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flint arrowheadStories from the lithic traces,
Fragment of arrow-head and spear,
Washed out from the quiet places,
Whispering of ancient strife and fear.

Flints shaped by hands like yours and mine,
By clever men who knew their tools,
For whom broad seasons measured time,
Yet then as now were damned by fools.

By fools and lies spread far and wide,
By strutting power-hungry lords,
At whose behest that darkening tide,
Turned all the clever hands to war.

And as each season shed its days,
The heavens harvested the good,
While of these flinty barbs and blades,
All trace was lost, cast down in mud.

__________________

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on the beda fell ridge

So, the computer finally died. Six years old, it updated itself dutifully every Friday, into the oblivion of a Windows 10 black hole. It wouldn’t boot, as they say in the trade. It was goosed as they say elsewhere. And in-spite of my tenderly intensive and not exactly inexpert administrations, it was tired of the fray and pleaded with me to let it go.

I’ve not totally given up on it, have laid it somewhere safe. After all, it’s physically flawless, and its demise seems painfully premature to me. My car is seventeen years old and still drives like new, can accelerate from 0 to 60 as fast as it ever did. I have a watch in my collection a hundred and thirty years old and it still tells the time very well. It has not gradually ground to a halt year on year.

The ultimate salve will be a copy of Windows 7 (64 bit) which should make that old computer fly as never before, provided I never connect it to the Internet again, and that’s fine for drafting work, for when I’m writing out in the shed of a summer’s evening. For sure the Internet’s the problem, and a stormy sea these days for the fragile craft that old computer had become. But for now, sure, I set it aside, and since we cannot manage without access to the damned Internet any more, I ordered a fresh machine of similarly middling specification from the Amazon. With free delivery, (which cost me £4.95) it arrived next day.

This should impress me, but it makes me feel uncomfortable. I didn’t need it that fast. I might have waited a week or two – the rest from wrestling with I.T. would have done me good. Who decided I wanted it straight away? Why not deliver it by drone within the hour? What kind of sluggish operation are we running here? Or more to the point, what wages were depressed, what workers were oppressed in order to merit this specious tick in the box of customer service excellence? Oh, I know, I’ve written about this before when I sat on my phone and broke it, and isn’t what I really want to talk about now – what I want to talk about is quality. Human quality.

Of course my old computer sank to the bottom of the Internet ocean with an awful lot of data on it: pictures, backups, bloat-ware. All gone, winked out, gone supernova. But you never keep anything on a machine you can’t afford to lose, so I don’t mind that it’s gone now. Anything precious is on a pen-drive, backed up to a portable hard-drive, backed up to another portable hard-drive.

So you fire up your new machine and it seems slick by comparison, but then they all do at the start. And you begin rebuilding your email, your browser shortcuts, your passwords – oh, damn, my passwords – set your background theme. Fiddle about, deleting that bloat-ware. Say NO THANKS to that invitation to partake of the sinister behemoth that is Microsoft Office 365 for eighty quid a year and it’s never actually yours. So by now, an evening’s passed and you’ve done nothing else, added nothing to the sum total of your self, which begs the question what does add up?

Reading a book, perhaps? Having a conversation? Going for a walk in the countryside? Going to the shop for wine and cheese? Watching Sandra Bullock? in Gravity. Again.

What have I added to myself by this slavery to the machine? A pleasant memory, perhaps? A stimulating fact? The renewal of my corporeal self by the imbibing of copious amounts of country air? The renewal of my superficial spirit by the Bacchanalian delight of cheap corner-shop wine? No, none of these things.

In the world of Manufacturing, we concern ourselves very much with those human activities which add value to a product. Activities that add nothing, or worse, take value away must be got rid of. And so it is with human affairs. But what is it that adds value to your life? Our machines help us out for sure; they furnish us with information, they control systems that sustain life and which no human being could ever grasp, and they enable otherwise unknown writers to disseminate their thoughts. But do they add value to us? I don’t think they do, or at least not as much as we like to think they do. Indeed, it seem obvious to me the machines are evolving rapidly away from us into a pointless universe of their own, and the worst thing we can do is follow them while believing our liberation, our true value comes from continuing down the path of servitude to these unfeeling, unthinking things.

