Tag Archives: Autobiography

Morning Ritual

Morning Ritual

Whey-faced, hollow-eyed,
the Penitent stumbles
into the kitchen; musters
faltering forces, begins
preparations for the ritual.

He wrenches his mind away
from endless recycling
of sins the previous day.

He sips chilled water,
through parched lips
into arid throat,
to wondrous effect.

He detects the first faint flickers,
the incipient signs
of salvation.

Penitent becomes Supplicant.
He intones a prayer;
focuses his belief
in the alchemy
of the ritual into each
methodical movement.

He sprinkles the first drops
of freshly-boiled,
purified water
onto coffee grounds;
watches as they
absorb the moisture,
begin to bubble into life.

He inhales
the hallowed,
holy fragrance.

The blackness of the brew
is befitting;
from darkness came light
in the beginning.

Sip by startling sip,
the black brew seeps
into his soul,
burns away
the bleakness,
bites into
the bitterness
of self-blame.

Sip by startling sip,
the black brew infuses
new spirit, scours away
suppurating sins
of the previous day.

Mesmerized by the miracle,
he mutters a prayer
of thanksgiving.

The journey from penitence
to salvation ends.
The ritual is complete.
The day begins.

I was a callow youth, living away from home for the first time, when I first started experimenting with coffee.  I remember I was on the verge of buying a percolator, which was quite a trendy appliance at the time, when an older, wiser female friend pointed me in the right direction.  “You don’t want to get a percolator” she said “They actually boil the coffee, which detracts from the flavour.  No, all you need to get is a simple jug with a filter; that’ll give you much better coffee.”  I followed her advice, and started to fall in love with the whole process of coffee-making.

Over the years, I’ve dabbled with different concoctions at breakfast-time, but I’ve ended up with a process of the ultimate simplicity: three spoons of ground coffee, into a coffee filter, in a cone placed on top of a pint mug.  Water is then poured from a kettle – just off the boil – directly onto the coffee, which drips directly into the mug.  Sheer heaven!  I can’t imagine life without my morning coffee ritual. 

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Serendipity (Haiku)

Serendipity

Serendipity
could be synchronicity,
said Wolfgang Pauli.

Serendipity
and my upturned glass of beer.
A drenching. Oh,dear!

Serendipity
and my half-full cup of tea
forever haunts me.

It fell through the air,
onto a head with no hair.
I fled to my lair.

Serendipity;
a word of five syllables,
but no miracles.

I was a teacher of EFL (English as a Foreign Language) at a language school in central London – just off Oxford Street – for a period of nine years in the 1980’s.  One lunchtime, without really thinking what I was doing, I threw a half-full cup of tea out of the window of my room on the first floor.  Seconds later, I heard a cry of rage, and looked out of the window.  The contents of my cup of tea had landed on the head of one of the busy lunchtime shoppers walking below.  The man, who appeared to have a completely shaven head, looked up, saw me looking down at him, shook his fist in anger, and shouted some incoherent swear-words at me.  At this point, the reality of what I had just done finally dawned upon me.  I realised the man was almost certainly going to enter the building and come looking for me, with vengeance in mind, so I took evasive action, and hid in the nearest available toilet.  When I emerged, ten minutes later, and timorously returned to my room, one of the secretaries had scribbled a message on the whiteboard: A MAN CAME IN, LOOKING FOR YOU.  BROWN LIQUID WAS DRIPPING FROM HIS HEAD.  HE SAID, WHEN HE FINDS YOU, HE’S GOING TO KICK YOUR ARSE.

I’ve tried to write poems about the incident, without success, over the years.  It would probably work better as a short story.  Last week I was in a pub with a friend one lunchtime, and inadvertently knocked my glass of beer all over him.  It reminded me of the incident all those years ago, and I suddenly realised that one way of writing about it could be in the form of Haiku – two lines of five syllables, enclosing a middle line of seven syllables.  The poem above is the result.

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Cambridge: The Punt

CAMBRIDGE (5): THE PUNT

This is anything but relaxing;
clinging onto the sides
of this precarious craft,
as it wobbles along the Cam.
My first time in a punt, and,
I swear to myself, my last.

And then it happens,
as I knew it would: a collision,
on this congested course,
and suddenly the wife
of the prize-winning novelist
is in the water.

She shakes the sodden hair
from her face, like a dog,
and swims, not with a dog-like
paddle, but a powerful breaststroke.

She had told me of idyllic times
on Greek islands, when she
and the budding novelist
were young lovers.

