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.