I'm taking a short break. Not long, hopefully. Another medical check-up tomorrow (not sarcoid, this one, but causing some concern) and I just want to get the other side of it. No chest-beating and hair-tearing will follow, I promise..!
In January 2008 I posted a piece about ‘my own private America’ called Go West. It concerned the evolution of my romantic relationship with the United States from childhood fantasy into adult encounter. It traced its development from a ‘50s austerity Britain perception of the States as glamorous Shangri-La, through my absorption in its cultural and musical heritage up to my first visit in the early ‘90s, slipping over the border from British Columbia into Washington.
Not included with the post was a poem, Driving To America. Written in one 20-minute session in a car park while the others trawled a huge factory outlet in Bellingham, it emerged stylistically as an affectionate parody of Ferlinghetti. In content, it constitutes a sort of poetic version of Go West.
But, whilst having something of an affection for it, I’ve never been able to take it very seriously, probably because of the dominance in of style over content. Additionally, it will be for those unacquainted with its specific musical and literary references, an almost wilfully obscurantist piece.
Whatever, as we all say nowadays. Here it is in a new draft, some significant revisions having been made.
DRIVING TO AMERICA
From that first bright prairie morning at the frontier of my days I have been driving to America
From the flock and horsehair saddle of a South London cinema seat – Jimmy Stewart shrugging on a sheepskin coat in Where The River Bends – I have been driving to America.
Through the canyons and the arroyos. and the sagebrush trails of a suburban garden, lost in the folds of of a bright red cowboy shirt (man-size, a prairie of cotton) and squinting from beneath the brim of Grandpa’s panama, I have been driving to America.
Through the longing for that golden Lone Star pistol, hinged like for real before the trigger-guard, with a cylinder that actually revolved and a hammer you could cock, in a tasselled yellow holster with a silver horseshoe buckle, hanging low, I have been driving to America.
Through the pages of the yellow paperbacks that ranged along my windowsill (Triggernometry: a Gallery of Gunfighters, Desperate Men: the James Gang and Butch Cassidy, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshall), through their dusty streets and through the batwing doors of their saloons and in the cool dark of their livery stables, the bright noon heat of their desert days, and in the cordite reek of their gun battles (the OK Corral, the Lincoln County Cattle Wars, Jack McCall shooting Hickock in the back in Deadwood, South Dakota), I have been driving to America.
Then through the skidpan hiss of blue and purple-labelled 78s (London American and Capitol), the jump-jive scamper of Gene Vincent’s Bluecaps or the thick fat gumbo beat of New Orleans – I’m Walking, Blueberry Hill, Let the Four Winds Blow, or the Macon, Georgia scream of Little Richard, calling out the flat-top cats and dungaree dolls, or the hound dog longing of One Night (With You) – Presley’s eyes sleepy with lust, the lip flickering into a sneer…
Then later through the rattling snares and sneezing cymbals in the blare of Ory’s blue trombone, white-heat of Armstrong’s cornet; then the crosstown traffic clamour of Gillespie, Parker, Monk; the high water, muddy river surge of Mingus, Jimmy Knepper, Roland Kirk; and the basement pulse of Howling Wolf and Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy, under the Clarkdale and Chicago stars; B.B., Albert, Freddie King, rocking with eyes tight shut in front of a herd of nodding saxes; through the tumbleweed, alfalfa, cottonfield and city cellar, intersection chaos of its music, I have been driving to America.
On the flatbed back of a farmboy’s truck, heading south from Iowa to Denver, Colorado, Montana Slim, Sal Paradise beside me on the dream-freeway to Anywhere, USA; through mirror shades, the smoke from a chewed cigar, blue diesel haze, the silver powder of a starry night or the yellow flare of what might be a prairie moon, I have been driving to America…
And now, anonymous, unshadowed, hidden in the lee of a southbound truck, I wait at the border. Five black Canada geese pull themselves across the sky, quitting the mudbanks of the Fraser River for the deep-rift gorges of the long Columbia. A high sun straddles the 49th and through its dancing tarmac mist we roll like conquerors who have crossed immeasurable distances and now awaken in clear light on the real highway, driving to America.
I covet your house whose footings touch the field’s edge. Barley crowding at your windowsill, tall stalks peering in from the perimeter, all the host behind. And with harvest and beyond, great knuckles of bare earth, flints and pipe stems gripped in scabby fists through winter.
And you watching at that window as one poised on the very rim, implicated in each green shift and switch, in each golden wither and twist inside the shape of a day. You bear a burden, witness: tell this world of glass and silicone how it is, there at the god-points - the radicle, the plumule and the bloom in flower.
I’m delighted to be giving space on the Patteran Pages today to Fiona Robyn, whose novel The Letters has just been published by Snow Books.
I took delivery of a copy of The Letters a couple of weeks back and pondered the cover in some trepidation. Design values in paperback presentation have developed in quality greatly over the past few decades and, by and large, genuine attempts are made to represent something of the essence of the book in graphic depiction on the cover. So when I saw a willowy brunette in diaphanous red heading east off the end of a jetty, I wondered what I was in for.
I needn’t have worried. Neither chick-lit nor aga-saga, neither bodice-ripper nor Mills and Boon followed on. Instead I found myself drawn into a wonderfully idiosyncratic account of the awkward but endearing Violet Ackerman’s attempts to make her way in a decidedly non-standard Sussex village on the coast to which she has recently moved following a mighty row with her lover, Tom. Whilst on the surface we are presented with a familiar Home Counties setting and the plot context of a familiar angst-ridden middle class, middle-aged woman, nothing follows the well-trodden path.
