When the ground moved loss of balance had me reach out to cling onto something, anything. Closest thing was a large fir tree at the side of the forest track. Next thing I knew was that me and the tree were dropping down through a sinkhole, earth and rocks shooting up past us.
Somehow, as tree and I plummeted ever deeper, mossy ground and yellow roots going first, I found myself a little further up the trunk and protected by the spread out roots and lower branches, their ends bent upwards by the sinkhole's sides.
Did I take a breath as we fell? And fell. The fall seemed to take a subjective age. Maybe in objective time not that long, my face flinching from flicked back grit and pine needles.
Then we stopped; and gravity grabbed at my feet. My arms though had wrapped themselves around the bough beside me. So I found myself swinging, but protected by the bough and branches above from stones and showers of loosened earth falling after us. A couple of stones did bounce off my forearms. Caused no damage though: my thick walking jacket absorbed both thud and patter.
I waited, still swinging, for the shower of earth crumbs and stones to cease. Then I looked down beyond my walking boots. I wasn't sure if we had reached bottom or we had become stuck part way down the sinkhole and there was further yet to go. So far as I could make out though, through what little light was reaching us, the loosened earth and stones were stopping with us.
The fir tree had bark like large brown fish scales. I used these, fingertip and toe-holds only, to ease myself to the floor. Floor yes, I swore then to never again use the expression 'solid ground.'
Certain we had stopped falling it was then that I let out a huge sigh and again became conscious of breathing.
This, I told myself and the tree, is what happens when you come to live in an old mining community.
Quaint the valleys might now be, cleaned and greened up, but we had lately suffered a series of earth tremors. Geologists disagreed regards the cause, whether due solely to old mine shafts collapsing, or 'natural' tectonic shifts resulting in old mine workings falling in on themselves.
Forestry had long replaced the mines and the smaller uneconomic farms, and it was my wont fine weather to roam the plantation tracks. Not all were, by the time I arrived, spruce dark and gloomy. Toxic subsoils and tree diseases had left parts of these new forests a collection of white and black sticks. Although silver birch and willow had now started growing up between the sticks.
So much for natural regeneration, I said; and peered up through a gap in the squashed together pine boughs to a small roundish smudge of white sky.
How very Murakami, I decided. All I need now is a talking tree. Say 'Pardon', I told the tree.
Not so very Murakami the tree kept its own woody counsel.
Naturally occurring sinkholes are mostly caused by water undermining weak spots in the Earth's lower strata. Complicated here by mines having been dug under and through various of the strata and further weakening Earth's structure. Many of the deep mines had had to be pumped out and were left to flood when abandoned. Here that 'new' subterranean flow of water sooner or later caused the sinkholes.
Where tree and I were however seemed dry, the sides of the hole if possibly damp certainly not leaking wet.
Further investigation required, I told the tree.
I worked my way crouched, then crawling, around the trunk. The sides of the hole seemed solid except where a lower bough had penetrated.. I went, wriggling on green needles, into the narrow gap and the dark.
Now my youngest daughter is a worrier, a conjuror-up of worst-case scenarios. One of which is that, on my lonesome hill walks, I might break a leg, have a heart attack, be assaulted by a rampaging squirrel or an out-of-sorts deer. So she has supplied me with a rescue kit. I refuse to take the mobile phone as I don't want it going off and frightening the wildlife. Which happened the first time I had it with me, a call from the service provider asking what I thought of their service.
Ever since I have left the phone, uncharged, at home. But I do take with me in my small backpack the compass, foil blanket (folds down to wallet size), Swiss army penknife, flint fire-starter, Kendal cake (in tin), whistle and of importance here a wind-up torch.
Unclipping its handle, I wound up the torch.
In the torch's white light the opening, mostly dry soil, sloped away from me and into deeper darkness.
I lied there on the green needles smell of pine as invigorating down there as above looked down that miniature hill of soil and stones and tried to work out what to do. There was no way I could climb the sheer sides of the sinkhole. And it was too big, sides too far apart, too unchimney-like for me to push feet-and-back up through to the top. I could blow my whistle for days and no-one would hear. Maybe when the Coal Board came to cap off the sinkhole the workers might stop their engines long enough to hear. But that could be weeks away. Often walking the paths and tracks I could be a month or more not seeing any other walker.
Seemed I had no option. Twisting onto my side I gave the torch handle a few extra turns, then began belly-slithering down the slope. Which turned out not to be as deep as my torch beam had thought. I had arrived on level ground, in an old mining gallery. Disappearing off into the dark it didn't give me quite room enough to stand erect.
I rewound the torch and shuffled a little further on, glancing back for comfort as much as orientation to the diminishing grey-green light of the tree.
I came upon some wooden pit props. Their being wooden made this a very old gallery. Later mines had used pre-stressed concrete and metal sheeting. Here though, because it was so dry, neither props nor lintels had rotted.
A gallery this old would have been dug into the side of the hill. I'd come across more than few collapsed exploratory diggings in my wanderings. No openings though that hadn't collapsed. Although this one could now easily come out into one of the denser fir plantations. A cavity overlooked?
Before I went any further I decided to go back to the sinkhole, check that there wasn't any way past all the debris that had come down with me and the tree. There wasn't.
Rewinding the torch, backpack clutched to my chest, neck bent, I shuffled further along the gallery. The shuffling, not stepping, was because I no longer had any faith in the reliability, the solidity of ground.
I came to some more wooden pit props. Not even surface softening. Then a candle stub on a rock ledge. That meant this mine predated even the Davy lamp. I had no matches, only the flint fire-starter and, unlike those ancient miners, I didn't want to risk a methane explosion. That said all that I could smell still was pine sap.
On I shuffling went, trying to work out where I might be in relation to the remembered topography above me. Or was I dreaming? Had I fallen asleep under the tree, and was this all a dream? I recalled some advice on a social media thread: 'Never fall asleep reading Murakami, you'll wake up as something else.'
Or was I already dead? The fall seemed impossible, my surviving unscathed unreal.
I scratched for reassurance at my trousered left leg. So unlikely was this, All so very Pincher Martin.
As you may have guessed I am of a literary bent. Very bent at that time, due to the height of the gallery. Old-fashioned mining favoured folk of a smaller stature, children even.
The sound of running water, and an increasing dampness in the air had me concerned. Although the pit props were still unrotted this water was maybe how the sinkhole had been created. Water coming in at a distant juncture having created sufficient suction along the gallery, that suction finding the weakest point and bringing down the tree and me.
My yellow-white torchlight got reflected off the damp air first, mini-droplets thrown up from the splashing stream, which had already gouged a path through the mine floor, coming in from the right side and leaving through a large hole in the left. Beyond the stream the mine roof had collapsed.
As I stood trying to figure out what next to do sides of the stream were crumbling away and being shot off to the left.
There are streams throughout the forest. All have to emerge somewhere. And that decided me.
My intention had been to step into the stream, to carefully sit myself down, then bottom-shuffle my way along it. What happened was that no sooner had I stepped into the stream than I slipped and was shot down, clutching my torch and backpack, at one time underwater, then into whirling air, rolled over again, and finally shot out into daylight. I found myself stumbling down a small waterfall and trying not to trip.
And that's how I came to be walking home soaking wet on one of our rare dry days here. I met no-one that day to disbelieve where I'd been.
Nowadays locals disinterestedly say, when I tell them of the tree and me, Oh yea, or Right. They had relatives who had worked down the mines. Some had even died down there. No-one it seems wants to believe me. They say, Lot of old mine workings here, and they go about their business.
© Sam Smith, 1st January 2022
Somewhere between labour and product, investment and reward, business and service, human beings have in the past been involved in some capacity. The gap between human input and machine output though has been ever widening, to such an extent that it has become barely bridgeable. Machines now make machines that make the machines that make the machines that make machines....
With the human element increasingly removed what role, other than as delivery driver (sorry, no, robots are being designed to that), other than as end-consumer, does a human being have to fill? And whereby to get the withal to become a consumer if the machines are doing all the work?
No longer based on need, nor active ownership, will the world's become a truly fake (artificial) economy?
Look how a city, or pretty much any place, could up to now capture you. Job, home, social life; all in the one place, a seemingly permanent round. And that was it. Where though human endeavour? Was it only to be those small circles?
I've asked the circular stay-at-homes that. And what the circular-stay-at-homes seem to want, and want to perpetuate, is the myth of this-is-how-it-has-always-been-and-will-continue-to-be. And many of them are already in made-up jobs, jobs for the sake of jobs, jobs for the sake of politicians' quotable statistics.
