richard pierce

richard pierce

21 November 2017


You ask me to send you money for shoes.
I send you a pair you’ve left here.

As I’m looking for a box to put them in –
You know how bad I am at wrapping –
I come across a bag of sweets,
Those tangy chewable ones you’ve always loved,
That I left in a drawer in the kitchen table and forgot about,
So I stuff the bag into one of the shoes,
Scribble a quick letter,
And seal the box with the tape I find
Under the table,
After searching the whole house.

And I sigh the sigh that presages lost tears
And wonder what your thoughts will be.

Those sweets grow a memory
On my walk to the post office;
That little boy with the strange tooth,
With the fevered smile I thought was death approaching
Until the cold went away;
The little pedant with the high-pitched voice
Conducting his own birthday parties;
The growing guardian angel
Always there when his sister needed him.
The boy who ran away.

And now you’ve lived a quarter of a century,
I wonder what time has done to us all.

I often think you mistake my concerns for you
For an absence of love.

It’s the opposite,
And unconditional.

R, 14/11/2017
For O, a late birthday poem

12 November 2017

This Mountain of Life

Dear, dear Ren,

When you wrote to me in June, I did actually start writing back. I have the scribbled draft in one of my notebooks (behind me in a messenger bag, not yet fully unpacked from the writing workshop I taught yesterday).

I can't believe it was February (was it February? I should keep a journal) when we met for dinner. I felt so full of energy after that, and so buoyed that the two of us should still be in touch after such a long time. And then, somehow, I lost the trail through my life. I think it had something to do with working twelve-hour days for my day job, trying to write, juggling the needs and demands that come to me as a to all intents and purposes house-husband. In fact, the first line of my draft response to you said that I felt much diminished since we'd met. And, to an extent, that's still true. Self-esteem has never been one of my strengths, and when I'm being reactive rather than proactive my view of myself is not very kind.

The thing is, I do need the quiet, and with that I don't mean silence, but that state when the world stops whirling around me, when I'm not constantly trying to meet deadlines, when my phone isn't going every five minutes with either messages or calls. Unfortunately, I don't very often have the option of switching phone and email off, only when I'm on holiday, and that doesn't happen as frequently as I'd like.

The positives, though:

A wonderful 1-week holiday with M in Corfu in mid-July (just laziness and calm and lots of food and booze, and an amazing heat that made all the pains in my joints and back fade into nothingness). She sunbathed for 10 hours a day while I sat in the warm shade, emerging only at 17:30 every day to go for a swim in the pool. I even said to her I was happy, which is something I say very rarely. I read 6 books in 7 days, and managed to jot down some ideas for the ending of Ice Child (which was a bit against my own rules of trying not to do anything at all whatsoever, including creative stuff).

We'll go back for 2 weeks next year if we can afford it.

I finally finished Ice Child in the middle of October, 18 months after I'd started it, which for me is a very very long time to take over a novel. I really like it, but my agent has decided not to take it on because Dead Men sold so badly, according to him and the publisher of it. Well, there's only so much marketing a busy man can do. So I now need to decide what to do with it, whether to try to hawk it to other publishers, or whether to self-publish it. I'll probably go the latter route, once I'm organised (ha!), and that will include a proper launch event with prosecco.

I'm so happy that you finished your play, and hope that it will be in the public eye before too long. Your words are too precious to be hidden.

The fear-driven momentum you refer to in your last letter (it's only taken me five months to answer it) is unfortunately real. I find more and more, as I age, that I'm afraid of an increasing number of things (which encompasses just about everything in the world), and I think it's that fear that makes me ill, that made me have those headaches at the start of the year, that paralyses me just when I really do need to be taking action, that makes me see all the outstanding decisions I need to make as an insuperable mountain of decisions that I have no idea of how to start dealing with. That's probably also why this letter is so late.

I had set myself the goal, after getting that knock-back from my agent, of taking part in nanowrimo this month, and to write a psychological thriller (plot already formed in my mind), but I'm so busy with other things I've only written 638 words (yes, I can be that precise). It will have to wait now because there's no way I can catch up, not with everything else that's going on.

