'd Leave Behind

This song comes from The Best Job in the World, a musical I wrote for the Dartington Playgoers in 1973. Six characters, dissatisfied with their lives, have answered an advertisement which seems to offer them the chance of escaping from their problems. It is only when they are interviewed that they learn that this involves dying. Here are their reactions: -

BERNARD:

All I'd leave behind is a Stones L.P.,
And a filthy bed-sitter and a failed degree,
A LADIES sign I once took,
And National Assistance pay,
Three pages of my book
And a guitar I never learnt to play.

MRS. ROSE:

All I'd leave behind is a perfect home
And a holiday booking for a month in Rome,
A perfect family, what's more,
And perfectly perfect friends -
All just a perfect bore,
So that's where that perfection ends.

MRS. WRIGHT:

The world I'd leave behind is a fading one
With a polluted moon and a contracting sun
And probably not enough air
And oceans made black with tar
And rubbish everywhere
And no parking-space to leave my car.

SYLVIA:
All I'd leave behind is an empty space,
A pervading sense of some obscure disgrace,
Some dowdy clothes that don't fit,
A couple of unwashed plates,
A Glamour Home Perm kit
And a Jehovah's Witness book on dates.

MRS. BRUCE:
All I'd leave behind is a leaking sink
Where the floor goes mouldy and the fungi stink,
A growing hole in the rug
And lino that's worn away,
A garden still undug
And an awful lot of rent to pay.

MR. BLACK:
All I'd leave behind is the commuters' run,
An ungrateful daughter and a sulky son,
A wife who thinks I'm obscene,
A bottle of sleeping pills,
A Playboy magazine
And a growing pile of unpaid bills.

ALL SIX:
Don't stop to count the cost.
Think of the pleasure you'd be giving,
And there'd be little lost -
It isn't as if it was life that made life worth living -

The song breaks off at this point and the rest of the play is about how they all change their minds. Mrs Rose has her eyes opened to her own good fortune, Bernard and Sylvia find an answer in each other, Mrs Wright plans to adapt her house to run courses in ecology and employs Mrs Bruce as her housekeeper, and Mr Black is ambushed by his own daughter.

When they begin to waver, Mr Butterworth, a leader in the recruitment team, makes a final effort to persuade one of them to accept the job, and addresses himself to the audience as well as the cast.

MR BUTTERWORTH:
You'll all try this test.
You've retired or you've been sacked.
How would the rest
Of the firm react?
Would your absence cause wild regret?
Would it destroy the social tissue?
Would several people be quite upset?
Or would nobody miss you?

The family link
Is essential - is that true?
What makes you think
They depend on you?
Does your wife feel intense desire
When you get home and she comes to kiss you?
Is she consumed with internal fire,
Or would nobody miss you?

The world's up the spout
As I think you know - you should.
Why not get out
While the going's good?

Is it wrong to leave friends in the lurch?
Is it a very important issue?
Would hundreds of people invade the church
Or would nobody miss you?
Before you leave here
I want a volunteer.

The essential question is whether life is worth living, and if so, why. For me it has been very much worth living, in spite of three periods of misery - when I was sent to boarding schools from the age of eight, when my first wife, Jenny, died, at the age of twenty-four, and when Dartington Hall School was closed down.

As a child I was frequently ill, but one of those wonderful moments of certainty that all is for the best in the world came to me when I was recovering from a particularly prolonged attack of flu.

Should such moments of certainty be trusted? If so, how can you account for natural disasters, wars, terrorism, capital punishment and torture? On a personal scale, how can you account for the break-up of marriages, mental problems, physical disabilities, redundancy and unemployment? Can we only live happy lives by turning a blind eye on all such troubles?

The Best Job in the World ends with all the individual problems solved and general happiness, but how can such happiness be justified when there are still so many people who are suffering so much?

 

Oh, the conceit of it

Science Rules is a short musical about a conflict between conventional scientists and obsessive natural health enthusiasts, very much on the rise in the late 1960's. By the end the entire world has been blown up, and in an afterlife the protagonists reflect on what they have done.

Oh, the conceit of it.
What did we think we knew?
What did we think we knew?
What did we think we knew

Oh, the conceit of it.
Why did we think we knew?
Why did we think we knew?
Why did we think we knew?

'We understand!' we cried in self-glory,
But of course we did not.
How can the characters in a story
Understand the plot?

Oh, the conceit of it.
How did we think we knew?
How did we think we knew?
How did we think we knew?

This song encapsulates my agnosticism. The only thing we can be certain of is that we do not have a rational answer to any of these questions.

The Guinea Pig

This song is one of a group of three which I wrote some time in the 1980s and was set to music by Nicholas Marshall for junior school children at Dartington Hall School.

As a guinea-pig philosopher
I exercise my mind
On various vexing concepts
That need to be defined.
Is all the world a stage?
Are humans caught as well?
What is life outside a cage?
Is it paradise or hell?
Who can tell?

Oh humans, noble humans,
Forgive us when we err.
Teach us to understand the words
You say when you caress our fur.
Teach us the final answer,
Oh tell us, tell us true.
Do you exist for us,
Or do we exist for you?

