Archive for August, 2013

In Praise of Michael Wood

29/08/2013

I’ve just finished watching Michael Wood’s latest series King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons. As usual, his almost boyish enthusiasm and deep knowledge of his subject was infectious. Though I learned a little about Alfred at school, my knowledge of the so-called “dark ages” is limited. Under Wood’s enthusiastic guidance, they seemed anything but dark.

I first came across him in my first year at high school (1980), in a programme that was also about the Dark Ages. His exuberant style impressed me then and ever since, I’ve always tried to watch his programmes, regardless of subject. And he’s covered many and diverse topics: India, the Conquistadors, The Third Reich, Beowulf, Alexander the Great, Shakespeare. Most I knew little of or had little interest in, but Wood has that rare knack of livening up any subject and quietly drawing the viewer in and enthusing them. Even though he is now in his sixties, he has lost none of his enthusiasm and it remains as infectious as ever. Long may he continue.

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Citalopram Hydrobromide

27/08/2013

If I were to write
I can’t live without you
You would be forgiven for thinking
Of a person, so necessary, too necessary
That life without them
Is worthless and might as well end.

You could think that
Obvious thought, that ridiculous cliché
But I’m no Harry Nilsson
Ripping out my heart in a number one song
For people to sing in kitchens, baths
Or crawling cars.

No, that’s not me, though I have loved,
Thought that cliché of someone
Until my neuroses revealed the lie,
Sought solace and relief in bottles,
Beer, vodka, brandy and finally
Citalopram hydrobromide.

The daily milligram pop into palm,
Twenty, thirty and finally forty,
A thickening stick I lean more heavily on
With the days and can’t release
For fear of slipping and breaking bones
On ice and concrete.

So when I write I can’t live without you
This is what I mean,
The encapsulated chemical compound
Mainlined to my fractured brain
To keep the current flowing
Without which I cannot open the door

In the morning, move, concentrate,
Function. Citalopram hydrobromide
I love you, I hate you,
I can’t live without you,
Damn you little white pill,
I need to sniff your glue.

The Buskers

27/08/2013

As I fight my way
Through treacle crowds, they
Hardly register beyond an eye flick:
Two lads singing their all, hands
A blur over acoustic guitars,
They can’t make their passion heard.
On my way back, with sharp weaves
Around ditherers, buggies and
Hell’s granny trollies, another sound
Floats to my ears:
A single violin, some mournful tune
I half-recognise.
How I heard it above the din
I don’t know and I couldn’t
See the player, but for a few seconds
It lifted me clear from
The crowd’s coffin press,
Above the city and away,
Set gently down
In a sunlit country lane.
Unknown player, I thank you:
You’re wasted here.

Council Chief Exec Doesn’t Like Local People

24/08/2013

It seems that Stoke City Council’s esteemed chief executive John Van de Laarschott doesn’t like the people his organisation is there to serve. That is, if recent local press reports are to be believed. Apparently, Mr Van de Laarschott thinks we all complain too much. So presumably, by extension he thinks we should all be grateful for his glorious rule and keep quiet.

I don’t know which planet he lives on, but it certainly isn’t the one where I and lot of my fellow residents live. Pardon me, but I think we have much to complain about. This city still ranks uncomfortably high in the deprivation tables. Look around and you don’t have to travel far to see lots of derelict land, boarded up buildings, empty shops and vacant office blocks. Yet the council persists in its expensive vanity project, the Central Business District. Once they move all their staff into it, what little life remaining in Stoke town will be killed stone dead. Stoke, which already has more than its fair share of empty buildings, will have even more.

And let us not forget Vanguard. It was Mr Van de Laarschott who brought in these expensive consultants (for whom he acts as an advocate in his spare time). Consultants who then wrecked a successful Benefits service and who have since been let loose on other departments. And all this at Council Tax payers expense.