For a start, there is Violet herself. She is an engaging mixture of the tough and independent and the vulnerable and confused. She is defiant about her spikiness and awkwardness in the presence of others’ emotional difficulties, but at the same time touchingly troubled by the difficulties she has in making conventional connections, not least with her own children. Violet’s own mother Vera provides some provenance for this disengagement. Vera was competent at all the practical components of motherhood and negotiated an endless round of dressing, bathing, and rolling pushchairs through the park...but (Violet) can’t remember any physical affection between the two of them. Fiona Robyn is particularly good at representing family dynamics - with dysfunction passing down the line through Violet - and invoking the Larkin principle concerning the legacy of parental damage.
But for all her maladroit dealings with the world, Violet is easy to like. In fact, we identify with her because of that very cut-the-crap impatience. Her face screws up and looks sideways at Sue, and Violet feels a stab of impatience. She really is quite a child. Violet has never been any good with these weepy types. Some people seemed able to be patient with them, indulge their inflated, over-dramatised feelings. Violet has a switch inside her which goes from ‘tolerant’ to ‘intolerant’ in a second. Sometimes she thinks she uses up most of her energy simply keeping back what she’d like to say back...
It is the truth in character throughout the novel that refreshes and distinguishes. And when the letters begin mysteriously to arrive, depicting the experiences of young mother Elizabeth in a mother and baby home in 1959, a counterpoint is set up between the correspondent’s own disengagement with the patterns and protocols of an earlier time and Violet’s sense of alienation within her own circumstances. In this disequilibrium between the conventional and familiar and Violet’s own canted perception of how things are and how they might be that much of the novel’s success lies. Personal taste, maybe, but for me it is this location of the strangeness within the apparently mundane, the outré that lurks behind the ordinary, that beguiles every time. If it works for you, I recommend unconditionally The Letters by Fiona Robyn as a fine example of the canon. Go buy!
As one who has tried valiantly to reach beyond the encapsulation of the poem and the snapshot of the short story and failed ignominiously, I was intrigued to know by what guidelines Fiona approached the writing of a novel. Citing Somerset Maugham, I put a couple of questions to her.
DJ: Somerset Maugham said: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” If he’s right, do you know what they might be?
FR: I would never presume to know how anyone else should write their novels, but here are three of my ‘rules’, which have got me through my first three novels: 1. Get the novel written. This is easier said than done - I have to coax myself through the first draft, which is always difficult, and protect the whole thing from any feedback until I've done all I think I can do. I also have to bribe myself to my desk every morning. 2. Write YOUR novel. I write because I want to make people happy or make people think, but I'm not interested in changing something (e.g. a sad ending) because it would make it more 'accessible' - I only want to change things if I think it would make it a better novel and if it would be more 'true' to my characters. 3. Look after yourself. Writing is a funny business - both the process itself and the whole getting-published bit - and I hope I'll be able to be a better writer over time if I pay attention to what I need. This might be reminding myself why I do it, trying not to get sucked in by wanting to be popular, licking my wounds after some critical feedback... or taking a complete break from writing to get on with my vegetable patch.
DJ: Somerset Maugham also said – and in the absence of the source, I paraphrase very loosely – that it is easier to write an effective novel than a well-crafted poem. You write in both media. What do you think?
FR: Hmm - I suppose we could talk for days about what an effective novel or a well-crafted poem IS. I do think that you can get away with more in a novel - there are so many words, and if we get swept up by the narrative or become fond of a character, we're less likely to complain about a badly constructed sentence or a weak metaphor. In a poem, every word (and the placing of every word) counts. For me, poems are a way of distilling experience into something concentrated, and so the poet must be happy for people to look at them with a magnifying glass.
Full details of how and where to buy The Letters, and of Fiona's forthcoming publications, and of her blogs (to which she posts fine poetry), can be found via her website.
A poetry meme has been filtering its way through a number of poetry blogs over time. Although largely cured of Instant Meme Response Syndrome, I’ve tagged myself with it…
1. The first poem I remember reading, hearing or reacting to was … The collection ‘A Child’s Garden Of Verses’ by Robert Louis Stevenson. At around the same time – age 6 or 7, I believe – I was captivated by Stevenson’s poem ‘A Smuggler’s Song’ and Robert Burns’ ‘Sweet Afton’ (to which I composed a tune that I sang only to myself.) 2. A poem I was forced to memorize in school… I was never forced to memorise a poem. But the first poem I went out of my way to learn by heart was Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’. I was 15 and in the first throes of my epiphanic discovery of the First World War poets. I graduated swiftly to Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen and then to writing my own Great War verse. I have preserved the small blue notebook in which all of these early efforts are contained to remind myself always of just how utterly frightful juvenilia can be. 3. I read poetry because … …it makes language do things that language shouldn’t be able to do. 4. A poem I’m likely to think about when asked about a favorite poem is … ‘Death Of A Son’ by Jon Silkin, ‘Howl’ by Allen Ginsberg, ‘Evans’ and ‘On The Farm’ by R.S. Thomas, ‘Autumn Journal’ by Louis MacNeice, ‘The Second Coming’ by W.B. Yeats, anything by John Burnside, Pauline Stainer or Amy Clampitt. 5. I write poetry, but … …sometimes wish that when the hill seems too steep or the well is dry, the drive to write would diminish. 6. My experience with reading poetry differs from my experience with reading other types of literature … …because although the journey is briefer, the reward is frequently significantly greater. 7. I find poetry … …like oxygen. 8. The last time I heard poetry … …was Adrian Mitchell reading ‘Tell Me Lies About Viet-Nam’ in a televised extract from Peter Whitehead’s film of the 1965 Poetry Olympics at the Albert Hall. Ginsberg was drunk, Harry Fainlight was booed off and Mitchell was majestic.
