Wednesday, September 29, 2010

It's So Clear I Can Barely Stifle A Yawn

Now that Ed Milliband has won the rather tedious Labour leadership campaign and given his inaugural speech to the party, I predict that "Red Ed" is a name you're going to hear a lot in the next few months from alcoholic hacks writing simple-minded prose for redtop newspapers owned by multi-billionaire Tory puppetmasters. But as Milliband himself said, perhaps in vain, a "grown-up debate" would be preferable. He isn't a Red, if that attempted insult even has any meaning anymore outside of newspaper offices and building sites. He's a left-leaning liberal. Although why Reds should be unacceptable in politics when Blues, who represent the opposite, and equally extremist, end of the ideological divide are welcomed in and given a comfortable chair and biscuits, is quite beyond me.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Disturbing Thought

I've already learned something about myself in the week I've been at University: my brain doesn't work in the way I thought it did. I read "Wuthering Heights" last month, knowing it was one of the first books we would have to study, and coming back this week to think about it a little more, with a view to being the generally acknowledged superstar of the seminar, I realised I could remember hardly anything specific about the book. So I started reading it again. And saw in it loads of incidents and details I had forgotten. Including really significant ones like Catherine's appearance as a ghost calling at the window during a snowstorm early on in the story.

I have gone through life presuming I was some sort of undiscovered genius; but these days I'm beginning to wonder if I might not be a bit of a moron. At the very least my brain needs rigorous training if it has a snowball's chance in Tripoli of ever genuinely understanding anything. How can you write if you can't read? What do I really know about how anybody constructs a novel or a poem if I skim over everything I read like I've been fired from a catapult over a giant sheet of ice?

It seems University came just in time.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Day One, Freshers' Week

Today was my first day proper at the Uni. Two hours of presentations and discussion, first with the Dean (who looks a little like Nick Clegg), and secondly with my course leader Phillippa Bennett, who I like already because not only did she approve my application in the first place, she also remembered my name when I met her again today.

Everybody around me seems very young. But to them I undoubtedly look very old. We will get used to each other. I have associated with people much younger than me for a long time now, in the care job, and in many ways I even enjoy it. The only time I think it's significantly better to keep company with somebody your own age is in a relationship. You need to be with someone who understands why you groan when you pick money up off the floor.

I am a little concerned that I haven't got a timetable yet -- that the Uni intranet system shows me as not being enrolled for any courses -- but I'm sure that's a kink that will work itself out this week. After all, I have a certificate of enrolment, and a student card. I'm hardly an interloper now. I just need to make sure everything gets sorted out administratively so that I can release my student loan and tuition fees.

Yes, I know I'm a worrier. But I live pretty close to the wind these days. I have done ever since I gave up that vile job at the care home. I think that's why I've started writing again.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

University Challenge

I enrolled at University for my English degree today. Being the natural pessimist I am, I thought something would go wrong right up until the last minute. But it didn't. And now here I am facing three years of study and a thirty thousand pound debt at the end of it. I couldn't be happier.

There is a conflict here, for a writer who has spent his writing life on the fringes of the small press (I was never fully accepted by the small or the large press, for whatever reason). The small press tends to think of itself as more dynamic than the "Academies". The universities are supposed to produce anaemic poetry by hopelessly unworldly, unhip writers published only because of their contacts and their credentials.

Well, in my experience it's not that different in the small press. Good poetry is good poetry wherever it comes from. And Charles Bukowski's theory that your writing is somehow improved by working dead-end gigs for no money, by living in fleabag rooms and walking in the rain with holes in your shoes, has failed utterly for me. Looking at the websites and the print mags of new poetry I'd say it has failed for most of the other poets too. 

I want a little comfort now. I want conversation with people who've read Pound and Dante as well as Kerouac and Buk. I'll probably end up being a stranger in both worlds, but that won't be an unfamiliar experience either, for a man who has drifted through his whole life like a ghost.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Deserving Poor

This is an extract from a longer piece, including comments from other authors, which originally appeared on Facebook.