There have also been several thousand job losses on his watch. People have been queuing up to leave. I’ve said it before and will doubtless say it again: if folks are so keen to leave what should be a good employer during a time of high unemployment, that suggests (nay, shouts) that there is something very seriously wrong. I know there is the wider picture of savage government cuts (and Stoke has had particularly bad settlements), but these issues predate that.

Unlike some, I am not anti-Council. I firmly believe in the public sector. I worked at Stoke City Council for over 16 years and was proud to do so. What pained and offended me was how the public service ethos was corrupted by all the worst aspects of private sector managerialism. This is exemplified by Van de Laarschott: an obscenely overpaid import from the private sector who thinks he knows it all. If he really doesn’t like us, that’s mutual. I know I’ve said this before too, but the people of this city deserve better.

A Loner And Proud Of It

24/08/2013

In a recent blog post, Cristian Mihai talks about being alone. His argument is that it’s something all artists have to do whether they like it or not, a price they have to pay for their creativity. However, the final words of the post made me sit up and shout “NO”: We don’t want to be alone, we never do, but some of us have to. This is plain wrong.

I have never understood the generic presumption that we humans are a social species and we therefore need other people around us to give our lives meaning. No man is an island, remote unto himself as John Donne’s poem has it. And that anyone who prefers their own company is somehow weird, a misfit and an outsider; someone who can’t be trusted, and must be up to no good. Look at how the media covers serial killers: they always use the word “loner” in the most pejorative way possible, as if it’s conflated with “paedophile” or “terrorist”. An extreme example perhaps, but it’s revealing.

Hard though it may be for some people to accept, some of us do like being alone. This does not make us weird or killers or child molesters. We just don’t conform, we are not sheep. Nor does it mean we have no friends. I have always preferred my own company and make no apology for it. If people want to label me as a weirdo, that’s up to them, but doing so says more about them than it ever will about me. Insofar as anyone is ever truly comfortable in their own skin, I am very comfortable with being a loner, with being solitary.

This is me, take it or leave it. I’ll end with a poem I wrote a few years back:

“No man is an island, remote unto himself,”
Oh yeah, who says so?
Which continent am I a part of then,
When they’re all floating and colliding
Spewing fire in the subduction zones?
It only takes a Krakatoa or two
To blow it all to hell, not
A continent to be a part of then.
That I could shut my door on it, a
Slam in its face with contempt,
Dive into music or a bottle, or
Under the duvet with the one I love.
Then, only then, I am an island,
Remote unto myself, in my love’s arms,
The world with its clashing continents
Banished to distant memory,
A noise down the hall
Behind a closed door.
Krakatoa blow your top,
I won’t hear you know.

A good book on this subject is Anneli Rufus’ Party of One

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Riding Up To Woodhead, or Did I Really Do That?

19/08/2013

Another piece previously published in “Direct Current”. Wrote this in Málaga at Christmas 2004.

A warm, sunny day in September, the last flowering of another British summer. Stuck as I was in a sweltering office all I could do was look outside enviously. Then I had a crazy idea. A few months earlier, after leaving it to gather dust in a storeroom for years, I had put my bike back on the road. Also, earlier in the summer, I had passed near Woodhead for the first time in twelve years. I had always been fascinated by the railway that used to run there, though had never seen it in operation: a combination of stunning landscapes, unique locomotives and a controversial closure. It was one of the main routes between Manchester and Yorkshire and carried huge amounts of freight. For this reason it was electrified after the war, with a new three mile tunnel being built at Woodhead. Despite this investment, passenger services ended in 1970 and the line was closed completely in 1981.

And so my crazy idea was born. Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, to go back up there on my bike? I could now ride all the way from Hadfield to Penistone, mostly traffic free as this section of line had been converted to a cycle path. I doubted I would ever do it, but it was a nice idea. And so, to that lovely warm spell in September. The more I looked outside, the more I wished I was outside, cycling down the canal or some quiet lane. Then that great weather oracle, Mr Fish, said the warm weather would be gone by the weekend. Yes, I thought, let’s go, now. So I booked a day off work and checked on the net for train times. Friday morning saw me at Stoke station, helmeted and raring to go (as far as I’m ever raring to do anything first thing in the morning!) I thought back fourteen years to the first time I had taken my bike up there. It was far easier when trains had a guards van. For today, I had been obliged to book spaces on the Virgin trains in advance, and for the other trains it was first come, first served, so there was the real possibility of being left behind.

