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the master

Things move on. Gone are the days of Feedbooks when any old noob indy could self publish on there for free and have a hundred downloads by morning. Feedbooks is still going but for the self publishing indy it died ages ago. Stats suggest very few readers find their way to my stuff any more so I do’t bother with it – might as well stuff it in a drawer for all the good it will do.  But all is not lost: there’s always Free Ebooks.

This is another of those sites you can load your fiction onto. The model is a simple one – thousands of writers provide free content around which the site owners serve advertising and marketing packages which pay for site’s upkeep. Like Smashwords they want your manuscripts in MS word format, but don’t seem as fussy over the formatting – or it may be that I’m submitting stuff that’s already passed the Smashword’s meat-grinder test.

Downloads are encouraging – quite a spike early on, levelling off to a few clicks per day thereafter. I suspect it’ll be like Smashwords in the longer term, eventually flat-lining at a thousand clicks or so with only the occasional flutter thereafter. Yes, they want you to sign up for their marketing packages and all that, but I’m not going to advise you to ignore them because you know it’s a cardinal rule writers never pay publishers anything, don’t you? As for Free Ebooks paying you, well, there is an option for readers to donate through Paypal, but I wouldn’t expect more than the price of a cup of coffee now and then, and it’s certainly not worth giving up the day job.

Smashwords is still very much alive and well of course, and well worth submitting to if only for the free ISBN, and Wattpad is picking up in a strange kind of way too, though it requires a bit of engagement on your part, being more of a community thing, but that’s cute and I’m finding it has a nice feedback vibe for stuff you put on there piecemeal. I’ve been trying out the Sea View Cafe on it for a while now – at least up to the point where it got quagmired in my usual three-way polyamory trap – more on that in the next blog. I can recommend it for early drafts, but again it’s not going to change your life much. And once a story’s done on there, well,… it’s done and you might as well delete it.

So yes, things move on, but they’re not dying out. Online and digital are still the only way to go for the majority of unaffiliated wannabe writers. I predict the only bookshops in a decade’s time will be charity shops selling increasingly dog eared and spine busted samples of that old paper-tech, that actual books will have become an upmarket thing, paperbacks costing thirty quid a go. And us ordinary folk will have no recourse to libraries anymore, so this mad bagatelle of free online stuff will be our daily fayre.

So don’t despair, you young uns might have robots to contend with for your day-jobs by then, but at the end of it you’ll still be able to kick back of a night inside your cosy plastic nano-pod, with whatever passes for a mobile phone, and read, and think how: quaint, those days of paper. Hopefully some my stuff will still be around, scraped up by the content farming sites. And maybe amongst my writings you’ll discover a lost world where people fell in love face to face rather than dialling partners up via an app, a world where our dreams still meant something and we used to laugh at the idea of cars driving themselves.

So, anyway, if you’re a writer looking to share some ideas, some stories, do check out Free Ebooks! It’s like Smashwords, and a bit of a dead-zone as far as feedback’s concerned, though I have picked up a couple of four-stars. But if you want people to talk to you about what you write as you write it, go to Wattpad. Whatever you do though don’t get hung up on the mechanics of self publishing, on the clicks and stats at the expense of,… well,… writing. Just get your stuff on the Internet any which way you can and whoever was meant to read it will find it.

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gatzbyIf you’re studying this at college and want something to plagiarise  for an essay, be warned: I failed Lit at 16, so what do I know? Go read the Spark Notes or something.  But anyway:

I possess just one of those “how to write a novel books”. It’s called “How to write a novel” and it’s by the British novelist, John Braine (Room at the top, Crying Game). Like all Braine’s novels it’s beautifully written. It’s also full of fairly useless advice for anyone writing today. I bought it in 1979, thinking it would help me to get a novel published. It didn’t work, but as anyone who’s tried it knows, writing a novel is one thing, publishing is quite another. Anyway, John urges us to learn from the best, and it’s hard to disagree with him on that one, and one of the novels he quotes from is The Great Gatsby.

Sad to say I didn’t take John’s advice until recently, but that’s okay because reading the Great Gatsby won’t help you get published either because the publishing world has changed a lot since 1925. What it will do, however, is show you how good a novel can be, yet it’s also one that’s impossible to ape because few of us can write as well as this, even when we’ve been shown how.

