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Two Teachers

A Tribute to Two Teachers

I was recently invited to contribute to an account of Christ Hospital, the “Charity” Bluecoat school in West Sussex which I attended from 1956 to 1964. Writing about it has stirred up all kinds of memories.  In theory one should have been unhappy at boarding school but, as I found out later in life when teaching at a State boarding school in Norfolk, boarding can provide an alternative feeling of ‘belonging’ and ‘support’, especially to those who come from an insecure home background.  My parents being medical missionaries in Northern Nigeria, I was in fact a boarder from the age of five – first at Hillcrest, an American boarding school in Nigeria, and then, “sent back” to England at the age of ten, for the next eight years at Christ’s Hospital.  I know a lot of people who would say that they were damaged by their boarding experience; by contrast the longer I stayed at my secondary school the more “at home” I felt there and the more fulfilling, at least academically, it became for me.

Anyway, invited to remember something of my education at Christs Hospital,  here are memories of the two teachers who in their different ways  became alternative parental figures to the adolescent me.  Possibly they were more influential than my real family.  I think the following are mostly true accounts – ’though one can never be quite sure how much they have been distorted by fond memory (or fond dotage?)

First, here is an account of David Herbert, who for five years was my English teacher: “I was taught by David Herbert at G.C.E. and then A Level. His classroom walls were decorated by a metre-high frieze of characters from The Canterbury Tales which, as a natural drifter-off, caught my imagination. ‘Mr Herbert’ as we called him – he would have disdained the more familiar appellations which some of his colleagues seemed to invite – had, above all, a huge enthusiasm for, and knowledge of, English poetry and Elizabethan drama.  His Penguin Book of Narrative Verse is still, I think, the most thorough guide to that genre. He soon infected me with his love of stories in verse, from Langland to Robert Frost – an enthusiasm which has lasted and influenced my own attempts to write poetry.  David Herbert was the most gentle and encouraging of teachers – I can still visualise those kindly grey-blue eyes as he surveyed us, a supercilious group of sixth formers, with patience and good humour.   I was rather “put off” by the posturings and gimmicks of one or two members of the English Department, but with David Herbert his teaching methods were straightforward: first a lively reading followed by discussion and then the systematic analysis of selected passages.  What with his idyllic house by Doctor’s Lake to which we were sometimes invited for Literary Society evenings, and his never less than courteous manner, he seemed to me to be semi–detached from the rough and tumble of daily boarding school life.  Somehow I wasn’t surprised to learn that he had left teaching to set up his own publishing business.  ‘Gentleman and Scholar’ – sounds old-fashioned, but to me and many others he was a lifeline to more civilised pleasures than were routinely to be found in a post-war all-male boarding school.”

Secondly, here is my portrait of Nell Todd, who was my Art Teacher and, I’d like to think, a personal friend for the last 4 years I was at Christs Hospital: “Nell Todd imported a wonderful spirit of gaiety and colour into the CH cultural life of the 1950s. With her red hair and lipstick in varying shades of shocking-ness and her flamboyant dress sense she brought a real sense of vitality and creative energy into what sometimes felt like a male-dominated and semi-militaristic school routine.  Nell’s ‘teaching methods’ were far from methodical – from the huge gong which she struck to signal the beginning and end of each lesson, to the life-sized Sicilian marionettes which she kept propped up splay-legged as models for us to draw, to the Bach motets which boomed out of loudspeakers over both sides of  the Art School, to the banner hung over her balcony which announced: “The Eye when it is Opened beholds all the Wonders of the Universe”.  I remember how for a short time she kept baby ducklings in her courtyard garden because she loved the tinkling cheeping sounds they made.  Always there seemed to be wonderful props, fountains or fairground rides, and gorgeous or fantastic costumes in the process of being prepared for some forthcoming Shakespearian production.  One of the few potentially motherly members of staff Nell inevitably attracted misfits like myself to her afternoon Art Club, where she set us up with as much clay or paint as we could wish for in what she kindly called her “Genius Corner”.  What an extraordinarily vivid and generous presence Nell Todd was.  Everything she did was done ‘con brio’, whether it was playing the cello, or bringing back stacks of still sticky oil paintings from her holidays in Majorca to show us, or organising whole class “art trips” to London and even occasional picnics for some lucky few of us to experience “real opera” at Glyndebourne.  I wonder what our contemporary Ofsted Inspectors, with their box-ticking propensities and preference for carefully planned lessons, would have made of Nell Todd!?”