All went well and I reached Hadfield just after ten am. There was some cloud, but it was sunny and warm. Instead of the broad swathe of trackbed, there were now two tracks, one for horses one for walkers and cyclists, and it was very overgrown. There was a headwind, but nothing too bad and I was able to hold about 9-10 mph up the rising gradient. A marked contrast to 1990 when I was riding along the “B” road from Hadfield: the wind then kept me below 5mph even downhill!

Although it’s only for a few miles, the ascent of Longdendale has to be one of the scenic highlights of England. The flight of reservoirs rising towards the hills, glittering in the sunlight and the moors themselves seemed aglow. There were frequent information boards by the path, mainly about local wildlife but with some snippets about the railway too. I wasn’t convinced some of these were entirely accurate: I thought Crowden station, for instance, had a single island platform, not two. Perhaps I’m being too pedantic…

After two-and-a-half miles, there was a level crossing at Torside. On my first visit, the road signs and some track were left, but now it was unrecognisable: some trees, a gate, the road, then another gate. Indeed, for virtually all the path, there is little to suggest this was ever a railway at all. Beyond here was new territory for me, as I had never walked the entire line on previous visits. And this was the best part. At Crowden, the line runs right along the reservoir. Despite the roar from the A628 on the other side of the valley, it was a peaceful spot, with the gently lapping water. I paused for a few minutes, pleased I was here, not quite believing it. Even as I felt the solid metal of my bike, it seemed unreal, a dream.

A few minutes later, I reached Woodhead, and the top of the valley. It had clouded over by now, but was still warm. I was pleased to see the station platforms still in situ. At last a tangible reminder of the railway. I leaned the bike on a fence and took a well-earned swig of lucozade, content to stand there and just listen to the rushing river Etherow nearby. It seems hard to believe such a little river could be the source of all the reservoirs down the valley. About a hundred yards away was the tunnel with its rather austere concrete portal and simple date above: “BR 1954”. I looked back down the valley, feeling rather pleased with myself.

The tunnel soon reminded me of its presence. Every now and again, a terrific blast of icy air erupted from it. This was so powerful even from a hundred yards away, that the temperature around me plummeted: I could see my breath, and shivered in its cold concrete flavoured breath. It would die as quickly, and the air would be warm again. I walked right up to the entrance and peered through the fence. It was freezing. The ballast had been removed though the steelwork was still secured to the roof. This was a forbidding place. I almost expected to see Moorlocks crouching in the shadows, waiting to pounce should I come any closer.

I was glad to escape its icy breath. The fence blocked my way forward so I had to haul my bike up the steep hill to the main road. This seemed to take ages, and I had to wait several minutes for a break in the traffic before I could get over. This was the hardest part of the day. The climb isn’t that steep, but it just goes on and on. I would ride some and push some, dodging an endless procession of trucks as they thundered past. It was grey now, the sun but a memory, but I didn’t mind. I was pleased just to be there. As on my first visit, the moment I crossed into Yorkshire, down came the mist. After the quiet of the path (I had hardly seen anyone since leaving Hadfield), the traffic was a shock. I was relieved to see the Dunford Bridge turning and get away from it. One last push up the hill, then a real pleasure: a long descent as I coasted at about 27mph for several minutes. This culminated in a mad whizz at 32mph on the steepest part just before the village, the cold air roaring past me. I had forgotten just how exhilarating this is, even though it made my eyes water! It was as well I knew where to brake as some idiot had stopped a truck on the bridge just round the last bend!

