Joker

Image: Bristol Street Art from BBC

 

A couple of years ago, someone laughed at me for saying I was worried about Boris Johnson. He’s finished, they said, just a big joke. I thought they were being naive. There is nothing funny about Boris Johnson. He is deadly serious – a scheming individual with no moral compass or integrity. He has long hankered for the top spot and plotted his way there with cunning.

Boris Johnson has no ideas, or beliefs, or plans for the future, or for the benefit of the UK. He will say or do whatever he thinks is necessary to gain power. Obvious comparisons have been drawn with President Trump – the wild, straw-like mop of hair, the offensive language used in the name of ‘speaking one’s mind’, the populist rhetoric. The similarity is a big concern – both men are divisive politicians. I have long felt sympathy for my friends in the US, suffering from the embarrassment and hatred caused by their leader.

Unfortunately, it looks more and more certain Boris Johnson will achieve his ambition and become our Prime Minister. And that is not amusing at all.

Growing

There is something special about growing your own food. Gently planting a seed in rich, damp compost, waiting patiently for signs of green shoots pushing up through dark earth, planting out seedlings in neat rows of raked soil, watching the plants grow tall and vigorous, picking fresh vegetables for the evening meal, from garden to pot in minutes, is a kind of magic.

Sometimes, there are frustrations. Seeds rot in the ground, slugs feast on tender blooms, caterpillars attack glossy leaves, backs twinge, muscles ache, nails break and hands become dirt-ingrained, but it is satisfying work, good for body and mind. The clean air breathed in under wide skies, the smell of warm earth, the feel of fingers dug deep in crumbly dirt, the calming buzz of insects and soulful song of birds, the sense of well-being and pride growing brings. It is a connection with the land, a sustaining of life, something fundamental, something ancient.

Many of us have lost that connection, the opportunity to support ourselves, even in a small way, with home-grown food. If there were more gardens and growing spaces in our cities, towns and communities, we would be healthier and happier. Our diets are better, our appreciation of food far greater, when we grow it ourselves. Growing vegetables means being outside, exercising our bodies and working with purpose. The effort is rewarded with vegetables that taste wonderful, like nothing we can buy in supermarkets. Serving up Sunday lunch with three types of vegetables from your own garden is a feeling that is hard to beat.

A Martian Sends A Postcard Home

For World Poetry Day, I thought it would be fun to share a poem I enjoyed as a child and had not thought about in many years.

 

A Martian Sends A Postcard Home by Craig Raine

Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings
and some are treasured for their markings —

they cause the eyes to melt
or the body to shriek without pain.

I have never seen one fly, but
sometimes they perch on the hand.

Mist is when the sky is tired of flight
and rests its soft machine on ground:

then the world is dim and bookish
like engravings under tissue paper.

Rain is when the earth is television.
It has the property of making colours darker.

Model T is a room with the lock inside —
a key is turned to free the world

for movement, so quick there is a film
to watch for anything missed.

But time is tied to the wrist
or kept in a box, ticking with impatience.

In homes, a haunted apparatus sleeps,
that snores when you pick it up.

If the ghost cries, they carry it
to their lips and soothe it to sleep

with sounds. And yet they wake it up
deliberately, by tickling with a finger.

Only the young are allowed to suffer
openly. Adults go to a punishment room

with water but nothing to eat.
They lock the door and suffer the noises

alone. No one is exempt
and everyone’s pain has a different smell.

At night when all the colours die,
they hide in pairs

and read about themselves —
in colour, with their eyelids shut.

Goodbye old friend

Goodbye old friend and thank you for the loyalty and love. Even at the end, your wagging tail brought relief as your eyes closed for the last time. Happy to please; you never complained, never made a fuss. Settled for a stick thrown, a quick cuddle, an opportunistic walk. Accepted your lot, put up with our human chaos. There is an empty space where you used to sleep. There is an empty space in our hearts. We are grateful for the sixteen years you gave us. For the fun, the energy, the purpose you brought us.

Rest in peace, Samwise.

Blocked

An enormous tree, branches gnarled and clawed, lies in the road like a fallen dragon. I stop the car; my journey in this direction is at an end. Uncertain what to do, where to go next, I sit admiring the felled beast. It is a handsome giant; an old ash, probably wracked with dieback, unable to withstand the power of the morning’s stormy winds. A few minutes earlier and perhaps it would have come crashing down on the top of the car, crushing me under metal and glass. I breathe a sigh of relief at my lucky escape. How many near misses do we experience in our lives? I am reminded of how fragile and precious life is. We don’t know how much time we have so we should make the most of every moment.

