Thursday, December 20, 2018

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Suffolk Punch Person of the Year 2018

It's been hard to feel hopeful about American politics for a long time. Well, two years at least. But Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, along with a handful of others who emerged during the mid-term elections, makes hope possible again.

Who is she? I didn't have a clue until just after her Democratic primary victory in June. Then I saw this engaging young woman on Stephen Colbert's show, I think it was, who according to the interview had caused the biggest electoral upset in decades. She was 29, or actually 28 then, and she called herself a socialist.

I knew that two years of septuagenarian Republican misrule in the White House had got America in the mood for a change. I also knew that Bernie Sanders had almost won the 2016 nomination, and stirred young American voters into a genuine semi-radical fervour, while campaigning under the socialist banner. But I wasn't expecting anybody else to get away with it.

Ocasio-Cortez was the real socialist deal as well. Joe Crowley, who she challenged in the primary, spent $3.4 on his campaign. Ocasio-Cortez spent $194,000 and nearly 75% of her donations were small contributions from individual voters. Less than 1% of Crowley's were. She won.

This approach to the funding of political campaigns, of course, dramatically reduces the opportunity for corruption by denying lobby groups access to the people in power. How different would America have been, I wonder, in the last two years if the NRA hadn't given hundreds of thousands of dollars to members of the Republican Party?

I knew that if we were going to win, the way that progressives win on an unapologetic message is by expanding the electorate. That's the only way that we can win strategically. It's not by rushing to the center. It's not by trying to win spending all of our energy winning over those who have other opinions. It's by expanding the electorate, speaking to those that feel disenchanted, dejected, cynical about our politics, and letting them know that we're fighting for them - Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

In the November mid-terms Ocasio-Cortez faced Republican nominee Anthony Pappas, an economics professor at St. John's University, and won a seat in Congress with 78% of the vote. Pappas didn't vigorously contest the seat because Democrats outnumber Republicans by six to one in the district. But her win was still resounding.

Since her election Ocasio-Cortez' already-high media profile has gone stratospheric, partly because of her brave, principled, intelligent campaigning on a number of progressive issues (healthcare and the environment in particular); her visibility, for a politician still very new to the game, also trumps (if you'll pardon the word) everybody else's because of her skilled use of Twitter and Instagram. If recent Washington committees are anything to go by, Ocasio-Cortez may be one of the few people holding political office who knows what to do with a mobile phone. It's a shame she joins the President in that woefully exclusive club.

Predictably when an unapologetically clever young woman with good ideas emerges there is tremendous hostility. The conservative media and the more vituperative element of the Republican Party hate Ocasio-Cortez. They heap so much abuse on her you'd think she had declared herself a candidate for 2020. And that fear may be lurking in the back of their fetid minds: 2020 might be too early, but what about 2024? All the Democrats really need is a star to drive a truck through the discredited policies and personalities of their Republican rivals.

It comes down to misogyny, though, basically, doesn't it? Isn't that why commentators who defend a president with no rhetorical ability at all and a desperate need for a proof reader mock her intelligence? A woman isn't supposed to be as smart as she is. And if she is smart she's supposed to put her smarts in the service of maintaining the patriarchal system that views smart women with hostility and suspicion. She's meant to help prop up the unjust oppressive capitalism that still pays women less than men and doesn't want people like her in the boardroom. Which, if you think about it, wouldn't be very smart of Ocasio-Cortez at all.

Long may she put a chill up their spines, I say.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Suffolk Punch Person of the Year 2018.

Monday, December 17, 2018


Uncomfortable birthdays...Little Harrowden Primary School...the tin-legged farmer and the willy incident 

Tomorrow I will be 54 years old. Sixty in six years, if I make it that far. Fuck, where did it go? I can still remember the school playground at Little Harrowden Primary, and most of the kids running around in it. I remember how we used to be able to see the flame burning in one of the high silver towers of Corby steelworks tiny in the distance if we stood in the right place. Ten years later steel in Corby would be dead because of Margaret Thatcher's march of progress.

I remember standing with the rest of the school in the playground watching an eclipse of the sun. The admonition of the teacher that looking directly at the sun would blind us never left me; I am still, even today, awestruck by the terrible power of a star that can blind you from 93 million miles away. And when I picture that playground I still see the farmer who owned the adjoining fields, Mr. Belgrove, chasing Robert Tilley back through the gate aiming a kick of his tin leg at the boy's backside because he'd ventured into the fields, calling him a dozen names none of us had ever heard before as he tried to catch him.

