Together we are thunder
an awesome drone
of wing and speed
At once we are a cloud
that darkens the dim
and alters the light
Converging from every
corner of the Earth
where we’ve been to feed
But there we cannot linger
in field or wood,
on eave or ridge.
Forgo the food. Forego …
… for long is our flight
into the crowded night.
As one we are a force
of nature’s greater power.
As one we are invincible
a spectacle of the hour
before the dusk that yields
the squeal and chatter
of the roost, to exchange
the day’s adventures
for the quieter darkening.
This spirit of togetherness
a synergistic strength that binds.
Divisible yet unconquerable.
[ I was moved to write this piece by the amazing reality of observing a murmuration of starlings, with my own eyes for the first time last month. It occurs regularly between September and March each year in various parts of the UK, but this one was at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) Nature Reserve at Ham Wall in Somerset, England. I found it very moving, because it gave me a feeling of hope that the human spirit could one day, once again in its evolution, learn from nature and prevail over the predatory forces of greed and exploitation, simply by virtue of cooperating with each other like these clever birds in protecting themselves from predators at night. The predators we face are the masters of power, wealth and greed. Can we show intelligence enough and compassion in our responses to these threats to our environment, to our livelihoods, to our planet, and resist with all our strength and ingenuity, and keep our spirit strong.
The starlings kept on coming for a good hour. Tens if not hundreds of thousands of them coming together to roost for the night in the expansive reed beds of these well preserved wetlands.
Here’s what the RSPB has to say about the starling murmuration:
“It’s basically a mass aerial stunt – thousands of birds all swooping and diving in unison. It’s completely breathtaking to witness. We think that starlings do it for many reasons. Grouping together offers safety in numbers – predators such as peregrine falcons find it hard to target one bird in the middle of a hypnotising flock of thousands. They also gather to keep warm at night and to exchange information, such as good feeding areas.
They gather over their roosting site, sometimes in their hundreds of thousands, and perform their wheeling stunts before they roost for the night. More HERE.
HERE is my edit of what we witnessed that day. Not as dramatic as some films I’ve seen, but the starlings just kept on coming, on and on, in huge numbers, in their tens if not hundreds of thousands. Power to the birds! Power to the human spirit … Murmuration of Starlings at RSPB Ham Wall Nature Reserve in Somerset, England
It was an unexpected intermission in the middle of performing various parts in a day long reproduction, on 1st July this year, of Trevor Wishart’s and Mick Banks’ contemporary musical installation, “Landscape.” First performed in 1970 in Hebden Bridge, the production concluded with the singing of the finale, in quartet through massive speakers, half way up a hillside, in the darkness of 10:45 pm, echoing across the amphitheater that is Hebden Bridge, in West Yorkshire, in the UK. It felt like the most haunting thing I’ve ever been a part of…except perhaps for one thing.
At some point in the afternoon on that day we had a chance to steal ourselves away up steep-sided hills above Hebden at a place, which rejoices in the very interesting but, as it turns out quite appropriate name of ‘Hellhole Rocks.’ For half an hour we sat in utter silence, shrouded by trees, with distant background echoes of life far away down in the town. To complete this scene, and designed to be a part of the ‘Landscape’ production, the only other sound we could hear, that left its footprint in the memory of this already memorable day, was a sound that stood out far above the background hum of life that acted as its accompaniment. It was the poignant ringing of a single church bell that tolled its message slowly but insistently for half an hour.
It brought back the feeling that descends on us every November 11th, at 11 o’clock, when we remember the fallen on Armistice Day with two minutes silence, commemorated throughout the Commonwealth of Nations and Allied Countries, since November 1919. This year’s Armistice Day commemoration will be the 100th.
This silence is always very moving, not only because of the powerful effects of the silence itself on our own personal reflections, thoughts and prayers, but also, and principally because it helps us all feel at one with so many people at exactly the same time. This is a hugely powerful force of humanitarian collaboration. It is this two minutes of silence, which commemorates the ending of that ‘War to end wars,’ the Great War of 1914-18, that I have observed most regularly. It starts with a bugler playing the Last Post, which is followed by a measured two minutes silence. The silence is broken by the bugler, who plays the Reveille. Between the Last Post and the silence, the exhortation is read; the fourth verse from Robert Laurence Binyon’s memorable poem, “For The Fallen”:
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old, Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning We will remember them”
—Robert Laurence Binyon
These silent moments are a well established means of communal meditation; for remembering past lives, lost souls, healing the immediate effects of tragedies. Silent prayer, included during participation in other group activities, has been practiced by faith communities for centuries. These include, of course, Monasteries and Convents, but also it is reported that Quakers have done this for a few hundred years. I am certain there will be many and varied groups all over the World observing the same practice in their own way under their own faith system.
However, silent moments are also practiced in plural, multi-faith societies, which has the powerful effect of bringing people of different creeds together to think, pray, contemplate and grieve for lost souls. This is typified by the Armistice Day two minutes of silence, which spans the Commonwealth of Nations and Allied Countries, who celebrate it on 11th November. How gratifying it would be, as a result of such widespread humanitarian collaboration and cooperation, to have lasting peace in the World…
The Silent Minute
A very particular ‘Silent Minute’ was reportedly conceived and introduced into British life in 1940, early in the second world war, during the worst of the London Blitz that the Luftwaffe rained on us in 1940-41. It was the brain child of Major Wellesley Tudor Pole. As conceived, people were asked to observe one minute’s silence each evening at 9 pm, Greenwich Mean Time. Tudor Pole carried his idea to the King and to the Prime Minister, both of whose favor he won and so it was begun. Tudor Pole was quoted long after the war as saying:
“There is no power on earth that can withstand the united cooperation on spiritual levels of men and women of goodwill everywhere. It is for this reason that the continued and widespread observance of the Silent Minute is of such vital importance in the interest of human welfare.”
He was a man with some vision and a strong sense of the human spiritual effects of such cooperation and collaboration. He saw this Silent Minute as having been inspired from something beyond himself, from a Greater Power.
From 1941 through the end of the war, at 9 pm, when Big Ben rang the hour and the BBC broadcast its sound before its evening news report, people stopped to meditate, pray, or otherwise hope for an end to the war, victory, and peace.
46. Sir W. Davison asked the Prime Minister whether he is now prepared to commend the Big Ben silent-minute observance to British citizens, so that, wherever possible, they should unite together in silent prayer for the speedy victory of our fight for freedom and justice?
The Lord Privy Seal (Mr. Attlee) Yes, Sir. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister would be glad to think that those of us who wish to join in silent prayer for victory are combining to use the opportunity with which the B.B.C. has provided them.
It wasn’t until the late 1980’s that several notable people—amongst whom were the woman credited as its reviver, Dorothy H Forster, and Edward Tudor Pole, Wellesley Tudor Pole’s grandson—became the first Trustees of a charity that named itself The Silent Minute or the ‘Big Ben Silent Minute’…back to that tolling bell again.
Later on in its life, Trustees included the likes of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It now reaches out across all the continents of the world and, reportedly, there are more than 200 Million people who participate in the silence at 9pm each day, reciting this pithy little prayer:
“Source of my being Help me to live in peace and Save my home the planet Earth”
In reading that word – sustainability – cradling the head of our current Guide Dog puppy in my hands, her deeply pleading eyes looking up at me, I am reminded that this word not only describes what we at The BeZine – and indeed many, many more people around the world – more commonly come to understand of its meaning.
I have hitherto thought of sustainability as the fundamental process, nay philosophy, that needs to be adopted in order for the Earth to continue providing for all the life that inhabits it. But it also reflects human behaviour; it expects a certain attitude; it assumes that an essential ingredient to the achievement of a sustainable World is that the human beings, who inhabit the Earth become determined to adopt a way of life that is … well, sustainable!
It is an unfortunate character of the human condition that it is not until we lose someone that we become much more conscious of their value to our own life. It seems, whilst they are still around, that we prefer to focus more on their faults and shortcomings than on their virtues and strengths. We are even more prepared to abuse or betray their trust, than to respect them. So too, our Mother Earth.
As I regularly drive the roads around us, particularly the lanes of the beautiful countryside that surrounds us here in Yorkshire, I am reminded also of one of those human faults, anxiety, and of all the consequences of that condition: stress, impatience, fear, anger, aggression, depression. All too often, when I glance in my rear view mirror, I see another car race up behind me and sit so close to my rear bumper that I can’t see their number plate; at speeds and in situations in which it would be lunacy to contemplate overtaking. It is as if they are tempting me to yield, give in, pull over into a ditch and let them pass … and claim me as another victim! It isn’t necessarily that, I know, but it feels like that and, even in my advancing years, with the wisdom and insight of the road that I’ve gained in fifty years of driving, along with lowered testosterone levels, I sometimes feel like retaliating … and we all know how that could turn out.
The Dalai Lama it was, who attributed anxiety or agitation as the root of all conflict in the World. There is no doubt that he is right. Yes, I hear the academics, anthropologists, psychologists and any number of other -ologists, state the obvious, that Darwinian principles of evolution and survival in the animal kingdoms, of which human is one, dictate this behaviour. Our base instincts are therefore not to respect any forms of life outside our own sphere, outside our immediate survival zone; to consider them a threat to our survival.
We are beyond this, surely, aren’t we? Can’t we exert more control over our behaviours, or are we simply hopeless victims of our own psyche; our individual intractable personality. For many in the Western World, the need to survive, to subsist on what our local environment can provide us, has long since turned into higher and higher material expectations. Each generation starts with more, but wants still more than the previous generation. Our survival instincts have turned into greed; at the expence of those on the margins, particularly in the overexploited so-called Third World. Are these expectations a consequence of some out of control unconscious driving forces within us, or could we re-educate ourselves. I believe the answer for some, sadly, is ‘no’. For others it would be ‘yes’.
I contend that the World could continue to support all life, even with its currently burgeoning (human) population. If only we were able to overcome our unreasonable expectations, there is one overriding benefit that could accrue from vanquishing our own greed … we could begin to feel what it is like to live with less poverty in the world, and less debt; less personal debt; less corporate debt; less national debt. Currently the only way Western governments can see to pay off the latter, is growth, economic growth, which has become the unquestioned Demi-God of economic and political policy objectives; growth is, I believe, a largely misunderstood, overused and abused tool of political rhetoric. This is, unfortunately, a vicious circle. I’ve heard growth described as a means of servicing our national debt. Long term, this does not make economic sense and surely cannot be sustainable!
So, what are we to do? Save more? Conserve our resources, however modest they may be? Adjust our expectations and those of our children? Their generation and the ones that follow, will otherwise only continue this roller coaster of a suicidal ride into debt and debt slavery; a World in which the super wealthy few have more and more control over the increasingly debt-ridden many. Freedom from debt, however you achieve it, whatever the cost to your expectations, your dreams, has to provide the way to a more sustainable World, and …
It. Is. Liberating.
Otherwise, our greatest and only means of survival, our patient and beautiful Mother Earth, will expel us, rich and poor, forever, and no-one will inherit anything! Space exploration to find a new life sustaining planet somewhere out there in the vastness, is pure fantasy … and vanity!
What can be done to reduce your anxiety? A starting point for me is to have a hug with your best friend, be they human … or puppy dog.
“The Great Divide“
Crossing the great divide
between the dark age
and a brave new world,
sailing from the safety
of knowing your place
into uncharted waters.
In a deep and sickly swell,
an ocean of uncertainty,
struggling to recall
the purpose of the mission
for control of life, of lives,
and death by ownership.
From a certain time when
the have-nots had not
to one in which they have
a chance to trade their life
for aspiration, for riches,
for stuff and things,
for dukes and knights,
for castles and kings,
in suits that shine
with lights and bling,
but didn’t see the price
they’d have to pay.
Rivers flow with mighty force,
and carry away the memory
in a flood of whys, for what
and where will this all end?
Where are we now,
where will we be …
may be Utopia, the place of dreams
that while away our wild ambitious schemes?
We fail, as long as we can feel the pain
of having less than someone else’s gain.
Or we, by virtue of the coin’s toss,
have more by far than someone else’s loss.
Once in a while you excel yourself.
Are you blue, because we thought no more of you
as the driving force for life on Earth
or potency behind the waves of bitches and whelps
Thrilling moments … or contemplative
of a thriving, muddy, salty, riverine universe of life
waiting for you to draw the pelagic
covers repeatedly over the fruits of sustenance.
A force of nature, fully formed
yet so much smaller than the mother of your birth,
you hold sway, in countless ways
you touch our lives and drive us through our days.
Humble, unassuming, even unnoticed
by those who hurtle, mindlessly, and make no time
for the wisdom of our insignificance
or feel the difference between our age and yours.
As necessity tramples over truth
most days, we hide in fear of the darkening,
of the madness that ensues.
Does not the hunter choose your waning dark
to spike the nervous memory,
and remind us of the untamed wolf pack?
We may not ever tame you
but your mother is dying a slow and painful death.
Oh super blood blue moon,
does not your God and our God sing the same tune?
By the age of nineteen, my budding intellect had already decided that God was a figment of man’s imagination, but it was, as it turned out, a powerful figment; a very exceptional piece of imagination. My budding scientific and engineering education reinforced this agnostic feeling, but, because I was brought up as a regular church goer from the earliest age until I left school at the age of seventeen, I know that, deep down, I have a kind of belief that can never be erased completely. In my budding dotage, this kind of belief is now founded on a better understanding of man’s ultimate fallibility and frailty and is evidenced, everywhere you look, by the repeated failure of human endeavour, to live peaceably and with respect for our Mother Earth. This may sound very gloomy and negative, but it isn’t intended that way. It may, nonetheless, be touched by reality. I do hold a very strong feeling about the value of church and religious faith in our lives.
Imperfect though they may be, religious faith and ‘the church’ are still symbolically the last bastion, the writing through the stick of life’s rock, of family, community and a of nations. They represent a foundation and an anchor in stormy times; a prescription from the Spiritual Health Service. Whether for religious devotion or simply to reinforce community spirit and togetherness, it matters not, as long as the routines and rituals are maintained, reinforced and always accompanied by the search for truth.
The development of the established church and of all world religions over the millennia of the existence of the human race, has come from a fundamental human need, borne by political instability, pestilence, plague and all sorts of stuff that, whilst it may not have been experienced on a worldwide scale since WW2, still prevails in pockets everywhere you look. It is also driven by our need for security, for a common understanding; an understanding that, because of our undeniable individuality, our uniqueness, however wealthy, privileged and in control of our lives we may feel, we cannot achieve this alone.
The drift away from the church and the breaking up of communities; our increasingly technologically and commercially aided isolation, is attributable to an ‘enlightenment’ of the material age. This is an age in which our physical health and life expectancy has increased dramatically over the last hundred years. As evidence of this, the population of the world has more than doubled in my own lifetime; and all of this whilst our mental health has deteriorated inversely.