Are the lettuce-leaves you bring to us
Some supernatural plant?
Are you real gods, you humans?
What are you if you aren't?
You lift us off the ground,
You give us food and straw,
And you move our cages round
And you control the door.
Who does more?

Do you never mean to injure us?
Or are we sometimes cursed?
Or why do you forget us,
And let us die of thirst?
Do you mean it for our good?
Are we so very dense?
Have we not done what we should,
Or committed some offence?
Where's the sense?

Oh humans, noble humans,
Forgive us when we err.
Teach us to understand the words
You say when you caress our fur.
Teach us the final answer,
Oh tell us, tell us true.
Do you exist for us,
Or do we exist for you?

Most of the time we ignore questions like this one. We stick to a vague ranking of forms of life that goes bacteria, plants, animals, humans, and at the top, if we believe in its existence, there is God. But just as the guinea-pig cannot understand its owner, so we cannot understand God. We cannot even know whether there is any such supernatural being from whom we may perhaps have to beg for help, or for forgiveness. All we can be sure of is that, if there is any such being, its purposes are beyond our comprehension.


We don't believe

The Message is a full-length musical written in 1977. It is about a middle-aged couple who are determined atheists, and have their lack of faith challenged by their grown-up children, who have fallen for various spiritual leaders of questionable authenticity.

PARENTS:
We don't believe in angels,
We don't believe in sin.
We don't believe in Adam and Eve
Because the evidence is too thin.
We don't believe in miracles
Or in answering the call,
But we do believe
That we don't believe
In anything at all.

CHILDREN:
You do believe in generosity
And in love and truth and trust,
And avoiding animosity
And trying to make things just,
So why
Won't you give our religions a try?

PARENTS:
We don't believe in voodoo,
We don't believe in elves.
We know that prayer is only hot air
Because we've tried it out for ourselves.
We don't believe in innocence,
And we don't believe in the fall,
In fact we do believe that we don't believe In anything at all.

We do believe in Darwin
And we do believe in Freud,
But when you die
There's no pie in the sky,
Waiting to be enjoyed.
We don't believe in Santa Claus,
Or in Cinderella's ball,
But we do believe that we don't believe
In anything at all.

 

We don't believe in meditation
Or in psychical research,
Or of course reincarnation,
Or marriages done in church.
In brief
We believe in life without belief.

CHILDREN:
You do believe in science.
You do believe in health,
And in natural food,
When you're in the mood,
And the redistribution of wealth,
And you do believe, with Schumacher,
That there's virtue in the small -

PARENTS:
And we do believe that we don't believe
In anything at all.

We don't believe
Because we're complete atheists.
We don't believe
Because we are really utterly cynical.
No, we don't believe
In anything at all.
Nothing at all.

CHILDREN:
Yes, you do.

If your life goes grey

Foister is a musical which Timothy Moore and I wrote for a cast of forty or more at Dartington Hall Senior School. Foister himself is a modern Faustus, who sells his soul to Mr Foffer-Lees in exchange for twenty-four hours of everything he wants to have or to do. In the last scene, after a series of disastrous attempts to find out what it is that makes other people's lives worth living, when he has only a few moments left, the devils prepare to bear him off to hell.

DEVILS:
Your life's immortality
Is to be burnt,
And the price was a triviality
As now you've learnt.
All adventures disappoint,
All pleasures pall.
There's no point
In doing anything at all.

At the very last moment Foister is saved by a solicitor, who points out that Mr Foffer-Lees has not fulfilled his own side of the bargain. "You promised to give my client everything he wanted," he says, "but you only gave him what he asked for."

The devils disappear, and the people whose happiness Foister has tried to emulate, offer him helpful advice in a final chorus.

If your life goes grey
Don't get help from the devil.
Carry on the same way
But at a higher level.
Make sure
You know what matters to you
And then do a lot more
Of the things that you do,
Like breathing and eating
And moving and making
And listening and sharing
And grieving and breaking
Watching and touching
And loving and giving.
If you concentrate you get sufficient life from living.

 

Conclusion

The advice offered to Foister is the best we can manage. We have a wider experience than guinea-pigs, but no greater certainty. All we have to guide us is an innate desire to reduce suffering and to encourage joy in the incomprehensible world in which we live.

The story of the world itself is not going to have a happy ending. Here are three short poems that were not written to be set to music.

 

The end of the world

When the world was flat
ships that sailed to the edge of it
fell off.
It was terrible.

Now the world is round
so you can't fall off,
but if you live to the end of it
you burn.

 

What the scientists say

The scientists say that the world will burn up in a million years.
Oh well, they'll think of something. They always do.

The scientists say that the world will burn up -
These journalists pick on anything that will create a bit of a sensation.

The scientists say that the world -
You know, with statistics you can prove anything.

The scientists say that the world will burn up in a million years.
Oh well, a million years is a long time.
We'll none of us be alive to see that.
We'll none of us be alive to see that.

 

The world is going to end one day

If the world is going to end one day,
As it surely must,
What will be the importance of
      joy
      or kindness
      or pain
      or love?
A handful of dust.

The world is going to end one day.
Even the past will disappear,
The things that matter now are
     joy,
     kindness,
     pain
and love.
They are here, here, here.