I parked by the pub and went in for a swift half. Another change: instead of the cosy place with its huge open fire that I remembered, it had been considerably “poshified”, with prices to match. I made it an even swifter half and went and sat near the station site to eat my lunch. I felt a little cheated.

Here too, little reminder of what was. The tunnel gate was open and there seemed a lot of work going on inside, with sounds of drilling. Thankfully no blasts from the icy depths disturbed me here and I enjoyed my lunch in peace. The only sounds an occasional bird, the rustle of unseen water and a jet fading high above. Yes, I thought, I am definitely here. Good isn’t it?

After the drama of Longdendale, the descent to Penistone was something of an anti-climax. At least it was all downhill! The path, however, was of far poorer quality. On the west side, the large grade of gravel used meant a firm, if sometimes bumpy, ride. Here, it was far muddier and even more overgrown. It was especially poor between Hazlehead and Bullhouse, less then a foot wide in places, and I forever had to dodge overhanging branches. Still, at least the demolished bridge that hindered me when I walked this way had been replaced.

There was one more reminder. At Thurlstone crossing, there was still a rail still embedded in the road. Was it genuine, I thought, had the unique class 76 locos really run along it? Then a rather surreal experience. Two chaps on bikes approached from Penistone and asked where they were.

“About three miles from Dunford Bridge,” I said. They looked at me blankly.

“Where’s that?” said one.

“Yorkshire!” said I. This didn’t seem to mean much to them either, and they rode off.

About half a mile from Penistone, the path changed to tarmac and it started to rain. All too soon, I reached the station and wheeled my bike along the platform. I had arrived, I had actually done it. I had even beaten the weather. I felt really pleased with myself, and after a dull trip home, slept very well that night.

At The Foot Of The Hill

17/08/2013

When I was at university, I wrote a number of short stories. Looking through them now, I find most of them not really worth rereading so I wouldn’t consider putting them on here. This one is about the best of them, so I hesitantly include it. This was the last one I wrote, and dates from 1996.

Pete stopped the car and switched off the engine. He wound down the window and breathed deeply. The air out here was always fresher than the stale traffic-laden stuff he was used to back in the city. He glanced at his watch: he was early. He smiled. Nothing unusual there, being early was his idea of being punctual, even if it meant a long wait when he got there. He checked the map. Yes, this was the right place, one mile off the main road along the lane, the layby beside the canal. Of course it was right, they had been here once before, several months ago. They had only been friends then, had only recently graduated from acquaintanceship.

He smiled again. It still seemed unreal to him even now, if he stopped to think about it. He closed his eyes for a moment and listened to the sounds outside. Apart from the darting swifts and swallows and a few other birds, it was very quiet. It wouldn’t be long now before they all vanished for another year, the first sure sign that summer was over. Already, it was a few weeks past the solstice, and the days were becoming noticeably shorter.

Enough. Enjoy it while it lasts. There were a couple of cottages a little further along the lane, but there was no one in sight. No cars had passed, and there were no barges on the canal. He looked towards the hill about a mile away over the rising fields. There was a village on its slopes, topped by the silhouette of a ruined castle. Along from it was a short array of rocky cliffs, then the land started falling again. The flanks of the hill away to his left were covered in woodland. He remembered walking up there once: the trees and the numerous shrubs were twisted and gnarled, like the fingers of a conclave of silent old men.

After the bustle and traffic of the city, the quiet out here seemed almost too loud. It was so easy to just sit there and simply listen to it, allow yourself to just drift off. So much so, that when something did come – a train, car, or plane – it was a surprise. You wondered where it had come from, what its business was, or even what it was.

He looked at his watch again. It was almost time, she would be here soon. He sighed contentedly. This would be the first time he’d seen her for a few weeks. Since her husband had lost his job, she had been working longer and longer hours to make ends meet. He reached into his pocket and took out her last letter. He had read it dozens of times already, and as he again ran his fingers over the paper, he tried to imagine her speaking, the warmth of her touch. He switched on the stereo and put a tape in. As the quiet opening bars of An Alpine Symphony filled the air, he looked in the mirror and finger-combed his hair.