I hadn’t intended to post the following account again, but it provides something of a coda to the previous post and to the thoughtful comments that it provoked. Apologies to those who have trudged through this particular thicket of autobiography before. For the next post, I shall clamber down from my tired old hobby horse, I promise...
Five years ago I returned to Frensham Heights, the school at which I taught for 17 years between 1975 and 1992, to attend a memorial concert commemorating the life and work of Alan Pattinson, the school’s headmaster from 1973 to 1992. He had died of cancer a couple of months previously and the concert was a tribute to a remarkable man who, during those 19 years, had touched the lives of many children and adults.
Fittingly, the school’s ‘Ballroom’ was full. Although the school now had recently installed a purpose-built performing arts centre in which most musical & theatrical performances are presented, the Ballroom is the traditional venue for all school assemblies (called ‘Morning Talks’). Alan’s Morning Talks were memorable. In them he turned traditional school protocol upside down, eschewing the standard calls for the application of a tougher work ethic, or a sense of pride in and respect for the alma mater, or mutual rejoicing in the latest clutch of sporting trophies. Instead he inveighed eloquently against consumerism and the new materialism (this in the Thatcherite ‘80s), the cult of results within education, an archaic and out-of-touch Church, the politics of fear and greed. He urged that we should doubt as a matter of course. He demanded that we should always – as the Quakers have it – speak truth to power. And he wasn’t afraid to use the word ‘love’ within the context of daily dealings within the community.
Alan was a radical thinker, a philosopher whose own personal search for spirituality within a secular world (he was a lapsed Catholic who had been 10 years a monk) informed the communal life of the school. As a man, he was not easy to know. His own struggles with lapsed belief and the search for a rational, humanistic alternative were sometimes visited upon the school, manifest in contradictory behaviour and sudden angular shifts in policy and practice. In consequence, some students perceived him as remote and didactic and some teachers feared him as demanding and judgmental. Those of us who located his warmth and humour (and the self-effacing, sometimes self-annihilating, humility that, paradoxically, underpinned his apparent hauteur) found him eminently approachable and, in his vulnerability, loveable. As a teacher, few would deny that he deserves a place amongst the small but illustrious gathering of authentically progressive educational thinkers and doers whose lives and work shine bright in spite of the best efforts of those who would wrench education back into the pedagogic Stone Age.
A Frensham Heights student of mine, Jamie Glover, now a successful actor (probably best known for having played a leading role in the popular school soap Waterloo Road), spoke affectingly of Alan in an interview. (I also get a name check!)
I first posted the following in April 2003. It’s an account of my own experience of progressive education as a pupil in the 1950s. A platitudinous reflection maybe, but the world has changed a great deal in 50 years. Sadly, the school mentioned in the account has long since closed and much of what passed for radical thought and action then has either been absorbed into the great democratic maw or simply discredited. However, I have been fortunate in having taught in three of the surviving progressive schools – King Alfred School, Frensham Heights and, until my retirement as a full-time teacher, St Christopher (where my partner Emma is Head of Art.) And although the constant struggle against what Eric Fromm described as ‘the fear of freedom’ has sometimes forced all three towards compromise and pragmatism, even in the darkest times an informing spirit and ethos have endured.
NEW SHERWOOD SCHOOL Worple Road EPSOM Surrey
Latchmere Road Primary School was a small, red-bricked, white tiled, parquet- floored establishment, safe, comfortable and traditional. With one or two monstrous exceptions, the teachers were kind and supportive. The headmistress of the infants' school was archetypically maternal; the headmaster of the junior school was avuncular. It was a stable, happy school. And I was utterly miserable there.
After so long a time it's difficult to identify what frightened and oppressed me most. I have murky recollections of asphalt wastes patrolled by fierce, bulky boys smelling of penny chews and unwashed clothes. Their sticky hands pushed you hard in the chest; their scabbed forearms compressed your windpipe, locked your head to their panting chests in dispassionate and unmalicious aggression. Asexual voices bayed and shrieked, whistles blew and ragged queues formed. Boiled meals reeked and steamed; you had to eat the beetroot, the pink mince, the frogspawn semolina. Incomprehensible prayers and sermons were uttered from the stage; discordant hymns punctuated the ritual, and we filed out to Sheep May Safely Graze played on an upright piano by a fierce little woman with hair coiled in cartwheel plaits over her ears...
The safe, predictable, instantly identifiable atmosphere terrified me. Why, I don't know; the passage of time and the depth of the imprint defy analysis. But my mother tugged me onto the 604 trolleybus every morning, both of us in tears, both of us anguished and baffled. At night I dreamed about corridors, classrooms, the banshee voices of wild children. By day I cowered in corners, hiding from the pounding, reeling jungle of it all. Without recourse to the post-60s label, "school phobia", my parents had a problem on their hands: if I was rejecting school at the age of seven, in what educational condition would I be by the age of eleven?
