17 January 2017

What value education?

I am going through a severe identity crisis. Part of me feels that I am, at the age of 56, becoming the sort of man I never wanted to be - old-fashioned, too rigid in my approach and attitudes, too dogmatic in the way I see the world, especially education. The other part of me thinks I'm still young, still making my own agenda, just letting my children get on with their lives as they best see fit. Both parts of me think I'm a dreadful and weak parent.

And this is the dilemma I face every day that makes me feel so divided. When I was in the Sixth Form, I had a full timetable, lessons planned for each and every day, and no nonsensical two-week scheduling where lessons varied from one week to the next. Ok, I might have had the odd free period, but not gaping huge gaps in the timetable that leaves children of this modern age with often only one or no lessons on some days. When I speak to schools about this, I'm told it's because of lack of resource, and I am partly sympathetic to that. However, surely it cannot be beyond schools to pool classes or resources so that pupils at least have a solid framework in which to work, where they can do their own research but be supervised, where they can use books instead of being guided down the false paths of fake facts and news. I simply don't understand it. Schools are supposed to be places of learning, not places of leisure and the occasional hour of teaching.

The other side of that same coin is the attitude of pupils. And I'm not sure this attitude is endowed them by their peers and social media, or by their parents, or simply by the way the world is going to hell in a handcart. If I had the choice between being at home (admittedly a home which has thousands of books, in our case) and being at school (or any educational establishment), no matter how bad I perceived that place to be, I'd still rather be at school, where I could either sit in a library or a study room when I had no lessons, where I could feel surrounded by at least my attempts at learning. I don't understand the attraction of being at home. I don't understand why anyone would choose to stay in bed and their pyjamas all day rather than getting up and out there and having some real physical social interaction as well. Perhaps I am old-fashioned.

And here's the last thing - what happened to compulsory PE in the Sixth Form? There's an obesity crisis worldwide and yet the English schools I know don't put one afternoon a week aside on which Sixth Formers have to do sport. Why? Everything I know about people, about managing people, about interacting with people, comes from having played team sports, from those Thursday afternoons slogging through the mud of Doncaster Playing Fields with a hockey ball at the end of my stick, or a football at the end of my leg, or a curse hanging on my lips when I was having to run cross country, which I hated, but still did. Wouldn't the reintroduction of compulsory PE help fill up those skeletal timetables deprived of lessons? Deep down, I think the world is going to hell because playing sport has become an irrelevance in an age when people are encouraged to watch and bet rather than play and sweat. The same goes for education in general, actually, where children are no longer encouraged to learn how to acquire knowledge, and taught instead how to pass exams.

This is a time of despair, where no value is ascribed to anything any more. A time when governments care nothing for the future of the countries they are supposed to be leading, where conflict is created for the sake of keeping social mobility to a minimum, where people are encouraged to remain uneducated and therefore less of a threat to the ruling classes. And only very few voices stand up to be counted. But then, with so few lessons on the weekly plan, it's easier to stay at home and use a computer to interact with the world, real or imagined.

Perhaps I really am just an uneducated Luddite as well as a bad parent.

11 January 2017

Heinrich von Kleist and all that

Dear Ren,

I wonder if it is the truly personal navel-gazing nature of our correspondence which makes people not comment on it on your blog - or perhaps it is so universally true that it needs no comment. I don't care either way, because it's our correspondence, and I value that in itself. It drags me out of myself when I most need to be dragged out of myself, and I find myself looking at myself from the outside rather than from inside my head, behind my eyes, staring down past the grey hairs on my chest.

And this externalising does lead rather neatly into what you were saying about acting (which I guess does apply to our real-life actions, too). At university, all those generations ago, I studied a text by Heinrich von Kleist (one of my favourite irrationalists) called Über das Marionettentheater (On the Puppet Theatre), the essence of which is that humans are basically incapable of gracefulness because they are always thinking, whereas puppets will always be graceful because they have no thought.

Thus, if we catch a glimpse of ourselves (in a mirror, for example) and like what we see, if we try to consciously repeat that pose, we will never be able to recreate it because we're consciously thinking about it. You can extrapolate this to all art, and to beauty. And, to bring it from 1810 to the present day, it just proves (to me, anyhow) that selfies are the exact opposite to spontaneous beauty and therefore, as something deeper than vanity or art, absolutely worthless. And, to take it to its ultimate extreme, we can't be ourselves unless we are so spontaneously, without thinking about it. I suppose that's what I've always believed - or maybe I'm just lazy.

