richard pierce

richard pierce

31 October 2012

Leaving for New York

You may think it counter-intuitive of me to write a post about New York at this time, after the disaster that Sandy has been, in the light of the dreadful tragedies that have yet to come to light so soon after the storm of a generation. But it's not odd, for me, to be writing this now. You see, I fell in love with the place when I went there for the first time in my life in June this year. And I've been meaning to write about it for an age. And now seems the rightest time of all.

I had expected to be intimidated, overwhelmed by the size of the place, and half-expected to be jetted into scenes from all the dreadful and not-so-dreadful police dramas I've half-caught on TV, but it was nothing like that. It was a maelstrom of humanity, yes, but the surprise was that it was such an intimate place, such a friendly, welcoming place, even at night, late at night, when I found myself wandering around Brooklyn and then around Union Square well after midnight. If I were asked to go back right now, I would. If I were asked to move there, I would.

The background, of course, is that I was over there to launch the newly-published hardback edition of Dead Men (and note the link is to my wonderful publisher, the Overlook Press). Overlook and I had been working for months towards suitable dates (the actual release date clashed with my wedding anniversary), looking for venues which would be prepared to host a first-time novelist launching a book which might, at first sight, appear as quintessentially English (the mystery of Captain Scott's death on his way back from the South Pole), and looking for an indie bookshop which would be a suitable place for a talk about the book.

Anyway, we dealt with all those things, and arranged some engagements in New Hampshire (which shall be a separate post), and even overcame this Yorkshireman's natural tendency not to want to spend money, and, on 13th June, I finally touched down at JFK on an overcast and gloomy afternoon, revelling in the excitement of travelling alone again for the first time in a very long time, and full of trepidation, too, at being a very small man in a very large city.

I needn't have worried. Besides being very well looked after at Seafarers & International House

on East 15th Street (to whose small library I contributed a copy of my book), and being overfed, on that first afternoon, by the guy at the sandwich counter at the Food Emporium (the salami sandwich and the extra roll I got were my lunch on Day 1 and my breakfast and lunch on Day 2), everyone, without exception, even people I accidentally bumped into in my myopic wanderings, was unfailingly friendly and helpful. Even people in suits who, in London, to my dismay, are invariably aggressive and shouty and in too much of a hurry even to look you in the eye (and that is painful to say for me, who adored London and lived there for a long time).

I'll write about the launch and everything else another time. I just wanted, now, to send my most positive thoughts to everyone I met (and didn't meet) in New York, to hope that the damage to the ground I trod there, and to the souls who inhabit that place, is not too great and will be mended soonest. I hope, one day, to be back.

30 October 2012

Oscar's birthday poem, 2012

. . .

Calm here,
And across the ocean a storm.

I am guessing that you
Will take a cursory glance
At these words,
Raise an eyebrow, cough, and move on,
And squirrel away my emotions
Somewhere out of sight and memory
Until an accident uncovers their dust.

You are so old now,
So above it all,
Intellectually immortal
And unbeatable, and
I pray it will always be so.

To you, I will always be ancient
And inferior and boring,
A collaborator with the system
You despise.
Maybe that’s what we all become
- No excuses – when we age.
I hope you don’t.
I know you won’t.
But care.

25 October 2012

The ogre of science

Some say I'm anti-science. Some say I'm deliberately controversial and obstructive as far as science and science education are concerned. I'm not. I am merely alarmed at how far the pendulum has swung in favour of compulsory Science and Maths, and, by implication, Engineering, at how the Humanities have been put up against the wall, waiting for the shooting squad of Gove and previous and future education secretaries to put them out of their misery.

The way things are, here in Suffolk anyway, pupils have to take Triple Science for their GCSEs. It's compulsory to mix Physics, Chemistry and Biology. Oh, and to take Maths, too. Now, to my way of thinking, that's too much. There's no balance. The only humanity they have to study is English. Can people communicate via formulae rather than words? I think not. Can people learn about other cultures with numbers and symbols? Again, the answer's no. Did a linguist dream up the atom bomb? Er, no. Or invent the Gatling gun, if we wish to take some steps further back in history? I think you know the answer by now.