Gradually, the music became louder as it described the passage from night, through the growing light towards dawn in the mountains. The scenery here was hardly Alpine in proportion, but alongside the Cheshire Plain, it was the next best thing. He heard a car and looked behind him and saw her faded blue Honda pull up. He practically leapt from the car and ran over to her just as the orchestra broke into the tremendous climax of brass and percussion – the Alpine sunrise.

She smiled as they hugged. “How are you?” she asked.

“Better now,” he said. “I’ve missed you.”

They kissed. “It has been a while,” she said.

He just stood there and looked at her for a few seconds, happy that they were together. She took his hand and they walked to the canal and stopped on the bridge. A simple pleasure, he thought, being out in the countryside with someone you care about.

They crossed the canal and started along the path. It passed under the railway and started to rise towards the hill. It rose for about a mile then divided. They took the left fork and were soon climbing through the woods. The path was well worn, but there was more undergrowth than when he was here last.

“It’s good to be able to get out of the house,” Karen was saying, “after working all week I don’t want to be stuck in all weekend.”

“Is it still bad then?”

“Yeah, well, some of the time; Jim can be a bit possessive, asking where I’ve been.”

“Does he know about us?”

“No, at least I don’t think so.” She kissed him, “I don’t blame him really, losing his job and having to stay in all day. He’s a bit old-fashioned, he feels he should be the earner.”

“It sounds claustrophobic,” Pete said.

“It can be.”

“Well, you’re here now,” he said and they kissed again. Somewhere above, a rook croaked.

“Come on!” she said, and took his hand again and walked briskly on. The path soon narrowed, and they were ducking under overhanging creepers and brambles, not to mention the profusion of nettles.

“I’m glad I didn’t wear a skirt,” she said.

“I was just thinking the opposite.”

“Cheeky! You weren’t hoping I would get stung were you?”

“Now, would I?” he said innocently. “Mind you, if you were I could always kiss it better…”

“Yes please!”

The wood was quite dense by now, and were it not for the path being so obviously well-trodden, it would be easy to get lost. The density of the trees made it dark, and he was reminded of Tolkien’s Mirkwood. He almost expected a wood elf to pop out from behind a tree, bow at the ready, and ask what they were doing on his king’s land.

“I remember this place,” Karen said suddenly, “it was where we first, you know…”

He smiled. “How could I forget?”

It was several weeks go already. They had known each other for a few months by then as they worked in the same office. Lunch hours had coincided, and they had started talking. They met up a few times, and got to know each other, and she told him about the problems she was having at home.

Shortly afterwards, he got a better job elsewhere, but they kept in touch. It soon became clear that her husband didn’t like “strange men” phoning her, so they wrote instead.

One afternoon, they met at the castle on the hilltop. It was little more than a ruined tower, but “castle” certainly sounded more impressive. They walked down through the woods, and she told him that her husband had lost his job, so she was starting to work longer hours.

“So I won’t be able to do this as often.”

“I understand.”

“Oh you are good,” she said, hugging him suddenly.

“So are you,” he said slowly, and kissed her. She returned the kiss, slowly at first, then almost violently. He felt her hands moving over his back and legs, could feel the warmth of her body, the softness of her thighs under her skirt. They fell against the trunk of a great oak, tongues mingling. Her skirt was up and he felt the cool air on his legs as she pulled at his jeans.

Slowly, he sat up, watching as she pulled her pants back on and straightened her skirt. It was only seeing her do this, and the sight of her breasts as she buttoned her blouse that it really sank in what had happened. It was true, undeniably so, but did still seem too fantastic. He had never really thought it possible or likely that he and Karen would…Even if, backed into a corner, he might have admitted to fancying her (awful phrase!) Just a little.

Would it be okay, though? he thought suddenly. Would this moment of erotic abandon spoil things? He felt an abrupt chill at the idea. He looked at her. She was brushing grass out of her hair, her face unreadable.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” she smiled. “I’ve never done it outside before, au naturel.” She laughed. “Jim would have a fit if I ever suggested it, he always turns the light off at home.”