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Covid 19 (3)

Dear Friend, please forgive this non-handwriting; my hand is getting so shaky that I can’t read my own scrawl these days.  A super surprise this morning to get your card and your long letter, all in a real envelope and in real handwriting and with real hand drawing,- not all this computerised email/ facebook/ twitterised stuff which looks increasingly artificial/ facile as the Lockdown, now in its 11th week, goes on.  I was feeling really fed up with it all when the postie rattled our letter box with your package.  For ten weeks or so it has been such a strange interlude, eerily peaceful and beautiful in many ways, what with all the sunshine and the Spring blossom and the trees coming into their various greenness, and the lack of social contact which, to begin with, quite suited both of us.  Unlike your inner London location, the real danger of infection has seemed remote here – we don’t know anybody who has been ill – so that has added to the feeling of unreality too. But 11 weeks or so lacking REAL human contact and stimulus has begun to wear thin with me. After looking forward to boundless uninterrupted time in which to write (and I started off energetically enough for the first month or so) by now I’m wanting to write less and less and to watch more and more stupid mind-numbing Television, becoming what my old Housemaster, Major “Crapsack” Page, called me all those years ago in his final report: “Lethargic if not Idle”.  Peace and Quiet is all very well for a time, but I do think we also need regular, even abrasive, contacts with the wider world. Now I’m trying to motivate myself into looking forward to getting out and meeting people again soon,- travelling, walking, perhaps starting an art class or two in the Autumn.  Vic and I, usually able to enjoy each others’ sustained and exclusive company for weeks on end, for instance during those long rainy holidays in our camper van, are beginning irritatedly to pick at each other over unimportant details or inalterable habits. Really we both need to “get out more”, as they say, probably independently and certainly seeing more friends and family,- even if that means breaking a few Lockdown rules.  So it is in this increasingly self-destructive state of ennui that it has been so refreshing to receive your little package – communication from a real human being, not just a lip-synced ghost zoomed into a computer.  Good to hear that you are keeping well and creatively busy and that friends and neighbours have been helping with your shopping.  Also about your major rebuilding and the replenishment of your garden (I’ve noticed that DIY projects seem to be the favoured therapy for many of the “furloughed” males around here – perhaps I should try some?).  And all your meticulous bird-watching too…have the swifts returned to those special nesting ledges you told us about? And your memories of Irish Music Night at The Ferryboat Inn.  Yes, The Ferryboat did get a dunking in the February floods; deep flooding (old photos show it drowned over the lintels) seems to happen to it regularly.  But it will no doubt be full of Thursday night fiddlers, plangent pipe players and thumping bodrum (spelling?) drummers again when all the pubs do eventually re-open sometime in an unimaginably “Normal” future.  We’ve been going to Amy’s large garden 2 or 3 days a week while she has been at work; Vic does the flowers while I try to maintain the veg plots.  Both flowers and veg have never looked more glorious, what with our frequent feeding and watering, but such abundance is rather an empty achievement with no one near to appreciate the succession of blossom or to consume all the (now bolting) vegetables. Anyway, as you say, I guess that we Oldies must consider ourselves comparatively lucky, being retired with so little financial responsibility. Yesterday I watched as a drunk, probably alcoholic possibly homeless, young man slept all morning in some bushes across the river; he had been there since the previous evening surrounded by cans and a bottle. I thought that he was dead at first but made no Good Samaritan move to help or investigate.  He got up and slouched away at midday.  Lots of young people we know are in tough financial trouble here in Bridgnorth.  Being like the nearest “seaside” resort for the West Midlands, many look forward to making their main livings in these summer months.  But now most “leisure” businesses have been shut down – from the café owner to the canoe hirer-out to the  engineer who works on the Severn Valley Steam railway – and it must all be very worrying for them.  Meanwhile we observe through our double-glazing much frenzied keep-fitting.  Middle-aged men in Lycra nod furiously up the Wolverhampton Road, biking or trying to jog; perhaps they will all become super-fit and live forever… if the virus or a heart attack doesn’t get them first.  And we see lots of families out taking their stipulated hour’s worth of exercise, including a previously invisible Asian family who live over the Indian takeaway, parading from big to little down the High Street like a set of Russian dolls.  And, as you say, neighbours generally do seem to have more time to be friendly and helpful, while keeping their broom swing’s worth of distance…

But now another aptly named “Pointless” television programme summons its zombie acolytes, so I must Sluggishly slope off, meanwhile wishing you whatever minor pleasures we can grab from this seemingly endless “Lockdown”. As ever, Keith.

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Covid 19 (2)

