Don't know who I have to thank for this shaggy dog story. Possibly Frank Muir – I seem to remember his slight lisp - on BBC's Radio Four. Whoever was first with the tale it's definitely one for big band enthusiasts.
Those big band fans will know that songwriters Mack Gordon and Hal Warren often worked together. What those fans might not know is that in November 1941 Glen Miller had a prestigious gig coming up in New York's Grand Central Station. He asked the songwriting duo Mack Gordon and Hal Warren to come up with a new tune. Glen said that he wanted it to be 'startlingly new.'
“As far out of left field as can be,” Glen told them. “And I need it in three days.” And he left the pair to it in their Sun Valley hotel. Glen was paying.
So far as record sales went the European war had thus far been kind to Glen. Mack and Hal consequently had a suite that took up a whole floor, paid for in advance, unlimited room service, reams of blank score sheets, plus a baby grand.
Soon as the suite door had closed behind Glen, Hal and Mack tried to settle to composing. They tinkered for a bit, but nothing felt worth developing. Hal decided he'd benefit from a change of air. Mack had had a heavy session the night before, laid himself on one of the chaise-longues for a snooze.
He was woken by Hal excitedly showing him a brand new pair of brown and white spats.
“Not much of a town,” Hal told Mack, “but one helluva shoe shop. Old-fashioned, and quality leather. Top quality.”
Hal had sat on the chaise-longue opposite to try on the spats.
“New shoes.” He went dancing and sliding across the hotel carpet. “Leather stitched soles.” He lifted his left foot to show Mack, who smiling took himself over to the baby grand, converted 'leather soles' to four chords, tried two for 'new shoes.'
“Again,” Hal said, leaning in beside Mack. He added two more chords.
“OK,” Mack took up a sharpened pencil, scribbled on a blank score sheet.
For the next couple of hours the pair built up a tune, put in repeats, until Mack called a halt.
“Let it settle,” he said. Both knew from long practice that the musical subconscious (recently discovered by an Austrian cove) often emerged with a subtle development. “I'm going to order us up a celebratory feast.” Mack reached for the hotel phone: “ Glen's paying. What you fancy?”
Hal held up his hand, said that he'd like to get out from four walls again, would try the diner he'd passed on his walk.
“Never seen a town with so many cats,” Hal said as he retied his laces. “Cats on windowsills. Cats in doorways. Everywhere I looked a cat.”
“Won't see many now.” Mack pointed out the window at the rain. “You sure about the diner?”
Hal however was uncomfortable with foreign-sounding hotel food. He preferred run-of-the-mill cafeterias where he knew from the pictures he'd get what he asked for.
Mack was still cheerfully lifting covers and sampling dishes when Hal, drenched, got back.
“Look at my new shoes.” Hal held out his right foot to show Mack. The front of both spats were covered in greasy grey mud.
“Ran back across the green,” Hal said. “Was squelchy all the way.”
Mack, his mouth full, told Hal to put the spats outside the suite door: “Boot boy'll clean 'em.”
Hal changed into dry trousers and jacket, and – letting their different dinners settle – they ordered up coffee and listened to the news from Europe.
When the chambermaid came to turn down the bedsheets she seemed a little afraid of the two men who had gone back to working at the piano.
“Anything the matter?” Mack asked her.
“Your shoes,” the maid said. “I had to chase a cat away from them. They get in sometimes. Can't blame them. They're so hungry, and its so wet out.”
Hal had gone to the door, came back with a ripped and torn apart spat.
“Looks like,” he examined the torn upper, “a tooth must have got stuck in one of the perforations and the cat had to claw its self free. Shame though,” he tried to be philosophical – the chambermaid was actually trembling and he didn't want to add to her worries - “was the last pair my size in the shop. Still, easy come easy go.” He ceremonially dropped both spats in among crumpled score sheets in the wastebasket.
With the apologetic chambermaid gone Mack and Hal returned to the tune, tweaked a chord here, added a pause there. Glen would have to complete the arrangement for his band.
“All we need now,” Mack decided before they took themselves to bed, “are lyrics and a title.”
“Let us consult the Austrian,” Hal yawned.
The rain had stopped by the morning, and Mack accompanied Hal to the diner for what he called a 'Good 'ol American breakfast.' Neither had known what to order from the hotel menu.
With the early sun glinting on last night's raindrops Mack also kept noticing the cats that Hal had mentioned; and he got to saying at sight of every new cat – in a porch, on a windowsill - “Hey Hal, think that's the cat who clawed your new shoes?” Mack even kept it up when they left the diner. Until Hal excitedly grabbed his arm: “That's it Mack! That's our title.” And he sang it, “Pardon me Hal, is that the cat who chewed your new shoes? Left field or what?”
The duo hurried back to their hotel suite, where they scribbled cat and shoe lyrics over the score. Took them a giddy hour.
They phoned Glen to sing and whistle it to him.
“Love the tune,” Glen said. “But the gig's on the station concourse. A train theme'd be better.”
© Sam Smith 1st January 2021
Empiricism – the system which, rejecting all a priori knowledge, rests solely on experience and induction.
Empiricist – one whose knowledge is got from experience only.
The time has come to forego and forfeit all other fond isms whereby the human world has been governed. Capitalism, communism, socialism; the totalitarianism of religions; all have led us to this sorry state, to the climate collapsing about ourselves and with another new pestilence at every turn.
Fifteen year old Greta Thunberg was right, continues to be right, we should now be governed only by science, by research, by examination. By what works. Realism, provable fact, has to be the basis of our every new policy, every new law.
Decades of open-minded, speculative science fiction, of rise-and-fall historical narratives, have taught us that the collapse of any civilisation can come about very easily. Easter Island's deforestation and depopulation usually cited here.
Also consider modern warfare: one consequence always cholera.
Bombs destroy sewage systems and rupture water supplies. Cholera ensues. And once that disease has weakened the population other infectious diseases more easily take hold, and work back towards the 'victors', whose spending on health care was curtailed by their spending on war. Ergo: peace is essential for any civilisation here to endure.
A post-apocalyptic book of mine, Once Were Windows Once Were Doors, is sitting at Wordcatcher Publishing waiting for the UK economy to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit. Once Were Windows Once Were Doors tells of a life long after climate change and pestilence. (The first 10 pages of Once Were Windows Once Were Doors can be read here – http://samsmithbooks.weebly.com/first-10-pages.html )
The present pestilence, Covid-19, was caused not by war, but certainly by a lack of empiricism. Sars, ebola, bird-flu, and possibly other flu-like and coronavirus contagions, have likely been caused by viruses crossing over from animal to human; and while we continue to eat animals there exists the likelihood of yet more cross-overs. Or BSE-type diseases, resulting from our meddling with the food chain.
Will this cause us to stop using known-to-be-dangerous pesticides? Will we stop growing food to feed to hormone-enhanced animals and then feed those animals to humans? No, we will not stop. Not while the world's impoverished are made to depend on factory-farmed meat, be it beef, pig or chicken. Empiricism is telling us that the time has come to reverse that dependence.
On the bright side (despair tells me that there has to be a bright side) could all these global crises mean an end at last to the nation state? From an historical perspective the nation state has to already be a brief phenomena. Will ongoing international commerce, shared concerns and cross-border communication see a de facto end to the 20th Century's petty divisions? Will a new empiricism create a sense of belonging to this our one planet, our one people?
NB. A cautionary note.
In many dictionaries an alternative meaning for empiricism is given as quackery. This is because in the 19th Century new scientists, calling themselves empiricists, began questioning what had then passed for medical practice, which was based on traditional methods and followed time-honoured practice, whether their treatments effected a cure or not.