If climate change and the pandemic has served to teach them and us anything it is that within all social systems there is dissolution, entropy, changing demands, and whole communities will move and disperse. Shortly after online shopping became popular the High Street stores closed and the no-longer-required sandwich shops and coffee houses also disappeared. Fear of contagion has had public transport avoided and insular car use increase. Governments have subsidised stay-at-home workers, their homes dependant on technology. While those without jobs/functions have watched the world go by without them.
To every action a reaction, feedbacks multiplied.
If machines do all the work, with human beings becoming increasingly redundant, is our function, is our ending to be one long festival of consumerism? Is this to be our end, to be caught up solely in the capitalist/consumer rush cars, house, food to extinction?
Despite the evidence of all that we have lived through, are living through, many remain weirdly complacent. The majority of our electorates will continue passive, taking their secondhand identities from TV programs and films they have watched, from the t-shirts they have bought. Their concern will continue to be for themselves, producing little that's original, producing little save effluence.
Does it have to be consumerism only? Self-eating consumerism? One final step on the road to planetary destruction? The end of our failure-to-learn species? Or will it be just the end of our once-again-getting-it-wrong democracies?
© Sam Smith 19th January 2022
A prime state, my definition, is where someone feels themselves to be who they really are. For instance M's prime state is in having someone, usually a member of her extended family, to hate. She will find detestable any and every thing about them, from their behaviour to hair colour, their 'silly' accent to the shoes they choose to wear. She will relay these found detestables to other selected members of the extended family and/or to friends. Although, and understandably, she has never had that many friends.
S's prime state on the other hand is in her having someone to be concerned about. It will be either the social mess they have got themselves into or, and more likely, their physical health; and S will go out of her prime state way to offer help.
Whereas G's prime state is in having something wrong with him/her and in soldiering on. While K's prime state, where she feels she really is K, is in being miserable, is in having something personal, public or political - to be miserable about.
D's prime state is in having a glass in his hand and, with a sideways smile, entertaining close company. C's is in the enthusiastic pursuit of a sport. While N's prime state is in giving instruction, a delight taken in telling of the how and why of something. While in his prime state H enters any company closed, suspicious of what may be asked of him, be it cash or expressions of pleasure.
Close to that of any hobbyist, my own prime state, where I feel that I am most my own self, is in the act of writing, be that by pen or keyboard. And despite all these decades of my writing not having produced the rewards first anticipated, even when I am not happy that moment with what I may be putting to paper, still the act of writing, of pen-in-hand entering a mental construct, remains my prime state.
© Sam Smith 3rd February 2022
As a magazine editor of only a few years standing I used to believe that I could tell when a poem had come out of a writing course/workshop, particularly when the submission had arrived as a set. Even when not a set some poems came with the sense of having been written to win their tutor's approval (in the tutor's style/manner of telling). This wasn't solely blind prejudice of mine, an accompanying letter may have mentioned courses attended; and often there was a chummy feel to the poem, all sharing in the joke, the allusion. Inclusive there, excluding here.
Rejection was the easy part: I simply said No Thanks. Because, and already then, often when I had suggested making a change to a poem I had been told that their /tutor/professor/poet much better known than my humble editorial self had praised the work as was. How dare I presume to know better.
I don't believe any poem is finished until it is in print. Even then there can come new editions of a work. For instance with each edition of 'Leaves of Grass' Walt Whitman made changes to almost all of his poems. There is still no definitive version of 'Leaves of Grass.'
One has also to bear in mind that course tutors, leaders of workshops, even professors of poetry depend on writers coming back to their courses, rely on graduates recommending the course to others. All course leaders are therefore to an extent tactful, are encouraging ahead of critical. So when they might say to one of their class, still fiddling about with a word here and there, Leave as is. They may only mean, For now, and might have other reasons class management? - for so saying.
As editor the temptation, with those poets who refused to even countenance making a change to their tutor-praised poem, was to tell tell them to in that case get the praising tutor to publish the poem. I never did, simply withdrew the offer to publish, unless changes were made.
I have long since ceased speculating on the origins of poems, motivations for their having been written. And while I used to like a fight, a physical fight one-on-one has its own intimacies, fellow feeling I have always hated arguments, quarrels. So generally, and even when I can see that a simple alteration will lead to a better poem, fearing that any suggestion of mine will only lead to fruitless argument, I do not respond other than with a No Thanks.
As a magazine editor I have no problem with those who choose to write poems as a hobby; and who, as with other hobbies, join groups and clubs where they can compare their works to their mutual satisfaction. All very supportive. Publication, remote readership, is altogether another thing. There we are seeking the eyes of sympathetic, never-to-be-met strangers.
As writer I am as guilty as any other in fallow times of writing for the sake of writing. The intention of all my written work however is that ultimately it will be read. Therefore all of my writing will be rendered, draft by draft, into a state fit to be read; and, I hope, made attractive to readers.
I am aware that other editors of poetry magazines often include their own poems in their magazines. For me to publish my own poems in The Journal however would have me questioning their validity. So I risk sending my own poems out to other magazines; my poems bereft children all trying to win acceptance somewhere, with every acceptance an affirmation; and should an editor suggest a change here and there, then I will gladly consider making those changes. Maybe not agree, but certainly give consideration to the suggestions.
© Sam Smith 16th February 2022
While I may be fascinated by political/sociological/psychological processes I have little patience with the almost transparent duplicity that today's politicians practise.
I'm talking about those party politicians who have perfected the courtier's art of saying a lot without saying anything very much. Along with those despicable others who, for the simple sake of power, employ gender or class-based prejudices, knowing that as soon as a Them has been created there also has to be an US; and that such fascism always has a working class base. And that is before the unscrupulous politician looks beyond his/her country's own borders.
And it is just so easy for our politicians to do now. Mass consumerism has trained their publics in gullibility. Histories forgotten, their publics are primed and ready to march, mass consumerist societies having been encouraged in mass pursuits. Off to the match? The march?
Sentimentality has become a key weapon in advertising and political speechifying. This sentimentality is always the other side of the coin that has brutality on the face. It means that We can kill Their men, Their women and Their children; but that We will go dewy-eyed over the wives and children of Our own fighting men. See Our surviving soldiers and sailors at airports and docksides reuniting with girlfriends and family. Always a close-up of a uniform cradling a child.
Today I want to say to my fellow world citizens, See! You've done it again. You've voted in, you've let in the killers. You've voted for the mass murderers. And the victims, one way or another, one side or another, will be your own sons and daughters. And you will thank, you will honour those self-appointed statesmen and women who again took you to war.
The consequence, of your thoughtless voting my fellow world citizens, will be that generations from now thoughtful youth will again be puzzling over the row upon collapsed row of grave markers, and they will take themselves off to again research what could have led to the mass killing of these new long-forgotten dead.
© Sam Smith 26th February 2022
Having worked in isolation for years 23 years to be exact, 23 years of not telling neighbours, workmates, new-met acquaintances that I wrote it wasn't until I was finally published that I began to meet others who called themselves writers. It was then that I became aware that there existed levels to writing other than total commitment.
After 23 years of rejection it took me a while to come to terms with those levels of commitment, certainly to accept that all levels did have the right to also see themselves as writers.
Now though, when my identity is not wholly, and defensively wrapped up in my daring to call myself a writer, I can accept the many levels, the degrees of endeavour at which others wish to participate. For some it will be an evening hobby, occasionally showing their pages to a local writing group. For wealthier others it will be the more formal, weekend away, writing courses/workshops run by someone semi-famous. While for obsessive privacy-lovers like me any participation with others at all will be at a rarely seen distance.
If contact with others I must have I'd still it rather be with readers than with other writers. Even then, and bearing in mind that readers can be inordinately pleased when they find books that speak for them, or that they think they themselves could have written, the downside for any author is that readers can be disproportionately disappointed when that exalted author fails to live up to their estimation of their reader selves. How many like me were put off Anthony Burgess's books, for instance, by his many fag-rolling and pontificating appearances on telly chat-shows?
That also has to be set against my writerly need to be an outsider. Outsiders have no loyalties, to people or to ideas. Only by remaining outside can we be the gleefully irreverent tellers of Chekovian truths. This is based on my lifetime belief that, while any artist might desire fame for the work created, he or she as author should remain obscure. I want to be as brave as Colette yet remain unknown, a commonly-named rumour behind my art.