A mildly radical past and a subscription to the left-wing journal The New Statesman provided a possible answer. As a pipe-smoking, corduroy-wearing member of the Independent Labour Party in the 1930's, my father had read Neill's prototype "Summerhill" book That Dreadful School. Recollections in the '50's of its cheerful, vernacular style and refreshing absence of cant were jogged by a small ad on the back of his favourite weekly publicizing a little progressive school in the nearby market-town of Epsom. It was called New Sherwood School and in the summer of 1953 we drove in Dad's new Morris Minor to see the school and meet its headmaster John Wood.
The school was situated in a large, white, mid-19th century lodge in about an acre of grounds with a two-acre paddock attached. As we drove in through the front gates, the sense of a sprawling, bohemian family environment was immediately apparent. Thick climbing ropes hung from trees; there was a wooden climbing frame built around the bole of a huge beech tree; three gaily-painted cart-wheels mounted horizontally on three-foot high posts acted as roundabouts; doors in the house bore scuff-marks and windows were patched with corrugated cardboard. John Wood approached us along the gravel driveway that surrounded the house and he guided us over to the roundabouts. The interview was entirely informal: John - bearded and kilted - chatted gently in a soft Highland Scots accent about the philosophy and practice of the school, pushing himself to and fro on the wheel. Behind us, a tiny, dark-haired boy of about six ran tirelessly around the house, pausing only to yell, "Fuck off! ", as he approached our small group. Initially, John ignored the demonstration. After one particularly shrill utterance John smiled and remarked that Mikey had only just learned the phrase and that we mustn’t take the invocation too seriously.
So, in the autumn of 1953, I joined the sixty-odd children at New Sherwood School as a day-pupil. My initial reports home were ecstatic: no more beetroot, no more asphalt battleground, no more booming corridors, no more hymns. My perception of the school was determined at first by what it didn't have. My experience was all of freedom FROM" and, in my early days, I could make little sense of the implications of "freedom TO". Day-to-day life was a process comprising fitful attendance at the voluntary lessons and long, absorbing periods in the sand-pit building castles and railway systems.
Time passed and the old horrors receded completely. I made friends and found that my fear of sport and competitive activity was offset by an ability to initiate and sustain imaginative games. When, after a year, I began to board, my relationship with, and understanding of the nature of, the school deepened. Slowly I began to recognize the teachers and other adults as congenial individuals. Increasingly I came to see them as larger, wiser versions of us, providing security and support and yet immediately responsive at the intuitive, affective level at which we children operated. (John and his wife, Irma, would tend to refer to the adults in the community as "big people", expressing the differentiation between staff and pupils in terms of physical size rather than status). It became apparent that I could argue with teachers and that they would respond in kind; that I could wrestle with them, or fall asleep with my head in a lap; that in calling them Ted or Mary or Gerry I was permitted an intimacy of contact that bridged the interstellar distances that I perceived to exist at Latchmere.
The functional life of the school fell into three main categories for me: lesson-time, the School Meeting, and boarders' free time after the school day had finished. Lesson time followed a fairly conventional and thus familiar pattern during the school day. By School Meeting decree the lessons were voluntary, although, out of fairness to the teacher and the rest of the class, the absentee had to announce intention to miss lessons and then had to remain out for the remainder of the week. The lessons provided some shape and focus for the day and, by and large, they were well attended. Missing lessons tended to occur collectively when something clearly more important than lessons came up. During one term, virtually the entire school population gave over two or three weeks to the building of a wooden fort in the paddock. At other times activities like school plays needed extra work and they replaced the scheduled timetable. I have clear recollection both of those lessons that entranced me and those that, atavistically, brought back the sense of oppression that blighted my previous school experience. History and English fed my imagination; Maths filled me with a claustrophobic sense of failure and hopelessness that even the congeniality of my environment could not dispel.
The aspect of community life that established most manifestly the functional equality of children and adults was the Friday School Meeting. Modelled on John and Irma's experience of self-government at Kilquhanity House (where both had taught previously), the meetings were chaired, and minutes were taken, by pupils. All those who attended had equal voting rights, regardless of age or status. In principle, and sometimes in practice, children could outvote adults. Initially, this reality appalled me: this disempowerment of those who legitimised our existence seemed a heresy of the first order. But within a short time it became a normal aspect of life at New Sherwood, its processes facilitating, rather than impeding, the social order. Indeed, it was John Wood who proposed the abolition of all the school rules in order to re-legislate from scratch and it was the pupils whose caution moderated the proposal.