In the West we have developed a selfish and arrogant expectation of health and wealth and, at the same time, a denial of the need for a God; denial of almost everything spiritual, which, in our quest for an increasingly material life, full of countable and measurable stuff, has become intellectually unfashionable. What will it take to bring us together again?
Could we envisage a moment of cataclysmic crisis across the world, when even the calculating super-rich, sceptics and non-believers alike, could be faced with their own frailty and begin to wish, as I imagine we all will, when faced with our imminent mortality, for the coming again of a truly benign Messiah; a Saviour? Some beneficence would nice, but I personally don’t want to go as far as assuming a cataclysm. The process of decline is far more insidious and therefore harder to detect and calls on all of those who can, to be mindful of our own contributions to that decline.
Happy Winter Solstice, everyone.
[This post was originally my response in a comment to a post by poet, Kona Macphee, over six years ago, in her rather special blog, ‘That Elusive Clarity’, but because of the subject and of the fact that this thought process has preoccupied me philosophically throughout my adult life, I thought it worthy of editing, updating and enlarging slightly for inclusion, where more appropriate than here, in The BeZine, as a post in its own right ].
It’s white with snow and all is bright
on Christmas night. An image of your little face,
framed in elfin hat, as your eyes, open wide,
reflect the twinkles of a tree-borne star.
In awe we are, in awe you are
at your first site of wonder, magic, mystery.
It swells the very hardest heart
to see the perfect innocence that carries
all our fears and dreams and marries
them to faith and hope and charity
and love, that many fingered hand,
provides and guides you to your history.
A very Happy Christmas, little life.
May all this wonder, all that’s truly good,
be with you forever and without strife.
May love, not things, sustain you, as it should
provide the fuel, the fire inside, slowly
to burn throughout your life, empowering you
This article is an edited version of one I wrote six years ago about those who are marginalised in the world; but, more specifically, it was about the plight of Greece and its people as well as those of other EEC countries, particularly Italy, Spain and Portugal, who were facing a similar, albeit not quite so serious a plight; not forgetting that it wasn’t so long ago that the Republic of Ireland was plunged into economic gloom and bust! But is there any reason why we should not begin to worry about the core countries of Europe, Germany, France and the UK, particularly in the face of Brexit?
Who can foretell.
This has a lot to do not only with entrepreneurs, adventurers and leaders; people who stick their necks on the block for civilisation, to solve great human challenges, resolve seemingly irresolvable issues, achieve the impossible, lift us from darkness and create order out of chaos; but it also has to do with how they rise to preeminence, how they deal with it; and how they fall… or rather when the powerful effects of wealth and fame can turn them into bullies and control-freaks! Or cause them to ally themselves with people of such character, in order to retain control and grow their wealth!
I once recounted the lesson I learned from an inspiring geography teacher – that “the solution to the problems of the world lies in harmony with the distribution of raw materials”; very relevant to this debate, but I just remembered another memorable fact he taught us: about the rise and fall of civilisations, of empires. We in the ‘West’, notably in Britain, whose Empire once painted much of the world’s map pink, are now in the declining phase of civilisation. So too other European powers as well as the USA. All are desperate to keep a hold on their access to the World’s ‘vital’ raw materials, against the rising powers … the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China), some of whose resources may well lend truth to my geography teacher’s insight.
Watch this space!
Never more was there a need for significant enlightenment, and leadership, in World politics and economics, than right now.
The trouble with any kind of ‘progress’, howsoever forged by great minds; the inherent fault built into the human condition is that even for those, who have the greatest integrity, may be the most philanthropic and have the highest motives at the outset, it seems to me that we are programmed to fail; that very few human beings are perfect or capable of resisting the drug of wealth and power, which always turns so called ‘progress’ into a commercial crusade of self interest. And this will be true at whatever level of society, be it political, religious, commercial, military or social; global, national or local. I can think of few exceptions.
And so it is …
Whether you are the billionaire owner of a multi-national corporation, general manager of a medium sized company or Chair of the committee at your local Club. That deeply rooted human survival instinct to get more and more of it with the inevitability of its desire for supremacy, driven by the desire to rise above the rest, to eliminate challengers, is ever present. Competition is healthy. Yes, I agree. But what is happening to political democracy, to which, I think, the same rules apply as to the world of invention, trade and commerce? They big get bigger on the backs of the small; those in power constantly assay to eliminate their main rivals, sometimes with the help of small minorities.
Let me say this about myself …
In every walk of both my working and social life, I thought I’d seen it all. Democratic team players and delegators at one pole; control freaks and extreme control freaks – or bullies and dictators at the other. In between, a whole array of personality types that bridge the spectrum of humanity, each one of which is a unique representation of its genes and environment. There are other spectra that cross this one; one of them is what I’d call the ‘lucky-unlucky’ spectrum. So much depends on where, when and to whom you were born, as to where you might get to in life.
Ah, but …
I know, you could give me any number of examples of people born into lowly circumstances, who subsequently clawed their way to success and wealth, using what God-given intelligence they had along with hard work and prudent risk management – most likely with a bit of luck every now and again.
These are exceptional – and maybe exceptionally lucky – people. However, I am talking about the general majority of populations, the ordinary hard working people, like me, who are not wired in such a way. We are not all born equal; that is, with the same wiring, brains and intelligence – the X-Factor if you like – to enable that kind of success. If we were all born with equal brains into equal environments, with equal opportunities, then, I ask, what would the world be like?
For the world to change; for there to be an alteration to a fairer distribution of its assets; to enfranchise people and give them a sense of ‘ownership’ and therefore responsibility, there will firstly have to be a seed change in the attitude to ‘human rights’.
What does this mean?
What is a human being, from birth onwards, entitled to? What are their rights? How much of their privilege, or lack of it, of their inherited wealth, or lack of it, are they entitled to? How much can they reasonably ‘earn’ by merit; how can we define ‘merit’. Is a Premiership footballer a one hundred and fifty or two hundred times ‘better’ player than a professional footballer in National League 2; but not just as a player, as a human being too? I say not; it is marketing and merchandising that achieves this disparity. Is the CEO of a huge multi national company as many times better, harder working and dedicated human being, manager, director, creative organiser, motivator.. as his salary bears in multiples of that of the lowest paid in society? I suspect the answer is no! How often is the CEO and highest paid management of companies of such stature born into poverty? And when they do rise from lowly backgrounds, how much of the way they were wired at birth influenced their ability to achieve such high office. Not an easy question to answer, but I still suspect it is ultimately greed, along with creative marketing (and accounting) that is at the root of this disparity and the primary fuel of all ambition when they get to a certain level.
We will always need exceptional individuals, the best and most talented people, to be leaders; to rise and take the greatest responsibilities in the world. But if the posts they fill and the motivations that drive them end up being self-serving; if they are only to generate as much personal wealth for themselves as possible, then where is the justice in that? We all of us need to try our hardest to be the best we can be, given our environment, genetic heritage and opportunities, and there should always be recognition of endeavour.
If materialism and consumerism aren’t going to go away any time soon, how do you motivate the majority of people to be the best they can be, when the best they are likely to achieve is to become some kind of slave to their corporate masters, as well as becoming a slave to debt! As the gap between the rich and poor keeps on widening, so too will the aspirations of these individuals become strained to breaking point, in mind as well as purse. At the moment, particularly in the age of materialism – and maybe for the duration of human existence on earth – this seems to be because they become increasingly driven by material greed. We would all like to be rich, but some of us, including me, would prefer not to have to be a slave to another master; prefer not to break our banks as well as our minds.
All of this has been grist to the mill of political debate over the years: socialism vs capitalism; the market economy vs the (perhaps more difficult but not impossible to finance) caring and equitable welfare society. Or perhaps, more achievable, a combination of both?
Ah, but you see …
I hear voices retort, but it’s about perceived market value, merchandising, image, branding … but this is utter bullsh**. These are purely the tools of consumerism, the means of wealth creation, to worship at the alter of the great God, ‘profit’, at the expense of the consumers and tax-payers! These are all pointless jobs! Be human, try to get a handle on an alternative reality, because, unless you are amongst the top 1% of the world’s rich – and if you were, you wouldn’t be reading this – then you have the same motives as the rest of us. We all aspire to be better off, but, beware of being a sycophant; allying and associating yourself with a grouping you are unlikely to join in reality, but merely aspire to be associated with. You may be very capable and able to articulate the arguments of the ‘successful’ wealthy, but you won’t get rich by association, unless you are extremely lucky. The rich never get rich by giving their money away. In fact, they – certainly the super-rich – never get rich by investing their own money.
Woah, steady on!
To some, this may sound a bit radical. Be that as it may, but I certainly wasn’t born a radical and I’m not particularly radical now! In fact I was born into the traditional aspiring, privately educated middle class and was brought up always to believe in taking personal responsibility for my actions and achievements and not blaming someone else for my woes.
However, there comes a time when one’s perspective changes as a result of experience; observations of injustice and a sensitivity to the enormous inequality in the world and, perhaps most important, an ability to think more clearly about what is really important about our lives on this earth, plays its part in moulding a new perspective. So it has with me.
We all need desperately to think, think and think again, in spite of the temptation to say “what on earth can I do” and then bury our heads in the sand, which I have been tempted to do from time to time.
Without thought and subsequent conviction and, most important of all, a commitment to vote at every democratically devised opportunity that develops as a result of careful thought and research, our democracy will ebb away. At the time of writing this original essay, it was already looking like it was doing so on the fringes of Europe in the cradle of European civilisation and democracy, Greece, which, in 2011, had been plunged into huge economic crisis following the collapse of the world’s financial sector in 2009. We know there were economic and somewhat sinister forces at work there that were not altogether altruistic and this is what brought me to write this in the first place.
If you wish to see the full text of this original article, including a piece, apparently about widespread corruption in that country, that was circulating at the time, along with an alternative view given to me by a Greek friend, then you will find it here.
Briefly it poured some light on what is now commonly referred to as ‘fake news’; also know as misinformation, which might have resulted genuinely from being misinformed and too eager to air such ‘knowledge’ or as unadulterated propaganda! In the case of the widely circulated email, referred to in my original article, it was, I prefer to think, the former. Six years on, the trials of Greece have faded from media front pages, even if the troubles, for the majority of its population, have not.
In the meantime, inequality in the world, between the richest and the poorest, is still worsening. This fact is not questionable. More and more of the world’s resources lies in the hands of fewer and fewer super-rich individuals. This is a frightening prospect, because it threatens the roots of democracy. We should, therefore continue to take to the pen and the paper and social media; whatever peaceful means are at our disposal to share, debate, lobby and shout from every hilltop … AND, above all, exercise our democratic rights by voting at every opportunity; exercise our electoral rights… whilst we still have them!
Finally, we should spare a thought and a prayer for the poorest people of the world, as well as those in Greece, a majority of whose population is probably amongst the poorest in Europe, for whom it may already be too late; whose freedoms have already been eroded. Take a closer look at who in that country (and elsewhere) has profited from all this, because you can be sure there are a few who have… enormously … on the backs of the many.
Post Script …
I would also like to take this opportunity at this time of year to remember those whose lives have been forever affected by war.
(Original article was first published in ‘Forty-Two‘ in December 2011)
He was muttering as if
he was trying to describe
a vision he couldn’t share
with her; with anyone.
It was of something he’d never
seen before this moment;
a moment when she saw a look
on his face that carried away
all her fears; all her tears.
She felt no longer worried,
no longer afraid of the future;
only afraid that she could not
see what he could see;
this apparition, the vision
that transformed his face
to serenity, to happiness,
that even they in all their life
together, had never seen.
Something beautiful that
he could clearly see,
but not she.
Then, she, involuntarily
felt angry, full of rage
a sudden torrent of emotion
filled and puffed her tear-strewn face
As if he’d been unfaithful;
as if he would desert her;
after all these years.
How could he do that!
not in him, but her;
she felt what he was seeing,
that illuminated his face as if…
…and now she was incredulous.
She could not now believe
what he was thinking, seeing…
could not, would not entertain
the thoughts that entered her;
thoughts she could not fight;
that flowed so unexpectedly
like snow drifts in a storm
a snow filled wind
of blinding light;
of cool refreshing crystals
looking like white flowers;
a sea, an ocean of stocks.
And out of this there grew
the tallest trees of evergreen
protecting all beneath
their heavenly canopy.
Then he fell very still,
every muscle and sinew let go,
relieved of their exertions.
He’d tried to tell her
all that he could see,
but it was very quiet.
Both had dreamt,
for all their days,
of some idea of heaven
a screen to draw down
over their lifelong view …
This poem, first published in February 2012 in ‘My Poetry Library‘ was prompted firstly by the inspiring photograph above it and secondly by a documentary I watched six years ago, on BBC2 television, called “The Toughest Place to Be“. It was a programme well worth watching, if for no other reason than to remind us of how fortunate we are in the affluent west. If you think, on the one hand, you have some complaint about the effect on your finances of the economic downturn, or, on the other, you’ve got some boxes to tick before you leave this mortal coil – maybe these involve travelling to see a few wonders of the world – as you make your plans, think about these ‘workers’ who are as good as destitute and trapped in poverty, in the kind of stomach churning stench that this environment presents; trapped not only for their own lifetime, but also the future for their children…
I’ve read about organisations that are working to change things. No doubt the major ones, like UNICEF, who are concerned particularly about the plight of children in these conditions, and like the International Labour Organisation trying to set up schools for the children, who have to live and start working in these places at all too young an age. If there’s anything we can do, at the very least, it is to raise the consciousness of anyone and everyone, who should care about the inhuman effects of economic ‘progress’ and exploitation, particularly in the so-called Third World, which in this case is Indonesia.
[This lyric is based on an original ballad, written three years before, but extensively edited and augmented for Joseph Alen Shaw’s commission, the ‘Wentworth Cantata’, which was performed in the historic Victorian Conservatory of Wentworth Castle Gardens, South Yorkshire in October 2016. Joe has written about his composition, elsewhere in this month’s edition]
Desert Island Discs is a weekly BBC Radio 4 programme, which has been running for 75 years. Devised and originally presented by Roy Plomley and now presented by Kirsty Young, it is just one of those programmes that transports you to another place. It is an escape, just like music can be, enabling the ‘castaway’ of the week to imagine they are stuck on a desert island with nothing else but eight of their favourite pieces of music, one book and a luxury to sustain them. Above is a link to one of the latest episodes. I don’t think the Castaway here will need any introduction.