The empiricists held that new medical practice should be based on provable outcomes. Established doctors though had made a good living from wealthy patients who still expected to be bled or have hot cups stuck to their backs. So those doctors, turning the meaning on its head, called the new empiricists 'quacks', accusing them and their new-fangled provable outcomes 'quackery.' Which has become these days a common political ploy – accuse your opponents of the practice that you yourself are guilty of.
In their campaign against wasteful medicine the empiricists often cited the Rockefellers calling their 'Nujol' a cure for cancer. 'Nujol' didn't provably cure cancer. What 'Nujol' did was give the patient diarrhoea, was supposed therefore to be purging them of the disease.
Despite this twisted mirror-version of Empiricism the joint definition still persists in many dictionaries and lexicons. Please disregard.
© Sam Smith 25h February 2021
Jack the Lad
Forgive frequent flyer me, I'm wont to boast. But what I'm about to tell you did happen. Honest.
I'm in my prime, an international salesman, and I was again US bound, had managed to get a last minute seat on a double-decker flight. Albeit that the seat was in the unpopular middle set of seats. I consoled myself that I had the seat next to me empty. Must have been a cancellation – my one being half a pair? Whatever the reason it allowed me some space.
Space that I was already making the most of when a flustered woman arrived on the deck and was being directed to that one spare seat by a steward.
Flustered maybe, but what a woman. Imagine a young Naomi Campbell merged with an equally young Charlize Theron. Being hurried along her poise mind you was a little off, but that was hardly a detraction. Whispering sorry after sorry - for making the fat family of holidaying Americans get ungraciously to their fat feet (white socks!) - this vision of earthly delights squeezed her way, apology by apology, towards little ol' me.
Have to confess I was struggling to disguise my increased heart-rate, didn't want to appear gauche. Moving my jacket off her seat to the floor and quickly kicking it back under my seat, super-cool me smiled a casual hello and said, “Just made it then?”
“Hate flying,” she chattily responded. “Try to delay it long as I can. Actually,” she wriggled what looked to be a compact backside into the seat, “it's only the take-off that has me in pieces. Every single time I think we're not,” she dropped her voice to a whisper, “we're never going to make it. Then, once we're up, then I can relax. God I hate this.”
She buckled her seat-belt across her luscious lap.
“Tell you what,” I said, “talk to me. While we take off. Tell me about yourself. You're going to the US, what for?”
I assumed business. Not shopping. If wealthy enough for that she'd have gone on a less cramped flight.
“I'm to speak at a conference,” she said. “Principal speaker. In Houston. They're paying.” She indicated her crowded surroundings as if in explanation.
My own connection wasn't to Houston. I cursed my luck, but the conversation once begun I kept it up by asking, “What's the conference?”
“INC? What's that?”
“International Nymphomania Conference.”
“Really?” I so very casually said. (Be still my beating heart.) “There is such a thing?”
“Most certainly.” She turned on me two of the most candid eyes in the world. I felt my heart do a flip. “It is vitally necessary,” she so seriously told me, “for us to know all that we can about our own urges and about the men who can best satisfy them.”
“Well... yes... you would.” Held by those eyes I was, for one of the few times in my life, almost at a loss for words. “And you're one of the speakers?”
“Keynote even.” The eyes still held me. “As you can imagine there are at the conference the usual talks and tips. On all the things that you would expect for a grouping such as ours. Talks on sexual health, on contraception, how to keep ourselves safe. How to make ourselves attractive.”
“You've done well.”
I liked that non-coy acknowledgement. “So what's your talk on? Specifically?” I asked.
“As keynote speaker I'm to,” she has put on a posh voice, “address conference on stereotypes. Which,” she looked worriedly around the deck at the other passengers, “ has me as nervous as now.”
“Stereotypes?” I said. The eyes came back to me.
“Yes. Stereotypes.” She picked up her thread, “Many of our members get themselves into all kinds of muddles and scrapes following stereotypes. Stereotypes that are frankly incorrect.”
“Incorrect how?” This actually had salesman me interested.
“For instance,” she said, voice lowered and as she leant towards me the bulge of her breast almost touching my upper arm, “the stereotype of the indigenous African penis being the weightiest and the longest. It is emphatically not so. That physical peculiarity belongs to the Native Americans.”
“Really?” I said. “The Native Americans, that is a surprise. What other stereotypes?”
"The best lovers for instance aren't French. Not by a long shot. The very best lovers, those most attentive to their partner's needs, are Greek.”
At that point the sign came on telling us that we could undo our seat belts.
“We're up.” I told her.
“So we are.” She relaxed back into her seat away from me, but turned to smile gratefully at me: “Thank you so much. You got me chattering on and I really never noticed our taking off. Letting you in on all those trade secrets, and I don't even know your name.”
“It's Tonto.” I held out my hand: “Tonto Popadopalous.”
© Sam Smith 12th March 2021
Returning from an early morning walk I was approaching the branch library in Maryport when I noticed a red hen waiting for the library's door sensor to register her presence. The hen had to jump up a couple times to get the door's electric eye to notice her. When finally the glass door did slide back the red hen, with a stately pace at odds with her flapping jumps, crossed the rubber mat onto the mottled blue carpet and up to the counter.
Maryport branch library, a low grey building, has a large plate glass window beside the door. I saw the library assistant lean forward over the counter and appear to ask the hen what she wanted. The assistant listened, nodded, reached down behind the desk and, bending from the waist over the counter, awkwardly helped the red hen to tuck a single book securely under each wing. Thus laden the hen turned about and left through the library's automatic door. She came down the wheelchair slope, and turned left.
I have to confess that I was so astonished by all that I had just witnessed that, the hen having left, I first looked back through the plate glass window to the library assistant for possible explanation. But the assistant had wandered away to another task; and, by the time I roused myself to wonder just where the hen might have gone and I hastened up to the corner by the riverside allotments, the red hen and her two books was nowhere to be seen.
Returning to the library I found the female assistant with a trolley of returned books slotting them back into their alphabetical – by author – shelf homes.
“I saw you give two books to a chicken,” I whispered. Though why I whispered, and in such an accusatory manner, I know not. That early there was but the two of us in the library.
“Yes,” she said, searching alphabetically along the S section. “Comes in first thing. Always asks for two books.”
“Really?” I said disbelievingly, while also accepting what mine own eyes had witnessed but moments before. “Every day?”
“Not every day.” The assistant slipped a copy of Marraton home. “Once or twice a week.”
While the assistant wheeled her trolley along to the Ws I stood transfixed, endeavouring to absorb this information. When I did rouse myself to catch up with the assistant I again couldn't seem to help whispering. Came from being in a library I suppose.
“I didn't,” I said, again accusingly (a cross-examining lawyer doubting her testimony?), “see the hen bring any books back.”
“Never brings them back. I keep a stack just for her below the counter. Those that've been damaged, that'll be sent for recycling.”
Despite the evidence of mine own eyes I still found it hard to believe that I was having this conversation.
“Once or twice a week?” I said.
“Usually,” she said; and she was called away by a recently arrived ragged-looking man wanting to use one of the computer terminals.
Two mornings later found me loitering on the corner opposite the library. Yesterday night and morning it had been raining and I had figured that even a bibliophile hen wouldn't have ventured out in such a Cumbrian downpour.
This grey but dry morning the red hen arrived just before opening and, as when I had first seen her, she stood waiting for the door sensor to register her presence. This mor
ning she only had to do her flapping jump once.