I don’t know what it means to be human, except that part of being human is accepting the paradox of trying to figure out what it means, while running the risk there may be many answers, and none of them true, or just the one answer that is unobtainable by the mortal intellect. But I do know I’m closer to it when I’m looking up at the stars or watching the sun set, or striking out over the hilltops, much less so when I’m staring at a damned computer screen. How many hours in the day do I waste doing that, adding nothing to myself?

italian lake

Leverhulme’s Italian Lake

If you wander up the side of Rivington moor, towards the Pike, you’ll come across what looks like the remains of a lost citadel. Is this the ruin of some ancient Lancastrian civilisation? No. It’s the remains of a summer palace, created by Thomas Mawson in the early part of the last century for the pleasure of the industrialist, William Hesketh Lever (Lord Leverhulme). Known as the Terraced Gardens, photographs from the period suggest a stunning arrangement of architectural and botanical wonders, crowned by Leverhulme’s residence, “The Bungalow” which played host to glittering parties for the region’s well-to-do. Leverhulme died in 1925 and – sobering thought this – almost at once, the place fell into ruin.

There have been various attempts since to stabilise the remains and preserve them as some sort of amenity, the most recent being a Heritage Lottery funded project which is making perhaps the biggest effort I can remember, and which I believe has been largely successful, rolling back nature a little and revealing much more of the structures we had thought lost for ever. Not entirely ruinous, there are various summerhouses, the Italian and the Japanese lake (with waterfalls), the stupendous seven arched bridge, and the iconic Pigeon tower, to say nothing of winding terraced pavements, are all intact and accessible for free, to be explored at will.

terraced garden steps

As we wander among these romantic ruins today, it’s hard not to slip into contemplative mode, thus you discover me sitting a while by the newly renovated “Italian Lake” thinking, among other things, about that scourge of modern times (forgive me): BREXIT! The other things, we’ll get to in a moment, but for now whether you’re a Remainer or a Brexiteer, the one thing we can agree on is the disruptive influence it has had on the nation’s psyche these past few years. Internet, TV, radio – the first thing you hear is BREXIT. And everyone is angry about it and with each other, about it.

For myself I’m viewing it all somewhat darkly, though with a grim resignation now, watching as politicians manoeuvre themselves, and seemingly in such a way as to guarantee the coming hammer-blow inflicts the most damage on those who can defend against it the least. If a foreign power had set out to undermine, and collapse the United Kingdom, politically, socially and economically, they could have done no better job than we seem to be doing ourselves. But is it reasonable I should feel this way? I mean is it rational? Not that I am mistaken, but more that I should care at all?

World events are what they are, and while they do seem parlous at the moment, and on many fronts, there is nothing I can do about any of them, and this has always been so for the individual down the generations, and for all time. The world is like Leverhulme’s garden, for ever in need of repair. Take your eye off it for a minute and the stones are coming out, the tiles are slipping, the water is getting in and spoiling the carpet. In short there is no Arcadia, only at best a continual effort to maintain the good, and the progressive, in the direction of least harm.

twin arches

But then there are times when I wonder if it isn’t the other way around, that I am creating the mess myself in my head, and faithfully manifesting what I feel through the decay of the world. So is the solution to the macrocosm’s disintegration, not also to be found in working towards the restoration of the microcosm of my own self? It’s a silly way of thinking perhaps, but such are the run of my thoughts this afternoon, and if you’ll forgive me, I’d like to follow them wherever they take me.

I’ve been reading competing theories of human development – one of them essentially spiritual and inactive, letting be what will be, and the other active, secular and psychological, addressing the flaws of the self which, in me, seem no less abundant than they were decades ago, the same neuroses flaring up at the slightest provocation, the same doubts, the same ignorance.