So, here are five of what would be my ‘Desert Island Discs’ …
For personal reasons, the first piece I’ve chosen was a commission that came from someone, who I am pleased to call a friend, as well a talented composer, Joseph Alen Shaw, who is featured elsewhere in this edition of the BeZine. He asked me a year ago to write a brief lyric, in the form of a haiku triplet. He wanted it to be on the theme of Autumn, his favourite season. Alongside Spring, it is also my favourite season, in equal measure. He had also, for some time, wanted to write a piece specifically for his and Emily’s close friend, Soprano Jenny Whittaker. They all started their musical journeys, together at the Sheffield Music Academy. This is the result.
” Rainbow hues turning
chill air low sun (but) warm hearts
beauteous day-long dawn
pink light (on) timeless trees
yield a golden fleece and warmth
(for) aching Mother Earth
sleeping beauties wake
from enduring frozen night
in Spring refreshing ”
My second choice, which the chamber choir, Fox Valley Voices, in which I sing bass, also has in their repertoire, is the stunning piece of music, which is both atonal and without time signature! It was written by the late Sir John Tavener to the words of William Blake’s poem of the same name. A few years ago, I also wrote a devotional haiku triplet, based on my own emotional response to his music. Hence it is very special to me …
” Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed,
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee.
He is called by thy name,
For He calls Himself a Lamb.
He is meek, and He is mild;
He became a little child.
I a child, and thou a lamb,
We are called by His name.
Little Lamb, God bless thee!
Little Lamb, God bless thee! ”
The third piece I’ve chosen, which Fox Valley Voices is newly adding to its repertoire, and one which we shall sing at our Autumn Concert on 3rd November. It has qualities, to which I have referred in the introduction to this month’s The BeZine, which are visceral to its core. The words, written by Mary E Coleridge (great grand niece of the famous poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge) are themselves poetic and full of imagery; the music, by Charles Villiers Stanford is gloriously, movingly beautiful. The combination of lyrics and music transport me to a place that cannot be accessed by rational thought alone …
“ The lake lay blue, below the hill
The lake lay blue, below the hill, below the hill
As I looked, there flew across the waters cold and still
A bird whose wings were palest blue
The sky above was blue at last
The sky beneath me blue in blue, was blue in blue
A moment ere the bird had passed
It called, as if in a trance he flew
The lake lay blue below the hill “
My fourth choice, another piece of self indulgence, but one that I Can’t leave out, because this group of singers has had such a powerful influence on my singing and on the elevation of my spirit and simply the joy of singing together. It is of course one of the UK’s top Barbershop choruses, who, as 2014 UK Gold Medal Champions, came to Pittsburgh for the BHS International Chorus Contest to represent the UK. Here’s one of the songs we sang …
My final choice, for now at least, is a song that first struck me, way back in 1976, when I bought a classic album, Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in The Key of Life”, and it has stuck with me ever since. It is the opening track, the words of which speak for themselves. I think they also speak to the core purpose of this publication, The BeZine …
Good morn or evening friends
Here’s your friendly announcer
I have serious news to pass on to every-body
What I’m about to say
Could mean the world’s disaster
Could change your joy and laughter to tears and pain
Love’s in need of love today
Send yours in right away
Hate’s goin’ round
Breaking many hearts
Stop it please
Before it’s gone too far
The force of evil plans
To make you its possession
And it will if we let it
We all must take
If love and peace you treasure
Then you’ll hear me when I say
Love’s in need of love today
love’s in need of love today
Send yours in right away
Hate’s goin’ round
hate’s goin’ round
Breaking many hearts
Stop it please
stop it please
Before it’s gone too far
gone too far …
… Well, please stop it
Um L-O-V-E love Oh, L-O-V-E lo———ve
love’s in need
of love today
Just give the world LOVE.
I‘ve missed out a significant chunk of, albeit mostly repeated, lyrics in its middle, but the essence is here. A great song, not only because of the lyrics and their sentiment, but also because of the way Stevie Wonder delivers it. His performance is magnificent, carrying us on a wave of pleading for a World that is so riddled with hate and is so in need of love.
I was very excited and proud to be involved in a concert twelve months ago, with local volunteers, in celebration of a very beautiful landscape and its design.
I was commissioned by Peter Clegg, the Learning & Community Engagement Officer of Wentworth Castle Gardens Heritage Trust, to produce this piece, Wentworth Cantata. The commission was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund as part of the CB300 festival. It had its premiere in the newly restored Victorian Conservatory at Wentworth Castle Gardens on the 16th October 2017, as part of the Voices of the Landscape project in collaboration with the Barnsley Writers and Penistone Poets.
The concert itself featured a storyboard of wonderful poetry and narrations, punctuated by extracts of my score for bass guitar and bass voice.
My ideas for Wentworth Cantata began as visual sketches rather than musical notation. An interest in the Capability Brown inspired modelling of the landscape and the architecture of the building itself led me to an alternative way of displaying material for the performers.
The score consists of lines and shapes traced directly from large scale maps of the area surrounding Wentworth Castle. The performer is free to create their own journey through the hypothetical landscape using the 14 ‘micro’ pieces which can be manipulated in various ways and played in any order.
Just as the architecture of the building is made up of multiple wings which were built at different times over recent centuries, several of the sections are taken from musical works of the past which correspond to the dates of the buildings. The voice part consists of both spoken and sung material in ballad form which gives a narrative consistency to the work. I commissioned the text from John Anstie, who was also the vocalist for this project. The ballad, originally titled “Underneath The Stairs”, which runs through the whole performance is HERE.
You can see the individual fragments from the various compositions labelled adjacent to each module on the score, as well as an example of how the landscape is abstractly translated onto the page.
Future extensions of Voices of the Landscape will hopefully include more performances at Wentworth Castle itself (perhaps in the gardens… weather permitting!) a published book containing poems from the project along with my score and finally, a project involving the software ‘Google Maps’ to pin audio to areas of landscape for the public to explore digitally.
This project was hugely rewarding and being able to stand beside my work, included in the exhibition after the concert, rounded off the achievement.
Here is Joe Shaw’s edit, a brief extract, from the full recording of the Wentworth Cantata: –
Joseph Shaw – composer, bass guitarist and arranger:
Joseph Shaw is a composer, performer and arranger based in Sheffield. He has had music performed and/or recorded in the UK and across Europe by ensembles including theAber:ri Duo, Absolution Saxophone Quartet, Angeli Che Cantano, BBC Singers, Deventer Wind Quintet, Fox Valley Voices, Inyerface Arts, Jabeliah Saxophone Quartet, Manchester Camerata, Psappha, Meraki Duo, RNCM Brand New Orchestra, RNCM Contemporary Music Society, the RNCM New Music Ensemble, Sheffield Music Academy Chamber Orchestra.
As a bass guitarist, he has been active on the music scene in Sheffield for over a decade and continues to perform with several bands as well as freelancing regularly for school productions and recording sessions.
Joseph holds a Bachelor with Honours degree from the Royal Northern College of Music, where he studied under the tutelage of Dr Larry Goves.
The church where I rehearse with Fox Valley Voices, and which is the centre of a certain amount of community, particularly musical community in my home town, is where this project took place three years ago at the beginning of the First World War Centenary commemorations. A culmination of the project was the ‘Bard of Barnsley’, poet Ian McMillan, writing and reading his poem for us, “The Bridge”. It resonates with the artistic and musical traditions of this valley, but most important of all, it engaged both children and adults of Stocksbridge to ensure we don’t forget the men of this town, who gave their lives in the Great War, whose centenary we are still commemorating three years after this short film was made.
” … It’s a loud voice, and
though it’s not exactly flat,
She’ll need a little more than that
To earn a living wage.
On my knees,
Don’t put your daughter on the stage.”
It was my mother, who first uttered these words to my ears, many years ago. Whilst the last line may be an oft recited phrase from that 1935 Noel Coward song, “Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage”, it represents an irony in my mother’s life.
Don’t get me wrong, she was not a representation of Mrs Worthington’s daughter for sure. In her prime, she was a very attractive and vivacious redhead, who will have set a flame to many a male heart. But her vivacity belied a troubled heart; some emotional baggage that, in hindsight with the benefit of much subsequent revealed knowledge of her early life, probably plagued her with insecurities.
Her lowly born, but ambitious mother, ‘Queenie’, as she became affectionately know, was herself born of a father, who had been raised until his teenaged years in ‘the Old Nichol’, one of the worst slums in late Victorian London. Queenie herself was born in Walthamstowe, where she met and married the younger, albeit somewhat wayward son of a local establishment family. She was a strong woman whose personal attributes clearly informed my mother’s character and so it may have continued to do so, had it not been for her tragic early death when my mother was only nineteen.
For the rest of her life, my mother always blamed her father for the loss of her mother. He seemingly disappeared from their life, five years before her mother died. My mother was consequently left alone. On the rebound, she married the son of a millionaire and quite possibly enjoyed the high life for a while, before the marriage failed. He was, apparently, a ‘man’s man’. In London, five years later, during the war, she became a victim of the bombing on the worst night of the blitz in May 1942. She was buried under the rubble of her home and lost everything material, including precious family photographs and family treasures.
After her convalescence, some time later, she rediscovered the ‘high life’ in London and remarried; a musician she’d met in a night club she would frequent with friends. It didn’t last for long as he turned out to be some kind of perverted abuser. Then a chance meeting, through mutual friends, with a handsome young RAF fighter pilot, who would become my father.
This marriage eventually failed before I was a teenager, when my father went abroad, not to return until I was in my mid-thirties. My mother remarried for a final time, within two years of my father’s departure, but to a troubled man, who turned out to be an alcoholic. Despite this, perhaps surprisingly, their, albeit rocky, marriage lasted until death parted them twenty-seven years later.
Act II Scene VII of William Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’ begins with the famous monologue, known as the ‘seven ages of man’. Spoken by the melancholy Jaques, it begins:
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts …”
[As a footnote here, I’m sure our William would not be averse to agreeing that, by “one man” he also means woman too play their parts. To have included both genders, although very correct in modern times, would have upset the scansion of that line, which is, as ever, written in his ubiquitous iambic pentameter!]
So, for my mother, she played her parts. In some ways I feel this was in denial of her past, in other ways it was an expression of her ambitions; her own mother’s ambitions, which were quite understandably for a better hand than her maternal ancestry had been dealt.
My mother was undoubtedly egocentric. When she entered the room, there was never any doubt who would be the centre of attention. But deep down, this was not a commanding ploy, but rather a defensive play; an expression of her need for love; to be admired; to be praised. All those things that it would appear she lacked as the only child of an ambitious mother and a wayward and eventually absent father. So she made the world her stage. She adopted an accent that reflected the upper middle class background of my father’s family; an accent that he, much later after her death, would observe that sometimes she allowed inadvertently to drop, in times of stress or excitement, when it took on hints of her East End roots.
I too recall my sometimes stressful teenaged years and early adulthood, which were, no doubt,a result of those influences and how it made me resort particularly to music – a plastic ukulele at age seven, my grandmother’s baby grand piano, my own guitar, which my grandmother bought me in my teens, my introduction to singing as a wee choir boy in church and school (also the influence of my grandmother) – and to sport – I was very athletic at school and beyond – and latterly, writing. This is my stage; these are my plays.
Whatever the individual causes, each one of us has a unique set of influences that provide the stresses and anxieties that agitate us into being what we are and doing what we do to make something of our lives. We will never be in complete control of our lives, from the outset, but we can take control of how we set the stage and what part we will play.
I am grateful to my mother, difficult and painful though she was to live with at times. She provided me with an opportunity to learn from her life as an example of how we can make something of what we have, whatever the circumstances into which we were born; whatever and wherever the stage, on which we find ourselves having to be a player. For a few of us, that stage becomes real; for most of us, it is the place we find ourselves every day, when we walk through the door into the world.
“ The story of cosmology is the story of our search for the ultimate truth “
This quote comes from an episode of one of my favourite Science documentary programmes, ‘Horizon’, which was titled ‘What happened before the Big Bang?’. It centred on the thinking, with the aid of mathematics and string theory, of a handful of professorial academics from around the world, who have developed some new theories. One such theory suggests that the expansion of our known universe since the Big Bang, nearly fourteen billion years ago, is only one ‘bounce of a ball’, of a cyclic series of events and that its apparently infinite size is merely a minimal starting point for the next Big Bang. I don’t know about you, but I find this, at the same time, utterly mind boggling and totally fascinating. It also serves to bring into perspective the true meaning of our lives and, in particular, the meaning of truth, which, in consequence, is only a relative term, particularly when it comes to this area of science.
There may be a myriad of learned tomes, on the subject of truth, written by countless thinkers and philosophers over the minuscule millennia of human existence, but, setting aside the search for the true answers to scientific and mathematical questions about the origins of our universe, it is on the most basic social and spiritual level that I choose to focus.
My first prompt for this piece occurred in 2011, when I observed, amongst other exceptional acts of forgiveness and the search for truth, the effects of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up in post-apartheid South Africa under Nelson Mandela’s leadership.
The second prompt is that constant irritation: politicians! To be fair, this affects all those in positions of influence, with vested interest in maintaining status quo or personal wealth, who are so often inclined to be ‘economical with the truth’, if the truth is likely to compromise their position or possessions. This probably includes all of us from time to time. However, if you are in a position of power, when your decisions affect whole populations, then being economical with the truth may be considered, at best, morally wrong, if not downright contemptible! So much depends on the ulterior motive. Difficulty arises when you listen to words spoken by someone, whose allegiances are unknown to you, and therefore leave you with the dilemma of whether or not you believe they are speaking the truth.
For me, sometimes, the solution to this is to do your own research; it is your call.
The third prompt is meat to those who, in telling lies, would argue that the truth is relative to its context. As true as that may be, there are some fundamental questions, which it may be helpful to ask. These questions and their answers rely heavily on my own life’s observations and experience. I’ve presented this, for clarity, in the form of a mock interview …
What is the truth?
“ Where there is pride, prejudice or profit, there you find lies. Where there is poverty, poetry and death, there will be truth ”
The truth is without bias, in conformity with fact and reality, and is concerned only with honesty and integrity.
What defines truth?
The truth is not only defined by its context, but also by your ability to address your conscience*, head on, assuming that it has not been corrupted by external bias (i.e. vested interests). Equally important is an ability to face reality, however unpleasant or painful that may be.
How do we justify the limits we place on our honesty about the truth?
We justify limits on our honesty in many ways: by joining a tribe and deferring to its rules; by focussing on our own self-preservation or our vested interests; and by denying voice to our conscience or contrary opinions.
How do we know what the truth is and how do we recognise it?
In order to know what the truth is, it is necessary firstly to cast off our natural bias and prejudice; to open our minds; perhaps also to become pantheistic in our outlook and accept that this might make us vulnerable.
How much of the truth can we, as individuals, consciously face, head on?
Knowing your limits is a safe harbour, but this may also provide a block to discovering the truth. So, it may be necessary to be courageous in the quest.
What strategies can we devise to help us find to the truth?