Howsoever one measures success, by acclaim or by bestsellerdom, wanting to be a successful author is by no means straightforward. Especially as having been a lifetime's outsider there remains for me this two-way tug. To make even a poor living I need to have my work accepted, and subsequently have myself accepted as a writer. At the same time I fear such acceptance by the establishment however small a part of the establishment and the accompanying expectations placed upon me, not just of public appearances, but of more work the same. That kind of acceptance can mean artistic nullity.
And while I do believe that writing is important, that truths need to be told, conveyed, explained; is why I still feel compelled to daily pick up my pen; at the same time I find that doing so day after day for the last fifty-plus years a highly ridiculous thing to have done. Yet, the very definition of imbecility, I continue doing it.
© Sam Smith 28th March 2022
David Byrne recently said this History is not what happened, but it is what we agree happened shaped to our biases and self-serving interests. This chimed with much that has been bothering me of late, especially the convenient political reinterpretations of history, or the glib references by TV pundits and advertisers to whole periods of time, as if one aspect could sum up all that happened and the reasons why it happened.
This is not a new frustration: I wrote this back in the late 1980s in response to a Philip Larkin poem. Mine was first published in Weyfarers Magazine, sadly no longer with us. Larkin's was in his Faber collection, High Windows.
Plus ηa change
Was Larkin watching me in 1963?
I didn't, however, wank over Chatterley,
and I had no designs on a Beatles' LP.
My idea of musical heaven
would have been tea
with the Temperance Seven.
To be fair to old Larkin, in his high window,
it may have seemed that we new mortals below
stood a much better chance.
Many of my girls wore tight sweaters
over their enticingly rounded busts,
and they did alluringly swing their hips;
but all I'd end up with,
after a two hour embrace,
was a hot face, swollen lips,
and a quivering hard-on
stuck to the roof of my pants.
Because in the year 1963,
although they may have appeared sexually bold,
most girls continued to obey their betters
and behaviouristically controlled
our base and rampant lusts.
Sure we may have publicly caressed,
and no-one openly confessed
their virginity. Especially me.
But before anyone got laid
deals still had to be made.
And the game today remains the same
whoever plays must pay
Yes, whoever Larkin was watching in 1963,
somewhere between the trial of Chatterley
and the Beatles' first LP,
safe to say it wasn't me.
© Sam Smith 19th April 2022
I intend no historical disrespect. No more say than when playing Nelson's Eye.
Nelson's Eye, for those of you who don't know, was a nineteenth century childhood game where a group took turns being blindfolded and, when blindfolded, had to say what their hand was touching. To begin with the hands of the blindfolded were guided towards easy to identify objects a small jug, a hairbrush, a kitchen knife, et cetera. But then the one blindfolded, and this being the child who had not played the game before, had their finger pressed into a pre-warmed tomato. Unable to say what it was, the other children gleefully informed them that their finger was inside Nelson's eye.
Here however we have Vincent van Gogh's ear, and no blindfolds.
While in Arles, and daily teased by Paul Gaugin, Vincent became obsessed by a local girl. Tabloids today would probably have her labelled a cynical sex worker. But let's not be quite so didactic and let us call her instead a good-time girl.
To the ex-trainee priest this girl appeared, leastwise in looks, Madonna-like. (Church statues and icons that is, not the raunchy songstress.) Once the object of his desires opened her mouth however all spirituality fled, her diction being as crude and vulgar as that of most other country girls.
Beset by sexual and artistic demons, his self-worth not improved by being dependent for financial support on his brother Theo, and unable to reconcile his spiritual adoration of the girl with her materialistic outlook, nor her laughing dismissal of his impoverished artist's lifestyle, and his still being teased daily by Gaugin... In an act of self-anger, and still believing in the efficacy of Christian sacrifice, in dire self-abasement Vincent clumsily cut off part of his ear. (I wonder was Vincent also inspired to this act by Tolstoy's short story about the repentant monk who took an axe to the finger of his that had touched a woman? Their dates overlap: Vincent 1853-1890, Leo Tolstoy 1828-1910. Also at about the same time Karl Marx noted that, and here I paraphrase, physical pain can be an antidote to mental anguish.)
The ear once detached Vincent carefully wrapped the ragged lump in layer after layer of tissue paper. The same tissue paper in which he used to wrap his finished canvasses before sending them off to his brother. This very different package Vincent tied with a yellow ribbon and had delivered to what passed as the local bordello.
Delighted by the unexpected parcel the girl, giving off little squeals of consumerist pleasure, unpicked the layer upon layer of crackling tissue paper. Arriving with a frown at the bloody lump of gristle she uttered, in the local patois, the immortal words (later adopted by the British Bobby), Allo Allo, what have we ear?
© Sam Smith 14th May 2022
The law of invisibility has it that we will disappear into old age, become unseen. Until all that we are is an empty wheelchair or an unoccupied bed, symbols of a life done.
Somewhere between the ages of 30 and 40 is when most men become aware of the onset of invisibility. Before then, even when pushing a pram, women your age and younger will still have seen you, might even have taken the pram as evidence of your virility.
Not that you were ever visible wholly for yourself. Even without the pram as token of your semen output, women with breeding in mind looked through you, through the moment, to what lay beyond marriage, children, double garage....
Such was probably many men's first experience of transparency. And probably the same for women that age, their not always being seen for their present state/shape but for the version of their mothers that they will become.
Neither though is invisibility. Before 30 one is still seen; and a man can cling on to that visibility, even without a full head of hair, well into his 40s. True, teenagers and students may by then start to pass you by, may step around flesh-and-blood you as if static street furniture. They will not have given you a first, let alone a second glance.
Between 30 and 40 however there may be occasions when women one's own age, gay men too, still give one a quick look up and down, down and up. From the thickening 40s onwards though when the face in the mirror is suddenly no longer the face in all the photos is when you become aware that you have started to become transparent. So transparent that sometimes pedestrians receive a shock for having walked straight into you as if you weren't there. If British and invisible you will of course apologise for having been walked into.
If you do manage to attain your 80s there will come a brief interval of returned visibility, when your gnarled and wizened visage will get remarked upon. Will nonetheless depend on one of two outcomes. Either you will have shrunken to the semi-comic status of gnome or, if lucky, your creased and sagging envelope will have come to briefly resemble one of those old-salt ceramic figures.
© Sam Smith 27th May 2022
Formulaic novels and popular films have led us to believe that justice will be done, that lovers will find one another and that decent folk will win out over wrong 'uns. In our everyday lives we expect the law to make this happen, while also asking of 'natural justice' to bring it about. And this despite experience telling us that neither law nor 'natural justice' can be relied upon.
The law of course relies upon the administrative priorities of the state, whether the current administration values property or people the more. The execution of justice will also depend on the resources given over by the administration to the prosecution of the law. Will also depend on how corrupt the state, and of late here in the UK we have seen just how corrupt is this state.
If there exists little possibility of justice likely to be done by the state, then where any institution, here in the money-laundering capital of the world, can be bought - natural justice is far less likely.
If there was any natural justice, for instance, Tony Blair and George Bush Jnr would long ago have both been incarcerated for war crimes, would be paying somehow for the carnage unnecessarily caused by their deceitful invasion of Iraq, subsequent deaths calculated in the hundred thousand around the world.
If there was any natural justice Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning would never have seen the inside of a prison cell. While those who committed the actual war crimes that Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning exposed even had their targets been a military mistake, the perpetrators would at least have been held to account for their lethal actions.
If there was any natural justice Palestinians farmers would not be forced from their houses and from their lands by thuggish Zionist settlers; and the Israeli apartheid state would not be uncritically supported by Western powers.
With all such flagrant injustices we may hope that one day justice will be done, and that the jailer will replace the jailed. But in whose lifetime?
© Sam Smith 8th June 2022
In a competitive environment is insecurity. Even if one manages to win, happens to stand atop the podium, one knows that it is only a matter of time before one is toppled.
In a cooperative environment is security. And I say that solely out of my experience as a small press publisher.
Having been repeatedly told that competition is what leads to excellence, as a small press publisher I very soon discovered that any small press that is overly competitive, and being competitive descrying, even sneering at other publishers' books, gloating over their own glossy productions and seeking only to do better in terms of sales... Having misread the breadth of the market, they often don't last very long. Whereas those small presses who seek to help their fellow publishers in some way if only by offering to carry their boxes into a book fair, or offering tips on where to find cheap printers, alternative software they continue to potter happily on and on.
