purchased

The camp in the woods was a poem.

What drew me first was the sign. I could just make it out through the trees. At first I thought it was a PRIVATE – NO ENTRY thing. As I got closer I could see it was part of something else, something more extempore. A lean-to made of green tarpaulin, ropes and bent saplings. Camping chairs and plastic garden furniture around a fire pit. A scattering of shovels and rakes. An upturned wheelbarrow. I saw they’d been working on a bike track, making jumps out of mounds of packed earth supported with wattle fences, water trenches on the fall-side to make it more interesting. It was an industrious scene. The tools looked suspiciously new, and I guessed they’d stolen them from the allotments near the church. In fact, come to think of it, everything looked scavenged. The sign turned out to be a whiteboard they’d nicked from the gate outside the local nuclear bunker (hilariously and ironically apologising for the cancellation of the planned open day due to ‘inclement weather’).

Whilst I was taking some pictures it struck me what a perfect analogy all this was: a nuclear bunker sign, tied to a tree next to the flimsiest of structures, so open to the elements you could imagine sitting in one of those rickety plastic chairs smoking a last cigarette as the shockwave raced towards you; a stolen iron ‘purchased’ sign hammered into the ground in front of a shelter pitched on private land; the hard work and improvisational skill taken to make the track and the jumps versus the anti-social thievery and trespass. But how much more anti-social was it to be part of a system that would countenance using a nuclear weapon – the normalisation of which underscored not just by the fact that the authorities had built a nuclear bunker next to the allotments in the first place, but now and again ran an open day (weather permitting)?

Not that I wouldn’t have been furious if I’d turned up at the allotment, found my shed broken into and my tools gone. I would’ve stamped about in my wellies, becoming even more furious waiting hours on hold for the non-emergency police line to pick-up. No doubt I would’ve entertained the same vengeful fantasies, subsiding in time into a moodily pessimistic so-this-is-how-things-are-these-days kind of wretchedness.

But isn’t what these feral bike track-kids have done just empire building writ small? Isn’t that what we as a country have done for centuries? Found a place we liked, stuck something in the ground that marked it out as ‘ours’? And then, after sufficient time had passed for us to say it had some historical patency, denied anyone else any influence there (even if it was thousands of miles from our shores and right next door to theirs)? And not just us, of course. A great many other countries have been founded on the same take & defend principle.

A colonial poem, then, writ small in stolen canvas, garden tools, and a sign apologising for the cancellation of the nuclear bunker open day.

 

 

slam dunk

Well – finally I did it! I performed one of my poems at a poetry slam.

Leo runs Guerrilla Poets at The Lansdown Arms in Lewes every third Sunday. It wasn’t at all as I imagined. It was so much better! The pub was full and friendly. A great mix of regulars, passing trade – and poets of every age and description. A woman who’d just written some lines on her phone. A guy who had only stopped by on his way to see his girlfriend in a pub up the road, but who happened to have four lines in his head about the philosophy of bike wheels. A woman who read a poem about the place in Mexico where Dean Moriarty died, shaking the dried rattle from a snake to cleanse the air before she spoke. A woman who used to be a punk and performed a poem about yeastiness. A little boy who skipped up and read a poem about poo and another one about not eating chicken. And me – reading Junkenstein’s Lament. It was such a warm, supportive and appreciative crowd, the perfect place to start out. It makes me want to do more (although next time I’ll make an effort to learn the poem first, so I don’t lose my place and the rhythm of it….).

If you’ve got a poem in you (and you live near Lewes) – check it out!

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thinkers, feelers, doers & believers

Well here I am, slogging across a muddy field taking Lola for her morning walk. It’s January, and really quite effing cold. Not the inspirational, sharp-edged kind of cold that zings you up and makes everything clearer. No – it’s a sapping, neurasthenically damp kind of cold, the kind of cold that makes you pull your hat down hard over your eyes and make you wish you were back in bed.

Lola runs on. I push my hat back up to watch her go.

But I’m not thinking about how dogs live completely in the moment and that Lola is probably as happy in January as she is in June. What I’m thinking is: I could really do with a Guru.

You can’t blame me. As M. Scott Peck so memorably put it: ‘Life is difficult.’ (The Road Less Traveled, 1978). Filled with frustrations, confusions, complications, prevarications. And I don’t know, but maybe he should have added: ‘Especially in January’.

Because if December is the big-footed, boozy-eyed, cake-bellied, Sanctified Santa of all the long year’s graft, January is the hollow-cheeked wraith rising from the cold ashes in the grate to stare at you as you lie so pathetically on the sofa making yet another list: What I Need To Do With My Life – And This Time It’s Serious. (Underlined three times, drawing of a little skull, in a flowery hat, smoking a cigarette… see how easily you’re distracted…?)

