Early Morning Booze

Morning Mums

Since my liberation from work,

thanks to early retirement, I enjoy looking out

from my bedroom window, onto the street below,

gazing at the Monday to Friday morning parade

of school kids, students, workers, and the mums,

escorting their young children to school.

 

Memories: of fearful schooldays,

of miserable, stress-filled days

in gloomy, depressing offices;

all long behind me, now. “Hallelujah!”

I inwardly cry, in exultation;

a little celebration of freedom, every morning.

 

But who’s this, in the midst of the mums?

A woman I’ve never seen before.

Along she comes; tottering on high heels,

swaying from side to side, swigging

from a can of super-strength lager.

A mop of messily-arranged red hair

strewn across the top of her head.

She wears a skimpy, black, halter-neck top,

befitting the crazy heat wave we’re suffering.

 

She stops, directly below my window;

bends down, to reach into her carrier-bag.

I can see an enigmatic tattoo

on her sun-reddened shoulders.

She straightens up, swigs from the can,

looks blearily around her for a moment,

then moves along again; tottering,

swaying, staggering. The mums walk

around her, not looking her in the eye;

keeping their children well away from her.

 

In some strange way, I envy her;

admire her bravery, her stupidity,

her ramshackle recklessness.

She is escaping from, or entering into,

some kind of personal Hell.

Whatever it was; whatever it is,

I can’t help but wish her well.

In my younger, wilder days, I was occasionally partial to swigging the odd can or two of super-strength lager, at any time of day.  It was a habit that I gradually learned – from hard-won experience – was deleterious to my health, and I eventually managed to stop it.  But I can’t help feeling a twinge of empathy now, when I come across somebody blatantly swigging strong lager early in the morning, and – as in the poem above – I start to wonder about  the circumstances surrounding it.

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Book of Days

Book of Days

Mid-morning, mid-summer, middle of a heat wave;

a welcome breeze flutters luscious leaves.

A morning one could cut out and save,

in the Book of Days: From Cradle to Grave.

I am retired; I can be completely at ease.

The day stretches ahead; I can do as I please.

 

How often, during my working years

  • those times when I grappled with stresses and fears
  • how often would I have fervently wished

for a day like today; a day just like this.

Why is it so hard to grasp that today

has no impediments that stand in my way?

Why can’t I seize a day just like this,

and live it, in sheer, unmitigated bliss?

I can remember that, in the first few years after I took early retirement eight years ago, it all seemed too good to be true.  Every time I walked past a school, or an office building, I would experience feelings of  exultation, joy, and relief.  “Those days are long behind me, thank God!”  I would think; “No more schooldays, no more wretched days of stress and strain in miserable office buildings”.  I found it hard to believe the days of freedom I now had, stretching ahead of me.  Those feelings seem to have faded now, over the last few years.  It seems as if I now take it all for granted; my days of retirement just slip by me, and I never seem to make the most of them.  I suppose it’s the perpetual human problem of trying to “seize the day”; but it was these thoughts – combined with the stultifying heat wave we are experiencing – that gave rise to the above poem.

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The Working Men’s Club

Working Men’s Club, Barnsley, 1968

I enter the W.M.C. under false pretences;

I am not a working man, for a start.

I am an eighteen-year-old schoolboy,

only here because my best friend’s dad is here.

 

My best friend is the same age as me,

but his head is full of intelligence,

ambition, French, Spanish and Latin.

My head is full of fuzziness,

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,

and Jethro Tull on Top of the Pops.

 

He is just about to start

a languages degree at Bangor University;

I’ve had to re-sit my “O-Levels”.

Fast-forward four years, and he’s

living in Seville, teaching English;

I’m struggling to be Assistant Credit Controller

at F.M.C.(Meat) in Sheffield.

 

I hate the W.M.C. The gassy, fizzy beer,

the loud music, the Barnsley dialect,

which I don’t speak; my mum thinks

it’s “common”, and has brought me up

speaking “proper” English.

 

A lot of the men in here are miners,

or ex-miners. They are real men; hard men.

I am soft, and fuzzy at the edges.

We sit down next to my friend’s dad

and a few of his friends. I don’t know

these people; don’t know what to say.

 

With most people, alcohol liberates

the tongue. With me, it impedes it.