I could write more, and tell you things I don't want in the public eye, so I won't. Let me just say that it often grieves me that people look at my life from the outside and marvel at how easy and cool my existence is. Nothing could be further from the truth (and I know you know the truth). Every day is a battle, and every day I feel like just throwing in the towel, and relegating my writing and my emotions to the least important things in my life. But then I get a fresh breath, then I have a moment of clarity and know that it would be a betrayal of huge proportions to give up. So I don't, and try to crawl again from the foot of the mountain to the top of it.

Much love to you and E.


23 October 2017


It’s a myth
That you come of age at 21,
That you know then what you want to be,
That you know then who you are,
That life from there is painless.

It was our elders’ structural incompetence
To have thought numbers define us.

It’s a myth
That old age brings wisdom,
That grown children make parents’ lives easier,
That a certain age makes us free,
That a certain age makes them free,
That years separate us from responsibility.

They made the legends to split generations.

It’s a myth
That we mature like wine or fine furniture,
That the patina of time gives us a veneer of sure knowledge,
That knowledge is power over the future,
That we wake on a certain day fully formed.

They made up words to drive us back to the cradle.

It’s a myth
That we can’t change the world
As children or adults,
A myth that we can’t be different
If we want success,
That rules must be obeyed
And circles squared.

They wanted us to be the same as them.

It’s a myth
That we have to be.

For Charlotte on her 21st birthday.


10 July 2017

Our Neighbourhood

I have spent the last few weeks wondering why the hell there is so much traffic on Church Street, but, preoccupied with other even more useless and mindless things, the thoughts have slipped into the back of my mind, along with a multitude of other things (which are actually more important - like old age and the hope that it's just an illusion; and the pain of other families at the loss of loved ones).

And then, watching the thousandth (or so it seemed) car pass me by when I was trying to cross the road to safety and pavement, I was struck by what for me was an irrational thought - what if planning was better than chaos?

So, as an ex-Parish councillor, I started to dig into what was happening with the Neighbourhood Plan. Because I realised, very late, apparently, that a decent Neighbourhood Plan is actually the best way to stop the government steamrollering villages into accepting unrealistic development without parallel infrastructure development, that it's a way of stopping developers from taking advantage of villages for profit alone, that it's the only way of ensuring villages grow organically by forcing developers and landowners of actually paying their statutory dues when they want to build houses on their land.

You may remember my very vocal opposition to the Grove Farm development, the one that some young parish councillors supported because it had a significant proportion of affordable housing on it. The affordable housing's all gone (which is not a surprise to me, as you know), because developers changed their minds after approval was given. Very frustrating, and, unfortunately, very predictable.

So I came across the agenda for the Parish Council meeting of 10th July, and all its associated papers. It turns out that the Neighbourhood Planning Committee (which was supposedly a sub-committee of the Parish Council) had no terms of reference at all, and was, effectively, being run as a renegade committee, something I was never made aware of in my brief six months as a parish councillor (enough time to get sufficient material for a long novel). I suppose I shouldn't be surprised by the non-disclosure nor by the lack of terms of reference. Feudal barons (or those aspiring to that status) have a way of hiding things from plebs like me (they probably vote Brexit, too, and curse my European flag every time they pass my house).

The thing is, some decent terms of reference have now been drawn up by the council (which seems, at last, to be free of dead and corrupt wood), terms of reference due to be voted on this evening (10th July 2017). Instinct tells me that there may be some bullies appearing from the woodwork to try to intimidate sitting parish councillors to vote against these terms of reference, that the feudal barons and their tenants may make an attempt to stop the modernisation of this parish. Try to be there and to silence this over-powerful minority which has been trying to make this parish their fiefdom for many years, using Masonry (not the brick type) and illegal intimidation. I will try to be there myself, although my writer's vanity (and ignorance) means that I'm on the radio tomorrow, promoting my latest song and novel.

