Tag Archives: Childhood

Mr Twink

MR TWINK

the cat detective. I must have been
seven or eight when I met him,
in the Children’s Public Library.

Mr Twink, the black cat; so calm,
so clever. So sleek, so slim,
so self-contained.

Sgt. Boffer, the large, hairy,
friendly dog assistant, ran around,
laboriously, all over the place;
sweating, fretting, getting nowhere,

while Twink slept, preened
his immaculate fur, and solved
the case, by pure ease of intellect.

Poor old Boffer ended up
baffled, bothered, and bewildered.
How I envied Twink! How I wanted
to be him!

Later, I read Conan Doyle;
saw Holmes and Watson as pale
simulacra of Twink and Boffer.

Then there was Cardew
of the Fifth Form: lax, lazy
with his homework,

lounging, smoking cigarettes,
while his schoolmates toiled
and scratched their heads.

Coolly timing his decisive
surge to the tape in The 440 Yards
on School Sports Day.

Later still, I recognised Mr Twink’s
feline intelligence in Mrs Peel
on The Avengers.

Steed was no slouch,
but he would puzzle and fret,
while she calmly cut to
the heart of the case.

They were my heroes; my idols.
I wanted to glide, lazily, through life;
succeeding, where others failed,
by the languid use of my
incisive intelligence.

But now, as I veer unsteadily
towards my doddering seventies,
I can see that Mr Twink as me
was something that could never be.

I was, have always been, Sgt. Boffer:
bothered, baffled, bedraggled,
and now, increasingly,
bewildered.

The global success of the BBC TV series “Sherlock”, with Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as Dr Watson, is the latest incarnation of the Holmes and Watson characters from the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  When I first started reading the Sherlock Holmes stories, as a teenager, my initial response to them must have been fairly unusual, for I remember thinking “Oh, I see what this is: this is an imitation of the Mr Twink stories!”

I can still vividly remember my excitement when I came across a series of books, in the Children’s Section of Barnsley Public Library, all featuring a cat detective called Mr Twink and his collie dog assistant Sgt Boffer.  I was, I think, seven or eight years old at the time.  I remember the books having jackets in different shades of pastel colours, and black and white illustrations of the animal characters.  I’ve searched the internet many times without success, looking for any trace of these wonderful books.  I even started to wonder whether they were a figment of my imagination.  It was only today that I finally found a website that actually had the information I was looking for.  So I now know that the books were written by a children’s nurse called Freda Hurt, and the illustrations were by a well-known artist called Nina Scott Langley.  There were a series of nine books, published between 1953-1962.  One other interesting fact, that did not impinge upon me at the time, is that Mr Twink’s owner happened to be a poet!   

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The Limit

 

 

THE LIMIT:

(The miserable schoolboy that was me):

 “How he envied the pensioners he would see,
occupied in their homely lives; independent, free.
If only he could, by some chance, heaven-sent,
live like them, he’d be forever happy and content.”

(Fifty Years Later):

Five years of retirement have now gone by.
So quickly, it seems; a blink of the eye.
The days are my own, to do as I please.
Why do I not feel blissfully free?
Am I not content with this modus vivendi,
that could now continue until I die?
Time to analyse, perhaps; to ask why.

Dusk melds into darkness, dawn into brightness.
No moment between delineates
these phenomena as separate states.
Minutes into hours, hours into days;
appears to happen in much the same way.
Weeks into months, months into years;
it is this that disturbs, promotes inner fears.
How to settle, how to take heed;
it all occurs at bewildering speed.
Sliding down a vertiginous slope;
an inexorable process, fears replace hope.
Fear of the moment you cannot contemplate:
the one certain moment that will delineate.
One certain moment that will occur,
and negate.

I have written a series of autobiographical poems about my schooldays, and how unhappy they were.  One of the recurring motifs was how I dreaded the long journey on the bus to school every morning.  I have vivid memories of looking, forlornly, out of the bus windows, and envying the housewives and pensioners I would see, who all seemed, to me, to be happily engaged in their daily domestic activities.  How fortunate these people were, I used to think.  Not only were they free of the necessity to go to school, but they didn’t even have to go to work any more!

Having taken early retirement, five years ago, I suppose I’ve been living the life I dreamed of, as that unhappy schoolboy.  So why am I not deliriously happy, day after day?  “The Limit” is my attempt at answering that question.

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Please God

 

 

 

 

PLEASE GOD:

Please God, save me from this!
Please God, I’ll do anything!
How often in your life have you said this?
What are you really saying?

