Monthly Archives

July 2019

Essays

CHANGING ROUTINES…

I am a creature of routines. Or at least I used to be. Alarm at five, cup of tea, check the news, rise, get ready, don the dark suit and crisp pastel shirt, choose a tie, make the wife a cup of tea, five minutes’ chat then drive into town, catch the train, get my usual seat facing the direction of travel halfway down the train. Upon arrival, cross the road to Pret, a strong cappuccino and a cheese and tomato croissant. First into the office, settle down to breakfast with only Jennifer, the gasping cleaner, for company as she vacuums around the desks. Discuss her dog, and her difficult husband who has been eased out of his job on reception after years of naps and general rudeness. Check the email, and send at least one as soon as possible to let somebody know how early I arrived in the office. Then the day begins…

Now all that is gone. “I bet you don’t miss the commute,” people both in and out of work remark. I reply, automatically, “No, I don’t,” but really want to say “Yes, I bloody well do”. Not necessarily for the early rising, or the endless train journeys, or the frisson of frustration when the driver says there’s signal trouble, or the rumbling herd hysteria when we are all chucked off a defective train and crowd around the assumed position of the doors of the crowded train which has yet to arrive. I could do without all that. But the rest of it – the delicious solitude of an empty office, the first charge of caffeine, the quiet satisfaction of a routine well-observed – all of that, I absolutely miss.

What is it about routine? Of itself, in all its elements, it probably (well definitely) sounds banal, and even more banal for the endless repetition. For starters, it’s safety. For the period of routine, it overlays some predictability and pattern onto the restless anarchy of life. I seem in control. If what I can control goes smoothly, then there is more chance that the rest of the day will be manageable. And when anarchy erupts, the return to routine reasserts a kind of grip. More than that there is a kind of mystique about it, like the words of a liturgy: everything said in its place, in the right way, at the right time, to ensure the magic happens. My routines are a kind of lucky charm, an incantation which works for me. So no surprise that sportsmen and gamblers and soldiers and people involved in risk and struggle have their favourite routines, invariably adhered to. I heard recently of a legendary motorcyclist who won the Isle of Man TT more than anybody else before or since. A friend of his recalled how strangely meticulous this man could be. If he was served ham sandwiches in which the ham protruded from the bread, he cast them aside: the ham had to be cut just so. No doubt that mania for precision, and routine, was part of the reason he was such a successful rider. Controlling the small things helped him control the big things.

Now, I rise whenever, wear what I want to, have different things for breakfast, live diverse days devoid of pattern or routine. As a result, I sometimes feel disorientated, like a man in the desert who has somehow lost the pathway over the dunes and wanders irresolutely trying to find the way. Yes, it is a kind of freedom, but who wants the freedom to be lost? And where am I to re-locate that delicious snatched solitude, and the first strong cappuccino of the day?

Essays

Embarrassment: THE TIME I MET A FAMOUS PERSON

A famous critic once wrote a book called “Keats and Embarrassment”. I have never read it but remember thinking that’s something really important you’ve stumbled on, the importance of embarrassment. For those of us who suffer from it, it is something we spend a disproportionate amount of time seeking to avoid interspersed with periods of insane self-confidence when we feel we have risen above it, like reformed alcoholics, and can run greater risks – until we next experience it and feel once again that awful sensation of public shame. It’s a sensation I hate so much that I can’t even bear to watch episodes of embarrassment on TV: what others find funny, I simply find excruciating.

What is it about embarrassment which is so difficult – for some people? Other people can have the same experience and not feel even a flicker of embarrassment. It’s simply not in their emotional repertoire. You can feel embarrassed for them, but you needn’t. I had an unembarrassable boss once. He would be late for meetings with very important people, make preposterous remarks, exhibit untidy personal habits, and never wavered from an unrufflable nonchalance. Other people might think him a buffoon, but that didn’t matter, because he never did. He scudded through life, like a yacht with billowing sails, inflated by his unshakeable self-belief. Lucky so and so.

But for us mortals who are prone to embarrassment, it is public deflation which we dread.