We are now into the fourth week of the Coronavirus “shut down”, “lock in”.  Reading back over my previous blog on the subject I can now see what an inadequate and superficial account it was, failing to express the real heartbreak and anxiety of what countless people are really going through.  I seem to have turned the experience into a preacher’s son’s diatribe against materialism,- which is perhaps a side issue, a red herring?  For me to blame consumerism is perhaps typical of our human reactions to bad things happening to us – that we first of all cast around for scapegoats, someone or something to BLAME.  The well-known story, which I have been re-reading, of “Typhoid Mary”, Mary Mallon, in the New York epidemic of 1906 is typical – how politicians, newspaper moguls, and Public Health officials combined to cast a poor young Irish immigrant cook in the role of “Super-spreader in chief”: a New Yorker cartoon of the time shows Mary gleefully supping the stew which she has made out of ground-up human skulls.  In truth we know now that there must have been many, many other asymptomatic typhoid spreaders besides Mary – probably hundreds of them? – and that in any case her cooking probably got rid of most of the germs which she may have been transferring from her fingers.  It was probably her famous (uncooked) peach ice cream, whipped-up cream and raw chunks of peach – a favourite dessert among the bankers’ families of Oyster Bay and Long Island – which did the real damage.  Being tracked down and then unfairly lampooned ensured Mary Mallon’s fate, which was to be exiled in permanent quarantine, untried by any jury, to North Brother Island with only a small dog for company.  Poor teenager Mary with her beautiful black hair, rosy cheeks, hot tempered brogue and flashing Irish eyes – a natural femme fatale, witch hunt target, for the busybodies of the time…  Yes, going back to Covid 19, I think I was mostly wrong in my previous blog to ascribe the blame for our rampant consumerism to our computers (Amazon, Google et al) who are after all merely the servants of our impulses.  Digital communication is in fact turning out to be one of the great forces for good in the current epidemic with all its concomitant isolations.  Applications such as Skype and Zoom are proving to be huge assets in bring people together – families, friends, businesses and groups of all kinds. Two of my writing groups, for instance, are meeting for “virtual” work-shops, one group of friends here in Bridgnorth are enjoying virtual wine-tasting sessions (with real wines admittedly), and my son John’s young family in Vienna are enjoying instant communication with their other, more fiercely locked-in, grandparents in Spain. And through our many fire-sticked news media we are getting to hear so many of the heart breaking accounts of personal deprivation, death and suffering which are the “Real Stories” of this epidemic. And I am continuing to try to tap “poems”  – whether or not they are real poems only time will tell  – into my beloved laptop-dancing microchipped personal computer. Here is my latest:

Sand Martins

Feeling low locked in

against the spread of Coronavirus

the incessant rain of bad news

looking up I see

how suddenly the sky is filled  

with little birds flying too fast for the eye to follow

white vests & chokers twinkling like stars

skittering around corners  

tying knots high in the clouds

using the whole sky for their skating rink

for five minutes or so the air brisk

with their twittering clicking gossip  

finding us full of insect promise

as they pause in their flight up the Severn

as if time has undergone some acceleration

toward Easter its resurrection

F1 racers taking over from the traffic

of our stay-at-home garden hoppers

think of the miles these passerines have crossed

through the burning hoop of the Equator

over the brush fires of the Sahel

Sahara with its heaps of hopelessness   

how the Greeks even Plato believed that martins

overwintered in mud bogged down like catfish

not realising how their lives

are in fact more wonderful than myths about them

how our planet is full of the magic

of migration like a ball of wool being wound

by invisible electromagnetic hands

higher deeper currents of knowledge

than we can know or be certain of

  for five minutes while those small birds passed

felt free and glad to be alive  

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Covid 19

Covid 19

How much more menacing “Covid 19” sounds, James Bond villain-like, than the pretty almost poetic “Coronavirus”!  I imagine that you have all been struck, as I have, by the extreme strangeness of our present predicament – being “locked in” “self-isolating”, while the fearful spectres of death and disease dance invisibly around us.  Do you too feel strangely vulnerable, un-skinned as it were, alert in every pore to our changed circumstances?  Actually as a natural “social isolate”, apart from missing routine meetings with friends, family and writing group, I haven’t much missed the enforced cessation of social life. And this “lock-down” does have other advantages.  For instance where the early morning commuter traffic used to grind monotonously over a nearby bridge there has been a quietness in which the dawn chorus, led by thrushes and bass-grounded by crows, can be clearly enjoyed.  And with that quietness we have often been able to enjoy a newly blue-rinsed sky unpolluted by vapour trails (as when that volcano in Iceland blew its top and all aircraft movement was similarly diminished).  Another change which I’m sure most people are noticing is an improvement in neighbourhood civility.  When Vic and I take our walk each day, yes, we carefully skirt around approaching couples, giving them a broom’s swing worth of wide berth, yet we do it with a kind of apologetic friendliness. “Take care” seems to be the new social greeting.  I continue to garden, even though there has been a lack of seeds and plants to be ordered from the on-line seed merchants; presumably many others are sharing our survivalist instinct for “growing our own”, playing at “self-sufficiency”?  Surrounded by such drastic changes, it is difficult to resist the feeling that we are living through some kind of moralistic world drama, as in Camus’ Plague or like our forebears’ historical experience of worse pandemics, from the Black Death to the Spanish flu of 1918.  It is as if the developed world is on the point of undergoing some shift in consciousness, is being taught some kind of lesson.  But a lesson about what?  My own feeling is that if there is such a  supernatural entity as a behind-the-scenes Universal Dramatist – and I half believe that there could be – He, She, or It may be teaching us a lesson about our materialistic expectations,- the kind of rampant Consumerism which has been slowed down, paused, by this new epidemic.  In developed countries we have become so spoilt, so used to the idea that those of us blessed with money can have/enjoy/ grab almost anything and any experience that we fancy.  And all, literally, at the tap of a finger, the touch of a button.  New car?  Delivered gourmet meal?  Foreign holiday?  “At your service” our close-held phones seem to reply.  Encyclopaedic Information?  Transcontinental communication?  “All readily available” whispers my Smart wrist phone.  Extraordinary access to films and most other kinds of culture?  Via Netflix and Amazon of course.  An ever-widening – but not ever deepening – pool of new “Friends”?  We can thank Facebook for that.  Yes, it seems that we can have almost anything and everything we desire … like those instantly down-loadable meals from the transporter hatches of Startrek?  And like those virtual feasts unsatisfying in reality?  Having been brought up as the child of medical missionaries in Northern Nigeria (thus the preachy nature of this prose?) when I look back to the “deprived” aspects of my childhood (no toys or TV, few books, no magazines or sweets, for instance) I can’t think that the real quality of our lives, our relationship with our natural surroundings and friendship with each other and our fellow Africans, could be improved by the kind of non-stop shopping that we have come to take for granted in 2020.  Will this Covid 19 pandemic kick-start changes in our ways of thinking about ourselves and our frail place in the planetary Eco-verse?  Or “when this is all over” – another phrase of the momentwill we return to our unthinking hyper-developed habits of self-indulgence?