It’s Ken Wilbur who talks about vectors, though he may not call them that. When a solution to our ills seems to rush off with a certain energy and in a particular direction, and then another solution, seeming just as convincing, rushes off in another direction, it’s likely neither solution is correct but it’s reasonable to assume the greatest gain might be found somewhere in-between the two, so we sum the vectors and see where they lead us. But what if the vectors are diametrically opposed and of equal energy? Then they cancel out and leave us right back where we started, only with one hell of an internal tension – or there would be if, this afternoon, I wasn’t simply watching raindrops fall on the Italian Lake.

He would swim in this lake – Leverhulme I mean. I see him now, coming down the steps from the bungalow, maybe even a cool, wet day like this. A butler follows him at a respectful distance with towel and umbrella. He lowers himself into the water, (Leverhulme, not the butler) and pushes off. The water is peaty and scummy this afternoon, and full of tadpoles, so I’m thinking he must have had a serf in waders skim it regularly. And now, a century later, here I am, thinking about him, wondering what it is he means to me, and most likely it’s nothing other than a convenient lever against the fulcrum of thought, trying to move something otherwise immovable into the realms of a murky understanding.

A week ago, I was up by Angle Tarn in the far eastern fells, remote from the world, my thoughts moving much more freely than now. Now I’m back in the thick of it, and wondering about the pointlessness of so much of the suffering we see, day to day. It’s the default position, I suppose, when we stop believing in God, empirical reason alone just circles the plughole of its own bath-water, leaving us with nothing by way of a sense of meaning, only this gnawing feeling we’ve missed a trick somewhere.

terraced garden trail

True, it has to be said the evidence isn’t overwhelmingly in favour of a benign, interventionist deity either. But I’ve noticed life does go better when we err on the side of caution, and allow room for some form of mystical thinking, if only because it enables us to transcend the noise of our Twitter feed, pull our snouts from the trough for a moment and glimpse the bigger picture.

And the bigger picture is that for long periods of our history we have lived with the expectation that every day will be just like the last, generally peaceful and prosperous, and that such a happy state might last for ever and be passed on to our children. But every now and then events arise that deny us the comfort of familiar times. And while it’s at such times there is the greatest potential for personal and national tragedy, there is also the greatest opportunity for self knowledge and understanding.

It’s hard to say what it is that’s coming exactly, and what kind of harm it will inflict, but whatever it is we’d each be wise to look more closely at the mending of ourselves, for it’s only through such self-healing we discover we are better able to understand and take care of one another. From what I see at present though, and in increasingly vivid colours since the cloud of BREXIT burst over our heads and washed all manner of demons from the sewers, looking after one another seems the least of our priorities. Instead we withdraw to the boundaries, or rather to the fissures, of our respective clan identities, project evil onto the rest and then, for want of a simple bit of maintenance, the whole damned lot comes crashing down.

hartsop barn

When he was writing his iconic guidebook series, Alfred Wainwright gave the region east of Ullswater, Patterdale and Kirkstone, the rather exotic title: the Far Eastern Fells. It has something of the romance of old Empire about it, suggesting a region both aloof and mysterious. For two years he explored it in his characteristically painstaking and solitary manner, finally penning the last full stop of this, his second volume, in the Autumn of 1956. On its completion, he said, he felt like a man who had just come home “from a long and lonely journey”, describing a land in which he had walked from morning till dusk without sight of other human beings. It’s not quite so lonely a place now, but still a good choice for anyone wanting to escape the queues on Striding Edge.

“They are for strong walkers,” these fells, he says, “and should please the solitary man of keen observation and imagination”.

far eastern fellsIn the 50’s this region was very difficult to get at, especially for anyone, like Wainwright, without a car, and that means most people. Overnight accommodation was sparse, still is, being mostly restricted to the Patterdale valley. He relied on bus services from Kendal, and wild-camps overnight. But over-nighting on the fells for Wainwright did not involve a tent, just a blanket and endless smokes until first-light. He walked in tweeds and hobnails, and his waterproof was a button-up plastic Mackintosh. Today’s mountain rescue teams would feel obliged to consider him mad and deliver a stern lecture, but his was a more rugged, unassuming, and self-reliant generation, one that brushed off hardship. It was thus, lightly attired, he explored every nook and cranny, and of an evening he would settle down at home with pen and ink and fashion for us entirely by hand these neatly intricate and fastidiously detailed guidebooks which, like no others, are a timeless love-song to the land of the lakes. They are also of course a lasting inspiration to the generations who have followed him up the English mountains.