In my last job I had, occasionally, to meet famous people. As director of a grant-making trust, I received an endless stream of invitations to fundraising events. The bigger charities often had a celebrity guest of honour, as a pull for potential donors. When I attended these events, I spent most of my time studiously avoiding the queue forming to talk to such characters. I had a special phobia about powerful politicians, and once spent a very anxious evening trying to work out where Gordon Brown might head next, so as not to be cornered.

Just once, I failed. I was at a reception for a charity, located in an old Baptist chapel in Islington, which rehabilitated offenders after release from prison by training them in the art and discipline of acting whilst giving them other support to re-settle. One of the founders and directors was a former speechwriter for David Cameron, and so it was no surprise that he had secured the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, to make a speech. I joined a crowd of people sipping cheap wine and eating sausages on sticks while things warmed up before the formalities. I had just finished speaking to somebody and was wondering whether there were any alternatives to sausages when I looked up to see Ken Clarke making an apparent bee-line to me. I stood my ground presuming there must be somebody behind me who he wanted to speak to when, to my horror, he greeted me cheerily. I replied in kind and waited for him either to move on or ask me something. A posse of people followed him and looked at me with curiosity. “You’re not Jim Phillips, are you?” he asked with an irritable edge. “No, I’m not,” I said and revealed my identity. “You look just like him,” he said, accusingly, and moved off. Several people had been looking at me, assuming I was an old friend of Ken’s. I saw their interest evaporate as he walked off, and felt the prickle of red corpuscles swarming around my face.

Poetry

Poems by Richard, Part 5

The final batch…for now

1963

The snow lasted that year
Deep into Spring.
The playground toilets
Froze, school became
Optional for those
Who could stay at home
Or had the guts to bunk off.

Those of us with working
Mums sat in classrooms
In our coats and gloves
Barely able to write
While a giant circular
Radiator seemed to heat
Only itself
And the unfamiliar teacher
Broke his chalk on the
Blackboard like a piece of ice.

Everybody struggled.
The milk left in the hatch
Froze solid, the cat
Hardly ventured out
We went to bed early
To avoid using too much
Coal. The snow grew
Grey pockmarked with dirt
Scabbed brown
On the roads
Like old frozen wounds.

We might have fallen
Out of love with winter
But for the journeys
With toboggans through parks
Grown wild with ice and drifts
And the tracks of dogs
And hares and strange
White birds
And sledging down hills
On sheets of brown cardboard
As dusk crept
Out of the woods
And alleyways
And the orange street lamps
Turned the iced-up pavements
A smattered gold…

 

Class Traitor

 I was a Costa man
A Tesco man
An old Mondeo man
Bristling
With tribal truculence
Among the white tattooed
Barristas
Old guys shouting
For their buttered toast
Old girls with lizard skin
And with wiry perms
Tough as nails
As they knock back
Espressos
And menace
All comers
With their beady gaze.

Now. Goddammit,
I’m a Waitrose man
With my white Waitrose
Mug of frothy cappuccino
And nice bourgeois girls
Taking your order
In their grey Waitrose aprons
Crisp white shirts
And grey caps. Here
The old dudes wear
Wedding rings and glasses
And tasteful winter
Jackets, conversation
Is conducted with genteel
Decorum, the ladies wear
Silk scarves and pearls
And bring toasted tea cakes
For their hubs.

I want to stand up
On my table, shake my fist
And shout “This is not real!”
But all I do is suck down
The froth from the bottom
Of my mug, write angry poems
And shuffle off to fire up
The Merc for the short drive
Home.

 

Final Colours

What colour ends?
As you lie curled foetally
Like the shadow
Of a babe in the womb

Does your dream world
Change to a sheer arctic
Blue like a cloudless
Polar night illumined
By shoals of stars?

Or, as you start
To breathe in stumbling
Semi quavers interspersed
With breathless stops
Does the inner view
Turn red as your blood
Streams around the whorls
Of your brain one last

Time? Or is there just
A shrinking point
Of pure white light
Like a laser beam pointed

From further and further
Away? You see I’d rather like
To know what signifies
The end.