And before those memorable scenes from a childhood that still seems within touching distance came the willy incident. That was in the older part of the school, near the bottom of School Lane, where there were buildings that were easily 100 years old, if not more, with girls and boys toilets of similar antiquity across a tiny playground used only, I believe, by the first years. So when the willy incident happened I was probably 5 or 6.

I had been to the toilet. When I came out I was met by three girls in my class who asked me to show them my willy. Never one to turn down a reasonable request, and as keen to make people happy then as I am now, I did as they asked and took my little pre-pubescent willy out. And wouldn't you know, all three girls ran off screaming and crying and reported me to the headmaster. I can't remember how much trouble I got in, but I probably had a serious talking-to at least.

It's so weird, with my 54th birthday coming fast over the hill, to think that that happened half a century ago. It's weird, and a little sad, although the memory is a warm and funny one. What's even weirder is that my mother died when she was 54. So I will be as old as Mum. I'm sure that happens all the time, but it shouldn't when the child is still young enough to recognise most of the current pop stars.

Friday, December 14, 2018


This week I've been learning about Blaze Foley. There's a movie about him directed by Ethan Hawke, a name I usually take to be a fair indicator of quality when it's attached to a product; it's out in America now, I think, the film, but when and if it will get to the UK I couldn't tell you. Maybe we'll see it on Netflix. They have a lot of Ethan's stuff.

But back to Blaze. I'd never heard of him until I read about the movie, and I've been listening to country music for forty years. In fact, one of the first albums I ever bought was Guy Clark's 'Old No. 1'. I also realized, early, mainly thru cover versions of his songs by other artists, that Townes Van Zandt was a genius, and a better poet than any of the boring versifiers they foisted on us at school, except maybe Shakespeare, although then I didn't realize how great Shakey was.

Townes' albums, for some reason, were hard to get in Wellingborough, where I grew up. He didn't get played much on Radio 2's Country Club programme either. It was the cooler Bob Stewart show on Radio Luxembourg that gave Townes at least one full concert that I can remember. Unfortunately the reception on those old pre-digital radios was terrible at night when you listened to faraway stations. Townes might have been singing on Mars.

I don't remember Blaze Foley ever being played on the radio stations I listened to, and he definitely didn't get onto British tv. His music, when you listen to it now, makes that seem like a grave historical injustice.

He's fucking great, don't you think? And while he was working his ass off in the US we were being forced to listen to Crystal Gayle and Billie Joe Spears. But when you read just a little about his life, his obscurity becomes less surprising.

According to Wikipedia, the masters of his first album were confiscated by the DEA. The masters of another album were stolen from a station wagon Blaze was living in. A third album was lost until years after Blaze died.

How could anybody with so much talent, you wonder, have so much bad luck? when artists with so little talent become global superstars and make vast fortunes writing terrible songs? It seems with Blaze -- and I never knew the guy so I'm drawing conclusions from what I read -- that his obscurity, while living, was partly at least the result of a chaotic lifestyle and a self-destructive streak. Bad luck has to be a factor too. Some people just don't make it.

But as Blaze (played by Ben Dickey) says in the movie, 'I don't want to be a star, I want to be a legend.'

Congratulations, man. You have people in other countries digging through your archives and telling each other stories about a crazy genius who lived in a tree house and covered himself in duct tape. I think you made it.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Poem: For Harry


The old woman who lived in the corner house
on my route to school used to frighten me.
Her legs bowed out at angles from each other
when I saw her go to get the morning paper.
The gap was big. You'd kick a football through it.
Her spine curved forwards, and her clothes hung off her;
they were dark clothes, the fabrics worn with age.
Her skin, when I dared to look, was yellow,
and stretched across her hollow cheeks like paper;
it might tear if you didn't touch it gently.
She was creepy to a young boy, spider-creepy.
Those legs, with their knees bent wide--I'd seen
old people walk, but none had walked like that.
Mum told me poverty had wrecked her bones,
but that rickets, in the Seventies, had gone for good.
I think that she was giving comfort only
to a scared, small boy. Mum voted Tory then,
but she joined the Wellingborough Communists,
and talked of class war, just a few years later.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Library Wants Me After All. Well, Sort Of.

I just got an email from Northampton Central Library inviting me to interview for a volunteer post.

I applied to be a volunteer at the Library before I saw the permanent vacancy. I then applied for that, and, as my regular reader will know, I didn't get it. The cynic in me says my offer to work for them for nothing probably didn't advance my cause terrifically well.