And I mean that about being lazy - when I read about you making plans, setting goals, etc, I wonder if me not making plans or setting goals is the reason for me being miserable so often, the reason for not yet being as successful as I want to be. But then maybe this lack of goals, specific goals, might just actually make the burden I place on myself greater, because it's just this whole huge expectation that I have to be successful, that each and every thing I touch should turn to gold. And perhaps it's because of that huge mountain of expectation that I sometimes just sit at my desk unable to do anything because I'm incapable of deciding what to do next.

Two of my uni text books
By the way, to reach the cheap seats, we need to project, mainly our voices. It doesn't mean they'll listen, but at least they'll hear. I would probably be an appalling actor. I'm not sure I ever found Molière funny when I was studying him at university. And Corneille was much too convoluted for me - all the formal rhyme schemes etc just did my head in. Maybe it's that laziness of mine.

When you said you were boring yourself, I was just getting into your self-dialogue. No, academic theories don't impart absolute knowledge; they merely prove or disprove a discrete part of knowledge. I suppose just like good education doesn't actually impart knowledge; it gives us the tools with which to acquire knowledge. And right now I'm busy trying to explain to my children (and some friends) that there are no answers to everything, that life really sometimes is just the way it is, without rhyme or reason, that loves are lost and found and lost, that happiness is sometimes (always) transient, that some things are not meant to be easy, nor understood. Like O just said over dinner - it's all about the journey.

And yes, the journey into 2017 has not exactly been joyous, on every level for me, actually. I find some of my old fears (the main ones of which you are familiar with from our very first exchanges all those years ago) resurfacing, and find myself feeling like I'm 18 again, not 56. If I ever had any certainties, they feel a bit remote right now. But then I think we celebrate New Year at the wrong time. The Earth might be racing back towards the sun, but nothing has significantly changed. If anything, the days seem shorter and darker than before Christmas. We should celebrate New Year on 21st March, when real spring is supposed to start, when things start growing again, when the light really is coming, when things really noticeably start to change. That is what we should do, really.

Well, it wasn't really a night of writing; it was 70 minutes of putting a song on really loud and on repeat (Follow by Peace - it's on your CD, and here it is on youtube), and banging out a load of words in a fug of smoke, with a full glass of red wine by my side, words about grief and the loss of love, because that's where the story's just got to (and that's not giving anything away). I think I'm almost always primed to write - it's just that very often I prioritise the day job (which can be very intense) or dealing with children's practicalities or emotions, so that when late afternoon comes, I'm just too tired to jump straight into writing mode. Which means it all gets a bit bitty, when really novel writing needs a sustained effort (even if just to stop the self-destructive and counter-productive habit of editing when in the first draft when the first draft is actually all about writing it down as fast and furiously as possible. That's when the best words come - when I'm not thinking about them - back to Kleist again. And the last couple of days I've been asked to do some song-writing again (lyrics, not music; I can't tell one note from the other), and that's made me really happy. It's a fascinating process. And I did like your metaphor - nothing wrong with a bit of purple prose now and again.
As far as the rat goes, it applies to all things. I don't think lamb would have worked as well (my attempt at being funny - no, you're right, it never works; me being funny, that is). But isn't it a good thing that the Old Lady still has puppy-like energy, that she can still make herself have expectations, even at her age? Maybe she's not disappointed, not in anything we think, but instead embarrassed because she thinks she's made a fool of herself but had fun doing it, just like we do things that young people think we shouldn't be doing any more, and because we suddenly become conscious of what they are thinking we start to think we've made an exhibition of ourselves and get all embarrassed and creep back onto our own little square foot of floor. It's happened to me recently when, for some obscure reason, the children started discussing M's and my love life at the dinner table. I have been so self-conscious ever since I'm thinking of becoming a monk. So we're back to Kleist again, which just goes to show the strength and universality of great writing.
Animals, I find, have an unerring sense of time, an inner clock as you say, which is always right. One of our cats, way back before we moved to Norway, always waited for me sitting on the gatepost at my usual home time. Florence, now, here, starts prowling and meowing outside our bedroom door (at least when C, whose bedroom she lives in, isn't here) if I haven't been downstairs with her by a certain time in the mornings. Or do they just manipulate us into their pre-existing time frames? I don't think so.
I'm always neck-deep into my Antarctic world, because I fell in love with it when I was there, and miss it every day, and wish I could go back there, but know there is only a miniscule chance of that happening. I'm exceptionally lucky to have been once, to have had my life changed like that, because it has changed my life. And now I need to change it again, to move forwards. But maybe not until 21st March when I can see things more clearly. Maybe I'll have Ice Child finished by then.
Glad you're glad to be a part of this family. Many people would run a mile.
Lots of love to you and E.