It has become apparent to me, whilst watching the traffic pass my front door and trying to escape death from speeding locals (and non-locals) that the only way to ensure viable development of this village (and thanks to my very good friend Alan for opening my eyes to this) is to have a Neighbourhood Plan which forces developers and government to fund the infrastructure needed to cope with any further development.

We can't get any bigger without corresponding roads and schools and doctors' surgeries (paying fair rents - but that's another story) and water run-offs, and land-owners (direct or family-related) paying their dues.

See you later.

7 June 2017

#GE2017 - You have a choice

Tomorrow, on 8th June, you have a choice, a stark choice, which will determine not only your immediate future, but the future of your children, and your children's children.

You can either choose to make dystopian fiction real by voting for a Conservative government which aims to align the UK with the right-wing fantasy that Donald Trump is making real in the US, or you can choose to bring in a Labour government which will focus on the protection of human rights and equality.

You can either choose to make the UK insular and irrelevant in world politics, or you can choose to make the UK a country where you can still stand up for what you believe in, where political disagreement and discourse does not turn you into an enemy of the people.

You can either choose a government which blindly believes that a withdrawal from the EU means withdrawing from the single market and shutting down freedom of movement, or you can choose a government which will allow you to lobby it on preserving membership of the single market and of the freedom of movement.

You can either choose to continue the very real starvation of millions of people in this country, or you can choose a government which will make food banks a thing of the past.

You can either choose to be selfish, or you can choose to think of people other than yourself.

The choice is yours.

Choose wisely.


24 April 2017

This Time

With all the different lives you lead
It’s so difficult to get hold of you.

That’s what parents do, I suppose;
Chase youth until they run out of breath

And grow old.

Keeping track of the words I’ve put together
For you is almost impossible. They’re littered
Across two handfuls or more of machines
And scattered pieces of paper and billions
Of cells in this unordered mind of mine.

What we pass on to our children is the best of us.

Parents wind back time until they’re children
Again, and undivide from what created them.

You are not the child you were,
Because you’re a child no more.

I love the way you are becoming original.

The order of things changes. I read
What you write and I learn new things there.
It was the other way around, once.
I’m glad it no longer is because
I was never any good at teaching.

Time is just an artificial measurement of the vanishing of the sun.

Think of happiness in the darkest of times
And know it will return in your life-time.

Grab each moment you can
And make it your own.

R, 29th March 2017, 22:25

For Kara's 18th birthday

17 March 2017

Immortality (inspired by Derek Walcott)

I am thankful that words are immortal,
That we leave something behind when we go,
Some things our people can touch and read and understand.

I am thankful for the too many words I sometimes write,
Ignoring and forgetting the rules they tell us good writing needs,
When emotion and honesty are what makes the writing good.

And perhaps it’s writing that makes us good, that mends our souls
To keep us together in our hardest hours, to pull us away from evil,
And perhaps it’s writing that mends the grief of those we leave behind.

R, 17/03/2017, 17:27

11 March 2017

Birthday Song (a late posting)

We went to a gig on your birthday’s eve,
You and I, just another dad and daughter,
And you with a shirt in your jacket pocket
To give to your favourite singer,
A blonde androgynous boy you’ve met twice,
With the voice of an angel,
Walking into crowds like onto water.

Me upstairs, because we booked the tickets too late,
And you down there in the mosh pit,
Touching his hand, pulling his tie,
He suddenly famous,
You still in the crowd,
And his hug a memory that makes you feel old.

We have to leave early
Because the private trains have stopped
Delivering public benefit, and have to sprint
To catch that last train to the sticks
We foolishly live in.

So now it’s almost midnight,
And your mouth is full of water,
And your pocket still full of shirt,
And your heart full of that joy
We grab from our idols,
And your head full of music
And friends,
And words you want to shout out loud.

So you chose to sit near some men you didn’t know,
Strangers full of drink and song,
And they start to sing and no-one sings with them
On the full train, and you start that banter
That comes to you more easily than you admit,
And you tell them it’s your birthday in fifteen minutes,
And their leader walks the carriage to tell them to sing
For you.

You’re not afraid any more, girl,
Not of others,
Just still of yourself.