Poetry

Poems by Richard, Part 4

It gives me great pleasure to read and publish these poems – I wish I had Richard’s talent…

 

M5 Swans

I saw them again
The swans grazing
In little groups
Of twos and threes
In fields alongside
The unbroken rush
Of lorries and cars
And coaches and caravans
Careering westwards
With an unsated urgency.

The swans graceful
Sinuous unhurried
Oblivious apparently
Of what might otherwise
Seem a headlong endless
Flight from an apocalypse
Of cinematic proportions
Or maybe just unfazed.

You think what made
Them choose such
An unpeaceful spot?
Or does it soothe them
Being near such constant
Noise of things rushing
But never stopping
Which keeps at bay
The anxieties
Of silence?

Maybe
That’s why we like
To live in cities
Riding their insomnia
Buoyed up by the great
White wings which bear
Us high above
Our unsettled minds.

 

My Late Uncle

That’s you or very nearly –
The heavy coat
Crumpled cord trousers
Heavy shoes probably
From Church’s,
A scarf and cap
And half leather gloves,
A stooping walk,
Stopping to examine attentively
The blackboard advertising
The cafe’s comestibles
Before walking on
At a metronomic pace
Along the platform.

It’s as if I’ve caught you
On one of those
Complicated railway trips
With two or three changes
And at each stop
The topography researched
Checked on a map
With a compass to hand
For good measure
To calibrate
The correct direction
Of travel.

When we get to Swindon
Your doppelganger’s gone.
Of course it wasn’t quite you,
This man had a more developed
Beard and maybe lacked
Your taste in Latin liturgy,
But in other ways
He caught you to a ‘t’
And no doubt you looked on
Half approvingly.

 

 

Poetry

Poems by Richard, Part 3

Another batch of verse from Mr H.

Snowdrops

White dots
On pale green shoots
Winter’s first
Punctuation.

Hard to imagine
A flower furled
So unobtrusively.

Hard to remember
Such tiny heralds
Of our January deaths.

Now as they multiply
Under the hedgerows
And old stone walls

Their white flowers
Drift luxuriantly
Like the down
Of kidnapped birds.

 

No More (on moving …)

The pheasants won’t perch
On the ledge, cock
Their heads and look suggestively
In to ask for food.

The old badger won’t snuffle
And snort and crunch away
At the apples I left on the grass
Below the bedroom window.

The moths won’t flap around
The bathroom light
And spread their wings
Upon the mirror each night.

The sparrow hawks won’t scream
From the beech woods
On top of the hill behind us
Before shooting into the air.

The wasps and bees
Won’t hum like one vast hive
In the ivy on the old stone walls
Searching out the flowers.

The wind will still blow,
The clouds will still sail over
The rain will still fall
The snow will still glow.

After we are gone
away
Somewhere else.

 

Vast

It’s only a brief
Hump in the landscape
Seen from the train

But it looks
Like the huge undulations
Of a Canadian prairie,

Vast fields, houses,
Telegraph poles, cyclists
Miniaturised, isolated
Within the atonal
Harmonies of space.

Maybe that is what
Comes after life, not
Breathing but breathed.

Not erased but lost
In endless alphabets.

Poetry

Poems by Richard, Part 2

Further poetry from the ‘pen’ of Just Write’s much-missed bard…

TV Memories

I try to think back
To when Christmas
Was not framed
By TV memories

Childhood, certainly.
Even the Queen’s speech
Which we listened to
In deferential silence,

We heard from the radio.
But in the ’60s
There were already
Things we had to watch,

Comedies, classic
Films (remember the joy
Of Some like it Hot),
The Yellow Submarine,

And on New Year’s Eve
We briefly let the Jocks
Into our living rooms
With the White Heather Club.

Then into the ’70s
And ’80s, the Christmas shows
Of Eric and Ernie,
The Two Ronnies.

We all laughed.
We all relished.
We all took away
The same memories.