With a cooperative mindset the principal concern of most small presses seems to be to promote their own authors, own ethos; their motives to put their kind of literature/art into print, to make good books, and to take satisfaction from a job well done. Having arrived at that job-well-done they then have no fear of a rival. Secure in that confidence they are open to suggestion; and, if invited, are prepared to offer advice.
True competition is a myth. There exists no equality of opportunity. Our competitive ancestors have seen to that. The winners back there set the starting stagger, loaded the handicap. Nor is my calling out this unrepresentative competition in any way sour grapes, just simple reality.
Competition persists, and as concept is promoted with the citing of top ten this, bestseller that; winner of this prize, shortlisted for that. So easy for writers to get lost in this measurement of success, and to see their ignored selves as excluded from the mainstream's ever-recycled few; and in believing themselves forever losers kill themselves. Colin Mackay did just that.
Edinburgh-based Colin told me that he was sick of seeing writers with less talent being celebrated every year at the festival, and that if his works continued to be ignored he would kill himself. (The subtext being, That'll show them. Whoever he imagined 'Them' were.) And that is what he stupidly did. Took him a whole day of black comedy, where he fused the lights by dropping a toaster in his bath, pulled the ceiling down when he tried to hang himself from a light fitting. A sense of urgency on him because he had emailed several of us that morning to tell us that today was the day he was going to kill himself. Gulping back a bottle of whiskey he then tried to cut his throat with a bread knife. Didn't work. He took an overdose. And finally wet, covered in blood and plaster dust he stumbled out of his flat, tripped over a neighbour and fell headlong down the stone stairs, killing himself.
By his own reckoning Colin was a loser. I really don't know why he was friends with me. His autobiographical work having been offered me I was editor then for another publisher - I had called out his lies about an affair he claimed to have had with a Srebrenica victim. His vicarious descriptions of sex with her before her rape had been so patently false, teenage fantastical, and the fatal rape had been made deliberately gory for 'bestseller' effect, rather than his telling of an awkward truth. And of course, not being credible, his story failed to get published.
Competition creates more losers than winners. Cooperation on the other hand, where one can view oneself as an ongoing part of all literary endeavour past, present and future everyone here is a worthwhile equal.
© Sam Smith 20th June 2022
Has to go almost without saying that Putin's Russia is wrong, simply wrong, to have brutally and destructively invaded Ukraine. But for Western leaders to call for Putin to be charged with war crimes...?
The hypocrisy required for them to make that charge is near dumbfounding. Talk about double, nay triple standards.
Take the UK government selling bombs to Saudi Arabia so that the Saudis can obliterate Yemeni hospitals. This being the same UK government that encourages British companies to sell sniper rifles and ammunition to the Israelis so that the Israeli militia can shoot medics and journalists, and take pleasure in deliberately maiming Palestinian children.
Or take the US government who 'illegally' invaded Iraq (along with the UK), resulting in the destabilisation and the still ongoing carnage across the Middle East. This is the same US government that has kept Julian Assange in a UK prison for having helped expose the war crimes of US troops in Iraq. And this is the same US who veto every United Nations sanction against Israel's ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. While this US President is the same man who, when vice president, supported drone assassinations, that is extra-judicial killings, of suspected terrorists. And, hypocrisy piled upon hypocrisy, he calls for Putin to be charged with war crimes when the US itself is not a signatory to the International Court of Human Rights in the Hague.
There is one other rank hypocrisy at work here, that of the Ukrainian leader. He calls for help in stopping the takeover of Ukrainian land by the Russians while wholeheartedly supporting Israel's Zionist, and illegal, appropriation of Palestinian lands.
I'm not the least biblical but methinks that it's best here that we let he who is without sin cast the first stone. And when - this I do believe - war itself is the crime, how then to define the criminal? Tell me what 'great cause' can justify the destruction, even the disruption of another life?
All in all decision on war crimes is probably best left to those in Den Hague.
© Sam Smith 1st July 2022
I am going to have to generalise here, but what I have found is that what the majority of writers enjoy most about writing is the act of writing itself. Even if their notepad, electronic or paper, is on the kitchen table, or they have isolated themselves behind a coffee in a cafι, what most prefer is to be on their own, undistracted, with unforeseen concepts, connections, opening before them on the page.
I think it's safe to say that the natural state of most writers is reclusive. And their being naturally reclusive, at ease in each their paper universes, what many fear most is having to appear in public in person.
Of course there have to be some who write with performance in mind. Some poets certainly do, and playwrights have to. Although even some of the latter like to keep behind the scenes.
For me the perfect world would be where I could preface every one of my books with, 'Here I am reader, alone in a private space like you. These words, these pages, unite us.'
That working concept gave me licence to make my private public. So that others, in their private, could learn that, although alone, they were not alone?
But to the Invisible Authors. The Invisible Authors I have in mind are those that their publishers have to browbeat into going to book-signings, giving TV appearances, who hate having to promote their own work, would much prefer letting the book speak for itself. Except that, without the promotion, the book will gain no readership and never get a chance to speak for itself.
Having given in to their publisher's blandishments and having become a Semi-Visible Author, but still finding self-promotion uncomfortable if not downright distasteful, that discomfort and distaste often transmits itself to the audience, who leave not won over.
I have been a disappointment to so many publishers.
Not that self-promotion of itself works. I am straight away sceptical, for instance, of any writer who is good at talking. If they can communicate so well by talking, why write? That scepticism is often borne out by the writing turning out to be as undisciplined as their easy chatter. Clichιs that passed unremarked in conversation/performance especially if poets leap from the page when presented as print.
With literary agents and publishers doubting their commercial prospects, Invisible Authors are left with no option other than self-publishing. Easy enough to do these days, and inexpensive too, with eBooks and Print-On-Demand. The problems begin when the Invisible Author has to become their own bookseller. Distribution to bookshops, with their 40% mark up and sale-or-return, being beyond most independent authors' budgets, for point-of-sale they are left with the internet. Unfortunately on social media we have all become weary of those repeated postings of new book covers, and have as quickly scrolled/swiped past them.
Added to which there is something intrinsically unbecoming about self-promotion. It can so easily come across as bragging. Not that the Invisible Author is, but self-promotion unfortunately carries that vibe. Because, and even if the Invisible Book is not vanity-published, self-promotion for it can still come across as a vulgar exercise in vanity, and as such is off-putting.
Self-promotion is so often self-defeating. Take a recent TV ancestry programme where Richard Osman, already a celebrity, while conducting that research into his family history at every opportunity, and so often that it became comical, told us that he was the author of detective novels, that he wrote about crime, that research such as this required detection... Such transparent self-promotion didn't encourage me to investigate any of his books.
To be fair, even Richard Osman, with his existing TV platform, knows that without promotion his detective books will soon disappear from public sight. And he is one of the few with a mainstream publisher who will endeavour, little effort required on his part, to see that his books go into bookshop windows.
At another angle it took me years to overcome my distaste for the affectations of chat-show guest Anthony Burgess before I could get around to reading his books. Visibility thus being a two-edged weapon.
Third party endorsement is so much more effective. But where-o-where to get the Invisible Book reviewed?
Meanwhile the self-published Invisible Authors are left with no option but to self-promote, while still hoping to remain Invisible behind their book. But with so very many books being self-published, and sock-puppetry having undermined third party endorsement, how is a reader the dilemma of the Invisible Reader matching that of the Invisible Author to decide at a glance what is worth reading? How now to tell if someone is a good writer or simply someone good at self-promotion?
On 28th March 1993, with regard to my own literary efforts, I wrote: 'On a hiding to nothing I want to reach the people who don't read poetry with poetry; and I want to reach the people who don't read novels with novels.' That realisation, another of life's paradoxes, didn't stop me writing.
© Sam Smith 12th July 2022
Not wanting to add to the horrors all around if we're not idiots we know that species us are in serious trouble I thought that for distraction, some levity, for this blog I'd put up Asylum Humours 1 & 2 from Mirror, Mirror
Asylum Humour (1)
During a civic visit to the local asylum a councillor became separated from his group. Worried by the noise he hurried after them, went through an unmarked door and found himself in the quiet of the asylum grounds. Nearby a man was hoeing some rosebeds. The councillor explained what had happened and asked where he should go. The gardener said that when the visiting group realised that he was missing then a search would be instituted. Easier to find him, therefore, if he stayed in the one place. The councillor agreed with this strategy and sat on a bench among the rosebeds. The gardener returned to his hoeing. The two men started to talk of roses, progressed by stages to world affairs, found themselves in agreement on a variety of topics. Discovering, by a chance remark, that the gardener was a patient and not, as he had assumed, a hospital; employee, the councillor asked what he had done that he should have been put into an asylum. The gardener shrugged, said that he had been in the asylum for so many years he doubted that anyone could now remember the original reason for his incarceration.