Now, her breaststroke
cleaves through the Cam,
as it must have once
done in the Aegean,
in those halcyon days.

Following on from my previous post, this is the next episode from my continuing autobiographical reminiscence of my student days at Cambridge in the late 1970’s.  As in the previous post, it features the wife of the novelist Barry Unsworth, who was later to go on to win the Booker Prize.  It will come as no surprise to readers of this poem that this remains the one and only time I have ever been in a punt!

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Cambridge: Greek Drama

CAMBRIDGE (4): GREEK DRAMA

Six of us, crammed into the intimate
interior of a portakabin; our first seminar
in Greek Drama. We are all unknown
to each other; anticipation, tension
simmers in the small space.

Anagnoresis:
We give our names to the tutor, and
a little, unexpected drama of our own
unfolds. The woman sitting next to me
appears to be twenty years older
than the rest of us. When she gives
her name, there is a slight intake
of breath by our tutor. He hesitates;
says a man’s name, questioningly,
and she is suddenly revealed to be
the wife of a prize-winning novelist.

I have never heard of the novelist,
but feel a thrill of awe. I am sitting
within inches of – I could actually
touch – the wife of one of those
fabled beings: a writer. And not just
any old writer – a prize-winning novelist!

 Hubris:
The novelist’s acolyte; could she
initiate me into the sacred rites?
With her as my guide, could I
enter those hallowed groves,
and walk with the gods?

Hamartia:
Yet she seems so normal,
so human, even slightly gauche;
laughing nervously, shaking back
the fringe that hangs, curtain-like,
over her eyes.

This is the fourth episode of my on-going autobiographical poem recounting my student days at Cambridge, back in the long-ago days of the late nineteen-seventies.  The main character in the poem – the “wife of a prize-winning novelist” – turned out to be Valerie, wife of Barry Unsworth, who was later to go on to win the Booker Prize for fiction, with his novel Sacred Hunger.  Valerie and I became great friends over the following three years, and I was a regular visitor to the family house on Garden Walk, where I also got to meet their three charming daughters.  Later on the marriage broke-up, I moved to London, and, eventually, lost all contact with Valerie and the Unsworths.

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Cambridge: Bare Feet

CAMBRIDGE (3): BARE FEET

First exploratory walk: Mill Road
and environs. A girl, walking, alone,
some distance ahead.

Tall, slim; curly dark hair cascading
onto shoulders. A long skirt,
flowing down to dainty ankles,
and bare feet.

I looked twice, and then again.
Autumnal weather, wet pavements,
and bare feet. Flagrant, glorious,
bohemian bare feet!

My random wandering suddenly
acquired new pace and purpose.
The white feet glimmered against
the dark sheen of the footpath,
hypnotising me, as I followed her,
from a circumspect distance.

She led me across the green expanse
of Parker’s Piece; the bare feet
no doubt squelching
in the damp turf.

She tossed her head;
the curly locks beginning
to glisten in descending drizzle.

I followed, in a trance. She could have
stepped out of a Pre-Raphaelite
painting, or been one of those gypsy
daughters of Augustus John.

She turned onto Mill Road itself.
Could she be going to the college?
No; she walked past the college,
turned left, entering,
I now saw, to my surprise,
a graveyard. There was
a graveyard, right next
to the college, and I’d never
noticed it before.

The white feet now
shimmered over loose shingle.
I winced in sympathy; imagined
sharp stones cutting into soft soles.
But she strode along, oblivious;
those soles must be tough as leather.

I loitered on Mill Road, respectfully
leaving her to her devotions. I gazed,
unseeing, into shop windows, waiting
for her to reappear.

Ten minutes later she emerged
from the graveyard, crossed
the road, and disappeared
into “Arjuna”, an appropriately exotic
emporium of grains, pulses and spices.

The bare feet lodged in my mind,
accompanying me back to my tiny bedsit,
where there was barely room for me,
let alone extraneous mental luggage.
They hovered in my head,
palely gleaming, ghost-like,
for the rest of that evening.

I rehearsed conversational gambits
for our next meeting, entirely unaware
of the sad truth: I would never
see the girl again.

So preoccupied was I by the bare feet,
the irony of the graveyard adjoining
the college eluded me:
that hothouse of fervid young minds,
all that striving, to study, to succeed,
to make new friends. And right next to it,
the visible reminder
of how it all ends.