The email about the volunteer post says I might not get that either. I have to discuss with them my interest in the post, and they have to decide whether they can match me to a particular role.

It feels like I'm applying for the secret service. The Library is about book-lending, IT, education, and arts events primarily. I'm a published poet and erstwhile tutor and arts event curator writing my arts blog on a Lenovo laptop. How much more suitable for a job could a person be?

But it doesn't matter, because I'm not going to the volunteer interview anyway. I am too proud to run the risk of being turned down twice by the same employer. I don't want to give them my hours for free, either, when they weren't prepared to pay me.

I'll go and volunteer somewhere else while I have a little time on my hands, somewhere they won't make me jump through hoops for the privilege of doing them a favour.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Signing On

It's signing on day again. This afternoon I have to go to the Job Centre and have something called a work booklet inspected by a Job Centre employee, who sits on the other side of a desk in an open-plan office where everyone nearby can hear what you say. As usual on signing on day, I woke up this morning with a dark mood hanging over me like those personal thunder clouds in the old cartoons. I hate signing on. I don't know anyone who likes it.

I have been writing in my work booklet for the last two weeks. The first section I wrote in is called 'I will'. In that, I recorded my plan of action re: 'jobseeking' for the fourteen days between appointments. The second section is called 'What I did and what was the result'. It's like primary school all over again, except I'm no longer a child.

If the details I have entered into both sections are approved, the Job Centre employee signs their name in an indecipherable squiggle at the bottom of the page and I am awarded less money for a week than I was earning for one shift at the warehouse.

It's usually very civilised, as long as you play the game, keep your temper, don't give in to the sometimes overwhelming feelings of embarrassment and shame caused by the situation you're in. If you let it get to you, or if, as I have seen on a couple of occasions, sheer desperation drives you over the edge -- some people in there are hungry, facing homelessness, some actually are homeless -- there are always plenty of security guards on hand to bounce you out of the building.

The system protects itself. You, unless you're docile and obliging, are on your own.

But, according to a man I heard in a hospital waiting room earlier, people like me are lazy and work-shy, content to let everybody else keep the country running while we lay in bed until the afternoon and smoke and drink all day. So if we find the fortnightly signing on appointment a bit of an ordeal, we bring it on ourselves.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Is Decency Dead in Modern England?


When I got off the bus beside the BBC building this morning, the first thing I saw was a group of young people wrapped up against the cold looking up at the Christmas decorations that have been erected over Abington Street. I presume that's what they were doing. Somebody might have been gesticulating at them from an upper floor of the Beeb.

It's too early in the year for me to feel in the festive mood. I was turned down for a job at Weston Favell Library yesterday as well, and the sense of rejection I have from that still smarts a bit. Obviously a First in English Lit, ten years experience of team leading, two years experience of tutoring and my famous charm weren't what they were looking for. Or perhaps they were looking for someone not in his fifties and without epilepsy.

Homelessness is my major festive buzz kill in Northampton, though. Abington Street's vacant shop doorways, abandoned by businesses that collapsed in the safe fiscal hands of the Tories, are filling up with people who have nowhere to sleep. I counted three under blankets or inside tents and two sitting upright on the wet ground asking quietly for spare change.

Across the street from the church I saw two more homeless people. One looked delighted just to be acknowledged by a little girl who passed with her mum. He said, 'Have a nice day.'

Meanwhile hundreds of us, including me, walked by with our bags-for-life full of shopping, half-price bargains picked up in the Black Friday sales, Argos packages containing new televisions, trees for Christmas.

The disconnect between the have and the have-not is not as severe as it seems, of course. We were going to buy a tree, but neither of us is working. The money for it comes from an unexpected tax rebate, and from the need to have at least a few days of pleasure in the middle of the struggle to keep our heads above water financially. I bet a few more of those shoppers drawing discreet circles around the rough sleepers are only a paycheck away from penury themselves.

So what is going on? I've been unemployed before. It's almost inevitable when your only true commitments are to love and poetry. But I've never known a time, in nearly forty years of political awareness, when a town as small as Northampton had become so poor, when the social fabric had broken down so completely, that little girls had to learn about homelessness before they were old enough to go to school. That sort of shit was supposed to have been on the way out in the generation before mine.

The present government, it's clear, has declared war on kindness, decency, civility, morality and any notion of society that acknowledges our responsibility for one another. Why? Because all of those qualities and ideals get in the way of profit and diminish their individual power. And I'm really worried about where it's going to end up, because as bad as it has become, there's still no sign that the British people are getting the message in large enough numbers to remove the Tories from office and toss them on the political dumpster where they belong.