31 December 2016

A Different Corner

The quiet start, the build-up of notes, before that voice, low at first, then soaring through the room, through space, through my heart. The radio on, in the echoing, mouldy kitchen at 15 Harringay Road in London, down the road from Manor House tube station, bottles building piles round the never-used fireplace, and me trying to work in the cold of whatever day it was that my memory now comes from. It was way before George Michael's A Different Corner, his greatest song in my opinion, was finally released in April 1986. I can still see the breath in front of my face, my hands freezing, trying to write down notes to the words I was dictating for our typists down in Orpington to decipher when I took my pile of documents and tapes down there every Friday. It must have been halfway through January 1986, and so many things had happened to me the previous six months.

Imagine a young man (a boy, really), just freshly out of a long-distance relationship with a German girl (who had finally moved to England), a boy so full of faults he was almost inversely perfect, who'd ended up sofa-surfing for the best part of 1985, and become sick and tired of the surfing when he'd been on the sofa in that flat above a tailor's shop in Green Lanes in Harringay for just too long. The boy who started to look for somewhere permanent to live using Capital Radio's Flatshare (does that still exist?), and got an interview at the house just 5 minutes walk, if that, north, just off Green Lanes. And then he got the phone call, at work, one day, to say he'd been accepted to share the house, albeit in the smallest bedroom of the four there were.

I dumped the few things I did have on the floor of the room, threw myself onto the bed, and stared at the ceiling, wondered what it would be like here, sharing with two women and another man, all of whom had jobs of one sort or another in central London. I got up and started sticking posters up, put my toothpaste and brush on the window sill. It had to be better than not knowing where I'd be from one week to the next. It had to be better than wandering into Turkish clubs at 4 in the morning, drunk from booze and loneliness, just to back out at the sight of all those pulled knives.

That morning in that kitchen must have been only two or so weeks after I moved in with L, the girl in the house with the biggest room, and a gas heater in the room. Six days after I'd moved into the house itself. She was very different, and we'd danced in her room on her birthday. Her best friend cried at the story of how we got together, how she said she felt. And that song, on that day, after she'd gone off to work at the Galton Laboratories, and me feeling safe for the first time in a long time. How safe can love ever be?

Reading the lyrics for the first time in an age now, after George Michael's oh-so-premature death, it strikes me how oddly prescient they are in so many ways. She did bring me to my knees, told me so many different stories, and I still don't know which were true and which untrue. Maybe they were all real. I remember thinking at the time how awful it would have been if she, or I, had turned a different corner and never met. And, of course, I thought it would be forever. That's how she became Fiancée Number Two.

I remember the yellow of the paint on the kitchen walls. I remember many things I cannot say, remember the feeling of the voice, her telling me about how I was steel dressed in silk, the one poem she wrote for me, and how, in the end, her new boyfriend tried to run me down in his car in Digswell one night after our cat had died. But that was all such a long time ago. That morning, that kitchen, that emptiness filled by the sudden chords of an unknown song, a song that will stay with me forever. And I know now, leafing through the poetry books I wrote then, how much that period has formed my writing, how those lyrics have informed my writing, the going off at tangents in our lives, all those different corners we have arrived at, and made choices that have changed our lives, that eternal conundrum of how our choices have changed us.

