richard pierce

richard pierce

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.