17 February 2017

Trying (too hard) to grow old disgracefully

Dear Ren,

Two weeks ago, my alarm went after I'd got three hours of sleep after getting into JFK at 23:00 EST, getting a ride back to where I was staying, and settling in my room with a couple of bottles of Guinness and an easy route to the back door to indulge my need for nicotine as well. I set my alarm for 5:30 EST because my first meeting was before 8, and my body needs time to wake up.

Silver birches in Connecticut, the night I arrive
Thanks for your healing thoughts for my back which gave me no particular trouble while I was out there. It's just very odd to have been back for 10 days and still to be feeling totally and utterly exhausted. Even two 3-mile runs at 11 minutes a mile don't seem to have shaken off the cobwebs. But maybe there's more to it than that anyway. Suffice to say that this is the longest M and I have been apart since I went on book tour to the US in 2012, and before that when I went to the Antarctic in January 2008.

The more than just that I'm referring to is this - time is passing so very very quickly, and yet to me it feels like this winter is dragging on forever, that the dark nights are getting no lighter, that the days aren't getting any longer, that the optimistic taste of spring isn't in the air yet, that the world instead is holding its breath for something bad yet to happen this season. I hope I'm wrong, but meltdowns are happening everywhere. And in the US I somehow felt even more keenly this clash, this conflict between absolute wealth and absolute poverty sitting there side by side, just waiting for something incendiary to happen. And then the whole world will be blown sky high. I hope I'm wrong, and we'll all find some better way of creating equality and peace than violent conflict. Because any such conflict creates martyrs on either side, and that just perpetuates everything. Montagues and Capulets all over again, and on and on.

Anyway, I didn't set out to be maudlin in this second letter bashed out straight to screen without my brain and hand having time to think and stop. I wanted to say I'm sorry it's taken me so long to write back (the backlog of work was huge when I got back, plus the symptoms above). I'm lucky to have been able to travel, when so many others have not, for want of funds, for want of understanding nations, etc etc. You see, there I go again. This has been a long winter of the soul - been going on since 24th June for those of us who don't want Brexit to happen, I guess.

What I was going to say is that I'm convinced you'll age much more gracefully than me - and I'm almost seven years ahead of you on that road, so I must be the expert. Much more graceful in thought and looks than me. I am that Dylan Thomas poem to the extreme

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at the close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Or maybe I try too hard to be. I always think being disgracefully old rather than gracefully old, like you will be, would suit me much better. I do remember my father being thrown out of some government employment offices when he was trying to sort something out for my younger sister; he told me he'd sworn at the person the other side of the counter (something like "why don't you move your arse and do something about it"). He was over 80 at the time. Even if he made it up, the story still makes me smile - and I can't imagine him making it up; he was too German and upstanding for that.
Last Friday I did something almost the same - K is having an issue at her school because I think the teachers don't understand how to deal with a 17-year-old female creative who has ideas beyond the norm, and who (like me) doesn't understand the need to go into school if there aren't any lessons (I have blogged about this) . After having phoned to request a meeting on that day and not having had a call back, I just drove to the school and demanded to see her. Two flunkeys now less, at separate times, suggested I might just like to give them my phone number and arrange a meeting for the week after half-term (ie the week starting on 20th Feb). I just said no and told them I'd wait, no matter how long it took. It didn't take very long after that for me to get my wish. By the way, do people with ear-rings sitting in a school reception playing chess on their mobile phones always get weird looks? But, actually, before you go praising that courage of mine again (which I don't think I possess in the slightest), I feel like Walter Mitty 90% of the time.
There are stories in the aches and the sagging flesh. Oh, so true, and wise. You see, I am the one raging against the sagging of the aching flesh, because I've always wanted perfection. Is that because society conditioned me, because my father conditioned me (not sure he did, actually)? I don't know. But I do know you're right, and that I should learn to read those stories in my body and others, that I should accept that I am on the gentle downward curve, and that my body has already lasted longer than most cars, all computers, and some of my peers. But while accepting that I shouldn't make it worse by just letting myself go. When I was running yesterday, coughing my guts up, and cursing myself for being an unfit reprobate, that other inner voice of mine reminded me of the 14-year-old boy with the 40-inch waist just moved back to England, fat and immobile of body and mind. And the voice told me if a reprobate can still run a mile in 11 minutes, he can't be that bad.
I liked your recollection of the 60-year-old lover. Shouldn't we all bring all of ourselves to bed, each and every time? ... I left a pause there while writing, because I wanted the silence to be the sound of my question. Perhaps I am just too idealistic, unreasonably so, with expectations way too high, of myself, and those in the past, and the only one in the present and future. I note I ask more questions in my letters to you than answer any of your questions. I'm sorry. And I, too, look at men and women whom I find aesthetically pleasing. They decorate my world.
As is my wont, I often print out these letters of yours - I must actually print them all out and put them in a box for when the Internet is a thing of the past; and I'm sitting here at my desk reading the last page, and loving the weight you put on each word, just the right weight to make your wisdom not something heavy to bear, but something that brings a smile to my face, and a nod to my neck when I find myself agreeing because it's so true. Yes, we will regroup. Yes, the rain will eventually stop. Yes, the pain will go away (and that is how I deal with pain by looking forward to a time when it won't be there, but that's not easy all the time). Yes, loving is enough. Yes, caring is enough. Putting in all the effort is enough, because the fruits of our labours will look after themselves. And in that way, we change the world.
Much love to you and yours, across the North Sea,