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Too many holidays

Too many holidays

It’s been over a year since I last blogged, the “gap in transmission” being due to two factors,- being away a lot this last year on holiday and also having to deal with illnesses. Prompted by realising that the youngest of our grandchildren were both now aged five and going full time to school and therefore our days of child-minding were coming to an end, we decided that this past year could be Our Year for Travelling. Such a self-indulgent, not to say selfish, instinct to “get away” seems to occur to humans of our age (70+) – an instinct perhaps to see as much of the world as possible before the real limitations of aging kick in.  Our first “jolly” was a package holiday to Crete in March, consisting of a coach tour around the island, stopping at monasteries and culminating in the city palace of Knossos. In truth the human interest of our fellow veteran coach party-goers – many eccentric – rather overwhelmed my interest in the other ancient ruins, ’though half a day spent in the museum of Minoan culture with its lovely fresh paintings and pottery was memorable (having disobeyed instructions and finally got away from our guide).  Next we went off to southern France in our campervan for a wonderful three weeks; la belle France seemed even more generously “belle” than usual,- those wide landscapes blessed by a comparative lack of traffic, every village proud of its little tricolour-flying “mairie”, many small towns beautifully gardened, some picturesquely semi-decrepit. We were followed by the spring burgeoning of bird song.  One evening we must have heard twenty or more nightingales singing in the little copses around our camper van. The further south we went the more we heard the lovely chuckling song of the golden oriole.  But, like the first disquieting notes of a counter-theme, it was in the midst of such loveliness that we became aware of the muscular twinges that were to develop into a full-blown attack of “polymyalgia rheumatica” for my wife, Vic. Next came two weekends in Vienna interrupted by a five days’ walking holiday in the Austrian Alps, a visit which fulfilled all my pre-conceived chocolate box clichés about the Alps – flowery meadows, snowy peaks and drifting clouds of dingle-dongle bell-wearing sheep. The family run hotel where we stayed even served up our sausage-heavy meals dressed in traditional lederhosen and bosom-y dresses, more apron than skirt. All very “Sound of Music”.  Vic, despite her developing but as yet undiagnosed myalgia, forced herself up several mountains including one excursion (in our sandals!) up above the snow-line. Skipping over further walking group holidays along the coasts of Dorset and Sussex and then up to the wilder terrains of Loch Torridon in Scotland (have I made you jealous of our year-long series of holidays yet?) we went on to campervan down through the Outer Hebrides, being particularly struck by the melancholy moorland beauty of Lewis, with its plethora of prehistoric monuments  and plangent music, and then by the contrasting mountain-ness of Harris, where we saw several golden and sea eagles at close quarters.  Even before going up to Scotland poor Vic, having been finally diagnosed and then beginning steroid treatment for her myalgia, suddenly developed an unrelated ailment called “drop foot” caused by a pinched spinal nerve…Again so much beauty marred by painful reminders of human frailty. Finally (gasp for breath) we have just come back from a fortnight  in Jordan – a wonderful medley of the usual tourist sights, Petra et al, together with glimpses of heart breaking poverty, especially among the “real Bedouin” of the plastic littered desert, and, particularly in areas adjacent to the West Bank, an overwhelming sense of political dejection.  It was in Jordan that almost everyone in our Ramblers party, developed violent “d & v”, – illness that seemed to counterpoint the luxury of our touristic voyeurism, literally bringing us down to a level of common gut-heaving humanity.  Meanwhile Vic continued bravely to walk up to 14 miles a day.

My real reason for starting to re-blog is to advertise a little pamphlet,“A Ballad for Kitty Cockroach”, which I have just brought out via Fair Acre Press, from whom it is available for £5. Thematically, it is “bang on trend”, being about how Cockroaches try to save a planet which has been despoiled by Humankind. 

