From a distance

Little glimpses — scenes of gold,

a village life, I’m nine years bold,

enjoying winter’s frozen things,

bursts of nesting birds in spring,

 emerald leaves are clothing trees,

 the lazy buzz of bumble bees,

horse chestnut flakes aretumbling down,

 I’m crunching through them on the ground.

The innocence of not knowing much,

about failure, fear, lost love’s cold touch,

 judging, shame, feeling less than,

 uncertain how to be a man.

I miss a world where seasons mattered,

poetry rhymed, typewriters clattered,

the freshness of young dreams still mattered.

That Lady

On July18, 1817 two hundred and two years ago, a family in Winchester England, attended a funeral to grieve the loss of their daughter and sister, a 41-year old spinster. The cause of her death is still unknown. 

Her father had been a priest who retired early. The deceased lived in a small English village and chose to share a bedroom with her only sister until her death.

This appears to be the story of a short, unremarkable life. Yet years later, so many people sought out her simple grave that a verger of Winchester Cathedral asked if there was ‘anything particular about that lady?’ 

In an era when few women wrote books, that lady had published five novels, under two pseudonyms, ‘by a lady,’ or, ‘by Miss Burney.’ 

If the author had married, no doubt she would have had less time to leave such a daunting literary legacy. Her views on marriage are stated in one of her books: “There is not one in a hundred of either sex who is not taken in when they marry.” Was that insight her reason for staying single or was a life dedicated to writing more attractive?

When recently visiting her house, I took a pic of ‘that lady,’ Jane Austen’s writing desk. From this tiny launch pad she sat by the window and wrote stories that still entertain the world two hundred years later.

In Jane’s house, which is preserved as a museum in the village of Chawton, Hampshire, a quill pen is provided for visitors to try. On average, I got about two words per dip. Her meagre tools of ink, quill pen, desk, and paper make her writing accomplishments truly remarkable. In her book ‘Persuasion.’  Jane wrote, “It isn’t what we say or think that defines us, but what we do.” I must remember this when I sit at my laptop, with a world of information at my fingertips and feel that writing is difficult. 

            Regarding reading, Jane wrote…“But for my own part, if a book is well written, I always find it too short.” 

            So let’s not delay folks, and get writing that ‘well written’ book. 

Unlike Jane’s short life and Spartan equipment, many, if not most of us are past 41 and own writing machines with a capability unparalleled in history.

(written for the North Short Writers Association Newsletter)

The Newfield Road Riders

The first time I saw them, the clattering speed reeled me in like a greyhound to an electric rabbit. I had to do it. The riders started on the steep section of Church Road, then after thirty yards, screeched hard left onto the main two-hundred-yard run down Newfield Road. It was fun to watch but I was thirsting to try it myself. Nige was my classmate and lived close to the run.

“Can you show me how to make a board like yours, Nige?”

“Yeah, it’s easy. You find a bit of wood like mine. Cut it this long with your dad’s saw. Then you get a roller skate, bash the top flat with your dad’s hammer and nail the board on top of the skate half way along.

On the way home from school, I found a six-inch wide piece of fence plank, went into the garage and got to work cutting it to length. It wasn’t as easy as Nige said. We were both eleven years old. I think his big brother, Ian, had made his board while Nige watched.

My board was ready. The plank was not quite straight on the skate and a little loose. Never mind. It would do.

Next day after school, I retrieved my new board from Nige’s back yard and we walked to the top of the run. I sat on my converted fence plank with my knees bent in front of me, my hands gripping the thin wood and pushed off. I had three tries at the left-hand corner and crashed off the sidewalk onto the road, cutting my knee and spraining my wrist.

“You gotta lean over,” said Nige. I leaned over so only two of the metal wheels were on the paving stones but still crashed.

“You gotta press down on the front of the board when you get to the corner so the back can skid round.” It worked. I screeched around the corner at speed and launched onto the rest of the run.

The board accelerated quickly. Riding was different than watching. I gritted my teeth and hung on for dear life as the board reached maximum velocity.

Like a car rattling over train tracks, my board careened over the paving stones, my fingers white and aching anchored me to the board, two inches above the ground. The vibration tingled upward like electricity, blurring my vision, and making it hard to keep on course.