It’s such a typical thing this time of year it’s worse than a joke, along with the increase in divorce applications and Gym membership. Google could probably quantify it nicely; a cheery animation illustrating the increased volume in search criteria: ‘courses to learn Spanish’ or ‘choir local to (insert postcode)’ or ‘questionnaire to help you find the right job’ or ‘questionnaire to help you find the right questionnaire’. Which is to say: I’m like a lot of people this time of year, feeling the urge to make a change but not actually getting on and doing much that’s practically useful about it.

Which is where the Guru comes in. Stepping lightly through the door surrounded by an intense white light & hummingbirds. Laughing generously with expensive teeth. Wiping their sunglasses on a filthy T-shirt that bulges dangerously but you can still make out the slogan: Stop Me and Ask the Secret. A Bentley idling round the corner.

Despite all my misgivings, still it’d be such a relief to just surrender everything to them, all the existential angst. Especially if it WAS everything – work life, social life, spiritual life, (sexual life, probably, almost inevitably, depending on the guru). A one-stop drop for all your disaffection needs! Meet new friends! Stick to that diet! Discover Your Purpose! Realise your Potential! Everything with a smile and an exclamation point! All you need is the will to believe (and a current account).

Because, let’s face it: Gurus are a fascinating and powerful phenomenon. Have been for centuries. And that’s not surprising, given the commonality of human experience. People have felt this ache for years. And if they didn’t ease it with drugs, alcohol or cave paintings (or the modern equivalent – Netflix), your Guru is your next best thing.

Gurus aren’t necessarily bad, of course. But they often feature in the same context as ‘cult’, which definitely IS a bad thing. The trick is to spot the honest, genuinely enlightened guru from the destructive, predatory, poisonous kind. Joe Navarro, who worked in the FBI for 25 years lays it all out in a 50-point checklist to help identify the pathological cult leader (Dangerous Traits of Cult Leaders, Psychologytoday.com 25/08/12). Number one is someone who:

‘…has a grandiose idea of who he is and what he can achieve.’

and number fifty, someone who has:

‘… isolated the group physically (moved to a remote area) so as to not be observed.’

The other forty-eight points read like the kind of basic primer they might hand out to novice devils in Hell. A set of laminated fob cards you can hang off your fork.

Steven Hassan brilliantly explores the subject of destructive cults in his book Combatting Cult Mind Control. (Park Street Press, 1988). Early on in the book he describes his experiences in the Moonies. He says when they were ‘fishing’ for new recruits they tended to categorize them into 4 groups: Thinkers, Feelers, Doers or Believers, and would finesse their approach

“…we saw believers as people searching for God, or looking for spiritual meaning in their lives. They typically would tell us about their spiritual experiences – dreams, visions, revelations. For the most part, these people were ‘wide open’, and really recruited themselves….. With them it was simply a matter of sharing our ‘testimonies’ with them to convince them they had been led to us by God.” (p.42)

Me, basically. But what happened when they came up against a ‘Thinker?’ (which could also be me, depending if I’m at work or not).

I imagine it might go like this:

THINKER: Ooooh no! No, No, No. They’d never get me. What – that bunch of crusty, flute-playing bastards? With their crooked teeth and cheap extensions? Me and my education? I’ve got a background in corporate finance! I’ve won awards! C’mon! I can hear the crunch of their granola a mile away. I mean – just look at these clowns! Jumping up & down, clapping like the meds finally kicked in. Good grief! Well look. I feel sorry for them, I really do, but they deserve all they get. They’re just GULLIBLE. And when it comes down to it, my friend, I’m afraid the weak are just there to feed the strong. It’s nature’s way of netting the weed out the gene pool. Just try putting it over ME. They wouldn’t come close. Wouldn’t even TRY. They know whose ripe and who’s not. Five seconds, a handshake and they’re on to the lower fruit. It’s how you carry yourself. The look in your eye. That unshakeable confidence in what you HAVE. No, sir. I’m not your average mark. Even though my name IS actually Mark. Scrub that. We’ll edit that later.

GURU: Hey. Yeah. Okay – Mark? Anyone can see you’re a five-sided Son of a Governor. An independent free-thinker who looks at the facts, weighs them up, tosses them in the trash or pops ‘em in their pocket for later. And I respect that. But – you know as well as I do the world is full of people who’ll tell you one thing and do another. They’ll deal out half-truths mixed in with damned lies, and then ice the whole damn shit cake with a layer of FAKE NEWS FROSTING. They’ll distract you, try to bully you (good luck with THAT, am I RIGHT?), then flatter you into making some rookie error! The world is full of Snake oil salesmen, as you know, Mark. Journos and Democrats, basically. You know it. I know it. We all know it! But c’mon! If you’re REALLY as strong as you say you are, you’ll be able to look this pamphlet over and know in a heartbeat if you think it’s of any value or not. Am I right? Yeah? C’mon! I LIKE you, Mark. You and your superman dimple. Let’s sit down and chat some more. And just for the record, what size robe d’ya flavour…?