Somehow we may not only have to overcome personal prejudice and swallow our pride, but also face the facts and stop echoing and repeating popular myths and memes that come from the pens and mouths of others.
How much do we have to sacrifice both to seek and to tell the truth?
We have to set aside our need for unnecessary material things and kick the habit of consumerism, because this provides an immediate pride, prejudice and (perhaps) a greed for status. We also need to examine, evaluate and better understand our pride and prejudice (with apologies to Jane Austen).
Who will speak the truth?
Any of us can speak the truth, but, before we do, we will have to develop the inner strength to resist and cast off all those temptations that beset us with envy, greed, carnal hunger and cognitive bias.
I recently attended a concert, in which the headline act were a folk and roots singer/songwriter duo, Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman whose talent and performances we have come to enjoy. The unusual and refreshing part of this concert was that the supporting act, who came on to ‘warm’ us up, was a poet, whom I had first met last year through the Sheffield WordLife movement, at the opening of the Sheffield Literature Festival. The poet is Joe Kriss. One of the self penned poems he read, concluded with words to the effect: stop talking, start thinking and listen to what lies between your ears; only then will you know what’s true.
There are many parts of our lives for which exposure of the truth, if shared with the majority and if reconciliation was achieved, would make for a better world. I wonder, however, if finding the truth in every part of our lives would challenge our humanity. If that truth were too unpalatable to face – the prospect of our own imminent failure, the discovery of a skeleton in our own cupboard, life threatening illness and death … would we still want to know the truth?
Perhaps you might let me know if you have found your truth … and whether you feel it set you free?
• The defining of conscience could, no doubt, be the subject of a veritable treatise. For now, suffice to say that conscience is defined as “the complex of ethical and moral principles that controls or inhibits the actions or thoughts of an individual”. Put more simply, it is “the inner sense of what is right or wrong in one’s conduct or motives, impelling one toward right action: to follow the dictates of conscience “.
How far can poets go, then,
down into ‘icle physics?
To discover parts of subatomic mass,
so small it is beyond minute
and, in just a second, what happens is
really unbelievable, beyond imagination.
Protons collide with protons
and create a random mess
of particles, so mini and invisible,
that they cannot find them all!
There’s one they really had to find:
and in ten years, they found top quark.
So small he was that he could not be seen
or heard or measured, but they did…
They did, the clever buggers, they did!
I can see and hear and feel him
stirring in his grave; Albert is excited
at the very thought of contemplating
the distinct possibility that space-time,
(that is the space-time he invented)
could actually be outside the universe
or is that what he meant by relativity?
Is it perhaps, therefore inside itself?
Who will win the race to tell?
We know they’ll find a smaller particle
[they say they know of one already] that’s
smaller than top quark, so small it cannot be,
it couldn’t even exist, until another brain
turned it round and called it by
a human name; Higgs-Boson is…
Well, he is like a wanted criminal
only, so romantic, all the greatest
physicists and philosophers of the world
want a piece of him, or her.
They have a huge accelerator,
deep under mountains, under ground,
where no harm can come to us.
They justify the billions by saying
that the quest is so enjoyable;
so much a part of human instinct
to enquire about the boundaries,
[if they exist at all] of our perception..
..of reality, by physics and philosophy.
The journey’s worth the cost, they say,
but all the poets, they know so much more.
They know the nature of the universe
may be measured in very ‘icle parts,
so small, so infinitesimally small,
but we suspect they are beyond
description using epithets. Oh no,
they’re under the spell of mathematics!
No earthly words suffice, not there.
Even the ancient Greeks didn’t know this;
their Alpha has been squared, and will
Omega cubed and integration, calculus
return the answer they all crave?
Or will the search for ultimate smallness,
through fuzziness, get us to the end?
Is the start to finish of an expanding universe,
rather like a journey round the Circle line?
Each of the stanzas of this poem has the physical structure of a haiku. Though not a proper haiku (not least because there are no ‘season’ references, with the possible exception of lambs – Spring? – I don’t think so! There are no ‘Kiru’ either). Anyway, I like the way the form forces you to be pithy; there’s even less room for unnecessary words than in other poetic forms.
There is also, as you might expect, a portion of poetic licence … metaphor and allegorical reference. I have deliberately avoided punctuation until the last stanza, the punch lines, which are less equivocal. In consequence, there are different ways in which this poem can be read. According to the way in which it is read, its interpretation can change, albeit sometimes subtly. Feel free to tell me about your interpretation. Otherwise, I’m happy to allow knowledge of your personal understanding to join the many other sweet mysteries of life.
In conclusion, this poem asks questions.
Editor’s note: A version of the piece appeared earlier as a blog post.
If music be the food of love, play on ” ~ William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night Act I Scene I ~ Duke Orsino’s opening line.
One of the first lines of Shakespeare I had ever read, as a teenager, came from this play that I studied for English Literature at the age of 16. It still resonates in me today. I passed English Literature at ‘O’ Level, but not with any great distinction. Maybe if I’d had the talent, intellectual aptitude and whatever other indeterminate qualities and quantities, be they genetic or environmental, I might have been more distinguished in my appreciation of the literary arts; maybe even more accomplished as a writer or musician, instead of starting out my adult life as I did, as an engineer, or a ‘reluctant metallurgist’, as I sometimes introspectively muse. Thereby hangs another tale, for another time.
But that’s history; it’s part of what made me the person I am and I am grateful for that and all the subsequent opportunities that I fell upon as a result of the path I took, not least of all in my personal life. If I am unlikely to ‘make it’ as a writer, if any one of us, who sometimes aspire with our pens in whatever corner of literary endeavour we may hang out, there is something else that happens in that endeavour; something that possibly only time, ageing and accumulated wisdom can reveal. This is quite simply that, if you seek, you will eventually find.
Alongside an early appreciation of literature, which Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy and a host of classical poets afforded me in my school years, came also an appreciation of music, albeit not through education and training; rather through my exposure to the music through singing as a treble in the Church choir and at school, through the music scene of the 60’s and 70’s and the saving grace of my decision to sell a car and by a good guitar with the proceeds (a Yamaha FG140, to be precise), which provided me with an escape from, and therapy to help in my resolution of some challenging times.
I guess, out of a deep desire to make music, which thus far had been confined to playing my guitar and singing mostly on my own or small groups of friends, eventually, after what I call a thirty-five year spell in a creative desert, came an opportunity to make music with other likeminded people. More’s the point, I was able to find the time to join and regularly attend rehearsals in a mixed voice choir. It was here that I first discovered the true joy, not only of the music and singing in harmony, but of sharing that love with others.
And now, for the past two years, I have been singing and performing regularly with one of the best Barbershop Choruses in the UK, as well as with a local chamber choir, whose MD has managed to attract some significant musical talent … and me! A year ago, I also formed a mixed barbershop quartet with some singing friends. Additionally, through the barbershop chorus, I facilitate a regular quartet night. I am, you might say, in at the deep end and making up for lost time! This all sits beside other occasional duets with a musical neighbour and the recent setting up of a five piece folk ensemble; and next year, I have already put my name down to allow myself (to be persuaded) to form a male barbershop quartet through the resources of Hallmark of Harmony, some time early next year.
The latest step in the development of this absorbing hobby is that I have found myself being asked, nay commissioned to write lyrics. I’ve written poetry for several years and, during that time, often dabbled with writing song lyrics too. Now it seems to be happening. Am I living the dream or am I kidding myself? We’ll have to wait and see … and I shall have to keep close to my very supportive wife, who is unstinting in her support of my ‘hobby’. Long may that last, as well as my ability to keep up the energy levels needed to perform at this level, but singing is something many can continue to enjoy well into old age. I am always hopeful of singing at my own 100th birthday party!
Whilst a painting may have the power of a thousand words, for me, music, singing, poetry, musical composition and songwriting are closely interwoven art forms that, when combined in the most skilful way, I’d venture to say they are probably the most powerful of the art forms. When you encounter a song, with a great melody and poetic lyrics, the combination of which is so synergistic and performed with such passion that it hits you with a power that is unforgettable, makes your heart ache or makes you smile, then you know you have engaged with the highest form or art.
This experience is a quest, of which I will never tire. As long as I can breathe, I will sing. It has the power to change lives, to provide a therapy that no pharmacy can give you. Whilst I could never advocate that it replaces a true faith, whatever denomination you may choose, I have witnessed on many occasions, first hand, the healing power of singing in harmony with my friends. Singing takes you several steps beyond just listening to music. You only have to witness once the tears in the eyes of a grown man, when they feel that perfectly pitched chord sung in harmony, and when they have just performed a particularly moving rendition of a favourite song, to know how unique and powerful this experience truly is.
If there were ever worthier cause than this, then tell me please. To start and think how each and every step we take will mark the ground with footprint there that, howsoever small,
one day a thousand footprints coalesce
into a hardened monument, that stands
… forever irresistible to all.
Each one of us will contribute toward exposing the futility of war,
the rape of Mother Earth. To save her soul, reiterate,
unquestioning, the need
for all to find another way … for all;
to seek new politic and social order.
And might this be our greatest ever quest that every day we do or be our best ensuring love and kindness finds a place
in every breath we take, that gives us grace to reconcile conflicting minds and cease the fight, and search for everlasting peace.
[This has to become my daily prayer]
In the midst of turmoil,
Mother Earth besieged
by bloody conflict.
In a world beleaguered
by well healed negligence,
humanity is laced
with latent evil …
that is its one great flaw.
Children are dying
they were born
to inherit their fate;
it is their birthright,
born to starve,
required by those
whose comforts rule,
whose want of fuel
drives their mule,
justifies this cruel
and mindless exploitation.
Children are dying
of mass destruction
forged by human minds
self interested sociopaths,
of desire for dominance,
for procreative power and
We are dying with you.
I am crying for you.
Perhaps the reason is
that it is always
someone else’s fault!
We are messing up
your future in the world
we are too blind to see.
Yet, whilst this goes on,
you walk the woods,
harvesting your pine cones,
your unconscious prayer
for a better world,
your wishing well,
for life, for love,
that sows the seeds
of perfect purity
in heart and mind,
that must not fade with time;
the magnificent magic
of your spirit, untouched
by this tainted world.
Then, in one gesture,
one single act of generosity,
of utterly moving faith,
you beckoned me
to come close to you;
you looked me in the eyes;
you hypnotised me.
Then, you gave it to me,
one single piece of magic,
a piece of nature’s bounty,
and bade me keep its secret
as secret as anything could be.
Each time I hold your gift,
when we are far apart,
I’ll think of you;
I’ll remember this moment,
by which you have restored
my faith in all our futures.
You could melt the heart,
on a Summer’s day.
You could soften the steel
in all but the hardest of minds.
Friendship is an essential safety net in life’s trapeze act. It is the theme for this month’s edition of The BeZine.
It is such an important feature of human existence that life would not be the same without it. In fact, I would argue that our lives would not continue, as we know it, without friendship. If this is to be fully understand, then we might have to get thoroughly psychoanalytical, but you can breathe a sigh of relief because, thankfully, I’m not qualified! In fact, it isn’t the purpose of this piece to answer the question why? It’s purpose, perhaps most importantly, is to recognise it and, above all, to celebrate it.
You know the friends you have and that they come in many different colours … incidentally, a thought just popped into my head. As a fan of poetry, I momentarily ponder on my metaphorical use of that word, ‘colour’ and I wonder what colour you would attach to each form of your own friendships?
Can you count how many of each of these you have in your life’s ‘address book’ … soul-mates, close friends, friends, acquaintances, people you’d like to know better, people you haven’t met but would like to, people with whom you share a passion, and, one of life’s great anticipations, people you’ve yet to meet, including those you may have come to know well through their writings on social media, but have never met? There is yet another, very important category of friendship, which I cannot find a name for. I was reminded of it just last week, when an old college friend of mine, whom I’d not seen for well over thirty years, arrived in our city and made contact.
It is the friend you got to know very well in your formative years, maybe at school or college, but one with whom you lost touch or simply haven’t crossed paths with for many years. When this type of friend arrives back in your life, doesn’t it seem just like you take up where you left off! Perhaps more astonishingly, in my experience, in spite of following different paths, you find that you still share a surprisingly common perspective and agreement on many aspects of life. This holds true for several of my old school and college friends, including my most recent encounter. This is the one kind of friendship that surprises me most. It does, perhaps, assert my view that the friendships we make in our formative years are the single most important determinant of the course of our future lives, careers and maybe even our health.
In reality, the fact that our childhood friendships run deeper than you’d expect, indicates a clear understanding of how vulnerable and influenceable we are then, to the influences around us; and there are no influences more powerful than our childhood mates, including those we’d like to have as mates.
My personal answers maybe these: I have one soul-mate, my wife. There are a handful of people who run close, as soul-mates, these are my own children and close family. Close friends are not those who necessarily were the blood brothers and soul sisters of our youth, principally because I and my wife didn’t stay in the places of our birth, we moved a lot throughout our early childhood and formative teenage years, but, for the most part, our close friends are those with whom we have grown up during the years of our arrival in adulthood and the growing up of our own children. Close friends are those that last through the years. They may not share a common passion, but have been there through all our trials and tribulations; their friendships transcend vested interest; perhaps for them, I should replace the word ‘passion’ with the words ‘shared challenges’.
The one kind of friendship, that has evolved particularly strongly recently, for us, are the voluntary and hobby groups with whom we have become associated since retirement. Volunteer work brings you into the company of like minded people; people who are prepared to give up their time for the benefit of others. They therefore tend to be a great bunch of people to be around; a group with whom you find common purpose. There can be no greater driver of harmony in the world than a worthy common cause.
For me, if there is a single most important group to evolve in this category of friendship, it is represented by the music groups of which I am, or have been a member, quartets, choirs and chorus with whom I sing. Singing in harmony, particularly a cappella, has no equal for me when it comes to making live music; just the human voice and a sharing of something that is sometimes difficult to describe except as a therapy, a gift or a very legal high! It forms bonds, not just within your own group, but across all groups, nationally and internationally.
I have been privileged enough to have experienced the so-called ‘Afterglow’ of performance with a Barbershop Chorus, at both national and international level, when, with beer in hand, you can walk around and drop in on any number of groups of singers, whom you may never have met before, and join in with their song. Likewise, you will welcome anyone from another group to your own, to do the same.
Isn’t this just one of the greatest ways to foster harmonious (a fine dual purpose word) international relations … and lasting friendships. It certainly has for me.
The book that left a lasting mark on me, which I read at the age of 21, still in my formative years, was Tolkien’s ‘Lord of The Rings’. It seemed to represent two major things: the first is life in all its varied forms, good and bad; the second is that it was an epic journey through all that ‘good and bad’.
Five years ago I wrote a poem about another journey. It was four injured and disabled veteran soldiers, who made it, unaided, all the way to the North Pole. It was epic and, for these four remarkable men, a chance to revisit and resolve their brush with mortality.