14 February 2017

Valentine's Day

1990 was our first Valentine's Day.
No mobile phones.
No internet we knew of.
No fake news we knew of.
Just the reality of being in love.

2017 is our 28th Valentine's Day.
Mobile phones.
Fake news.
The joy and sadness of children.
And love still real.

For M

R 14/02/2017

29 January 2017

Time is pressing

Dear Ren,

Time is pressing, which is why, for the first time since we've been writing these letters, I'm scrawling mine directly onto my blog (can you scrawl with a keyboard?) rather than hand writing it first. For some reason, I'm more aware than ever that I don't know how much time is left to me, and that I need to really make the most of what's left, even if it is all those years till I'm 125 years old, which is the age I tell everyone that I'm going to live to.

This has been a really difficult week, one which has seen me pulled this way and that by all sorts of events and emotions, a week where I would willingly have given up my day job, would willingly have given up writing, would have given up my life, just to fix the broken soul one of my children is at the moment. And it doesn't matter that with the right advice and support she'll be able to lead a full and fruitful life. It's just so unfair that someone who has so much to give should spend any time locked in the dark well that depression is. Ironically enough, I was on the radio talking about mental health the day before C told me on the phone she was struggling more than ever before. I have told her that if what it takes to get her through university is to come home every fortnight, then that's what we'll do. This is what parents do, isn't it? It's not all about letting your children out into the wild and not welcoming them back again. I know my parents always gave me sanctuary, always, right up until the day Mum had to move into a residential home because her dementia was just getting too much. Part of me wishes we hadn't had to sell that house in Doncaster, but it went to some good people with an organic family, which was great.

Anyway, to add to the ruggedness of the week just gone, the day job is just manically busy, and depressing in that charities are having to pick up the slack left by governments cutting more and more funding out of their health and welfare budgets in order to appear tough, or in order to pay for the mistakes their kind have made not just over the last few years, but over many generations. And on the altruism front, I even had to send an email to the main teacher of one of my other daughters telling her that "I cannot and I will not stop my children from being altruistic." I mean, if we can't help other people anymore, then what is the point? Life can seem pointless enough without people being criticised for helping friends, without people, especially young people, being told to be selfish, that the self is all that matters. It makes me so damn angry. Maybe that's why I've never become successful in the terms of wealth and status, the fact that I'm not as selfish as bankers and politicians are.

The straw that breaks the camel's back, literally almost, is that I've managed to injure my back - again; this has been going on since I damaged it playing hockey when I was 17. I've still managed to fence, and stack wood, and go for a fast walk, and cut back the big bushes by the back door, but I can't run, and it makes me feel so old that I creak and groan every time I try to do something other than be the lazy man I am at heart. I keep shouting at myself on the inside to get a move on, to go do things, to get all those tasks done that need doing before I can even think of sitting down to finish Ice Child and do some other writing. Stupid. I need a body transplant. If I got a nice 25-year-old body with a six-pack, M might actually be delighted (however much she denies she would).

Anyway, so much for the week that was.