Knowing I will stutter if I speak, I decide

it is safer to sit in silence, and smile.

 

My friend’s dad is a Dracula-like figure;

unnaturally pale skin and glossy, black hair.

His glittering, dark gaze fixes upon me.

“Don’t say much, do you.” I sit and smile.

 

“What are you smiling about?

All he does is smile. Look at him!

Cheese! Say it! Cheese!”

 

I’ve never felt so alien. Never felt

such unease. I wish him death

from some deadly disease.

Leave me alone, I silently plead;

Leave me alone! Please!

 

“Here he goes again! Cheese!

Say it! C H E E S E!”

I seem to be going through a phase, at the moment, of recollecting moments from my early life, re-visiting them, mentally, and trying to write poems about them.  Working Men’s Clubs were fairly popular in South Yorkshire, at the time when I was going through my teenage years, and this poem recounts an episode that I found excruciatingly embarrassing at the time, but now, in hindsight, seems more amusing than anything else.

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Debussy’s Arabesque

Arabesque

Arabesque No.1, by Debussy,

stops me in my tracks, with its beauty;

stills me with its simplicity,

softens me with its fragility,

infects me with its poignancy.

And every time it does it to me,

my mother comes alive in my memory.

 

My mother, who played piano proficiently,

in spite of lack of opportunity.

Who became a dutiful housewife,

and devoted domestic slave, to her family.

Who spent her days toiling in the kitchen,

while we were dozing, or watching TV.

 

My mother, who sold her piano,

and never forgave herself for doing so.

Who loved flowers, and gardens, and trees.

Who loved Chopin, and paintings, and poetry.

My mother, who would have loved

Arabesque No.1, by Debussy.

The inspiration for this poem is simple enough to explain.  I listen to classical music most mornings, on BBC Radio3, and every time I hear a solo piano piece by Chopin, Debussy, Brahms, Schumann, or Grieg, memories of my mother automatically come into my mind.  Chopin was her particular favourite, and I don’t think she’d heard that much by Debussy; but I feel sure she would have loved his Arabesque Number One.

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Endless Rejection

Despondency

Classical Music, Philosophy,

Art, Science, History,

Literature and Biography

are all grist to my intellectual mill.

 

The problem is, the wheels of my mill

are dulled at the edge, and grind exceeding slow,

producing poems and prose

that no-one wants to know.

 

Week after week, anxious, tense;

week after week, steeped in suspense.

The vain hope my luck will change; this time I won’t fail.

Then the curt dismissal: the rejection email.

 

After so much failure, I cannot respond.

I just sink deeper in my slough of despond.

Readers of this blog over the last few years will be well aware of my struggles and frustrations with getting my poems published in magazines and journals.  Apparently it’s generally accepted that most poets submitting to literary journals will have around a 90% rejection rate.  The only reasonable way of looking at it, I suppose, is to adopt a stoical, philosophical attitude to the rejections, and to rejoice when you get the occasional acceptance.  The problem for me is I find it very difficult to adopt such an attitude, and I still tend to treat each rejection I get as a personal affront.  I was provoked into writing the above poem by the latest rejection, after having built up my hopes, yet again.  I suppose I shall recover, eventually.

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The Philosopher and the Spider

The Philosopher and the Spider

The spider was trapped,

under the rim of the urinal.

We don’t know its origin,

or its means of arrival.

 

The spider didn’t know

when it had begun.

The spider didn’t know

when it would end.

The spider hunkered down,

not far from the u-bend.

 

Its daily weather forecast:

intermittent showers, of golden rain.

We don’t know if it felt pleasure;

we don’t know if it felt pain.

We don’t know a spider’s feelings,

or if it even has a brain.

All we can state, for certain, is this:

the spider lived, every day, in showers of piss.

Perhaps, for the spider, this constituted bliss.

 

Every time he needed to take a leak,

the philosopher observed the spider,

over a period of weeks. Should he intervene?

The consequences could be huge,

if he extracted the spider from its daily deluge.

How would it react? He had no idea.

He hesitated, torn between compassion and fear.

 

He did what philosophers do: he thought.

He pondered distinctions between “could” and “ought”.

Having probed the matter, in all its dimensions,

he acted, upon the best of intentions.