Like the last item I posted in this blog, this is another poem in the continuing, autobiographical series of reminiscences of my student days at Cambridge (1976-79).  Incidentally, the shop called “Arjuna” is still there, on Mill Road, forty years later!

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Cambridge: The Bedsit

CAMBRIDGE (2): THE BEDSIT

A sobering, saddening thought:
I could spend the next three years
of my life squeezed into this box,
this tiny room, complete with bed;
my family, my friends, a world away,
in South Yorkshire.

Omnipresent noise; busy, bustling traffic
on Mill Road, throughout the day,
throughout the night. The walls so thin;
interpenetration of outside and in.
The vans, the buses, the taxis, the trucks,
careering over the thin strip of pavement,
through the walls, into my life; into my dreams.

I plugged in my record-player;
lowered the needle onto the grooves
of “Our House” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
They sang of cosy rooms, of lighting a fire,
in a very, very, very nice house.
Nothing was right, yet it soothed me
through my sadness that first night.

A couple of months ago, I posted a poem entitled “Cambridge: Arrival”.  Triggered by the news reports of the latest GCSE results, it was a reminiscence of my arrival at Cambridge to start my degree course in “Humanities”.  Writing that poem started a fertile stream of memories and recollections, which has resulted in another two poems – with more to come, I hope!

 

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The Second Tattoo

THE SECOND TATTOO

Pain – intense, persistent,
probing pain, as the cobra
was inscribed, so slowly,
so agonisingly, into the paper-thin skin
on my chest – that was all
I remembered from the first tattoo.

This time, pain was remarkable
only for its absence. “You won’t feel
it, mate” my genial tattooist
informed me. “The skin’s thick
on your neck.” And so it transpired.
Instead of gritting my teeth, I was able
to chat idly as he worked. We speculated
on the likely outcome of the upcoming
general election. In no time at all
he had finished, and I was looking
disbelievingly in the mirror at the
large, dark blue spider’s web on my neck.
He’d made the spider larger, and the
web smaller than I wanted, but no matter.
There it was, undeniably, on my neck;
to be there until the end of time.
I couldn’t believe it had happened.

I walked out of the shop, with uncertain
steps, into my new future, where I was
now transformed into a yob, an unsavoury
member of the underclass, a boozer
and street-brawler. I would certainly
be fired from my respectable office job
upon my return to work.

But I was to find, to my amazement,
my disappointment, my chagrin,
that no-one turned a hair.
A tattoo on my neck, so what – did they care?
It may as well not have been there.

A few weeks ago, I published a poem entitled “The First Tattoo”.  It described my thoughts and feelings as I went to a tattooist for the first time in my life.  I had a perverse urge to get a large tattoo of a cobra done on the front of my throat, and I particularly wanted it to be highly-visible.  In the poem, I recount my disappointment when the tattooist refused to put the tattoo where I wanted it, and would only agree to inscribing it lower down, on my chest.  The whole experience was so painful that it deterred me from getting any more tattoos, but the urge to have a visible tattoo on my neck persisted, and I finally achieved this objective twenty years later.

There has been much public debate in the UK recently regarding an edict prohibiting members of the police force from having “visible tattoos” – i.e. tattoos on the hands, face, or neck.  The debate has raged over whether the police force is kicking itself in the foot, by preventing numbers of perfectly good candidates from entering the force, due to this edict.  The argument has been that, these days, visible tattoos are common among members of the public, so why should police men and women be barred from having them?  I can only say, for myself, that I have never given a thought to getting tattoos on my hands or face, but I have always had this rather strange obsession about getting tattoos on my neck.  I can also say that when – after much doubt and hesitation – I finally got a tattoo on my neck, nobody seemed to give it a second glance! 

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Arrival at Cambridge

CAMBRIDGE: ARRIVAL

Mrs Moroz was the first
Cambridge character we encountered.
My mother, my father, my brother
and I must have stared,
disturbed yet fascinated by
the scrawny frame,
the frizzy hair,
the squinting gaze
behind thick lenses,
the twisted, tangled teeth,
the clotted, catarrhal vocal delivery,
the mangled, mutant version
of English-Polish emitted
from her epiglottis.

An unlikely figure to be
the guardian at the gate,
the fallible ferrywoman,
barring the way to the
unimaginable riches that
awaited me, once she
ushered me through the portals
into the enchanted city.

It’s that time of the year when GCSE results arrive, eagerly awaited by the many thousands of students hoping to enter university.  It’s reminded me of the three years I spent at Cambridge, and, when I started writing the above poem, I was surprised at how vividly I remember meeting my first landlady there.