I scurried into the library hot on her heels – if hens can be said to have heels. I didn't though follow her up to the counter. Once through the sliding door I stepped aside and stayed waiting, hoping to witness the transaction entire.
The hen, as before, approached the counter. As before she waited for the library assistant to notice her. Then she said simply, “Buk Buk.”
The library assistant, as before, reached down to her – I now knew – stack of dog-eared and about-to-be recycled books, leant over the counter and tucked one of those books securely under each of the red hen's wings.
I slipped out the same open door as the hen, but held back a few steps as I followed her up to the riverside allotments. I had assumed that one of those allotment sheds would be her destination. The allotments were a drop down from the terrace row. But no, the hen – at her stately pace – went along to the main road and, keeping to the near pavement, she proceeded over the river bridge.
I nearly lost sight of her when, head down, she suddenly dashed between the traffic. I caught a glimpse of her however as she went under the iron gate into the woods on the opposite side.
Worried that I would lose sight of her in the brambly undergrowth of the woods I ran to catch up, was relieved to find her keeping to the well-trodden path.
The River Ellen curves through this wood before going under the road bridge. The path, more or less straight, took me through the trees and between massed Himalayan balsam before turning to run alongside the river.
The hen suddenly disappeared from view. Again I ran to catch up, arrived breathless above a slant path going down the muddy riverbank.
We were at that part of the river where there used to be an old weir. Like many of Maryport's other industrial remains hard to find an actual explanation for the weir's having once been.
On this side of the river were some part submerged slabs of rock. An extremely large frog was crouched on one of those slant-submerged rocks; and the red hen w
as picking her way from rock to rock towards the frog. When she arrived on his rock the frog grabbed, I thought rudely, the books from under the hen's wings. Saying “Reddit Reddit,” the frog then carelessly cast each book into the river.
© Sam Smith 12th April 2021
We all to some extent suffer from this, a thought failing to fully exist for us unless we have written it down. It is what happens after that that concerns me here. Because hypergraphia, the deep desire to write, has led – courtesy of the latest technology – to a proliferation of self-published books.
Hypergraphia in and of itself doesn't mean unfortunately that the author has anything original to say, nor that they are burning to put into words their life experience. No, they simply want to lose themselves in the act of writing.
Like weekend watercolourists hypergraphics want only to produce a kind of writing, writing that's in the style of, writing that's like their favourite/trendy author... Nothing new being said, considered; writing solely for the sake of writing it emerges like the diluted clay that dribbles out of old mine workings, reasons for long gone.
Fortunately some hypergraphics don't seek publication. Oh they may have once, and have been so upset by an off-hand rejection (not one fantasy of adoring readership fulfilled) that they have never risked rejection again, preferring the mild endorsements of their drop-in writing group.
The writing of the self-absorbed hypergraphic is meant to be looked at and admired, not critiqued. Their outrage at negative comments in an Amazon review: “So unfair,” they cry. I'm supposing therefore that a hypergraphic's writing is not intended to have an impact, is not meant to elicit a reaction, even possibly – perish the thought! - cause offence. A hypergraphic's is writing with no ping or zing to it. And there is a digital mountain of it.
So very easy now for serious writers to find their work lost in this fog of verbiage, while at the same time being excluded from the mainstream's ever-recycled few. But still we, being ourselves hypergraphics, write.
So be it.
© Sam Smith 24th April 2021
I once hand-wrote a version of this in an old exercise book for my daughter, with drawings. No drawings here.
Once upon a time, but not so very long ago, a young mother was undressing her toddler daughter at bath-time. When she pulled her daughter's vest up the mother was shocked to discover a golden screw where her daughter's belly button should have been. The mother's first instinct was to try to pull it out. But her daughter cried, “Stop! Stop! You're hurting me! Hurting me!”
This was in the older old days. The bath was a tin bath in front of a coal fire. And it was before the NHS, before X-rays even, when you had to pay just to be seen by a doctor. Fortunately, aside from when the mother occasionally tried to pull/squeeze/tug/grease the golden screw out of her daughter's belly button, her having it there didn't bother the little girl at all. Indeed she liked to wear it sometimes exposed like a jewel.
The father worked extra shifts in the factory, the mother took in more sewing, and after several months they had saved enough money to pay for a visit to the doctor. Who said that he had never seen anything like it. “But definitely gold,” he said. “Fortunately an inert metal.”
The doctor seemed more interested in the gold than in their daughter. Unable himself to remove the golden screw the doctor recommended the parents take their daughter to a belly-button specialist. The doctor wrote a letter for them to take. He charged extra for writing the letter.
other, father and daughter talked over what to do next. The 'specialist' fees were four times what the doctor's had been. The daughter didn't want to go: the doctor's prodding and pulling at the golden screw had hurt her. And the letter to the 'specialist' said that the doctor's own medical library contained 'not the least reference to...' '...such a peculiar affliction.'
“So what's the point?” the father tiredly said.
Years passed. The girl's seventh year had in its middle a long hot summer. The girl and her two younger brothers had the tin bath outside and were taking turns to jump in and out of the cold water. They were wearing only their underpants.
A tinker's handcart came rattling along the road, the tinker shouting out that he'd mend pots and pans. Wondering at the shouting the girl's mother came to her door. When the clinking and clattering tinker came abreast her door he gestured to her daughter splashing in and out of the tin bath.
“Seen that before,” he said loudly. “Want to know how to get rid?”
“You know how?”
“Not easy,” he said. “Timing's everything. On the full moon you have to be in Wicklow's eight turret castle. And you have to lay your daughter to sleep in the top room of the seventh turret. That's the turret right on the cliff's edge. Only on the full moon mind. In the morning the screw'll be gone.”
The mother didn't know where Wicklow was. The tinker explained.
“Can't afford the fare there,” the mother started to turn back indoors.
“Go the tinker ways,” he told her. “We travel cheap.”
“How so?” she eyed him doubtfully.
“A fair bit of walking, and a wee bit of sneakage.” And he proceeded to tell her how and where to go.
A week or so before the full moon mother and daughter set off following the tinker's instructions. Father was left at home looking after the two boys.
Tramping back lanes and by-ways, and cadging more than a few lifts from lonely carters, mother and daughter reached Holyhead after four days and slipped unseen aboard a ferry. Next day they sneaked ashore in Dublin. Two days of walking later they reached Wicklow and found the castle with eight turrets.
The castle though was in a sorry state of repair. What was left of it however was vast when compared to their tiny terrace house.
Exploring it room by empty room there didn't seem to be anyone living there, until on the evening of the sixth day they chanced upon an old man in a dark room in the basement of the seventh turret.
“What you a'doing here?” He squinted through wrinkles and whiskers at them. The mother explained to him about the tinker and her daughter's 'condition.'
“Oh,” the old man said to the daughter, “you'm one of them. Best hurry then. Moon rises early tonight.”
“Where do we go?” the mother asked.
“Only her. Won't work if you're both there. Shy, you see. She has to sleep alone.”
It was almost dusk by the time mother and daughter had climbed all the stone stairs to the very top of the turret. The single room there, as they'd been told, had a stone bench for a bed.
“They said you're to sleep here,” the mother told her daughter. “You can have my coat to lie on. I'll be on the landing below. If you need me, just cry out.”
The daughter, a kind girl, was concerned that her mother would be cold without her coat. They had shivered together nights on their journey there. She gave her mother her small coat. “Will at least keep your legs warm,” she said.
“You're a good girl,” the mother tearfully said; and whispering endearments to one another they reluctantly parted.