He couldn’t help smiling at this, and she kissed him. “I’m fine,” she repeated, “it was great.”

“You’re sure? This doesn’t change anything?”

“Not for me. Does it for you?”

“No. We’re still friends then?”

“Of course we are!”

“I’m sorry if I got carried away, I don’t know what came over me.”

“It’s alright,” she said, “I think we both got carried away, but I don’t regret it. I hope you don’t.”

‘No.”

“Good. Though I want you to know I don’t do this all the time, this is the first time I’ve been with anyone else.”

“Thank you,” he said, “that makes me feel good. That you picked me.”

“I can’t believe so much time has passed,” she said, “that was weeks ago, and yet it feels like it’s only Just happened.”

“Yeah, it’s funny that,” he said, “how so much time can pass, and you don’t notice it, and can’t remember a lot of what you did in it.”

“Though sometimes it’s often not worth remembering.”

“Some of it anyway,” he said slowly, “I’ve missed you.”

They kissed lingeringly, and once again their hands moved ever each other as they slid into the grass.

When they lay still, he leaned back against the tree and stared up at the patch of blue sky visible through the canopy. There were only a few clouds, high altitude stuff, long thin wisps, vague and indistinct. It was hard to imagine these collections of ice crystals were probably several miles up, higher than any mountain and probably most airliners. As usual, he was quietly amazed at the whole process: how water evaporated by the sun found itself in the sky as clouds, high wispy ice trails, or the lower heavy stuff that could easily weigh five hundred tons, yet still stay up there, floating above everything, but inexorably joined to what was happening below. Then sooner or later it would fall back as rain, and the whole thing would start all over again.

He sat up. “You okay?” he said softly.

She straightened her dress, “I’m fine,” she said absently, and picked a twig out of her hair. He reached for it, and held it gently between his fingers, as if it were something very old and precious. He sniffed at it, searching for some scent of her.

“Pete?”

“Hmm?”

“Look, I’ve been thinking: I don’t think we should see each other anymore…”

“Oh.. .what?!”

“Jim and I….I’ve been meaning to say, we’re trying again…”

“I see.”

“We’ve been married for ten years, that means something, I can’t just throw it all away.”

He nodded slowly, but said nothing.

“You do understand don’t you? We’re friends, try and be glad for me.” He nodded again.

“I never meant it to last really.”

“So I was just a bit on the side was I?” he said roughly, “to tide you over a difficult patch? Was that all I meant to you?”

“Yes…no. I didn’t want it to mean anything. I don’t want to hurt you Pete, but it’s got a bit intense.”

“Bit late for that isn’t it?”

“I didn’t want you to fall in love with me, I…”

“What makes you think I do?”

She sighed. “It’s pretty obvious. That’s not a criticism, I can understand, but you should find someone, someone, single.”

“Okay okay, I get the message.”

He walked a short way and looked down the path. He clenched his fists, feeling the points of his nails only dimly, some distance away like the booming of a car stereo at the far end of a street.

“It’ll be okay,” she said, “don’t hate me.”

He turned. “How could I?” he said simply. He opened his fists and saw the forgotten twig, and watched absently as the crumbled fragments fell into the moss and grass.

“Can we still be friends do you think?”

“I hope so,” she said, “but perhaps we shouldn’t see each other for a while…”

He nodded, “you try and sort things out.”

“Yes.”

He squeezed her hand, “I’m going to stay, I need to be by myself for a bit, you know.”

“Okay. I’ll write you in a few weeks.”

“Yes, do that…Take care won’t you?”

“You too. I’m glad we’ve been civilised about this.”

He nodded, but said nothing.

“See you then,” she said.