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The First Tattoo

THE FIRST TATTOO

Like everything else, I left it late;
‘til the grand old age of thirty eight.
Adolescent rebellion running late,
I wanted to “epater la bourgeoisie”
with a large King Cobra;
hooded, menacing, poised to strike,
tattooed onto my throat.

But my wise tattooist was having
none of it.
“I ain’t putting it there, mate.
You might want to cover it up, see.”
Priming his weapon, ignoring my frown,
he insisted on putting it lower down.
The cobra would be etched upon my chest;
to be visible only in a low-cut vest.

So began the tortuous process,
searing the soul, like bare feet
trudging across burning coals.
My cobra began to communicate
with me; a disquisition on the nature
of pain. So much pain in life we tolerate,
we bear. It is necessary, inescapable;
part of the tissue of our existence.
But how to justify this pain,
this needle, sinking in, inscribing
its torture into my sensitive skin?
This pain was inessential, self-imposed,
masochistic frippery. So mused the cobra,
fangs sunk into my skin; its venomous
thoughts teeming through my brain.
Why open myself to this intolerable pain?
I must never, ever, invite it again.

So ended an hour of nightmare.
Twenty years would pass,
before I would dare
to contemplate returning there.

I acquired my two latest tattoos over the last couple of months, making a grand total of seven.  I think it doubtful, now, whether I shall get any more.  I am in my sixty-sixth year, and have always wanted my tattoos to be on prominent, easily-visible parts of my body.  As I already have them on my arms, chest and neck, that really only leaves my face as uncharted territory – and facial tattoos are a step too far, I think.  Getting a new tattoo has always been an intense experience for me, and the recent ones made me think about my whole tattooing history.  It seems rather odd that I got my first tattoo almost thirty years ago, and yet the last six tattoos have all come within the last six years.  How to explain the gap of twenty-one years in the middle?  That was the origin of the poem “The First Tattoo”.

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Lost Talent

LOST TALENT

A TV programme on Amy Winehouse’s death
re-animates his ghost, in the depths of my mind,
where it has slumbered, undead, over forty years.

I Google him now, he is not there;
vanished in the ether, into thin air.
It seems the universe does not care
that he lived, he wrote, he promised
to be a writer of some celebrity.

Cambridge, 1976, city of dreams:
fitting stage for his brief life of extremes.
Rumours of drugs, drink, depravity;
his squalid surroundings, his verbal dexterity.

At times, he gorged on cream cakes;
at times, he starved. At times he was
pudgy; days later, he was thin.
His eyes always sparkled, behind
delicate frames. Invariably,
there was the impish grin.

I only met him three times;
spoke to him twice. Can’t recall
exactly what was said. I remember
he admired that line of Pink Floyd:
“shine on, you crazy diamond.”
He lived a 1970’s version of
starving in a garret. Became another
Cambridge casualty, like Syd Barrett.

Time churns on; the clunk, the clatter.
Time grinds on; the spray, the spatter.
Does anyone count? Does anyone matter?

The last time I saw him was in
the Public Toilets, in Lion’s Yard.
In his brown Attendant uniform
he sat at a desk in the corner,
reading Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus”.
A well-thumbed copy of Rimbaud’s
“Illuminations” lay on the desk.
His speech was slurred, but he spoke
of enjoying the job, and of how much
time it gave him to read. The next time
I heard about him, he was dead.

He will never enter the realms
of myth. He took on all the trappings,
but none of the pith. Perhaps it was
all bluster; perhaps it was all show.
The ultimate sadness: we’ll never know.

I had the best three years of my life – up to now – as a student at Cambridge from 1976 to 1979.  Whenever I tell people about getting my degree at Cambridge, they always look quite impressed.  I don’t usually go on to inform them that the degree course (in “Humanities”) was at Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology (now Anglia Ruskin University), and that I did it as a “Mature Student”, aged 26.  Anyway, the main point is that the course was wonderful, as far as I was concerned (European Thought and Literature, and Art History – exactly the subjects I loved and was fascinated by), and Cambridge was a wonderful place to be a student.  We actually got paid to be students, in those days; just imagine!

Alan McConville was one of my fellow-students, specialising in English Literature.  He was a small, rather pudgy individual, with spectacles, a mop of unruly hair, and the countenance of a cheeky cherub.  As I record in the poem, I never got to know him all that well, and only heard rumours of his literary talents; but I was shocked to hear of his death at the age of twenty two.

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