As he wrote his guides he worried they would soon become dated beyond use, but many an experienced fell-walker still defers to them when planning an expedition. They provide a wealth of detail, all of it conveyed with great charm. For once though, I found Wainwright of little help. I was planning a walk over Satura Crag by way of Hayeswater, then on to Angle Tarn, but the crag only manages a footnote in book two, it being really neither here nor there, just a neat little crown of crags on the way from one much bigger place to the next. It’s more notable for the view than for the climb – as we shall see – but let’s pocket our Wainwright for company anyway, and off we go.

We begin in Patterdale, at the beautiful little hamlet of Hartsop. And it’s here, I read with some sadness the notice beseeching visitors to take their bags of dog-poo home. It seems the plague of bagged-and-scattered dog-poo has reached even Hartsop now! I have imagined the spread of a crass urban greyness in many ways over the years, contaminating the sublime green with something unwholesome, but discarded bags of poo were not anticipated, nor even imagined, yet they do sum up this socially degenerate phenomenon very well, both in its physical manifestation, but also metaphorically, and even spiritually.

The climb begins at once on an unrelentingly steep track by Hayewater Gill, which, after an hour or so, leads us to the somewhat troubling revelation that is Hayeswater, a post-glacial lake, nestling in a valley at nearly 1400 feet. Why troubling? Well, it’s hard to say, but I’m not the only one to have thought so:

ENFOLDED in the mountain’s naked arms,
Where noonday wears a drearier look than night,
And echo, like a shrinking anchorite,
Wanders unseen, and shadowy strange alarms

Visit the soul ; there sunshine rarely warms
The crags, but only random shafts of light
Flit, while the black squalls shrilling from the height
Shudder along the lake in scattering swarms.

Cradle of tempests, whence the whirlwind leaps
To scourge the billows, till they writhe and rear
Columns of hissing spray ; the wrinkled steeps

Scowl at the sullen moaning of the mere ;
And luminous against the dale-side drear,
Ghostlike, the rainstorm’s scanty vesture sweeps.

hayeswater

Hayeswater from Satura Crag

So wrote Alfred Hayes of it in 1895. And the watercolourist, Heaton Cooper, writing in 1960, agrees it can be rather a sombre place. Heaton Cooper also writes of an abundance of wildlife here but that seems nowadays lacking: deer and pine-martens and birds, including cormorants, fishing for the lake’s salmon. Indeed it has an altogether more barren look about it this morning – not even sheep. There are sketchy paths that trace its shore, but it’s not a place that invites closer acquaintance and I have never been tempted by it. So we avoid the “sullen moaning of the mere” and keep to the sunnier path that winds its way up by The Knott. Here at around 2000 feet, we encounter the path connecting with the Roman Way on Highstreet, and head north. Far below us now, Hayeswater still broods, while the southern sky thickens and dissolves the warm, cloudy-brightness of the morning into something altogether more gloomy. The Met office forecast rain for 15:00, and it looks like they’re going to be right.

I realise that, like most of my walks in the Lakes, I last did this route many years ago. I also remember it as being rather easier than it feels today. As we age, we trade our fitness for “experience”. Yet it’s experience that enables us to savour places such as these all the more and it’s unfortunate then it’s this lost fitness that’s required to carry us up here, thereby curtailing our opportunity for over-indulgence in the Lake country’s mystical delights. But such convolutions aren’t getting us any further along our path, are they Michael? On we go then, the hard work of ascent behind us now, so we can enjoy an undulating and entirely unambiguous path all the way to Satura Crag. From here, northwards we get a view of one of Lakeland’s most secret valleys: the seldom seen and ever so lonely Bannerdale.

