Thursday, 6 August 2020

Poetry At School: A Personal View

So. 

The grey men in grey suits want to remove poetry from the national curriculum do they? Typical. 

Why? A society without poetry is a cold society, blank and functional, going nowhere. A metropolis of empty souls. 

A society fit only for old men in grey suits.



I don't want to live in a society without poetry. Do you?


How beautiful is that? Pablo Neruda. 


Poetry has been a massive part of my life. And that started at school. 

I did not like school at all, especially the practical and vocational aspects the Government are now keen to promote. 

Without poetry, I wonder, what would I have done? To this day, I am utterly dimwitted when it comes to tools and mathematics and science and no amount of support and training or government policy can change that. 

When I was a kid, I once constructed a go-kart in our garage – a go kart with no axles so it simply wouldn’t roll. I was so proud of that go-kart, but everyone on the road laughed at me.

In woodwork at school, I tried to make a shark out of wood and it ended up looking like a pencil with no lead. In metalwork, I tried to make a ruler and it ended up more like a parallelogrammatic credit card. Everyone laughed at that too. 

In Chemistry, my only formal contact with a Bunsen burner and its fiendish beakers was when our teacher lashed me in the face with the bendy tube for some now long-forgotten crime. Everyone in the class laughed as I fell off the chair and cracked my head on the formica tiles.


In PE (football, or hockey), I can only remember Mr H, a Yorkshireman every bit as violent and narcissistic as the teacher out of Kes who thought he was Bobby Charlton. 

Once, during football, I accidently fouled a lad called Kevin. We started with the handbags, as you do. The teacher trotted over nonchalantly and smashed our foreheads together leaving us writhing on the ground with concussion while he trotted off again, whistling. 

Everyone on the muddy, slanted pitch laughed and laughed and laughed.

I hated school, particularly the vocational and non-academic stuff like the above. 

The stuff they are trying to promote now. 

I have no fond memories of school after eleven at all. I couldn’t wait for it to end, to be honest. 

Yet, I loved English and to this day, I love poetry. 

Without English and Poetry, I would have been so deep in life's shit I don’t think I would have ever come out.


And it worked for me. Poetry. No-one laughed at me in an English class because I was quite talented with a pen. 

Still can’t do a thing with a screwdriver or a battery drill (still can’t change a plug and have spent the last two days trying to change the inner tube in my rear tyre if anyone can help), but I can write a coherent paragraph and I know the difference between a quatrain and a stanza.

I learnt that at school in the poetry segments of the English curriculum. 

I learned about Byron and Shelley and the epistolary love between Barratt and Browning. I read the good bits of Beowulf and the naughty bits in Chaucer and the beautiful bits of Shakespeare. I was introduced to the Beat poets by Mr Fothergill, who taught History but was a brilliant writer and a published poet. I enjoyed performing. I played John Proctor in The Crucible (and through it learned how patriarchal societies exploit and suppress women, which I wasn’t learning anywhere else in eighties Britain). 


I was happy to read out my poems in class in a way I didn’t want to read out prose. Reading prose in public seems wrong, but oh so right with poetry.

Poetry is a visual, spoken form. The two are completely different disciplines and I learned that at school too. 

The men in grey suits have seemingly forgotten this.

Reading poetry was like acting, or singing, or entertaining rather than writing or reading. It was as distinct a discipline as physics is to history.


I only wished there was more poetry and less functional algebra, which I have never, ever subsequently used to any practical purpose.

I wish I could tell you that I was a brilliant performer, but I was not and am not – however, I was given the opportunity to try on the curriculum and no-one laughed when I did and I learned to present information in front of a class, which came in seriously useful in the future. 

Had I been a pupil in 2021, I would have been in big trouble.

You know what happens when something becomes voluntary in a school: It gets lost in the hinterland of the Extra Curriculum.

If you are a young man, in the murky, grudging extrazone, if you secretly want to learn something arty, you are usually up against football practice with your mates, or the character-building boxing training, or something practical and vocational you can use on an apprenticeship.

