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Posts Tagged ‘childhood’

A story of small beginnings

I didn’t know Uncle Bob, until that day I was ill. At family gatherings, he rarely spoke and always had this vacant look about him, like he wasn’t all there. He was pleasant when spoken to, but never seemed to join in the fun, and seemed a bit,… well,… embarrassed. Dad said he was odd, but Mum – Uncle Bob’s sister – said he was just a bit quiet, and always had been. Dad, being more of an outgoing sort, said that being quiet amounted to the same thing: odd. He seemed to forget I was a bit on the quiet side, too. Or maybe he didn’t.

I can’t tell you exactly what was wrong with me that day. I had a lot of problems, when I went up to big school. I’d been to a rubbish primary, one where they taught more Bible than maths and English, when at big school I discovered maths and English were the things they wanted, while the bible didn’t feature at all. I’d a feeling maths and English were what I wanted to get myself off the ground, but it was a bit late to be starting from scratch. So I was feeling like I didn’t fit in, and that I would never be any good at anything that was really wanted.

Some mornings I couldn’t face things, so I’d invent tummy aches. Nowadays, they’d be calling it mental health issues. I don’t know, maybe it was. All I know is I just hated school, and couldn’t work out how best to fit in, given the backward place I’d come from, and how not to feel like I was disappearing every time I walked through the school gates.

But anyway, this particular morning I’m quivering like a jelly outside the school office, where all the slackers and sick notes got dumped, and some poor teacher draws the short straw, and is told to drive me home. Dad’s at work, which is just as well, because he would have hit the roof, but Mum’s on the way out to work as well, and with a look of disbelief on her face as we draw up. And there’s no one else who can look after me except, maybe,… Uncle Bob.

I’d never been in Uncle Bob’s house before. Dad would never go round, you see? It wasn’t like our place. We lived in a semi on the edge of town. Mum and Dad had gone through it, made it all modern. We had a telephone, and a colour TV, and even some plastic grass instead of the real thing, so Dad didn’t have to mow it. They were well off, my parents on account of them both working. Both drove cars, which was rare in those days. Meanwhile, Uncle Bob lived in this place up by the moors. It wasn’t a big house but stood on its own, and was shaded by these big oak trees from the front, but open to the moors at the back. Dad said it hadn’t been touched since Adam was a lad, that it looked neglected, and creepy.

There was no TV, not even a black and white one, and worst of all, no telephone. If uncle Bob wanted to ring anyone up, he had to walk a mile down the lane to the phone box, not that he ever did – ring anyone up that is – and of course no one could ring him. You might wonder how anyone could manage, now, but in those days you could do everything you needed to do by letter. They were slower times, and no one expected an answer to anything straight away. It had electricity and water, but Dad said Uncle Bob used very little, and either lit candles or went to bed when it was dark. I don’t know if this was true. Dad said a lot of things about Uncle Bob, but I think this was more to reassure himself the way he lived was the right way of thinking about things, and Uncle Bob’s was wrong.

So anyway,… Mum can’t ring Uncle Bob to ask if he can look after me. She has to drive round on the off chance he’s in and not off out on his motorbike somewhere. She’s getting agitated because it’s a way out of her way, and she’s already running late, and frazzled by it, and I’m feeling like a burden, and dreading the thought of a day with my odd uncle Bob.

He looks surprised when he opens the door, me and Mum on the doorstep, and me unable to meet his eyes.

“Hello, Sandra,” he says.

I’d never heard him say mum’s name before. He spoke it warmly, like there was a person inside of him, a warm person, with feelings. But I could sense Mum was uncomfortable. I suppose it was living with Dad. Bob was her brother, and they’d grown up together, so there was a blood bond between them, but Dad was her husband, and though he never said anything rude to Bob’s face, he said plenty that was rude behind his back.

Bob was only a little older than Mum, but already retired by then, or at least he wasn’t working. When I asked Mum about it, she said it was complicated. Dad said it wasn’t complicated at all, that Bob was just a layabout. I learned later on Mum and Bob had inherited quite a bit of money, when Granddad passed away. Mum and Dad had used their share doing up the house, and changing their cars for newer ones, then going to Spain a couple of times. Bob had banked the money and given up his job instead, calculating that, if he lived frugally, he could make it to pension age without having to do another shift down the pit. It was some years later when I learned about his friend, Stephan, losing an eye and an arm in a pit accident, and Uncle Bob having to stop the bleeding, and Stephan screaming with pain until the deputy came along, with a shot of morphine. Things like that happened a lot in the pit. I wouldn’t have wanted to go back underground after that, and given the chance,… well,….

Anyway, from what Mum and Dad said, I expected Uncle Bob’s house to be falling apart, even a bit dirty, but it was all right. It was just a bit different, that’s all. He had a lot of books – walls of them. Books to read – stories and such, books that told you about stuff, and then lots of notebooks that he wrote in and, most surprising of all to me, he had a table set up in the back lean-to, where the light was good, and in there he used to paint little post-card sized pictures of trees and flowers, and chestnuts and leaves,… not to sell or anything. When he’d done, he just kept them all in a shoe-box.

I suppose we made a bit of a prickly start, that day, both me and Uncle Bob being of a reticent nature, and then me with my head full of the things Dad had said about him. I wondered if I was being punished, actually. I’d caused such a fuss, coming home from school like that, I imagined the grown-ups had conspired to make sure I wouldn’t be doing again it in a hurry, and how better to do that than have me spend the day with Uncle Bob. I heard Mum’s car disappearing down the road as she hurried off to work, and my heart sank. He stood there for a bit, like he’d not a clue what to do, and then he said:

“Do you like drawing?”

