A Crowd of Swaying Strangers

I was pinged on Thursday. Apparently I had been in close contact with someone on Monday 29th who had tested positive for Covid. My test results were negative. It’s just a stinking cold then.

I’m not surprised I was pinged – on Monday night I was at a Stereophonics concert in Portsmouth. This was, by their standards an ‘intimate’ gig, (they are due to be playing a couple of 70,000 sellout concerts in Cardiff soon).

I’m not a huge Stereophonics fan. They didn’t play my favourite song of their’s, (Local Boy in The Photograph), or my second favourite (A Thousand Trees – which someone laughably described on the radio as their favourite song about the environment – it’s actually about an allegation of child abuse), and there was a big bloke standing in front of me for much of the gig. But you could see why they are recognised as being such an excellent live act. Kelly Jones, you and the rest of the band put on a brilliant show.

And the sound and lighting was superb. The lighting in particular. I will always look at the lighting at any show with a lot more interest than I would have before recent events. I’m sure you would have appreciated it, James – and if not, I’m sure you would have let me know why.

How much have I missed this? Standing in a crowd of swaying singing strangers. It felt so good, I felt so alive, to be in this crowd of commonality. It’s why I love football, the singing, the chanting, the mass humanity (although not so much at yesterday’s Pompey match…).

With the Omnicrom Variant spreading here in the UK, and new restrictions starting to come into force, I don’t know when I’ll next be able to go to a gig.

I have a ticket for Godspeed You! Black Emperor in Bristol on January 19th (funnily enough no-one else I know wants to go and see a Canadian anarchist post – rock collective on a Wednesday night in January), and have a list of other concerts I want to go to. Because life is short. Our time is so, so, short.

I’m very aware that this blog has been somewhat erratic over the past few months – there are a whole range of reasons for this. But time has been a major factor.

I’ve been recruiting for roles in San Francisco, Singapore, Sydney and now Frankfurt. The clients have been based in Denver, Houston, New York and Salzburg. Working across 8 different time zones has been a challenge. Speaking to candidates at 5 AM and then 10 PM on the same day. It’s my choice – I don’t request, need, or deserve any sympathy. The main project, (thirteen roles in San Francisco & Singapore for a consultancy working onsite at Facebook), should complete in a couple of weeks, the Australian role has excellent candidates in the frame. Once these are done, things should get back to normal, or whatever that is these days.

Hopefully then, I’ll have more time for writing, for blogging, and for creating events for the South Downs Poetry Festival – I was asked to help spread events to the west of the downs, but haven’t managed to do much at all. I also have to sort out my second manuscript for my publishers, Dempsey & Windle, and have a long sequence that I wrote a few years ago that I am considering self-publishing, perhaps in online / downloadable format. Lot’s to get stuck into in 2022. So I guess I’ll keep this blog going.

A quick plug for anyone looking for last minute Christmas presents for the poet in their life. Why not buy them a book from an independent poetry publisher?

Dempsey & Windle – www.dempseyandwindle.com

There are plenty of others of course, but I should really champion my own publisher above anyone else!

Feel free to add any other publishers you rate in the comments – I’ll share them here with my small following.

Meanwhile, keep well and keep safe. I guess we all have to make our own decisions on what is an acceptable risk now and into next year. But for me, live music, live theatre and live sport are central to my life, and I really struggle without them. Even if the event is a disappointment – yes, Portsmouth FC I am looking at you right now…so much for an FA Cup run this year!

Good luck, and see you on the other side – if not at a raucous concert or football match, maybe at a more genteel poetry event, such as one I went to a very, very long time ago….

An Evening at the Haiku Club

Corduroy trousers
hush puppies and smug faces
words trapped in aspic

….NB, and yes, I know this isn’t actually a haiku, but that’s part of the point of the poem….