The story became popular again around 2013, on release of the movie adaptation starring Leonardo De Caprio and Carey Mulligan, as no doubt it became popular around 1974 on release of the previous movie starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. I’ve not seen either film, but came across the novel in a charity shop while scrabbling about for another title to make up the two-for-a pound-offer. Thus the Great Gatsby rose from the bargain bin, and spoke to me.

It’s not a long novel. I read it one lazy Sunday afternoon while waiting for a computer to rebuild after a dose of Malware. (You’re right, none of this is relevant) Focus Michael. Stop waffling. Your reader has other things vying for their attention.

And that’s the first point: Fitzgerald does not waffle. There is a pared back, austere beauty to the prose, not a single wasted word, not one superfluous comma. And there’s a crispness to the dialogue that wakes you up, makes you listen. It lends a focus that shames my own work, shames our own times, waffling and smudging and blurring our way to dimly grasped conclusions.

So, here it is, says Fitzgerald with a clap of his hands: Let’s get to it.

In the opening of the story our narrator rents one of the last remaining “modest” properties on Long Island (NY), which just happens to be next door to a mansion owned by the titular Jay Gatsby, an enigmatic multi-millionaire whose doors are always open to riotous, celebrity studded parties – parties he seems to take only a peripheral interest in. The rich and the famous flock to Gatsby’s mansion and there they adulate him to his face while whispering dark things behind his back, making up stories of a shady past to fill in the blanks. At first we know little of Gatsby. Instead we are shown how the high society Gatsby entertains is rotten, built on money, greed, and low morals.

Our narrator hovers on the fringes of this world, by turns seduced and disgusted. He’s befriended by Gatsby – but for a reason. The narrator’s cousin, Daisy, is a girl from Gatsby’s past. But the war intervened, Gatsby went off to fight and when he returned Daisy, a dizzy, rich, society girl, had married more into her class. By contrast Gatsby was self made from humble origins, and Daisy, though she was the love of his life, had not the character to wait for him.

Everything Gatsby has since done (hints of shady dealings), his yearning for success, his millions, his mansion, all are aimed at turning Daisy’s head and winning her back from a philandering no good cad of a husband. Gatsby is thus revealed as a man driven not so much by the desire for money, power and fame as more simply and elementally by love. His massive, legendary parties are bait, aimed at luring Daisy through his door and rekindling their past.

But is she worth it?

The story is a simple one, of the type you could precis on the back of an envelope, hone down to a paragraph then sell it as a catchy idea to a publisher. It’s all the more powerfully told for the brevity of its prose and the sharpness of its focus. I won’t spoil the tale for anyone coming to it for the first time, but it leaves us in no doubt as to the vacuousness of a society dominated by money and privilege, and the falseness of relations forged under such a shallow, self seeking milieu. It this sense it speaks also to the present day as much as it did to the roaring twenties, when it was written.

John Braine’s book on how to write a novel isn’t much use to a writer writing now, but I do agree with him in this respect: when reading Scott Fitzgerald, a writer knows he is in the presence of a master, one from whom he has much to learn. Studying The Great Gatsby won’t help you get a novel published, nothing will, but it will help you write a better one. And if you’re not a writer, this is a story well worth the reading anyway, for no more reason, as with all good stories, that it’s a good story, and well told.

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So I finish my last piece on the enigmatic way the universe sometimes reveals a glimpse behind the curtain of reality, hinting, by means of syncronicity, at perhaps more revelations to come. Yet my expectations are tempered by the knowledge that the way always closes before I can get to it, and I know all too well the impossibility of interpreting the signs. So I end on a note of resigned ignorance, and with the implied question: what now? And the day after, in the Charity Shop, I pick up a novel called The Zahir by Paulo Coelho and, reading it, the answer jumps right out of the context, but pertinent I feel to my own enquiry, and it says:

“All you have to do is pay attention; the lessons arrive when you are ready, and if you can read the signs you will learn everything you need to know to take the next step.”

But while this sounds like it should mean something, and I’m sure it does, the crux of the matter is knowing how to read those signs. Another problem is seeing the signs in the first place, because that involves living in a world where you believe magic is still possible, and for that you have to be at least partly insane.

