Saturday, 22 July 2017

I Publish A Poem

For the Class of 1982, South Hampstead High School - written after our reunion in 2015, and published here in eager anticipation of seeing you again next week.

With love, and immense gratitude for being friends to me in childhood.  After our last reunion, I realised how SHHS gave me the beginnings of intellectual freedom - a significance I hadn't understood before.

School Reunion

We came imagining others would’ve attained diamonds -
against expectations, we find we’re in this together:
turns out we always have been, though we hadn’t understood till now

how close are the every ways in which we intersect.

We meet few people in the time we’re given: life’s shorter even
than we supposed.  Those long-ago women held up as examples - 
Boadicea, Elizabeth, Florence, Emmeline, dear, dear Anne Frank,
(whose story we were told, as if we could grow up to change her ending)
- great as they were, none of them were with us in French or Biology,
so we looked to each other for inspiration, asked: “What will become of us?”
sang ourselves out at the end of each school year, sentimental transitions
towards this wet summer’s afternoon: the fullest I can remember. 

It's abundant – we eat and drink: even our dead talk with us.
Our schooldays are always between us: everything still to be discovered.

I Break My Phone

My first and last resort, in terms of fixing anything electronic, is to turn whatever it is off and on.  So, when my phone froze this morning I switched it off, then tried to switch it back on again. 


A few hours later, and my phone is in bits at the repair shop.  It's waiting till Tuesday for further attention, and even then there's no assurance that it's fixable.

I use my phone a lot.  I text people I want to meet.  I send thinking of you messages.  I take photographs and edit them.  I check Facebook, check the train timetables, check the weather, check the time, check my diary.  For a while, I checked my previous night's snoring on a 'sleep app'.  I check my pocket, my bag for my phone before I go out.

And there are the other things. I jot down poetic thoughts in the Notes section when I'm caught short of pen and / or paper. My phone, small though it is, holds in its circuits much of what makes up my life - conversations, appointments, ideas, memories, connections - all those words: all those words and all those pictures. 

I joked to a friend last week that our conversation must be sparky, because my phone felt hot in my hand as we exchanged messages.  I even speculated about spontaneous combustion. 

Were I a different sort of person (an electronics engineer, for example) I might have recognised the heat I've been feeling in my phone - and the freezing I've been seeing - as actually significant.  Instead, I've been choosing, as I so often do when noticing phenomena, to interpret these things as metaphors.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

I Slay My Father

A few years ago, it was probably a Thursday, my therapist sat me opposite an empty chair, put a cushion in it and said, "Your father is here.  What would you like to say to him?"

The skill of the therapist is in judging the moment, in providing the safe space in which this can take place.  At the moment this happened for me, I'd done at least a year's work, maybe more. 

I'd arrived for that first therapy session desperate - full of shame, tears and self-loathing.  I'd been in that state before in my life, many times.  I'd been to four previous counsellors, come away from them, emptier, stiffening my lip.  But this time, it was for real: an hour a week, hanging on in there, counting down the days till the next session. Perhaps it was because I needed to talk to a man.  Someone intelligent enough to see and courageous enough to challenge my tricks.  Someone who knew about Christianity and its doctrines from the inside.

As with any therapy, it's the quality of the relationship that matters more than the paradigm or techniques.  After a few months, I felt accepted in that therapy space.  I felt there, for the first time in my life, that it is okay to be me. Only then was it safe to tell my father what I thought.  It wouldn't kill me.

And I raged at him.  I raged about his harsh faith, how it trumped everything with the fear of damnation.  About his hitting me for my own good. His lack of protection. His lack of affection. His need to control me.  His sexist attitudes.  His fear of anything that could be construed as sexual expression.  About his rules, his bloody rules about everything.  About his homophobia. Most of all about his dragging me into his beliefs, without allowing any space for real questions, making me say the words, week after week.  About his shaming of me from the pulpit that Sunday Evensong when, like some sort of terrible god, he spoke his discipline from on high to me in front of the whole congregation.  I was six, or seven.  Why was I even there?  The joylessness. The daily fear.  The repression.  The depression. The saying that children's spirits must be broken. The actual saying of that.

So I told him, the him sitting in that chair resurrected somehow, that I hated him.  In fact I screamed and cried it.  And I told him, triumphant through my tears, that it hadn't worked - that my spirit is damaged, but not broken.

And when my therapist spoke, I turned to him and shouted, "I haven't finished yet!"  Even he looked, for once, surprised, taken aback by the force of my anger.