America's idea of welfare is everybody else's idea of throwing the poor to the wolves and letting them feast. But it's all a matter of perspective, I suppose. Do you know what percentage of the population over there is on benefits? And how much that number rose as the recession -- which I think most people agree was caused by rich folk at the high end of unrestrained free market capitalism -- bit deep? Who are these people deliberately getting knocked up so they can get more benefits? Do you know them personally? And if you do have they told you that's why little Bobby or Alice came along? Could it have anything to do with poor education? Low self-esteem caused by the demoralisation of living on the dole, with nothing to do all day, nowhere to go, no money in the kitty and knowing every time you turn on the radio or tv or read the letters page in the paper or listen to the policians talking at election time that your kind of people will be the ones who get blasted and nobody, but nobody, else in the country will give a shit about you? It can't be nice to be the one free target for everybody else's hatred in a population as large as America's, which itself is based on a myth of self-reliant bullshit perpetuated by Republican hatemongers like Duke Wayne. Poverty and unemployment are the result of the capitalist system we all think so glorious not being properly administrated and regulated, I reckon, and America is the prime example of how that: look at the obscene amounts of wealth a small percentage of the population have, while most have very little. But those rich sleazebags are admired, set up as paragons of virtue, while they lay off thousands of workers and feed themselves fat bonuses. Which seems a little bit like a dog running to fetch a stick and returning it obsequiously to the master who has used it to provide the poor canine with a beating.

I have been in the unemployment offices very recently. Yesterday was my last visit, actually. I know these people. I know the look in their eyes and the discomfort in their bodies as they sit waiting for their turn at the desk. Ninety nine per cent of them don't want to be there. Ninety nine per cent feel mortified by the prospect of having to ask somebody else for their food money. The occasional one who thinks it's a great idea, if he (or she exists), is a casualty of the system even in his distorted thinking, in my opinion. You must have a very hermetic, paranoid, pessimistic view of the world if you want nothing except a few extra dollars in your hand, and the contumely of the whole world on your head. And a few extra dollars is all you get. Or a few extra pounds, in this country, and until the Tories start to dismantle it the Welfare system in the UK is statistically much more generous than it is in America.

Society has to look after its casualties, I think, and I don't mind at all if that makes me read like an unreconstructed socialist from the valley of the dinosaurs. I believe the average worker in capitalist and communist societies is fucked too. A few people may abuse the welfare system, but so be it; it's a price worth paying to ensure that the rest, who are claiming benefits through no fault of their own, are looked after. That they have food and water and a roof over their head in a house they can afford to heat. We are human beings before we're capitalists, aren't we? If we're going to tell ourselves that our neighbour's problem is not our problem - our wide screen tv is working fine thanks, and the car in the garage roars like a tiger -- if we're going to let ourselves believe that the poor are poor because they don't work as hard as we do and they're probably morally defective too --we might as well dump all of our Christ and Buddha statues in the garbage and leap straight back to the workhouses.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Coalition, A Hidden Agenda? Is the Pope A Catholic?

Why, I wonder, after watching an extended News at Ten report last night, is the visit of the Pope a State Visit and therefore, I presume, the financial responsibility of the taxpayer? The Dalai Lama wasn't accorded such an honour. And aren't the Coalition telling us that the public purse is in such a dire condition even the armed forces, the fire service and the N.H.S. will have to share some of the pain when it comes to budget cuts?

You wouldn't, of course, expect logic from a government that pours millions into a foreign occupation that serves no discernible purpose and a nuclear deterrent in Trident which was constructed for an enemy who is no longer there. But the cuts threatened in public services are really ideologically driven anyway. The Government doesn't want to own anything that could be flogged off to business and it is using the deficit as an excuse to pare those services down to a minimum. It might even be hoping for a confrontation with the unions so that they can be broken prior to a final fire sale.

Think I'm paranoid? People might have said so if I'd made similar comments before the Miners' Strike in the glory days of Thatcher. We'll see what happens once the Pope has gone home and the true face of modern, stage-managed, airbrushed, spun to the nth degree Conservatism (propped up as it is by hopelessly naive and morally compromised liberalism) begins to reveal itself.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Bloody Chamber: Comments I Probably Won't Submit At Uni

Reading Angela Carter's "Bloody Chamber" for my Uni course today, I remembered those immortal, acid lines from Charles Bukowski: " 'Well, shit,' someone said/ And that's what it was."

