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It’s been quite a while since I posted anything from my autobiographical sequence relating the incidents and experiences I had working as a tutor of EFL (English as a Foreign Language) at a language school in central London in the 1980’s, so I thought I’d better introduce the next section with a brief resume.

I had moved from Cambridge to London to do a post-graduate course at Chelsea College. I was aged twenty-nine, having started relatively late as a full-time student. After completing the course, I didn’t have a clue what I really wanted to do, and began a series of part-time jobs, before stumbling my way into teaching EFL. I luckily came across a language school situated just off Oxford Street that was looking for new tutors. I got on well with the Director of Studies, fortunately, and began to enjoy the one-to-one lessons that the school specialised in. At the time the narrative continues, I had been working there for a couple of years, and had established myself as one of the regular core of teaching staff.

TEFL(13): Promotion

The Managing Director gives me some unbelievable news:

It has been decided that I am to be offered

The job of Director of Studies.

I am stunned, overwhelmed, flattered,

By what I see as a reward, an accolade.

Of course I accept the offer.

My lack of job security, and my financial problems,

Are suddenly all resolved. I will be doing an office job,

An administrative post, with a monthly salary.

I will also have the intense satisfaction

Of creating and devising the weekly timetable,

Assigning tutors to students, deciding

Which tutors get to work each week,

And which don’t.

The times I have spent, my heart in my mouth,

Staring at, imbibing, almost inhaling

That weekly timetable on the noticeboard,

Knowing that it held my fate and my fortune

Within its precisely formulated confines.

Now, I have complete control over it.

It has become my plaything.

Here I am, in my mid-thirties,

The Director of Studies

of a prestigious language school

In the epicentre of the metropolis.

Clouds of glory form above my head,

Descend, and settle around

My smiling, self-satisfied features.

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Why Wear a Cap on TV?

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The Jay Blades Cap

It’s a sad thing to say, but more and more men

Appear on our TV screens, ten times out of ten,

Fine physical specimens, charismatic, natch,

But all with strange headgear atop a fading thatch.

It’s the Jay Blades Cap! The Jay Blades Hat!

Once on your head, it’s clamped there for good.

What do you think about that!

Male pattern baldness, with attendant loss of hair,

Strikes in the prime of life, anytime, anywhere.

For some sad souls, to reveal the head as bare,

Is something unthinkable; a vision from nightmare.

Baldness, for them, is such a handicap,

The only alternative is the Jay Blades Cap.

It’s the Jay Blades Cap! The Jay Blades Hat!

Once on your head, it’s clamped there for good.

What do you think about that!

So they begin to wear the Jay Blades Hat.

Only, in the course of time, to discover that

This attempt to hide (what they think is) an affliction,

Becomes, in the end, an unstoppable addiction.

It’s the Jay Blades Cap! The Jay Blades Hat!

Once on your head, it’s clamped there for good.

What do you think about that!

I’ve been getting increasingly irritated recently by seeing men on TV – in studios, on chat shows, or presenting programmes – wearing flat caps on their heads, for no apparent reason. I know it might seem strange to be so irritated by something as unimportant or inconsequential as a man wearing a cap, but all I can say is that it just really bugs me! I can only assume that the men in question are having “a bad hair day”, or they are trying to hide the fact that they are going prematurely bald, and don’t want to wear a toupee. To me, they just look so out of place, when they are indoors, in a group situation, and no-one else has a cap on. I feel as if some explanation or apology is called for, but they never say why they are wearing a cap. What irritates me even more is the fact that it seems to be happening more and more often, and must be a growing trend. I apologise to Jay Blades, for singling him out as the subject of the poem, but, in his role as presenter of The Repair Shop on BBC1, he is definitely one of the prime offenders.

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Dog Days

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Dog Days

“The dog days are over”

Sing Florence and the Machine,

But I tend to doubt this assertion.

The ancients knew, far better than us,

The powers of Helios and Sirius,

Turning us all into dogs,

Rutting in the gutter.

The first morning of the heatwave,

An ordinary-looking, middle-aged man

Is walking towards me.

“Nice weather, innit” he says.

I smile, and nod in agreement.

“Nice weather for shaggin, innit”

His features suddenly contort into a leer.

Just keep walking, I think.

“A good shaggin, yeh?

A bit of cock, yeh?”

I continue walking away,

And reach the corner of the street.

A guide dog, leading a blind woman,

Is padding towards me.

Its head swivels, as it sniffs

At my crotch.

Across the street, a mangy Alsatian,

Its skinny body quivering with lust,

Squats on its haunches,

And howls like a hyena.

“A good bit of cock, yeh?

You’d like that, yeh?”

The man’s parting words hang, ominously,

In the sweltering, pheromone-filled air.

I must admit I was slightly startled, when the “ordinary-looking, middle-aged man” accosted me in the street. But I ignored him, kept on walking, and, fortunately, nothing ensued. The incident did have an impact upon me, however. I ended up brooding on it for the rest of the day, and finally, with the aid of those ancient gods Helios and Sirius, producing this poem.