He nodded again and smiled wryly. She looked at him a few seconds longer, then turned and headed down the path. He watched her for a while, until the flowery pattern of her dress was lost among the trees. He stood there for several minutes more, the bark of a tree rough under his hand. When the sound of her footsteps had faded, all he could hear above the birds was a plane, high up among the cirrus. Just visible above the tree line was the stark silhouette of the castle, gazing out across the plain for an invader. An invader that had come and gone centuries ago, if it had ever come at all. He stared at it for several seconds, then turned sharply, and without looking back, started back down the path towards the canal.

1996

Sea, Shingle and Stars

17/08/2013

After another week in eastern England – on holiday this time – I’m back at home. From being woken by low flying Eurofighter jets from RAF Lakenheath, it’s back to noisy neighbours with only one CD. And back to life proper, and wondering what to do with it.

Holiday it might have been, but I’ve had my fill of eastern England for a while, though I went nowhere near Peterborough and spat a curse whenever I saw it on a sign. The best moment was all too brief. Beside the sea wall at Cromer, just above the strand. The tide was in and I passed several wonderful minutes watching the metre high green waves roll in and break with a foaming crash against the beach and wall. This was followed by that wondrous roaring rattle of shingle as they rolled back. I tried to guess which waves would keep their height all the way in, but couldn’t tell. Likely candidates would rear up with no warning and break, or become locked in a frothing fight with a previous wave’s backwash. Sometimes though, the wave would make it and roll along the wooden groyne, smashing and throwing up huge clouds of spray as it went, and at the wall, hurling itself several feet into the air. And this was on a calm day. I’d love to come back during a winter storm.

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A mile or so offshore was a large wind farm, the white turbines turning languidly. I could have sat there all day, listening to the tide. The breaking waves and the “melancholy long withdrawing roar” of the pebbles made my spine tingle. I was suddenly 14 again, standing on a tall rock on a beach near Swansea and listening to the shingle there. The first time I had heard it and its music has never left me.

That image too was fleeting. In its absence I leaned against the railing and simply listened, and tasted the salty spray and the acrid tang of seaweed. I was content to simply be there in this sensory wash, freed from the now. Liberated briefly into unreality – forty-four and no job, thrust back into that worthless place I grew to know too well in my twenties – in those blissful moments by the sea all that faded. Back at home, it’s bubbling up again. Rising toward the surface, ready to break through. But what sort of eruption? Phraeto-magmatic, lava or pyroclastic flow, who can say? I’ve no strength to resist it. Go with its flow, however violent, burnt up or blasted to smithereens.

I was staying in Hockwold, a few miles from Thetford forest. Sunset that same day, and the old folks had stopped their bowls game and the sky was a quickly deepening orange. From the distant fen, the peep of a curlew. The only other sound the crunch and slip of my shabby shoes over the loose chippings that were only laid that morning. I waited for darkness, stars and the possibility of meteors from the Perseid shower. After it came, I lay on the lawn and looked up into the clear sky. Slowly my eyes adjusted and the sky revealed itself. A jewelled black velvet cloth, glittering and shining, whose quiet radiance grew louder as the moments passed. I followed my breath, slow, steady, in and out. Overhead, the phosphorescence of the Milky Way came alive to my eyes. It’s not often I see it, city dweller that I am. As my eyes adjusted, more stars came alive until the sky was full of twinkling silver fires, so close I felt I could touch them:

…the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light

(W.B. Yeats)

Lying there, on damp grass, I felt peace, such as I haven’t felt in a very long time, a time so long it’s almost beyond remembrance. Nothing mattered, everything fallen away. I had forgotten what this felt like, and what it was to be beneath a sky full of stars. Awesome in the proper sense of the word: so far, such huge space, it makes me feel small, numbers so vast, so huge and innumerable that God is still making them up as I once heard someone say, one individual sand grain on a vast beach. It’s a good feeling, liberating, true perspective. And occasionally, a flickering streak as a meteor met its fiery death. How long had that tiny piece of rock or dust been travelling through space, how many millions of years, until it happened to collide with our planet just as I was looking up? What a frail travelling coincidence.