The clatter of the small metal wheels careening over the paving stones was amplified by the solid row of brick houses either side of the street and echoed like the staccato chatter of machine gun fire. A man walking his dog toward me became alarmed by the horrendous racket and the small-bodied projectile hurtling toward him and hastily stepped out of the way.

As the street began to flatten out, the ride slowed and finally eased to a halt. I started to breathe again.

After completing the ride, you sat drained, but satisfied, and watched other riders make their descent. To make more noise, we tried three of us on the run at once but it detracted from the beauty of the sole rider swooping down alone.

The best to watch was Big Beechy: Michael Beech was only thirteen but almost six feet tall and quite rotund. Everything about him was big except for his school hat, which didn’t come in large sizes. He had a Saint Bernard dog, which followed him everywhere.

Beechy sometimes had problems with the left turn, but once around the corner, he was exciting to watch: His larger size and the grey flapping raincoat overlapped the board obscuring his means of locomotion. He hurtled down the paving stones at above average speed, one hand alternating between clutching his bobbling hat and gripping the board. The large Saint Bernard followed in hot pursuit, barking voraciously the whole length of the ride, splattering faint spider-web trails of slobber in his wake and leaving a lingering aroma of big dog.It livened up an otherwise dull street.

The resilient residents of Newfield Road never complained. Perhaps it reminded them of when they were eleven years old having fun.

Later, in the sixties, rebellious youth in spiffy Lycra-cling-clothing, riding glossy, store-bought fiberglass boards garnished with grip tape, alloy trucks, and polyurethane wheels, claimed California as the home of the skateboard. But us Newfield Road Riders, we knew differently.

Remembering Zalpon – 1960

Remembering Zalpon – 1960

Our new school, Tideway, was located high on the Sussex Downs in the south of England. It was still under construction when we were moved from our old school, which was targeted for closure.

There was some benefit to the unfinished school: Piles of neatly stacked bricks destined for future construction provided a refuge we could hide behind to smoke Woodbines and play three-card brag. A downside to the new facility was that for Physical Education, we often spent the hour picking up flints from the newly-levelled soccer pitch so that footballers of the future wouldn’t cut their knees if they fell.

Sometimes, instead of flint clearing, we went cross-country running. For a lazy thirteen-year-old, neither was appealing. On the runs, Eddie and I would hide in the bushes, have a smoke and join the runners as got close to the end of the run.

The boys’ washroom facilities were larger than the old school’s and had five toilet cubicles, instead of two. After a run across the muddy fields, creative Alan Funnell, Fuzz to his friends, took advantage of the increased access by sticking his soiled foot and shoe into the toilet bowl and pulling the chain several times to flush off the clinging mud. The practice became so popular that you had to wait in line for a cubicle after the cross-country run. The sodden feet left multiple wet trails leading out of the washroom.

There were five sinks across from the toilet cubicles. A week after we arrived, liquid soap dispensers were installed above the sinks. Each dispenser had the word Zalpon emblazoned across the front in black letters.

Some fifty years after this event, I wondered if Zalpon still existed and looked it up on Wikipedia: Soft Care Zalpon is a pearlised handwashing product with bacteriostatic properties, made in Nigeria. 

Thanks partly to an African country, our new school washroom was a bastion of increased cleanliness possibilities—not only did we have a larger capacity to flush off muddy running shoes, but there were five stations to ensure bacteriostatic hands. Zalpon was ejected onto the hand by pulling a stainless steel lever directly beneath the dispenser. We found if the hand was wet, a violent pull on the lever would ricochet a blob of Zalpon off the hand and across the room. If the hand was angled towards the door, with some practice, you could hit unsuspecting classmates dropping in for a piddle.

Zalpon’s description as being pearlised sounds elegant but just meant it was sticky—sticky enough that you could carry two or three shots in your hand without it dripping off. It was also colourless, meaning you could wipe it on someone’s chair without it being noticed, at least in the beginning. About two weeks after the Zalpon installation, students inspected all seating surfaces before sitting down.