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On Nationalism (and Sport)

ON A DAY WHEN England is about to play Croatia in the semi-finals of the World Cup, when every passing white van seems to have flags of St George sticking out of its wing mirrors and the local little Hitler has unfurled four giant Union Jacks from the corners of his property, I have been thinking about the rights and wrongs of nationalism.   A week ago, when the World Cup quarter finals were being played, a friend who had been at a cricket match at Edgbaston, England versus India, told me how the crowd, predominantly Asian, after clapping and cheering  and singing the Indians to an 8 wicket defeat of England, had then stayed behind to watch the end of the England/Sweden game on the giant screens. He said how strange and moving it was to hear a crowd who had been humorously booing the English cricketers, become so involved in cheering every move of the English footballers,- especially how strange it was to hear the anthemic “It’s coming home” song being chanted by this mainly ‘Asian’ crowd.

Clearly a need to belong, to support with fanatic loyalty, some local identity, has deep roots in our psyche… however fickle and irrational that support may be.  Thus, having supported Norwich City football club for some 40 years while living in Norfolk, following every match, every twitch, every rise and fall in their fortunes, I have, since moving to the West Midlands, blithely switched my loyalty to the Wolves,-  for no better reason than that I like the famous “old gold” of their kit plus something of their history.

I suspect that our almost tribal need to support (and feel supported?) must go back a long, long way into our personal insecurities and prehistoric past.  Also I suspect that it is mainly a male phenomenon. Women don’t seem so fussed about whether England or Croatia will win tonight.  One mother I know hopes that Croatia will win because otherwise the next round, the World Cup Final on Sunday, will interfere with her child’s birthday party…and who’s to say such motherly priorities are wrong?

As to the ancient roots of our loyalties, Margaret Macmillan, in a recent Reith lecture about War, has suggested that hunter gatherers, always moving on to new territories, were probably more peaceable than the farmers of the Bronze Age who, having settled on desirable farming land, would therefore become more supportive (and defensive) of their local tribal areas. Certainly hill forts seem to have developed at that time – suggesting a  link (especially for the male warriors and their male chieftains)  beween place and a kind of early patriotism.

Of course at its worst Nationalism as well as being narrow-minded can be fiercely hateful. After the recent match against the Colombians I overheard several pubsters ascribe the tricks of diving and tripping and feigning injury to the innate tricksiness of the Colombian character; in less politically correct times they would perhaps have called them ‘dirty dagoes’.  And, while respecting much about Scottish culture and character, I know that when the rugby Six Nations matches are being played, I will always get a primitive delight in seeing a Scottish team humiliated.  I think that prejudice must go back to when I was at boarding school and had several uncomfortable dealings with a Mc***** who seemed to embody, with his freckles and flame-red hair, all of the more fiery characteristics of the Picts. He has probably grown into a charming respectable member of society, but my deep down fear of him and his race remains, especially where sports are concerned.

We all know what terrifying excesses the Eugenics preachers, the pure race merchants, of the last century predicated.  Perhaps it is a reassuring fact that so many of our best football teams, including the Brazilians and Colombians as well as our own “national” English team, are such a wonderful mélange of races and mixed races.  Indeed maybe the Final Solution to Nationalism in its nasty narrow aspects will be the increasing evolution of genetic intermixing?  Meanwhile the best of our instincts must be supra-national, transcending our silly local loyalties/prejudices?

While on a tour of Northern Nigeria ten years ago, our driver (named “Driver”!) took us past a valley entrance hidden among the ancient piled up boulders of the Gwoza hills.  Local memory placed this secret valley as where a culturally mixed people  from many different tribes, having escaped from their Arab gang masters (the valley was to the side of one of the old slave routes from Lake Chad to the Coast)  built a new conglomerate society, even evolving their own language. One would like to think of that place of refuge and cooperation as a metaphor for supra-nationalism.  Similarly, it is forgotten that the nurse Edith Cavell, who was shot by German firing squad for sheltering wounded servicemen from both sides during the first world war and whose image became a recruiting poster-girl for anti-German nationalism, should really be celebrated as an icon of supra-nationalism. Her last written and spoken words were to insist that “Nationalism is not enough.”

 

I append an unpublished poem about my (then) loyalty to  Norwich City Football Club – unpublished because I suspect that, although intended to be humorous, it is really rather misogynistic!

 

 

 

Marriage

compared to being a Norwich City supporter

 

 

Not exactly what you’d choose. More a case

of where you happen to find yourself.

Mostly mid to low table non-Premier stuff.

The likes of Chelsea (their film star lives

featured in “Hello”, stables full of cars

and fantasy WAGs, the latest models)

impossibly beyond our dreams and pocket.

Mostly a struggle, just scrapping to survive.

But still you remember

the good times. Those cup runs of ’59 or ’85.

Also the torture of last year’s Play Off.

Mostly it’s thankless, travelling away

to stand, a lonely knot of yellow and green

on the blasted terrace of some Northern town

wondering why you’ve come. The brutal truth?

It’s one part hope to ten parts’ disappointment.

Just occasionally at the Barclay End

surrounded by a thousand bodies pumping as one

like a porno film as Huckerby weaves his magic

down the left wing and the gathering roar

of the crowd builds to a last minute GOOOAAAAL!!!

you feel ecstatic, raised above yourself

by more than old loyalty, bringing home

the post-coital glow of a close win.