On the below-landing the mother couldn't find anywhere even semi-comfortable where she could go to sleep. All was cold grey stone. Worried for her daughter she spent the night sitting on the cold stone steps, or she walked in small circles on the small circular landing, rubbing her arms to keep warm.
The daughter meanwhile – it had been a tiring week for an eight year old who had never left home before – carefully did as she had been instructed. With her mother's coat under her she laid herself down on the stone bench and she pulled up her top so that her bare belly was exposed. Almost straight away she fell into the deepest of deep sleeps.
As the whiskery old man had said the moon rose almost as dusk fell. A moon beam, coming through the turret's narrow window, began to travel around the daughter's bedchamber. When the silver moonbeam reached the girl's knees a miniature man with curly golden hair squeezed himself sideways through the narrow window and came walking down the moonbeam. He was carrying, for him, a huge golden screwdriver. (For us, a moderately large screwdriver.)
The little man with the curly golden hair smiled to see the young girl's dreaming smile, and he whistled a quiet tune while waiting for the silver moonbeam to reach her belly. As soon as it did he set to work, struggling to turn the huge, for him, screwdriver.
His solid gold screwdriver had no ratchet like modern screwdrivers, and was almost the same size as himself. And he had to hurry. According to the tinker the screw could only be got out when lit by the moonbeam.
Struggle furiously though the little man did, and the golden screw came out. He tucked it inside his bodice and, pausing just the once to smile down on the still dream-smiling girl, the little man walked up the narrow moonbeam and squeezed out the narrow turret window.
When the grey dawn came it woke three raucous seagulls. The three raucous seagulls woke the girl. Sleepily she felt down her tummy.
“Mum!” she shouted. “It's gone!”
Her mother, also part-woken by the three raucous seagulls, came up the stairs as quickly as her cold-stiffened legs would allow. Staggering into the room she saw her daughter's completely bare belly. Giving a cry of joy she gathered her girl-child up into her arms. And her bum fell off.
© Sam Smith 3rd May 2021
Although all my life I have been an uneasy part of any grouping, uncomfortable belonging, I have had an equal distrust of individualism, of belief and pride in the self.
The fundamental falsity of individualism is that it ignores our reliance on so many others. Whatever our civilisation, whatever our society or class, within that civilisation we rely on unknown others to provide us with foodstuffs, clothing, housing, even coherent transport systems. As individuals we cannot escape that intricate interdependence. When ill some unknown other will nurse us. When dead some anonymous other will dispose of our carcass.
Yet the myth of the lone individual persists, is even celebrated. But can any individual be truly self-reliant? Even a hermit has to rely on the rest of us keeping our distance. Not only that the would-be hermit in his or her remote mountain cave still cannot remain unaffected by the rest of humanity. Nowadays for instance they will have to cope with the changes in climate caused by the rest of us.
Every generation some more are led to believe that they are uniquely themselves, wholly independent of all around them. Such delusion, such false belief, will lie at the root of their future dissonance, and will have them, when they try to impose their myth onto others, at odds with all about them and – sadly – their own self.
One encounters this false individualism these days mostly in the prolonged adolescence of middle-class USA, their emphasis on identity, their similar celebrations of individuality. Bosses particularly suffer from this myth, usually men who have made themselves, who have found themselves important, that is those men who have given themselves a greater importance than those around them. Which brings us to patriarchy and even within age-old patriarchy the inability of some men to control those around them, inevitably leading to domestic abuse.
Once one of those individual and self-important men achieves political power, Trump for instance, their myth of individualism becomes a dissonance that gets inflicted on the rest of us. Or here in the UK one 'individual' – both men with affected hairstyles – but this one ambitious for a prime ministerial title, imposes his incompetence on the rest of us. To our misfortune during a pandemic.
© Sam Smith 16th May 2021
What with Custer's Last Stand, the nymphomaniac's preference and now this, I might seem to have an obsession with native Americans. Not so. It's just the way the tales fell into my joke lexicon, and that unfortunately some kinds of humour are reliant on tropes and stereotypes.
In this tale we have the Chief of a Northern people, who are on their annual migration North to South. The Chief is slowly walking around their temporary encampment with his four year old son.
“Dad,” the boy says, “tell me again how we get our names.”
“I've told you this before son. Several times now.”
“Tell me again Dad. I've forgotten.”
His father sighs, but accepts that children learn by repetition.
“OK son,” he says. “The moment a child is born the squaw in attendance – not the mother, she'd be too exhausted. No, the squaw in attendance lifts the flap of the wigwam.”
“A flap like that Dad?” They are passing a tepee painted with buffaloes and crescent moons.
“Yes, like that. The squaw in attendance lifts the flap, and the very first thing that she sees is how the child gets his name. Or her name. That is how your uncle, born in the cold north, got his name, Standing Bear. Your cousin got called Running Elk. While your graceful elder sister became Starlight on Water. She was born when we were beside that lake. Remember the lake?”
“Yes. From shore to shore.”
“Do you understand now?”
“Yes. Thank you Dad.”
“Good. Now go and join Fleeing Wolf and the others at the stream.”
Two days later the people have made camp near an expanse of sage brush. The father and son again take an evening stroll around the temporary encampment. And again the four year old boy asks to be told how their people get their names.
Unhappy with the camp's closeness to the whispering sage brush, and with a lingering displeasure at the ancient squaw who attended his son's birth, and now exasperated with his son asking again how their people get their names, he kneels before his son and, grabbing him by both shoulders, he speaks angrily straight into his face: “You are not a stupid boy.”
“I forgot what you said,” the boy begins, trying to squirm out of his father's grip.
“You are not forgetful in other ways.” The father's grip tightens. “I will not go to the bother of telling you again.”
“Please Dad. Please. One last time.” He staggers backwards on being released as his father stands. “Please Dad. Please. How do we get our names? How?”
“No.” His father turns away. “Enough is enough, Two Dogs Fucking.”
© Sam Smith 25th May 2021
As noted by Charles Dickens the last government to officially reintroduce torture was that of Italy's Francis IV, 1779-1846. Now, here in 2021, we have had Boris Johnson and his Tory gang trying to do the same, regardless of the UK being a signatory to the Geneva Convention, which holds torture to be illegal.
Simple minds seek simple (and quick) solutions. The belief that torture might work also accords with Johnson's laziness: if it's too much bother to obey an international law, ignore it, while also blithely dismissing as irrelevant electoral law, parliamentary procedures or the recent customs protocols agreed with the European Union, and casually waving aside the Geneva Convention itself as of little consequence.
Neither torture nor capital punishment work. A person being tortured will ultimately confess to anything. Frantz Fanon's work on torture should be required reading for all seeking political office. Or they should at least take a look at how not to get lumbered with a Guantanamo full of prisoners kept there on the strength of torture-induced, and therefore legally dubious, confessions.
As torture is no route to the truth likewise capital punishment has been proved to be no deterrent to crime. Here I am in agreement with Dostoyevsky's 'Idiot', in that capital punishment is of itself the premeditated and therefore the greater crime. Yet US states and right wing politicians here, and the several kinds of idiot who make up so many of the world's governments, still attempt to seduce their simpleminded electorates by calling for the 'death penalty,' regardless of the wider consequences. (One consequence being that those US states with the death penalty have the highest per capita murder rates.)
Thankfully when the bill approving torture – retrospectively – came before Parliament here, there were sufficient law-abiding and conscience stricken Tory MPs that doubted the wisdom, and legality of it, that even if they didn't vote against the bill, they abstained.
The torture bill failed.
© Sam Smith 14th June 2021
Is every ending but a beginning, all a process of becoming, every resolution but a part of becoming?