I saw several more meteors before retiring to bed, and did the same the following night. Now I’m home again and it already seems a long time ago. Back to a reality I can’t put off any longer. Time to face the enemy. I just hope I can shoot the bastard.

Fenton War Memorial Under Threat.

08/08/2013

I can see what used to be Fenton town hall from my window, and even from a mile away, it’s an impressive building. I was saddened to read that it could face demolition if a developer gets their hands on it, as it’s been unused since last year. I remember going there several times in the 1990s when it was the magistrates’ court. Not as a defendant I hasten to add: I worked at the CAB at that time and they ran a clinic there on Friday afternoons.

Not only is it a fine building, it also contains what I understand is a unique war memorial, made from Minton tiles. The building’s owner, The Ministry of Justice, has given bland assurances that the memorial would be saved should the building be sold, but these are no guarantee of its survival. I can appreciate that there can be a problem finding a new use for older buildings, but this is no excuse for inaction. There are not so many great buildings in this city that we can allow them to be demolished when they become inconvenient. There are plenty of “brownfield” sites all around the city, so why not develop them instead?

Worse still, the MoJ is asking £500,000 for the building. This is something of a cheek to put it mildly considering it was gifted to the town (as it then was) by a local industrialist, and cost the MoJ nothing to acquire. The beauty of the architecture aside, it is a war memorial, so should not be destroyed willy-nilly. That dishonours those commemorated, many of whom I understand have no known grave.

I wish the people campaigning to save both building and memorial the very best of luck. I think they will need it. I can appreciate the City Council doesn’t have £500,000 to spare, but perhaps the Council leadership and our local MPs can lobby the MoJ to gift the building back? In the meantime, please sign the petition

More information on The Sentinel website.

Serco and G4S Overcharged the Government? Really?

06/08/2013

This is an admittedly late response to a story which broke several weeks ago. The reason is that until the end of July I worked for Serco, so could not really say anything earlier.

So, two companies running “outsourced” public services – Serco & G4S – have been found to have consistently overcharged the government. For “overcharged” read “ripped off”. I am not surprised by this but am amazed that the government are.

I have never understood the ideological obsession with outsourcing public services. An obsession now shared by the “Labour” party. It will improve services, they say, and give more value for money for taxpayers. As if taxpayers and those who use public services were separate classes of being.

Call me old-fashioned, but I want my public services to be publicly run. Not run for profit and not run by some fly-by-night shyster company out to make a quick buck at public expense. The whole competition/choice idea is an utter nonsense. Services provided by your local council are not generally provided by anyone else, so you can’t take your “business” elsewhere if you’re unhappy. For example, if your council takes three months to assess your Housing Benefit claim, you can’t go to another council who can do it faster and ask them to do it. Not without moving house anyway. And yet the same economic logic is applied as that between competing shops. It’s rubbish. Public bad, private good. Is your public service badly run? Then sell it off to make it better.

I wonder just how much cheaper privatised services really are. Vast amounts of public money are wasted on consultants and lawyers in the run up to the sell off, and then the public body will have to retain some extra staff to monitor performance of the contract, a “client monitoring team” or some such guff. A extra layer of bureaucracy that was not needed before. Anyone who thinks the railways are run more efficiently and cheaply now than they were in the days of BR is an ignorant fool. If BR received the level of subsidy currently paid to the private operators, we would have a vastly better railway. But of course, that would never happened. It’s OK to pour public money into the coffers of private companies, but not into a public sector one.

Private companies exist to make money, that is their sole function. So no-one should be surprised that Serco and G4S acted as they did. Public and private sectors have their own roles and I want private sector operation removed from the public sector. I believe services provided by local and national government, as well as public transport and the utilities should be publicly run, for the benefit of the people. They should not be a cash cow for rich businessmen and shareholders. I just wish there was a political party with a chance of power that believed this. Sadly, the main parties are now totally corrupted by crony capitalism. I’m sure Mrs Thatcher must be smiling from whichever pit in hell she’s confined.


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