That's only my side of the story of course. Where she is now, I don't know, and I no longer care (I used to, unhealthily), although she might have a different side of the story to tell. I found Fiancée Number Three who became my wife over 25 years ago. I became the man bereft of too many cats, I became the man I am now; middle-aged, and wanting to be young again. I became the man who still isn't satisfied with his existence. I became the man so in love he ignores whatever faults the world might see.

The song is still true, in so many ways; a combination of sounds and words that is a universal truth, however personal it may have been to George Michael, however personal it might have seemed to that boy sitting in that kitchen, that morning, that time so long ago. Love is never constant.

22 December 2016

The Perils of Parenthood; Serendipity, Irony & Christmas

Dear Ren,

20th December 2016, 09:30

As soon as I had sent you my last letter I realised that I'd made a mistake on the track listing for Not Nul Points, so enclose a corrected copy.

The sun is shining in through the kitchen window as I write this - the first sun we have had for a week. Our good neighbour cut down (or should I say cut back) the tall trees (conifers) on the border between our gardens, but we've had nothing but fog in the week since he did it, and now it's finally obvious how much more light we have as a result.


I feel so much in stasis, mainly because it's too cold for the guys to finish the house repairs, as a result of which I feel everything's at a standstill. I've always been like this; if there's one thing in my life that's not right or not finished, it throws everything else out, or stops everything else from being finished. I suppose that might just prove that men really can't multitask.

You're right - I did know about your movement teaching. Interesting you say it keeps you humble - is that because you're teaching young people who are still discovering the wonders of their bodies, or because you are still in awe of what you can do, or because you, like me, feel the waning of what we saw as immortality when we were young? I must admit my reaction to my dancing is quite different when I feel on form at our ballroom classes, especially if we're dancing Quickstep. I fear I become quite arrogant and feel so in charge of what I'm doing (so in charge, in fact, that in our last class I forgot a whole new section we'd just learned). The thing is, Quickstep is a dance you can really step out, a dance that really is proper hard work, and if you push it as you should, it's a real aerobic exercise, sweat and all. Many people who laugh at ballroom don't understand that it's real exercise, not something old people do when they can't run anymore.

I miss other adult company when I'm working from home, miss the social aspect, as a result of which I talk too much when I go see my acupuncturist, or meet someone I know in the street, or when I go to the office in London that I sometimes use when I've got gaps in between meetings. It takes me some time (half an hour maybe) to suddenly remember that, actually, those other people don't share my childish joy at being in the company of other adults. Though, of course, at the heart of it still lies the fact that I am really quite anti-social. I like my own space, like being able to choose when it's loud or when it's silent. Yes, M and the kids find this quite irritating and are probably grateful for the office I disappear into for most of the time.

You did tell me that you'd written a novel, but not what it's about. That story? That leaves a lot of unanswered questions. Do I ask myself why I want to tell a particular story? I don't think I do, or at least not exactly like that, and if I do ask myself it's only something I've started doing since I was published because I'm supposed to be thinking about my audience. But then, I think, that's crap, really, because it makes me (writers) write to pre-packaged conventions. It destroys the new. I think so, anyway. And, for me, saying writers should write in one genre (ie tell the same story over and over again) is the wrong thing to say. But we've been down this road before. The only question I really ask is whether or not the story makes sense within its own context. It doesn't really have to make sense in the context of this particular world, this specific world we live in, because this one's just one of millions.

The cultural reference thing is odd, because to be tied and yet not tied to culture (or is it fashion?) is a real contradiction. I suppose I am tied to one thing - music. That is my cultural reference. I cannot be without music, and I have to keep discovering new music. Someone once told me I was depriving my children of the most effective means of children's rebellion against their parents, because I like the same music as they do. It's getting to the stage now, though, where they are quicker than I am at finding good new music, and I'm quite envious of that. Nice to be able to be their gig-buddy, though. And they have found plenty of other ways in which to rebel against me.

21st December 2016, 20:30

The irony of my last sentence from yesterday is now not lost on me after an almost full-scale rebellion from the children on the first day that they are all on holiday (and M's last working day, and my penultimate day at work). The details themselves are unimportant, but this all makes me think that I'm about in the same camp as you - "I'm not terribly fond of children." BUT, we might not be, but we'd lay our hands in the fire for ours however badly they might treat us. Someone should have warned us - maybe that is the novel you and I should write - The Perils of Parenthood; subtitle Unconditional Love and its Life-Altering Consequences. What a read that would be.

