Three Score and Ten is taking a festive breather but just in case you feel neglected here is a wonderfully seasonal song from the brilliant Loudon Wainwright III. A big thanks to all the visitors to my blog over the last nine months (nearly 2,000 views from 30 different countries) and a Merry Christmas to you all. Three Score and Ten will be back on Friday 5th January.
To keep you going until then here is a festive poem. It isn’t new, I wrote it many years ago but it is about Christmas and it is funny and I hope you enjoy it. It was written for the Christmas Party at the Dharma Banana in the legendary Fighting Cocks pub in beautiful down town Byker in 1999.
Something very different this week. The Penguin Cafe Orchestra is a band from the 1980/90’s with their own very different Avant-Pop style led by English guitarist Simon Jeffes and cellist Helen Liebmann.
I first came across this band watching the Australian stop animation movie “Mary and Max”. The “based on fact” story is about an unlikely pen-pal friendship between a young Australian girl and a morbidly obese 44-year-old Jewish atheist from New York. It is at times wonderfully funny and a desperately sad film. It is beautifully rendered and well worth a watch. You can see a trailer by clicking here
One of the issues the film deals with is the fact that Max is on the Autistic Spectrum. Mary sees that as a disability and Max sees it as an integral part of his personality and not a disability that needs to be cured. It made me think a lot about difference and how we perceive it in a increasingly segmented society.
We all are individuals with our own distinctive personalities, quirks and idiosyncrasies that makes us who we are. For most it makes little difference to our day to day lives, for others it creates huge problems that can make life almost impossibly difficult.
Making a Spectacle of Yourself
As a child his fat spectacles would frequently slip from his pustulated face
Picked last at school sports with a reputation as the world’s worst goalkeeper
The cock eyed pictures on the pub wall distract him to the point of anger
He makes a mental note to bring a spirit level to the next boys night out
He would prefer a world where beauty was literal and people were honest
Deviousness can catch his ankles and send him crashing to the ground
He takes an eternity to be spontaneous and can quickly prevaricate
He can feel awkward and unsure in the company that he so often craves
Words dance on book pages and the order of their letters often eludes him
But he loves them with a passion it took him years to acknowledge
His world is a one man play were he has many parts, none of them suit him
Yet he is the sum of all of them and an eager apprentice at each one in turn
Say what you like about REM they can craft a good pop song.
I was brought up a Catholic but lost my faith when I was a teenager. These days I find the concept of a God and religion as ridiculous as believing in Father Christmas or the Tooth Fairy. I accept that many intelligent, good and decent people do not share my view. I do believe that everyone should have the right to worship whatever God they like as long as they do not seek to impose those views and values on other people who do not share them.
My High School was St Cuthbert’s, a Catholic Grammar School in Newcastle, the Head was Father Cassidy a man famous for his temper, his intolerance and his enthusiasm for beating young boys.
Here is a BONUS addition to the blog. Click below to download a short story called “Docherty”. It is based on an incident that happened at St Cuthbert’s when I was eleven years old. Click here :docherty
This week’s poem recalls an event when I was an altar boy for a priest called Father Boyle, a person I had a lot of time for. He had a mischievous sense of humour and wasn’t aloof like a lot of the other priests at school. All CatholicPriests were required to say Mass every day even though they were teachers and had no church. In the basement of the priest’s house in the grounds of the school were a number of small chapels where the priests would say mass to a congregation of none, just me and Father Boyle at seven-thirty in the morning.
Father Boyle could say the a mass in under fifteen minutes and one morning he told me he was going for a personnel best time. This poem is about that morning.
Postscript… Since the blog was published I had a phone call from fellow poet and St Cuthbert’s old boy Aidan Clarke. Aidan and I had attended a poetry night in Durham the night before I published the blog and I had read out the poem. Aidan contacted me to tell me that he had recently been discussing Father Boyle with some another St Cuthbert’s old boys and he had recalled how Father Boyle had read out a poem he had written when Aidan was in the 6th Form and although it was over fifty years ago he could still
recall what the poem was about. Father Boyle had gone to comfort a couple who had lost their five-year old child and he was questioning how a merciful God could let a five year old die. A few days after that discussion Aidan, who has an unhealthy interest in cemetaries had been walking through Lemington Cemetary on the outskirts of Newcastle when he saw this grave. The latin inscription reads “A Priest Forever”.
I was born a Catholic, the catechism beaten into me by Nuns with bad habits
Faith seeps out of most, even the most devoted, a slow puncture on the road of life
For many, routine and the fear of the hereafter kept them shackled to the Alter
My faith was involved in a head-on shunt on a spring morning when I was thirteen
I was an Alter Boy for Father Boyle saying Mass in an empty chapel
Latin incantations rattled through the liturgy like an express train
Never stopping at the stations in between only focused on getting to the end
The Priest ignored obstructions pausing only to issue instructions
As the final bell rang, he checked his watch, eleven and a half minutes
With a triumphant smile he announced his personal best time
A light went on, if it was a game to him why should it mean something to anyone else
Belief hitched a ride on the breakdown truck, It was never seen again
In the years that followed on dark crisis ridden nights when all hope had vanished
I would call up an instinctive prayer that was always unanswered
It is over fifty years since the last prayer left my lips
The pain in this song is visceral and it is in the tiny details that you can appreciate the agony that he is going through. I also love the way he combines the spoken word and the music by using a sung chorus to glue the whole piece together.
Have you ever had your heart-broken? Of course you have , everybody has at one time in their lives. The first woman to break my heart was called Lynn. I met her when I worked in Bainbridge’s department store where she worked on the beauty counter selling eyelashes. The sixties was all about the eyelashes.
I had never experienced emotions like it before and it was amazing. When we were together I was elated and when we were apart I was anticipating our next date. We could talk for hours and in the way that young people do we explored our emotions and our bodies.
There was one major problem, both of us lived at home with our families. Today, we would have got a flat together but in those far off days that was not how things were done. We had a wedding in the cathedral in Newcastle with the her looking amazing in her wedding dress and me looking a right idiot in a mourning suit but I didn’t care. I was in love.
I do not remember much about that time, large chunks have disappeared from my memory. All I know is that six months later she left. Later, I understood we were both too young and not emotionally equipped for marriage. Her Father had died not long before we met and she was a little lost and I must have offered some sort of security but she must have realised that I was not the one for her. Like in the song, I remember trying to persuade her not to leave but nothing I said made any difference.
In the immediate aftermath after she left I was devastated, depressed and miserable. However, it taught me some valuable life lessons. I found out who my true friends were. Even when I was miserable they stood by me. I learnt to stand on my own two feet and be independent. After a particularly disastrous meal consisting of a “cook in the tin” steak pie, instant potato and peas I dug out a recipe book we had been given as a wedding present and I discovered a love of cooking that I still enjoy today.
Except for a brief encounter a short time afterwards I never saw her again. Soon after I heard through the grapevine she was seeing someone else. I have no idea what happened to Lynn but I hope she found love and that she has had a happy life.
The taxi driver drops the small suitcase into the boot
She slips into the back seat and pulls her coat collar up
Water pulses onto the windscreen from a sullen northern sky
All that was found and lost she will leave behind
All that is unknown and terrifying she will face alone