"This isn't right." The councillor became indignant. "An intelligent man like you should have a home and a garden of your own." The gardener agreed. Whereupon the councillor promised to do all in his power to help the gardener. At that moment the civic group appeared, saw the councillor and beckoned him. The councillor made a note of the gardener's name, said his goodbyes and began walking towards the group, who seemed to be shouting warnings at him. A blow to the back of his head buckled his knees. From the ground he looked up to the gardener, still holding the hoe.
"You won't forget?" he said.
© Sam Smith 22nd July 2022
Asylum Humour (2)
The tyre blew in a rainstorm. The driver didn't have a coat, was drenched by the time he got the jack out of the boot. The road was running with water. Removing the hubcap he wiped some water from his eyes, saw a man sat on a low wall watching him. The man was wearing a woollen dressing gown. The realisation that he had broken down outside the local asylum made the driver nervous. Fumbling he put the wheelnuts in the hubcap, took the wheel to the boot and returned with the spare. Only to find that the hubcap had floated off down the road. He immediately ran after it; but it and the wheelnuts had been washed into a large drain. The driver screamed, shouted, and came stamping and cursing back up the road.
"This car is still capable of being driven," the man in the saturated dressing gown said.
"With three wheels? Get real."
"If you take one nut from each of the remaining wheels," the man calmly continued, "that will give you the same amount of nuts to secure the fourth wheel."
"Brilliant!" the driver shouted. "Absolutely brilliant."
"Mad I may be," the man got off the wall, "Stupid I'm not."
© Sam Smith 22nd July 2022
Our bodies, once a source of mystery and delight, have become with age a subject of coarse ridicule. At first we took to joking about each our uncontrollable farts farting as we got up out of a chair, farting as we reached across the table for a dish, farting as we climbed the stairs... Those farts though have now become so much a matter of course that they often pass like an incontinent horse on a posh parade without comment.
Aside from my loosened anal sphincter, elsewhere on my body white hairs have sprouted around my nipples, there are tiny persistent forests in my ears and nostrils, and my toenails have become as thick as sheep hooves. The backs of my hands have turned to slack chicken skin, brown-splodge freckles have appeared in almost every wrinkle, and every so often black subcutaneous blotches grow like ink-blots on my forearms, with no memory of any bump to cause such dark bruising. Weirdest of is looking in the mirror as I get older and older: it is like a slow motion horror film, watching my face collapse in front of me.
I had already learned, mostly through work, how much longer the older one gets it takes to recover from both physical and emotional shock. Beyond the physical, beyond increasing forgetfulness/absentmindedness and the temporary blocking of word/name retrieval, and beyond the sudden and unbalancing joint twinges, disregarding too all the medical procedures inflicted on me sarcomas cut out, broken teeth extracted - there are the social frustrations. The largest being how the next, and the subsequent generation cannot be told by us, their once rebellious, risk-taking [grand]parents what they must do in order to survive. We, the generation that liberated drug use, for sure we learned that too late.
Nor is ageing, from within, a wholly gradual process. Steph and I for instance arrived in Ilfracombe in 2000, in our late middle age, and with myself not then having quite then come to terms with the suddenness of middle age. Five years later we left for Cumbria as a grey-haired old couple.
Sixteen years later still, here in Wales, the present remains crowded with that lifetime's mind baggage.
Mind you Steph and I have been lucky in that we have shared so much of this life, have watched one another learn and grow [I hesitate to say 'expand'], and neither of us despises the naiveties of our shared past.
One positive aspect of ageing is that fear of what dreams might mean ceases the older one gets. The strangeness of a mind-concocted image does not now presage some unadmitted desire on my part, doesn't signify some potential perversion... They are just strange dream images the result of my strangely lived life. Still capable of haunting me the next day, but can be happily returned come evening to the unconscious.
The past is fortunately still with me. I see now, in a gesture, an accent, a tilt of the head, long gone friends; and which brings to mind moments an age ago. Sadnesses, but no regrets.
For all that I still see myself as a supplicant at the altar of literature. Albeit that consideration of both success and failure are long behind me. Having a commonplace name informs one's aspirations. Now, looking back, I know how to improve past performance and how to win prizes, prizes that I no longer desire. For anyone, this life, literary success continues to be measured in sales and readership; and as I have little talent for salesmanship and/or self-promotion, all that remains for me now is to plough on with the writing. The part I enjoy most.
Now... No, not this Now. The many Nows, the many presents back then, all were concerned with the future, their many futures. Most of those futures were a black pit opening before me. Or, when young, were a looking to escape careers that the world wanted to chain me to. Now, this Now, my having been living in those futures, of late my sole consideration, regards any future, is death. How it will, unavoidably, be to die. To be no more.
That said, thoughts on death seem to have been always with me. I wrote this in January 1993, when I had been recently working with psycho-geriatrics. 'What mean little spirit is that says I alone must survive? Although it is only in my dotage that that spiteful egotism will become apparent. It will however not be the real me, just a motor running on.'
I doubt now, once upon a time maybe, that my death will be violent. So much has happened throughout my life that I don't now so much wait for wars to come to me as expect the news to tell me of another atrocity; and all these new wars, new atrocities, bombings and shootings will be distant from this Welsh valley. My own death will most likely be internally created, the motor running down.
© Sam Smith 16th August 2022top
Last winter, when it was minus six degrees centigrade in the Arctic, a female polar bear and her cub were on a tricky journey across a moving ice floe.
Mummy, the cub said when they paused, I've been thinking. Could I be a honey bear?
The mother was heading north in the hope of finding firmer ice.
'Course not, the mother distractedly said, you're a polar bear. She gave a low growl: The most fearsome predator on planet Earth.
Oh, the cub said, careful to follow his mother's pawsteps as she negotiated the cracks of black water, Not a honey bear?
See any bees here?
They proceeded across the floe not talking. When they arrived at a wide, if slightly wobbly, ice sheet the cub cheerfully asked, You don't think I could be a grizzly?
'Course not. What would a grizzly bear be doing here?
A snow flurry came across the whitescape towards them. The mother ignored it. The cub shook himself free of ice dust, almost fell over. Did it twice, got annoyed with himself, and ran to catch up.
They had to cross a wider crack of black water. The mother's leap easily cleared the crack. But the cub had to scrabble up the ice-blue side of what proved to be a small berg.
Although slightly uneven it was firmer walking on the berg, and mother and cub could briefly proceed side by side.
I couldn't be a black bear? the cub said.
Now you're being really ridiculous, the mother voiced her exasperation. You are a polar bear, the most fearsome...
Yes yes, the cub dared interrupt. OK then. Not a black bear. What though if I'm a Russian brown bear? I could've...
You're white. White! she snarled at him. And you are white for a reason. We are hunters. We are the most fearsome predators...
No 'yes yes'. she growled. We are white because we have to cunningly conceal ourselves from our prey. You are a polar bear. A polar bear! she roared into his ear. Understand?!
No, he cried. No, I don't understand. I don't understand., he was squeaking now. If I am, as you say, a polar bear, if I truly am a polar bear, tell me why, why I am so coooold?
© Sam Smith 26th August 2022
We are all now subject peoples, subject to governments that we have little or no control over. What we do have are various kinds of pretend democracies where we are allowed to elect the same kind of people, usually with the same kind of personality disorders, to run our countries for us.
A question, and one I want to keep asking, Is how persuadable are people to principled action?
Let us look here at the UK ignoring for the moment its unrepresentative first-past-the-post electoral system, as unrepresentative as the 'electoral college' system in that self-appointed 'defender of democracy' the USA and cast an eye over the UK's 2005 election which returned a known corrupt UK government power.
A UK government that had lied about weapons of mass destruction in order to justify its invasion of Iraq. An invasion that led to thousand upon thousands of deaths all across the Middle East and contributed to the establishment of Isis/Daesh as a terrorist power.
(Can it be that terrorists are the only one's persuadable to principled, that is selfless, action? Do all democracies rely first on the electorate's self-interest?)
Let us look at just two members of that 2005 newly-elected UK government. The crown-making, intrigue-loving Mandelson, who has turned out to be a friend of the US paedophile/trafficker Epstein. And then there's Brown, who said he was 'relaxed' about capitalism.