I have made comments similar to this in a previous post, a post that was aimed more at the system of exams than at the fear that Science breeds, and the unnecessary energy that gifted Humanities pupils are forced to waste on subjects from which they will derive no practical benefits when they move through A levels and university to adulthood. I have four children, all of whom despise Science with venom, all of whom are fantastically talented at writing, painting, researching and analysing history, all of whom are eloquent and mature people. Put Maths or Science problems in front of them and some of them collapse, like me, into a tearful heap, or complete the tasks muttering under their breaths swear words they shouldn't even know, staying up too late, or screaming themselves hoarse against the sheer impracticality of the problems they are being asked to solve. They might as well form a band called We Are Not Scientists.

But we parents have to deal with this Science angst every day, we have to watch as our children's Humanities marks decline because all their energy is being sapped by Science and Maths lessons nearly every day, and at lunch times, on Saturdays, on Sundays, by revision books that make no sense to me, by the ridiculous "plain English" of subject matters that are not plain English at all, and that do nothing to inform the future lives of our children. It's a joke. I have told my children to deliberately fail their Science exams rather than waste all that effort, but they're too proud to listen to me. Instead, they are turning into hollow-eyed cynics, sick of all education.

Someone said to me tonight that it's Science that creates wealth in this country? Oh, really? This country's failing economy therefore has nothing to do with the fact that the majority of the idiots who run it can't speak a second language, that we're still an hour behind the community we should be conversing with on equal times and terms, that our children are being educated into xenophobism and imperialism. Obviously. Because history doesn't teach context, and languages don't teach communication, and RE doesn't teach us how to think about ourselves. I thought so.

Not just that. I've been trying to think about this in a deeper, more long-term way, too, since my last post on this subject. What is it that drives the nanny state, regardless of the colour of government? Is it French, or German, or History, or English, or Philosophy? Of course it isn't. It's Science. Our lives are analysed to death, measured and distilled down to ingredients and components. If you eat too much of this, you won't live long, if you eat too little of that, your life will end prematurely; if you drink too much, if you smoke, if you don't pay attention to the chemical composition of your underwear, you'll be come useless to society.

All the recent rules and legislation about our life styles have been driven by science, all the laws infringing our civil liberties have been invented by scientists, all the scare stories of recent times have been made up by people crouching behind test tubes, running minority studies and drawing majority conclusions from them. All we need is balance, all we need is to eat what we want, drink what we want, inhale what we want (within reason) AND exercise, and laugh, and dance, and we'll live to the average age we'd expect to live to. Science is the ogre which artificially shortens our lives through stress and ridiculous obligation. Scientists don't discuss, or even think about, the human condition, scientists don't think existential thoughts, don't allow their minds to wander down deserted corridors of words and pictures and visions. They look at life through a magnifying glass and pretend to be God.

By all means, make one science compulsory to GCSE, and let that science be Physics, because Physics is one of the building blocks of Philosophy, because Physics is the only ssience which gets anywhere near addressing the human condition, which looks out to the stars and wonders how they have been suspended from the firmament.

But make Humanities the core, and let specialisation happen even before GCSE. I despise the continental way of growing jacks-of-all-trades through forcing children to take more than four of five subjects through to A level. That deprives the world of specialists, specialists even in the sciences. I despise Michael Gove for biasing the International Baccalaureat towards science, for forgetting that language and history are the foundations of human existence and analysis, for questioning the status quo. Ah, that's why.

Just bear this in mind - the most notable fascist of our times is Margaret Thatcher, the woman who decimated the UK, who turned the UK from a manufacturing nation into a service industry nation. She was a xenophobe who couldn't even speak English unless it was in a speech written for her, never mind any foreign language, a woman who fought a war to win an election. And what was she? She was a chemist. QED.

Charlotte's birthday poem, 2012

The Art of Physics

It’s too easy to become alone,
Trapped in your own thoughts,
To believe you are the only static
Point in this restless universe,
To carry the burden of the whole,
A suffering crux in the mechanics of life.
Physics doesn’t work that way.

Come away from that place
Where fear is sanctuary,
Forget what others want,
Come down to the noisy spheres
Where there is an abundance
Of the real,
And embrace it.

There were days when we walked
Against the wind and against the wishes
Of our peculiar tribe, and you
Gave me words to bury in my heart,
And where we were weightless
Against the motion of the world.

Today is another day,
Where nothing matters,
Where touch and sense and scent
Make us who we are,
Unconnected, untroubled, aware.

Fragments; we are fragments
Sailing on an unnamed breeze,
Impulses and reflexions,
Shattered stars on our own,
And yet part of it all.
But never the centre.