The poem is about challenge; about the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. But most particularly, it is about not bearing life’s burden on your own, but rather learning how to ask for help, how to share concern or worry, which, despite his feelings of isolation in his quest, Frodo Baggins eventually found he had friends, who helped him through.
For some things in life, you cannot just ‘tough it out’. However strong you think you may be, there are some challenges in life that you cannot, nay should not tackle alone, because everyone has their limits; there is always a barrier, either physical or emotional or both, that will inhibit the progress of any man or woman; will put a stop to their journeys.
Perhaps this is because, once you show your vulnerability, far from becoming prey to vultures and demons, you will also attract the support of true human beings, those who are true team players, those who care. And anybody who endeavours to achieve things that not everyone would attempt, has that spirit. It is often a spirit born of near death experience, but may also be a response to physical and emotional pain.
It is both these things that four men from the British armed forces set out to overcome in a seemingly impossible challenge. These four servicemen, who were all injured in combat in Afghanistan, set out to enter the record books as the first disabled team to walk unassisted to the North Pole. It involved a great deal of preparation and training for all of them.
The men are: Capt Martin Hewitt, 30, whose right arm is paralysed after being shot; Capt Guy Disney, 29, whose right leg was amputated below the knee after he was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG); Sgt Stephen Young, 28, who suffered a broken back in a roadside bombing; Pte Jaco Van Gass, 24, who had his left arm amputated and suffered significant tissue loss to his left leg after being hit by an RPG.
For the first few days of their trek, they were also accompanied by Prince Harry, who supported their campaign both before and after it was completed. The documentary, shown on BBC1 in the summer of 2011, was called “Harry’s Arctic Heroes”.
In this expedition, these four men represented every soldier, airman and sailor who is ever injured in conflicts, but particularly those who lose their faculties in some way, be it the loss of a limb or sight or mind.
The poem also has a ‘dark’ side, as it shakes a metaphor at dealing with our mortality, not least by reference to ‘The Dream of Gerontius’. The journey ‘North’, in this sense, is figurative and is my way of demonstrating that metaphor to the ultimate journey that we and all animals make as an integral part of our lives. “Looking South” represents the looking back on ones life, which in the case of these four injured servicemen, was their life so far. And for a majority of those, who deal with life’s challenges, some significant moments also represent a looking back on our lives…
… so far.
If you stand in the wind
and allow it to bend you
so you flex and withstand it,
don’t let it uproot you,
then you’ll find it can’t hurt you
in spite of extraordinary pain.
If your instinct for flight
is taken away
your options for fighting
in an instant are gone,
like a parent removing
your permission to play…
…with the most bitter of tears.
If there’s anything surer
than the moment you hear
a deafening sound
of silence and the fear
rushes in like air
to a vacuum.
There’s nothing more certain,
never so clear,
as if a vision of your life
were etched in white light
closing your eyes
and blinding your sight…
…but opening them on the inside.
It seems you were born
for this moment;
that this is your time.
You appear to have arrived
at the moment when pain
can no longer touch you.
That stress and the anguish
of screaming self-doubt
have momentarily left you,
your inside looking out;
outside looking in;
thoughts perfectly scrambled…
…like the dream of Gerontius.
Circumventing your demons,
overcoming your fear
this vision of whiteness
tears at your heart and your soul;
of mind; supernal disclosure;
a revelation that you’ll never
be left on your own.
You will never be able
to embark on this journey
without your friends;
your brothers in arms,
… but they’re not the Invisible Choir.
Your angels are next to you;
there by your side, if you look.
Maybe a Prince or a pauper,
but either will brook you;
all you need is to ask;
as long as you let them know.
Then, when you stand there,
sharing legs, shoulders, arms,
looking South when you know
that there’s no further North,
surveying a World,
that will sing your arrival…
Thanks to Core Team Contributing Writer John Anstie (My Poetry Library) for this. If you are viewing this post via email subscription, it’s likely you’ll have to link through to the site to view this video.
It is nearly five years since hurricane Irene wreaked some havoc along the East coast of North America through New York State and beyond. This reminds me of the power of natural forces and, in a sense, runs counter to the spirit of this month’s theme “The Joys of Nature: Wilderness” … there is no joy in losing your home or, worse, a friend or someone you love, even to a natural disaster, but this story comes from a slightly different perspective or, if you like, a small tributary of the main stream, which leads you away from the maelstrom to a charming backwater, which in fact lies in the backyard of a fellow poet, who made an equally charming observation.
It was in the midst of a short conversation, with Twitter friend and poet, Jacqueline Dick (Twitter ID @Fumanchucat), who lives in New York. Hurricane Irene was blowing its way up the East coast and heading for the big city creating an undercurrent of fear and trepidation in the minds of everyone there. This was such that evacuation plans were being made in preparation for the expected structural damage and the flooding that would follow the high winds.
Anyway, the conversation! It went as follows: –
@Fumanchucat: “Hurricane update: Boring! Y A W N…”
@Poetjanstie: “What! No armageddon, no deafening fury of satanic proportions, no blood-curdling screams for mercy, no flying cars…!?”
@Fumanchucat: “Irene is one boring chick, lemme tell ya’..”
@Poetjanstie: “Isn’t there even a slight breeze?”
@Fumanchucat: “Some leaves are putting on a show, but no shake, rattle and roll”
I imagine, if she’ll forgive me for saying this, that she is one dour, but very erudite New Yorker, whose feathers don’t get ruffled easily! She makes me smile and sometimes laugh and writes some pretty good poetry to boot.
That phrase “Some leaves are putting on a show…” immediately struck a chord, and I suggested that it looked like the makings of a poem, thinking that she might take it up, but all she said in reply to that was “Go, John, go!”. Now either she was telling me to push off, or that I should write the poem. I prefer to think it was the latter, so I did that!
In spite of the tongue-in-cheek light-hearted nature of this poem, my thoughts still remain with the families of anyone who was lost in the wake of that powerful storm and for the immense damage it wreaked on its journey. It is also apposite to think of the impact of any of nature’s powerful storm forces, particularly since it is the fifth anniversary of that horrendous tsunami in Japan and Fukushima … that there is also the enormous power that nature has not only to create wilderness of stunning beauty, but also, in the blink of an eye, to lay waste to great tracts of ordered civilisation, which may have taken much human endeavour to build. How haunting a sight are deserted areas that once thronged with life. Is this the alternative wilderness?
Some leaves are putting on a pretty show
They said we should expect a maelstrom soon
an armageddon to blow away the moon
And telling us to pack our bags and go.
We waited long and into wee small hours,
our lives to change, last minutes in our wills.
The fear and dread is palpable, and fills
imaginations and dreams with satanic powers.
Meanwhile the leaves, with neighbours unaware,
are whipping up excitement on the lawn
as foliage twists into a dancing fawn;
a largely missed delight, as no one’s there.
But, somehow, when all is said and done
as lawyers sharpened pencils to prepare
for claims and litigation, a costed nightmare
the weather’s playing games and having fun!
Instead of blowing gales, disaster trails,
it whispered to the trees and leaves ‘don’t worry…
we’ll have some fun with just a little flurry’.
The leaves put on a show; there were no rales.
[I should also mention that, whilst it was poet, Jacqueline Dick, the intrepid Lady Fumanchu, who is responsible for inspiring this poem, it was another friend, writer, poet and fellow contributor to the Bardo/BeZine, Joe Hesch (Twitter ID @JAHesch), who, at the time of Irene, kept up a running commentary of the storm’s slightly more damaging passage through his neck of the woods, upstate New York, in Albany.
[Telephone calls from my granddaughter became quite regular when she was a toddler and, it has to be said, were very welcome and enchanting events. One such call, when she was just two years old, prompted this poem.
It addresses that stage in a toddler’s life when they are, very consciously, striving to communicate with their adult family, but cannot find the words. So I, on picking up the call, found myself (like a typical stupid adult) doing too much talking, trying to encourage her to say more. What comes back the other way, probably not surprisingly, having been patronised by grandpa, is mostly silence accompanied by (and this is the truly enchanting bit) mutterings, sing-song tones and breathing, which only fuel my imaginings of what it is she is trying to say.
Our desire to help them talk can, of course, be dimmed once their new-found ability to talk leads to incessant nattering, which drives us in search of refuge!
But they will always remain an enchantment on our lives and a potential for renewal of our own childhood hopes and dreams].
[Poetic notes: This poem looks like a sonnet, in that it has fourteen lines, arranged into four quatrains and a concluding couplet, and it is written in iambic pentameter. But that is where the similarity ends. The rhyming scheme is confined to alternate (second and fourth) rhyming lines and a rhyming couplet at its end. So it is different from either Petrarchan or Shakespearean forms. Crucially, though, the classic structure, in which the first eight lines present an issue or problem, and the last six lines, particularly the finishing couplet, present a resolution or a ‘turn’, is absent. Instead, the opening quatrain portrays a pleasant scene, the second and third stanzas move to present the problems created by cold winter weather for wildlife and the homeless, but then the final couplet seems to try and put blinkers on the reader; blotting out, as it were, the harsh reality of life’s injustice. It depends on your mindset, as to which sentiment the poem leaves you with…]
Your soft and furry skin was like a prize
that felt as if it were a therapy,
reward for when we were too short of time
to pander to your young demands, and yet
you never once gave any less, and more
besides, you did not waver in your loyalty.
That wrinkled face, so soft, with deep dark eyes,
appealed, like downcast seal, to pliant hearts.
We’d have to have a bypass of compassion
to resist enchantment of the first degree,
and look away to stop the heart from melting
with just one sight of sideways tilting head.
You’d run with gay abandon, flapping lips
lifting wings on wind of gambolling speed
back legs attempt to pass your front, that looks
as if it’s doomed to fail. You still succeed.
So, to the welcome after-walk effects;
that cosy warmth against our resting feet.
As innocence turned into character
the stubbornness, the guile, the subtle smile
to greet us at the door, when we got home,
that knowing wag of tail, well versed in art
of language you know well; we only guess,
rewarding you with scratch behind your ear.
But most of all, that special body wag,
the faintest sound of tinkling collar tags,
the clearly unrestrained brief glottal yip,
…but then, of late
it must be said, it wasn’t quite the same.
You sniff a tree, as if to pay your due.
The gay abandon lost somewhere in memory,
the softness of your coat turned coarse,
your eyes are slightly foggy, as they search
for some of that shear pleasure; the sound of food
no longer holds its sway on your desires;
hanging on to life and love at home.
This is an edited version of Part 2 of an essay, which I posted four years ago in my blog, ‘Forty Two’. Part 1 was titled: “London’s Burning… What Can We Do”. It was also spurred by a conversation about who is responsible for the mess we seemed to be in following the London riots and the state of the UK’s economy – has it improved since then, one may ask. A rather political conversation had started in a post on the riots on Facebook. This essay was already germinating in my mind as I was completing Part 1, so I thought that I might as well put this out now to clarify my thoughts and convictions on the subject of the responsibility of individuals for their own actions and open a discussion on parental responsibilities in this vein.
I would preface this by saying, that, wherever and under whatever circumstances we are brought into this world, when we are old enough, reach the age of majority or at whatever point in our lives we are capable of thinking for ourselves, we must take the first steps that enable us to become responsible for our own lives and become accountable for our actions. This is so that we can not only fit into our community, but also contribute to it.
In the same way, this means that we are responsible for our own economies, that is our personal finances; making provision for hard times is part of that, rather like a farmer stows hay in the barn to see his cattle through a bleak winter. Whatever the conditions out there, whatever the state of the country’s finances, we have the power to resist the temptations of consumerism and to cut our coat according to the cloth we have. Most politicians, whatever their political colour, with a few exceptions have always and will always be guided in varying proportions by three things: their personal ambitions, the party line and corporate sponsorship; listening to the electorate is the last thing on their agenda.
It is within the power of most individuals in the affluent, developed and ‘free’ world, to live well and securely – far, far better than a majority of the world’s population in the third world. The exceptions to this are those who are genuinely incapable of coping, of taking control of their lives, because of the way they are wired, through physical or mental disability or some other predisposition, which does require the support of a caring welfare system; and I have for most of my adult life held a conviction that, however much of our infrastructure is in private hands, we must always be able to provide school education and health systems, that are free to all, funded by National Insurance.
The trouble is, for the capable majority, that we don’t exercise our free will to manage our lives; we act like sheep, greedy sheep. We run up a burden of personal debt, in pursuit of materialistic self-improvement, chasing a kind of mock celebrity status or some misguided notion that ‘success’ is expressed by the size of your house, by the size and specification of the four-wheel drive you park in front of it, by the designer clothes you wear and by how exotic the location of your holiday destination.
But what happens for too many of us is that we end up financially far worse off than we should be. This is all well and good whilst the going’s good, whilst the economy is ‘flourishing’, but when the bubble bursts, as it always will in these conditions, and times get hard like they are right now, all we tend to do is complain that it’s the fault of whoever’s in power, or somebody else; anybody is to blame but ourselves. This is the crux of it: individual responsibility, taking control of our own lives, by harnessing the power of our own will, given the solidarity of family and community. Perish the thought that one day we are no longer able or permitted to exercise this freedom. And let’s not kid ourselves that we have a divine or enduring right to this freedom; we have to earn it by taking responsibility, making ourselves, first and foremost, accountable for our actions. Then and only then will we be qualified to comment and contribute to an improvement in the lot of others.
For those that want to judge me, or anybody for that fact, to categorise me in some neat political pigeonhole, I would say simply this. Never judge, keep an open mind and nurture common sense. Don’t be hidebound by a party line; don’t be a sheep and be a member of a ‘gang’, just for the sake of ‘belonging’; be a thinker. But, above all ensure that you show respect for your fellow man or woman; do not be anti-social by word or deed; and honour the principle espoused by John Stuart Mill almost two hundred years ago. I have been mindful of his philosophy for all of my adult life… and I’m still trying to hold to it.
Could this be part of a blueprint for parental responsibility..?
Continuing the story from “Real Heroes – Part 1″ and so, the action started …
“Hello Blue 2, break away and engage”. I shouted and pulled away sharply to avoid a second attack. A crippled aircraft was always a tempting target. Almost immediately the radio was busy: I was not concerned with receiving orders but simply keeping in the air for long enough to reach land. But at least we were no longer alone.
The engine was now throwing back a thick pall of smoke, and I knew that it would be a matter of minutes or less before it seized, leaving me without power and an easy target for another attack. I looked back quickly in time to see a 190 curving in for an attack and I instantly pulled up in a sharp turn to frustrate him. He missed and carried on past me. Almost immediately there was a shout on the radio. No time for formality, simply I got him fair and square. He’s going down in flames”.