The tree in the road reflects my current mind state. I am blocked; unable to decide in which direction to go. Should I continue with the new job I’ve started, it’s worthwhile working with vulnerable adults but limited in scope, or pursue the teaching career I worked hard to qualify for, and am good at, but left behind long ago to home educate? Should I give up work altogether to focus on my writing and creativity (currently struggling under the weight of fresh responsibility and doubt)? Or is there some way to manage all the options? I’ve said we should make the most of every moment, but at what cost? I want to enjoy stillness too; quiet periods in the place I’m in, room to breathe, space to appreciate beautiful things.

An impatient blast of a horn jolts me from my reverie. In the rear-view mirror, a cross-faced man directs me to move my car out his way so he can reverse and turn around. My journey must carry on. I have to decide which road to take. Where will I go?

Remember your inner child

I wanted to share part of a letter from the poet Ted Hughes (August 17, 1930–October 28, 1998) to his 24-year-old son, Nicholas.  This letter speaks to my heart. It is a long extract but worth reading. The final lines are a lesson for us all and a statement to live by.

 

“Nicholas, don’t you know about people this first and most crucial fact: every single one is, and is painfully every moment aware of it, still a child…It’s something people don’t discuss, because it’s something most people are aware of only as a general crisis of sense of inadequacy, or helpless dependence, or pointless loneliness, or a sense of not having a strong enough ego to meet and master inner storms that come from an unexpected angle. But not many people realise that it is, in fact, the suffering of the child inside them. Everybody tries to protect this vulnerable two three four five six seven eight year old inside, and to acquire skills and aptitudes for dealing with the situations that threaten to overwhelm it. So everybody develops a whole armour of secondary self, the artificially constructed being that deals with the outer world, and the crush of circumstances. And when we meet people this is what we usually meet. And if this is the only part of them we meet we’re likely to get a rough time, and to end up making ‘no contact’. But when you develop a strong divining sense for the child behind that armour, and you make your dealings and negotiations only with that child, you find that everybody becomes, in a way, like your own child. It’s an intangible thing. But they too sense when that is what you are appealing to, and they respond with an impulse of real life, you get a little flash of the essential person, which is the child. Usually, that child is a wretchedly isolated undeveloped little being. It’s been protected by the efficient armour, it’s never participated in life, it’s never been exposed to living and to managing the person’s affairs, it’s never been given responsibility for taking the brunt. And it’s never properly lived. That’s how it is in almost everybody. And that little creature is sitting there, behind the armour, peering through the slits. And in its own self, it is still unprotected, incapable, inexperienced. Every single person is vulnerable to unexpected defeat in this inmost emotional self. At every moment, behind the most efficient seeming adult exterior, the whole world of the person’s childhood is being carefully held like a glass of water bulging above the brim. And in fact, that child is the only real thing in them. It’s their humanity, their real individuality, the one that can’t understand why it was born and that knows it will have to die, in no matter how crowded a place, quite on its own. That’s the carrier of all the living qualities. It’s the centre of all the possible magic and revelation. What doesn’t come out of that creature isn’t worth having, or it’s worth having only as a tool — for that creature to use and turn to account and make meaningful. So there it is. And the sense of itself, in that little being, at its core, is what it always was. But since that artificial secondary self took over the control of life around the age of eight, and relegated the real, vulnerable, supersensitive, suffering self back into its nursery, it has lacked training, this inner prisoner. And so, wherever life takes it by surprise, and suddenly the artificial self of adaptations proves inadequate, and fails to ward off the invasion of raw experience, that inner self is thrown into the front line — unprepared, with all its childhood terrors round its ears. And yet that’s the moment it wants. That’s where it comes alive — even if only to be overwhelmed and bewildered and hurt. And that’s where it calls up its own resources — not artificial aids, picked up outside, but real inner resources, real biological ability to cope, and to turn to account, and to enjoy. That’s the paradox: the only time most people feel alive is when they’re suffering, when something overwhelms their ordinary, careful armour, and the naked child is flung out onto the world. That’s why the things that are worst to undergo are best to remember. But when that child gets buried away under their adaptive and protective shells—he becomes one of the walking dead, a monster. So when you realise you’ve gone a few weeks and haven’t felt that awful struggle of your childish self — struggling to lift itself out of its inadequacy and incompetence — you’ll know you’ve gone some weeks without meeting new challenge, and without growing, and that you’ve gone some weeks towards losing touch with yourself. The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.”