When at the next election in came Cameron's Tory government they turned out to be even more relaxed about financial shenanigans. The two governments taken together has led to London becoming known as, not only the obscene sump that has sucked its own country's wealth into its maw, but as the world's money-laundering capital.
Now, several elections and a referendum later, we have our own present day state of affairs, the electorate throughout the intervening years having chosen to disregard the blatant lies told by the political parties, so many of our MPs of all parties now being in the pay of foreign governments.
Is the populace entire persuadable to principled action?
Or is that the votes cast were, and will be, wholly irrelevant? Governments now being allied to governments, which have been bought by multi-national corporations, and what we people do, or say, being of little consequence? Here, and elsewhere, the world's governments are being elected by those who believe the corporate-owned tabloids, the populist TV channels and podcasts.
Can the world's people be persuadable to principled action? In order to save the world?
© Sam Smith 11th September 2022
This is the statement that Nave Shabtay Levin gave when he refused Israeli military service. (Taken from an RSN Refuser Solidarity Network email.)
I held a gun in my hands before I was 10 years old.
You could say I was raised in the Israeli army, or at least in the spirit of the Israeli Army. My father, who was a military officer during most of my childhood, took my sister and me to his military base on weekends. There I held a gun, entered tanks, and collected gun bullets lying on the ground. As a child, that was cool! I also grew up without a grandfather. From very early on, on every national Memorial Day, I would skip the school ceremony to attend the grave of my grandfather who was killed in the 1973 war (The Yom Kippur War). I was nurtured on the glory of the army and on war-related bereavement.
Although I was raised in a militaristic family, where the army was a sacred cow, and although I was told in school that soldiers are heroes, I never wanted to enlist in the army. My unwillingness to enlist, was transformed over the years to the act of active refusal of the draft and the more I realized what soldiers really do. I realized that there is an entire system, military, economic and ideological, whose task is to preserve the occupation and the oppression of the Palestinians.
year, during the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah, tens of masked
settlers went to Masafer Yatta, threw stones at the Palestinian
residents, at their children and at their houses. Windshields were
smashed, and many people injured, including a three-year-old child
who was injured in his head. This event was not unique. It was just
one more day in the violent reality that the population in Masafer
Yatta endure, where attacks by settlers are a daily occurrence.
And where is the army in this story? The same one I was expected to enlist in? Where are the heroic soldiers that we hear of? In almost every violent incident perpetrated by settlers the army, under the best of circumstances, does nothing. More frequently, however, it enables, supports and even provides weapons and backup to the settlers. This is the occupation this violence is not a bug, it is a feature. The state, the army, and the settlers have the same purpose in Masaffer Yatta and throughout the rest of the occupied Palestinian territories: the creation of territorial continuity in Israeli control that cuts the West Bank into pieces. These aims territorial control and the removal of the Palestinians has led to the biggest population transfer since 1967, taking place as we speak in Masafer Yatta. The army and the settlers are equal partners in this project.
The occupation and the oppression of the Palestinians are closely linked to Israeli capitalism. For the Israeli elites, the occupation is profitable. Israeli Weapon companies make millions from selling weapons to regimes such as Yemen and the United Arabs Emirates. Weapons that are sold after they were tried on Gaza and the West Bank and are promoted by the misery, the poverty, and the death that it had created. As well, the occupation is profitable as a device to abuse Palestinian workers. Israeli corporations and wealthy people employ Palestinians both, in the occupied territories and inside Israel, and abuse them with long working hours and low salaries, taking advantage of the fact that the Palestinians have no way to secure their rights. In that way the rich profit directly from the oppression of the Palestinians people.
The narrative of the country perpetuated through the educational system provides a narrow colonialist view on history and on the reality in the state of Israel. It tells us that the country was built by heroic pioneers, without ever discussing what and who was here before. It tells us about villages and cities that were built, but not how Palestinian lands were bought and their inhabitants banished. It creates a false unity of Jewish interests with the Jewish rich, rather than with the Palestinians. It tries to make us think that the occupation benefits us, the Jewish workers, in order to eliminate any possibility of true solidarity with the Palestinians or bringing an end to the occupation all of which stands to hurt in their pocket.
We live in a country that call itself self enlightened and liberal, "the only democracy in the middle east", but at the same time, runs a murderous apartheid regime and commits war crimes regularly and systematically. Israel implements policies of house demolitions, journalists killings, of breaking into homes, mass arrests, the arrest of children, collective punishments; illegal settlements, a siege on Gaza and much more on a daily basis. This country exploits our personal loss and pain over the people we loved and who died because of this cruel reality, to further its propaganda.
humans we must resist this reality. As humans we must refuse to
demolish homes, arrest children, and refuse the destructive reality
that Palestinians live in. As humans we must make amends for the
wrongs of the past of the occupation and the Nakba.
As workers we must show solidarity and cooperation with Palestinian workers, and fight against the rich that profit from our exploitation.
As potential army inductees, this is our opportunity not only to serve the country and the army. It is our opportunity to support the fight for justice, peace, and equality. Whether through psychological disqualification, by appealing to the armys conscientious objections committee or through serving jail sentences, we refuse to serve in the occupation army. We must fight for a better future. It will not be easy. Our opponents are strong. However, where there is oppression, there is also brotherhood and solidarity, and that no one can take from us.
30th September 2022
In the past week alone, the Israeli military has:
This is a war, happening in front of our very eyes. The conditions on the ground cannot remain this way forever, and it's only a matter of time before they escalate. Our voices will be needed. We should be prepared to use them.'
As a boy, wanting to see if this latest newcomer to the village could fit into my version of the world, I showed strangers the places that knew me. Even as a teenager, and later when home on visits, I made new girlfriends walk out, across fields, climbing hedges, or along the slippery tide-out shore to Ham Point on the Dart estuary.
The river in its tides circled out around the beech trees there with, on the opposite shore, the blue and white boat house, rarely occupied, that belonged to Sharpham House. The paddle steamers' tannoys called it Calendar House; but that big house with its twelve doors and 365 windows was up above the trees and out of sight of Ham Point.
As a boy I spent so many hours just sitting on the moss bank among the beeches, on my own or with my dog, watching the brown-grey tide creep in or slide out over the long mud bank. Sometimes I pretended to fish. And in my flopping-about idleness my name got carved onto a couple of the pewter-smooth beech trunks there.
Rarely used paths deeper in the wood led - towards Totnes - on to a secret, if damp, ferny dell in a steep part of the woods. Late every summer, in the big field above the dell, were always mushrooms.
If friend or girlfriend weren't impressed by the place for itself, compatibility became an issue.
When I no longer had ready access to Ham Point the test[s] for fitting into my world became less easy to define. A shared sense of humour was I suppose the ultimate test, my own humour tending towards the ridiculous and irreverent.
At some point testing would arrive at 'taste', particularly taste in art. But art is tricky, my having often been introduced to new art by new friends. My daughters for instance not that I was testing my relationship with them have led me to music and artists new.
Maybe though what it is that I seek out in a new friend is less their taste in art, but their attitude to, the importance that they place on art. A shared enthusiasm for authors will seal any friendship.
That said, although in a friendship I might want people to like me I don't want them to be like me. Vive la difference first and foremost. Therefore within my friendships there are tolerable levels in all things consumerism, life style, even politics: all can be fitted into the frame of friendship. Unless the friend proves too reactionary, too right wing, too self-centred, too intolerant, too unforgiving. Like myself most of my friends have had, what are lightly called, chequered pasts and/or peculiar personal arrangements.
© Sam Smith 29th October 2022
The Seventh Man?
K, n-L, Eth, Af, Ch & Sy
Six of us escaped the detention centre. I say escaped: it was more like curiosity took us through the corridors and we found ourselves outside.
What we then assumed had happened was that an electronics failure had caused as in a fire drill all of the doors to spring open. Although the opening was more of a hydraulics whisper than a twanging spring.
Not a lot happens in a detention centre. You wait on phone calls from your court-appointed legals or from your careworker team. And day follows day follows day.
So when the doors swished open we six looked to who might be coming through. The new arrival might be from someone's home, know the whereabouts of someone's family... Our unit had beds for eight: we were six.
But no-one came, no staff looked in; and the door with its wire-mesh window remained open.
What I remember now is that not one of us spoke. An older man, a Syrian, had been about to make us tea. He was the only one standing. The television had been on, but it had been on since early, even the news was stale, and no-one had been that engaged with it.