An unhappy schoolboy; eight years of Hell
at Catholic grammar school. I remember so well
that daily bus journey, a mobile prison cell.
Sealed within its confines for an hour each way;
a dreaded entrance, blessed exit to each day.
Increasing terror, mounting desperation,
as the bus approached its termination.
Like Dostoevsky in front of the firing squad,
willing to do anything; promising God
a life of devotion, forsaking all doubt.
Only God could save me, show me the way out.

Please God, save me from this!
Please God, I’ll do anything!

Bitter irony in this fervent plea;
my heartfelt plea to God.
This desperate plea, to save me
from the very emissaries of God:
the sinister, black-robed “brothers”,
who did not spare the rod.

Please God, save me from this!
Please God, I’ll do anything!
How often in your life have you said this?
What does it mean? Are you praying?

It was thanks to the late lamented British writer/philosopher Colin Wilson that I first came across the story of Dostoevsky and the firing squad.  In one of his philosophical essays, Wilson recounted how the Russian writer, sentenced to death for anti-Tsarist activities, had been lined up in front of the firing squad, then reprieved at the last minute.  Wilson was using the story to illustrate his ideas about how we routinely undervalue our existence, allowing our “robot” to take over, and only being shaken out of our passive boredom by experiences like the one that happened to Dostoevsky.  In my case, it reminded me of an unhappy period in my youth when I had dreaded going to school, and would have given anything to escape it. 

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Sneeze

 

 

 

SNEEZE:

My father’s sneeze always came in threes;
a series of escalating, shattering explosions.
We would watch the spectacle,
our amusement tinged with awed reverence.
The very air in the living-room retreated,
quailing from its impact. Our eardrums
reverberated from its echoes.
After the climax, he would look around,
skin flushed with a roseate glow,
eyes gleaming with exultation,
and release a laugh of sheer merriment.
The pleasure he felt from his prowess;
the thrill of its purifying power.

As I approach the age he was then,
I realize he must have appreciated it
as one of the dwindling catalogue
of pure pleasures, granted us
by our ageing bodies:
the simple grace of
a perfect bowel motion;
the cleansing burp,
lifting the heart;
the thunderous, brute
exhilaration of the fart;
the rare, yet still salvatory
spasm that signals
the (inevitably)
onanistic orgasm.

I sneezed while I was relaxing in the bath, the other day.  A sneeze is one of those mundane, everyday occurrences that you wouldn’t normally think about as a subject for a poem, but followers of this blog will be familiar with my habit of reading anthologies of verse in the bath, so bath-time, for me, has an automatic association with poetry.  Immediately after the sneeze, I began thinking about the curious nature of the event, and how everyone sneezes in their own, idiosyncratic manner.  When I sneeze, it is invariably a double event – the first sneeze followed immediately by a slightly louder explosion.  I remembered how spectacular my father’s sneezing had been, and realized that the sneeze could, after all, be the material for a poem.

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Uncanny

UNCANNY:

It happens on certain suburban side streets,
at a certain time of day – early afternoon,
or late lunchtime.  The sky is unbroken,
cerulean; the air is still.  It is quiet; so quiet.
I am the only visible human presence.
Somewhere, a bird timidly twitters; embarrassed
at breaking the uncanny silence.  I look
along the street, which is, suddenly, endless;
just a hazy vanishing point shimmers
in the distance.  And I am overcome
by the strangeness of it all.

How absurd, how accidental, for me to be
here; a stranger in a strange world.
And it is not unsettling, but benign, somehow,
that an infinitude of possibilities
must exist, here.  That, in one of these
anonymous houses, someone is scribbling
a literary masterwork, or composing
a concerto of unheralded beauty,
or cracking  the quantum code of the universe.
That the door to one of these houses will open,
and from it will emerge a woman whose eyes
meet mine, and our souls intertwine, as we
instantly divine our twinned destinies.

Then a van rumbles by.  The silence, the spell
Is broken.  Through the clear bay window
of the next house along I see a man,
sitting, motionless.  He is gazing, blankly,
at his television screen.

My favourite TV series, when I was growing up in the sixties, was definitely “The Avengers”.  I’m talking about the original Avengers, with Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg as special agents John Steed and Emma Peel.  The storylines were always exciting, but often bizarre, with surreal overtones.  The dialogue – particularly between the two main protagonists – was literate and laced with witty bon mots.  Emma Peel was, for me, the ultimate heroine – poised, cool, highly-intelligent, witty, as well as physically gorgeous, with raven-dark hair.  I instantly fell in love.