A walk in Seville

I walk under an azure sky in sandy, crumbling heat. A round, fierce sun beats on my neck; burns like standing too close to fiery flames. The light is bright; clear, bold, everything sharply defined. Colours shine; shades of gold, red, orange and blue. Tiled surfaces glint in jewelled patterns; mirrors reflecting. Smells of garlic and frying fish, of dry, dusty earth, of sour, cloying drains catch in my nostrils. Here, no fresh, cooling rain washes away dirt and odours.

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Everything is alive, vibrant, noisy. Musical chatter of Latin voices lisps and slides through the air. Cars beep and roar, mopeds hum and mew. In market displays, baskets of cherries, peaches and pineapples topple and overflow; a painter’s palette. Sweet, ripe smells mix with metallic rust of bloody sheep heads, eyes glazed and sightless. A string of rabbits hangs, sad and lifeless. Here, life and death coincide.

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In the gardens, spiky palms, aloe, and agapanthus stand in symmetrical rows. Orange trees drop plump fruits. Strange, enormous trees offer shade; pods drooping like alien lifeforms. Above my head, emerald parakeets squawk and argue. Eurasian swifts dance and sweep through towers and turrets. Here, I am many miles from the soft, green of Welsh countryside.

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Exotic buildings hide in narrow, shadowy streets; graffiti artists have been busy sprawling works of art. Faiths and cultures intermingle – Moorish, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Spanish. Melding together to create awe-inspiring architecture. Domes, carvings, arches, bright ceramics and rounded terracotta roofs rise into fresh blue. Here, I am a wanderer in a different land.

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The robots are coming

My son played me a video of the latest robot technology. It showed a strange creature, something reminiscent of the monstrous hound from Fahrenheit 451, walking, running and jumping. The engineers pushed the robot to make it overbalance, then right itself.  Suddenly, it appeared vulnerable. I found the image disturbing, even saddening.

The next day, I heard experts in a discussion on the radio suggest we will need to ensure robots can feel pain so that they react accordingly to get themselves out of difficult situations. With advances in artificial intelligence, robots will think and feel emotions just like us. This brings up ethical and moral questions. We will build these machines to do the unpleasant and dangerous tasks that humans would rather not do. We will subject them to terror, anguish and suffering. Considering the human capacity for cruelty and thoughtlessness towards animals and those who have less power or status, the future for robots seems pretty bleak to me.

Added to this, is the fact that robots are predicted to take over more and more of the jobs people currently do. Our world will be run by a robot workforce. To some, these scientific advances seem exciting and necessary. I simply feel concern. What are humans going to do with themselves when there is no work to be done? We are all ready becoming a civilisation of social media recluses; hiding behind our screens. Obesity and illness due to inactivity are growing issues. There is disconnection with the natural world and being out of doors which many believe is linked to mental health problems.

I am grateful for new technologies allowing me to surf the internet, discover knowledge at my fingertips and share this blog with the world. I am grateful for electric lights, central heating and a washing machine which make my life easier. I am grateful for medical procedures and antibiotics that keep me alive. I am grateful for cars and planes that carry me to far-flung places in the shortest of times. However, I am aware, as much as these advances have given us wonderful benefits, there are costs to the environment and our health.

We humans are always striving for more and better. We get carried away thinking about how we can improve our lives. The grass is always greener, if only we had this or that, life would be perfect. Our large brains look for solutions that give us more time on our hands; yet with less to do, we seem constantly busy, rushing from one pointless activity to the next, often not looking up from our phones. Fuelled by advertising and the media we fill our lives with stuff, but more technology makes our lives empty and we get further away from our natural selves.

I wonder if continuing to make advances just because we can is always a good idea. Maybe we don’t need a legion of robots to work for us. Maybe we need to scale back: keep only what we need; return to a simpler life, with some hard work involved, much of it outside under the sky. It might even save us.