If you are a young man, you already can’t be bothered to read because you have Doom:Eternal Boss Level 2 to conquer and now you won’t have to bother with poetry at all because you’re playing the school up the road in the semi-finals next week and you need to sharpen up the left peg 


Putting poetry in the Extra Curriculum twilight zone is counter productive. 

Poetry pays for itself. Poetry may enrich society, granted, but it allows massive practical skills too, useful for all young people, especially in a service, customer-focused, communication-based economy. 

It allows you to write, to talk, to present, to listen, to use language in ways your competitors aren't. It allows you to innovate and to imagine ways to innovate. It inspires and it kickstarts creativity.


I use the poetry skills I learned at school on the curriculum not only for writing, which I use every day, but for presentations which have helped make the companies I work for about £20 million over the years and helped thousands of people into work. 

I have spoken on the radio and I have written books, several of which owe more to poetry than they do to prose because, in the end, poetry is about language and how it is used and I have always - thanks to my English teachers - been more interested in form than content. 

The most beautiful paragraph for me is more beautiful than the most beautiful story. 

I learned that in Poetry too.

I sold thousands of copies of a book called Ultra Violence, partly based on my experiences at school. In the first chapter, a true story, the narrator describes a scene where he is seriously assaulted and nearly murdered by his classmates for some imagined slight. 

http://greenwizardpublishing.blogspot.com/2012/10/bullying-sequence-from-ultra-violence.html

It has been described by a few people as one of the best chapters ever written in a football novel. It also uses poetry as a metier. It’s written with an eye on rhythm and pentameter, things I learned at school. I attach a link here, so if you do read it, don’t expect vocational functionalist prose like, say, that of Dan Brown who wouldn’t know rhythm in prose if it bit him on his overfilled wallet. 

I sold 1500 copies of a book called “Carla” which has been


widely praised and whose last two chapters are fundamentally poetry in prose form. I learned that at school too.

I’m not here to sell these books (those days are over), but the news that the Tories are planning to remove poetry from the national curriculum has inspired me to think about what that actually means.

 If I hadn’t have had strong English teachers (Miss Wyatt, Mrs Ellis, Mr Turney to name but three), with a passion for poetry beyond education, then I would have been a complete failure in life.


I don't have literary parents. Nor am I middle class. I didn’t have an idyllic Blue Remembered Hills background. My school was resolutely comprehensive. My dad was a hundred hour week working electrician and my mum was disabled. Money was tight and your life choices in the town I was born in were fourfold in 1980: 

Pit, army, sixth form or catering college.

Without the opportunity to learn poetry and English in general (and to a lesser extent, History), I wouldn’t have bothered at school at all. 

I had absolutely no idea I liked poetry until I tried it at school. Until those teachers showed it to me. Until I was exposed to it.

Removing poetry from the national curriculum is astonishingly brutal and silly and stupid. It’s also counter-productive. What would I have done back then? 

You can stick me in front of a lathe to make a dowelling rod or something and Shakespeare’s hundred monkeys on the next lathe along would do a better job than I would. 


I am positive, I am convinced, I am adamant that there are thousands of talented young people who would make terrible lathe operators but brilliant poets(and sales reps, and marketing experts, and graphic designers and, er, politicians) if the opportunity to learn poetry is there, and most kids aren’t going to know that in the Extra Curriculum. 

With poetry, you have to be shown.

It's a hidden, veiled exquisition that needs to be introduced.

You have to have the opportunity to be exposed to the poets and the rewards are boundless.

The national curriculum is ideal for this.

Poetry is one of those things that continues to give time and time and again, and it keeps on giving, but someone needs to introduce you to its beauty first.

It needs to stay on the curriculum for pupils like me who needed it.

Mark

Soon, I'll tell you just how culturally diverse poetry is and how this decision is quite astonishing in 2020, especially after the events of this summer.


Saturday, 6 October 2018

The Out Of Town, Ripley.

I like a pint. 



Always have done. I have enjoyed a pint or two since I was old enough to get inside a pub, in the days before the draconian ID policies of the modern era (which force kids onto moonlit parks without any adult supervision at all, but that's another story). 

*

When I do drink, I don't drink at home at all. I enjoy going out. Nothing worse than the same four walls, is there?

I have a real ale thing going at the moment. 