A box of new books arrives from the printer. The author lays them out for a social media photo boast, carries around a smile for a couple of hours. That smile fades as public appearances are considered, arranged.
A bridge is built. A worthy cuts the ribbon to allow the first traffic to cross. Already rust has found a spot on one of the girders. Maintenance is being arranged and will be ongoing.
A love is schemed and fought for, and won. Cohabitation follows. And follows. What was briefly sublime becomes ordinary. If a heterosexual pair he might later hanker after firmer, younger female flesh. While she might hold in feminist contempt the man-child she struggles to remain with.
The war refugee finds sanctuary, seeks and is granted citizenship. Only to discover that during the process of settlement the government of his new country has changed and these new politicians are looking for a war to fight, unite their populace. The popular press now has the once-refugee seen as the enemy.
After the explosion at Chernobyl the surrounding land became a radioactive no-go area for human beings. That contaminated land became a wildlife sanctuary for European bison.
That is not to say that every other disaster/inundation/firestorm results in at least one beneficial side-effect. Because of what we human beings have done, are doing to the planet, some species – having taken thousands of years to evolve – will never return. In many cases what we have created is a terminal wasteland.
© Sam Smith 29th June 2021
One aspect of my collaboration with Mal Earl that took me by surprise was how the placement of a poem could pretty much dictate its format.
First allow me to explain how the collaboration came about.
Ever since I lived in Cumbria – Mal still lives there, near Whitehaven – we have been considering how we might put a collection together. After much intermittent back and forth we agreed a title, Map. But then couldn't come up with a visual theme/character to carry it through. Mal had moments of inspiration. But nothing stuck.
Meanwhile I'd moved to Wales and Mal had put together his – long time in consideration – homage to Edward Thomas. The full colour pamphlet, Dark Pastoral - https://malearl.com - had a select few of Edward Thomas's poems along with Mal's artwork. His blackbird for Adlestrop is truly a thing of beauty.
Mal's drawing of birds there in Dark Pastoral had him look again at the few bird poems I had sent him in Map. He asked if I could send more.
He selected a few, we agreed a title, in the hand; and he ran with them. Images first. The sketch of the raven prior to its being coloured for the Edward Thomas pamphlet, then a wren. Which, for me, was the clincher.
Here's the wren poem as I sent it to Mal.
Every Day Begins Bravely
When daybreak's cold light
lies behind trees and hedges
and roadside verges are dewsilvered
a wren flies up to a thin ridge of roof
or topmost cable
and in his hard little voice
shouts his defiance at all predators
the colours of the day
floating above the gravity of sleep
I tell myself to get up
And here is the poem with Mal's first drawing of the wren.
You will notice, as I immediately did, that he has centre-spaced the poem.
Now when as editor I receive centre-spaced poems for The Journal I pretty much know, just by virtue of their being centre-spaced, that I am likely to reject them. For little other reason than that over the years I have come to recognise centre-spacing and ornate fonts as the mark of the poet novice. Being unsure how to format the poem the novice sticks it in the middle of the page.
Yet here, with the layout of the drawing, my poem – now centre-spaced – filled the space perfectly and doesn't affect the rhythm. I consequently became happy to let Mal, with his design eye, decide the formatting of the poems.
To begin with some stayed left-justified, and some became centred. The prose poems were of course easiest and stayed as blocks of print. Mal's most impressive initial change though came with the poem accompanying the peregrine. It went from left to right-justified, and damn me for my prejudices, it still worked.
Of course it didn't end there...
Copies of in the hand are available from me here -
© Sam Smith 13th July 2021
Time and again I come back, keep coming back, to how so very easy is the creation of more concentration camps. How easy it still is for politicians, unchallenged, to define other human beings as worthless, as impediments to be removed. Or their being of a 'lesser race' or a 'lower class' their only use as slaves (paid or unpaid); and once their usefulness ceases, rather than become a drain on the public purse, best they be disposed of.
In We Need Madmen - https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/9284 - I told of life after Soper, a UK politician who followed the same path as Hitler. Told just how easy it was for him and his fellow politicians to recruit an army of followers. I invented various sources to relate their history.
‘In the Boer War they were christened concentration camps. Hitler kept the name. Stalin called them Labour camps. The British renamed them Internment camps. The Israelis referred to theirs as Refugee camps. Elsewhere they were known as Transit, Displacement, Detainee, Re-education, Migrant, et cetera. Their fences were all topped with barbed wire. By the time Soper arrived there were no euphemisms left. They have become simply Camps.’ Joseph Tsolke Daily News.
‘Soper set out to “purify and strengthen” Europe, to rid it of its dross — welfare spongers, social benefit scroungers, the good-for-nothings, the slackers — in other words, the weakest. Soper’s spartan philosophy, like Hitler’s, had a genetic base: the sickly and the weak infect the strong. . .
‘Now it was a generally accepted myth in each of the European countries that the minority migrant workers formed the bulk of the so-called spongers. In Britain it was the Asians and the Blacks, in France the Algerians, in Germany the Turks, in Holland the Surinams and Chinese, in Denmark the Cypriots. . . All went to the Camps.’ Frieda G, UNESCO, Contemporary History Lectures, Series 2
This was written way before what Donald Trump so very nearly achieved, before what Mohdi and Bolsonaro have been attempting, before it has become readily apparent that the Israelis really do define the Palestinian people as lesser beings and treat them accordingly.
While here in the UK Johnson and his crew already hold some people as worthless, of no account. So his government cuts foreign aid, welfare benefits, finds clever ways to stop asylum seekers... All the beginnings that can lead to another unhappy return. Johnson has already managed to convince the voting majority to act against their own best interest with Brexit. Next he will have them turn on their actual neighbours.
You could justifiably ask why this morbid preoccupation with possible disaster. Let me give my bleak obsession some historical context. I was born at the very end of WW2, grew up with newsreel images of the Belsen pits, survivors' tales of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Then came Biafra, Vietnam, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Srebrenica, the Uyghurs, Guantanamo... The list is too long, too repetitive.
When I went on to write pieces - https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/1096975 - I had in mind a nameless mid-European country, somewhere on the edge of the Union. Contemporary, but of no great international influence. The type of place Johnson and his self-congratulatory like will sell their arms to.
Beak yellow as hawthorne leaves in autumn, a watched
blackbird runs across the guardhouse lawn. Stops.
Even here, a man can be the tankard of his own being;
but, always, on the edge of the small sensible calm
each man makes for himself, there are barbarians.
A guard, his face a mask of intent, makes
one man kneel, bend his head, shoots him
in the hollow of the neck. On hut roofs
wagtails bounce along, pause with a Parkinsonian
tremble. The prisoners do not know the man's
offence, nor how he may have appeared offensive.
So the men look down: eye contact could
initiate the fever of slaughter. And most
men here have trembled on the edge of other
trenches. Old bubbled varnish freckles
odd planks and snail trails tinsel
the huts' sides. Beyond the fence, on yellow
grass tufts, spiders have spun grey candyfloss.
Come the pandemic “Let the bodies pile high” is what Dominic Cummings reported Johnson as saying.
© Sam Smith 1st August 2021
In 1996 James Hogg, of University Salzburg, published my first collection, To Be Like John Clare.
I was working then in Tone Vale Hospital [see previous postings]. Because of the subject matter – the asylum and my relationship with the surrounding Somerset countryside – and because of my continuing to work in an almost fully staffed 32 ward hospital, plus the local radio and newspapers taking an interest, that first collection sold surprisingly well.