When I was young, we always sat down to our Advent tea listening to the same record (I have inherited it, and the digital version of this will have a pic of it). That doesn't happen now - and I wonder if it's because life is too busy (even for children nowadays - because of social media in the main, but that's another story), or because they're all either agnostics or atheists (though they still like to light the Advent candles and want Christmas presents), or me just finally being a grown-up. The last time I felt safe (and I was thinking about this in the car today) was when my father was still alive and I could relax into one of those bear hugs of his, even when I was thirty. He died two weeks after O was born over 24 years ago. See, that's all that time gone.

I like that phrase - creative rationalisation (even when I spell it the English way, sorry). It chimes with my continuing refrain of "there's no such thing as coincidence; just serendipity." I suppose I add that last bit on so I don't have to argue with people about the edgy balance between fate and free will/self-determination.

And finally - I'm always glad for someone to be a much better host than me. I always reckon that if people can't accept me the way I am, the way I have my environment, well, then they're not really friends. M isn't quite like that, not at all like that, in fact. A quote from The Unrecognised, the short story I published this year, the widower talking to his dead wife - "Hey, the tidying up you'd do, mental as always. That's what killed you, you know. All this worrying about what people might think about the way you kept house, when all they were interested in was you, nothing else. You're an old fool, and I miss you." Mmm, I do worry.

And now I should close this and start typing it up. That will happen in the morning. There are so many words in my head for these letters, for my unwritten books. I will work out an unplanned plan over the holidays to make more time for all this. I find myself stultifying because I'm not writing enough.

Christmas has come just at the right time. I will be me. I promise.

Much love to you and E, and all your family. You're a part of ours (meaning you and your family).


13 December 2016

Legibility was never high on the agenda

Dear Ren,

11th December 2016, 19:42

I start this knowing that I won't finish it today, but I felt the need to start it anyway. Last night I got an unbroken 8 hours sleep, which is close to a miracle for me. It probably has something to do with the whole front of the house being covered in scaffolding and tarpaulin (still one of my favourite Norwegian words - presening) because of the repair work going on. That in itself is a long story, and one I shouldn't bore anyone with. Suffice it to say a small repair job turned into a huge one, a second mortgage, to stop the front of the house collapsing in one corner, and the choice of builder appears to have caused some old prejudices in the village to resurface. We will see. I think we're resigned to the fact that it won't be finished before Christmas because lime render needs dryness and a not-freezing temperature to cure properly. And I know I shouldn't say this, but I don't actually like sleeping so late. Maybe I'll have to start setting an alarm for Sundays, too!

12th December 2016, 13:24

I had hoped to continue this sooner, but today is already proving to be a trial, mainly on the work front, and this is the day I write emails to all those who have applied for grants telling them whether they've been successful or not. Not my favourite day, I must admit - and that's probably all I can say about my job, a job I love but which I'm probably too emotionally attached into (and that's not a typo).

While writing this, right from the beginning, I'm listening (have been listening) to the Christmas mix-CD I send every year (your copy enclosed). This is the 15th! And even though you've not been getting them from the beginning, it's dead important to me that you do get one. This is Not Nul Points XV, and they started when we first moved to Norway and I discovered there was so much unbelievably brilliant stuff coming out of a country the English made fun of for getting Nul Points at the Eurovision Song Contest. Well, we'll be seeing who'll be getting Nul Points in European foreign relations, won't we? Can't ever resist a political jibe at those against free movement of people.

Anyhow ...

I think your poetry-Instagram allusion might be a little too modern (and that's probably because I'm so very old); it's probably that poetry, more than any other medium, was the way to commit visual events to memory. Of course, there's painting, but not everyone can paint in a representative way. Ok, not everyone can write good poetry, but you get the drift; and before we could take photos there was nothing more instant than words, and, to be honest, there still isn't. Although I have to admit that I am always envious of visual artists who can just hang up the fruits of their labour and sell them if they make an instant impression. Writers don't quite have the same avenue open to them (although exhibitive writing or whatever it's called is now increasing in significance). As usual, I'm probably simplifying too much.