Well, at least I’m okay with that.

Meanwhile I sense my world hanging by a thread as I always do at this time of year. It’s something to do with the fading of the light and the thought of the long winter to come. A problem with my gas boiler returns – one I thought I’d fixed some weeks ago and celebrated as a triumph of genius over calamity. The mobile phone I thought I’d fixed in similar vein suddenly manifests fresh issues, shooting at my confidence in my technical ability – and telling me if I don’t have that I  don’t have anything. And then the Mazda, my most treasured possession, symbol of a past personal rejuvenation of sorts yields more signs of its vulnerability to the outrages of fate and old age.

These are the normal every day trials faced by everyone, but to one attempting a retreat into the semi-contemplative life, each fresh manifestation is resented with a passion that should tell me more about the state of my affairs than it apparently does.

Instead Ego gamely tries to plug the gaps, make the fixes, maintain control, and all the while another part of me steps back and observes, neutral in the inkling that my life is about to take a tailspin, more systems flashing malfunction than can be dealt with. And that I feel it, that I fear the tailspin tells me much about the shoddy state of my psyche, and that I risk a plunge more fearsome than any I have known before.

But this is Ego again.

And I have the signs at least, so avoiding that tailspin is just a matter of knowing how to read them.

Or am just too eager to retreat into the nether regions of the dream life? and the world with all its stone throwing, is simply telling me: don’t go!

 

 

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the martian - andy weirFirst of all this is the book I’m talking about, not the film. I’ve not seen the film yet but I’ve heard it’s very enjoyable. Like all my movie purchases these days though, I’ll wait until I chance across it in a charity shop. Speaking of which that’s where I found the book, a steal for £1.00. I should also say the fact I found it in a charity shop, I mean even before all the hype for the film has died down, in no way detracts from the quality of the story. Sometimes you find a real gem, which is why I like digging around in charity shops.

Anyway, the book is interesting on two fronts, first for the story it tells, and second for the genesis of that story, it being entirely self published. Andy Weir was no novice to writing, but earlier attempts to publish his stories met with disappointment, so The Martian began as a labour of love with no intentions of it doing the usual demoralising rounds of literary agents. Instead it first appeared as a series of blog entries given away online, and from where it garnered a respectable cult following. Fans then asked for the whole thing to be pieced together as an ebook on Amazon. Since you can’t give stuff away on Amazon, Weir set the price to the minimum allowed (about 67p). Thereafter the story caught fire, first of all ending up in the Amazon top seller list, where it caught the eye of an agent who landed a conventional publishing deal and a movie contract. So there we have it: from a blog give-away by an unknown writer, to a movie starring Matt Damon – that’s quite a journey!

So, we have a lone astronaut stranded on Mars – he’s the Martian. His mission was aborted during a cataclysmic storm and his crewmates cleared out, blasted off for home, thinking he was dead. How does he survive? Well, it’s by no means certain he will, but he thinks it all through and blogs it out for posterity as he goes along. And the reason for the book’s success? Was the author just lucky? Well I’m thinking luck played some part in it, and no shame in that, but we can’t get away from the fact that a story has to be readable in the first place for it to take off at all. This is a regular sized novel and I finished  it greedily over a weekend. I couldn’t put it down.

The technology for landing people on Mars exists now. All that’s preventing us is the will and the cost. But given the extraordinarily unforgiving conditions on Mars, could a man survive alone, with existing technology and how would he do it? This is the problem the author set himself the task of solving. The technology, the science,… these things are very much what the book is about. It’s incredibly well researched – the author clearly knows his subject – but the technicalities also benefited from feedback generated by his blog, so in a sense crowd-sourcing expert advice. All of this results in a very plausible backbone for the story. The heroics depicted are triumphs of ingenuity, and all delivered at a page turning pace.

I don’t want to give too much away here, but eventually satellite surveillance of the Mars base reveals the guy is still alive and looks like hanging in there, at least for a little while. This allows a broadening of the story to include the reaction back on earth, and the second big technical challenge of how you go about rescuing someone with existing technology – i.e. no warp drive – and a flight time to Mars of about a year. Again all of this is handled in a well paced, plausible fashion, the story resting firmly on that solid foundation of realistic science and technology.

