Monthly Archives: June 2012

Tattooists

I’ve always been fascinated by tattoos and tattooists, and, over the years, I’ve accumulated a total of five tattoos on various parts of my body.  The first time I went to a Tattoo Parlour – in fear and trembling – I got a bit of a surprise.  Instead of the rather fearsome, flamboyant figure I had imagined, my tattooist turned out to be a quietly-spoken, serious-looking individual, whose eyes seemed to bore into my soul.  I was, stupidly, asking him to do a large tattoo, extending from the upper area of my chest to the lower part of my throat.  He said he intended to confine the tattoo to my chest, rather than have it intruding into the neck area.  When I asked why, he fixed me with his sober gaze, and explained, patiently: “You might want to cover it up, you see.  Not have it visible all the time.”  I was about to protest at this, but realised the man was implacable.  He was absolutely right, of course – I was working as a civil servant at the time, and tattoos were not as universally accepted in those days as they are now.  If I had suddenly started displaying a startling-looking tattoo on my neck, there could have been dire consequences.

I have since found out that my first tattooist was not an unusual case.  The vast majority of tattooists are people of honesty and integrity, who take their work intensely seriously.  My poem on the subject is an unashamed song of praise to an unappreciated profession.

Tattooists:

Artists of unacclaimed allure.
Their shops can be evanescent
phenomena.  Appearing, unannounced;
injecting colourful character
into those parts of the neighbourhood
ignored by the bourgeoisie.  Then,
just as suddenly, vanishing.

Virtuosos of violent imagery.
There is something of the fairground
to them.  A novitiate customer,
screwing his courage to the sticking
place, almost expects to find mermaid
foetuses in a jar, or faded
photos of bearded ladies.  Instead,
there is a person integrated,
at ease with himself.  They strip
the surface of your skin, with eyes
capable of scrutinising your soul.

Practitioners of painful precision.
Theirs is an art of frustration, ruled
by ill-inspired consumer wishes.
But theirs, also, the glory: adorning
pallid, uninteresting flesh with
images of indelible splendour.

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Summer Solstice

It’s the Summer Solstice today.  So, do I have any profound, poetic musings to offer, to mark this meaningful occasion?  Well, no, I’m afraid not.  The poem “In Search of Chalk” cannot be said to aspire to any level of profundity.  But it does have a connection to Summer.

It’s coming up to that time of the year when people start preparing for their Summer Holidays.  These days, of course, we Brits are no longer confined to the traditional British Seaside Holiday; but some of the coastal resorts still have their attractions.  A couple of years ago, I visited Dover for the first time, and “In Search of Chalk” is a memoir of that visit.  It’s one of my more informal poems; episodic, fragmentary, no traditional rhyme-scheme.  You could look at it as a sketch, or a photograph – a “holiday snap”, in fact.  Holiday photos are often a haphazard jumble of impressions, but occasionally they can capture an instant perfectly.  And that’s really all I was trying to achieve with “In Search of Chalk”: a compressed impression of my day at Dover.

In Search of Chalk:

“Excuse, please, we search the white cliffs”.
You wanted to say, in your best
Germanic accent, to the next
British person we saw.

“Gateway to the White Cliffs” we had seen.
We entered the portals, but found
no promised land.  Time seemed endless, as we
walked, stumbled, climbed; enmeshed
by hills of quotidian green.

Then, a glimpse of white
around a corner.  Then another.
Soon, we were kicking up
chalkdust, shouting, taking
photos of each other, against
dramatic white backloth.

Looking across shimmering expanse.
“Is that? . . . “Yes, it must be”.
We paused, awed, for a moment.
The ominous weight of history.

We had walked around,
above, beyond the whiteness;
not realizing it was there,
beneath us, all the time.

You had patches of white
on your clothes for weeks.
Marks you couldn’t erase.

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Silence

The last rock gig I attended was so loud that I was forced to leave, half-way through.  My ears were ringing – and they’ve been ringing constantly, ever since.  I am, in other words, one of the many unfortunate sufferers of Tinnitus.  In my case, it takes the form of a high-pitched noise that is difficult to describe.  It varies in intensity during the course of the day, but it is always there.  Consequently, I never experience the phenomena of “Silence”, as such, and can only fondly imagine what it must be like.

My short poem on the subject derives from moments of peaceful tranquility I’ve experienced, early in the morning, when the world is quiet, and the soporific humming sound of my refrigerator virtually nullifies the Tinnitus sounds in my head.  I suppose it’s the nearest I get to “Silence”, these days.