The Kent Coast had come partially into view through the smoke and after two or three minutes at full speed I knew that the Rolls had done all that could be expected and must soon die. Friends were covering me but by now I was too low to go over the side and drop to the sea with my parachute. The brief prospect of struggling in the icy water, scrambling into a small rubber dingy and sitting in a wet flying suit for an hour or more and perhaps never being found, did not appeal.
The engine laboured slightly as we reached the coast as though to warn me that it could do no more. A few seconds went by, then it stopped.
There was no alternative now, and in a peculiar way the tension eased with the sudden silence: a touch on the rudder to give her a slight sidelong movement to take the smoke away from the windscreen and I quickly saw that there was only one green field within reach; elsewhere was heavily wooded country. Although movement in the aircraft would be limited, I knew that I had to tighten the safety harness until it was like a straight jacket” almost certainly there would be a heavy crash and there were large wooden posts which had been fixed into the ground and scattered about the field. It was important that they were there to destroy any invading aircraft but now they could destroy me.
I knew that the approach had been judged well enough to land without hitting the bank at this end or decimating myself in the trees ahead. Smoke was still pouring from the engine and the field was even smaller than I had thought. Th fighter would drop to the ground at about 90mph ; we were flying at just above that speed. Landing on a soft field would almost certainly end in a high speed somersault; a belly landing without wheels gave one the best hope.
A quick glance to one side showed a hedge slopping quickly by; no more than twenty feet up now; a farmhand gazed up, so close that one could almost read his mind. “Bless the lad. Hope to God he makes it”. The smoke was still blinding. “For Christ’s sake keep her straight man, it’s not over yet. Count five and brace yourself”.
It was longer than five as it happened. Nearer ten, then a shattering jar and the tearing and ripping of metal. The wing caught on a post and there was a violent cartwheeling to the left.
Then an almost deafening silence.
Though only slightly dazed, the thought of fire cleared my mind sufficiently to make me release the harness: almost at once I heard “Don’t worry lad, we’ll have you out in a trice”. A pair of strong arms lifted me away and we staggered across the field, for all the world like a couple of drunks. He sat me down by the hedge and I looked back at the carcass of my Spitfire through one eye; a trickle of warm blood had already filled the other. The massive engine and both wings were scattered about the field.
Later, settled into the ambulance and with time to think back, I was able to appreciate the value of a good training. The safety harness had been one of the many important items. Even when pulled tight it was fitted with a small catch which allowed one to lean forward to reach some dial or switch. Btu this catch was never allowed to remain released for more than a few seconds. During the last half minute before the crash I had in fact briefly released it then locked it back. Had I neglected the advice, I would certainly have been scalped. But now I am sitting comfortably in an easy chair some forty years later.”
His number two, with whom he’d shared a beer the night before, was shot down and killed. Apart from the trauma of facing his own death, it must also have been very difficult for my father to come to terms with the loss of a colleague in this way, knowing what had been going through his mind whilst he had to listen to his singing. Only when you find yourself in a field of anti-invasion barriers, sitting in a shattered aircraft, facing a shattered life, can you ever truly know the meaning of fear. The act of remembering fear, in my view, is evidence that you have, somehow, overcome it. This is true courage. Those that don’t remember the fear may too easily brag about their exploits or maybe have been permanently traumatised by their experience. My father didn’t want to talk about it overly much, let alone brag. So, whatever else he did in his life before or after this time, I would forgive my father almost anything.
It is very difficult to make a judgement about bravery, courage and heroism. In the ultimate analysis, I suppose, it all depends on what conscious thoughts prevail in the mind of the would be hero at the time of their heroism. Military records undoubtedly chronicle the thorough assessment of individuals’ entitlement to recognition of courage by the award of various grades of medal, but, for me, the one thing that truly counts is knowing what a hero really is. I wrote the following brief poetic tribute, remembering not only my father but also his brother, my uncle, who, as a qualified medical doctor, also served in the RAF, but lost his life earlier in the war, as a result of his injuries after the plane he was travelling in was shot down, but spent the last hours of his life attempting to save the life of the pilot. It summarises my views on courage and real heroes.
My father was not the obvious hero; he didn’t cut the image of a swashbuckling, devil-may-care pioneering patriot, which you might expect from a former fighter pilot in the RAF. He qualified as a pilot before the war started, so he was able to fly many different aircraft including sea planes before the outbreak of the war. However, it was the iconic Supermarine Spitfire that he flew with RAF 91 Squadron, that brought him to a life changing event.
He was sometimes so laid back that a light breeze would have blown him over. His sense of humour would always prevent this happening. His grandchildren will testify to this. It is perhaps ironic, but not a coincidence that he was also a walking encyclopaedia of limericks (and fairly naughty jokes), most of which are not for public hearing, but a lot of which I have of him recorded on tape.
His was a humour that was tempered and hardened during the Second World War, as it was for so many. This humour was as dismissive of the realities of war, in a typically British way, as it was of his courage. As is so common amongst war veterans, he never voluntarily talked about his experiences as a fighter pilot, in fact it was like pulling teeth trying to get anything out of him at all, but my understanding of this is clear.
For the moment I speak only of fighter pilots, like my Dad, but this applies equally to all those who served their respective countries, in some capacity or other. It has its roots in a sense of guilt; that they survived and their friends and comrades-at-arms did not.
When you pull yourself into the cockpit for the umpteenth time and feel that stomach churning fear, the cold sweat dripping down your chest inside your flying jacket, knowing that, after you’ve propelled yourself skywards once again, the chances of landing in one piece were frighteningly low and that you may only ever have a few short seconds to avoid enemy fire coming from any one of six directions: then all you might ever remember is that fear.
There follows a transcript of his own account of one particular event on 24th March 1943, which started on a routine coastal patrol with his number two singing over the radio; a slightly bizarre start that had a tragic ending: –
“The action had been over in less than fifteen minutes. It had been raw and grey over the Straits of Dover on this day towards the end of winter when my No. 2 and I had taken off from our small grass airfield near the coast. We had expected a routine patrol. Nothing of importance had happened in our area for two or three weeks. The hummed strains of “Moonlight becomes you, I want you to know”, came over the radio. It came as a mild shock as in the two years or so of wartime flying I had never heard music.
Flight Sergeant Jim Anstie
Sometimes during a night’s sleep, a fictitious action would come through from the subconscious; something quite ridiculous; perhaps one would be sitting on a high cloud in supreme comfort and totally relaxed. Just below would be a sharp action yet in a detached way one could watch the combatants manoeuvring at high speed, intermittently closing on each other, a stream of tracer shells perhaps followed by a ball of fire as an aircraft plummeted down to earth. But there would be no sudden coming awake in a sweat of fear. The dreamer would be quite unconcerned. A mental jerk told me that this was no dream.
On a peaceful flight, singing on the radio would be amusing but now it only served to irritate. Even on a routine patrol one had to be ready for a snap decision; there could be no time to plan ahead. A decision had to be immediate and instinctive. It was still necessary to think logically: a Controller singing at Command HQ would have been quietly removed and perhaps ordered for a psychological test by the Medical Officer. It could only be my No 2 and I knew the cause. The radio manufacturers, doubtless with the best of intentions, had added to our sets what should have been an excellent gadget. The oxygen mask strapped over our mouth in flight also included the microphone; it only needed a spoken work and the set immediately transmitted to everyone in the area. But there was on disadvantage. A pilot might be flying to another friendly airfield with the mask loose on his face and the shattering noise of the engine would get through to the gadget and broadcast for all to hear. At the same time a squadron might be on its way to deal with enemy bombers and would be needing directions. But their radios had to be clear to receive orders, not the noise of an engine, nor for that matter the idle crooning of some witless lone pilot. It was impossible to bark at him “Shut up”! While his song drooled on I could only hope that his mind would snap out of its dream before there was an emergency.
And of course there was at this moment an emergency. The song finished at last and we were able to receive orders. Immediately I caught the end of a message. The words “Ashford” and “190s” were mentioned. There was no time to vent my feelings for the stupidity of No 2 as we were at the furthest point away from the trouble. “Hello Blue 2. Break away and follow me. Some 190s have bombed Ashford”.
I knew that we had several minutes of hard flying to be in a position to intercept and was tempted to hold the engine at full speed: but I slackened a little so that we could remain together.
The radio clicked and this time it was Control speaking. “Hullo Blue I, Blue I, set course 125 degrees. The enemy are crossing the coast”. Our home airfield was close to where the bombers should be heading back towards the French Coast and two flights from our Squadron had been alerted several minutes before.
It was routine at that time to have a flight at each end of the airfield. Four pilots would be in each flight hut during daylight hours. “A” Flight would have two pilots sitting in their aircraft for half and hour, strapped in and ready; then “B” Flight and so on. If the siren sounded they had only to reach for the starter button. In less than half a minute, twelve hundred horsepower from the Rolls engine would have them lifting away from the airfield. Today, when this particular emergency came, it was on the half hour; both pairs decided to take off. In seconds they were heading straight for each other. In such a situation the leader of a pair could do little to change direction and if he tried to steer sharply away he would collide with his No 2 or just as likely, somersault himself. They kept going and miraculously there was no collision.
A familiar voice came over the radio. It was the CO and the accent was unmistakable. He had been in the French Air Force, had escaped after the surrender and since acquired a formidable reputation as a fighter pilot. We had no difficulty in understanding him. One gets used to the strange pronunciations of otherwise familiar phrases.
By now my No 2 and I were well out over the Channel and straining for a sight of the enemy. “Hullo Blue I, Blue I, this is Red Leader. We are at 4000 feet and chasing the enemy to Boulogne. Join up with us”.
We were above this height and it was difficult to see small camouflaged aircraft which were still some way off. The German FW190s we knew were faster than our older Mark 5s so I decided to keep flying fast on the same course.
Quite suddenly four aircraft appeared ahead and flew straight for us; for a brief moment I assumed that they were ours. In less than ten seconds they had flashed past us, my aircraft shook briefly and I knew that I had been hit.
There is no glory in death.
This is no feature film.
Dying is death … is dying
in muddied boots and pain.
Where is the justice then,
to help us reckon with those
who would put out the light
that always shines bright.
It is here …
And the years shall not dim
a vision of him in gold and red,
on the battlefields of Europe,
the pride of the Fighting Fortieth,
the honour of his men,
the depth of his loyalty,
the colour of his blood …
unswerving from the truth,
the kind of truth revealed
in poverty and poetry … and death,
whose messenger, a musket ball,
cut short his breath, but not his words;
words that give context to his life:
On the night before the battle,
a letter to his wife still wets the eyes
and we shed tears two hundred years on.
Brightest of all, his words set fair
to illuminate his love and care
for ‘my Mary’ and ‘my children’,
whose future changed forever, when
the bugler’s victory fanfare blew,
and tyranny met its Waterloo.
*At the time of his death, Major Heyland was Commander of the 40th Regiment of Foot at The Battle of Waterloo, on the 18th June 1815. The author is the Major’s Great-Great-Great-Grandson.
Our children are undoubtedly the future and, unless we start right now to cut through self-interest, shallow politics, greed and thirst for wealth and power, then the future is not as bright as Star Trek’s Captain James T Kirk and his team would like us to believe.
I take as a lead to this post, part of a guest post I contributed to the delightful Kona Macphee‘s ‘discussion’ blog nearly five years ago now. Her inspired site, “that elusive clarity“, is no longer active, but selected pages from it are still accessible. One of the interesting ideas Kona had was to conduct “micro-interview with creative and interesting people”. This series interviews was entitled “six things”, i.e. six questions about the person. I was reminded of this recently, almost by accident and felt it both timely and relevant to air at this time, whilst we are this month thinking about vulnerable ‘at risk’ youngsters.
I confess, at the time, I was wondering why Kona had asked me, since I was unaware that I was in the slightest bit ‘interesting’ or particularly ‘creative’; not least of all, I was not in the same league as a majority of published authors and poets she was interviewing at the same time! I realise now, of course. that everyone of us, who ever walked this earth, is a unique individual and is uniquely interesting as well as innately capable of being creative, in whatever form. The questions from my “six things” interview, that I felt were of most relevance to this month’s theme are: “One thing I’d love to change” and “One thing I hope for“. So, here are my responses … verbose as ever!
One thing I’d love to change…
“If there is one thing I would like to change in the world, it is this: that we alter the processes by which we educate our children. This would essentially be to temper the ever increasing emphasis on result statistics for the under-sixteens, that distorted educations original intent, and which has excluded so much of the type of learning that is essential for human survival, like collaboration, cooperation and team work, which can be so enhanced by ‘field’ exercises and certain forms of sport, which have been marginalised in the mainstream because of the fear of litigation and the excessive focus on exam results and (school) league tables. Given that I am neither a teacher nor do I have any direct experience in education, except for seven years serving as an industry representative on the Board of Governors of one of our local schools, my brief would be roughly as follows.
From the age of thirteen or fourteen (or maybe earlier), I’d propose that we should start to avail students with regular and significant doses of knowledge and skills across a whole range of areas of real life designed to equip them for a world they will soon enter. This ‘Life Skills’ part of the curriculum should be considered ‘core’ and include a whole array of subjects on Home, Work, Social, Family, Community and the rule of law, as well as basic finance and the Micawber Principle. There will always be an educational elite and a need to ensure they can fulfil their potential as future leaders, although we should also ensure that they too receive ‘Life Skills’ education. The educational mission for everyone else (the vast majority of us, in other words) has to be realistic. As much as I truly believe in the importance of learning the essential principles of language, mathematics and science, knowledge of these is neither use nor ornament if a child cannot first be armed with knowledge of the most basic of life skills and a confidence that comes from this. Until they know how to deal with the challenges of an uncertain world, they will not be able to absorb the principles of the academic world.”
and One thing I hope for…
“A world that places far greater importance on caring for and giving a better chance in life to our children – they are guardians of the future of humanity. I hope for a world whose religious structure is more rational and inclusive, less divisive, exclusive and polarized, and that has the courage to denounce and cast out extremism and provide a clear example for children on how best to lead their lives.
I hope for a world where family values and moral integrity are promoted as of the highest importance; a world whose political hierarchy and structure is such that politicians are somehow freed from the unwritten imperatives of career centred, self-serving ambition. This would be so as to help the young, instead of becoming premature cynics, to want to understand the issues and feel better able to vote with integrity and feel that their vote means something and thereby be motivated to get involved. Last but not least, I hope for a world in which the media are forced to have enough integrity to communicate this accurately, which of course will facing, head on, the issue of monopoly media ownership and all that this entails … and no, I don’t think I am dreaming of utopia!”