It used to be endless lager in my football days and cider in the days after my stomach's machinery failed me, but now, I stick to the ale - which is not always easy, as a lot of it tastes like its been warm filtered through a tramp's sleeping bag. 

It always breaks my heart, therefore, to see a pub close. 

*

Two weeks ago, the Dorset Arms in Compton Acres shut its doors for good. 



My family had many a decent meal there on Sundays and birthdays. My brother and I would disappear for a bet at the neighbouring Mark Jarvis bookies in between the abyssal gap separating the starter and the main course; the beer would flow. 

We spent my Dad's last birthday there, and most of the family had a mini-wake in the deep, tangerine sunshine, a shocked impromptu anti-commemoration, two days after his passing in July this year. 

It was heartbreaking to get an email informing us of the Dorset's closure and even sadder to see it shut down last Saturday - the colourful logos pulled down, the lights dimmed, the umbrellas and tables removed from outside. 

It's closure was also the final straw for the bookies next door too. 

That shut last Saturday afternoon.

*

I spent many a Saturday afternoon in there watching the racing with some hardy regulars. It was clean. It was quiet. The staff were friendly and it had a conspicuous absence of the nutters and machine-addicts you get in Nottingham city bookies. 

And, of course, when you lose a pub, you lose the pub-bookie pub bookie merchants. You lose the cash flow. You lose the interest. 



A butterfly beating its wings in Brazil causes a tornado in Tokyo and the same rules apply when you shut a pub. The takeaway will be next. 

And the curry house.

Sooner or later, you're left with Scope and Cancer Research; pre-loved jeans which smell of mothballs and the steamer.

*

There's the emotion to consider too. 

Pubs inspire memories of togetherness and community and personal reflection of family and friends. I have many, many great memories of friendships and conversations and parties and great nights spent in pubs. I'll never forget them. 

So many of the pubs I have memories of have metamorphosised into soulless flats, unethical car washes and completely unnecessary mini-markets.

You must all have a favourite pub which has gone forever. 

In the past decade, I've lost the Druids Tavern in Arnold (the first place I ever had a pint - 34p a pint of Home Ales Mild), The Fountain, QE and Dog and Bear in town (which I wrote about in UV); the Quorn in Sherwood (so many wonderful memories in there, the Latin Quarter); the Dumbles in Southwell (the first pint I ever had up there in the sticks), and now the Dorset. 

The Quorn Hotel in Sherwood - now a block of student flats

All gone. All empty. 

Spectres, ghosts; haunted spirits.

*

I'm writing about this because I have a good friend whose local pub, the only pub in her village, shut last night - a focal point for absolutely everything from food, writing groups to Zumba in the summer garden. 

Then, I found out an hour later, via a text from my son, that they are shutting the Out Of Town in Ripley tomorrow night, a pub I have never visited, but for some reason, a pub I felt passionate enough about to have made the subject of a short story.



That really upset me.

*

The short story, "Pop Up Comedy Night", was published last year by Clare Stevens and her team of writers at Maggies at Nottingham City Hospital. 



I was inspired to write it after my son, who lives in Ripley, told me about the pub's desperate struggles to attract drinkers and how it fought valiantly to stay alive. 

The pub went down every route it could to attract the passing trade it most desperately needed, in the face of severe competition from the Wetherspoons close by, and five years after my son told me about the infamous comedy event, the disastrous comedy night I wrote about in the short story, it's now all over. 

The struggle is over.
The Out of Town is out.

*

You can substitute the name of this pub  - a pub I have never visited, a pub I only know about secondhand - for one of your own. 

It's all a symbol. 

It's all Jungian. The individual parts don't matter. 

Every pub shut in this country, even the rank bad ones, jolts the interconnectivity, the psychic network which connects each and every one of us, both to each other and to our historical culture.



It's all a group memory, an archetype.

You all must know a ghost pub: Enough have gone, most never to return.

*

Why am I writing this? Well firstly, because I can. 

Secondly, 

All these pubs would have survived if we actually used them. 

These great community venues, these sources of friendship and memories, of great emotional satisfaction.  

These histories in brick.

It would have been simple.

