Remembrance, Souls and Paul’s TC-55
People can often be heard to talk about the soul of a “thing”; that a film has soul, that a tune is soulful, that a dish is soul food or even that an object might speak to their soul. I don’t think we spend much time thinking about what any of this means. If something has soul, how does it speak to us? How does it touch our soul? Assuming that you even believe you have a soul, immortal or otherwise.
Hey, but I never said I didn’t…..
And you don’t necessarily have to extend it in to a theological dimension. Maybe there are different ways to think about soul, soulfulness and even souls. Perhaps something that is soulful might just speak to the inner life of you as an individual; it touches the experiences, feelings and thoughts that make up who you are, like an artist’s work might contain a little bit of them, a bit of their soul, and they gift it to you in their art. And perhaps your soul mate is just someone who understands you and not some cosmic yin to your yang.
And maybe you knew someone who was a bright soul, and a little bit of that light didn’t just touch other people, brightening their world, but maybe it also touched the world of things around them…..
One of my most enduring posts on this blog was The Wonderful Mr. Valentine. As I mentioned in Talking To Myself people still find it via search engine and Facebook. I recently had another ex-student leave a comment about how she had quit the course due to pregnancy and Paul simply said, “when you’re ready to return, we’ll be right here waiting.”
Last week I attended a little remembrance for Paul. We gathered at his old house with his partner Lizzie and went into Greenwich Park to reminisce. One of the stories that I regretted not saying at his remembrance the previous year was the time that Paul came to a garden party at my parent’s house. He sat down next to me and asked, “who’s that gentleman over there?”
I looked and saw my father sitting by himself. “That’s my dad.”
“He looks rather glum, doesn’t he?” Paul replied. “I’m going to go and cheer him up.”
And with that went over and started chatting. That was Paul all over.
So there we were, toasting Paul with a drop of whiskey in the dark, and his partner Lizzie read out a passage from The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams Bianco:
‘Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’
‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.’
As she read it something strange happened. I found it very hard to concentrate on the words. It was like the effect that I mentioned in my Brain Boil post where my mind just caught alight. It was almost like something…. or someone, was linking together a variety of concepts that belonged to a variety of half formed stories and ordering them into a coherent vision.
So there I was, somewhat dazzled by this wave of energy, and I thought to myself if ever souls come back to us, then this was Paul pointing out what should have been obvious to me – all these threads and shreds could be unified into one narrative, one personal expression of honesty (something I posted about before Nanowrimo).
And as my partner remarked, it really was something he had been good at doing; taking what you said, teasing out the information that was pertinent, and putting it together like a jigsaw puzzle for you to see.
But then it would be foolish to think that he wasn’t with us anyway. Whether you believe in an immortal soul or not is irrelevant because in every respect Paul was always going to be with us as we stood there remembering him, his life and ours as part of the tapestry of social life. In a very real sense we were conjuring him up, calling his soul back from its wandering amongst the stars or the deep jungles as we shared out thoughts, feelings and remembrances.
HOW MANY SOULS?
One of the things about souls that I learned from Paul was about how the Kuri-Paco (think that’s how it’s spelled) viewed the notion of soul. A person did not simply possess one soul, but rather had many souls. I mentioned in the original post the rotten soul that the Kuri-Paco believed was the soul that sought revenge – and hence the blowing of whistles made out of finger bones to say “I have you’re rotten soul so you can’t get revenge on me.”
(Paul was also very knowledgeable regarding notions of revenge within Amazonian cultures).
But that wasn’t the only one: there was a soul that went to the stars, a soul that went to the underworld, a soul that was the presence left in a room by a person’s absence. This in particular came to me some weeks prior to the remembrance when when my wife, son and I went to visit Lizzie. Standing in their house, it was really a place that I associated with Paul. Over the years there had been many parties where I had met many different souls all mixing in the social soup of Paul and Lizzie’s home.
Chief amongst the relics that radiated “Paulness” were his books. If you’re like me then you might find yourself scanning a persons bookshelf when you visit their house. Who knows what you might find…..?
But I digress. Paul had many, many books about Amazonian culture, myth and ritual practice, so when Lizzie asked me if I’d like to help myself to some of Paul’s books I was elated – I am still very much in love with anthropology, and even though it is not a profession for me, it is a great source of ideas for writing (and as the Moody Blues sang, “thinking is the best way to travel”).