I can't remember all I raged, and I'm glad about that.  I do remember saying that I no longer wanted his internalised voice, my Critical Parent, to rule my life.  It was the expending of the emotion, the pent up (I'll say it again) rage, that finally chased his dread voice from my mind.

At the end of it all, I looked at the chair, and it was empty.  I was exhausted, peaceful.  It was like that moment in Star Wars when, sliced by a light sabre, Darth Vader's cloak crumples to the floor with a sigh, deprived of its puffed up illusion of menace.  Does that even happen as a scene in Star Wars?  I don't know.  Even if it didn't, that is what it was like.

If you are one of my father's many continuing fans, I don't apologise for this blog.  I am his daughter - these are my truths and telling them is necessary for me. They will be different from, and don't diminish, yours.  I know he was loved and admired by many, and maybe, had he not been my father, I could have admired him too.  His courage in the face of disability, his uprightness

Is this my Larkinesque moment, my This Be The Verse

The closest I got to reconciliation with my father was after his death, when I wrote this poem.  As with all true poems, it revealed something to me in the writing - something in it is an act, despite everything, of love, of hope.

In the Pub Garden

That summer’s afternoon, we had returned
grown and growing on.
In the pub garden
we witnessed your gravity fail, and smiled as
you slid earthwards
via two halves of cider and a good lunch.

Propped up unevenly by the fence
you slurred your way into contentment:
rosy, full, mellowing, bardic.
Unencumbered, you succumbed to living,
undignified and glorious,
growing earthy and stained from common grass and soil.

Later on, leaving you, I know that this
is the recollection I will choose to sift
from the swept up heap of you
which has so often cornered me.
I wonder if you saw this softening,
felt it too?

Saturday, 24 June 2017

I Race For Life

My venerable and trusty car has passed her MOT, but not without failing it first.  Some work to the suspension and brake pipes, and way hay!  She and I are good for another year and this morning I walked to pick her up from the garage.  I didn't run because my legs are a little stiff from mountaineering in Poland.

I've just checked the definition of 'mountaineering' - a word I don't think I've used in relation to myself before - and it is: the sport or activity of climbing mountains. Run and race are other words I haven't used much, largely because the Race for Life was my first running race since an egg and spoon race in 1974.

Like mountaineering, running is a thing that can make my legs feel stiff, but having completed 20 parkruns, 5K doesn't leave me feeling terrible any more.  In any case, running the 5K Race for Life was made so much easier by the amazing support of all those who sponsored me (thank you), and by the fantastic pink atmosphere in the Quarry Park in Shrewsbury (where I bumped into Annette and Fern, also running).  The Race for Life was made very simple by thoughts of friends living with cancer: people whom I love and want to show that I love by doing something useful.

Since the Race for Life, I've run the parkrun in Krakow, after which I went off to do some thoroughly enjoyable mountaineering with my longest serving friend and her brother in the Tatras.  I thought of my friends whilst I was there too.  Having arrived home yesterday evening, I decided to rehabilitate my legs this morning by walking the couple of miles to pick my car up from the garage.  When I got there, on the front seat was the bill (reasonable, considering) and a five pound note: a donation that I was given the night before the Race for Life.

I am always delighted to see £5, but I was particularly pleased to see this note as I've been feeling a bit awkward since I realised I'd mislaid it somewhere (but where?) in my car.  My excuse, had anyone accused me of carelessness (which no one did) is that I was handed it just after I'd seen an amazing chamber production of Verdi's Rigoletto.  To differentiate this from other operas, it's the one in which boy meets girl, trouble ensues, then tragedy ends it all badly. 

I'm pleased my car's still on the road, that my legs are easier after this morning's gentle walk, that the money's come back to me (via Dave and my trusty car) to go on to its rightful place with Cancer Research UK, and that the £337.50 I raised by running the Race for Life will be used to help beat (to quote one friend) feccin' cancer and the feccin' awful things it does to people.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

I Vote Labour

I voted Labour today, and I was given a boiled sweet at the polling station.  The not-quite-humbug was given unconditionally. 'Why?'  I asked the polling officer.  'Because you might need a sugar rush to make up your mind,' she answered.  I didn't, but I took the humbug anyway.

Yesterday evening, I sent my brother a text to wish him good luck.  He is standing for re-election as a Conservative MP.  My good wishes were genuine - he's my brother, he's full of talent, and I like and admire him as a person.  He has a solid reputation as a constituency MP who cares and works hard for his constituents.  His job isn't easy, and he faces abuse, particularly around election times.  I don't agree with most of his political views, but I love him.