It’s a mostly deserted place, just the one lone farm at Dale Head, a white sentinel against the green, and around the corner, at the opening of Rampsgill, there’s the historic hunting lodge, built in 1912 for a visit by our game-mad cousin, Kaiser Willy. The lodge is for hire. It boasts “interesting plumbing” and costs £1400 per week at peak. As a base for exploring this remote region, I can think of nowhere finer! However, I do admit to preferring my plumbing as boring as possible.

angletarn

Angle Tarn

Continuing our way, we come down to Angle Tarn for lunch, an altogether cheerier prospect than Hayeswater. Indeed Wainwright declared this to be one of the finest tarns in Lakeland. Even in gloomy weather, it never fails to make me smile. There is something truly heavenly about it, un-shadowed by soaring crag, it reflects the mood of the sky perfectly, speaking of which, as we settle by the shore, the sky darkens, and a wind stirs the surface to an animated silver.

I was probably twenty five when I first came this way, living at home with my mum, and just a rusty old Cortina to my name. Now I’ve got kids as old as I was then, my mum’s gone, and my whole life down there in the mad churn of the world is completely different, yet right now, and from this elevated perspective, I’m reassured a vital part of me remains the same, that there is little to separate that earlier walk from this one, for such is the magic of the fells, always stripping away the egoic delusions of who and what we think we are, and dismissing too the imaginary constraints of linear time.

The best walk is always the next one, and all walks are equally memorable, yet remembered in no particular order, so for a time, we are indeed ageless. Wordsworth wrote of this in more penetrating form in his “intimations of immortality”, that it is indeed possible to recover what we feel we have lost to time. But for that to mean anything to us personally, I think we need to have a spent a life-time wandering the high-ways, among these gaunt cathedrals and echoing amphitheatres, listening to, or rather feeling, what it is they have to say to us.

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, its fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give,
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

Thank you William.

But we’ve burst seventeen hundred words now, which puts us considerably to the north of verbose, so far as this particular medium goes, and here we are still, up by Angle Tarn, munching on a butty like we’ve not a care in the world. It’s also looking like the rain’s going to catch up with us any second. We don’t mind that, though we might give the Pikes a miss, and just shamble our way down to Boardale because, although we’ve only done about four miles so far, it feels more like eight, and we’ve another three back to the car which are going to feel like six. And maybe it’s time we bought a better pair of boots, maybe even a pair of Scarpas like our old ones. But it took us twenty years to wear those things out, and they still weren’t worn in by the time they fell apart, and have we even got another twenty years of blisters in us?

Sure we do.

A fish leaps, lands with a splosh and focuses down our attention to the mindful moment. Then the rain comes on, its “scanty vesture” advancing earnestly, across the fells, raises a hiss from the clear waters of the tarn. Hat’s off to the Met office; they forecast this five days ago, and they’re only half an hour out. How do they do that?

It’s a firm rain, but soft on the skin and warm. Then comes that rich scent from the earth, something fecund and exhilarating about it, like a fine malt whiskey. Sure, there are worse places to be than the Far Eastern Fells in June. Even in the rain.

Three miles still to the car, did you say?

They can wait.

Hartsop vire to threshthwaite

Hartsop

Stormy Petrel

pince nez

When we write online, we are like birds calling in the wilderness so our own kind will know us. But we should be careful not to go more than half way towards meeting whatever approaches as a result, and be prepared to withdraw at once if what we have attracted seeks to take advantage. There seems to be no way of inviting exclusively those birds of a feather without automatically attracting the wrong sort as well: the predators.

When we call into the wilderness, we tag our writings so others who share our ideas might find us. But the predators take those tags as indicative of our habit and try to hit us with some sort of service. But I am from the Old Testament era of the Internet, a time when its promise loomed large, and it had more to offer than mere shopping. Therefore I find the predators annoying in their crassness and think their growing domination and their souring of this wonderful mind-space space an utter abomination.