Which is fine, in a way. It's your democratic right to be the sort of suicidally gullible jackass who signs his own death warrant. But when you do, you take me and everybody I love down with you.

Monday, November 19, 2018

BOOKS: I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career

In amongst the other activities that have kept me from this blog for a while, I've been reading 'I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career: The Selected Correspondence of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg' (City Lights). This book was published in 2015, but I've been waiting for it to come down in price before I bought it.

I found Ginsberg's correspondence with Gary Snyder, published a few years earlier, curiously uninteresting given that I love both poets. But this book really sings. Ferlinghetti, after all, was the man whose head was on the block for putting out Howl and Other Poems. We get his first-hand account of the Howl trial in these pages, and it creates a palpable sense of how thrilling and frightening it must have been.

Unexpected, for me, was Ferlinghetti's insecurity about his own craft. I'd always taken him, no questions asked, to be a great, quirky, eccentric poet. I thought everybody felt the same. But the other writers in his orbit put him down and more than once he asks Ginsberg for reassurance about his work. Allen, in his replies, is more than a little perfunctory, and condescending too, offering suggestions for edits that actually don't improve the poems at all.

One area in which Ferlinghetti isn't insecure, however, is in his own intellectual judgement. He yields to Ginsberg's pressure about publishing Antler, but refuses to concede that Antler is the genius Allen insists he is. And about Chogyam Trungpa, who I have always considered a charlatan, Lawrence is openly scornful:

I agree with Merwin, I agree with Peter Marin, I agree with Gary, I agree with Rexroth---what are you doing defending this petty dictator, and who needs experiments in monarchy at this point in the U.S.?

(Ferlinghetti to Ginsberg, February 24th 1980).

Ginsberg resented the suggestion, made by a biographer at the time, that his poetry was better before he became involved with Chogyam Trungpa. To whatever extent it did decline, I'd say the reasons were far too complex to be laid at the shiny shoes of one alcoholic phony dharma lion in a business suit. Allen had had a history since Columbia of defending the indefensible and seeing genius in the behaviour of his friends where other people saw only selfishness, crudity and mental illness.

Friday, October 05, 2018

John Clare, Poets and the Booby Hatch

Went last night with a group of poets, a playwright and some interested onlookers to a public reading of John Clare's poetry in the dim light of the Guildhall Courtyard in Northampton. We stood or sat around the Clare statue there, the group about ten strong, and most read poems either by Clare, or work in the spirit of the so-called Peasant Poet; someone who's appearing in a play about Clare at the Abington Park Museum on Sunday recited part of that. You could tell he was accustomed to the stage: his voice projected powerfully over the noise of the traffic and the group on the steps at the other end of the courtyard loudly chattering.

I mention no names because the only person I knew there was Jimtom Keith Thomas James, Northampton's best living poet (myself not included). Jimtom, in kilt and red Cymru jacket, shuffled next to Clare's statue to read, demonstrating rightful kinship maybe, then picked a poem at random and read it beautifully. I declined when the organiser looked at me. I stopped reading in public a long time ago, and it's bad for my epilepsy if I read in poor light.

The discussion at the beginning of the reading gave a rather sentimentalised view of Clare and his mental health problems, I thought. He had seven children to support, according to the source I consulted, with little money to support them. He drank too, and seems to have had a complex relationship with the peasant life he is supposed to be the lyrical embodiment of. While stating that 'with the old dish served to my forefathers, I am content', he also dismissed his neighbours as 'insensible to everything but toiling and talking of it and that to no purpose.' That's a baseless snobbery I have been guilty of more than once in my life. Another poet with no money and no recognition (at least he'd had it once) living among the commoners.

As for Clare's illness, he was probably a little bit 'mad', as even polite people said in those days, from the very beginning. All creativity comes from a dysfunctional relationship with what is presumed to be reality. Artists in all mediums sit, think, imagine, dream, play, re-invent, while life is going on around them; they absorb the world around them through different processors. There is always a part of them not in the physical space most people occupy. Or I imagine they occupy it; I wouldn't know, being a lifelong fantasiser and not remotely connected to that mysterious multitude considered 'normal'. But what happens when dreams and fancies collide with the brute realities of the world?

Then you have confusion.

Then you have anger. Or the suffocation of anger in depression.

Then you have breakdown.

Then you have imagining you're Lord Byron and ending up in the crazy house. 