A pint bought. A round to celebrate a birthday. A bag of pork scratchings and a pickled egg. A quid in the jukebox, fifty pence in the Batman fruit machine, the odd frame of pool.

It would have all helped.

But what did we do instead?

We went to a stinky Wetherspoons for the cheap beer and the ping breakfasts.

But it's cheap beer, intit, Marky. 

Or we stayed at home talking to pixelated strangers on Facebook, digital signatures in faraway places. people we'll never meet. 

Or we stayed in to watch some shit BBC drama about bent coppers written by some middle class non-entity who uses Prosecco-and-Lobster bars on Salford Quays.

Or something. 

Who knows. I'm no expert. I'm just upset.

Bottom line - we didn't use the pub that shut down last week. The Dorset. The Out of Town. 

We're all to blame.

End of.

*

I'm not preaching from on high. I don't go out as much as I used to. I'm tired and depressed most of the time from work, travel, crowding, a sense of frustration with the wider world and an underlying anxiety about the future.  

I could sleep for England and I'm sure I'm not alone. Of course, when you are asleep, you aren't in the pub, you aren't spending money and neither is anyone else, because they are all asleep too.

When pubs are gone, most stay gone. It can cost a fortune to resurrect a pub. So entrepreneurs don't bother, especially in the suburbs. 

*

One day, we're going to wake up and all the pubs will be gone. 

And then what would we do.

Mark

1) I promise the next blog I write will be cheerful.

2) Missing Pieces may be out on e-book shortly. Only Joe Hill, incidentally, has attracted a wider audience than the launch event for Missing Pieces did at Nottingham Waterstones, including some big names.





Sunday, 2 September 2018

Eulogy for our Dad

My dad was a great man. 




They all say that in eulogies at funerals, I know, no matter how accurate the statement (or how deserving) but in this case, I can write it with a hundred percent certainty and with my hand on my heart. 

My father was a great man. 

There's that Facebook meme which does the rounds now and again. You know the one. You've all seen it - anyone can be a Father, but it takes a special person to be a Dad. 

It applied to our Dad too.

Unlucky Cards

Dad passed away on July 25th this year. 

Diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease two and a half years ago, the only possible negotiation with the Fates is in the timing: MND is a terminal diagnosis.

In the end, MND wasn't responsible for Dad's passing and that's something he would have been proud of. Neither was it anything to do with his recent diagnosis of Alzheimers. Dad was dealt some pretty unlucky cards late in life - not that he would ever complain - but it was something else entirely which got him in the end.

So, that's it, then

Dad passed away without pain, blissfully unaware of the transition through the veil. We watched him pass at the Queens Med at twenty five past two in the morning.  He had a contended look on his face as if he was ready; as if he had made his peace and was ready for the next marathon somewhere in the stars. 

As if he had said, well, that's it then.

Earlier, that hot summer's day, it had been business as usual. Whirring about on his mobility scooter, he had lovingly watered the vibrantly coloured plants in his garden in the still of the balmy evening, under the influence of the slowly setting sun, still warm in this most glorious of summers. 

Then, when he was satisfied, he came in, sat in front of the telly to watch an episode of his favourite programme, "Last Of The Summer Wine", with a glass of his favourite whisky at his side, and his beloved wife, Mary, who was still busying around the house finishing some last errands before joining him.



In other words, as I wrote, business as usual at the top end of West Bridgford.

Soon after, Dad went to sleep, never to wake up.

Home and Hearth

He was born in 1942, just after the Blitz, in St Ann's, Nottingham. It's pointless recounting his life from the beginning because a) no biography should start like that and b) Dad tended to ignore most of his early days anyway.




There wasn't much good about it, he told me. 

The total lack of money in the post-rationing era of the fifties made for a bleak existence, he said. The Nottingham squalor, the slums, the soot, the spewing chimneys spouting from filthy factories on innocent street corners, the shared baths at the fiery hearth (he was second-last for his dip, of eight), the shared beds used in shifts, inky sheets washed once a week, dried in all weathers on smoky lines behind row after row of terraced houses; living rooms too cramped to accommodate a cat cruelly swung.