One day Eddie Hubbard and I got to school early, an unusual event, but one we decided to use creatively. We were often urged by our teachers to “apply yourselves.” We realised there was one surface that the bacteriostatic soap had not been applied to, the metal push panels on the doors. Old style doorknobs were no longer used in our new school. All doors were opened by metal push panels.

We filled two paper cups to the brim with Zalpon and smeared liberal portions on every door panel we could find. Much of the school population would soon have bacteria-free hands, sticky bacteria-free hands. We sat on the stairs and watched the results of our labours as people walked through the doors: The girls squealed loud “Oohs,” as their clean feminine hands came into contact with unidentified slime. The boys swore, “What the….?” and then laughed as they got it. The teachers said nothing but pursed their lips and looked angry. We saw Mr. Higgs sniff the substance on his hand then covertly wipe it off in his pocket.

The best was yet to come: In the once-a-week school assembly, where all the students piled into the gym, our deed got an honourable mention, an anonymous honourable mention — the best kind. We used to sing a hymn in assembly, followed by vice principal, Sid Ray, announcing upcoming events, and then, last but best ­— news of student misdeeds. They’d recently dropped the hymns. Too bad, I liked singing, especially “Morning has broken.” It got your lungs working and opened up your heart to the day.

I didn’t like Sid Ray. He was a short, bald, ex-navy disciplinarian, maths teacher who had once slapped me in the face for ‘looking arrogant.’ I enjoyed seeing Sid on the stage feeling uncomfortable in front of everyone. We knew, and he knew, he was powerless to find out whodunnit.  His brisk, military-style voice barked down to the one hundred and thirty-two upturned student faces. “Some person, or persons unknown, thinks it’s funny to smear liquid soap all over the door panels.” Hearing explicit details of our deeds officially announced in Sid’s sonorous tones made it even funnier. Eddie and I convulsed silently, our stomachs heaving, our lips pursed, hoping we didn’t look any different from our comrades; we didn’t, they were also trying to contain their mirth.

“This sort of… of behaviour, this very stupid behaviour will stop, immediately.” He leaned forward and yelled. “And whomever is responsible will be punished.” Ha, you wish Sid! You haven’t a hope in hell of finding out. Students one, Sid zero.

Then, one day when I was sixteen, one ordinary windy day with white clouds billowing across the sky in June, at quarter-to-four, I walked through the schoolyard gates for the last time. Washroom pranks, Zalpon soap, smoking behind the bricks, and eluding teacher surveillance were over for ever.

I had learned random facts about the world: red blood cells carried oxygen, Ghana exported bauxite, and mercury wouldn’t freeze. But facts aren’t wisdom. The most valuable knowledge had been acquired outside the shiny new classrooms. The rough and tumble of teenage years taught me to value the warmth of friendship and the healing salve of humour, that I should question everything, and to stand up for myself if attacked — life-rings for the choppy waters ahead.

My school days are long passed; dear Eddie left us at age 18. But even as an elder, I still have fond memories of school friends and the giddy laughter of youth as healing balm on my journey towards becoming a person.

In Search of the Right Words, Again.

Retreat by the Sea Fall 2015

Even though I am older now and more cynical, I can still be beguiled: The words, retreat by the sea, conjured up something. I would go out of curiosity. If it was crap, I could stare out of the window at the ocean, like I used to at school.

Oh god, there are only six of us. I thought there would be more and someone is late. Someone is always late. At least there is another guy in the room. We all sit around a table, like family—a family of strangers at the table of knowledge. Let the lessons begin.

I like groups. Not only can you learn from the instructor but if the mix is right, you learn from each other.

The first exercise is challenging, fun, and interesting, writing a poem with a partner—alternating one word each. I am surprised and elated with the result. Maybe I’ve made the right choice. Rod, don’t be stingy, you have made the right choice.

We write and share, learning from each other, guided by Kathrin. I came to learn. I am learning. I am happy.

I can’t pin down Kathrin down. She doesn’t fit slots I know. She understands things about writing and shares them eloquently. Tells us something and backs it up with examples. She is gregarious and distant, knowledgeable—vulnerable, informs and receives, part actor—part instructor, cautious and plunging. Who is she? It doesn’t matter. I am learning about writing.