I think another reason for the story’s success is that it possesses hidden dimensions, that on top of being a good story well told, it provokes a deeper thinking in the reader, and leaves a lingering impression long after we have finished it. For me it was a reminder of the incredible engineering challenge of putting people into space, a thing that seems almost mundane now, with guys and gals regularly whizzing over our heads in the ISS. But it’s hardly without it’s dangers and it’s of great credit to the organisation, the international cooperation, and the sheer technical excellence behind space exploration that more people haven’t been killed doing it. It’s a measure of what we can do when we’re all pulling in the same direction and in the service of a common cause that’s basically altruistic.

The story hasn’t much time for philosophical musing – but towards the end our hero does reflect upon the sheer scale, cost and human involvement that swings behind the effort to bring him home. We’re reminded of the real life Apollo 13 emergency here, and I couldn’t help going off on my own tangent and asking the question what is it that makes saving one life worth the cost and the effort, when thousands of other lives are lost, knowingly, every day because the world is apparently indifferent to less favoured individuals? I guess for me the message was if we think we can save a life we’ll do it, no matter what the cost. But if we’re persuaded we can do nothing, that we’re absolutely powerless, then we’d rather not think about it at all. We shut it out. This is not the same as indifference; it’s a survival mechanism, something to keep us sane. But who is it, or what is it that persuades us in the first place which lives we have a chance of saving and which to discard?

But I digress.

There’s a risk of course that with the undoubted success of the film, the novel on which it’s based will be overshadowed, even forgotten, that in the longer term, most authors, even published ones, risk becoming the unknown seed of other people’s glory. And that’s a pity.

So,.. if you’ve not seen the film yet, do look out for the book.

It’s awesome.

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I CHingThe notion of a life’s path is central to ideas of human development, be they secular or religious. But it’s not obvious what that path is, especially when we can only say we’re on it when we’re not deliberately trying to steer our course. And our Ego likes to steer, likes to gain knowledge, skill, and to compete against other egos in order to secure wealth, power and sex. These are the aphrodisiacs of the material world, a world that divides us, as it did in primitive times, into mere predators and prey. There can be no other way, we’re told – no surviving life without combat. It’s evolution. Simple.

Not true, says the Book of Changes.

The Book of Changes, also known as the I Ching or the Yi Jing, is a strange, beguiling text, evidence of which first appeared in China’s Shang Dynasty, around 1600 BC, though it certainly predates this period. It came to the west in the late 19th century via the translation by James Legge, and largely ignored except as a cultural curiosity, but was taken up by the Jungian psychoanalytical movement on publication of the influential Wilhelm edition in 1929. There have been many editions since the Wilhelm Edition, but none so influential, striking as it did at the heart of European intellectual thought.

It then became a companion to 60’s counterculture, and is still widely used today. While its core structure has remained untouched since antiquity, the language of its interpretation changes to suit whatever culture it finds itself taken up by. I have several versions of it, and wrote my own interpretation, The Hexagrams of the Book of Changes, available here, as a way of furthering my grasp of its curious concepts.

What we normally think of as our life’s path, says the Yi Jing, the path we can see and plot and manage, isn’t really our path at all, but simply our life situation. Our true path is more of an internal journey towards awakening. Our life situation is only relevant to the extent that we are able to adjust our relationship with it in order to prevent it from subverting the more vital inner path. The material world is a world asleep. Hold solely to material values, and you will remain asleep also. To awaken is to realise, viscerally, the deeper nature of reality and our place in it. To this end the Yi Jing is an indispensable guide.

What makes the book unique is its interactive nature. You talk to it. You can ask it things, and it answers. The answers are complex, perceptive, and personal. There’s a lot of debate about exactly who or what it is we talk to when we talk to the Yi Jing. Some deify the book, picturing in their minds the spirit of a wise old sage, like Lao Tzu perhaps, and that’s fine if it’s how you want to see it. But everyone’s relationship with the book is going to be different.