After 4.00 pm the school belonged to the boarders. Numbers fluctuated between eight and ten in my five years at the school, accommodation comprising three rooms and a pre-war caravan. With such small numbers, the family ethic that lay at the heart of the school flourished most effectively. We all dined together, bathed together, lay around John and Irma’s' bed-sitting room floor listening to the BBC Home Service sci-fi serial Journey Into Space or that revolutionary predecessor to Monty Python, The Goon Show We bickered, fought, sulked and wooed each other back into the fold, and we grew from childhood towards tentative adolescence together. My chief recollection - lent enchantment by the distance of years - is of the enormously elaborate fantasy games that we played around the building and grounds. Each context carefully chosen, each scenario carefully prepared, we would dress up in an approximation of the appropriate costume - American Civil War, Second World War, Arthurian myth - and launch ourselves into late summer sunshine or evening winter snow. The adults that we encountered in our unimpeded activities would be pressed into service. Gerry, the English teacher, caught relaxing in his caravan, would become Gandalf, from our favourite book of the moment, The Hobbit. Long-sufferingly, he would re-create the voice he used when reading to us before lights-out. Mary, the Bavarian cook (whose English husband had been a prisoner-of-war), would tolerate - even indulge - our insensitive representations of 'typical' German behaviour when rounding up our war-game captives. Obligingly she would goose-step into the kitchen, wearing one of our most cherished props, a German infantryman’s helmet, to make us massive cheese-and-pickle sandwiches for supper. We would go uncomplainingly to bed, still in role, exhausted from our labours in the other lands and other times that were encompassed by the small New Sherwood estate.
I left when the Woods moved to New Zealand, and I went to another progressive school, Wennington, in Yorkshire. The advent of my teen years, 16+ and 18+ exams, the more formalised structures of the school drew a curtain across my time at New Sherwood. I lost touch with my friends there (although my family maintained contact with the Woods) and the school closed not long after I left, unable to find alternative premises when the lease on the estate was not renewed. A few years ago I revisited that little corner of Epsom and found the surrounding roads more or less unchanged. The estate itself had disappeared under high-intensity housing; neat gardens and mock-Georgian fascias reside where once beeches had accommodated tree houses and uncut grass surrounded sandpits.
In mid-1993 a letter from Irma announced that John was dying of cancer. With customary courage she faced this event and after it she sent a videotape of John's memorial service around the scattered New Sherwood community, each of us mailing it along the line. The various tributes to John's ingenuity, imagination and vision recreated vividly for me the qualities of that unique little community. As I parcelled it up for the next recipient, this educational samizdat document bearing revolutionary good news, I reflected on the acute need for hope and action on the part of those of us who look upon the educational wasteland and are tempted to despair. And then again, ten years on in 2003 when Irma died peacefully at the age of 95, I thought of the anarchist Joe Hill's great cry, "Don't mourn: organize", and - in spite of the torpor of middle age - I felt the blood quicken...
It’s now nine months since I fronted a class and taught a lesson. And during those nine months I haven’t missed the experience for a moment. The majority of my friends and acquaintances who are still teaching find this unsurprising. Indeed, many of them would swap places with me in a heartbeat.
But it continues to catch me by surprise. I was, for the greater part of my career, passionate about my subject, Drama, and totally committed to its realisation in theory and practice. I loved working within the freshness of imagination, the absence of prejudice, the readiness for enquiry and practical endeavour of the responsive kids. At the very least, surely, four decades of programmed engagement with young people in various confined spaces should have established something of a daily, monthly, termly routine from which disengagement might have been difficult.
I think that, in the final analysis, the dead hand of state interference in educational process rested too heavily and for too long on the tiller. The mechanistic obsession with standards and targets and the testing procedures whereby attainment must be measured gradually stifled enthusiasm and commitment. No room was left for the random, the circuitous, the improvisatory, the spontaneous – those priceless ephemeral elements that are at the heart of authentic learning.
So when it all puttered to a halt in the July of last year, I was ready to get into my car and drive for the very last time through a set of school gates. And I was ready too for that phenomenon that so many teachers must find deeply painful – the sense of the waters closing over one’s head and the river flowing on with no tangible evidence of one having once been part of the current. I’m still in regular contact with a number of ex-students and I cherish the mutual feeling that we each gave of ourselves in our time together and valued the learning that came from the transactions. Some of them are now in their late 40s; a few are still in their teens. But I don’t, for a moment, miss the classroom. I have, I believe, achieved closure.
Here are two contrasting accounts of my experience of the educational process. The first comes from my second year of teaching, the first from my own education in a small, long-extinct progressive school.
Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school. Albert Einstein
Struggling my way (sometimes literally) through bone-wearyingly long days in a South-East London boys’ secondary school, I was rapidly coming to the conclusion that the teacher’s task was a simple bi-polar process. At the northern end, where those boys lightly caressed by the penumbra of the curriculum lived, you lobbed the books from desk to desk at 9.00 am and it was heads down until 4.00 pm. Once a year the uniformed drones were herded en masse into a reeking hall to spill the contents of the lobbed books onto file paper and then, after six weeks of exhausted holiday, you resumed the lobbing.
At the southern end, where the terminally ineducable lived, different tasks were undertaken. In this realm of shadows much of the time was passed in a climate of threatened or actual violence. If the boys weren’t pushing each other over banisters or into lavatory bowls, the teachers were using their freewheeling powers of corporal punishment for such infringements of day-to-day protocol as wearing a school cap back to front or a school tie for a belt. The cane was used regularly by the tiny Headmaster, but the preferred tool of correction here was the rubber-soled gym shoe. There would be intense, even heated debate in the staff room as to whether leaving the laces in provided extra tensile strength or removing them provided added flexibility.
My call to arms came one day on playground duty. I had positioned myself as usual two thirds of the way up the fire escape steps like a fully dressed lifeguard at the edge of a particularly troublesome sea. I was, as usual, willing the hands of my watch to clamber up towards 10.40 just a little bit faster so that I could blow the whistle, like a successful Canute, turn back the tide.