We looked from the still open door to one another and, one by one, we began to get out of our chairs. Stepping past the Syrian we moved towards the open door. Four of us. The Syrian, broken out of his memorising of who wanted what tea, with a start decided to follow us.
First was the corridor that we had all walked down before to meetings in the small side offices. All of their doors were open. At that point I think we were all walking forward almost unaware that we were walking.
The door at the end of the corridor was also open. We were now looking to one another in the part-hope that one of us might be able to say what had happened.
We had all been in this next corridor too, but escorted, told when to stop, when to wait. No staff appeared this evening to tell us to go back.
All was familiar but unfamiliar, like a sunlit street after a storm. Through these corridors was the way we'd come when being taken for court appearances, for interviews with officials. Your identity has been confirmed. By the officials that we had fled from.
Another door, a shorter corridor. In this corridor was where we became aware of noises from the floors above, shoutings, crashes. Up there somewhere was where the politicals and the mind-broken were kept.
The harsh noises had us hesitate, anticipate the appearance of staff. None came. It was the old Syrian pushed us on.
One more open door and we found ourselves hurrying towards the evening cool of outside.
Hands hit shoulders, and legs that had become used to wandering a single set of rooms stumbled into a foot-thumping gallop across a stretch of short green.
Fingers clutched at shirtsleeves, sweater tops. Walk. So, catching our breaths, two abreast we part-stumbled, bumping into one another, along the pavement between parked cars and garden hedges.
I was near the back, looking all around, the cool outside air moving past my face and in behind my neck. We were passing through a residential district, lights on in houses, some curtains unpulled, sides of television screens visible.
As I followed the others across the road to avoid some people ahead getting out of a car I glanced back to the high square block of the detention centre, all its windows lit. Beyond the Centre was the dark of the industrial estate.
I was not the only one who had looked back. The Ethiopian had stopped beyond where the people had got of the car and gone into a house. Lorries, he signified the industrial estate.
From within the Centre we had listened to the diesel rumble of nearby lorries, had fantasised on ways we might escape.
I looked with him back along the road of parked cars. To go there would mean passing by the Centre.
Too close. I gripped his thin forearm, shook my head. Find somewhere else. We need to get where people are. Or out of sight.
The Ethiopian nodded his understanding. Walking on he rolled his shirtsleeves down, buttoned his cuffs.
With our detention fantasies fixated on the industrial estate we had none of us, on our escorted trips out, paid much attention to these residential streets.
This way I think, the short Libyan said. He claimed he was Libyan but his accent was wrong. One of the last to arrive he had on a Centre sweatshirt and jogging bottoms. Court appearances had allowed the rest of us to choose clothes from the laundry cupboard.
The street of cars and houses that the Libyan was taking us down had speed bumps. The Syrian pulled at his sleeve and waved a negative finger in his face, pointed back. The Libyan shook his still-clipped head and pointed forward.
It was this brief exchange that had me realise how conspicuous was our behaviour.
We're six friends out for the evening, I loudly announced to the early autumn evening. Six friends.
On our trips across to Croydon we had all commented on the mixed-race groupings we had seen on the pavements, outside cafιs, the ease of their association.
Stepping by my group I gave them all my biggest white teeth smile: This way you say? And I led us on.
As luck would have it where the road started to curve around was a footpath signpost pointing between garden fences. That took us through some trees to a, almost recognisable busier road.
Shops along here. For sure, the Syrian declared.
Cars passed both ways along this road. No parked cars. I saw a woman passenger looking at us.
Six friends! I shouted to my tense companions. The Syrian turned with a smile, gestured onwards.
Talk to me, I patted the Libyan's arm.
Here for instance. You have somewhere to go here?
Scotland. His clipped scalp twisted around, as if he was afraid of being overheard.
Where in Scotland? A big place.
Near the coast.
Oh, I said, Ayrshire. And I spelled it for him.
Will need a lorry, he said. Or a train.
We arrived at the row of shops. Only one shop. The four others were takeaways a Chinese, a curry house, a pizzeria and a Mexican. All except the Chinese were open.
The Syrian had paused in the door of the pizzeria. Some scruffily dressed teenage girls were grouped together by the counter. A small television was hung on the tiled wall. Outside was a rank of delivery mopeds. The clipped Libyan was covertly examining them.
The Syrian stepped into the pizzeria and said something to the larger, older man behind the counter. A younger man had been joking with the teenage girls while the large man had taken a phone call. Putting the phone down he had spoken sharply to the young man. That's when the Syrian had stepped in.
There was a rapid exchange of words between the Syrian and the large man. The flap in the counter was lifted and we five were beckoned through. One of the girls pulled a disappointed face.
We filed past the ovens and the stacks of flat cardboard boxes into a small kitchen at the back, stood there shoulder to shoulder.
My brother said to wait here. By brother the Syrian meant fellow countryman.
Three iron and plywood chairs were tucked under a small iron and plywood table. We waited. We weren't offered food, only tea. Were all Syrians obsessed by tea?
Waiting for what none of us knew we began discussing where we wanted to go. One of us wanted to get to family in Manchester, another to a friend in Liverpool. That left two of us uncertain. I noticed that the fake Libyan no longer mentioned lorries or trains. The quiet man from Chad suddenly announced that he had an actual brother already in the West of the Country. He hadn't told us any of this in the Centre. None of us there had been granted asylum, had been waiting to be sent back, once our appeals had failed.
The man from Chad declared that he was going to go overland. I told him that the West Country was a long way from where we were and that in open country drones would spot him, even in woodland. They have infra-red sensors.
Lot of homeless here, my brother say. Why they bother with me?
The large pizza man didn't allow an answer: Go. Now. Out the back. Pushing us aside he opened the back door and began shepherding us out. TV news just said you seven dangerous. Terrorists. Not to be approached.
Seven? Terrorists? We six looked around to one another wondering which one of us could be a terrorist. We all, probably because his story was the least credible, suspected the Libyan. In our journeys here though we had all assumed other identities, told different stories. Could be any one of us. Two had looked quickly away from me.
You, the pizza man closed his large fist on the Syrian's shirt, go to this street. I glimpsed Arabic script on a torn piece of cardboard. Only you. You will be collected. Now go! This big man, used to shoving people about, forcefully pointed past the empty upended pallets and plastic bins to an unlit back alley. He hurriedly said more sounded like directions to the Syrian. By which time I had left and, in panicked scattering, the Libyan and I had split off from the others.
I sort of knew, from my escorted trips out, the general direction to the centre of London, east from the Centre. What I was less sure of was that keeping company with a suspected terrorist was a good idea. Word has it that Border Force CCtv monitors look for groups, not solo travellers.
Just when I was wondering how to get shot of the Libyan without causing offence he stopped me. I hang about here, he said.
That took a moment to make sense: instinct was telling me to get as far away, to be as unconnected to the Centre as was possible. Realisation though had me laugh: The mopeds. One had passed us a few moments before.
Rider got to leave outside. When delivery made. To a house. Then I take.
We embraced. He crossed the road looking for a vantage point. I hastened eastward.
In half an hour I had crossed under a motorway and found myself among fields. A lone walker. This had me afraid. Motorway signs had told me I had to be heading north and these roads were taking me to the east.
I needed to be one of many in a city; and to be truly safe, unseen, I needed a tent city, the city within every city now. Always someone there to find me a cardboard pitch, supply me with a plastic shelter. Tent people, all with nothing, take pride in sharing the little nothing they have.
The road became semi-rural with streetlights, a rough sort of pavement. Occasional cars passed. Tense I kept waiting for the sound of a car drawing to a stop behind me, burst of a police siren, blue flicker of police lights.
I arrived at another estate of parked cars and garden hedges. Bedroom lights glowed behind curtains.
The one bus shelter was made of see-through perspex, would offer me no safe shelter. Front gardens were open, with high fences and high gates blocking the back gardens of even those houses said to be for sale.
The houses came to an end and I walked into the semi-dark of another country road, the sky-red glow of London to the left ahead.
I was still the sole walker, stopping and pressing myself into hedges, warily standing on soggy verges whenever a car came along. Tired I climbed a weed-grown gate into a small woodland, sat with my back to a tree, and slept.
When I heard the morning traffic reach a busy pitch I climbed back over the gate and continued my walk, striding out, arms swinging, to warm myself. Very soon it was one pavement giving way to another. Then there were sleepy, sometimes stationary, dogwalkers. Women wrapped around in dressing gowns waiting for their dog to finish sniffing. One heavy runner in black leggings had me stumble off a pavement edge. Then came single individuals dressed for the office and hurrying past me, dodging around me.