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All cooking begins with an onion.

Heft it in your hand.

Unravel its five thousand layers.

Chop it broadly, brutally.

Chop it finely, delicately.

Either way, it gives itself, it opens itself to you.

Just as it opened the world of cooking to you,

Back in the day.

You could make Chile con Carne.

You could make Spaghetti Bolognaise.

It actually tasted of something.

It actually tasted good.

Watch it, in the pan, as it pales,

Becomes translucent, slowly browns.

Smell that uniquely appetising aroma.

You smell it, and suddenly

You are that naive twenty-year-old,

Back in that basement flat in Sheffield,

With Baz, Anne, Andy,

And the good-looking guy with the beard.

He’s in his mid-twenties,

Only two or three years older than you,

But already a man of the world.

He is slurring his words,

Swigging from the bottle of red wine,

Cooking the Chile con Carne

You had hardly even heard of before.

He is a graduate in English,

Now teaching “EFL” in Seville.

As he cooks, he spins stories,

His words weave a web of wonderment.

The onion unravels, the world opens itself to you.

You see yourself teaching English, in Seville,

Or some exotic kasbah in Marrakesh,

Your students transfixed by your every word,

Just as you are, by the good-looking guy with the beard.

“All cooking begins with an onion”, he says.

And so it does.

There was a folk-rock album by The Incredible String Band, released in 1967, entitled The 5,000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion. I still think it’s one of the most intriguing album titles I’ve ever come across. I had that at the back of my mind, whilst I was working on this poem, but essentially I was thinking back to the encounter with the EFL teacher I describe in the poem, which did have a formative effect upon me.

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Lost to the Bath Foam

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The glass slips in my hand,

On the side of the bath.

I see it slip, in slow motion,

See it jettison its contents.

All that glorious, golden, potent alcohol,

Lurches out, into the bath water.

It is greedily sucked up by the soapy suds.

Its potency neutralised, still golden,

It seeps into the suds.

My Saturday evening bath time,

My sanctuary, is sacred.

I sink into it, for succour

From the pressures, the problems,

The hassles, the hazards, of the week.

Cool jazz music in my ears,

Poetry in my hands, and in my head.

And, at the core of it all, the alcohol.

Insulating, cushioning, supporting,

Loosening the mind-forged manacles.

Now, all I have is an empty glass

In my hand, and emptiness in my head.

Devoid of ideas, inspiration.

Nothingness, deadness, empty air.

All that is left is futility and despair.

I am an empty vessel.

Now I think about it, I realize that my Saturday evening bath time – devoted entirely to relaxation, inspiration, escape from mundane cares – is actually fraught with risk. I need to have music, streaming out from a DAB radio, reading material, (usually a book of poems), and a glass of strong alcohol. The only way to have all these items to hand is, of course, to have them all situated, however precariously, on the side of the bath. I’ve lost count of the number of times the book or journal I’m reading slips out of my hands, as I doze off, and splashes into the bath water. I also have vivid memories of the DAB radio falling into the bath water on one occasion. I still don’t know how I managed to escape electrocution, or even sudden death, that time. The one thing that hasn’t happened – so far – is the incident recounted in the above poem, which is an exercise in imagination.

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Words on a journey

To becoming a poem

The trials, the tribulations,

How far they roam

Terrain unfamiliar

This is not their home!

They suffer, they struggle,

Utter untruths, forced to lie

Misshapen, misbegotten,

Forgotten, they die

Artificial resuscitation,

Miraculously revived.

Stiffened, constricted,

Into vacuous rhyme

Repeated, meaningless,

Time after time

Still they stagger, they wander,

Isolated, in need of friends

And who is to say when they are home?

Who is to say where their journey ends?

I owe this poem to a quote by that grand old man of English letters, A. N. Wilson. In a review of a literary biography of an early twentieth century British poet, he described the poems that appeared in the book as “Words on a journey to becoming a poem, rather than arriving at the finished article”. I liked the sound of the quote, and musing about it for a while resulted in this poem.

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Saturated in sunlight,

Cradled in innocence,

The little boy sits in the garden,

Encircled by sweet-smelling,

Vibrant, multi-coloured flowers,

And by his little playmates,

The fuzzy, buzzy, golden-brown

Insects of the sun.

They land on the flowers,

Play with them, fly away.

They land on him,

On his moist, salty skin,

And fly away.

The boy chortles with delight.

He is at one with nature,

In the golden sunlight.

A voice intrudes, cuts through the air.

A loud voice, panic-stricken,

Tinged with hysteria. His mother’s voice.

He can just make out her face, peeking out,

from behind the doorway of the house.

“Come in!” Her arms wave, urgently.

“Come in! Now! BEES! BEES!”

The boy is bee-wildered. He does not understand.