Silence:

…. will never be complete, all –
encompassing.  But, sometimes,
around daybreak, you silence
the radio, sit, sipping
meditatively at the
morning brew, thinking no thoughts.
And, suddenly, it is there.
You allow yourself to smile,
to nestle inside it, feel
it slowly swelling, gently
halting the morning’s mad march.
You vow to give it more time;
begin to appreciate
the extent of your freedom.

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Past Imperfect

Before settling for job security, and spending the rest of my working life in the Civil Service, I spent nine years teaching “English as a Foreign Language” in London.  For most of this time, I was working at a language school just off Oxford Street, with occasional stints at a subsidiary school in Hampstead.  I found the work challenging and demanding at times, but I enjoyed it – and the hours simply flew by!  Part of the enjoyment I derived was due to working with such interesting colleagues.  Most of them were self-employed, “freelance” tutors, working on a part-time basis.  They made no bones about the fact that they were only doing the teaching for the money, and their lives really revolved around their “other” careers – as actors, artists, writers, composers, playwrights, dancers, theatre directors . . . .   Some of them went on to have highly successful careers: I can think of at least one well-known actor who appears regularly on our TV screens, and a highly-acclaimed film/TV director who – coincidently – was the director of last night’s episode of “Lewis” on ITV.

I was in my early thirties at the time; still youthful enough to have grandiose dreams of literary achievement, boosted by an over-inflated sense of self-confidence.  The problem was – unlike my colleagues, who were busily pursuing their artistic aspirations – all I was doing was day-dreaming about the books I was going to write, one day!  In my poem “Past Imperfect”, I look, wryly, back at this time.

Past Imperfect:

English is a foreign language.
So it sounds, to non-British ears.
Somehow, I fell into teaching it,
in London, in my prime, for nine years.

I specialised in simple grammar;
the tenses; centrality of time.
I taught it with audio and video,
with drills, simulations, with mime.

The Three Conditionals” were a favourite.
Complex-sounding, yet easy to teach.
Enjoyable for “Intermediates”,
but below that, out of their reach.

The work was sporadic, “risqué”.
My colleagues motley freelancers.
“Resting” actors, playwrights, composers,
musicians, directors, dancers.

Like them, I had dreams, in those days.
Vague visions of rising to fame.
Writing novels, histories, essays.
“The Literati” all knowing my name.

Unlike them, I did nothing about it.
Being lazy, committing the crime
I refused to permit to my students;
I ignored the centrality of time.

I failed to realise, in my callowness,
how fast life would turn; how transitional.
From “could do” to “could have done”.
From second, to third conditional.

 

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Every Time

I am not a great lover of jazz singers, jazz songs, or songs from “The Great American Songbook”.  One exception to this, however, is the song “Every Time we say Goodbye”, by Cole Porter.  I first heard it, ages ago, on an old album of songs by Cole Porter and Irving Berlin; the singer was Ella Fitzgerald.  On that very first hearing, it moved me to tears.  It still does so, to this day.  I think it’s the combination of Ella’s immaculate vocal delivery, the lyrics, and the sweeping – almost lush – orchestral arrangement.  I first thought the arrangement was by the well-known George Shearing; only to find, after researching into it, that it was by a guy I’d never heard of before, called Buddy Bregman.

That old album was lost, or mislaid, long ago.  I never replaced it, and the only time I get to hear the song nowadays is on the rare occasion when it is played on some radio programme like “Desert Island Discs” or “Private Passions”.  I’ve written before about the influence of music on poetry; about the death of my mother, and the universality of the mother-son relationship.  The poem “Every Time” brings all these themes together.

Every Time:

“Every time we say goodbye, I die a little.
Every time we say goodbye, I wonder why, a little. . . .”*

Every time I hear Ella sing
“Every Time We Say Goodbye”;
such emotional pull on my heartstrings,
I’m transfixed, undone, want to cry.

Only the Buddy Bregman arrangement,
of course, it goes without saying,
wreaks such emotional derangement.
“Play it again!  Please!”  I am praying.

The inevitable image arises;
is held, fixed, in my mind’s eye.
The so infrequent visits to my mother,
and their ending, with the sad sigh.

“TaTa for now, love”, she would say.
“TaTa.  Let’s not say goodbye”.
I’d kiss her; slowly walk away.
Turn my face to the impassive sky.

And that’s why Ella gets to me.
That’s why she makes me want to cry.
Because I really did die, a little,
every time Mum and I said goodbye.

*”Every Time we say Goodbye” by Cole Porter.

 

 

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