Suddenly, with the inexplicable swiftness of a force of nature, the random, scattered groups of boys coalesced into a uniform mass. Like iron filings to a magnet, hundreds of black-clad figures were sucked inward towards a central hub of activity. A fight – the duty teacher’s nightmare. As I flung myself into the imploding throng, seizing boys by their blazer collars and flinging them behind me, a curious booming roar went up all around. It was like being under water. I knew that my colleagues would be packed around the staffroom window, coffee cups in one hand, crumpled newspapers opened at the jobs section in the other. They would be watching my action keenly, judging me on speed, style & control.
Eventually I reached the centre, the eye of the hurricane. A tight-knit ring of sweating, feral boys held the ring open, giving the combatants just enough room to manoeuvre. Their feet scuffled for purchase on the tarmac against the mighty press from behind. As I lurched into the circle, carried forward by my own momentum, I nearly stumbled onto Franny Smith. He was kneeling on the upper arms of a terrified smaller boy, his head tilted back, wild-eyed, his arms extended, hands open, screaming: “Give me a fucking brick! Give me a fucking brick!” And, as I straightened up, Danny Wright broke through the inner circle, half a house brick proffered in his fist…
[2.] UP IN THE MORNING AND OFF TO SCHOOL*
Sandown Lodge School, Epsom, Surrey, 1955
Friday. It’s 6.30 in the morning. I wake to the sound of racehorses. They walk them from the Roseberry Stables, round Worple Road and up onto the Downs. My caravan’s parked against the high wall at the edge of the school grounds, and every morning they come along the lane high stepping and snorting, sometimes shuffling nervously, quietened by the grooms’ gentle voices.
I lie in the narrow bed. Another full night’s sleep. During the few weeks since the beginning of term when Rory and Isla moved me from the boys’ room to the old caravan, the insomnia has ebbed away, and with it the fear of the night’s long flood tide. Out here, once the light is off, the darkness is total. And within those first few nights while sleep still eluded me, I could hear the screech owls calling from the big beech tree in the Paddock. Once, in the small hours, one landed on the roof. The spread claws skidding as it landed woke me. It called twice – a haunting whistle on a falling note - and then took off. My fear then was real. But it was a gut sensation, visceral. Not the spectral terror of being alone in a night that will never end. I fell asleep oddly comforted.
7.00. I scramble out of bed and pull on jeans, a shirt and a jumper and my wellingtons. My breath clouds the air. I run across the dew-heavy grass to the side of the house, stopping by the kitchen door. An old ship’s bell hangs in the angle between two walls. It’s shaped like an inverted bowl and resting against its upper edge is a hinged clapper. I relish this moment of my appointed office, lifting the clapper slowly. I shiver momentarily and slam the clapper against the bell, seven slow strokes. The sound, importunate, officious, thrills me even as its volume makes my eyes water.
I take the stairs in twos and, bursting into the boys’ room, I jerk the curtains wide and tug the bottom half of the sash window upwards. - Wakey, wakey, rise and shine! I yell. Somebody throws a slipper; it hits the upper windowpane. Down the corridor I can hear Rory and Isla’s lavatory flush. Outside on the landing one of the girls – Miranda, probably; she’s an early riser – yawns extravagantly and slams the bathroom door.
7.45. In the kitchen the cook Maria stirs thick Scottish porridge in a huge aluminium saucepan. She steps back to peer through the doorway into the Scullery. - Who’s here now gets to eat, she announces in her thick Bavarian accent. Who’s late gets it all cold. Rory comes in, scratching his beard. He wears a shapeless cable-knit jumper and his Hunting Stewart kilt. - Hulloo, wee-‘uns, he greets the kids. As he walks past Mikey’s tilted chair next to mine, he grabs it and, holding it firmly, tips it swiftly backwards to the floor. Mikey tumbles off it and seizes Rory’s legs. - Are you on duty, Rory? he asks, pulling himself up. - For my sins, yes, I am, Rory answers, entering the kitchen. Tea, Maria, black as tar & twice as thick!
9.35. Jimmy watches his English class racing towards the shed for saws, hammers and nails. Under his arm is King Solomon's Mines, which he would have read them had they not called the lesson off. In fact, there were to be no lessons at all this Friday. Strictly speaking, a day’s lessons could only be cancelled by a majority vote in the School Meeting the week before. But during the holidays several diseased lime trees on the Ashley Road side of the Paddock had been cut down and now that the branches had been sawn off and stripped, the plan was to build the biggest camp yet. In company with all other teachers with scheduled lessons, Jimmy accepts force majeur and lets them go to join the others, jostling and yelling. But he tells them in the few impatient seconds between announcement and release that he intends to bring them all up in the Meeting that afternoon because they are breaking a rule that has been declared by the entire community.
12.20. I can’t choose between labouring packhorse or Canadian logger as I seek out a role, hauling two long, ragged branches across the grass towards where the camp is to be sited. As I wrestle them into the loose heap and shake off the ropes I can smell the sweet, juicy fragrance of freshly sawn wood.