In response to the last blog I have received advice on how to make money online, was offered beauty products, lifestyle advice from teenagers, and budgeting advice from spivs. There were also genuine responses, easily discerned from the fake, and as ever I thank those most valued birds of a feather for being the icing on the cake of my wordsmithing. But in general, our bird-calls mainly flag our position to the hunters who ready their guns seeking to fell the money from our pockets. And in hardening myself against predators, in learning to evade them, I find I mistrust every advert that comes my way online because I suspect I have been clumsily profiled. I resent it and find it creepy. As a self-publisher though I have no choice but to operate in this territory. I suppose then I’ve become quite the snob, seeking kinship exclusively with my own kind while being infuriated to a comical degree when the predators hear my call and respond by showering me with their shite.  Those Victorian men of letters, contributing piffle to “Blackwoods” never had this problem.

As a young engineer, many years ago now, finding my feet in a huge and, at times, terrifying manufactory, I once had the privilege of working with a crusty old curmudgeon in whom I confided my utter bewilderment at the oftentimes Byzantine processes required to achieve the simplest of things, also the long hours we spent in meetings, discussing ‘policy’ without actually achieving anything. And he told me that in engineering, all there really is is cutting metal, that the rest is bullshit, that we should never lose sight of that one key fact, then all would be well – at least with us – and we would not go crazy.

It was good advice, advice that has served me well, and which can be applied metaphorically and usefully to many areas of life outside the metal-cutting business. But in a society that has de-industrialised it has also become impossible not to conclude all there seems to be left now is the bullshit, and no more so than with the online world where nothing tangible ever existed in the first place.

It’s therefore disappointing when you put up a piece of work to which most of the responses are from snake-oil entrepreneurs. It’s not disappointment that so few birds of a feather hear my call, more perhaps that there seem to be so few genuine wild birds of any feather out there at all. It’s as well then that of all the species, I am the least gregarious, and therefore well suited to the environment, happiest in small company. I am an albatross perhaps, or a stormy petrel.

It’s a very big ocean we are crossing, and meaningful encounters are  naturally rare. True, the ocean has also become a sterile environment, thick with dross and boiling with fatuous nitrates, a fact we birds of a feather recognise only by our detachment from it and we lament its loss. Everyone down there is trying to profit at the expense of everyone else, it is a place of predators and prey  like worms in a bucket where everything is a baited hook, and even imaginary concepts like “lifestyle” have their price-tag.

We follow the styles of the celebrities, ape the decor of their homes, dress the way they dress, even pretend we are celebrities ourselves with our Insta-profiles. I suppose I’m no different. It’s just that my styles are a couple of hundred years out of date. I am all frock-coat and pince-nez. I am a pocket-watch and leather-bound journal, grimacing at modernity.

Krishnamurti had much to say about such faulty thinking. Basically, he said, the world was never in trouble before we came along, and even we were fine until we started over-thinking everything, that it is our oftentimes corrupt thought, our ground-level delusions that are at the root of all suffering. It begins with thinking, and ends with killing. So, dear snake-oil entrepreneur, before you respond this time with your spam you should take time to read what I’ve written, observe the tag-traps I have set for you, then you’d realise your hits on me only become a part of the meta-structure of the very thing I’m getting at, and it’s thus I profit instead from your avarice.

But each to their own. So you keep your nose to the ground, Mr Entrepreneur, sniffing out your grubby coin, always an eye for the easy buck, weighted by your  petty ambition, while we true birds of a feather spread our wings and soar.

Squawk!

grayscale photo of human lying on ground covered of cardboard box

Photo by THE COLLAB. on Pexels.com

I caught the train at nine. It was smooth, sleek, and spotlessly clean, purring into the station bang on time, just like they do in Switzerland. There was plenty of room on board, though it was peak commuter period and we were heading into Manchester. I paid with my smart-phone, tapping it to the reader on the seat-back, and the seat folded down for me to use, smooth as silk, invited me to stretch out, to settle in the air-conditioned cool, and the train moved out with barely a sound.

They used to be so expensive and so rough I’d rarely ever take one, but now you’d be a fool not to. Much better to leave the car at home, not because the roads are so busy any more, because they’re not; it’s simply a relaxing way to travel, and the service is so frequent you never have to wait more than a quarter of an hour. It truly is the height of luxury, and cheap as chips. I’m told tourists the world over admire our rail-network. And if you’ll forgive me a moment of jingoism, it makes me proud to be British. Not that it was always like this.