He seldom talked about it. He just left it behind. I remember him saying that nostalgia is a liar; it really was Hell after the war.

An intelligent boy, with decent potential, Dad was never bitter about how his beloved mother was forced to turn down his offer of a place at the Becket, the Grammar School, because buying the requisite expensive blazer, shirt, tie and shorts would have left the rest of the family to starve.

And of course, in those days, unless you were posh, there were no grants: So, he went to the local secondary modern like everyone else.

Sparks


Later in life, as an apprentice electrician, he wasn't bitter about the bullying administered to him by older electricians in the name of "toughening up". 

He just got on with it. Pulled up his overalls, salved the bruises with Swarfega and got his head down. Worked to get out of it. Worked his ticket.




And over many, many years, tooth and nail, one foothold after another, he made his way up. 

No favours. No glittering silver spoon. No nods and no winks. Just sheer bloody minded, back-breaking hard work. 

All hours; double shifts, double time on Sundays.

Witness

Dad worked his way slowly up. Ran a business. Made a few quid: Cast a wry smile, on occasion, in the direction of the bullies still in the pub with their fags and best bitter.

Through a frosted lens in which he could see the struggles of a country crippled by the War. And he saw history, He fixed cables through Wilson's white heat. He bent conduit all the way through the bleak midwinter of the three day week, with candles flickering on dinner tables filled with scraped-up tea leaves, piles of Smash and dripping puddles of spaghetti hoops. 

He carried ladders under Sunny Jim's gaze, in some discontented winter as his maniacally eye-browed sidekick, Healey, went  cap in hand to the Americans for a sub. He fixed brackets under Thatcher, hung flourescent lighting under Major. He saw them all and was still going when they were all gone.




Lost Skills

It would be wrong to label him just as a grafter. 

Yes, he admired hard work above all else (and hard workers, as his kids and grandkids will confirm). He could graft for hours and hours, yes, but he was a skilled worker. 

With his passing, the world has lost yet another bloke from that era who can do just about anything with his hands. 

As well as electrical stuff, he could join, weld, fabricate, lay slabs  - he laid his own driveway single-handed at seventy - build kitchens and bathrooms, fix the roof, do things with soffits and fascias and fix broken stuff, almost anything. 

Like many in my generation, I can barely change a plug without a manual, but I never saw Dad beaten by anything practical (though he disliked plastering). 

As with everyone in our family and beyond, I knew he was the first port of call whenever I needed anything. 

And he never said no. 

No sooner had I picked up the phone, faced with some desperate conundrum to do with leaks and cracks, he was round my place, as if he had been teleported; cap on his head, pencil behind his ear, toolbox in the car.

Magpies

He was always busy. 

He set up all sorts of businesses, including Amway. Brewed his own beer and moonshine (a legendary marrow rum talked about in hushed tones). Played football as a left back. Managed a football team to two league titles and a cup triumph in Nottingham's fiercely-contested Amateur leagues. He gardened. He read.





He was a fanatic Notts County man who introduced all his kids and grandkids to Meadow Lane. All of us are supporters because of him - some fanatic. 

He never followed Forest, even in that strange era when Nottingham folk attended both clubs. He never hopped on the final bandwagon over the Trent in 1977, something our club has never recovered from.

He told us all that he saw the great Tommy Lawton hover ("he really did - he hovered!") and he told us that he was at the Lane against York in 1947. 

He was proud of me when Ultra Violence, my novel/memoir about Notts, achieved a measure of success in 2012 - though I am glad, paradoxically, that he never read it. 


Those unlucky cards meant his visits to Notts became infrequent, but he was there this year, at Easter, in the executive boxes against Coventry, with his entire family around him, 

We won 2-0, but he saw neither of the goals as the family were having a drink and you can't drink in the boxes at Notts County. He regretted not seeing those goals, particularly as it was to be his last match. 

Marathon Man

Marathon running was a great passion and he was a committed member of Holme Pierrepont running club. A hobby taken up when he worked at Heathrow Airport around Concorde and Jumbo Jets, he ran to save money while his contractor colleagues were out on the lash. He was 34. 



By the time MND had claimed his left leg, he had run 118 marathons around the world in places like New York, Los Angeles, all the capitals of Europe and even Sydney. 