Already several shorn branches are seated upright in a long, deep trench and Jules is pounding them into the earth with a rubber-topped mallet while Robbie nails crosspieces in place to bind them together. Supporting the branches gingerly are Mikey and Miranda. Jules is teaching them a song in his almost impenetrable Ayrshire accent. With the precision of a chain gang chorus leader, he bawls the strange lyrics on the downward stroke of the mallet: - Wha’ saw the tatty howkers? Wha’ saw the eenawar? Wha’ saw the tatty howkers, workin’ in the Broomilaw? You lean against the trunk of the big beech around which the camp is being erected. Jules pauses, downing the mallet and leaning on the upturned handle. - Now, he says, catching his breath. The next bit’s the best bit so listen, right? ‘Some o’ them had bums like beetroots, some o’ them had een at aw, some o’ them had cocks like carrots, working in the Broomilaw’. Everyone laughs, shedding tools and falling upon one another. I grin and make my way back to the woodpile for more branches.
4.10. Lunch is taken in shifts, the keenest builders carrying their plates out to the site. Eventually Maria brings the saucepans full of macaroni cheese out to the Paddock and serves the workers in situ. By 4.00 a few day pupils drift away to collect their bags and go for the bus home. The remaining work force moves away, wandering back towards the school building, glad, maybe, of an excuse to rest aching backs. School Meeting starts at 4.15 and Rory has asked that as many attend as possible because he has an important matter to raise.
As I reach the hedge that separates the Paddock from the old tennis court and the frontage of the house, I turn and look back at the day’s work. A ring of stout branches, part woven and part secured by nailed crosspieces and rope, contains the beech tree within a pygmy stockade. A frisson of excitement and pride trips my breathing for a moment. One more full day’s work to be done…
4.20. The Big Room is full. All the boarders are present and the majority of the day pupils and teachers. Most, like me, are perched on the tiny blue kindergarten chairs that line the walls. Only the Chairman and Secretary – Peter and Janine – are seated in comfort on a pair of winged library chairs behind a low table. Rory is seated, leaning against a closed door, cradling Cordi, who is only 4. Isla sits cross-legged beside them.
Peter raps the table with the side of a ruler.
- Order! he calls in his high unbroken voice. I’m opening the meeting at…4.20. Janine’s going to read the minutes of the previous meeting.
Maria had complained that a loaf of bread had gone missing from the larder. The Meeting directed the guilty parties to own up immediately. Jago and Dilly admitted to having removed it and both were fined 1/- each and denied a jam allowance for one week. Rory said that boarders had been seen climbing on the downstairs toilet roof. The tiles were not secure and if anyone slipped and fell the school would be liable for any injuries resulting. He wouldn’t ask the Meeting to support a proposal for any kind of action in this instance; he just hoped that the boarders would be sensible in future. Robbie, Mikey and the Burch twins proposed that there should be a rock-and-roll hop for pupils and friends for the weekend after Half Term. Jimmy asked if teachers and parents would be allowed to attend. By a narrow majority the Meeting voted to include them.
- Any matters arising? asks Peter. Gilly Burch raises her hand. - I’m not going to the hop if my parents are going to jive! she declares. And teachers too! And I won’t be the only one! It’s just embarrassing! The Meeting defeats a motion to ban all dancing grown-ups by a narrow majority and moves on to new business.
Rory raises his hand and is acknowledged by the Chairman. Still cradling the sleeping Cordi, he stands. - I should like to suggest that we abolish all school rules forthwith, effective as of this Meeting. He pauses. A ripple of shock passes around the room. A few kids laugh. You are appalled: a thin line between the silent, invisible machinery of ordered freedom and downhill chaos is about to be crossed. - Do you have a seconder? asks Peter. Rory leans down & gently passes Cordi to Isla. - Well, it’s not a proposal at this stage. I simply feel that we have too many rules now and that to try to pick our way through all of them piece by piece, weeding out the unnecessary ones, will be too time consuming. So why don’t we just scrap all of them and start again? He sits down. For a moment the Meeting is still. Then, one by one, hands go up, some assertively, demanding attention, others more tentative. Peter inspects the display. - Jimmy? - I’m not out of sympathy with Rory’s suggestion. But before this gets any closer to going to a vote, am I in order in bringing up my English class from this morning for breaking the cutting lessons rule? I think they should be fined and if we sweep away all the rules in one go right now, an important principle’s going to go with them. Peter leans towards Janine and they consult for several seconds. Peter straightens up. - No, Jimmy, you can’t. We have to finish this business before we can go onto new stuff. I realise with a sort of disembodied surprise that my hand is raised. Peter’s cool scrutiny passes around the room. - Ricky? I swallow hard. When I speak my voice sounds alien, as if someone close by is mimicking me. - But if we’ve got no rules at all then why would anyone…what would stop anyone from, like, breaking a window or, say, smashing down a camp..? Rory smiles and begins to address me directly. - Through the Chair, Rory, Peter interjects sharply. - Sorry, Peter. Now, that’s a fair question and I guess the immediate answer would be nothing at all. But here’s the crucial issue: no one person here at Sandown Lodge has ever put together a list of rules and regulations and said, ‘Right, everyone, here’s what you’ve all got to do and you do it or I’ll tan your bum…’ The little kids all laugh. Rory takes a short step forward and leans an elbow on the fireplace mantelpiece. - We make the rules. All of us. Together. From the wee kids right up to the grown-ups. And we do things that way because we all know that the rules we have make sense because they’ve come from what happens to us in our daily lives. So – safety, health, convenience, thinking about each other and not just ourselves. Each good rule grows from these sources. I think we’ve got a bit carried away recently and we’ve gone from saying no-one’s allowed to leave school by the main gate because it’s on a bend in the road and it’s dangerous, to things like if you spill sand more than a foot away from the edge of the sandpit you have to pay a 3d fine. And I think that’s a bit crazy. So I propose we dump the lot now and go back to the starting line. No rules, then good rules. Rory turns and sits, pulling the still sleeping Cordi onto his lap. - Do we have a seconder? Peter asks the Meeting. My actions still apparently governed by remote control, I raise my arm. Janine scribbles my name in her notebook as the debate breaks on a tideline of waving hands.