And on the stroke of midnight,
Rolling into Chelmsford, he stands up
And conducts a choir of strangers
A band of kind drunkards, for once,
And your best birthday present is made.

I wish you gentle men like those who sang,
I wish you gentle people like those who wished you well,
I wish you many happy memories like the one you made then.
I wish you glory that’s not reflected
Unless it’s yours in other people’s eyes.
I wish you everything this memory is, forever.

For Alex

R, 25/02/2017, 02:24

4 March 2017

Brecht and Diderot and the internet

Dear Ren,

Sorry not to have written back sooner. Ever since I got back from the US, I seem to have been doing nothing but day job work, volunteer commitments, and sleeping (and that mainly on trains).

Some words from long ago.
I haven't seen Set Fire to the Stars, though I went through a phase (in 1999-2000 to be precise) where I was totally and utterly obsessed with him and his words and his life. We were on holiday in Wales in the summer of 1999, and went to his house, and I spent hours gazing in through the window of the shed in which he used to write. There were reams and reams of paper in there with him testing thousands of words to see if one of them actually would fit into a poem. I started doing the same, and my notebooks of the time (which I have just got up from the desk to check) are full of similar notations, full of poems with long, rolling sentences, images ripped from some place in my head that I'm not sure I want to go back to. I ended up in hospital with what I thought were heart attacks during that phase. It turns out they were panic attacks brought on by God knows what (stress brought on by thinking too much, I should imagine, seeing as my osteopath asked me why I hadn't seen him about these episodes because "your shoulders are as stiff as concrete, and that's where all this has come from"). Despite still loving some of his poems (the simpler ones, mainly, like the one I quoted), I am nowadays still not sure whether Thomas was a genius or a charlatan, if the real reason for him drinking so much was to get away from what he had turned himself into, to get away from the part he was playing. But then we're all playacting, aren't we?

I had to google immersive theatre to be absolutely sure what it was. I'd initially thought it was just getting so absorbed in the piece you're watching that you feel like you're a part of it. The full definition is that the audience actually is a part of it. I know next to nothing about theatre except for my usual visceral response to any piece of art. Because I like simple things and emotions. What I do know is that I went to a Jacobean theatre in London a while back to watch a play, and there were a couple of actors in the audience playing the audience (in all senses, ie being the audience but part of the play, as well as involving the out-of-costume audience which had paid to watch). All very enjoyable, but all a bit strange, for me, brought up as I have been on Brechtian alienation where the whole pint of involving the audience is to remind them that what they're seeing is a play, to stop them from suspending disbelief, for them to engage their critical faculties and say to themselves "this is a play, but it's a play with a message." Nothing fake about that.

The whole landscape of news has changed in the last fifteen years (I sound like a grumpy old man now), and I must admit that I often agree with people when they say that mankind has not become more evil but just that we're so much more aware of it because the news is global and because it's available 24/7. Does this apply to fake news, too? Has that always been around? Propaganda certainly has, though I suppose there used to be places where you could hide from that propaganda. Now, with social media, and the internet, ubiquitous, there's a much bigger audience to be misled, a captive audience that wants to be told what it wants to hear. Mankind is kept alive by bestial acts is what Brecht said. And, in Going Underground, The Jam sang The public gets what the public wants, but I don't get what this society wants. I suppose that just about sums it all up.

Living on the internet is like living in a big city. It mostly isolates rather than socialises. That's why you're always right when you withdraw yourself from it. I haven't perfected that art yet, partly because I need it for my day job (and there it has done wonders for what factual information I can gather, for how far I can reach to gather that information, and to reach out to people in need on behalf of my masters. By the way, a wise old friend of mine (now sadly dead) quite rightly pointed out that it was pornography which drove the whole speeding up of the internet - to transmit photos and films of people doing unspeakable (and maybe speakable) things to each other needed higher bandwidth, better technology. And pornography, with its ultimate aim of generating revenue, drove all those developments, because money breeds money. And that's probably pornography in itself.