This may not be the textbook definition of the stages of mental illness, but it's been my experience more than once.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

To The Bookcave!

I was walking down Market Street in Kettering with Michelle this morning, remembering my friend Salvatore who worked in a long-gone clothes shop there in the early 80s, when I noticed a bookshop I'd never seen before. 'Bookshop!' I said to Michelle. I'd thought there were none this side of Leicester, Waterstone's branches excluded.

Bookcave Limited is situated inside a shopping district called the Yards, which looks like it would literally have housed, long ago, yards; it's an open space off Market Street with buildings on all sides. But the buildings have been redeveloped, adapted and beautifully painted, so that the space feels more like a haven than a commercial area.

The shop itself, near the entrance to the Yards, sells second-hand books, specialising in horror, science fiction and fantasy. But there are also comics (great covers from the 'Dracula' comic on the walls), graphic novels, children's books and classic literature. I bought this while I was there, as well as a great old copy of 'Gargantua and Pantagruel' to replace the one I've lost:

Michelle bought a nice edition of Hardy's shorter poems too. We thought about buying some of the fantastic, full-colour vintage horror movie pictures on sale -- they would make great presents -- but decided we'd better save some money and come back another time. And we will go back; second-hand bookshops are the only place for real booklovers to be, and they are quite a rarity these days, at least in our fair county. Use them, as the saying goes, or lose them.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Ex Libris Dan Davin

This book is a 1962 Oxford University Press edition of Dostoyevsky's letters, edited by Jessie Coulson. Michelle found it in a charity shop yesterday; it was about to be sent to Africa but the manager, knowing my predilection for old literary books, sold it to Michelle instead.

I'm glad she did. When I checked inside I found a glued-in bookplate bearing the motto 'Fortiter et Fideliter' (Bravely and Faithfully) and Ex Libris D.M. Davin. (Ex Libris meaning 'from the books of..', signifying, therefore, ownership.)

As I always do when there's a name inside a book, I did a little research online; and I'm almost certain I found this book's owner. Let me, as a fan of the Inspector Morse books and programmes, explain the reasoning behind my near-certainty before I give you the big reveal you are undoubtedly waiting for with trembling anticipation.

The book's owner had an interest in literature, whatever his or her feelings about popular fiction may have been.That's obvious. This person was a serious reader, if that word isn't too snobbish.

The book's owner had a connection to a school, college, association, press or family of some status, as the bookplate bears a coat of arms with the Latin inscription already mentioned beneath it. (I haven't located the coat of arms yet.)

The book's owner may have had a classical education. He or she at least grew up, lived or worked among educated people. I have seen older bookplates without an ex libris. I have books from 1910 and 1912 inscribed simply, and in pencil or ink.

The book's owner may have lived and worked not too far away from Northampton. Second-hand  books can travel long distances when the original owner lets them go, but a closer connection does establish probability (or at least possibility) of ownership.

None of the above, singly, or all of them together, provide cast-iron proof about who may or may not have owned a book 56 years ago, but after much googling, my belief is that the D.M. Davin who once owned the book I now own was Daniel Marcus Davin, New Zealand author, Rhodes scholar, WWII soldier and intelligence officer, fellow of Balliol College, author, literary critic and long-time employee of the Oxford University Press.

How many others are there to choose from? Well, precisely none. Google, in its infinite capacity to seek out obscure, lost and forgotten information from the dim recesses of the past, could produce only one D.M. Davin for me. And he met, and exceeded, all of the criteria I outline above.

There may be another Dan Davin out there, or a Dawn Davin, but if this beautiful OUP edition of Dostoyevsky's letters wasn't this man's, I'm a Nobel Laureate.

Davin's career as a novelist, according to different internet sources, began promisingly with 'For the Rest of Our Lives' in 1947, but failed to flower into something enduring and substantial. I don't know; I've never read the books, though I might, now a little piece of his life has come into my possession.

As a man, and an intellectual, Davin squandered his talent and his creative energy, so these sources say, on critical writing and his tendency to give too much of himself away to younger writers while holding court in his favourite Oxford pubs. especially the Gardeners Arms. The picture of Davin shows him outside the Gardeners. Am I alone in thinking he looks a little merry?

Not remembered in England, still 'cherished' in New Zealand.

Camerado, this is no book.
Who touches this touches a man.