9.30. - Wha’ saw the tatty howkers…? Jules howls as the boarders climb the stairs for bathtime and bed. Ruth, on bed duty, grimaces from her doorway. I carry my wash bag and towel, granted first ablution privileges so that I can make my way out to the caravan. As I clean my teeth in the basin I can hear five voices at various stages of pubescence following Jules’ lead: - Some o’ them had bums like beetroots, some o’ them had een at aw, some of them had cocks like carrots, working in the Broomilaw…
It’s a fine autumn night under a full moon. Silvery light shines around the gaps in the rudimentary curtains. I lie staring up at the curved ceiling of the old caravan, wide awake but free from fear. In the great beech in the Paddock, the screech owl quavers and I smile into the darkness.
The Downs = Epsom Downs, site of the Derby horserace.
Wellingtons = Rubber boots.
‘Wha’ saw the tatty howkers, workin’ in the Broomilaw?’ = ‘Who saw the potato pickers working in the Broomilaw Road?’
‘een at aw’ = None at all.
1/- = One shilling in pre-decimal coinage. Value, 5p.
3d = Three pence (pronounced ‘thruppence’.) Value, about one pence.
*This piece first appeared in a slightly different format in the qarrtsiluni education edition, September 2006.
Frequently, when I’m working steadily on a poem over time, two or three shorter pieces will emerge pretty much fully formed. Since the middle of January I’ve been moving a long poem Binners forward slowly, albeit positively, with no clear notion of when or how it will reach full term. And then a week ago the following poem emerged entire, more or less as it is here. It deals with the power of dream and recollection and the way in which sense memory sometimes provides a much more potent representation of the truth of experience than perfect recall.
I linger in the fast-congealing amber of a dream.
You know of my sweet breath, my flesh within the bright convulsion
of the moment. You wake and my musk infects the world.
I’m pleased to say that, where most of the poems in my recent fusillade have dropped into the long grass, one more has just hit the target. Charles Johnson of Obsessed With Pipework has taken Petal in A Book for the autumn 2009 edition.
Sticking with country matters, I’m posting a fourth draft of Mr. Moore’s Wall-Clock. In fact, it’s more a major re-formatting. I’ve divided its original, somewhat relentless single column into four-verse stanzas. Most of the work of restructuring has gone into regularising the meter and this has required a certain amount of re-writing. The AABB rhyme scheme remains unaltered, but now iambic pentamater carries it, varied only by two lines of hexamater in stanza 5. Clunkiness remains in places and the next draft will seek to chip out the lumps and smooth the passage.
MR MOORE'S WALL-CLOCK
Mr Moore lived on his own in a lean-to shack (two-roomed and shingle-boarded) at the back of the barn where Grandad kept his car. Clad with roofing felt and thick with tar
that bubbled in the sun, the dwelling shrunk into the lee of the outbuildings, sunk deep in a reef of marigolds and nettles, like the old shipwreck that tilts and settles.
Running through the light of the long, long days, we children wound an orbit round pathways of cinders, followed the beaten circuits through bluebells and cabbage-patches, then we flew
back to the cottages when the old sun set. The world was a restless sea, the sky a net that trawled us through the seasons. Spinning time was a circle dance, two hands that turned in rhyme,
rolling, trapped, around the Roman face of Mr Moore's Prince Albert watch. And time and place conspired: late spring, a watch chain swinging in the sun; our heads inclined to hear the singing
of the wheels. Snapping the brass lid shut, he turned and muttered, "Tempus fuggit”. Cut free from the web, we turned and reeled away around the orchard tracks. And then, one day,
one June, I crouched inside his smoker's bow beside an empty grate. Outside the undertow of low clouds hissed against the single pane, rattling nettles, damping dust, a trailing rain
from the east. Granny plumped his pillows, twitched the patchwork counterpane his wife had stitched in the old queen’s days. Still as a log he lay, dumb, dream-bound, and seventy years away
across the breadth of Vinson's paddock, chasing clouded yellows. Granny fussed, replacing meadow flowers unnoticed, winding up the lamp-wick, slipping the sill of a china cup
beneath his Kaiser Bill moustache. And coiled, I lay in the cage of the hearthside chair, in oiled darkness, breathing phantom fumes of black tobacco, calcium tang of plaster and lime, scent-echo
of primeval caves. And behind the chanting rain, a tenor voice called time, counting down the seconds: the wall clock, stalking shadows on one brass leg, soft-talking,
like the go-between whose tale is too important to be shouted loud. This harbinger won’t rant about decay, the end of worlds. So, doomed, I watched and heard the hours unwind, consumed
by the oldest story. Mr Moore slept and I dreamed for the last time. And how brief the story seemed - the fable of the wheel that turns from light to shade, from my midday to Mr Moore's midnight.
Smoker's bow: a large wooden chair with a high back and enclosing arms.