Having contemplated this aspect of our education system in this country, in pursuit of relevant ideas for this ‘common sense’ approach, I was prompted through Twitter by @StoryingShef to visit the Zoe Weil web site and her Institute for Humane Education. This, to say the least, adds a more revolutionary dimension to my proposal above. It seems to have much to offer, at least in terms of how we should start to think about the world’s conservation issues, to say nothing of it’s unhappy instability. Whilst I can see her ideas and her whole process being shot down in flames by the the rich and powerful of the world, by those with vested interests; by exploiting the current established mores of the First World’s economic model; and feeding our fears of not aspiring to ambitions of wealth; inducing fear of material inadequacy, unemployment, poverty and destitution, rather than encouraging a people, who are free-thinkers. Railing against a dependence on consumerism and continuous economic ‘growth’ would seem to be folly.
It may be difficult to resist the Star Trepan dream, but let us start to encourage more free-thinking, more discovery of the true self.
[I was amused to read in the Wikipedia description of Star Trek that it is known, not as a story, or even as a TV series, but as a “Media Franchise”. Oh dear, some people spend too much time looking at their own anatomy … and their balance sheet!]
To conclude with some sage advice from one who knows from experience, this article is well worth reading: “Five Things I Have Learned” by Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College. It is both inspiring and possible.
My world is parallel to yours.
I see what you see,
what you understand, but
the pace of my soul,
my mind’s chicanery,
the pattern of my life,
It is perhaps the magic
of the spectacles I wear
you know, the ones
that only a child can use
The varying spectral sensitivity
of which my eyes are capable,
sometimes miss a step
in your logic.
It’s like a missed beat
in the heart, that leads
to moistened eyes,
to anger or pain,
or simple awe at sight
that makes me fear
to show you how I feel,
because of how you think…
Like a garden full
of vibrant colours,
to their botany,
not their beauty.
Like lying in a field of grass
watching a sky full of stars,
defined by astrophysics
and not by your dreams.
When I am in
a hypnopompic state,
I tarry not with reason.
I see why your reality
is not what makes me tick.
What turns me on is
an alternative view
of sights and sounds
that sing to me,
with Mother Nature’s Earth.
That is, the earth,
the other worldly earth,
of which we are a part.
Try to understand it,
as I do you.
[I’ve heard Ekphrasis* described as one of the ugliest words in the English language. In writing this poem, I would like to try and make it ironic]
In this, another war poem, at the same time I both celebrate and mourn the destiny of millions of horses in the front lines on World War 1. Here, I may talk about a strong stallion with great heritage from the same lines as purebred battle horses that served knights of old before war became so mechanised. The first world war was the turning point between the old and new ages of war, in which the military cavalry masters of the old order clashed with the new; and the result was an unmitigated armageddon, an unprecedented tragedy of slaughter in blood and mud … there is no undue irony in this great stallion’s story, insofar as its consequences, though its life is spared, its mental health is not, like so many human members of the armed forces who serve on or near to the front lines, who physically survive but who are consumed, through trauma, by some degree of mental illness.
Her gentle hand enwrapped his nose
and pulled it to her face.
Behind his nostril, where there is
the very softest place,
she kissed him tenderly and smelt
the scent of peerless blood
that coursed his veins and caused his mane
to tremble with a power
that came from generations of
This kind of power was visible,
it rippled like a lake
that caught a sudden gust of wind,
and shimmered, glistening.
He’d knightly strength for greater things
and so it proved to be.
A friend of friends, an officer,
had visited to see
and beamed at his magnificence
there was no doubt for him
that this beast was set to ride
for glorious history…
…until his inglorious return,
a sight that broke her heart.
His eyes had depth of understanding
she knew too well. Their look,
injected as they were with fear,
but not the normal kind
– the kind that came from healthy gallops
over his favourite fell.
No. This fear, its source was made …
(what she saw then choked her eyes)
… made from inner visions of
an unspeakable kind of hell;
mud-filled craters’ stench of death,
through endless shock of shell, but
unshakeable loyalty to his charge
despite his spirit’s knell.
In time the empty frame that stood
motionless in the field,
with timeless care she tended him,
though never fully healed
the scars that stiffened weary spirit
that caused him so much pain,
but filled with love and trust once more
the noble steed regained
a hint of what he used to feel:
excitement for the day,
security in his domain,
where once he held full sway;
desire that burned in his dark eyes
to lead her in his way
back to the stable where he’d sink
his nose in soft sweet hay.
[This photo taken by Mark Tipple for an article published in ‘Demotix‘ in February 2009]
He was muttering as if
he was trying to describe
a vision he couldn’t share
with her; with anyone.
It was of something he’d never
seen before this moment;
a moment when she saw a look
on his face that carried away
all her fears; all her tears.
She felt no longer worried,
no longer afraid of the future;
only afraid that she could not
see what he could see;
this apparition, the vision
that transformed his face
to serenity, to happiness,
that even they in all their life
together, had never seen.
Something beautiful that
he could clearly see,
but not she.
Then, she, involuntarily
felt angry, full of rage
a sudden torrent of emotion
filled and puffed her tear-strewn face
As if he’d been unfaithful;
as if he would desert her;
after all these years.
How could he do that!
not in him, but her;
she felt what he was seeing,
that illuminated his face as if…
…and now she was incredulous.
She could not now believe
what he was thinking, seeing…
could not, would not entertain
the thoughts that entered her;
thoughts she could not fight;
that flowed so unexpectedly
like snow drifts in a storm
a snow filled wind
of blinding light;
of cool refreshing crystals
looking like white flowers;
a sea, an ocean of stocks.
And out of this there grew
the tallest trees of evergreen
protecting all beneath
their heavenly canopy.
Then he fell very still
relieved of his exertions,
of trying to tell her
all that he could see
and it was very quiet.
They’d dreamt for all their days
of this idea of heaven
a screen to pull down over
their lifelong view..
This poem was prompted firstly by the slightly surreal photograph above it, and is, in one sense, ‘Ekphrastic’. Secondly, it was inspired mostly strongly by a programme I watched some time ago on BBC television, entitled “The Toughest Place to Be.” It was a programme, which for me was well worth watching, if for no other reason than that it reminded me of how fortunate I am, living as I do, in the affluent west.
If ever I think that I have any complaints about the effect on my finances of austerity and the economic downturn or, on the other hand, I have some boxes to tick before I depart this mortal coil, as I make my plans, I think about these ‘workers’ who are as good as destitute and trapped in poverty, in the kind of stomach churning stench that this environment presents; trapped not only for their own lifetime, but also the future for their children…
I’ve read about organisations that are working to change things. No doubt the major ones, like UNICEF, who are concerned particularly about the plight of children in these conditions, and like the International Labour Organisation trying to set up schools for the children, who have to live and start working in these places at all too young an age. If there’s anything at all that I can do, at the very least, it is to raise the consciousness of anyone and everyone, who should care about the inhuman effects of economic ‘growth’ and exploitation.
“As If” is a poem that describes the death of the head of a family that scrapes—in the most literal sense—a sparse living off a massive waste landfill site just outside Jakarta, Indonesia. They have no sick pay, no minimum wage, no pension, no allowance for their children’s education. They live a life devoid of human dignity…even in death.
Hallmark of Harmony is the male barbershop chorus of the Sheffield Barbershop Harmony Club and is based in Sheffield, England in the UK. They sing barbershop, which is a style of a cappella four-part close harmony.
They first formed in 1978 and have won medals in sixteen of the thirty seven years of competing at the British Association of Barbershop Singers (BABS) convention. Seven of them were Gold medals. In their first twenty five years, they were never outside the top four places in the UK out of a BABS membership of around sixty choruses. They fell from grace for a while, then, following the appointment of a new musical team, led by Andy Allen, and the recruitment of a whole new, young and talented membership, rose from 10th place in 2011 to bronze, silver then gold in successive years; a rise never before achieved in BABS history!
As BABS Chorus Champions for 2014, Hallmark of Harmony qualified for the 2015 Barbershop Harmony Society International Chorus Competition, effectively the world championships. This was held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the USA, in July. Hallmark came a creditable 19th out of 28 choruses, with a score that is consistent with the highest scores they had been regularly achieving in the UK, but will not be satisfied with that position. Their continuing quest is constantly to improve the quality of their singing and performance. Onwards and upwards.
14th August 2015
Below is a link to a YouTube video of (one of) Hallmark’s performances as guests at this year’s BABS convention in Llandudno, North Wales. They were not permitted to compete this year as current Champions. [You can miss the first 55 seconds intro, if you want to cut to the chase quicker!].
2015 BABS – Hallmark Of Harmony – Cooler
It is not a new notion to say that great speeches are like great poetry [Look up Simon Armitage’s documentary on the subject “Speeches that Shook the World” shown on BBC TV on 6th November in 2013 *]. We know all too well how there are certain circumstances, certain events that cause negative emotions to be stirred in us, like the fear that we would ordinarily prefer to keep hidden; fear that has the capability to paralyse us, and deny us our inner strengths. But great speeches. like great poetry, can also stir in us those very positive emotions that bond us in our familial, local and national and even international communities and, in so doing, bind and galvanise us, as well as motivating cooperative action, repair and renewal. The like of this kind of behaviour may seem difficult to believe, these days, when our motives seem only to be characterised by an aspirational, but selfish pursuit of wealth and personal celebrity, often at the expence of those less fortunate; often at the expence of greater causes.
But one man encapsulated the essence of leadership for Great Britain, at a time when it was needed most. He was a man, who, despite his unpopularity amongst certain sections of society in peace time, galvanised a nation into girding its loins and taking action; who, above all else, was capable of stirring the most powerful of positive emotions in us, of breathing the oxygen of hope into a nation that was almost on its knees in the early years of World War II. He was a man, who was an articulate weaver of words, a speech-maker and, it could be argued, a poet. Above all else he was a true leader. That man was, of course, none other than the late Sir Winston Churchill. Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of his State funeral – an honour, apparently never before afforded to a ‘Commoner’.
His speech at the conclusion of the Battle of Britain was poetic:
“Never in the field of human conflict
was so much owed
by so many
to so few”
I have deliberately broken his prose into poem-like lines, to emphasise the pauses he made between them, to great dramatic effect; an effect that embeds a message deep into our psyche, it sears the soul such that you could feel it in your guts.
The way in which he delivered his rallying speech to Parliament on 4th June 1940 …
“We shall go on to the end.
We shall fight in France,
we shall fight on the seas and oceans,
we shall fight with growing confidence
and growing strength in the air,
we shall defend our island,
whatever the cost may be.
We shall fight on the beaches,
we shall fight on the landing grounds,
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
we shall fight in the hills; …
… without doubt, embraces many facets of the poetic. It had such rhythm, even half rhymes and cadences, to say nothing of the way he used the repeated punchy phrase “we shall fight” and how the subtle stress on certain words, lingering on the vowels of certain key words and leaving short silences between lines built drama as the speech progressed to its conclusion.
… we shall never surrender.”
Whatever your detractors may have said against you, Sir Winston, for the huge role you played, between 1940 and 1945, in helping a nation believe in itself again and that it could, nay, would prevail, I salute you.
* Armitage revealed the key elements of a good speech (and also a good poem), which were defined by one of the many people he interviewed during his documentary, Vincent Franklin, who played the blue sky thinking guru, Stuart Pearson, in the BBC’s comic satire, “The Thick of It”. Franklin is a speech writer in his other life. The three elements he revealed were based on the ‘rhetoric strategies’ of the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, which are also referred to as the ‘modes of persuasion’ that defined a great speech as one which had Logos (an appeal to logic and factual argument), Ethos (an appeal to the authority or trustworthiness of the speaker) and Pathos (having secured your audience’s attention, this is the quality of the language, which drives the message home more powerfully than any other technique). The final speech presented by Armitage in the documentary is Martin Luther King Jnr’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech, delivered to quarter of a million people from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963; a classic mood changing, history making speech if ever there was one.
“I always had this notion that you earned your living and that poetry was a grace.” Seamus Heaney (1939-2013), Irish, poet, playwright, translator, educator and Nobel Prize winner
I’m sure my friend, John Anstie, poet and renaissance man, The Bardo Group core team member, and editor of and contributor to Petrichor Rising (eBook and paperback), a 2013 poetry collection of The Grass Roots Poetry Group (GRPG), would prefer that I focused on the poems and the collection. The former feature-writer in me still loves a good story though. (Forgive me, John!) The coming together of this group and the publication of their collection is as good a story as any and better than most … and hence, I break my usual self-imposed word limit on posts. Read on … You may recognize yourself in some of this …
“I do accounting. I am a writer.” an employee corrected me when I introduced him as an accountant.
I spent many years in the employment and training field, serving in sundry positions and writing columns, feature articles and journal pieces ad nauseam about recruiting and job search, chosing careers, assessing post-secondary vocational education programs, structuring community programs for at-risk populations (read the poor and marginalized), as well as writing about labor and job market trends including changes evolving out of advances in technology.
Wherever I worked whether it was counseling, placing executives in career positions or teaching career development and job search to ex-offenders or people transitioning off welfare, I found the same thing. Scratch the surface of almost anyone and you will find an artist. Several of the poets to this anthology earn or have earned their living doing something other than writing. John Anstie talks about discovering his “inner poet.” At core, we are creators. This is a great truth about human beings.
It used to be that most evidence of creativity ended in storage somewhere: dresser drawers, file cabinets, attics or garages … until the accessibility of social networking and self-publishing via blogs, videos, blog radio and other venues. Now creatives have easy means to deliver their work independently and to find their own audiences, modest but genuine. No longer unknown, these poets and artists join the ranks of lesser-knows. They also have a wider opportunity to meet others with the same interests and values. Put the mix together – a wonderous serendipity – and the birth of productive collaborations …
“As far as I recall, it all started with freshly-baked lemon drizzle cake . . . ‘@peterwilkin1: Good Morning. Coffee & lemon drizzle cake, anyone?’ …. One may be forgiven for thinking the GRPG is an international social network-based association for the deep appreciation and virtual consumption of cyber cake and other comestibles. Indeed this is what they do, but they also do something else remarkable – they write poetry – delightful, delicious, scrumptious, tasty, and delectable at that, poetry.” Introduction, Craig Morris
And thus it began, with friendly – often quick-witted – Twitter chat and an affinity evolved. Two years later Petrichor Rising was born and featured artwork by one, the Introduction by another, and the poetry of the rest. How did they pull it all together?
Interview with John Anstie
JAMIE: Expanding on your piece about editing Petrichor Rising (posted this evening on The Bardo Group): Learning to use language gracefully and words accurately is a lifelong challenge (and a pleasure); but editing English when the works are from such diverse regions of the world throws extra spice into the mix. There are many variations on the themes of grammar, spelling, and on syllable accent and speech inflection, how did you approach that particular challenge?