Never rip up any paper you've started writing on. It would actually have been easier for you to press Delete and start again, but I wouldn't have wanted you to start again, because since when are letters supposed to be endlessly optimistic and forward-looking. We don't know we have a navel unless we gaze at it, or touch it with our hands. Same thing. We need to reflect, we need to allow ourselves our sadnesses as well as our happinesses, and we need to share them with each other (and not just you and me).

I get what you say about schooling, and, unlike you, I've never had the patience to teach children properly. What I argue with, in my situation, though, is the lack of guidance given to my children. What is the point of teaching children there are hoops to be jumped through (over here they call them assessment objectives), to tell children you don't think they're meeting those assessment objectives, and then not to go on and explain to those children how they can work towards meeting those objectives? That is the point. And, at the risk of sounding again like a grumpy old man, why not teach children the tools with which they can achieve (ie how to acquire knowledge and how to use it) rather than spoonfeeding them what they need to pass an exam? It makes no sense to me. And especially in the arts where the teaching I've experienced here in the last ten years is so prescriptive that it eliminates any talent anyone might have. And with that dies curiosity.

I love the name of your restaurant.

Speaking of Diderot, as you were, you must read To the Hermitage by Malcolm Bradbury. It's all about Diderot and Catherine of Russia, and St. Petersburg, which is on my bucket list of places to visit.

Do poets mean anything by what they say, except to create extraordinary images of ordinary things? If stars can be ordinary, that is.

Dead Men bound by Ren.
What do I question? The colour of the sky, the colour of the grass, my existence, why success seems to come to those who are mean, not those who are kind, why I chose to write, why I choose to write and not just to put it all to one side and say that's it, that's enough, that's that done with, now focus on life. When I last ran, on 16th February, I tried to conjure, out of the countryside around me, out of the hedgerows on the side of the road, that blonde girl who jumped out at me in 2008 and told me to write her story (Dead Men), so that I could write some more. And, miraculously, she did, and I now have it all in my head. I just need to create the time to write it all down, to make sense of it all, of a life that's just in a book, but is real nevertheless.

Much love to you and E.


17 February 2017

Trying (too hard) to grow old disgracefully

Dear Ren,

Two weeks ago, my alarm went after I'd got three hours of sleep after getting into JFK at 23:00 EST, getting a ride back to where I was staying, and settling in my room with a couple of bottles of Guinness and an easy route to the back door to indulge my need for nicotine as well. I set my alarm for 5:30 EST because my first meeting was before 8, and my body needs time to wake up.

Silver birches in Connecticut, the night I arrive
Thanks for your healing thoughts for my back which gave me no particular trouble while I was out there. It's just very odd to have been back for 10 days and still to be feeling totally and utterly exhausted. Even two 3-mile runs at 11 minutes a mile don't seem to have shaken off the cobwebs. But maybe there's more to it than that anyway. Suffice to say that this is the longest M and I have been apart since I went on book tour to the US in 2012, and before that when I went to the Antarctic in January 2008.

The more than just that I'm referring to is this - time is passing so very very quickly, and yet to me it feels like this winter is dragging on forever, that the dark nights are getting no lighter, that the days aren't getting any longer, that the optimistic taste of spring isn't in the air yet, that the world instead is holding its breath for something bad yet to happen this season. I hope I'm wrong, but meltdowns are happening everywhere. And in the US I somehow felt even more keenly this clash, this conflict between absolute wealth and absolute poverty sitting there side by side, just waiting for something incendiary to happen. And then the whole world will be blown sky high. I hope I'm wrong, and we'll all find some better way of creating equality and peace than violent conflict. Because any such conflict creates martyrs on either side, and that just perpetuates everything. Montagues and Capulets all over again, and on and on.

Anyway, I didn't set out to be maudlin in this second letter bashed out straight to screen without my brain and hand having time to think and stop. I wanted to say I'm sorry it's taken me so long to write back (the backlog of work was huge when I got back, plus the symptoms above). I'm lucky to have been able to travel, when so many others have not, for want of funds, for want of understanding nations, etc etc. You see, there I go again. This has been a long winter of the soul - been going on since 24th June for those of us who don't want Brexit to happen, I guess.