I moved on to other collections, in 2000 to other jobs, and shortly after to other places.
In 2004 Boho Press, an imprint of Anthony Delgrado's Bluechrome, published Problems & Polemics, a follow-up collection to To Be Like John Clare. The poems in Problems & Polemics covered the move from Tone Vale to my working in a small acute unit and they concentrated solely on psychiatric matters.
When planning a launch for Problems & Polemics I thought, given that I was living in a new place with a new audience, it might be a good idea to have some copies of To Be Like John Clare to hand – for those with a wider interest in mental health.
I contacted Salzburg, now being run by Wolfgang Görtschacher, James Hogg having died shortly after To Be Like John Clare had been released. Wolfgang said that To Be Like John Clare was out of print, but that if I cared to pay – he named a sum way beyond my day-job wages (a cashier then in an Ilfracombe amusement arcade) - he'd do another print run.
Problems & Polemics on its own went on to get some good reviews, and some sales, but by the time I had settled in Cumbria Anthony's Boho and Bluechrome were on their way to going bust. In the years following I played around with making some of Problems & Polemics into a chapbook; and then I moved to Wales. Where, in 2018, Wordcatcher of Cardiff proposed a brand new edition of Problems and Polemics. (David Norrington, owner of Wordcatcher and married to a mental health professional, has a dislike of ampersands).
By then it being almost two decades since I'd left nursing I thought a better idea might be to amalgamate the two mental health books and call the joined pair, Asylum Poems. So I contacted Wolfgang Görtschacher again, asked if he would release To Be Like John Clare from contract. He said that he'd much prefer putting out a new edition of To Be Like John Clare, this time with a poem per page, unlike the first edition where I had insisted on poems going over the page. The whole collection being a narrative I had wanted people to keep on reading. And from what doctors and nurses later told me they had found it unputdownable. Not that I'd recommend poems going over the page for every collection. With a poem a page the new Salzburg edition would therefore be larger, have a new cover and sell for a higher price.
For production costs of this bigger book, Wolfgang said, my share would cost me ….gulp.…. another sum, in Euros, way beyond my sterling bank balance.
So Wordcatcher brought out as solo the new edition of Problems and Polemics - https://www.amazon.com/Problems-Polemics-Discourse-Mental-Ill-Health-ebook/dp/B07L8H6PT9/ref=sr_1_3?dchild=1&keywords=Problems+%26+Polemics&qid=1629020116&s=books&sr=1-3 Those who have come by a copy have found the poems to be still sadly relevant.
Tired though of the poems in To Be Like John Clare having been locked out of sight in Salzburg these last twenty years I have now decided to give them – a couple at a time: fair usage – an occasional airing in this blog. Here are the first two.
In the asylum on a winter's night
pale crickets cheep
among the heating pipes.
Now is the slow time of stones,
their hot creation and cold erosion,
where a beetle can plod on
through dry leaf litter
under dry cracking trees.
Along squeaking asylum corridors
in boxed ceiling conduits,
among looped, colour-coded cables,
unseen crickets cheep.
The echoes are quick and sibilant,
As if here there wasn't,
Distantly the sound comes
through doors and echoing up walls
a man giving a bark like a big dog.
Phlegm bubbles and the bark rasps out
through a throat already inflamed,
a mind caught up on the petulant production
of phlegm and the explosion of cough.
A bent man in disorganised clothes
begs cigarettes in the entrance foyer.
A dribbling woman too drips her fingertips
on passing sleeves. Along the corridor,
singing and marching, comes a thin woman.
And goes. Another arrives in a rush and
She is ignored
by shutdown selves in shop and canteen.
Another mind on another ward
has magnified or misremembered her pain
and she yelps - yow yow yow yow - starting
even at the prospect of being moved. She
sounds like a seagull calling. Also distantly.
Should you be so wealthy or so unwise, first edition copies of To Be Like John Clare are available at outrageous prices in the outer reaches of the internet and Amazon.
© Sam Smith 15th August 2021
Corruption on the scale that we now have here in the UK would historically, and usually elsewhere, have preceded a revolution.
Let us look at just how, here in the UK, we are corrupted.
We have a self-sustaining ruling class, whose mock opposition draws from the selfsame university debating societies. Their joint sense of entitlement will have them time and again awarding themselves pay rises and extra expenses while asking the general population to take sacrificial pay cuts.
I have long lacked confidence in the 4th Estate here, its 'independence' from those it claims to 'objectively' report upon. The UK's 'independent' press depends for its existence on advertisers who, if they dislike what a newspaper or broadcaster does, they withdraw their advertising. If the newspapers' owners are individuals then they are multi-millionaires with investments to protect. If the media's owners are corporate then they are already embedded in the system – and if not already corrupt they can be pressured, can be bought.
This corruption is taken-for-granted, a snake eating its own tail. Just look how many media moguls also end up in the House of Lords, where they sit alongside Bishops, those past masters of the cover-up. Pet paedophile priest anyone?
So how are we to strive here? Within this society, this system? And towards what? How seek the admiration of, acceptance by one's contemporaries? You too crave a knighthood? An Order of the British Empire? But to want to succeed on their terms you have to believe that the UK's is an establishment worth belonging to. Or is to succeed here in the UK evidence that you have failed as a member of the human race?
Once corruption becomes accepted then how that country functions will be below par. No-one is trusted, nothing is believed. Only those closest to one are trusted, each smaller unit operating independently of the whole. So it is with corruption that taxes don't get paid, laws get disobeyed. No-one believes.
So how to strive upwards now in this faux meritocracy, the corrupt UK? You must choose one of the two main political parties. You could try the self-named 'party of business,' the Tories, a.k.a The Mean Graspers. Or putting on an earnest face you could join the Liberals or Labour, the parties now of Petty Bourgeois Respectability; and which will also lead you eventually to your own seat in the House of Lords. Budge up Lord Mandelspew.
The already elite, or those forelock-tuggers who identify with the elite, can dismiss all that I'm saying here as a loser's diatribe. They will do so at their peril. There are only so many times in the striving lives of those not-connected when they can discover, again too late, that the fix was in and all their efforts were of no consequence. Or rather the one consequence of their failure is to make them angrier with each realisation. So does every unfair, every corrupt society, sit upon a bubbling lava bed of irrational anger.
To see just how corrupt the UK has become we don't have to look much further back than the Liars' Referendum that gave us Brexit. Now we have to tolerate a known liar as Prime Minister, while the drone-killing-crew remain in charge over in the equally corrupt USA. Both of our electorates will be led, by our 'independent' media, to vote for them or their lying like again.
Corruption on the scale that we now have would historically have preceded a revolution.
© Sam Smith 25th August 2021
I had thought to let this pair speak for themselves, but found that a brief explanation is needed for the second.
To Be Right, To Do Right
He was a big man, no neck.
he began to kick out the ward windows.
I grabbed him away, shouted his name into his face,
asked him what he thought he was doing.
All over him muscles pulled one against the other.
"I'm a good man Sam." he said, "Whole of my life
I have done as God and the voices told me."
Then he let us inject him.
I have seen men sat on wards
crouching over their pockets' contents,
organising an identity around
bottle tops, tobacco wrappers, an important form.
I have seen men on wards with,
in their pockets,
whole toilet rolls, flattened,
and scribbled over
end to end in slanted code.
Corners of magazines,
the porous insides of packages,
have been invested with tiny calligraphy
and words so profound that,
taken all together,
they become banal.
I have sat with men on wards
and we have looked out together
through small squared panes
at grounds enclosed by trees,
a view curtailed by summer haze.