Lizzie added that Paul would have wanted them put to some use, so I stacked up some choice selections, all the while feeling that there was soul in these books where time had bent the corners, torn a cover or faded the colour and aged the pages.
Like being in a second hand bookshop……
These were each a little piece of the man I knew, and something of his knowledge resided in these, not least the copies of his work with his friend Stephen Beckerman: Revenge in the Cultures of Lowland South America, Cultures of Multiple Fathers and The Anthropology of Marriage in Lowland South America.
I was also very, very chuffed to be the recipient of Paul’s copy of The Shaman & The Jaguar by Reichel-Dolmatoff, a book that I had read and quoted when studying at the University of New Mexico, but which was almost impossible to get a copy of. It was a relic, out of print, and worth something way beyond money. It was a connection to my years as a student, between Paul and myself as friends who had a great passion for anthropology and keen interest in shamanism – one of the core reasons I went to study in the first place.
But beyond books there was another surprise waiting….
IN THE CUPBOARD
Lizzie had begun to dig through Paul’s cupboard when she pulled out a small rectangular case made of black leather. Inside the case was a Sony TC-55, a 1972 analogue cassette recorder with a condenser mic built into it. According to the link it was used many a time to tape concert bootlegs.
She passed it over and asked if I’d like it, then said that she thought it was the one that Paul had done his field work on all those years ago.
My jaw dropped. Really? Wow!
I fancied that if I pressed play then maybe some ghostly recording would issue forth, perhaps an Amazonian informant deep in the rain forest explaining to the hapless anthropologist the most obvious facts of daily reality.
Alas, there were no batteries and no cassette. Still, it had a heft to it, a weight that was reassuring. I was totally taken by the solidity of the object, nothing like modern equipment that feels somehow insubstantial in comparison with their light and plastic casings filled with little more than a mic, circuit board and modest battery.
The Sony TC-55, on the other hand, was built to last. When I got home I put some batteries in it and could hear the click, but it wouldn’t wind the cassette I popped in it. I set about diagnosing the problem and discerned a likely reason for the fault: the four rubber belts which drive the spindles had probably degraded and snapped over the long years of storage.
So it’s become my mission to repair it. I’ve found some replacement belts, but I’m scared that I don’t have the skill to be able to replace them. The device is incredibly well put together, with layers of components, as I found out when I began to undo the dozens of little screws in order to poke around.
But I’ll not give up on it. It’s a piece of history, a piece of someone that was dear to me, and it’s a great tool to have as a writer and a musician. Sure, I could go all modern and I could record everything as an mp3, but there’s something that my generation understands about cassettes. There’s something ephemeral, warm and endearing about them…..
As if they have soul, just like this piece of technology. Is it because it’s old? Or is it because it belonged to such a great man? Perhaps both. And perhaps it’s that there’s something in my mind about old analogue cassettes, as if they were living things that I remember fondly too. I can still recall mix tapes and special cassettes of music, or the one of Bill Hicks that got stolen along with my walkman.
Cassettes have a life span that is different to digital. You listen to it, and it wears thin, but even with age you still enjoy it, until eventually the tape snaps and its story is over. Such is life. Nothing lasts forever, but it doesn’t matter because the memory of things becomes etched into our brains.
I can no more forget my old copy of Electric Ladyland that eventually snapped than I can forget all the stories I have recorded in my own brain about Paul, with his cheeky smile, his relentless intellect and great cheer for life.
So I’ll fix this thing, this device that seems a repository of soul and who knows what interesting things I might record with it? I can be just like the anthropologist, stepping forth into the unknown with my instrumentation and exploring the strange landscapes of modern day Britain.
Or I might find a nice little place in the middle of nowhere, set up camp and make some recordings of my songs and thoughts……
I’ll leave you with a poem by Mary Oliver that Lizzie had intended to read aloud as we stood there in the dark of Greenwich Park with our little plastic cups of whiskey, remembering the wonderful Mr. Valentine and toasting to all his souls. Lizzie told me that the geese are symbolic of the day they scattered Paul’s ashes, because each time they stopped to do so, a flight of geese would pass overhead.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Peace and love, forever.
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