Because of course, more often than not, that rigid stance of invulnerability says more about a need to see the world as a rational place, something predictable, that can readily be controlled. And as Steven Hassan points out, it’s a stance that makes them as vulnerable to exploitation as the Believer. Whilst he says that most of the people they recruited were more from the Doers and Feelers than the Believers – the Thinkers…? Well, apparently they: “…eventually became leaders within the organization.”

Can’t blame them.

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the assistant coordinator

I wasn’t out on visits today. Instead I was on the rota as Assistant Coordinator.

It always makes me feel I should be wearing a shiny foil suit, frantically working a console of levers, buttons and dials, whilst sparks fizz up and down a V-shaped wire and a theramin plays in the background. And up on a gold & tinsel draped dais behind me, The Coordinator, a pulsating brain in a bottle, where the plasma bubbles a soothing green when They are pleased, and boils red when They are Not.

Actually what it means is riding shotgun on the computers and phones at the operational heart of a madly busy community health team. It means being able to troubleshoot a hundred things at once, each as important as the next. A better analogy would be the floor of the Stock Exchange. Although, to be fair, that’s as removed from my experience as the sci-fi scenario I started with – and if there’s anything at all you can take from any of this, it’s that I watch too many films. In a Stock Exchange (I imagine), you’d be surrounded by people shaking bits of paper in your face shouting buy, buy, buy, or sell, sell, sell. So the only difference I can see between ‘Assisting the Coordinator’ and ‘The Floor of the Stock Exchange’ is that the latter has some money behind it. Here in the NHS, despite hospital avoidance teams being at the sharp and potentially very effective end of health care – and definitely the place you’d want to invest in if you were at all serious in freeing-up space in our overcrowded hospitals – well, apparently there isn’t even the money to put enough sockets in the room so everyone can charge their laptops at once, and there’s a sign up in the kitchen asking for donations for a new kettle.

So anyway. Assistant Coordinator.

It means taking a phone call from a tearfully furious daughter who is telling you their mother turned the carer away yet again this morning despite everything that had been said about it in the past and despite all assurances, because although she’s very convincing she actually has dementia you know and needs those medications (it’s the first you’ve heard of it) … whilst three people stand behind your chair, one with a folder, one with a sheet of paper, one with laptop … whilst someone the other side of the desk divide shakes their head with their eyes closed and waves a phone in the air for the second time like that’s all I need to leap over and grab it like a salmon responding to a cleverly manipulated fly … whilst fifteen other people around you are having conversations at an unhelpfully loud volume … and you suddenly remember you were supposed to ring that doctor back … and you haven’t saved the last information you inputted on the database … or have you? … and, great, your pen runs out.

Skills required: Communicator, Counsellor, Clinician, IT whizz, Diplomat, Strategist and Life Coach. But more than any of this you need to be able to look the Coordinator straight in the boiling brain and say WTF? Shall I make us some tea?

And when you get back, gently tip it in their bottle.

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(original movie poster: ‘Invaders from Mars’ 1953, copied from : wheredangerlives.blogspot.com – a great film poster site!)

New book out today!

New Zealand native bushHardwicke is the story of two orphaned brothers, Ethan & Thomas, sent to work at the Enderby Hemp & Rope Works in Victorian London. When Ethan takes the blame for a fire at the factory, he is transported to Van Diemen’s Land, a penal colony on the other side of the world. Determined to survive, Ethan will do whatever it takes to find his brother again. Then he discovers that Thomas has been sent to Hardwicke, a remote colonial outpost on the Auckland Islands…

I hope you like it! Available as ebook or print on demand. If you have any questions I’d be happy to answer them. It’d be great to hear from you!

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blog robin

Well – I can’t believe another year has come and gone…

I think that’s the accepted way of starting a round robin letter, those insipid but curiously incendiary A4 slabs of family business that get smuggled inside Christmas cards like condoms of pure news inside a drugs mule.

There’s lots already been said about Round Robin letters. Simon Hoggart published a series of very funny books about them, and you’d think that would’ve been the comedic stake through the heart of the phenomenon. But they still keep coming back, and I suppose it’s because of their utilitarian nature.

I’ll admit, sometimes it feels a little curt just to put Lots of Love, Jim xx when I haven’t spoken to that person, brother or what-have-you, in six months or a year – and don’t they deserve more? So the temptation is to write a paragraph or two, and if you roll that out over a dozen or more cards it becomes quite a thing. And I’ll be saying much the same stuff. So the temptation might be to rationalise the process (I say temptation in a HIGHLY theoretical way, because, actually, I’ve never been tempted), spend a little time getting it right on the computer, a few jokes and quotes, a mixture of trips, triumphs and tragedies, tactfully balanced, nicely aligned, with a few cheeky snaps to cheer the whole thing up.

