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Marmite and toothpaste

I must be reaching that age when, Justice-Shallow-like, one is beginning to look back nostalgically at all the changes that have happened in one’s lifetime.   This morning while brushing my teeth I began to wonder exactly when toothpaste tubes stopped being roll-upable. Do you remember? Up to about twenty years ago you could roll the semi-metallic foil towards the nozzle. At boarding school this flattening and rolling process could go on for weeks until you had squeezed out the very last drop of usable paste. Similarly with Marmite. For weeks after your first supplies of jam had run out, you could extract a little savoury brownness from that characteristic black and yellow bomb-shaped bottle. Such considerations were important to me at boarding school where, unlike most of my fellow boarders, I seemed to lack a supply of family visitors to replenish my stock of teatime extras. I’m not counting poor old Mrs Samuel who every term used to send me parcels of cornflake-based cupcakes glued together with chocolate ; she never realised that such delights were bound to shake apart in the post into a package of crumbs – into which I could surreptitiously dip a wetted finger. Ah, those desperate hungers of adolescence!  Anyway, such nostalgia has started me thinking about some of the changes that have occurred to the world of poetry in my lifetime. Recently, I was invited to a “Writers’ Conference “ – I won’t say where exactly but it wasn’t a hundred miles from Birmingham. The day, the venue, the programme was ultra-professionally organised. After being greeted by smiley students in red logo-ed t-shirts, we all had to clip on those little plastic name thingys – my immediate response is always to want to rip them off – before choosing our groups and our “focus of interests”, for the day.   Again, the “menu” for meetings on offer was all so thoughtfully, professionally arranged – under such headings as “Networking” (yes truly), “Presenting and sending off manuscripts”, “How to apply for grants”, “Poetry in the digital age”, “Jobs in the Publishing Business”…..   I don’t want to sound too sneery. It was all so professionally organised, like the arrangements for lunch where a wide choice, from vegan to semi-vegetarian, was provided.. (Yes, it was an expensive conference – people were making money.) But at the end of the day I realised that not one piece of poetry, not one attempt at literature, had been produced or discussed. We might have been attending a conference on….on almost anything but the difficulties and delights of bonding sense to language. Whereas in my youth (here speaketh Justice Shallow again) wanting “to be a poet” felt like a much less public, more shameful, more haphazard, more amateurish, more dependant on chance and personal contacts, sort of process. There were no creative writing courses available back then; my not-Birmingham conference seemed to be swimming in Creative Writing graduates all greeting each other with little swoops and kisses of recognition.   Nor were there any Creative Writing Tutor type jobs back then either – so (and I’ve just realised this ) what my Writers’ Conference most resembled was a Graduate Job Seeker’s forum…What those bright young smiling Networkers seemed to be most concerned about was arranging poetry as some kind of a Professional Career Ladder, with the right kind of teaching rungs on the way up, rather than any notion of poetry as (Justice Shallow again) the rather lonely, unrewarded and anti-social obsession I have always experienced. And NOW they’re even putting Marmite into PLASTIC bottles!!!

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