My own feeling is that when we consult the book, we open the way to a deeper part of our selves. We ask our question and are then directed to certain apparently random passages and subtexts, the combination of which forms a narrative for reflection and interpretation. The answers then emerge in our own minds, riding in on a wave of sudden insight. In some sense the book can be seen as an oracle, but this is to seriously underestimate its potential, and for me its real strength lies in its use as a psychological tool, a thing that shakes the unconscious mind in order to release personal insights.

I don’t know how it works, and I no longer think about it. The ego cannot crack it, but neither can the Ego accept the Yi Jing without explanation, so there opens a divide. On the one side we have explanations from devotees of the book that range from the vaguely plausible to the frankly crackpot, and on the other a sour scientistic rejection of the book as merely the work of an emerging, pre-rational culture. Others say we simply read into it whatever we want to hear, and that’s also fine, though this does not explain the fact that if one is open enough, one always rises from the Yi Jing knowing or feeling something one did not know or feel before. Another of its useful characteristics is that it will never shy away from telling us what we don’t want to hear. It’s not an easy book to know, certainly not without devoting time to developing a relationship with it, and many may find it simply impenetrable, banal, or even repulsive.

When I read back to my earliest conversations with the Yi Jing, I come across as a very different person, my questions very much concerned with my place in the world: job, relationships, house, kids, cars, holidays, financial ups and downs, struggles for publication,… and the answers read like repeated attempts to make me see I had the whole world upside down, that actually, none of it mattered, that the confusion and the frustration we so often feel in life is based on faulty thinking, our anxieties arising purely from a resistance to events over which we have no control.

While we have no choice, as beings in flesh, but to operate at the material level of reality, the Yi Jing tells us we should always do so in cognizance of the inherent limitations of material being, and in the knowledge that a greater understanding of the meaning of “being” comes from exploring the shifting patterns of our inner selves. As a guide to such things, I have found the Yi Jing is without parallel and is one of the most insightful guides to life ever conceived.

Not bad for a book coming to us from our Neolithic past.

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rtpI was given this book in 1983, a time when British Socialism was on the wane and Thatcher’s blue revolution had already lit the touch paper to a firework of freemarket capitalism. It was odd then to be given a book of this nature, one that explains how and why Socialism came about, at a time when Socialism seemed to have burnt itself out in a muddle of lunacy.

The story is written in the decade preceding the first world war and concerns a group of painters and decorators in the employ of the unscrupulous firm of Rushton and Company. Day to day, they are at the mercy of the ruthless hire-em and fire-em foreman, Mr Hunter, or Old Misery as he is known behind his back. Jobs were scarce. Then, as now, it was strictly an employer’s market, the only difference being that then to lose one’s job was an infinitely more serious matter with bastards like Old Misery literally holding the power of life and death over you and your family.

Our hero Frank Owen is seemingly alone in his understanding of the causes of the deprivations and humiliations he and his colleagues suffer. His frequent brew-time lectures on the evils of unbridled Capitalism are met with derision. It seems to Owen that his workmates are blind, that even though they grumble and suffer terribly at the hands of their money-corrupted masters, they are at pains to maintain the status quo, to “know their place”, to even vote for the very system that perpetuates their oppression. Thus Tressel labels them the titular philanthropists, making do with rags and starvation, so their masters can thrive and grow fat.

Clearly a political book, Tressell’s work is a classic for all students of the history of British politics, left or right, and for anyone seeking a more visceral understanding of the origins of Socialism and the trades union movement:

A snippet:

Owen saw that in the world a small class of people were possessed of a great abundance and superfluity of the things that are produced by work. He saw also that a very great number – in fact the majority of people – lived on the verge of want; and that a smaller but still very large number lived lives of semi-starvation from the cradle to the grave; while a yet smaller but still very great number actually died of hunger, or, maddened by privation, killed themselves and their children in order to put a period to their misery. And strangest of all – in his opinion – he saw that people who enjoyed the abundance of the things that are made by work, were the people who did Nothing: and that the others who lived in want or died of hunger, were the people who worked. And seeing this, he thought that it was wrong,…

Re-reading the story now, it’s comforting to know the likes of poor Owen and his crew would be spared many of the indignities and premature deaths they suffered in those days, Socialism now having won the fight for access to free healthcare, welfare, paid holidays, a state pension, and strict health and safety legislation. Such things did not exist at the time of writing. But while much has changed, it’s striking how some things remain the same, such as the ease with which a country’s ills are apt to be blamed by certain factions of the press on all these “damned foreigners”. It’s also interesting to see how the principles of Capitalism, carried to their extremes ensure that a decent job of work never gets done, that it will always be scrimped, and bodged, the cracks papered over in pursuit of maximum profit. Tressel’s book also serves as a sober warning that the gains of Socialism over the last hundred years cannot be taken for granted, that they can be lost, and in this way the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists gives us a glimpse of a world to which we risk returning.