It’s free to stand of course, and I did wonder about doing that, journey time into town now being only around a smooth ten minutes, when it used to take nearer a very jerky thirty, and most of that would be standing up because there were always too few carriages, and the old timers remind me we still had to pay the regular fare whether we go a seat or not, and all of us squished in like sardines. I didn’t suffer that indignity very often because mostly I used to drive, sit nose to tail on the M61 instead where the journey time could be anything up to an hour. It’s a wonder we put up with it, but I suppose we’d no choice back then.

My fellow passengers looked well dressed, clean, healthy and happy. It makes a difference, having a bit of money in your pocket. It took a while for things to pick up this way, but over the years I’ve watched that standard of living – modest though it is in most cases – piecing back people’s self respect, people’s dignity. But it’s also their sense of security, don’t forget. It’s hard to smile when you’re always looking back over your shoulder, worrying you’ll get fired for taking so much as a pee in work’s time. So all we fear now are the age old bogies of death and whether our kids will pass their exams, while from what I can gather, in the old days people were afraid of everything. Even rich people were afraid, though mostly what they were afraid of was being poor.

I remember my grandmother telling me how, well into the twenties, people used to go hungry even when they had a job. Wages were so poor they couldn’t afford to eat, she said – and even though she and granddad were both putting in sixty hour weeks, they could barely keep body and soul together, and that’s what finished him in the end. By the time he was forty, he looked seventy. It got so bad the charities had to set up food banks to stop people starving to death. It was like slavery, I suppose. Can you imagine that? It must have been so hard, so undignified having to go cap in hand for a free tin of beans. But what else could people do? I would sooner have died, but that’s easy for me to say, looking back from the luxury of these more enlightened times.

And there’d be people without homes, she said, though I’m not sure I believe that. Indeed a lot of what Gran told me about those days I take with a pinch of salt. I mean, I can’t imagine anyone letting things get so bad. They lived out in the open – these homeless people – summer, winter, rain or shine, lived in doorways or the better off had tents, the numbers rising year on year until you were stepping around them, even in the provincial market towns. But you’d see them out in the countryside too because they’d be set upon by yobs in towns and it was safer for them, out in the green – though many of them starved to death there for want of coin, or they froze in the cold snaps and Gran said the council would have to go out and collect the bodies.

I do remember there being really poor people, back when I was a kid and how all the cars stunk and belched gas, and I remember too my dad arguing with the landlord over the rents that kept going up and up, and having to move around a lot because they could kick you out for no good reason. Landlords could be the worst kind of scum back then, empty a man’s pocket before he’d even bought bread for his family.

We should be grateful I mean that our parents’ generation took the stand they did, or where do you think we’d all be now? Still, you wonder if you’d have the determination yourself if you were nailed to the ground by such grinding poverty all the time. I suppose if you were hungry enough, and living in a tent,…

But just listen to me, harping on about the old days, like I ever had it bad myself.

 

 

 

writer pasternak

Well, if you’ve made it this far you probably already are a poet, though you may not know it. But wait, let’s check! Do you know what iambic pentameter is? How about an Italian quatrain? A Shakespearean sonnet? Yes, okay, they’re definitions of poetic structures; beats per line, order of rhyme, number of lines, that sort of thing. How about a foot? That’s the basic unit of measurement of accentual syllabic meter. Of course it is! There are different types of feet too: iamb, trochee, dactyl, anapest, spondee, and pyrrhic, all to do with the stress on the syllables.

Still want to be a poet? A poet would be well up on all that stuff wouldn’t they? Except, I write poetry, which makes me a sort-of poet, but to be honest I had to look all that terminology up on Wikipedia. If I’d been a Lit student having to field questions on it, I’d surely have failed. Well, I did fail actually – not that I was ever asked those questions, specifically. Log tables made more sense to me, but I still liked writing poetry. Log tables are obsolete now, while poetry remains pretty much a constant throughout time. And do you really need to know about all that structural theory stuff anyway? Well, the poet Robert Frost thought so. He said: there can be no fair tennis without a net, that without proper structure, poetry seldom yields works of beauty.