 

Two days later, the philosopher hung his head,

when he finally saw where his intervention had led:

the desiccated husk of the spider – dead.

I’ve had a keen interest in philosophy ever since coming across Colin Wilson’s “Beyond the Outsider” in my local public library at the age of sixteen.  It introduced me to Wilson’s “New Existentialism”, awakened my interest in philosophy and the history of ideas, and my life was suddenly transformed.

Unfortunately, philosophy and poetry have turned out to be not the easiest of bed-fellows, whenever I’ve tried to combine the two of them.  When I read about the philosopher Thomas Nagel and his encounter with a spider, however, I thought it might lend itself to poetry, and the above poem is the result.

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Hokusai

Hokusai

“From the age of six, I had the desire to copy the form of things. From about fifty, my pictures were frequently published; but, until the age of seventy, nothing I drew was worthy of notice.”

So inured to defeat, to rejection, am I,

these days, I can barely muster a sigh

of resignation. No tear brims my eye.

“At seventy-three years, I was somewhat able to fathom the growth of plants and trees, and the structure of birds, animals, insects, and fish.”

These days of defeat, it’s a wonder why

I don’t pack it all in; stop living a lie.

 “Thus, when I reach eighty years, I hope to have made increasing progress, and, at ninety, to see further into the underlying principle of things.”

These days of dejection, I can’t even cry,

but I summon my forces, and I try

to think of my hero, Hokusai.

“So that, at 100 years, I will have achieved a divine state in my art, and, at 110, every dot and every stroke will be as though alive.”

 What’s not to love, about Hokusai?

His images, his words, will never die.

He is 79 years of age, at home with his artist daughter, when his house catches fire. He grabs his paintbrush, and jumps out the window. His daughter grabs her paintbrush, and jumps out after him. They lose all their possessions, clothes, and painting materials. They are nearly naked, and look like homeless beggars. Hokusai’s greatest works still lie ahead of him.

 As long as there’s life, there’s hope, so I

summon my strength, and think of Hokusai.

He was born in a Dragon Year. On a Dragon Day, in his 90th year, he paints his last great work: a dragon flies into the sky around his beloved Mount Fuji, and disappears into the heavens…

In June last year, BBC4 showed the premier of a film entitled “Hokusai: Old Man Crazy to Paint”.  It was a documentary/biography of the Chinese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849).  I watched it, and was fascinated and enthralled.  I didn’t know much about Hokusai at the time, apart from the fact that he was famous for his painting The Great Wave, which must be one of the best-known images in world art.  I had no idea that he had continued to paint until his ninetieth year, that he was also famous for painting whole series of views of Mount Fuji, and that he had a daughter who was also a significant artist in her own right.  I found his unquenchable optimism endearing and admirable.  About a year later, I watched Simon Schama enthusing about Hokusai, in one of the BBC2 “Civilizations” programmes, and my fascination with Hokusai was re-invigorated.  I started having ideas about writing a series of poems about Hokusai’s life, linked to his series of paintings of Mount Fuji, but then realised it might be a bit ambitious for my meagre talents.  I ended up producing the poem above, which attempts to summarise what Hokusai means to me. 

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The Misconception

Felski Knew

Felski knew it, he always knew:

working in a library, that’s what I would do.

A librarian; he knew that’s what I would be.

Anthony Felski, Form Lower 6C;

he always knew that’s what I would be.

 

Every time we met, after having left school,

we’d say hello, how are you, we’d run the rule

over what’s happened to her, what’s happened to him,

the friends, the relatives, the kith and kin.

Then “How’s things at the library?” he would say,

and I couldn’t deny it; there was no way.

Somehow, he divined it, he always knew:

working in a library, that’s what I would do.

 

So I could never tell him of the misconception;

he could never get to hear about the rejection.

It would devastate his mind, his soul,

to find that I was, simply, on the dole.

So I said it was boring, but, as he well knew,

it was the only job, really, that I could do.

 

It never happened. They rejected me;

I never was to work in a library.

A tragic rejection, a real tragedy;

perhaps not for Felski, but a tragedy for me.

It was destined for me; what I should do.

As it turned out, it was all I could do.

And it was Felski who knew it; he always knew.