The sight of the rolling sea and swish of the waves falling softly upon the beach charm us to write better. I am in the company of writers. It is ok to risk, to write and to read. Kathrin says it is so and so it is.

We sit outside for lunch and are surprised to sea a humpback whale swimming by, 40 yards off the beach. The giant tale rises majestically out of the water several times on its leisurely way past, punctuated by loud puffs of air. We gasp.

“Look, look, it’s so close.”

The course is becoming magic.

“Each chapter should have a purpose, a climax, build and end in a new place.”

“All writing can be tested for flow by reading it out loud.”

“’Write as though it were happening in the present as much as possible.”

Reading these things is okay-good; but when discussed with new writer friends, teased along by the lively Kathrin, they stick in my brain.

I got what I came for, in the retreat by the sea.

In Search of the Right Words—1


                                The Beauty of Truth, Revisited.

Mr. Pearson, our math teacher, always wore a green tweed suit and a red tie. If I concentrate, I can still hear his Yorkshire brogue, “The beauty of math is truth.” I didn’t like Mr. Pearson. He was an OCD nit-picker. I didn’t like math either and, as a lazy 15-year-old, wasn’t much sold on the value of truth.

After explaining a concept to us, he would set us to work announcing, “While you are working on this, I don’t even want to hear a pin drop.” One day, as his words still echoed, a dropped pin rang loud and clear on the parquet floor. A tormented grunt flew out of a Mr. Pearson. His face flushed crimson and he propelled himself rapidly up and down the aisles between us, looking for the errant pin so he could pounce on the perpetrator. Eddie Hubbard swiveled his foot two inches to cover the pin. In the whole year, it was the best thing ever to happen in that math class.

If Mr. Pearson had been aiming for truth, he was using the wrong discipline. It’s English not Math that contains the beauty of truth Mr. Pearson. Numbers do not appeal to the emotions, but truthful words inspire, capture a clarity, reconnect us to the threads of life.

Half a century later, the truth became more valuable. I am writing—re-writing, winnowing through the written words — sifting, separating, sorting, sweating a change — cutting, cussing, and burnishing. I delete, quit, drink tea, start afresh, and if lucky, distil some paragraphs, which finally ring with the clear bell of truth. Once found it’s unmistakable, like the singular din of a pin falling on a hardwood floor in a silent room.


Everything Nothing Something

The First Chapter of Constant Traveller R801168

We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect. – Anais Nin

The twelfth of June, 2012, was my last day ever, in the work for wage economy. I had reached the age of retirement.

Since 2002, I had worked for mental health non-profit organisations. The clients were resilient, brave people, and it had been an honour to know and work with them.
Mental health is not a well-supported cause like breast cancer or AIDS, which meant as Executive Director, I spent a numbing amount of time writing funding proposals. I wrote them through the day between phone calls and meetings; then I’d wake in a panic at three AM, and work on them again because they weren’t finished and were due that day. I felt like a giant fountain pen, gushing forth proposals.

After saying goodbye to clients and colleagues, I sat alone in the quietness of my office. It was over. I had unhooked myself from pulling the heavy cart of other people’s causes. The phone stopped ringing. The barking dogs of work fell silent, leaving just the faint whisper of my breath rising and falling in the background. Work had been a long journey. I cast my mind back to my first job. I had hoped it would be more fulfilling than school, but it wasn’t, it couldn’t be. I wanted adventure, love, and meaning to my life. I needed to break out of the small box I lived in and experience the big world outside. So at sixteen, I escaped the drab dullness of post-war, class-structured England. I exchanged my family and the solid brick bungalow we lived in, for a life at sea — a watery, wanderlust world of changing latitudes, longitudes, shipmates, climates, and cultures.

I became a constant traveller: I rode out storms that tossed large ships around like twigs, ran for my life through a Senegalese village, kissed a man in Australia, got mugged in Tahiti, and almost killed the third mate in Sweden. How clearly the memories came flooding back.

I stood up, walked out of my office, and locked the door behind me for the last time. I went from being in charge of everything to private citizen Baker, in charge of nothing.

Nothing? Maybe I would turn nothing into something. I would write. Instead of proposals, I would write about my adventures at sea and through life.