That – or you feel like nut-crackering the cat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A brush with the NHS

A fortnight ago I found myself in the often imagined situation of being raced up a motorway in an ambulance, lights flashing, sirens ululating. What had happened was that my old enemy, Mr Migraine (I often think that having suffered from migraine has been more of a lifelong affliction than being blind in one eye) hadn’t stopped after the usual six hours or so of nausea, but had gone on and on, night and day, for about 24 hours… 24 hours of non-stop vomiting, rolling around on the bathroom floor feeling sorry for myself, with frequent prayers and imprecations to the Almighty… O God! O Christ!  Vicky was becoming concerned about possible dehydration, thus this trip via ambulance, much to the solemn curiosity of our neighbours.

It may have looked exciting from outside but inside that ambulance it was an uncomfortable ride. I was reminded of being jolted around on the rutted sun-baked laterite roads of Northern Nigeria.  A young paramedic insisted on taking a full account of my medical history on her tablet computer as well as asking a series of tick-box mostly irrelevant questions about life-style habits.  Meanwhile I was throwing up continuously. This repeated taking of notes, together with the repeated charting of blood-pressure, heart-rate  and temperature, seemed to be the default reaction of nearly all the medical personnel  I was to meet in A and E over the next 12 hours.  I wonder if all that information was ever truly collated, or even read?

It seems ungrateful to criticise the NHS, the introduction of which was, to my mind, one of the glories of the post-war Labour government, together with other common-sense socialist measures like the provision of universal National Insurance  and pensions, and I couldn’t have wished for a more kindly assortment of (multinational) nursing assistants and nurses.  But what I really wanted from them, from anybody, was, first a diagnosis followed by some kind of treatment.  Instead  I found myself being trollied and re-trollied and passed down a kind of sausage-machine of background investigations – x-rays then ecg.s, and then more x-rays – all gathering more data I suppose.  I was beginning to suspect that the department was first of all covering itself by going through all the possible investigative procedures rather than getting on with diagnosis and nursing.  The injection to stop vomiting that I was eventually given had no effect at all.  Feeling by now that I was taking up valuable time and trolley space – the Irish drunk with pneumonia on one side and the lad who had burnt his chest and arms by squirting white spirit onto a barbecue on the other side, were clearly more urgent cases. So, still throwing up, I persuaded Vic to take me home.

After another night of hellish discomfort, Vic drove round next morning to find a Sunday Chemist which was open; the young Asian chemist she discovered turned out to be notably well-informed and helpful, suggesting  an effective non-prescription anti-sickness pill  (‘Buccastem’ if you’re interested ) as well as different means of rehydration.

My lasting impressions from our visit to that Accident and Emergency department the previous day was 1) that it was clearly over busy, too busy really to stop and think 2) that it was under-resourced with experienced doctors and 3) that it seemed  to be designed  to be procedural, rather than dealing quickly with diagnosis and treatment. (I wonder if such professional defensiveness could be the result of those television advertisements which encourage patients to sue, if not their employers, then at least their doctors and dentists?)  Finally, days later, a doctor member of my own family has been able to provide an explanation for so much vomiting – apparently a Migraine attack can, rarely, prolong itself into something  called Migrainosus Stasus,  a spasmodic migraine attack that can last up to 72 hours, just in the horrible ways I had experienced.

Now much better, thank you, and feeling a bit sheepish about that ambulance trip, it has taken about a fortnight and some lovely May sunshine to regain a sense of health and well-being.

 

 

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Me Too?

Last week I was given a copy of a new anthology of women’s poetry, Me Too,- ‘rallying against sexual assault and harassment’, edited by Deb Alma and published by Fairacre Press.  My first thought was O no! Not more post-Harvey-Weinstein climbing on to the PC band wagon,– like all those Hollywood actresses, so keen to join the Oscar parade in their black ‘Me Too’ protest dresses. But after “burning through”, with pain and shame, poem after hard-hitting poem, I am coming to the conclusion that this is an important anthology; it bombards us with examples of male inflicted assaults and insults and generally overbearing behaviours.  The subject matter varies from the “merely annoying” roue’ type behaviour – being touched or eyed up in offices and tube trains – to the extremely shocking ; there are many poems about having been sexually abused as children.  Another group of poems are about being sexually coerced as young women, often as students, often in party-going or holiday circumstances. Other poems describe the abuse to be found within partnerships and marriage. Me Too is an anthology which should, at the very least, be part of Sixth Form education – that age when testosterone loaded males are especially prone to misinterpret borderlines between flirting and “trying it on”.  At best, it should be compulsory reading for everyone, giving voice to what has been suffered, usually “under cover” and unspoken, by too many women for too long.  This Me Too anthology, so thoughtfully edited by Deb Alma, is also notable for the high quality of the contributions she has elicited;  interspersed with pieces by some currently well-known “Names”, the consistent effectiveness – the homogeneously strong voice speaking out – within the overall variety of contributions, is remarkable.  Me Too has certainly made me review my own inappropriations, from the almost laughable (drunkenly throwing a bicycle at an ex-girlfriend under Magdalen College walls), to the creepily insidious (favouring with too close attention some of the more attractive schoolgirls I was supposed to be teaching).