(Walt Whitman 'Leaves of Grass')

Monday, September 24, 2018

Mac Flecknoe: My First Encounter with Poetry

Michelle noticed John Dryden carved in stone on the front of Northampton Public Library a few days ago. Neither of us had ever noticed it before, but it turns out that Dryden was born in our fair county, in the miniscule village of Aldwincle. As far as I'm aware he's the only Northamptonshire poet to become Poet Laureate, not that that is an accolade most of us would seek.

Reading Dryden's history I remembered how I first came across him. It was in my English A Level class at Tresham College in Kettering. The year would have been 1981 or '82. Dryden's 'Absalom and Achitophel' was one of the set texts. I have learned, subsequently, that the poem is considered very important; I, however, couldn't follow it, and consequently I was tremendously bored by it.

'Mac Flecknoe', though, worked instantly for me, partly because it was easier to understand, but also because it was so joyously malicious:

All human things are subject to decay,
And, when Fate summons, monarchs must obey:
This Flecknoe found, who, like Augustus, young
Was call'd to empire, and had govern'd long:
In prose and verse, was own'd, without dispute
Through all the realms of Non-sense, absolute.

These are the six lines that open the poem, which is a sustained
satirical attack on the poet Thomas Shadwell, whose name, at least
in the text we studied, was rendered 'Sh----'. Mr. Hassett, our
teacher,who knew how to pique the interest of teenagers,
encouraged us to believe that this was what a commentator I read 
years later called a 'faecal innuendo'. It might have been, but since
'shit' and 'Shadwell' are syllabically different, I doubt it.

Still, we loved to believe it then. Mr Hassett wanted us believe it, 
and he laughed along with us. He treated the rest of the poem, with 
its savage wit and scatological detail, as a celebration of something 
delightfully illicit too, like smoking your first joint with a grownup;
and by doing so, he made the poem seem so much more immediate,
so much more interesting, so much less of an irrelevant old
museum piece, than it might have been in someone else's hands.

I began to pay attention to poetry because of that encounter with 
'Mac Flecknoe'. It primed me for my great awakening only a year 
later when I bought a Bob Dylan album and heard 'Kaddish' for the 
first time. After that, as I've written before, my world was
completely changed. But even today I love the satirical poets of the
Restoration and the Augustan period. I haven't gone back to Dryden
yet, but I might one day; I have 25 unread books on the floor by my
sofa, so I'd better get through those first.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

My Latest First Anniversary

The other day it occurred to me, with a smirk of satisfaction, that I haven't had a seizure for a year. Of course, these anniversaries are meaningless in a way. I could have one ten, twenty, thirty seconds from now and be right back where I started. I have gone for longer than a year without seizures too. Once I lasted eighteen months and thought I had beaten the condition, to whatever extent a permanent condition can be beaten. But last year, in the space of a few months, I had three very bad seizures; once I might even have died had my partner not been with me when it happened. So I will allow myself a small moment of celebration.

I have not gone without my brushes with the condition this year. I've had multiple warnings -- auditory and visual hallucinations that can precede a seizure. They often came when I was over-tired, or when I watched television in the dark, or looked at a computer screen for too long without a break. They came when I was feeling under pressure too. Only yesterday, on the bus going to a meeting I didn't want to attend, the warning happened, and as usual I thought a seizure might be seconds away. Fortunately, it wasn't; I just had to sit through the meeting with a headache and the nausea that warnings -- one might call them false warnings -- leave you with.

Today, on my latest first anniversary, I am feeling good, if a little tired after waking up early and getting no fresh air since. Will I go another day without having a seizure? Will I go another month? Another year? I don't expect anything from my condition except surprises, so we'll see what happens. As Raymond Carver once (beautifully) wrote, as part of a longer poem:

After that it was all gravy, every minute
of it, up to and including when he was told about,
well, some things that were breaking down and
building up inside his head. “Don’t weep for me,”
he said to his friends. “I’m a lucky man.
I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone
expected. Pure Gravy. And don’t forget it.”

'Gravy' by Raymond Carver

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Casting Out the Devil: Living with the Stigma of Epilepsy