Better than that, he ran the full length of the country with his friend William, running from John O'Groats to Lands End, in three stages. 

He was sixty eight: and he didn't want me to tell the press because it wasn't that much of an achievement, according to him.

Crocodiles and Leopards

When he had finally made some cash for himself, he and Mary liked to travel and naturally, he combined this love of travel with his love of running. 

Once, on safari, he found himself in a compound in the middle of Zimbabwaen jungle under strict instructions, like everyone else, to stay well behind the fencing. 

Outside, said the guards, roamed man-eating lions, leopards, panthers and permanently hungry crocodiles. 



All the safarigoers were happy to follow the instructions.

Except one. 

You see, Dad had spotted a pathway through the jungle and he couldn't see any reason why a keen runner like him - and an Englishman - shouldn't be able to explore. After all, he had seen guards walk up there and they weren't being eaten!!

So, on went his singlet and headband. On went the New Balance. 

Off he went up the pathway - only to be brought back shortly afterwards in the back of a jeep full of seriously angry guards.

The Skoda

Above all, he was a family man, never happier than when taking his three kids on a seventies holiday to Cornwall in an unreliable old Skoda. 

I remember the endless summer of 1976, spending two weeks on Fistral Beach in Newquay, probably the best holiday we ever had. 

Even when we were flat broke, which was often, he always made sure the family had a holiday like that one in Newquay.


A borrowed caravan in Mablethorpe. A cheap flight to Lloret. Twenty four hours on a coach to Frejus to spend ten days in a tent. An overnight drive down the M5 to Mevagissey and Polperro in a Skoda, which, I vividly remember, was once driven for several miles with a coathanger attached to the accelerator. 

And when the overtime began to come in, when us kids got older, Benidorm and Malta.

Summer Holidays

In better times, after a million hours of hard work and the retirement gold watch, he would love nothing more than taking his five beloved grandkids to places like Alton Towers, Drayton Manor, the Leicester Space Centre; closer to home, Go-Karting and Nottingham Arena for the Ice Skating, 

They went so often, they could have had season tickets. He adored kids, including those of his neighbours, and when he finally had the time, he took on the job of looking after the grandkids for every summer holiday possible. 



He loved it. And all the grandkids loved him.  

He was one of those grandads you read about who actually took an interest. Not a Werthers Original grandad on his armchair making things up about the good old days, which weren't actually good old days, but an active grandad never happier than on the ice skates himself or in a go-kart trying to overtake the boys up the inside rail.

I know the grandkids miss him and they always will. He was a massive part of their lives. 

Stories

Writing this, I realise that there are so many stories. Like the time when, without childcare for the holidays, he smuggled his kids into Heathrow Airport where he was working on Concorde's overhead washers. 

He threw us over the fence when no-one was looking and, at night, hid us in lockers until the security guards and their peering torches had passed. 


The hitchhikers he lent money to knowing he was unlikely ever to see it again. 
The hitchiker who he took home for dinner at the family table.
The time he fixed up the electrics in a cottage in France on a week's holiday there. For hours and hours, without complaint.

In the end, the stories are in our hearts along with the memories and in the end, Dad knew that all stories come to an end. 

It's the one thing all stories have in common.

The Last Goodbye

Tony Barry, our Dad, leaves behind his beloved wife, Mary, my sister Marie, my brother Andrew, the grandchildren, Lee, Ellis, Charlie, Louis and Matthew. 

He leaves behind brother Eddie and sister Mary. He leaves behind many friends at the running club, the football club, and in his personal life, including Dale, Lisa, William, Frank, Sheila, Wendy, Terry and Mavis.

I know, with certainty, that his essence is in all our hearts. I know, with equal certainty, that his spirit watches over us. He is sitting this morning, on his cloud in Heaven, a crystal glass of whisky in one hand, silver keys to a new celestial Skoda in the other, a pair of New Balance on his feet, a Notts scarf around his neck. 

A permanent smile on his face.  

I know this with certainty because this is what he deserved.

Goodbye, Dad. You were special. And a great man. 

We'll miss you.