What I was going to say is that I'm convinced you'll age much more gracefully than me - and I'm almost seven years ahead of you on that road, so I must be the expert. Much more graceful in thought and looks than me. I am that Dylan Thomas poem to the extreme

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at the close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Or maybe I try too hard to be. I always think being disgracefully old rather than gracefully old, like you will be, would suit me much better. I do remember my father being thrown out of some government employment offices when he was trying to sort something out for my younger sister; he told me he'd sworn at the person the other side of the counter (something like "why don't you move your arse and do something about it"). He was over 80 at the time. Even if he made it up, the story still makes me smile - and I can't imagine him making it up; he was too German and upstanding for that.
Last Friday I did something almost the same - K is having an issue at her school because I think the teachers don't understand how to deal with a 17-year-old female creative who has ideas beyond the norm, and who (like me) doesn't understand the need to go into school if there aren't any lessons (I have blogged about this) . After having phoned to request a meeting on that day and not having had a call back, I just drove to the school and demanded to see her. Two flunkeys now less, at separate times, suggested I might just like to give them my phone number and arrange a meeting for the week after half-term (ie the week starting on 20th Feb). I just said no and told them I'd wait, no matter how long it took. It didn't take very long after that for me to get my wish. By the way, do people with ear-rings sitting in a school reception playing chess on their mobile phones always get weird looks? But, actually, before you go praising that courage of mine again (which I don't think I possess in the slightest), I feel like Walter Mitty 90% of the time.
There are stories in the aches and the sagging flesh. Oh, so true, and wise. You see, I am the one raging against the sagging of the aching flesh, because I've always wanted perfection. Is that because society conditioned me, because my father conditioned me (not sure he did, actually)? I don't know. But I do know you're right, and that I should learn to read those stories in my body and others, that I should accept that I am on the gentle downward curve, and that my body has already lasted longer than most cars, all computers, and some of my peers. But while accepting that I shouldn't make it worse by just letting myself go. When I was running yesterday, coughing my guts up, and cursing myself for being an unfit reprobate, that other inner voice of mine reminded me of the 14-year-old boy with the 40-inch waist just moved back to England, fat and immobile of body and mind. And the voice told me if a reprobate can still run a mile in 11 minutes, he can't be that bad.
I liked your recollection of the 60-year-old lover. Shouldn't we all bring all of ourselves to bed, each and every time? ... I left a pause there while writing, because I wanted the silence to be the sound of my question. Perhaps I am just too idealistic, unreasonably so, with expectations way too high, of myself, and those in the past, and the only one in the present and future. I note I ask more questions in my letters to you than answer any of your questions. I'm sorry. And I, too, look at men and women whom I find aesthetically pleasing. They decorate my world.
As is my wont, I often print out these letters of yours - I must actually print them all out and put them in a box for when the Internet is a thing of the past; and I'm sitting here at my desk reading the last page, and loving the weight you put on each word, just the right weight to make your wisdom not something heavy to bear, but something that brings a smile to my face, and a nod to my neck when I find myself agreeing because it's so true. Yes, we will regroup. Yes, the rain will eventually stop. Yes, the pain will go away (and that is how I deal with pain by looking forward to a time when it won't be there, but that's not easy all the time). Yes, loving is enough. Yes, caring is enough. Putting in all the effort is enough, because the fruits of our labours will look after themselves. And in that way, we change the world.
Much love to you and yours, across the North Sea,

14 February 2017

Valentine's Day

1990 was our first Valentine's Day.
No mobile phones.
No internet we knew of.
No fake news we knew of.
Just the reality of being in love.

2017 is our 28th Valentine's Day.
Mobile phones.
Fake news.
The joy and sadness of children.
And love still real.

For M

R 14/02/2017

29 January 2017

Time is pressing

Dear Ren,

Time is pressing, which is why, for the first time since we've been writing these letters, I'm scrawling mine directly onto my blog (can you scrawl with a keyboard?) rather than hand writing it first. For some reason, I'm more aware than ever that I don't know how much time is left to me, and that I need to really make the most of what's left, even if it is all those years till I'm 125 years old, which is the age I tell everyone that I'm going to live to.