As I write, K is messaging me on facebook with some outstanding news. Ah, the joys of children doing/achieving what they wish for. That's a warm feeling inside.

And now you've just messaged me. This merging of our digital and written communications, because I do think of your letters to me as paper letters, is quite odd and interesting - I got to thinking about this because I know from fb about the Old Lady's injury, and your letter assumes that knowledge. This modern age is brilliant in so many ways.

What's fascinating also is that many of your cultural references aren't mine - not because you're originally from the US, but because I moved to Germany when I was 3, and as a result have almost no childhood cultural references. So I don't know anything about The Little Engine That Could. And equally I have no real German cultural references, except for celebrating Christmas on Christmas Eve, as it should be. The only other one is that I was a Karl May addict - he's a German writer who died in 1912 who wrote over 70 adventure novels, most of them in the Wild West (Old Shatterhand being one of his main characters) and in the Middle East. I have all his books (in German) but the downside is that he's said to be Hitler's favourite author. I don't know what, if anything, that says about me.

Gashed - the one painting I've sold
Lies of omission - that's opening up a whole can of worms. They do say that most successful relationships are those where secrets are kept I'm never sure I agree with that. You see, the problem is that we'll all die on our own, even if we're with someone who loves us. So why die with secrets? Unless, of course, they are ones that happened before we loved, and ones which would destroy not enhance. I suppose this is just me wanting the world to be as I wish it to be, not how it really is. It can never be the way we want it to be, because that would involve immortality, wouldn't it? And that's where we get to the moments lasting forever full circle piece - I'm not sure I could write such a short story about that, because you're right. The downs are essential so we can have the ups. And eating healthy cake would be boring in so many ways. So better to have sadness AND happiness, to have love AND lust, to have tiredness AND passion. We can still write those stories if you want, but not this year. I have another new book in my head - all these ideas are making me scream and wanting to slow down time and/or win the lottery so I can write them. Perhaps I'm just not committed enough, because I don't want to sacrifice my family time, or my fitness time I(although today I have), or my job time, to the writing. Or my sleep. Pathetic, really.

Talking of sleep, I find wine very rarely interferes with mine. Though, of course, as M will tell you, I'm not actually very good at sleeping. I slept for over 8 hours on Saturday night, which for me is a miracle. I'm guessing if we average it out over the last 25-odd years, my nightly sleep is about 5 hours. And often I thrive on it, even now, although that's becoming rarer and rarer, and I find myself cursing whoever said old people need less sleep. I just curse sleeplessness when I'm sitting naked in the kitchen at 2 a.m. eating a biscuit and drinking water. Although at 1:30 this morning I was in my boxer shorts because O is now home and likely to be up and around at that time (as he was).

I've been messing up appointments etc recently, too, and not just recently, actually; most of my adult life. I have dreams of having a Personal Assistant. Ha! More recently I do think it's because there's too much in my head, as I'm sure there's too much in yours, too. That's the price we pay for being writers - because we're always carrying our stories around with us, always turning them over in our minds, from the expanse of plots down to minutiae of single words and phrases, trying out millions of versions of the same sentence until we find the one that's right, and probably exactly at the one time when we have nothing to write on, or when we're in the middle of a conversation with someone else (and probably important or dependent).

The only two reasons I don't forget this family's birthdays and anniversaries are the fear of being killed for forgetting, and the fact that I'm the romantic, the most romantic. And so men should be.

I'm afraid of enumerating all the fears I have when it comes to thinking about the family. I never had real existential fear before we had children. I'll leave that there.

Thank you for re-reading Bee Bones, and for liking it, and for not giving its essence away. I still think it sums up much of what I'd lived up to when it was written, and probably what I've lived since. I did write a version with a different ending but didn't like it as much. Do we have to like our own writing?

My hand-writing getting ragged now - that's because I've got one eye on the clock. I swear people won't ever understand that I have two full-time jobs - the one that pays the mortgage, and the writer job. "Just because I work from home doesn't mean I don't do anything," he screams at the world. Oh well.

This probably means I should bring this to a close. You can probably only read these letters because you have a typed version of them online. Legibility was never high on the agenda for me, nor being understood.

If we don't write before Christmas, God Jul til deg og E og ungene.

Have a peaceful time.