I fell in love with reading very early on, mainly through discovering the wonders of the Children’s Section in our local public library.  My love of reading, and of public libraries, has continued throughout my life.  I am fortunate enough to live within a fifteen-minute walk from Peterborough Public Library, and fortunate, also, in that Peterborough City Council seem intent on keeping our wonderful library going, in the face of numerous library closures throughout the country.

As I went through my teenage years, and approached school-leaving age, I had to start thinking about what I was going to do after school, and working in the local library seemed an obvious choice.  I remember my mother taking me to see the Chief Librarian (mothers used to do that sort of thing, in those days), with a view towards my starting work there – but, for some unknown reason, it never transpired.  I ended up doing a Business Studies course (which I hated) and, eventually, drifting into Teaching English as a Foreign Language.  Despite my failure to get a job at the library, however, one of my acquaintances at school – a boy called Anthony Felski – somehow got the idea that I was working at the library, despite all evidence to the contrary.  It became a running joke among my close friends, who were well aware of the fact that Felski was labouring under a delusion.  I’ve always thought that Felski was right, in a way; that I should, really, have become a librarian, and my working life has been one long mistake ever since.

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Vermouth

Vermouth

She’s a regular, at Waitrose.

No messing about;

straight for her bottle,

then the checkout.

 

Clickety-clack, the heels go;

brisk strut across the floor.

Mere moments later,

she’s out, through the door.

 

Frizzy, blonde hair;

bright, strappy shoes.

The crimson cheeks,

the broken veins,

of one in love with booze.

 

Cheap brand of Vermouth;

the Dry, not the Sweet.

Just the right strength, for her;

I bet she swigs it neat.

 

A large glassful,

with her chicken and chips.

That’s the stuff! Glug, glug, glug;

she’s licking her lips.

 

The cushioned curtain closes again;

eases the problems, the pain.

She closes her eyes, floats above

the loneliness, the absence of love.

 

She needs someone to give her a hug;

to meet her glittering gaze.

Someone to give her a reason

for her to change her ways.

 

Someone to save her,

before it’s too late.

Before she succumbs

to her sad, seductive fate.

Long-time followers of this blog will be aware of my liking for, and interest in, wines, spirits, beers, ciders. . .  – alcohol, in most of its myriad forms and varieties.  My interest also extends into what sorts of alcoholic beverages are popular with other people.  This poem started out purely as an exercise in observation, and then developed elements of speculation.  I haven’t seen the central character of the poem in Waitrose for quite a while now; I hope she’s not succumbed to “her sad, seductive fate”.

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The Old Man and the Ice

The Old Man and the Ice

It’s the confidence that counts, that you won’t slip or slide,

come a complete cropper, land on your backside.

It’s always a gamble, walking on ice;

almost as if you were rolling a dice.

It could be a game, a bit of good fun;

but you need the confidence that belongs to the young.

 

I still remember the old man, on our street.

A harsh winter’s day; snow turning to sleet;

the ice, covering both sides of the street,

a shining, shimmering, endless sheet.

 

I heard cries of fear, went to my window;

looked out, onto the street below.

The old man, who lived further down the street;

stuck, motionless, afraid to move his feet.

Crying out in panic, clinging to the wall;

convinced his next step would lead to a fall.

A frail old man, in freezing cold weather;

trapped, alone, at the end of his tether.

 

Across the street, ignoring his cries,

a group of teenage boys passed by.

With shouts of joy, whoops of merriment,

sliding effortlessly along they went.

The energy, the confidence, the ignorance of youth;

I witnessed an eternal, depressing truth.

 

A sobering scene, in vivid tableau;

I watched it all, from my window.

Today happens to be a gorgeous day of clear blue sky and sunshine, here in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, England.  The enticing hints of Spring are somewhat deceptive, however,  as it remains surprisingly chilly, for the time of year.  Nothing like as chilly as it was a few weeks ago, when we had the last of three blasts of wintry weather directly from Siberia – nicknamed The Beast From the East.  It was the first appearance of “The Beast”, back in February, that inspired The Old Man and the Ice.  The actual incident described in the poem happened a couple of years ago.  It made an impact upon me, but I made no attempt to write about it, at that time, and it was only when the brutally cold weather returned in February that I was reminded of the incident.  I always find narrative poems like this quite difficult to do – compressing a lot of information into a brief format – but I hope I’ve finally managed to convey the essence of the situation.

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