Briefly, before the Tower
Of Babel tore us all
Apart, we were at one,
At ease with our minstrels

Like the ancient Greeks
Listening enrapt to Homer
Unravelling the old tales
Around the winter fires.

 

Nineteen hundred and fifty-nine

1959
Coldharbour estate
London SE9
I’ve no idea whether
We are richer or poorer
Of good family or lousy
Well educated or thick
Upwardly or downwardly
Mobile.
Life simply is.
People simply are.

This year I ate stolen pink wafers
With Robert Smith
In his outdoor loo,
Had visits from Granddad H
With brown bags of winkles
From Woolwich market
And more rarely
From Grandpa S
With flowers and exotic toys
But I assumed they occupied
The same universe.

At school we drew
The Bayeux tapestry
Around the classroom walls
And Mrs Carpenter slapped
My left leg hard
For lying (allegedly)
About breaking Malcolm Pott’s
Stupid boat. We had summer
Day trips to Botany Bay
In a hired car which only
Broke down once, and had
To stand outside a pub
As the drunks tottered out
And a raucous row of singing
And shouting erupted
Every time the pub door swung open
And went quiet when it closed.

My brother went to boarding
School, I bought him
A tube of love hearts
When Mum told me he’d
Passed the exam, but ate them
Before I could give them to him.
They weren’t my favourite
Sweet but I thought he’d like
The motto on each one.

At Christmas the hamster
Escaped and nipped my toes
As I lay sleeping. I dreamed
I was being eaten by a lion.
He hid in the bathroom for weeks
Taking food when we were out
Until one day Siamese Peter caught him
And bit his head off after pretending
To let him go. We forgave
Peter, it was the hamster’s fault
For escaping. Otherwise he might
Still have been alive in 1960…

Poetry

Poems by Richard, Part 1

Richard wrote this first poem after making a return visit to Chesham. He was in a coffee shop at the time, of course…

Being Back

The familiar shops
Drinkers outside
The brewing hobby shop
The familiar cafes
Feeling exactly
How a slow Sunday afternoon
Should feel.

The river
Now a midsummer trickle
But the moor still marshy.

It’s not home but was
And when I’m old
And maybe blurred
With confusion about
Wherever I’ll be
It’s what I’ll remember
What I’ll translate
The strange streets
Into.

And continuing the coffee shop theme, but written in The Cotswolds…

Untitled

Whether it be a day
Which with hindsight
Was pivotal or a milestone
Or the first rumble
Of a remote avalanche
Is as yet unknowable.

All I know in a Costa cafe
At 11.37 am
On a damp but mild
Saturday morning
Is that the couple behind me
Are talking about an MOT,
A big white-haired man
In a short-sleeve shirt
Is doing the Quick Crossword
Slowly while his wife
In her orange blouse
And flowery cardigan
Flips idly through
The weekend magazine. Across
The aisle a middle-aged bloke
In jeans, check shirt
And classy shoes
Helps his little old mum
Wipe her hands on a
Serviette as his blonde wife
Arrives and they get up to go
Maybe to take his mum
Back to the home
Where the very old live out
Their days.

The cafe staff chat
And clink spoons
On saucers, there’s been
A rush which has now subsided
And the empty tables
Are filled with the trays
And crockery
Of the departed
And the dishwasher
Is bust. An old lady
With tightly curled white hair
In a coat with a brooch
Smiles as her fat husband
Brings her coffee, sweeps
The crumbs off his seat
On which he places
His rather large behind
And shares a joke
As she proffers
A five pound note.
Then he starts tapping
On his phone as she rummages
In her bag for a till receipt.

It’s now 11.52,
A quarter of an hour
Has passed. Who knows
What births and deaths
And great dramas
Have happened in the world
Outside? In Europe
They’ve had the heaviest snow
In thirty years, the papers
Are full of anger and woe
About the latest twist
In the BREXIT civil war.
We had a lot of snow
A year ago
But just now just here
Life carries on
Normally uneventfully
Like an untroubled stream
Over well worn
Stones.