I am guessing, and I haven't reread Kleist's piece, that he meant that marionettes are totally unaware, just like you hit the nail on the head when you say that we we're looking at ourselves objectively when we catch a glimpse of ourselves, and don't initially realise we're looking at ourselves. And that (and the way you say you've been reacting to selfies lately) brings me back to the Invisible Woman Syndrome we first spoke about when we met in London about four years ago, that women get to a stage where they think they shouldn't be seen, when they think they shouldn't wear clothes that will draw attention to them, when they think they're too old to be beautiful or sexy or interesting. And that's sad.

I guess what I'm saying is that acceptance and forgiveness is all well and good, but that no woman ever should feel she has to give herself up, that she has to agree with the patriarchy that says she's too old to be sexy and happy and lively. That's what the patriarchy wants - women to be subservient, women to be too afraid to be in control of their own bodies. M says she can't bear to look in the mirror because she all she sees is an old hag, and I know that she's suffering from that syndrome, that she, too, has been brought up in a world where beauty is always in the eye of the white male beholder. I always say imperfection is perfection. And yes, here's that ambivalence of mine you mention - if I say she's sexy and beautiful (especially in those cheap horn-rimmed reading glasses she made herself buy so she could read in indifferent light), am I not just being the patriarchy myself, am I not just objectifying her the way I say women shouldn't be objectified? Should I not tell her how I see her? Should I not tell her that I could just stare at her body all day? It's a dilemma. Because that would mean throwing all the love poetry out, too.

Ah, men as the prize, the thing of value and beauty. The thing is, though, that men, in the main, have a much easier time of it as they age. We become even more rugged and handsome, we mature like fine wines, we become role models for good living, however badly we've lived, however craggy our faces become, however flabby our bodies become. Except some of us who dream of being heroes even into our old age, even those of us who think the alpha males are the ones who win every time, even those of us who think we were at the back of the queue when it came to courage and good looks.

Oh, and 21st March is the official start of spring. At least it always was when I was young. I suppose the meteorologists have changed that to 1st March for the sake of dividing the year neatly into four quarters rather than abiding by nature.

This is turning into far too long a letter, but I have to say what's in my head. The current political situation is really putting me off writing prose. How can I continue to write a book that makes no reference to what's going on with Trump and brexit? It's feels like I'm writing into a vacuum, unless I write poetry, and protest poetry at that. Maybe I should learn to compartmentalise more, in all aspects of my life.

Although there won't be a handwritten version of this letter, I am going to print it off and put it in an envelope to you, because I don't want the cycle of you receiving hardcopies of these letters in an envelope with a seal to be broken. And I found some old notepaper of my father's a few weeks ago and scanned the seal and the motto.

I can hear the rain in the darkness outside, and feel time pressing on my shoulders. Time to go.
Much love to you and E.

24 January 2017

An open letter to Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party

Dear Jeremy,

I voted for you twice, once in 2015 before the wounds of the referendum were ripped into this nation's sides, and once afterwards, when I still had hope that you would be the leader I had hoped for, and lead an effective opposition which would ignore populism and do what's best for the country not what people think is best for the country.

In the last few days, we have heard so much about 'alternative facts' because the new US president's press spokesman had his lies coined as alternative facts by one of Mr Trump's other acolytes. And I am afraid that your, and your MPs', and the government's statements that 'leaving the EU is the will of the people' is yet another alternative fact, or, in plain language, it is a lie. Only 37% of the nation voted for leaving the EU. Large swathes of what should be the electorate of this country were disenfranchised. The referendum was only advisory in nature, as the briefing document to MPs before the vote to approve the referendum clearly shows.

When I heard the first Labour MP on Question Time declare that she would vote for triggering Article 50, and that so would many other Labour MPs, I was appalled by the blatant abdication of responsibility from a member of the Opposition. So appalled, in fact, that I resigned my membership of the Labour Party that very evening. Not just appalled that the Opposition wasn't opposing, but sick to my stomach that the Labour Party would betray its grassroots and the country to such an incredible extent. And now that the Supreme Court has ruled that Article 50 cannot be triggered without an act of Parliament, you continue to say that Labour MPs will vote to trigger Article 50. This is a misguided path to choose.