This has been a really difficult week, one which has seen me pulled this way and that by all sorts of events and emotions, a week where I would willingly have given up my day job, would willingly have given up writing, would have given up my life, just to fix the broken soul one of my children is at the moment. And it doesn't matter that with the right advice and support she'll be able to lead a full and fruitful life. It's just so unfair that someone who has so much to give should spend any time locked in the dark well that depression is. Ironically enough, I was on the radio talking about mental health the day before C told me on the phone she was struggling more than ever before. I have told her that if what it takes to get her through university is to come home every fortnight, then that's what we'll do. This is what parents do, isn't it? It's not all about letting your children out into the wild and not welcoming them back again. I know my parents always gave me sanctuary, always, right up until the day Mum had to move into a residential home because her dementia was just getting too much. Part of me wishes we hadn't had to sell that house in Doncaster, but it went to some good people with an organic family, which was great.

Anyway, to add to the ruggedness of the week just gone, the day job is just manically busy, and depressing in that charities are having to pick up the slack left by governments cutting more and more funding out of their health and welfare budgets in order to appear tough, or in order to pay for the mistakes their kind have made not just over the last few years, but over many generations. And on the altruism front, I even had to send an email to the main teacher of one of my other daughters telling her that "I cannot and I will not stop my children from being altruistic." I mean, if we can't help other people anymore, then what is the point? Life can seem pointless enough without people being criticised for helping friends, without people, especially young people, being told to be selfish, that the self is all that matters. It makes me so damn angry. Maybe that's why I've never become successful in the terms of wealth and status, the fact that I'm not as selfish as bankers and politicians are.

The straw that breaks the camel's back, literally almost, is that I've managed to injure my back - again; this has been going on since I damaged it playing hockey when I was 17. I've still managed to fence, and stack wood, and go for a fast walk, and cut back the big bushes by the back door, but I can't run, and it makes me feel so old that I creak and groan every time I try to do something other than be the lazy man I am at heart. I keep shouting at myself on the inside to get a move on, to go do things, to get all those tasks done that need doing before I can even think of sitting down to finish Ice Child and do some other writing. Stupid. I need a body transplant. If I got a nice 25-year-old body with a six-pack, M might actually be delighted (however much she denies she would).

Anyway, so much for the week that was.

I am guessing, and I haven't reread Kleist's piece, that he meant that marionettes are totally unaware, just like you hit the nail on the head when you say that we we're looking at ourselves objectively when we catch a glimpse of ourselves, and don't initially realise we're looking at ourselves. And that (and the way you say you've been reacting to selfies lately) brings me back to the Invisible Woman Syndrome we first spoke about when we met in London about four years ago, that women get to a stage where they think they shouldn't be seen, when they think they shouldn't wear clothes that will draw attention to them, when they think they're too old to be beautiful or sexy or interesting. And that's sad.

I guess what I'm saying is that acceptance and forgiveness is all well and good, but that no woman ever should feel she has to give herself up, that she has to agree with the patriarchy that says she's too old to be sexy and happy and lively. That's what the patriarchy wants - women to be subservient, women to be too afraid to be in control of their own bodies. M says she can't bear to look in the mirror because she all she sees is an old hag, and I know that she's suffering from that syndrome, that she, too, has been brought up in a world where beauty is always in the eye of the white male beholder. I always say imperfection is perfection. And yes, here's that ambivalence of mine you mention - if I say she's sexy and beautiful (especially in those cheap horn-rimmed reading glasses she made herself buy so she could read in indifferent light), am I not just being the patriarchy myself, am I not just objectifying her the way I say women shouldn't be objectified? Should I not tell her how I see her? Should I not tell her that I could just stare at her body all day? It's a dilemma. Because that would mean throwing all the love poetry out, too.