Recently I lost my job. I'd been working at House of Fraser's Wellingborough warehouse for four years. Last year we began hearing whispers about its financial problems. Then DHL lost the contract to deliver the service for House of Fraser; it was won by XPO, who, we all presumed, had promised to deliver the same service for less money. But whatever was happening in the offices over our heads didn't work. House of Fraser went into administration and was bought by Mike Ashley, owner of Sports Direct, where the abuse of workers was so infamous Ashley was called to explain himself in Parliament. (As far as I'm aware, not much changed.) Ashley, as the new boss at House of Fraser, immediately fell into a dispute with XPO, who wanted some assurance that he would make good on the millions of pounds they'd invested in automation to make the service more 'efficient'. He said he would pay them nothing; he was under no legal obligation to pay, so he wouldn't. It was war. And we, the ordinary workers, were the victims. Everybody at the warehouse employed by an agency -- the number ran into the hundreds -- was told with only a couple of days' notice not to come into work anymore. My agency promised to find us all other jobs. I expressed an interest in a certain warehouse on the outside of Northampton, my choice dictated by amenable hours and the accessibility of the place by bus. I'd had enough of the four-hour commute I'd put myself through every night for the last four years just to get to Wellingborough, only ten miles from my house. And everything seemed to be set; at a jobs fair I'd attended they said the company were desperate for new staff. I even spoke to the agency man who supervised that particular contract, asking him if he knew when I might be starting. 'I'm talking to the manager this afternoon,' he told me. 'He'll tell me what sort of volumes he needs and when, and I'll get back to you.' (People are 'volumes' now in the workplace.) That call happened six weeks ago and I've had no reply. Why? I can only guess. When the agency staff were laid off at House of Fraser, the supervisor there said our personal files would be passed directly on to the supervisor in our new workplace. And on my file there is one word that, in the years since my diagnosis, has changed everything: EPILEPSY. The same agency knew about my epilepsy at House of Fraser; but I'd already been in the job for two years when I was asked to make a health declaration by either the agency or DHL, so I lied and said I'd just been diagnosed. I knew what would happen if I didn't. I'd been treated like a pariah by employers since I started having seizures. It makes you guarded about what you say and to whom, and it cautions you always to expect the worst. The worst, after all, usually happens. But since, as far as they knew, my epilepsy was a recent discovery, they couldn't fire me because of it. That, of course, would be discrimination. Hiring someone who you know to be epileptic, of course, is quite a different matter. And you can have all the anti-discrimination laws you like, but if an employer doesn't want you because you're black, or a woman, or you have a learning difficulty, or you're in a wheelchair, or you have a long-term medical condition like I have, all they have to do is say, 'We went with someone with more experience,' and nobody can contradict them. Unless you can afford to go to court.
When I tell prospective employers I have epilepsy it's like the kiss of death. You can see the horror in their faces as they try to calculate how to respond to my disclosure without landing their company in a lot of legal trouble. One care work company actually had their lawyers on me, and insisted I give the company directors access to my medical records.And I have informed another agency in the last six weeks about my condition and despite my experience, my qualifications and my immaculate (ironic, isn't it?) sickness record, they can find nothing for me either.
Is this a coincidence? Have I become, in the last few years, mysteriously unemployable? Perhaps, but I don't think so. All of which leads me to an obvious solution. If I want work, I will just have to lie about my health as I did before to get work. But then, every company I've worked for in the last decade does random drug testing. If something you're taking is detected in your urine sample, and you haven't declared it, you will be instantly dismissed. As an epileptic I have to avoid stress. I can't be fearing, every day when I go to work, that I won't have a job before my shift is finished. I've got my seizures under control now, more or less; that kind of anxiety would put me on the floor again in hours. I can only hope that something good comes along, and while I'm waiting for that to happen, do a little retraining. Warehousing was all I could do when my epilepsy barred me from continuing in care work. Maybe if I learned how to do something else, I'll find less fear, more open-mindedness about what is, after all, a condition which many of us can have and lead perfectly normal, safe and productive lives. After being seizure-free for a certain amount of time a person is allowed to drive again; if you are considered safe behind the wheel of a car on a busy road, where could you, with any justice, be considered a danger?

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Shipwrecked in Trumpland

There's a poetry page I've recently discovered that's doing something I think is really important. It's called Winedrunk Sidewalk: Shipwrecked in Trumpland and as the name suggests, it publishes a lot of poems about Donald Trump. I don't know if it has ever published any poetry in praise of Trump; I'd be surprised if anyone had written any, at least any that were publishable. But the anti-Trump poetry is fierce. So are some of the other pieces, all of which the editor, John Grochalski, selects to build a picture of life in Trump's America. Don't like messages in your poetry? Think writers should stay out of politics? The quality of the work in Winedrunk Sidewalk makes those objections redundant anyway, but as I'm sure John would agree, there are times when intellectual detachment just isn't good enough. The leader of the most powerful nation in the world is a racist, a homophobe, a self-confessed sexual predator and an enemy of the free press. Only weeks ago a socialist bookstore in London was raided by fascists. Can we continue to turn our backs and pretend everything's dandy when the world we grew up in, as fucked up as it was, is collapsing around our ears?