The robots are coming

My son played me a video of the latest robot technology. It showed a strange creature, something reminiscent of the monstrous hound from Fahrenheit 451, walking, running and jumping. The engineers pushed the robot to make it overbalance, then right itself.  Suddenly, it appeared vulnerable. I found the image disturbing, even saddening.

The next day, I heard experts in a discussion on the radio suggest we will need to ensure robots can feel pain so that they react accordingly to get themselves out of difficult situations. With advances in artificial intelligence, robots will think and feel emotions just like us. This brings up ethical and moral questions. We will build these machines to do the unpleasant and dangerous tasks that humans would rather not do. We will subject them to terror, anguish and suffering. Considering the human capacity for cruelty and thoughtlessness towards animals and those who have less power or status, the future for robots seems pretty bleak to me.

Added to this, is the fact that robots are predicted to take over more and more of the jobs people currently do. Our world will be run by a robot workforce. To some, these scientific advances seem exciting and necessary. I simply feel concern. What are humans going to do with themselves when there is no work to be done? We are all ready becoming a civilisation of social media recluses; hiding behind our screens. Obesity and illness due to inactivity are growing issues. There is disconnection with the natural world and being out of doors which many believe is linked to mental health problems.

I am grateful for new technologies allowing me to surf the internet, discover knowledge at my fingertips and share this blog with the world. I am grateful for electric lights, central heating and a washing machine which make my life easier. I am grateful for medical procedures and antibiotics that keep me alive. I am grateful for cars and planes that carry me to far-flung places in the shortest of times. However, I am aware, as much as these advances have given us wonderful benefits, there are costs to the environment and our health.

We humans are always striving for more and better. We get carried away thinking about how we can improve our lives. The grass is always greener, if only we had this or that, life would be perfect. Our large brains look for solutions that give us more time on our hands; yet with less to do, we seem constantly busy, rushing from one pointless activity to the next, often not looking up from our phones. Fuelled by advertising and the media we fill our lives with stuff, but more technology makes our lives empty and we get further away from our natural selves.

I wonder if continuing to make advances just because we can is always a good idea. Maybe we don’t need a legion of robots to work for us. Maybe we need to scale back: keep only what we need; return to a simpler life, with some hard work involved, much of it outside under the sky. It might even save us.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Sitting in the grey and slate reception of a plain, somewhat dowdy, office building in lovely, ugly Swansea, I wonder what it would be like to be a receptionist. I have no idea what the role actually entails. I assume one would have to welcome people, organize appointments, do administration of some kind, talk on the telephone, tap on a keyboard, look at stuff on a computer screen, be smart and smiley.  This one is friendly and helpful. She has made me a cup of tea while I wait for my interview, which is running half an hour late.

It’s a worrying problem deciding what you want to be when you grow up. I envy people who are driven. As a child, I sometimes pretended to be working in an office. At the dining room table, I would sit, toy phone, typewriter, notepad and pen by my side: “Mr. So and So will see you now.” My father, on being told I was clever at school, said to me, “You can be whatever you want. You can be a secretary!” I had bigger ambitions. Enjoying telling stories, I dreamt of being a writer and journalist. Travelling the world, I would search out and share exciting tales.

My second ambition was to become a vet. I adored the James Herriot stories. Once qualified, I would publish hilarious tales about my antics. This, however, did not come to pass. On a work experience, aged fourteen, at a local veterinarian practice, my mind was changed by the old, head vet who told me of his experiments on calves as a student; transplanting their livers into their necks. Despite his assurances that it was pioneering work, allowing successful organ transplants in humans today, I was horrified. I wanted to be a vet to help, not harm, animals. That same vet had me wash his car too!

As for journalism, I went off that idea when I got bored in typing classes: the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. How could I be a successful writer if I couldn’t touch type? Instead, I became a teacher, sharing my love of books and writing with others. In fact, that is why I’m waiting in this reception today. I have an interview to join a teaching agency. After fourteen years of home educating my children, I’m going back to the world of paid work. It’s a scary thought, especially as I’m still not sure what I want to do with my life, despite supposedly being a grown up!

The scribbling has always gone on though. I’ve continued to create stories and scenarios in my head. If I get some teaching work with this agency, I fully intend to keep writing and working on poems, short stories and my novel. One letter tapped on the keyboard at a time.

I’m getting braver about sharing my work, so I mustn’t stop now.