The introduction to the book says that many students find it shocking. I don't know what that says about me. I think it's a sterile, middle class bore from page 1.

"Let's re-present fairy tales in new and sensuous and surprising ways."
Actually, Angela, let's not.

The arts editor of Cosmopolitan must have loved this book when it first came out, all those years ago.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Dream Record 11/ 9 / 10

Okay, here we go. I was at work again, and lunchtime was approaching. I thought I'd go to town for mine and escape the oppressive atmosphere of the care home. But first I needed to go to the toilet. For convenience I went into what I thought was an empty service user flat opposite the office and peed in the kitchen sink. I was just finishing and putting my cock away when a service user and two carers, both Asian, came out of his bedroom. They didn't comment on where I'd peed, but I felt I should be friendly with them just in case I had made the wrong impression. We got talking. All the while I was thinking what a nice room the service user had. The only drawback was that the ceiling was as high as a warehouse roof. I imagined lying in bed staring up at that ceiling in the dark. It would scare the crap out of me.

I agreed to show the carers the way to whatever place they wanted to take the service user, despite the fact that it would cut in on my lunch hour, and we set off out of the building. It was snowing. We went down a couple of half-familiar roads and then suddenly, perhaps disoriented by the snow, we were in the country: long, bare, bleak, white country. And I needed to have some lunch and get back within the hour!

We saw a hill. A big, steep hill with nothing visible over the top of it except the grey snowclouds. "Maybe there's something over there," one of the carers said. I scrambled to the top of it, my feet slipping in the snow, to have a look. Nothing. Just countless miles of fields rolling back to the horizon; not even any trees. And snow piled thick on the ground, and still falling.

When I slid back down the hill and told them the bad news the mood in the group became hopeless. But I was determined to find a way so that I could squeeze in some lunch and make the afternoon shift at work. "We'll try that path," I said, indicating a lane to our left that seemed to disappear into the same nothingness that was everywhere else around us. But since the group was in the profoundly liberated position of having nothing to lose, they followed me; and soon we came upon a house, and then a row of houses. It looked like the beginnings of a village, but once we were in the village we'd soon find the town.

The only way to enter the village proper was to go down into a courtyard that belonged to the first house and sneak through the building unnoticed. (The house was empty, it seemed.) One of the carers tried this before me and pulled it off without incident. Then it was my turn. I slipped as I descended the steps into the courtyard, knocking something over and making a tremendous noise. A dog started barking. It was one of those small, yippy dogs, but in the silence it was making enough of a racket to give us away. I entered the house and got through it to the village anyway. I presume the people in my travelling party did too on whatever plane of reality their story continued, but at this point I stopped being aware of them.

I arrived back at work late. Very late. The manager, Alan Hackworth, had gone home. As the skies darkened and the snow storm thickened outside, I tried to text him to apologise for my lateness. I thought I would tell I'd been mugged on my lunchbreak. It was a good story. He might ask me for the crime number the police would have given me, but he probably wouldn't ask; and if he did, I'd say I'd been at the hospital for a long time and I couldn't remember it. Maybe my head was all blurry with painkillers. I tried to write a message out for him, but I couldn't do it. My thumb didn't work properly; and even when it did work, the wrong symbol appeared on the screen of my mobile. Becoming frustrated, feeling I only had a certain amount of time to get the message to Alan for it to retain its credibility, I tried the phone of another member of staff who'd just come into the office. But I couldn't send a text on their phone either.


In another dream I was riding in a car with Bob Dylan and he was being pursued by someone he owed money. There was a high speed car chase. "What have you got me into?" I yelled at Bob as we raced through the traffic, with his apparently murderous creditor behind us. Bob tried a clever car manoeuvre. It failed and the creditor slammed into him. I jumped out of the car and ran away, scared shitless of the fight that was to come.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Dream Record 10/9/10

I'm working in a supermarket on an unemployment scheme. I'm having quite a happy time until the shop is taken over by this manager who clearly doesn't know what he's doing. Soon all the procedures that work so well have been replaced by ones that don't. Experienced shop workers try to tell him but he won't listen; and the supermarket falls into chaos. When the people from the Job Centre are visiting I go to them and ask to be transferred back to my old placement. But they tell me that the regulations make this impossible. Pissed off, I walk back out into the shop and see about twenty staff standing around disgruntled near the bread rack; and an idea comes to me. This place is in such disorder now they won't know whether I'm here or not!