As Zeitgeist, spirit of the age, this Me Too anthology feels like a final swing of the pendulum away from the all-permissive attitudes of the Sixties and Seventies towards a corrective re-education of male attitudes.  And yet…and yet… even as I heartily agree with the anti-male disgust implied by so many of the poems, I begin to think: but surely that’s not the whole story about male/female relationships?  Perhaps there’s a need for another complementary anthology (not Me Too but Not Me) which might celebrate a range of positive models of male behaviour – men as friends, as fathers, as unthreatening, helpful, sometimes even amusing, companions.

At the same time, I’ve also been reading a wonderful double biography by Charlotte Gordon, Romantic Outlaws, about Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley.  As mother and daughter they must be reckoned among the first truly “feminist” writers. Their impulse is always towards freedom – freedom for the American colonies, freedom from the unjust bonds of marriage, freedom from religion.  I knew a little about Mary Shelley, how her most famous story, Frankenstein’s Monster (as it should be called) seems to project conflicted feelings towards her husband, the poet Shelley, whose clumsy idealism and Me First way of life seems to have resulted at times  in.prisoning his wife in depression and tragedy – not least through the unnecessary deaths of their first three baby children.  About the mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, I knew only her name, but through reading this book, have come to admire her pioneering spirit in living what she believed – and suffering for it.  Believing in freedom of choice, as against parent-led marriage, she had her heart broken, first through a relationship with Fuseli the artist and then with Gilbert Imlay, a charming American businessman who abandoned her when she became pregnant.  Similarly, a fervent supporter of the Jacobins, she moved to Paris, only to witness the idealism of the French Revolution turn murderous, including the guillotining of some close friends.  Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women to express themselves in every way, unimpeded by men, is clearly an important book  – next on my reading list.  At a time when women had “less value than cattle as parcel of their husband’s possessions”, when children were the legal property of fathers and when only men were able to instigate divorce proceedings, freedom seekers such as the two Marys are inspiring and salutary. At other times (such as now?) we seem to need the opposite of their thrilling advocacy of Freedoms – thus the admonitory tone of the poems in the Me Too anthology.

Shelley himself as husband and serial eloper I can’t forgive for how he degraded some of the women in his life with his libertarian enthusiasms (two of them committed suicide) – nor for perpetuating what must be one of the worst lines of poetry ever in his Ode to a Skylark: “Bird thou never wert”.  Really!  As well as sounding ugly, that half line seems to sum up all Shelley’s  tendency not to face facts but to go in for dreaming, disappearing into clouds of abstraction much like the bird itself .

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My new collection

 

I’ve just finished proof-reading my latest collection of poems, The Goldsmith’s Apprentice, for Nadia Kingsley of Fair Acre Press; hopefully it will be published next April. Meanwhile Nadia has sent the PDF of the manuscript off to The Poetry Book Society to find out whether, by some incredible chance, it might be chosen for one of their recommendations.  I am not hopeful.  Glancing at previous PBS choices confirms my suspicion that the contemporary poetry scene is still dominated by the Big Six (or Seven or Eight?) poetry publishers, – Bloodaxe, Carcanet, Cape, Picador, Seren, and Faber, to name the best known.  You can’t blame the PBS – they must be bombarded by manuscripts from dozens, if not hundreds, of lesser known publishers.  The selectors will always want to play safe by concentrating their selective attentions on those with an established record of picking winners.  My other cause for a rather hopeless cynicism is that, even among the Big publishers, there is always a predilection for the new, the young, the latest, what I would call “fresh meat” (they would call themselves “new voices”, often either the students or the teachers of those new semi-commercial creative writing courses) so that old lags like myself inevitably feel less interesting, out of date in style or subject matter or both.

Anyway, to move on from such gloom, I am actually delighted at the prospect, thanks to Fair Acre, of bringing out this new collection. Granted one’s usual predisposition towards self-deception, I think that it may be my best collection so far. Somehow the combination of retiring from teaching seven years ago, taking the lid off years of frustrated creativity, together with shifting westward to a different part of the country, has proved to be stimulating. For three or four years pieces seemed to pour out, culminating in this new collection.  Also there has been the stimulus of being involved in two excellent writing groups together with a pressure to produce poems for them every month.

After consulting with two colleagues from The Bridgnorth Writers, Paul and Jeff, I decided not to divide the poems in The Goldsmiths Apprentice into separate sections but to try to develop the shape of the collection organically, as it were, building up internal contrasts and connections of theme and tone.  Thus the collection starts off with a group of pieces about craft industries, then moves on to a group about the position and treatment of women, then on to a section about wars and political conflicts, and so on. I have ended with a group of poems about old age, juxtaposing them with the enjoyment of new life through grandchildren.