The family xx




PS My wife Emma is enthusiastic enough to listen to new music and she happily shares everything with me because of it. Before we got together, in a conversation about family over endless emails, she once sent me this, by Owl City. 

It's called Not All Heroes Wear Capes and it breaks me up every time I hear it. 

It says it all for me. This is for you, Dad.








Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Some Fragrant Winifred

Here's why I wear a poppy. 






I am a working class bloke. 
Like me or loathe me, that's who I am. 

I have working class appetites and a zest for the working class life. I love my family. I like horse racing, football and good music. I like to read, a rarity nowadays. 

In my life, I've enjoyed a joke, a smoke, a pint, a punch-up and a great night out more often than I should have done, but I regret nothing and would do the lot again.  

I've got a suit for Sundays and a suit for court. I've never been to a dinner party. I've attended two plays, one musical, no operas and the only modern dance I've ever seen is my dad bopping to the Birdie Song at a community centre wedding with my aunty Hilda. That's something I can't unsee and believe me, I've tried.


*
I'm no different really. I'm not a unique little snowflake. There are millions like me. Past and present. 

See, I'm just like those blokes who went over to France in 1914 and all over the world in 1939 with names like Tommy and Albert and Alfred and Norman and Harold and Wilfred and Bill and nicknames like Patch and Nipper (for the fast ones), Lofty (for the shrimps) and Titch (for the beanpoles). 

Working class lads who, like me, enjoyed a joke, a smoke, a pint, a punch-up and a great night out far more than they should have done. 

Most of them young, not even twenty, with girlfriends they loved, who they would have loved forever, like swans (always the swans), with names like Winnie and Marge and Edna and Edith. 

Ordinary blokes. 

Working class blokes who spent their Saturday mornings rolling oaken bitter barrels and shovelling shit at Shipstone's Brewery before racing down to Meadow Lane to see Notts County with their pies and their pints and their rattles and their scarves and their never-ending jokes and wind up and banter, the Alfreds and Alberts and Harolds at large in the freezing, smoke-infested horror of a British industrial city.

Real people, just like me (and just like you); only with stranger names and moustaches. 

Real people, who, without the Kaiser and Adolf and Tojo and the rest of them, would have carried on doing it. 

Living their lives, having a laugh and a giggle, a pint and a pie, sitting in the snug. Heads over the football paper, lamenting their team's criminal inability to score a goal, winking at beautiful women named Agnes and Myra, gently sipping their halves of mild by the window, with their hair done up a treat and their shiny crimson shoes.

Real people, these Alfreds and Alberts and Harolds and Wilfs, just like me, just like you, who found themselves on the 1st July 1916, at 6am in the morning, in a snaking trench on one side of a field, with the Kaiser's men on the other, under a vast, endless continental cobalt summer sky, unsullied by cloud, lit by a hovering, hazy sun and cooled by the faintest of winds, 

Not quite knowing why they were there. 
Wondering why the birds had ceased their endless song. 

The silence just before the gentle humming of the shells, which they knew would come. Just waiting for the whistle.

Alfred and Albert and Harold and Wilfred: Those Nottingham rascals.

I wear a poppy for these men who were just like me. 
And you. 

Men who were dead within ten seconds of the sound of that Officer's whistle. Blokes who never even made it ten yards from a standing start.


*

300,000 working class blokes like them died that day for reasons that no-one fully understands. Pointless, pathetic, dirty, unfair, unjust deaths. 

I wear a poppy for these men because what they did was a lot more difficult than sticking a pin in a jacket.


*

A poppy isn't a flower. 

Its a bullethole sculpted in paper. That's what it is, stating the obvious. A bullethole for a fiver. A symbol commemorating the seven bullets that tore into Alfred's chest, or the three that severed Wilfred's leg at the knee, leaving him to die screaming in a  shellhole that was once lush French grassland, or the stray bullet that severed Tommy's head off at the ear. 

That's why I wear a poppy. Because they should have been living their lives back in Blighty instead of dying like that.


*

Nearly thirty years later, in June 1944, shortly after the Normandy landings, a relative of mine charged a Tiger tank in the French village of Caen. With just a Molotov cocktail and a Webley pistol. 