Saturday, March 31, 2018

What's Going On: Keeping It New in my Fifties

Leah Song of Rising Appalachia

Poetry is my vocation but music is my love. Music even gave me poetry, in a sense. I'd read one poem I loved before, but only one: Dryden's 'MacFlecknoe', which succeeded where others failed because it had fart jokes and a reference to people chucking their poo into the Thames in the morning. But listening to the words of Bob Dylan, I woke up to poetry's incredible possibilities. I also first encountered Allen Ginsberg in Dylan's movie 'Renaldo and Clara'.

I don't listen to Dylan anymore. There seems no need, I exhausted my appetite for his take on the world a long time ago. Other musical heroes have faded (Neil Young, for example) while on certain days I still listen to some. When Willie Nelson has a new one out, I always try to hear it. Partly that's because of Willie's amused detachment from the business he's in. He doesn't need fame for personal completion.The other reason is that he doesn't do the same thing repeatedly. In the last few years we've seen a reggae album and duets with Snoop Dogg interspersed with peace songs and dark meditations on death.

My creativity and my sense of personal well-being rely on my involvement with other artists; not as much as they depend on my relationships, but art is significant. Music, however, has changed. Just not in the way we think. Some younger people I've spoken to say it isn't as good as it used to be. And people in their forties and older, many of us, are convinced it's not. 'In our day you could see the Sex Pistols and the Jam on the same edition of "Top of the Pops",' they say. 'Now everything is Ed Sheeran and Adele.' I've even expressed that view myself on occasion and retreated into old musical habits to hide my mind from the over-produced commercialised garbage played ad nauseum on the radio. Crosby, Stills and Nash are vastly more appealing to my ears than anything I've heard on Heart Extra.

The thing is, you won't hear anything on the radio that will shake you up or thrill you or liberate you, not anymore. (There wasn't that much of it in the old days either.) It's true what the jaded nostalgia buffs and old cynics say about the music business being swallowed by the capitalist ethos of (in Jim Morrison's words) 'money beats soul every time'. If the record companies can't make money from an artist they won't sign him or her; and if artists doesn't bring a radio station listeners, it won't play them.

What those of us of an advanced vintage often forget is that we no longer need radio stations, or even music shops, to act as our intermediaries when it comes to music. The internet has been unwelcome, in a way, for artists with multi-million dollar recording contracts. Columbia police YouTube like Chinese secret police in Lhasa and insist every upload of a Bob Dylan song (Dylan, the scion of Woody Guthrie) be deleted for copyright reasons. Artists without contracts, or artists recording on tiny labels, however, can put their music online and be heard, potentially, almost anywhere in the world. And as listeners we can hear almost any musician in the world, if they have access to a camera.

So lately I've been doing just that, going online to see what, and who, I could find. There are probably a hundred different platforms I don't know about, but YouTube is the one I've been using for my investigations. The results have been extraordinary. It turns out there is a whole generation of young artists who I'd never even heard of making fresh, honest, soulful, brilliant new music. You will never see most of it on tv, and if some of these men and women get within five miles of a giant concert venue it will be when they are busking for pennies from Sheeran fans. But that isn't important. It's the music that's important. Which sounds dreadfully purist and not at all the sort of sentiment you're supposed to indulge in now, but I think people should be purists about their art. Power subjugates and controls first by making us cynical.

Here's one band I found during my searches for new music online. Even their name would prevent them from being played on the radio, unless 'on the rag' means something different on the other side of the water. Seeing how they rattle out 'Something Smells Like Fish', though, I have a feeling that exclusion from mainstream radio wouldn't bother them a bit. They look like they're having a party out on the street.

The most polished and realised of the bands is Rising Appalachia, at least from the searches I've made. They have had some success already, and they come with a complete environmental and spiritual vision for the world. I thought they were my discovery until Martyna, a hippie friend, told me she listened to them every morning. Then I found out one of my other Facebook friends was an admirer too. They do have music out. I've looked for them on Amazon to see if they had a cd I could buy. Unfortunately, they're all in the £15-25 range, which is a little out of my league. 

I could go on for much longer about the fantastic music that's being made right now, and how inspiring it has been for me creatively to find it. But I don't want to tax the reader's patience. I'll end with one more video, this one featuring the most raggle-taggle gang you'll ever see knocking out a great performance on the street. They're the Rail Yard Ghosts and they kick serious musical arse.