Socialism has enjoyed something of a reawakening this summer, and for those perhaps confused by it all, or who are too young to have lived it the first time around, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is an enlightening text, one that will explain much of what is going on today, the same as it did a hundred years ago. But this not a dour political treatise. It is a story, engagingly written, with a clear, concise prose and characters both sympathetic and repulsive. Nor is it without its moments of wry humour, all be it usually at the expense of the employers.

We have wonderfully blunt and descriptive names for characters such as Slyme and Crass, also Mr Oyley Sweater, Didlum, Grinder and the monstrous Sir Grabball (Bt). We are left in no doubt where Tressell is coming from, but it’s also sobering that he has no sympathy either for the working man, who, when presented with the means of awakening and doing something about his suffering, makes no effort to do so.

The Church, Private Rent Landlords, the drinks industry, corrupt councils, the tendency among the more affluent classes to dismiss the poor as shirkers and scroungers, all these things come under the microscope as social and cultural vultures which in some way demonise and prey upon the working man, and here too, the book has maintained its relevance today.

Owen is depicted as a bit more of an artisan than his fellow painters. For him are reserved the jobs that require more skill and an artist’s eye, not that these attributes are appreciated by his employers, at least not to Owen’s advantage, who is left as impoverished as his workmates. His employers value him only to the extent his skills can be exploited to undercut the work of other firms. Sickly and possibly even consumptive, Owen’s future looks bleak. What then of his wife? What of his young son? What future for any of the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists when they are only a twist of old Misery’s bad temper away from being laid off, and no Welfare State between them and starvation? Tressell says we would be better dead than suffering this kind of life, and it’s hard not to disagree with him.

This book still arouses and inflames opinion. Whether you agree with it or not will obviously depend on your politics. If you are to the left you will find nothing here to disagree with, if you lean to the right, you might gain some insight into the reasoning and the suffering that underpins the passions currently arrayed against you. The problems of inequality and economic tyranny in society are not, as has been alleged recently, “yesterday’s problems”. They are cyclical, born of the natural swing of the political pendulum between the parties of the rich and of the poor. It remains to be seen if we are doomed to repeat history of Tressel’s day, or if the forebears of Owen and his crew can redress the imbalance and prevent that pendulum from smashing us all in the face once more.

Get the text here (legally) for free.

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girl reading charles-edward-peruginiBy the time I started school in 1964, they’d stopped making us memorise poems. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or bad, or even what the point of it was, but they were debating it on the radio this morning – it being National Poetry Day today – so I’ve been wondering about it. They’d also stopped making us learn our times tables too, but that’s something I definitely regret because having those multiples to hand when doing much bigger calculations would be a very useful thing. But poems? What use are they?

My mother could recite Rossetti’s “Uphill”, which she’d learned at school, in the 1920’s – well she could remember one line of it: “Does the road wind uphill all the way?” It would most often come back to her, when we were walking up a hill, and thus it became fondly remembered by us all, this one line of Rossetti. We had the priest read the full version at her funeral. He read it beautifully, but then it is a deeply spiritual poem.

I would read Blake’s Tyger to my children at bedtimes when we’d run out of stories, and I soon had it off by heart, but then they grew up, and now all I can remember is the first verse:

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forest of the night,
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry.

My children can’t even remember me reciting it to them!

It was the same with de la Mare’s strange, haunting poem “The Listeners”, the only bit of which I remember now is how the silence surged softly backwards, yet this does not prevent the mood and the mystery of the whole from lingering in the shadows of the unconscious.