But eventually, he responds.

He is dragged, violently, inside the house.

His mother’s passion, her fears,

Her desperation, her tears,

Finally get through to him.

The bees are alien. The bees will sting him.

The bees are evil. The bees will kill him.

It is over with. It is done.

No longer will he play with the insects of the sun.

His bee-ing is sundered from nature.

And you would think that would bee it.

You would think that would bee all.

But it is not, for he does not yet comprehend

The true nature of his Fall.

This poem is based upon an experience in my early childhood. It definitely had a significant impact upon me, as I’ve had a phobia about bees, wasps and similar insects ever since. I’ve tried to write about the experience a couple of times before now, but I hope this poems is going to be the definitive version.

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My Wine Calendar

Vineal Equinox

Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter;

They come and go, passing by,

As planet Earth revolves in the sky.

Clocks go forward, clocks go back,

Attuned to an annual almanack.

But I observe an equinox more personal;

One that is neither autumnal nor vernal.

The flow of my inner being depends

On the date a six-monthly period ends.

An equinox relating to the vine,

And idiosyncratic consumption of wine.

From the start of May to the end of October,

I drink white wine; am neither drunk nor sober.

The quantity is neither here nor there;

I simply drink enough to ease dull care.

As temperatures rise, in the lengthening days,

I chill-out with white wine, in a languorous haze.

From the end of October to the start of May,

I switch to red wine at the end of the day.

The coldness, the darkness; return to the clay.

Red wine revivifies, keeps the sadness at bay.

So, there you have it. No Pandora’s Box,

But a simple stratagem, the key that unlocks

The bounties of the vineal equinox.

A couple of years ago, I became aware of the fact that an acquaintance of mine had a habit of drinking a half-bottle of wine every evening, with his evening meal. I thought this was an admirable idea, and started doing the same. At some point, during the last couple of years, it struck me that I always enjoyed drinking white wine in the warm Summer months, and I preferred drinking red wine during Autumn and Winter. As the months have gone by, I have formalised this arrangement, and I realized that, in a way, I was actually following a kind of “Vineal Equinox”.

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My Selves

My Selves

I want to stay off that train as long as I can, despite

All the exhortations to board now.

I want to be myself till the last minute.

  • Matthew Sweeney – “The Tube”

But who is “myself”?

I have always had

Different selves

In different contexts,

With different people.

Like everyone else,

I contain multitudes.

A burly, shaven-headed man

With multiple tattoos on his face,

Chest, neck and arms, who lives

In a deprived part of Peterborough,

Shops at his local Iceland,

Drinks super-strength cider,

Wears vest-type tee-shirts,

Tracksuit bottoms, denim jacket

And a baseball cap.

Is also a retired ex-civil servant and EFL tutor,

Who listens to BBC Radio 3

All morning, every morning,

Subscribes to the London Review of Books,

The New Humanist, Philosophy Now,

And writes poetry.

Just two of my current selves.

I was relaxing in the bath on Saturday evening, reading the Poetry Society Winter Bulletin, which happened to include a poem entitled The Tube, by Matthew Sweeney. As soon as I read it, I started getting ideas for a poem about identity, or multiple identities. The finished product turned out to be about different facets of myself, or the difference between my external, social self and my inner, mental self. I could be accused of being self-obsessed, I must admit.

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Astral Bluebottle



Wow! Those floaters are having a fling,

I think, entering the kitchen,

This dazzling blue, freezing cold morning.

Those infernal little black dots

In my eyeballs zoom around,

Flashes of black lightening,

As I bend and rise from fridge to worktop.

But wait a moment!

It is not the floaters, but an impossible fly,

Buzzing around in my kitchen.

Impossible, because all windows and doors

Are firmly shut, as always.

No means of ingress for this fly.

Improbably large, luridly blue,

It reclines, idly preening itself,

On the venetian blinds.

I zap it with a blast of fly spray.

It succumbs quickly, squirming around

In its death throes. I leave it, momentarily,

To get a tissue, with which to dispose of it.

On my return, the bluebottle has vanished.

Really, technically, definitively,

Absolutely vanished. There is nowhere

Around my kitchen window, nowhere

In my tiny kitchen, for the fly,

Or its corpse, to vanish into.

And yet this is the case.

It was impossible for the fly

To materialise in my kitchen

In the first place, so we now have

Two impossible occurrences

Within a matter of minutes.

The occurrence is, unbelievably,

Repeated the following morning,

And yet again, the next day.

The question is clear; the answer far from plain.

Have I tried to kill three flies, all in vain;

Or just one ghostly fly, from the astral plane?

This was a real occurrence, that happened a few months ago. I have a phobia about wasps and bees, and so I always keep all the windows and doors closed, to prevent such insects getting into my flat. I still haven’t got to the bottom of what went on with those three flies (or was it just one?). But I was greatly relieved when, after the three incidents over three days, I have not seen a single fly in my flat since.

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