Reading back through this blog I am aware that it is even more solipsistic than usual – an (un)ashamed piece of self-advertisement.  But perhaps that is ‘par for the course’ for would-be “poets”?  Reading a wonderful biography of R.S.Thomas, The Man who went into the West  by Byron Rogers, has made me both angry and amused at how entirely self-absorbed R.S. (Larkin called him “Arse-wipe Thomas”) appears to have been.  He seems, for instance, to have stamped out Elsi-the-wife’s burgeoning career as a painter and crippled his relationship with their son, Gwydion, by sending him off to boarding school in return for some creative quiet in the vicarage.  And yet, however unpleasant as a human being R.S.Thomas presents himself, always, in the best poems, compassion, humour, even love, threaten to creep round the edges of that complacent severity.

Anyway, back to me, me, me.  Here is the title poem from my new collection:

 

The Goldsmith’s Apprentice

 

You will change into ‘trashers’, canvas shoes,

when you lock yourself in at eight.

Collecting your strongbox from the safe

it will be weighed.  It will be weighed again

when you clock off at six.

You will sit at a vice with apron attached

to funnel the filed off dust.

You will blow your nose into newspaper

and not put grease in your hair.

Similarly, when you swill your hands

(your lunch box having been inspected)

it will be into this tank of sawdust

into which you will also expectorate.

All these – shoes, clothes, snot, sawdust –

will be burnt off at the end of the month

into a rough bar called an ‘elmer’

worth more than you earn all year.

 

In return we will teach you to saw and buff;

to solder, blowpipe dangling from your lip

like a forgotten cheroot;

to cast by ‘lost wax method’

rings and brooches, each mould unique

then melted out, weeping fat tears;

to hammer flake so fine

it will float like a feather above your face;

to draw out wire for filigree work

shinier than a girl’s hair, stronger than her love;

to forge, clinging like slinky fingers

to Beauty’s neck, chains so slim

no one but yourself may see the links.

You will breathe this atmosphere of dust

and soft percussion, dying at last

stoop backed, purblind,

your lungs lit up like a golden branch.

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Recently I bought an expensive poetry magazine (no names no pack drill but it was North London based) and found almost every poem in it impossible to understand.   I won’t quote from it for fear of offending individual contributors, but the general tone was typified by a kind of cool insouciance toward the reader.  Often starting from a startling title (what they call in the hat trade a “fascinator”?) each  experiment seemed to proceed by irrational zig zags, individual lines and images making separate sense but defying emotional or intellectual coherence.  A disruption of “normal” syntax and lack of punctuation was part and parcel of the house style.   By mistake I had stumbled on an outpost of what might loosely be described as American-influenced “L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E” Poetry. As far as I understand it (and there are volumes of justification, all with respectable academic provenance ) the main idea of the “L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E” Poets was to intrigue and entertain the reader with the surface textures of language, perhaps playing with their linguistic medium in much the same ways that abstract expressionist artists might have used paint.  To be “difficult”, to make the reader work at different possibilities, was to that avant-garde school a merit, not an obstacle.  (One immediate objection to the idea of words being compared to non-figurative painting is that surely language can never ever be abstract…groups of words will always tend towards significance, meaning?)   Having worked for over 40 years as a secondary schoolteacher, trying to get 5th and 6th formers interested in any kind of poetry, it is perhaps not surprising that I’m impatient with poems that appear to relish their obscurities. Yes, of course poetry can often be difficult in many ways; Eliot, Manley Hopkins, Browning and Wallace Stevens are all poets I have struggled with at different times, but ultimately have found to make rewarding sense. I also recognise the possibility of changing one’s mind, gradually “growing into” poets who at first seem off-putting.  Luckily from a classroom teacher’s point of view, much 20th century poetry  – from the 1960s to the 1980s, Heaney, Larkin, Hughes, Gunn and Harrison, for instance – has been “student friendly”, inviting rather than evasive.  I have seen unlikely lads respond enthusiastically to the animal poems of Ted Hughes and roomfuls of trainee hair-dressers enjoy the lyricism and good humour of Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry.  As for the American tradition, I would always point students in the direction of Dickinson, Frost, Carlos Williams, Crowe Ransome and Lowell, (and yes, surprisingly, Corso, Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti) rather than the experimental L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E theoreticians of the East Coast.  I think what I am trying to say in this blog is that in a world full of communication (and other kinds of) difficulties,  such very difficult “far out” experimental poetry is a luxury which only academics  can find interesting; to the “ordinary reader” it feels exclusive, makes us feel stupid, shutting us out. To wash the distastefulness of that magazine out of my mind, I’d like to end this piece by quoting as a whole the amusing poem by James Arlington Wright whose long title began this gripe. It has “clear sounds to make”.

Depressed by a book of bad poetry, I walk towards an unused pasture and invite the insects to join me

Relieved, I let the book fall behind a stone.

I climb a slight rise of grass.
I do not want to disturb the ants
Who are walking single file up the fence post,
Carrying small white petals,
Casting shadows so frail that I can see through them.
I close my eyes for a moment and listen.
The old grasshoppers
Are tired, they leap heavily now,
Their thighs are burdened.
I want to hear them, they have clear sounds to make.
Then lovely, far off, a dark cricket begins
In the maple trees.

 

 

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