More recently I memorised William Henry Davies’ “Leasure” – you know, the one that goes: “What life is this if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?” That stuck for a bit, but as with Blake and de la Mare, it eventually leaked away as most things do when one no longer has any use for them. Spurious lines still emerge at odd moments – something about squirrels hiding their nuts in grass. Then there’s the beautiful line that speaks of “streams full of stars like skies at night“. I didn’t understand that bit at the time, thought there might be something metaphysical about it. Then I saw a stream, black as midnight and with the sunshine sparkling like little stars in it.

Learning by rote as a child must exercise a less volatile kind of memory. Better to start young then, while the mind is still plastic. Or it could just be that some of us are better at remembering than others. And memory is such a peculiar thing. I can remember the registration numbers of cars I drove thirty years ago, but none from the past decade, including the car I’m driving now. I can recite Pi to nine decimal places, 3.141592654, being used to seeing it, I suppose, on a scientific calculator, and trigonometry being among the tools of my daytime trade. But later attempts, by use of memory tricks, to get it to a hundred places were successful for only a short period, because who needs Pi to a hundred places?

What about poems, then? Do we really need them leaping up at us from every turn? Well, it depends on the poem, I suppose. Judging by the popping up of my own half remembered snippets, there is something beautiful and curiously apposite about their materialisation. I suspect as a child though, I would not have appreciated being hammered over the head with them. If we think of the Bronte’s more funereal verses, it’s only later, and somewhat abraded by life, we come to feel their brooding mystery deep in the gut:

Emily’s “Stanzas”, strikes a deep chord with me, which is perhaps why I can retrieve more of it from memory than other poems:

Often Rebuked, yet always back returning,
To those first feelings that were born in me,
And leaving busy chase of wealth and learning,
For idle dreams of things that cannot be.

Today I shall seek not the shadowy places.
Their unsustaining vastness waxes drear,
And visions rising legion after legion,
Brings the unreal world too strangely near,…

It tends to bubble up when I’m out where the ferny flocks are feeding, also where the wild wind blows on the mountain side. I know what she was feeling when she wrote it, because I’ve felt it too, and we are good friends now, she and I.

Victorian authors were good at plucking lines of poetry from memory to illustrate their prose. The essays in Blackwood’s magazine are peppered with examples. To be sure, a line or two of poetry can capture a flicker of feeling like nothing else, and that’s a useful thing to be able to call upon for emphasis, but one doesn’t come across it very often in today’s media. It may be that it’s considered a little pompous now, displaying one’s cultured learning on the page. And nobody likes a smart arse, or so we’re told. Better to act a bit numb.

For me, poetry is more of a personal journey and it would have devalued it, I think, to have it defined by a handful of poems I was made to memorise at school, because they were considered important at the time. Again it depends on the poem, and the teacher. But more likely I think I would not have seen the point, indeed I might even have been poisoned against the whole idea to have some screaming berserker forcing them upon me, and no doubt turning purple at my lapses of memory upon recitation.

But that’s just me.

It’s better I think to be unafraid to simply read poetry and see what speaks to you. Better also to be unashamed to write a little poetry too. It does not matter if we have not learned at the teacher’s knee, or that we feel naked without the necessary SparkNotes. Let the poetry live and be a part of your life, or it becomes a dead thing. And worthless.

I have only recently discovered Seamus Heaney, and wonder how I could have avoided his work for so long, considering the immediate impact it has had upon me. But in a sense it does not matter when we come to the more influential poets of the age – or even if we come to them at all – and we should of course ignore all the scornful, learned voices pointing out our dearth of knowledge of the bardic arts, for if we are not studying poetry in order to gain a degree, we are most likely exploring it more as the background music to our lives. And that’s a personal journey, none of anyone’s business but one’s own. For that it is not the poems on the prescribed list that are important, the poems we are made to memorise, or the ones to be picked apart like an impaled frog’s innards. The truly important poems are those that are memorable to us, personally – in whole or part – the poems that strike a chord, even though we might not understand them to the satisfaction of an examiner of English Literature.

So I don’t think it was a great loss that I was not made to memorise poetry at school. It certainly has not killed the love of poetry in me now.

Oh, but how I wish I’d been force-fed those times tables!

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