And he may have a point:

He watched with all his organs of concern
How princes walk, what wives and children say;
Reopened old graves in his heart to learn
What laws the dead had died to disobey;

That’s W H Auden writing in 1940. Plenty structure and rhyme there, and a silken beauty in the flow of it.

But then how about:

A shattered army, Thames’ filthy tonnage, tumbrils of carrion,
Not a beautiful spectacle
For the drinkers of history, or for me
Or my friends, this island’s parallel issues.

That’s Ted Hughes, writing in 1963. No structure, no rhyme, like being hit in the face with a plank of wood, leaving you with multiple splinters to pick at, which I presume is what he intended. So, maybe Frost was just an old fuddy duddy traditionalist and you can play tennis without a net after all, that indeed certain poetic themes demand a freer form if they’re to achieve their desired impact.

I used to strive for structure in my own poetry, but sometimes the struggle took over from what I was trying to say. Rhyme and structure are satisfying to achieve, like completing a literary puzzle, but they can also cheapen a poem, so why push for rhyme if you don’t have to?

How about this:

I remember sitting together in parks
leaning over bridges
counting trout and swans
holding hands under arches
kissing away suns
and moons into darkness.

I remember platform good-byes
last-minute trains
slamming us apart
and my non-self walking back alone.
I remember smaller things:
a pebble in my shoe
and you throwing a match-box on the Serpentine

That’s Phoebe Hesketh. No structure, no rhyme except for that last poignant hook between “shoe” and “you”. A friend of Herbert Edward Palmer, an English poet and critic, his advice to her was never to let the conscious mind force a poem into shape. That’s important, I think. It can be pleasurable exploring traditional patterns in poetry, and good practice trying them out, and if a poem falls into such a pattern, then let it be, but if doesn’t want to, don’t make it.

According to certain psychological theories, we exist upon a seething mass of unconscious energies that seek to become conscious through us. They are our life’s work, whether we know it or not. And poetry, indeed any form of creative expression, is a good way of achieving that, and it’s not like we have any choice in the matter. For a creative person to ignore the pressure from within is a very bad thing, and will backfire with more neuroses than we know how to handle. But to sit a while with pencil and paper, jotting the lines that are offered up, seemingly from nowhere, is worth years of therapy, whether you know an iamb from a trochee or not.

Poetry has always been an important aspect of any civilised culture, and not just for the professional – if indeed there’s such a thing as a professional poet any more. But can anyone really write poetry? Well, okay, not everyone wants to, not everyone gets it, but I suspect if you’ve a hankering for it, you can write it well enough. As a way of expressing the seasons of your life, there’s no finer way of honouring your self. How to start? Start with your life. Imagine you are a bit of the universe seeking to discover the meaning of itself through your eyes. So you capture a moment in time as if to bookmark it, and you say to the universe, okay mate, this bit’s important. Let’s remember this. Then you look back over the stuff you wrote twenty, thirty years ago, and you can see the change in yourself, the smoothing out, the growing up.

However we should beware the trap of thinking poetry is a road to fame and fortune because of course it’s not. Even the Poet Laureate only makes £6000 a year, which doesn’t get you much of a mortgage, does it? Fame and fortune are their own path, with their own rules, and only about one in ten who seek it, by whatever means, succeed at it. But in the business of writing poetry what we’re really looking for are glimpses of meaning, which boil down to those occasional and all too often elusive personal gifts of insight from the unconscious. Sometimes those insights are beautiful, sometimes they’re ugly, and mostly they’re of no interest to anyone else. But as always, in the writing of anything, the person most served by the effort is you, the writer. Poetry, however you define it, helps us grow a little. It’s just occasionally we’ll hit upon something that’s of a more universal appeal, so it’s not always true we should give up on the idea of publishing altogether. But as ever my advice these days is just to blog your stuff, thus calling it “sort of published”, and be done with it. Poetry can heal all wounds, but pursuing, through poetry, the eternally precious bane of fame and fortune is pretty futile, and worse, it will tear your heart wide open again.