So yeah – I suppose it does make sense.

Except it doesn’t, because if you’re close enough to care about this stuff you’ll know about it already. And if you’re not, you won’t.

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ting ting ting ting ting

And by the way, if you’ve sent me one – thanks very much! It was lovely to hear all your news.

Merry Christmas & a very Happy New Year!

With lots of love

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(p.s the round robin’s in the post…)

ergonomics

No-one wants to be here, on the Bi-Annual Patient Handling course today. No-one. And – to be fair – the Trust probably don’t want us here, either. I’m sure if they could cover their legal obligations some other way, by hiring someone in a crop-duster to swoop in low every once in a while to spray the county with liquefied rules and regs, or maybe introduce it into the water like fluoride, they undoubtedly would. But as neither of those things are currently an option, here we are on a business park on the furthest, most westerly edge of the county – so far west, I wouldn’t be surprised to see cars and buses plummeting off the edge of the world, beeping their horns, revving helplessly, as they tumbled away into infinity.

Nothing so wonderful. Here we sit in a brave and chippy semicircle, introducing ourselves.

Our tutor Pawel is as upbeat as we are cynical. He says ‘Hello’ very emphatically when it’s our turn to speak, leaning forwards and pyramiding his hands beneath his nose, like this is the most fascinating bunch of people it’s ever been his pleasure to meet. And when each of us is done speaking our sad little bio, he says ‘Welcome’ very sincerely, almost tenderly, acknowledging our bravery and honesty, and then moves on to the next.

He’s dressed in a dark blue polo shirt, combat trousers and black boots, the partisan captain of an evangelical Occupational Health outreach unit, a visionary zeal about him that his Polish accent somehow intensifies.

Pawel can hardly wait for the introductions to finish before he strides about the room. Even the housekeeping at the beginning reads more like the opening of a thriller.

‘And God forbid there should ever be a FIRE! – Don’t worry, my friends! I’m not planning for this to happen! But if there IS A FIRE! – You should all follow me through the main offices here, and I will lead you to SAFETY in the corner of the parking lot…’

We start the training. Pawel pegs out a line of awful statistics about back pain and so on, the costs to the service, the cost to the practitioners, and then moves onto all the techniques that will protect us from this. We take it in turns to be the patient, effortlessly moved up and down the hospital bed, from chair to chair, from floor to chair, from chair to floor to chair, each time Pawel snapping his red nylon slide sheet like a magician, stuffing it into tiny gaps, whipping it out again. Frictionless movement. Painless transfers. Safety. Comfort. ERGONOMICS.

‘Do you SEE it?’ he says after every procedure. ‘Do you SEE it?’

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a clean decision

At the barber’s for a haircut. Luckily there’s only one person ahead of me, a large, silver haired man with huge red ears and a booming voice.
‘Oh yes, I was a referee for fifty years,’ he says.
‘It’s not something I could do,’ says the barber, gently combing the strands around, snipping the ends. ‘I don’t have the temperament.’
‘Nonsense!’ says the man. ‘Although I’ll admit you do have to have a measure of control. The players can become quite – how shall I put it? – excited about your decisions, and you have to exercise a certain amount of diplomacy and common sense.’
‘I bet you do,’ says the barber.
‘Take swearing, for instance. Now – I fully understand that in the rough and tumble of play you can forget where you are and say this or that and turn the air blue. But I was always very clear. And when the captains came together to toss the coin, I would say to them: You know me, gentlemen. I am perfectly fine with a little rough language now and again, but if there’s one word directed straight at me it’ll be out with the red card and off you go. I earned quite a reputation.’
‘I bet you did’ says the barber. ‘How much off the top?’
‘Oh – do what you can with the bald patch. I’m not expecting miracles.’
‘Right you are.’
‘I remember one particular match. It was a local derby, very heated. Quite a bit of needle between the players. Towards the end one of them went in for a particularly positive tackle and his opponent took a tumble. But it was clear to me that he’d played the ball and not the player, and as such there had been no infringement of the rules. The next thing I knew the captain came running up and he said Where’s our penalty, ref? So I explained to him why it didn’t warrant one, and signalled for play to continue. Unfortunately the poor chap couldn’t help himself. You’re a fucking idiot he said, straight to my face.’
‘He didn’t!’
‘I’m afraid so.’
‘What did you do?’
‘Well – what d’you think I did? I said to him: Oh? So I’m a fucking idiot, am I? Well – d’you know what this is? That’s right! It’s a red card. And d’you know why I’m showing it to you? Because you are out of this game, mister! I bid you good day!’
‘Eyebrows?’
‘What’s that?’
‘Eyebrows. D’you want me to do your eyebrows?’
‘Oh. Yes. Well. Could you? They’re getting a bit wild.’

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