A recurrent scenario was for Steed and Emma to be isolated, solitary figures in a strangely deserted landscape – either in a rustic country village, or in the middle of a normally busy city.  Whenever this occurred, with strangely unsettling background music, I always found myself particularly enthralled.  There was an underlying sense of suspense and dislocation; the feeling that literally anything could happen. 

I occasionally find myself walking along quiet, suburban side-streets at a time of day – late-morning or early-afternoon – when the silence and lack of activity suddenly bring me to a halt.  I look around, realize that I am the only visible person around, and immediately I get the same sense of strangeness and underlying excitement that I used to feel watching “The Avengers” all those years ago.  This is, essentially, what I was trying to capture in my poem “Uncanny”.

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The Dread

THE DREAD:

A recurrent family scene;
long ago, childhood days.
Late afternoon; mother
in the kitchen.  My brother
upstairs, or in the garden.
My father in the armchair
next to mine, snoring, or
reading a newspaper.
Aromas filtering
through the kitchen door,
enticing our slumbering appetites.

Suddenly, a knock on the door.

Alarm, fear, immediate;
tangible as a dangerous
wild animal, now with us,
in the room.

My father jerks in his chair;
turns to me, and on his face
is a look of dread.
A dread I share.
Pure, strong; distilled,
from the earliest of times,
into my very soul.

The dread is still with me,
after all these years.
I hope to God
the old myth is not true:
the final portals;
the family ghosts,
all there, waiting for you.

My poem “The Dread” is inspired by childhood memories.  I’m sure that most people have memories of visits from family relatives, during childhood years.  I don’t know whether I was particularly unfortunate or not, but it just seemed to me, at the time, that our relatives never gave any warning of their visits, always arrived unexpectedly, and always arrived at the wrong time.  It may seem exaggerated to ascribe a feeling of “dread” to such humdrum family experiences, but I can assure you that my father – for whatever reason – did genuinely evince such feelings, and they had a real and lasting impact upon me.

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Sacraments

SACRAMENTS:

My “First Communion”; lost, in the mists of time.
“The Body and Blood of Christ Our Lord”
made little impact on me, apparently.
What remains, strongly, in my memory
is “The Holy Sacrament of Confirmation”.
Not the ceremony itself, just the walk back home.
My white-clad form, cradled in sunlight;
the footpath, devoured by my eager tread.
We were “Soldiers of Christ” now; armed for the fight
with missals, and little red catechisms.
But no martial thoughts in my ten-year-old head.
No conflicts of belief, religious schisms;
just a haze of effulgence, confirmatory light.
We’d been let home early; I should be there by three.
I wondered what Mum had got for my tea.

My poem “Sacraments” is, I think, pretty much self-explanatory.  My mother was a devout Roman Catholic, and did her best to inculcate a similar devotion in me.  She was, however, always fighting a losing battle in this.  Apart from a juvenile flirtation with the idea of becoming a priest, in my early ‘teens, I never expressed any serious interest in Catholicism, and became a “lapsed” Catholic in my late ‘teens.  The sacraments of Holy Communion and Confirmation were supposed to imbue us with spiritual sustenance, but sustenance of a more corporeal nature always had a greater interest for me.  The line from The Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread” was obviously more relevant to me at the time.

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And Now I Lay Me Down

A radio programme I listened to a few days ago, about the life of Blaise Pascal, reminded me that I had written a poem in which “Pascal’s Wager” makes an appearance.  Pascal (1623-62) was a French mathematician, physicist and philosopher, chiefly known, these days, as the author of the “Pensees” – an acknowledged literary/philosophical classic.  His “Wager” is a metaphysical argument that goes, briefly, as follows: We don’t know if God exists or not.  Nevertheless, we can ask the question “Is it better to believe in the existence of God, or not?”  Pascal’s answer: “If God exists, then it is clearly better for us to have believed in God; infinitely better, given the prospect of eternal bliss for believers, and eternal damnation for non-believers.  If God does not exist, then we lose nothing by our mistaken belief.  So belief is the dominant strategy; it can win, and cannot lose.  The wager is infinity to nothing.”

There are, of course, many criticisms of this argument, which I do not intend to discuss here.  My poem “And Now I Lay Me Down” came about when I started asking myself why , on going to bed at night, I had started remembering the prayer my mother had taught me to recite, as a child.  The “Wager” is alluded to because it deals with primary thoughts and fears that I had categorised and parcelled-up as “child-like” and presumed I had forgotten about long ago.