The problem with party politics is that it's not nuanced.  It doesn't easily allow for liking and respecting people with different views: those whose intentions are genuine and who are honest and trustworthy.  It doesn't allow for wanting a part of the Green Party manifesto to be bolted onto the Labour manifesto, or for the Liberal Democrats' clearer ideas about Brexit to be taken into consideration.  It doesn't allow for the fact that whilst I voted Labour, I would have preferred a candidate who lives in her constituency.

But I voted Labour because I see the current Labour Party manifesto's promises as containing the greatest number of smaller and larger beacons of hope in the bleak and troubled social, economic and political landscape of 2010s UK.

I work at a university.  I have seen the way that the increasing commodification of higher education has gradually eroded the sense that learning is both a right and a privilege: an opportunity for exploration and personal growth, for development of tolerance and a love of thinking. The Labour Party's bold promise of an end to tuition fees sends a flurry of excitement and hope through my heart and mind.

Growing up in Islington North, I first voted in the 1983 General Election when Jeremy Corbyn was the new candidate for Labour.  I didn't vote for him.  I was brought up to mistrust the radical left-wing approach of Islington council, to be fearful of its progressive moves, particularly in the area of gay rights.  I was brought up to think that Christian values = Conservative politics.  I was brought up not to think for myself.  These are not my excuses - they are my explanations.

I've come to voting Labour today via talking with Gary, a retired miner my LSF and I lived opposite in Durham during the 1980s miners' strike.  I've come to voting Labour via discussions with numerous other friends of all persuasions, via reading, via experience.  Most of all, I've come to vote for Labour via working with people like Emmett, Nathan and many others who, because of the stigmatisation of people with disabilities or mental illness, because of the marginalisation of people who are older, or in the care of the local authority, because of the oppression of people at the margins of society, live in fear of further dispossession, of social isolation, of cuts to their benefits, of loss of independence, dignity and meaning.

What I saw when I read the Labour manifesto for this election was an opportunity for me to express my support for policies of respect and hope for making a society in which people can live less fearfully, and in greater trust of each other.

Because I love my brother, I don't want him to lose his seat tonight, and because I love the people I know who are struggling within the NHS, education and other public services, I don't want him to win it.  Living with contradiction is a life's work, but in the end, I have voted Labour.  Democratic principles allow me to be true to myself, and still love people with whom I disagree. 

In the end, when we vote, most of us are simply people doing what we think is best at a particular moment in history.  Most of the rest: all the ridicule, name-calling and shaming of each other - behaviour which the best and wisest politicians avoid - is humbug.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

I Outlive My Mother

I've just worked out the number of days my mother lived.  It's 19,166.  I then worked out the number of days I've been alive.  As of today, it's 19,166. When the identical number popped onto the screen, I felt momentarily ... well ... weird.

19,166 days is approximately fifty-two-and-a-half years.

I've never calculated the number of days anyone's lived before.  To do it, I used my favourite search engine and entered 'calculate the number of days between two dates' and found (should you ever feel the need to do the same).

And why did I do this today?  It's not as if my home is clean and tidy, and I have finished writing all the poems I want to write, and that novel, and sorted out all the bags and boxes still languishing in my loft since my move last year.  It's not as if I had nothing else to do. 

How I got to this point is this:

Walking back home this morning, my younger son pointed out a sign in Shrewsbury town centre for the Race for Life.  "You could do that, Mum," he said.  When we got home, I signed up for it, and, as part of that, Cancer Research created a sponsorship page for me.  I thought of the people I know who've died from cancer, and those who've lived through it, and those living through it, and of one  friend in particular.  And I thought of my mother who died of breast cancer, and because I've had some awareness that I'm approaching fifty-two-and-a-half, and because I've got a day off work, and because I am very creative when it comes to putting off housework, I've been idling around on my laptop and in my musings.

From there, where I've got to is this - that the significance of the 19,166 days I've lived equalling, for this day only, the number of days my mother lived is about the alignment of some things.

What aligned today is significant but not because of that number.  It's more to do with my son encouraging me to take up the parkrun; his interest in my progress; our going shopping on a day in half term; our walking back a particular route because of the particular shopping he wanted to do; his noticing the Race for Life advertisement; his prompting me to sign up for the run.

The alignment is to do with the love we and his big brother share, and within all that, our particular love for music - a love he'd also have shared with my mother, a pianist, whom he never met, but whose material substance somehow shines through him in a way that belongs only to him every time his fingers, long as hers were, play over the piano keys, and every time he smiles his smile, which, like hers, is a bright shaft of sunlight illuminating and soothing whatever any day's sadnesses might be.