Ah, men as the prize, the thing of value and beauty. The thing is, though, that men, in the main, have a much easier time of it as they age. We become even more rugged and handsome, we mature like fine wines, we become role models for good living, however badly we've lived, however craggy our faces become, however flabby our bodies become. Except some of us who dream of being heroes even into our old age, even those of us who think the alpha males are the ones who win every time, even those of us who think we were at the back of the queue when it came to courage and good looks.

Oh, and 21st March is the official start of spring. At least it always was when I was young. I suppose the meteorologists have changed that to 1st March for the sake of dividing the year neatly into four quarters rather than abiding by nature.

This is turning into far too long a letter, but I have to say what's in my head. The current political situation is really putting me off writing prose. How can I continue to write a book that makes no reference to what's going on with Trump and brexit? It's feels like I'm writing into a vacuum, unless I write poetry, and protest poetry at that. Maybe I should learn to compartmentalise more, in all aspects of my life.

Although there won't be a handwritten version of this letter, I am going to print it off and put it in an envelope to you, because I don't want the cycle of you receiving hardcopies of these letters in an envelope with a seal to be broken. And I found some old notepaper of my father's a few weeks ago and scanned the seal and the motto.

I can hear the rain in the darkness outside, and feel time pressing on my shoulders. Time to go.
Much love to you and E.

24 January 2017

An open letter to Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party

Dear Jeremy,

I voted for you twice, once in 2015 before the wounds of the referendum were ripped into this nation's sides, and once afterwards, when I still had hope that you would be the leader I had hoped for, and lead an effective opposition which would ignore populism and do what's best for the country not what people think is best for the country.

In the last few days, we have heard so much about 'alternative facts' because the new US president's press spokesman had his lies coined as alternative facts by one of Mr Trump's other acolytes. And I am afraid that your, and your MPs', and the government's statements that 'leaving the EU is the will of the people' is yet another alternative fact, or, in plain language, it is a lie. Only 37% of the nation voted for leaving the EU. Large swathes of what should be the electorate of this country were disenfranchised. The referendum was only advisory in nature, as the briefing document to MPs before the vote to approve the referendum clearly shows.

When I heard the first Labour MP on Question Time declare that she would vote for triggering Article 50, and that so would many other Labour MPs, I was appalled by the blatant abdication of responsibility from a member of the Opposition. So appalled, in fact, that I resigned my membership of the Labour Party that very evening. Not just appalled that the Opposition wasn't opposing, but sick to my stomach that the Labour Party would betray its grassroots and the country to such an incredible extent. And now that the Supreme Court has ruled that Article 50 cannot be triggered without an act of Parliament, you continue to say that Labour MPs will vote to trigger Article 50. This is a misguided path to choose.

Why do you support the result of an advisory referendum that does not change the laws of this country? Why do you degrade the role of MPs from that of being educated arbiters of what is best for the country to that of sock puppets who will drift whichever way the populism wind is currently blowing? Leaving the EU will manifestly be bad for this country. The fact that the economy has not yet imploded is not due to any Brexit Bounce; it's due to the fact that Brexit has not yet happened.

By making your MPs vote for triggering Article 50, you are heaping more misery on the patients of the NHS, more misery on those austerity-hit citizens whom you wish to vote for you at the next election. You are, in fact, betraying the very principles upon which you claim to act in your political career, for is not the basis of socialism, and therefore of the Labour Party, to work towards the greater good, to be of benefit for the whole community?

My heart, nor my head, can believe that I am writing these lines disavowing someone I believed to be different to 'normal' politicians, disavowing a party I have held close to my heart for a very long time. However, I know that I can act in no other way, because to leave Europe means to leave many securities behind, both economically and psychologically, and to risk, once again, out-and-out war on this continent, something the EU was formed to avoid in the first place. We cannot reform the EU, nor avoid war, if we are not a part of it.

Again, I would urge you with all my heart to persuade your MPs to vote against the triggering of Article 50. Any other course of action would merely, once again, confirm the view that politicians are merely opportunists rather than people working ceaselessly, and without selfish thought, for the good of the country, and for a better future for all.

Yours sincerely,


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.