So it was that street by street I coalesced into the city, metropolis anonymity coming ever closer, furthermore holding out the promise of assured invisibility within a tent city. I reassured my flattened feet that to any disinterested onlooker I was but one other human being going about his business, and looking to create another new non-identity.
He doesn't think of himself as Syrian. If asked he will say first that he is from Idlib; and if they don't understand his Arabic, only then will he add, Syria. If to a new met Syrian however he will straight away tell them, Ashrafiyah.
Maybe, in response to their expression, he will add, Idlib.
Some non-Syrian Arabic-speakers have confused his pronunciation, have asked if that was the Ashrayfiyeh in Beirut. He has told them, No, not Lebanon. Idlib, Syria.
If asked by fellow refugees about Syria, he will say that Syria used to be green, that even in the cities and the towns the skies were full of birds. Now, he will tell them, my Syria is a country of falling walls and grey dust.
Fellow refugees will nod their solemn understanding.
Now, he says, the empty skies are broken apart by screaming war planes. Or drones. Before the bombs.
Fellow refugees are not the only people he has told this to. Always in a plastic-sheeted refugee encampment a wary someone wandering about with a form needing to be filled. Chary of being wept on, or berated, the form-filler and their interpreters have found the Syrian.
Why did you leave? Idlib, you say?
To remain alive.
You considered your life to be under threat?
What hope there for an outspoken, a middle-aged teacher? When they are putting children in prison? He does not mention his son the journalist nor that the screaming war planes were Russian. Just in case.
You fled. Where did you go first? When you got out of Syria?
Salqin. Moved on from Rehandi. He worries that he may have told this pair too much. Next time he will tell the form-filler that he doesn't know, this time says, You need to know no more.
I do. If you don't mind? I need to know where you want to go. Back to Syria?
The Syrian considers the politics of his answer, squints at the interviewer, rubs at his bristled chin, says, I want to go where there are no wars. So not to Syria. Not to Idlib. Not anywhere in Syria. If it wasn't our own government trying to kill us four hundred thousand of us so far. Or so I have been told. Then it was Kurdish terrorists trying to kill us. Or the Israelis thinking they were bombing Palestinian enclaves. Or American drones as inaccurately targeting their enemies. Targeting what they thought were their enemies. War is full of mistakes.
Do you have anywhere in particular in mind?
Europe somewhere. It has been arranged.
Not so well arranged. He hadn't expected to be waiting in this street of hedges and parked cars, streetlights shining off the tops of parked cars.
A long grey car slows to a stop beside him. The young male passenger puts his head and arm through the window to tell him to open the back door: Got a child lock.
The Syrian squeezes in beside a bulky black and red child's seat.
Seat belt, the driver tells him. He struggles to free the belt from its tension lock, then to find the buckle coupling between his bum and the child seat. He succeeds.
OK. We go. The driver doesn't race away, continues slowly down the street of parked cars, leaves glinting in the garden hedges.
During his first Cairo practice one of his grateful patients gave this non-Libyan a moped. He therefore feels on familiar terms with this evening's borrowed machine. Although, picking his way through cold Surrey, he could have done with a hat this cold night let alone a helmet. And even a thin jacket might have kept out some of the wind.
Stopping at a red light in Brentford, feet on the floor, he gives the tank between his legs a shake. There is but a swish of liquid rather than a reassuring slop.
Ahead is the gleaming red and white of a petrol station.
Before stopping at the traffic lights he considered taking petrol from a parked car or a motorbike. But, even had he been able to undo the petrol caps, he has no tube with which to siphon the petrol. The choice left him is either to abandon the moped and look for a ride, or to steal petrol from a garage.
For the second time this night he is to find fortune on his side: the petrol station has an all-night shop and doesn't require preliminary card registration at the pump. He quickly fills the moped's small tank. He guesses with the wrong kind of petrol. The moped probably requires 2-stroke. But even without the dash of oil the engine will probably run long enough to get him beyond London.
While at the pump he pretends to have spilt petrol, pulls off reams of blue tissue roll. His back to the shop he stuffs wads of this paper up inside his sweater and down the front of his pants, gets back on the moped and leaves.
Street signs with their borough names mark his journey north. He gets through Acton, then Ealing, glimpses and recognises the arch of Wembley from football on the telly.
The moped rattles along. An ambulance, siren blasting, rocks him as it goes racing by, frightens him into a side road. Then he is in Stanmore and having to choose smaller roads, ones that don't take him to MI North.
When he crosses under the M25 his hands are purple with cold and grip, the tank back to a swish, and the engine has begun to sound peculiar. He reluctantly decides that the moped has become a liability. In Hemel Hempstead he leaves it carefully outside another pizza takeaway, shuttered; and he starts to waddle back to a park just passed.
The day has begun bright. One of those gleaming mornings when everything seems clear and worth looking at. The fresh green of a fir tree, light reflecting off curved holly leaves. Trying not to rustle as he walks he hopes to find a bench where he can doze in the warming sun, figure out how cashless and cardless he might make his way upcountry.
Eth & Af
So of-a-moment have they been left together at the littered back of the pizza shop that the short Afghan and the tall Ethiopian, both thin, look to one another wondering what next to do. For so long have they been transported, told where to go, where they will be collected, who they have to meet; waited one place, got taken to another. Suspicious of all they have had little option but to trust the next anxious man.
The other three escapees took themselves off to the left, and parted ways before disappearing into the dark beyond the last streetlight. The short Afghan and the tall Ethiopian stop staring into the stillness there, look to the road on the right, the way they had come.
Lorries? the Afghan says.
The Ethiopian assesses the word, gives a decided nod.
They start off briskly to the right, in and out of dark gaps of the night, heading back towards The Centre. Early mornings back there ears had registered the diesel roar of cold engine starts, had leant a connoiseur's discernment to the deep thrum of slow-moving lorries, their reversing beeps as the lorries had negotiated imagined industrial site loading bays. A unifying music to one and all, a source of shared speculation. Even if they hadn't actually jumped a lorry, all had considered it.
In this retracing of their steps the pair have just entered the path between the few trees and garden hedges when a police car's flashing blue light goes silently by on the road behind them. The Ethiopian and the Afghan stop together again, listening now to the rising sound of a siren.
They stop where they are, waiting for the increasing siren to reach them, until the Afghan pats the Ethiopian's arm. Having got his attention he indicates The Centre and shakes his head. Then he taps his own chest and says, Liverpool.
The Ethiopian lifts his strangely bearded chin in acknowledgement, lays long fingers across his own chest and carefully enunciates, Man-Chester. These two words they have told officials many many times.
With the siren almost upon them they move closer to the hedge. A police car's blue light flickers briefly in among the trees. They listen and wait.
The siren stops abruptly when the car reaches The Centre.
The Afghan is confident, his having been an Army translator, that his application to stay will eventually be accepted. Bureaucracy everywhere goes at its own pace, and once that ways and forms have been found to render all bodies involved blameless, he is certain that he will be allowed to stay. Eventually.
That confidence has him tempted to return alone to The Centre; and by his voluntarily returning further establish his confidence in his application. He knows though that the Ethiopian has almost run out of appeals and that, if he is to be sent back to Ethiopia, the authorities there will readily kill one who has demonstrated his disloyalty by leaving. The Afghan also knows that the one thing working against the Ethiopian's appeal is his lack of English. Others in their unit, aside from himself, have tried to teach him their versions of get-by English. The Ethiopian can speak Italian better than English, Italian his default second language. His closest cousins however are not in Italy, but are here in Manchester.
Centre lorries no good, the Afghan says. We need to be back across that road. That road. He points. And away from busy roads.
The Afghan tells himself that he can apply for citizenship from elsewhere in England. From Liverpool even.
Manchester? he indicates that the Ethiopian should accompany him, and knows that his acting as guide will not be a wholly charitable act. To be shut again in The Centre, even with brownie points for having returned 'of his own free will,' has his chest feeling heavy. While just the excitement of his being out here feels liberating.
Lorry? the Ethiopian frowns down on him.
Lorry, the Afghan encourages him along. But gotta be goin' the right way. The translator has mimicked the accent of one of the privates. His mimicries used to make some of the soldiers laugh. Looking at the Ethiopian's incomprehension though he wonders should he stick to the English he parroted back in the Helmand schoolroom.