JOHN: Your first question is not a question, it is several questions, which, as you imply, could take me a lifetime (and possibly a few pages) to answer! But the simplest way I can answer this is to be entirely honest. By and large, I took each piece as it was presented and interpreted it as it was written. Grammar and spelling was not really a problem, since I left the words spelled as they were presented; my two North American friends, Jackie and Joe, if they used American English spelling, that’s how it stayed, of course. There were few issues in the grammar department. As for syllable stress and speech inflection, I had little issue with the effects of these on scansion, since almost all of the poems, except some of my own, were pretty much in the ‘free verse’ form. But you certainly have raised a valid issue for editors of international poetry collections.
JAMIE: How did you work out the collaboration? The book is admirably unified and surely there must have been some back-and-forth about which poems to use from each poet and how to organize the sequence.
JOHN: Over the two years of its gestation, there were a few changes of poems. Some of the original poems submitted were withdrawn, because of submissions elsewhere and a handful were edited and resubmitted for inclusion. The sequence was the greatest challenge for me. Initially, I asked each poet to attach key words or tags to each of their own poems, from which I intended to attempt dividing the whole body of work into sections. That didn’t work, simply because I inevitably ended up with too many key words. In the end, after we’d decided on the title, I felt it important that any themed sections should reflect the theme of the title in some way. So I worked through the whole collection of sixty-five or so poems and categorised them myself. The three sections were the end result of that part of my work on the book.
JAMIE: Have you had the opportunity to speak by phone or meet in person with any of the members of the Group? If so, what was that experience like.
JOHN: Five of us live in the UK. It was Louise, who bravely blazed a trail to Yorkshire to stay with Peter and his wife for a week. I guess she judged him to be trustworthy enough (and not the mad axe murderer he might have been!). I journeyed up to meet them both on neutral ground. We spent a fruitful and enjoyable day in each other’s company. Shan and Abi were the next to visit Yorkshire. I’ve lost count of how many times we met after that, including a couple of poetry readings at Ally Wilkin’s shop “Crystal Space” (one of the locations in Peter’s and Marsha’s joint publication, “Brianca and The Crystal Dragons”). All of this was capped in a confluence in May 2012, when the five of us from the UK, along with Joe and Quirina, who flew in from Albany, New York and Germany, came together in London – photos of this are in my Facebook album of that day HERE.
It was a very happy day, but one that wasn’t long enough for us all. Finally, last June, Marsha came to the UK for a conference in Leeds. She lodged with Peter and Ally for the first part of her stay and with me for the last part. It was very special to meet her too. So, in answer to your question, I’ve met nearly all of them; only Jackie in New York and Craig in South Africa have yet to meet us. Quite incredible, considering we only met on Twitter two and a half years ago! One final twist to this tale, to cut a long story short, is that Abigail turns out to be the daughter of an old school friend of mine, whom I had very recently met up with again along with another friend! It’s a very small world!
JAMIE: What made you choose print-on-demand over ebook? Does the GRPG plan to offer the book in ebook format? It a lovely volume, and I think would make a fine addition to anyone’s poetry library. These days, though, many appreciate ebooks for their portability as well as the saving grace of saving shelf-space.
JOHN: Print on demand, in the end, seems like a very sensible choice. Self publishing would have been difficult, deciding how big a print run dramatically affects the cost-per-unit economies. However, it was the publisher, Aquillrelle, who determined the route to print and we chose them, because they had published Marsha’s collection, “Spinning”, and she was very impressed with their service and attention to detail. It proved to be a good choice for me, as their Chief Editor, did have a keen eye for detail. As for the ebook, Amazon should have produced one by now, but it’s not happened yet. I suspected it might be a demand thing; I’m not sure. Even though I own an iPad Mini, which is, of course, a perfect ebook reader, it has to be said that I prefer to have a real book in my hands.
Note: I see that Lulu has an eBook available since we did this interview. The link is above in the opening paragraph. Jamie
JAMIE: Would you do it all again and if so, why?
JOHN: I think the answer is yes, probably, but not in the same way. What would I do differently? I couldn’t answer that until I saw the material I was working with. However, there are two more projects on my horizon before another anthology comes along. The first is going to be some kind of account of the story of an historic house, gardens and estate, for which my wife and I are members of the volunteer teams. The second may be my own first full collection. Then, for the sake of my family history, maybe I ought to complete my own autobiography.
Book Review in Brief
Petrichor – from the Greek pɛtrɨkər, the scent of rain on the dry earth.
I dislike using the word “accessible.” There have been times when I’ve wondered if that is code for a lack of intricacy or profundity. The work here is comprehensible but still complex. The poems move from nostalgia to appreciation, from the beauty of nature to the frailties of humanity, from sorrow to hope. From Craig Morris’ Introduction, which sets the mood, to Joe Hesch’s theme poem Petrichor, which closes the book, it’s a joy. Well organized with the weather metaphor as the through line, the sections are The Drought, Gathering Storm, and The Rain. Its hallmark is the show of humanity at its best.
This morning I will cast open the curtains, chasing the fear away and hold this crystal up to the sunlight, releasing my soul to fly
– Prism, Abigal Baker
…. and at its worst
Haunted by proper thoughts of his wife at home he wryly recollects how he told her before friends and family on their silver anniversary “I love every wrinkle, every scar I celebrate, such wonderous depths are etched upon your body a cartography of our marriage I love the silver in the gold of our hair” then renewed his marriage vows his fingers crossed, avoiding his own reflection in the mirror
– Cracks of Angst: A Portrait of an Unhappy Man, Marsha Berry
Petrichor Rising is availabe from Lulu and Amazon and profits are donated to UNICEF.
This poem was written last November shortly after the birth of my third grandchild, a second grandson, and the first child of my son and his wife. I put it away for a while to ‘rest’, because I felt it wasn’t quite there; that it still needed something to make it work. Three months later, following several edits and adjustments, whilst it is perhaps less like poetry and more a narrative, (and was it Leonardo da Vinci himself who said that a work of art is never complete, only abandoned?) I have decided that I should let it go. I hope my grandson, when he’s old enough, all my grandchildren and onward generations, may find some use or ornament for it, to give them perspective on their own situations, whatever they may be, and to help guide them in their journeys through life …
The countryside was flush with gold
to celebrate your arrival; the season
was in suspense, as if to make
your first tiny footprint on the earth,
amidst the clamour of a thousand nativities,
as if a gift of God for this, your birth,
a special and harmonious event.
At the cusp, where Autumn meets with Winter,
a splash of golden hair defined you;
the gilding of a perfect crown,
was like the golden fleece,
that vaunted prize of Ancient Greece
in Jason’s time, when boys grew into men
before the age of their true making.
Your first year, centenary of a date
when Europe burned with anticipation
of conflict, a bloody affair, for which
no true atonement was ever offered,
for which we feel a great collective guilt
but which, we hope, will remain
a part of history. Not your future.
Your future shall be focused,
neither on the clock that ticks,
that divides time into segments of life;
that numbs the mind with endless drudge;
that defines your living to the end;
nor shall it confine your path
to the relentless quest for gain.
It is not control that you shall seek,
but access to a pantheistic knowledge,
enabling a different class of power,
the faculty for influence over those,
who misused the privilege they have,
that we, your forebears, allowed them.
For this I repentantly apologise.
If nature no longer holds its strength to live,
to refresh itself, to recover its flush and thrive,
it will be human beings, who prevailed
on its demise, for which there’s no excuse.
Beyond mere human frailty, there seems no will
to cease remorseless greed and just survive.
But the Earth owes us a big fat nothing!
So, if my undoubted compassion
does not have wings; if I do not transform
my rising anger into constructive deeds,
in such a way to help move hearts and minds
in concert, so to invest in change;
if thus, and I’m too frail or weak,
remorse will overcome my heart.
But have I yielded to our defeat?
No. I’ll neither submit to this old foe
nor will my pen cease in my hand,
whilst ever I have breath and mind
to speak out from the crowd. I find
it sad to say that much is left to do,
which leaves an adverse legacy for you.
What do I expect of you, or you of you?
I know that I can ask, but cannot make;
I know you’re blessed with your own will,
but you will find that one thing will prevail:
the greatest force for life is family;
a force defying selfishness and greed,
which always gives us hope in time of need.
It shall be fuel that fills you, every day,
from your Stabat Mater, your Trojan Father,
whose care and energy will long endure,
imbuing you with superhuman strength,
for which there is no substitute;
that no amount of gold will ever buy.
Integrity and truth is born of this.
There is one thing I know will light your way,
’till time and tides are done and trees are gone.
This energy and fortitude, integrity
and strong desire, will all be borne
to you and, through you, to your children;
and so, through them, ancestral grace
will lead them to conquer the World!
It is the one enduring human quality
that is, more than mere emotion,
the omniscient and greatest power of all;
one word, one gift, which represents
life’s longing for itself, from me to you,
a kind of magic that will heal the World
… with pure, undying, unconditional Love.
If I had ever taken note at school,
those moments often shunned by this poor fool,
of literature, philosophy and tomes
that offered us the sustenance of poems.
Be gowned, our masters strenuously plead
that sonnets and soliloquy we read
to dress our minds and feed our souls with love
of words that speak a language from above
our mundane daily toil; speak of the day
when I am moved with eloquence to say
“I understand … Oh now I understand!”
And when I feel my heart in her soft hands
I move to paint her love with words I see
embedded in my mind’s sweet mystery.
This poem was originally submitted for the ‘FormForAll:Clarian Sonnets’ over at the dVerse Poets Pub where Samuel Peralta (Twitter ID @semaphore) was teaching us about the sonnets of early 19th century poet, John Clare.
I woke up with a start some time ago;
A very familiar path;
from sleep infused, in semiconscious state,
with dreams of the unpleasant,
into a slow and rude awakening.
Was it a mystery magician or
con artist, the evil one,
who managed to deprive me of my freedom;
usurp my own free will;
transport me where I never want to go.
And then, somehow it dawned on me that I,
apropos my own illusion,
had written words that weren’t exactly true?
I’m not sure how this is…
But missive written. For poets. How to write!
The anti-hero in my fated dream
insisted I capitulate
and turn my trade to more constructive ends
by which it sought the truth
of why I wish to make my dreams come true.
It asked me who I thought I was and then,
without so much as by
your leave, it pulled me back into oblivion.
It also didn’t hear me
when my stentorian protest made no sound.
It was a vision; a reverie that spoke
of fantasies; woolgathering.
It is, in truth, as truth is meant to be
none other than my conscience,
speaking of the will to write and dream.
If answer there is one, I do not know;
so often out of our control.
The only thing I have to say is this:
it’s always up to you.
Only you can judge what’s best … for you.
By your own best devices, you don’t need
to take advice from where
there is no guidance better than your own
… save rules, and even they
can be ignored once you have mastered them.
[This poem combines the subjects of a dream I had three years ago. The dream left me with a strong impression of a magician with magical, but not particularly benign powers and quite possibly a conspiracy that threatens the world of future times. I have written a synopsis of it in my notes on future project ideas, because I had strong feelings that it would make a fantastic storyline for a Sci-Fi novel, but, more than this I cannot tell; you’ll have to wait to see if this particular dream comes true. ]
I found a note from one remembered love,
It’s one she’d written many years ago.
She’d washed her fountain pen and had to see
if it would write just like it used to do!
It flowed so beautifully, this conversation
partly with herself; partly me.
Contented, she announced the startling news
that it had started raining; and the cat
had just come in to sit upon her knee;
and then a line, ’twas almost incidental,
as if she didn’t need to let me know,
still moist from her sweet, honeyed pen,
I saw her words say how she loved me so.
My yearning heart took flight and lodged itself
somewhere between her lips and finger tips,
my stomach glowed with love’s eternal warmth
that only comes from passion so consumed.
Her letter’s affirmation spans the years
with warm remembered grace that dries my tears.
Her words were sown like seeds on fertile earth
and bore the fruits of love in painful birth.
No greater confirmation could reveal
that I am blessed with how I know I feel…
that, undeniably, I love her still.
[Poetics Notes: This poem is written in, what is for me, an anchor of poetic story telling… Blank Verse. This was championed by William Shakespeare in all of his plays, but apparently was also used, in some way by Greek and Latin poets.
By definition, Shakespearean blank verse is written with five metrical ‘feet’ (that is units of two syllables) or pentameter, it is mostly, in this poem at any rate, ‘Iambic’, which is to say with stress on the second part of each metrical foot. Occasionally, in order to maintain the sense, from the words available to me to achieve the desired effect, emotion or expression, the meter changes to ‘trochaic’ pentameter and occasionally with the odd syllable missing, or silent – as in the line “partly with herself; partly me.”, where the semicolon provides a pause, which replaces the unstressed first part of the foot, linking to the second, stressed first syllable of the word “partly..”; the beginning of this same line has a missing unstressed syllable, which is effectively replaced by the last syllable of the word “conversation” at the end of the previous line. The effectiveness of this deviation from the scheme, of course, depends on how the line is read, but I think it works well!
Whilst it still has regular poetic rhythm and balance, using this form is a wonderful way for a poet to retain the feel of story telling prose, by not having a regular rhyme scheme. The exception I make for this poem, however, again following the Bard’s tendency for their use, is that I used three rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter in the concluding lines of the piece and one at the end of the second stanza. The poem finishes with a single title line.]
At the age of one, going on two, telephone calls from my granddaughter, three or four years ago, for a while became a fairly regular as well as welcome and enchanting occurrence. One such call prompted me to write this response.
It addresses that stage in a toddler’s life when they seem to be striving to develop their language skills to communicate with their adult family, but cannot find the words. So I, would pick up the the phone when she called, find myself (like a typical stupid adult) doing too much talking, trying, as we do, to encourage her to say more. What comes back the other way, not surprisingly having been patronised by her grandpa, is mostly silence accompanied by (and this is the truly enchanting bit) mutterings, sing-song tones and breathing, which only fuel my imagination, which rapidly, but mostly unsuccessfully, tries to figure out what it is she is trying to say. The particular phone call to which “Not Talking” is the response was in fact received by our answer phone messaging system, hence I was able to record it for posterity.
Our desire to help them talk can, of course, be dimmed once their newfound ability to talk leads to incessant nattering, which drives us in search of refuge!
But they will always remain an enchantment on our lives and a potential for renewal of our own childhood hopes and dreams.
You called; it seemed from somewhere far away.
You called to say hello in your sweet way.
Not so much with news but how you’re feeling;
our talk, not so much an open book as freewheeling.
You called to say your Dad was making tea;
that, whilst you wait, you’d make a call to me.
An inner smile grew as I listened on
to silences between the phrases of your song
that comes from somewhere in your life, so full
of carefree energy and zest, that you just pull
me with you and, yet, wherever it is you go
metaphysically, little do you know
how much it is you say to me, not talking
of all of your imaginings, while walking,
or perhaps you’re standing, hearing me,
whilst you contemplate what is for tea.
Whatever it may be that you are thinking
I know you’d love to talk and, in a blinking,
you will, and I’ll be thinking: are we blessed
or will we ask, politely, for you to rest?