The Hospital on the Hill

I keep looking back at my posts from January and February last year. Those days before Covid. How little we knew then. I’m sure many others are doing the same, whether it be on social media, or through apps like 1 second every day ( https://1se.co ) . Our lives are lived in full view. Our thoughts, however inane, are captured for future review. Whether this is a good thing or not is for a future post.

The main hospital in Portsmouth is at the top of Portsdown Hill, on the outskirts of the city. After dark it can be seen from miles away, like a vast, recently landed spaceship of concrete and light. Think Close Encounters of the Third Kind without the music and urge to mould models out of mud. In times like these, it is a reminder of what is important, and how fragile our existence actually is. How little time we have. I hope when we finally come out of this crisis, that people take stock, reflect on what really matters, and live their lives accordingly in the future, as much as they can. I know I will.

I also fervently hope that those in this country who have made this crisis so much worse than it needed to be, get exactly what they deserve. There will be spin, of course. There will be attempts to obfuscate, to blame others, but we must not let them. The UK has had one of the worst death rates per head of population in the world. Many health professionals have died due to inadequacies of PPE procurement, whilst companies that have had no experience in the area have been given massive contracts for equipment that was not delivered, or was faulty when it was. Health workers in the sixth-largest economy in the world had to resort to wearing bin bags for protection.

Of course there is the counter-argument of the highly successful and efficient vaccine rollout. But notice how the politicians call this NHS run project the ‘government’s vaccine rollout’ whereas £22bn was wasted on an outsourced ‘NHS track and trace’. Language matters.

Oh, and as an aside, if Brexit is your thing? One country with one of the highest rates of vaccination in the world is Romania. Whereas other EU countries tried to do things jointly, (and the EU made a complete hash of it), they just went ahead and sorted out their own vaccines. As with blue passports (Croatia), we could have done the same. Don’t believe the BS.

Back to QA Hospital. Like every other NHS hospital in the country they have been close-to-overwhelmed, converting non-essential wards to high dependency units, the staff working flat-out, doing what they can, under conditions of extreme stress and exhaustion, and of course with an underlying knowledge that they are at heightened risk themselves from this horrendous disease.

Another aside: Some prat went into the hospital and filmed empty corridors on their mobile phone as a way to prove that the virus was a hoax. All the Covid patients are suffering from a highly contagious disease and are in high-dependency wards. Do you really think they would be in hospital corridors? Idiot. Anyway, I digress.

I was recently asked to provide a poem to be placed in one of the high dependency Covid wards. As someone who doesn’t work in the NHS, but knows plenty of people who do, it wasn’t exactly easy to get it right. The poem I wrote, which appears at the end of this post, has been accepted, along with lots of other poems from staff and other poets. It may not be a particularly good poem, but hopefully it will help someone in some small way with what they are going through.

A third and final aside: The poem mentions ‘grey hulls’. With the hospital being at the top of Portsdown Hill there is, from some windows at least, an excellent view of the city, including the Portsmouth Royal Naval dockyard and Royal Navy fleet.

So now we wait. As we did before. Hopefully this ‘road map’ out of lockdown will work. I remain worried that with plans to open up all schools at the same time and the risk of new virus strains that this crisis still has a long way to go.

In the meantime, all we can do is keep trying to follow the rules and give huge thanks to all those who are working through the storm, whether emergency workers, NHS staff, (including cleaners, porters, back office staff and non-emergency workers without whose efforts the system could not function), other frontline employees such as those working in transport and retail, without whose work, and in so many cases, sacrifice, our year of Covid would have been so much worse. Thank you.

Pieces

Look at all the grey hulls
lined up in the Solent;
A ship needs every rivet
to stop the sea from surging in.

Stop and take a deep breath.
A jigsaw needs every piece,
a book needs every page,
to make any sort of sense.

Here as with everywhere,
this day can never be won,
by standing on our own.
We fall and rise together.

Trapped in layered protection,
around our brittled light,
forgetting who we are,
forgetting how to see.

A smile behind a mask,
is a crack in the bitter dark,
that will widen, as it always does;
these times will one day pass.

