Tag Archives: Autobiography

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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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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Cambridge: Culture

Cambridge (7): Culture

City of students,
professors, high, lofty thought.
Wisdom, sought eagerly,
imbibed as it’s taught.

City of colleges,
bookshops, cobbled alleyways.
City of eccentrics,
steeped in its ways.

Culture at its centre,
philosophy, art;
the vibrant, pulsing
beat of its heart.

A humble student
might even play a part.
I’d fallen in love with it,
right from the start.

This is the last – for the moment, anyway, – in the sequence of autobiographical poems I’ve been writing about my time as a student at Cambridge in the late 1970’s.  Having temporarily run out of ideas for autobiographical scenarios that might be of interest, I thought it might be an opportune moment to try to summarise, in a brief poem, what Cambridge had meant to me.  I still look back at that period with the greatest affection, and think how lucky I was to spend three years of my life as a student at Cambridge.  It’s also nice for me to realise that, living in Peterborough, I’m within easy reach of Cambridge, and still visit it frequently.

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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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