AND NOW I LAY ME DOWN:

And now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray The Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray The Lord my soul to take.

“Now I want you to listen.  Say after me . . .”
I whispered it, dutifully, every night.
Like confessing sins; obligatory, right.
Thirty two syllables; four lines of eight.
A way to avert an unnameable fate.
An incantation; a magical spell.
As long as I uttered it, all would be well.
Later, much later, scales fell from my eyes.
Holy baloney!  A tissue of lies.
The scorn, the arrogance, of teenage years.
No longer a child; no more childish fears . . .

Thirty two syllables; four lines of eight.
Osiris assesses the soul by weight . . .

Fifty years or more, lying dormant in my brain.
Now, unbidden, they rise up again.
The rough magic of childhood has been abjured.
But Pascal’s Wager: shouldn’t one be insured?
Lame joke; dark humour, pitched against my plight.
Child-like again, in the dwindling light;
fearing the impending, unending night.

 

 

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Food for Thought

I’ve written quite a few poems about the pleasures of food and drink, and I’m quite unapologetic about that.  Poetry can address the most mundane subjects, just as it can the most high-flown, spiritual musings.  Occasionally, you come across a subject that has potential for combining the material and the spiritual, as in my poem “Food for Thought”, where a humble fish supper is the starting point for nostalgia and thoughts about religion.

John Donne wrote some of the greatest poems on the subject of religion; one of them being his Holy Sonnet “Batter my heart, three person’s God”.  Towards the end of “Food for Thought”, there is a blatant reference to Donne’s sonnet.  My apologies to the shade of John Donne, but I just couldn’t resist it!

FOOD FOR THOUGHT:

Fish supper tonight; I have been enticed.
The Chinese chippy; its friendly hubbub,
wafting aromas, glowing bright lights.
I stand in the queue; people come and go.
Memories of childhood flicker and flow. . .

I knew, every Friday, going home from school,
what awaited me, glistening, on a plain, white dish.
Week in, week out, an unbroken rule.
Unwritten, understood: it would be fish.
Cooked by my mother’s fervent, Catholic hands;
pure, white fillets of haddock or cod.
As clean, as virtuous, as Sally Army Bands.
Wholesome, nutritious; an offering to God.
Jesus and fish, I could understand.
The disciples, fishermen of Galilee.
Peter and the others, harvesting the sea.
Loaves and fishes fed the five thousand.
But bread and wine as Christ’s body and blood;
(the priest got the wine, to savour and taste;
we got “The Host” of cardboard and paste.)
that was a problem, never understood.
In no way did this artifice fill my need.
“Transubstantiation”, indeed!
When Host met tongue at communion rail,
all faith and belief would begin to fail. . .

Will it batter my heart, this oleaginous cod?
I anoint it with condiments; can of beer for
libation.  Insert a mouthful; await revelation.

It tastes of grease and salt; but what it tastes of most
is paste and cardboard: it tastes of The Host.

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Communion

Religion seems to be dominating the news at the moment.  Last week, the eyes of the world were focused upon the inauguration of Pope Francis at the Vatican.  Today, as I write this, the airwaves – at least here, in the UK – are monopolised by live coverage of the enthronement of the new Archbishop of Canterbury.  In a fascinating new book – “Religion for Atheists” – Alain de Botton argues that the cultural manifestations of religion: the art, music, rituals, literature, architecture, have much to offer, even to the non-believer.  As a lapsed Catholic myself, I must admit to finding some of de Botton’s arguments persuasive (I can also recommend his other books “How Proust Can Change Your Life” and “The Consolations of Philosophy”).  On the other hand, it is undeniable that religions have had disastrous consequences, as even a cursory look at human history reveals.

My schooldays were, in general, a time of misery for me, due to the ministrations of malicious, black-robed Christian “Brothers”.  Partly as a result of that, I have no liking for formalised religion to this day.  My poem “Communion” is a brief – though pungent – attempt to express some of the dichotomies and hypocrisies of established religion.  [The word “tawse” refers to the leather strap that was frequently used to enforce “discipline” in the days of corporal punishment.]

COMMUNION:

Bread and water, blood and wine,
flowing from the font divine.

Words murmured, gaze intent.
Heads lowered, soft assent.

Tongues receptive, doubts healed.
Thoughts deceptive, minds sealed.

“Crack!” of tawse, encrimsoned skin.
Rigorous laws enforced therein.

Immaculate deception, bred into belief.
Fallible conception, ceaseless grief.

Font divine, endless slaughter.
Blood and wine, bread and water.

 

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