Beyond the cliches of politicians
are real words and thoughts and prayers.
I would bring them to you here,
to your exhaustion of despair,

to all that you have witnessed,
to all that you’ve endured,
to all that you have done,
and all that you could not.

I’d remind you that you’re loved.
I’d remind you that you’re valued.
Just because people are too tired,
too busy or stressed to say it,

doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

Sailing the Lockdown

It can be a real challenge to write about something such as Covid-19. By write, I mean in the context of something that is publishable. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed. There are times when I think I should be writing directly about our current situation, as if I have some kind of social duty to do so. Yet most of what I have written about Covid has been pretty marginal in terms of quality (and that’s being charitable). Thank Christ I have no chance of being poet laureate!

Part of the issue is trying to write something that is different to what everyone else is churning out. It will be interesting to see what poetry from these times lasts. I suspect, as usual, it will be the oblique poems, the ones with a very narrow focus, or the blunt political ones, (let’s face it there is plenty of subject material here to focus on!) that resonate the longest.

I did enter one of my Covid poems into this year’s Portsmouth Poetry competition. It didn’t place – which I was half-expecting. It was great to see some familiar names in the prizewinning list, including Mark Cassidy who won overall, and is an excellent poet who should have a published collection by now. Come on Faber – give him a call! As for my entry, the judges very kindly gave me some feedback, which I will share here.

Rejection is all part of the process with poetry, and any other writing for that matter. If you cannot cope with it then my advice is to not bother sending it out. Work is rejected for all sorts of reasons, and not just down to the perceived quality of what has been submitted – does if fit with the magazine, the theme of the issue, it it too similar or different to other poems already selected? It’s rare to get a reason or any specific feedback, which is why I was delighted to hear back from the competition judges.

Incidentally, I actually agree with the feedback. I had a few qualms about the poem when I sent it in – did it read as if I was trying a bit too hard? Was it a bit hackneyed in terms of imagery / subject matter? Was it just a bit meh?

Their feedback is as follows. It’s positive, it’s encouraging, but I think it nails the issues with the poem itself. Let me know your thought . Is it salvageable? As it stands it’s going nowhere near my next collection! It’s also too long for most magazines, so I may as well share it here instead!!

“Sailing the Lockdown” 

The use of the image / concept of sailing as a metaphor for the journey experience we have all undertaken is a good one. The problem with such metaphors is that they can easily become over-stretched and start to be clumsy and lose their impact. We felt that this poem ‘sails’ close to that reef, too close on occasions and sometimes tries too hard to be ‘poetic’ and meaningful. Generally, however, you avoided the pitfalls and there are some really good metaphorical concepts and some lovely poetry such as “constellations of memories” Well done 

Anyway, the poem. Still struggling with the formatting of poems on WordPress.com with my Mac, so have posted it as a quote – which I think looks a little better than the default format for poems.

Sailing the Lockdown

So we shaped our horizons
with hands made of clay,
cupping the water,
sculpting decks for the sky,
but skin kept on shedding,
kept dusting the wind,
for our hands were still clay.

Stuck here in the dry dock
as days roll by in waves,
stale tang in the air;
whether Covid or calenture,
it’s the missing that kills us
and I’m shedding my future
sick from the swell.

Light makes a filagree
in the coruscation of surf,
the roil and the surge,
the shimmer shine of shingle,
the skin pricks of spray,
and all I can do now
is sit here and wait.

Sunrises sunsets and stars;
constellations of memories
are salt scars and rope marks,
as individual as fingerprints
on these cracked hands of clay,
and now they are fading,
with every layer I shed.

Card decks are collapsing
as our horizons recede, 
clay turns to sediment
in this dissolution of days;
the ghosts of lost landfall,
we thought ours for the taking,
to till as we willed.

But someday we’ll sail,
lash pasts to the main,
fast our eyes to the storm
near-drowning in hindsight,
as our spinnakers fill;
ebb tide to a new future
from this churning of ways.