Why do you support the result of an advisory referendum that does not change the laws of this country? Why do you degrade the role of MPs from that of being educated arbiters of what is best for the country to that of sock puppets who will drift whichever way the populism wind is currently blowing? Leaving the EU will manifestly be bad for this country. The fact that the economy has not yet imploded is not due to any Brexit Bounce; it's due to the fact that Brexit has not yet happened.

By making your MPs vote for triggering Article 50, you are heaping more misery on the patients of the NHS, more misery on those austerity-hit citizens whom you wish to vote for you at the next election. You are, in fact, betraying the very principles upon which you claim to act in your political career, for is not the basis of socialism, and therefore of the Labour Party, to work towards the greater good, to be of benefit for the whole community?

My heart, nor my head, can believe that I am writing these lines disavowing someone I believed to be different to 'normal' politicians, disavowing a party I have held close to my heart for a very long time. However, I know that I can act in no other way, because to leave Europe means to leave many securities behind, both economically and psychologically, and to risk, once again, out-and-out war on this continent, something the EU was formed to avoid in the first place. We cannot reform the EU, nor avoid war, if we are not a part of it.

Again, I would urge you with all my heart to persuade your MPs to vote against the triggering of Article 50. Any other course of action would merely, once again, confirm the view that politicians are merely opportunists rather than people working ceaselessly, and without selfish thought, for the good of the country, and for a better future for all.

Yours sincerely,


17 January 2017

What value education?

I am going through a severe identity crisis. Part of me feels that I am, at the age of 56, becoming the sort of man I never wanted to be - old-fashioned, too rigid in my approach and attitudes, too dogmatic in the way I see the world, especially education. The other part of me thinks I'm still young, still making my own agenda, just letting my children get on with their lives as they best see fit. Both parts of me think I'm a dreadful and weak parent.

And this is the dilemma I face every day that makes me feel so divided. When I was in the Sixth Form, I had a full timetable, lessons planned for each and every day, and no nonsensical two-week scheduling where lessons varied from one week to the next. Ok, I might have had the odd free period, but not gaping huge gaps in the timetable that leaves children of this modern age with often only one or no lessons on some days. When I speak to schools about this, I'm told it's because of lack of resource, and I am partly sympathetic to that. However, surely it cannot be beyond schools to pool classes or resources so that pupils at least have a solid framework in which to work, where they can do their own research but be supervised, where they can use books instead of being guided down the false paths of fake facts and news. I simply don't understand it. Schools are supposed to be places of learning, not places of leisure and the occasional hour of teaching.

The other side of that same coin is the attitude of pupils. And I'm not sure this attitude is endowed them by their peers and social media, or by their parents, or simply by the way the world is going to hell in a handcart. If I had the choice between being at home (admittedly a home which has thousands of books, in our case) and being at school (or any educational establishment), no matter how bad I perceived that place to be, I'd still rather be at school, where I could either sit in a library or a study room when I had no lessons, where I could feel surrounded by at least my attempts at learning. I don't understand the attraction of being at home. I don't understand why anyone would choose to stay in bed and their pyjamas all day rather than getting up and out there and having some real physical social interaction as well. Perhaps I am old-fashioned.

And here's the last thing - what happened to compulsory PE in the Sixth Form? There's an obesity crisis worldwide and yet the English schools I know don't put one afternoon a week aside on which Sixth Formers have to do sport. Why? Everything I know about people, about managing people, about interacting with people, comes from having played team sports, from those Thursday afternoons slogging through the mud of Doncaster Playing Fields with a hockey ball at the end of my stick, or a football at the end of my leg, or a curse hanging on my lips when I was having to run cross country, which I hated, but still did. Wouldn't the reintroduction of compulsory PE help fill up those skeletal timetables deprived of lessons? Deep down, I think the world is going to hell because playing sport has become an irrelevance in an age when people are encouraged to watch and bet rather than play and sweat. The same goes for education in general, actually, where children are no longer encouraged to learn how to acquire knowledge, and taught instead how to pass exams.

This is a time of despair, where no value is ascribed to anything any more. A time when governments care nothing for the future of the countries they are supposed to be leading, where conflict is created for the sake of keeping social mobility to a minimum, where people are encouraged to remain uneducated and therefore less of a threat to the ruling classes. And only very few voices stand up to be counted. But then, with so few lessons on the weekly plan, it's easier to stay at home and use a computer to interact with the world, real or imagined.

Perhaps I really am just an uneducated Luddite as well as a bad parent.