I have sat with men
in their massive suicidal silence,
and to mark the passing of my time
I have talked,
pointing out a spotted flycatcher,
"Look, tied by elastic to its perch."
Fluttering out and back again.
Out and back again."
Out and back again."
Where the events related in the first poem, To Be Right..., took place on my own ward, those in the second happened throughout the hospital.
A chronic staff shortage had me initially taken on as an untrained nursing assistant. Although based on one of the acute wards, as one of the few 'extra' males I would get sent to other wards to 'special' those patients there thought to be a danger to themselves or to others. 'Specialling' meant that I had to keep the person being 'specialled' within arm's reach at all times. For a break sometimes, especially on a 13 hour shift, I'd be sent to another ward to 'special' someone else. For a while there at Tone Vale I apparently became known as 'Specialling Sam.'
© Sam Smith 1st October 2021
Too many of us. That we can readily agree on. Far far too many of us using up the planet's resources.
What we can't agree on is what's to be done. How do we stop this ever-expanding mass?
The right believe that our being too many is the fault of the fecund poor. They are correct; but they look no further than apportioning blame. Although they might go as far as fantasising on ways of adding bromide to slum dwellers' water supply. Or consider, but dismiss as eugenically impractical, the forced sterilisation of poor women.
Why is it that the unschooled poor have so many more children than the educated middle class? And we're talking populations here, whole countries, not individuals. A country's religion is often readily blamed. But religious belief only goes so deep into any population, is often just a way of being as lipservice respectable, as orthodox as your neighbour.
Take Roman Catholic opposition to contraception and abortion. Roman Catholic couples turn out to be only against contraception when they can't afford it. As soon as couples can, as soon as contraceptive devices become readily available, Roman Catholic populations start to decline.
This has held true throughout Europe. And it's not only Catholics, holds as true for any prohibitive religion, any wealthy country, Japan for instance. The population falls. Given the option wealthy societies, when children are no longer viewed as pensionable insurance, those societies stop reproducing their population.
So how do we stop the world's poor from, generation rapidly succeeding generation, reproducing their populations? The answer has to be by increasing their share of the planet's wealth, by education, by the availability of contraceptive devices.
However, having been forced lately to acknowledge that there are limits to the planet's wealth, for any poorer population to become less poor will require a wealthier population to become less wealthy.
Can humanity do this? Unlikely, when the gap between rich and poor has been widening within many Western countries these last few years. Unlikely therefore that the leaders of those countries will even attempt to increase the wealth of poorer countries. Given their exploitive mindset they are more likely to cynically rely on climate catastrophes ('Let the bodies pile high') wiping out huge portions of the world's population, while naively believing themselves inviolable.
© Sam Smith 14th September 2021
I listen to groups of thirty-somethings, those with job titles like Content Manager, gathered together in a bubble of talk within which they get excited over friends' news; and I wonder how that came to be.
I wonder too if our longevity is causing us to lose customs. Because we ourselves expect to still be here to see the 7 year repeat do we not now see the need to pass on our knowledge? Be that craft technique or agrarian know-how?
Does the comely ingénue only keep innocently asking supposedly candid questions because she can't remember the answers?
The ongoing puzzle too of the circles some choose to inhabit. The mixed messages for instance that some young women send out when, in the macho company they sought, they both flaunt and deny their sex. Responses to their own confusion getting sprayed angrily at those men equally bewildered by her signals.
It has to be part of our humanity to recognise parts of ourselves in others. But when those others are socially defined as insane we have to wonder if that definition might also apply – in those parts – to ourselves. Especially when the behaviours, the thoughts given words, have been our own but had been best kept private...
On the other hand, and keeping one's distance, one can behold someone's self-inflicted self-agonising, and wonder why they just don't get on with living?
But then do you too want to be one of those men or women who endeavour always to show themselves to be superior to their surroundings? Regardless?
I listen again to a group of thirty-somethings. This time without a sneer. Is a measure of maturity how one's ego responds to praise of another?
© Sam Smith 13th October 2021
I am supposing that any who come here are also likely to visit other blogs. These recommendations however aren't for other blogs, but for a couple of regular newsletters.
The first is by Maria Popova. It used to be called 'Brian Pickings', recently changed to 'Marginalia'. So far as I can make out the email address remains the same – email@example.com (I can't remember how I first signed up, but I assume that if one emails and asks how, one will be told.)
Marginalia's first outing – to my author of 'Trees' delight – concentrated on Ursula K Le Guin's fellow kinship with trees. Further content however has continued in much the same vein as 'Brain Pickings', every issue being an education, a provocation even. In that they have stimulated me to write or to go off in search of titles previously unmet.
Bulgarian by birth Maria Popova will take a subject, an aspect of art or literature, and she will explore it through the lens of her wide reading. Recurring, favourite lens being James Baldwin, Walt Whitman, Rilke, Kahil Gibran, Zadie Smith...She draws from many sources, hers an international take on what it is to be alive now. Also included in every newsletter is a variety of artistic reproductions – some William Blake, Japanese prints, illos from a recent edition of 'Leaves of Grass'...
While Maria Popova concerns herself with matters philosophical and artistic, Amanda Stern's newsletter specialises in matters psychological.
Amanda Stern – amandastern.bulletin.com / firstname.lastname@example.org – declares herself to be 'neither a therapist nor a medical professional' simply someone who has had an 'anxiety disorder' and who has subsequently developed an interest in the possible causes and various therapies for that and associated disorders. Each newsletter explores a particular theory or therapy. Not all however is speculation and theory, she also offers up a variety of practical suggestions.
Both of these newsletters demonstrate the wealth of knowledge available via, the very positive side of the internet. Which I fear could be lost, falling foul of clumsy politicians seeking to take control of social media, become an unfortunate side effect of their attempting to close down idiots' use of technology name-calling across the ether. So, before they do that, do take take advantage of these two regular newsletters.
For those of us who have lived so much of our lives within our imaginations, within our minds, the concept of having no busy brain, no active thoughts when applied to ourselves can seem, not only impossible, but can fill us with horror. Can seem equally impossible and horrific when applied to friends and colleagues. For instance I was shocked to my boots when I was first told that Anne Born had Alzheimer's.
Some history. When I began The Journal, its initial incarnation of Contemporary Anglo-Scandinavian Poetry, Anne had been an enthusiastic, if at times critical, supporter. And after the first couple of years I found that I was relying almost entirely on the translations of Anne and Robin Fulton.
Anne, living closer, became my guide to the breadth of Scandinavian poetry, her knowledge matched only by her humour and her enthusiasm. We attended many of the same readings - on a River Dart ferry, in a Salcombe pub garden, in Coleridge Cottage... to name but a few. My favourite reading memory of Anne however is when I organised a Poetry Cabaret in Taunton's Brewhouse theatre.
Anne, being more used to reading to a scattering of occupied chairs in well-lit rooms, found herself blinded by the Brewhouse theatre's stage lights. Unable to gauge the audience's reactions threw her. Trying to at least make eye contact with the front row of the audience – their feet and laps dimly visible from the stage – as she progressed through her reading Anne crouched lower and lower until she was almost kneeling.
Anne was old then, dressed old, had white hair. But she still swam regularly. Even after the sudden death of her husband. And, once recovered from that blow, Anne remained learned and fun. Even though we no longer met that often.
I had of necessity decided to change The Journal's format, had moved away by the time I learned of Anne's illness, of her having been admitted to a Nursing Home. Bear in mind that, although I had moved, it hadn't been so long before that I had been working on psycho-geriatric wards, which had basically been a day-round of feeding and toileting, dressing and undressing. To imagine Anne's bright intelligence in such a setting, with her wealth of knowledge, all those languages, that talent lost to herself... For Anne it had seemed a cruelly long ending.