I go to the toilet, and when I've done the business, I hang my bag up on a nail by the urinals -- its presence will show I must be around somewhere -- before leaving the supermarket through a side door. I walk for a while through an old, run-down estate full of narrow streets and terraced houses. At first I see a few fellow workers; but they start drifting back to the supermarket. I am alone and free. It's cold but not too cold; and there's only a light rain coming down out of the blanket of grey clouds over my head. I can quite easily do this every day for the remainder of my six months on the scheme.

I enter an open door I know and find myself in a tiny living room where John Barnes, the former England footballer, lies relaxing on the couch. I show him a football annual from the Italia 90 World Cup tournament which I realise I've been carrying; and he sits up, opens its pages eagerly, no doubt looking for pictures of himself. I enjoy his pleasure immensely, but my enjoyment doesn't last. I hear voices in the hall and from something in their tone I know that they are dole snoopers who have followed me from the supermarket. I see an open window. Since it is the only way out, I duck through it and walk along a roof to safety. See you round John Barnes.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Paranoia Explained

I get at least ten phishing emails a day. You know the ones I mean. Someone telling you that you've been awarded, mysteriously, £1,000,000 and all you have to do is send them your bank account details so the money can be forwarded to you. Or sob stories from people you don't know who are stuck in foreign countries because all of their relatives have died in a plain crash, and would I mind awfully sending them a lot of money so they can get home. There are many variations on the same theme. One repeated intruder in my inbox even disguises himself (or herself) as a representative of the Windows Hotmail Team and asks for my details so that they can be verified. So forgive me if, occasionally, I get paranoid and don't answer a message from you if I don't know you. And if you're a poet submitting material for BEATNIK (, do me a favour and send a list of the magazines you've previously been published in. You may think my suspicious nature is getting the better of me, but recently I had a submission with no details attached, and the poetry was so unaccomplished I wondered if even that might have been an attempt to scam me.

When you're a well-known presence in a small corner of the internet, as I am, you attract thieves and pickpockets like cheap perfume attracts wasps in the summertime.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Old Farts Induction Day

I went to University for something they called a day-long "Survivor's Guide"  for mature students yesterday. Which is a cute way of saying "old farts induction day" basically, although the letter they sent out prior to the event strenuously denied it was an induction day. We were on the Park Campus, which is just a short walk up the road from the care home I used to work in and the pub we used to frequent with the service users. I hadn't seen the care home since I left the company under a cloud of hot contumely. It was nice. That home I had a few nice months in, before they got rid of the one good manager they had, ripped apart the staff team and sent me to the other care home to work with my old nemesis Cruela.

But as the song says, "that's all in the past", and walking past the building on my way to the University symbolised it perfectly. The "Survivor's Guide" itself was good, although what I really want is to pitch right into the course and get started on my studies. Actually, it was a bit like a training course at the old job, except with better trainers and better facilities in an absolutely beautiful location. There were many hiccups: lots of unexpectedly locked doors, student facilitators not sure of the jobs entrusted to them, timetables for activities much too stringent to be met, but I found all that rather charming. This was the first day of the new year for everybody, after all. It was like the University hadn't completely shaken the summer out of its hair.

One wonderful moment: we had to do one of those excruciating little "ice-breaker" exercises that trainers love so much, and the task was to tell two truths and one lie; the rest of the group would then guess which statement was the lie. I said, "I'm a poet. I used to be a care worker. My girlfriend's name is Emma" One girl leaned forward quickly, sure that she had the right answer, and said, "It's either that you're a poet or that you used to be a care worker. Nobody could be both at the same time. Care work is so...unimaginative."

How is it that she knew that in two and a half seconds and it took me thirteen years to realise?