And I said: “I’m no good at drawing. ” Because, like I told you, I felt I wasn’t good at anything, and it was too late to be starting.

And Uncle Bob said: “That’s not what I asked.”

No. It wasn’t. And I did like it. Drawing I mean. But it seemed the world I’d entered needed you to be a genius at everything right away, or it wasn’t interested. “Well,… I like it, but,…”

“Liking it’s a start,” he said. “Liking’s it’s a good start. The best start. As for being good at it,” He shrugged. “Who cares? But that’s something we can sort out, isn’t it?”

“Is it?”

He nodded. “Follow me.”

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childhood

He lost the Faery tongue aged five,
Lost it to chalk boards
And vague threats of God.
It was the Gulag then for him,
His life now frozen for want of sun
And green. And where, when
He was not afraid,
Boredom was the name
Of his routine.

Bare-toothed and baying,
Grey wolves circled and chastised
All vestige of the Faery from his eyes,
Their faces hard, but for those times,
And times again, of false grace,
When he observed they bowed
At every mention of His name.
This God, beneficent of the angry
And the cruel, but no friend to the reticent
Or the cowed.

So, he sought solace
In the prettiness of girls a-while,
And pined.
And thinking what he felt divine,
Put all his hopes in Love,
And thereby came to see,
Amongst all flesh, at least,
The fact of his invisibility,
This Faery child,
Alone among the chained
And shuddering freaks,
Trapped in the darkness
Of an all too swiftly run mortality.

Thus one by one they fell.
The reticent, the cowed,
The lovers, and the wolves, and all.
All into the abyss were swept.
While he, invisible to the last,
Unknown and untouched still,
Watched each one fall in turn,
And wept.

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henry cordierReticent and uncertain; are my ideas any good? I’m sure it’s a question many speculative writers ask themselves. The writing starts in uncertain circumstances, notebooks under the pillows of childhood, then creative writing homeworks for school, which must pass the red pen test of one’s English Teacher.

Mine wrote poetry – good poetry, at least the snippets he read to us in class on the brighter of his days, the days when he was not so scowly-stern. I wanted him to like my writing too, my poetry. That I respected him, feared him a little even, it meant a lot to have him pen good things in the margins of my homeworks. And of course  it hurt when the marks slipped below C for things I’d laboured long upon, while managing to miss the point entirely.

Mr. Jones. It was approval I sought back then from him. In my eyes he was a literary genius, benign sage, and caustic nemesis rolled into one. He was a man I could both hate and love, this man who whipped me through my English O Level. He was a God, or rather the channel through which I sought the approval of the Gods for my words – his red pen the arbiter of permission to think the way I thought.

But after the brightly coursing stream of education, one is discharged into the stagnant, murky mill-pond of life, and with no Mr Jones, the image of Godhead moves to the faceless publisher. For the next twenty years I sought approval there instead, but to no avail, for the God of publishing does not exist; it is therefore healthier to be an atheist in all our dealings with them.

In retrospect, I am glad now for the red pen of Mr. Jones, bright-curling round my spelling mistakes, even the pointed “see me” and the ensuing stern lectures on my use of grammar and punctuation, with ears burning, and the girls in class I adored all listening in. Oh, the humiliation! Could he not see how much I wished to be like him? that words for me were thoughts out loud, and my thoughts did not seem like the thoughts of other boys. Are my thoughts all right, Mr. Jones? Is it all right to think and feel this way? Why can I see the story of a man’s life in a worn out shoe, when others see nothing? Why is there pathos in a girl’s discarded bow? Tragedy in a rusted spring? What see you there, Mr Jones? And is that all right? Is that normal?

Revise use of comma, apostrophe and semi-colon, Michael. Watch your spellings!

But once you have the mechanics, what you think is what you think, what you see is what you see, and you need no approval to think or see, or write an account of it. Then writing becomes a matter of style and long practice, years of practice,… decades and decades in the dusty notebooks of adulthood. But the thoughts are yours and the fact of your existence alone is sufficient for them to be written. If anyone agrees or not, is moved or not, is a matter for the Gods.

You have no power there.

Mr. Jones never told me this. It’s something we have to work out for ourselves. Perhaps he did not know; perhaps it was approval he sought for himself, through us, by reading us his poems. With the benefit of long hindsight, I think this might be true, for I am much older now than he was then, and age, if nothing else, brings insight.

No.

Do not write for approval. Ask yourself only this: in seeking publication am I chasing validation of my ideas? If the answer’s yes, you’re labouring under a delusion. Nobody cares that much. If a publisher likes your work you are one lucky scribe my friend, but if he does not, it does not mean you cannot write, that your mind is dim, that your thoughts are third rate – only that the publisher cannot sell them.

So where does approval come from? One’s online readers? It helps if readers say nice things, but it’s as well to bear in mind they might not mean it – same if they assault you with brickbats. Of course the only approval that means a damn comes from you. Only you can give yourself permission to think out loud, to have the courage your thoughts are worth the writing down. It sounds complicated and crinkly-weird, but it’s really very simple. Just be yourself, sincere, then the Gods might come and speak to you, and ultimately through you.

Isn’t that right, Mr Jones?

Good poems they were, your poems.

Keep well.

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