Now I am of the age that Anne was at when she crouched lower and lower to see under the stage lights, and I am beginning to suspect my own mind. What do these pre-sleep hallucinations augur? How much is brain decay responsible for the manufacturing of voices and the unsettling images that I can carry through some days?
On an acute ward there was a patient who had not one but three PhDs, and who had zilch insight into the voices he had started to hear. He was simply unable to accept that the brain that he had relied on was now malfunctioning and throwing up these bizarre instruction that he, as an inventor, felt compelled to follow. Within his profession he had gone against accepted notions and beliefs, had followed the suspicions of an idea and had been rewarded, in that his peers had later acknowledged his breakthroughs. How then to now deny the rightness of that superlative mind? So he sought ways devious to not take his medication, medication which had dulled all of his thoughts.
The question that I now find myself asking of myself, is how do I know that my preoccupation with this is not being manufactured by my getting-to-be ancient and ailing brain. I do not have the vast literary and linguistic knowledge that Anne had, nor the innate genius of that scientist, but mine is the only window I look out of; and these days what I see from that window are friends and old lovers either newly dead or in stages of incomprehension on their way to dying.
© Sam Smith 17th November 2021
I was so sorry that the UK voted to leave the European Union. Even sorrier when our Brexit government straight away began wrapping itself in the Union Jack.
That said, as flag-waggers this government is by no means alone. Biden, having unseated flag-wagger Trump, still found it necessary to call for patriotism. As does this present and peculiar leader of the UK's Labour Party, Sir [?] Kier Starmer. And as ever the last few decades has seen an even more extreme version of patriotism taking place vis-a-vis Israel/Palestine.
Let's be clear: I don't like nation states. If there were no nation states would we ever go to war again? Which was why I so enjoyed being in the European Union, all those borderless countries, different cultures and languages accommodated into a singular whole.
Following on from that preference one might suppose that I would also approve of the four British nations being united. Except that here – especially when viewed from a Welsh valley, or even from the Cumbrian and North Devon coast – this union doesn't feel voluntarily entered into, but having been imposed from London.
Now I love being in Wales, even to the extent of adding the Welsh dragon to copies of The Journal. But am I patriotic? I don't think so.
When I arrived in Wales, impressed by its then leader, Leanne Wood, I joined the nationalist party of Wales, Plaid Cymru. Not because of its nationalism, but because Plaid's politics were then further to the left of Welsh Labour. That's no longer the case. With changes of leadership the social policies of the two parties are now near identical. To the extent that just this week they agreed a joint approach to various areas, especially in education and health. Which can only be to the good for the people of Wales.
My overriding concerns now however are more for the planet. With the UK Labour Party's ecological and electoral policies stuck somewhere pre-WW2, I'm considering returning my support to the Greens.
Although I continue to enjoy living in Wales I also owe loyalty, in the shape of affectionate memories, to too many other places. And I do understand the love of a place and its people, but not to the extent of then having to despise other peoples elsewhere.
The kind of patriotism I ascribe to is one I came across in the north of Skye.
When conscription began in the 1940s a young Skye crofter didn't want to kill anyone on the say-so of a politician. So to avoid the military police he rowed out to an uninhabited island and, with older crofters on the main island keeping him supplied with life's essential, he remained undiscovered there for the duration of the war.
The care that the older people took of their young man, regardless of a world at war, that's the stubborn love of a place and people that I find myself admiring. While any nation state that finds itself having to kill in defence of the state has to be a total failure, of diplomacy, of governance, of politics.
© Sam Smith 24th November 2021
Always something else going on, even if of no direct influence. Although at the moment here in chilly Wales, with butterflies flapping in warmer climes, everything everywhere seems to be having a global impact on me.
Unusually for me I have finished one novel without already having begun another. Time was when I used to have two or three novels in various stages of production. And while I do have several ideas for a new novel, not one has yet taken me over.
Could be because neither of the last two novels I have finished have been accepted for publication; while I am also wondering what will become of the 11 titles I have at Wordcatcher when it ceases - 31st December 2021 – as a general publisher. Wordcatcher's coming to a close is a direct result of the pandemic.
One-man bands like Wordcatcher, run by David Norrington, must need have momentum to survive. They subsist as much on dreams and hope as on commercial expertise. Always it is the next book, the latest author, new project, possibility of a grant, prospect of a prize, that will finally carry them into healthy profit.
For individual authors it's the same. I had such hope for Trees. It had been such a struggle to get it into paperback. The pandemic put paid to all those hopes. Because Trees finally made it into paperbackjust as the pandemic's restrictions began.
And as lockdown took hold not only did David have to prioritise his family, home-schooling his children; but everything else stopped. No gatherings where a poetry book or two might be sold. No book fairs. Even bookshops closed for the duration.
When the one man of a one-man business is otherwise occupied one-man bands very quickly unravel. Took only a month or two of the pandemic for David to realise – on his own trying to fulfil orders, edit works, design covers, answer emails - the hopelessness of his situation. A shame: I had had such hopes for our continuing working together. Such terrific covers he had designed, especially for my 5-book SF series, the unMaking of Heaven. https://wordcatcher.com/product-category/books/fantasy-magic-science-fiction/
I have consequently gone from a self-confident 2019 to a bewildering uncertainty now. An uncertainty that has me stumbling over the start of every possibly new venture.
That said I have managed, during this pandemic, to distantly collaborate with comic-book artist Mal Earl on a pamphlet of bird poems and drawings, in the hand. And Alan Corkish, of the erbacce co-operative, is championing the publication of my asylum poems, bringing them out in 2022 in a big collection provisionally titled Mirror, Mirror. If all goes well Mirror, Mirror should appear with a fabulous cover by the Belgian artist and poet, Pascale Gouverner.
So although this my 75th year does tend to feel desperate, there have been good things happening between the pandemic lockdowns. My grandtwins, near neighbours now, come to lunch at least 3 times a week; and I have managed to spend some time with all my daughters, been blessed with the happy-making presence of my older grandchildren. My family not a present cause for concern.
My uncertainty comes from once again having to consider what best to do for my novels. The state of child care in Britain, for instance, I'd love for The Care Vortex to somehow, and if only for hard-boiled reference, remain in print. For my never-been-published novels however I am again having to scroll through agents' and publishers' listings. Knowing as I do that little 'ol unconnected me is just one of hundreds, if not thousands, on the hunt.
Ask anyone who has done the rounds of submitting, auditioning, and they will tell you that the process is one of the most disheartening. And it's not just being given the brush-off, as dispiriting as that can be. What I find worse is those agents and publishers who don't tell you that they are closed to submissions until you have assiduously followed all their stipulations regards submitting, have amended synopsis and covering letter to suit. May even have altered the layout of the entire manuscript. Only then, in their submitting directions, do they let you know that they are not considering new work.
An hour gone, and one has to start all over again. Less hopefully. Even so, having once succeeded in submitting, one settles back to wait. And wait. And after three or four months of not having heard back, one tentatively assumes rejection, and one reluctantly consults the listings again.
That's not all. Because, swapping hats, I am also the one dealing with submissions to The Journal, as well as writing reviews. I endeavour to be as quick and as kind as can be.
When not doing either I have actually embarked on a couple of novel themes. However, and with no trust in this UK government, my income and expenditures uncertain, I am still unsure where/what next. The butterfly has taken flight and chaos continues.
© Sam Smith 10th December 2021