The mad bastard. 

Hard to know what the tank thought about it, but my relative was crushed flat as a pancake under the left track: They never found enough of his body to bury him. 

Caen was a bitter battle where flamethrowers were used extensively on people and the fighting went from house to house, hand to hand, bayonet to bayonet, with the smell of burning British bodies in the ether, and when the war wasn't between men of flesh and blood, it was between flesh and three tons of German heavy metal. 

Because the British held up that division of Tigers at Caen, the Americans were able to liberate Paris. Thousands of men died. More than at Omaha beach - which Spielberg neglected to mention anywhere in Private Ryan.

(That bit was for historians - which didn't include my courageous, but largely dense, relative, or Jack and Henry, and Harry and Bob or all the other slicked-back Nottingham rascals who died in that village, who really should have been in the pub, or at the races, or at the Notts match, or having a cuddle with some fragrant Winifred listening to George Formby on the wireless).

That's why I wear a poppy. Because it's a lot easier than standing up to a big tank.


*

Finally, I wear a poppy for my stepmum's stepdad. His name was Walter. He served in Burma. I don't remember him that well, and we never really spoke, in that strange way steps often behave with each other.  

In my mind's eye, he reminds me of Mr Benn, only with a trilby, rather than a bowler hat. 

He was a painter and decorator by trade, in Lenton, and a good bloke, who was up his ladder within a week of returning from the far east. 

He liked a drink of an evening, a frame of snooker or two and watching the cricket at Trent Bridge and I always remember him being a pleasant bloke, if a little distant. 

He never once mentioned the war. Not once.

I found out later that he was on the Imphal Plain in Burma in 1944. What he saw, he kept under his trilby and not even ten pints of Guinness, a bottle of Grouse (and the occasional traumatic night spent on Lenton Park under the beech trees), could get him to talk about what he saw there, when the Japanese ran out of ammunition and charged the British trenches with sticks, lances, knives, axes and samurai swords. 

With him in it. 
In the trenches. 

A real person, just like you and me. 
What must he have seen? 


*

He's why I wear a poppy. 

Not for patriotism - I'm the least patriotic person on earth. I'm a Remainer who detests Tories, the EDL, the self-satisfied middle classes, the net takers of British society, and Brexit and all that madness, and who worries every single night of his life for the future of his country.

Nor for the glory of war - there's no glory in death, that much is obvious and war death is the messiest there is. 

And I definitely don't wear my poppy because someone tells me to. Like many working class blokes, I don't listen to anyone - I'm more likely to do the opposite of anything you tell me. I'm an arrogant so and so and I genuinely don't care what you think of me.

So I wear a poppy because I can. 

Because I'm still alive. 

Because of them, those soldiers, those rascals that could have been - nay that should have been - living the rascal life back in Blighty, I don't have to face flamethrowers and screaming Japanese swordsmen, even in my nightmares.


*


These blokes - the Alberts and Alfreds and Jacks and Harrys, from every village town and city in Great Britain - must have been scared stiff every single minute of every day. 

They watched their friends die horribly. 
They must have known their days were numbered in single figures. They watched the night skies turn to heavenly fire and they heard the gates of hell open and they saw the demons pour forth in hordes and hordes and hordes.  

They saw things I can't even begin to imagine. 
They saw horror. 

And they didn't run. 
They saw horror up close and they didn't run.

That's why I wear a poppy. 
They stood. 
They took it. 
All of it.
The fire and the flames and the screaming and the cacophony and the soaring of the shells and the explosions of blood. 

They took it. 
And they died.

In the end, for me, they were the bravest human beings who ever lived and they died so we could decide, at our leisure, whether to wear a poppy or not. 

So I wear one. And always will do.

RIP one and all. We will never forget. 



Mark Barry

PS I'll be attending the Southwell Remembrance Day Service on Sunday if anyone fancies it. You know the time. I'll buy you a brandy in the Saracen's Head and we'll raise a toast to the unknown soldier.



Sunday, 24 September 2017

The Schoolhouse: a tale of the supernatural

My father is a prodigious marathon runner who once ran from John O Groats to Land's End. He's run over a hundred marathons around the world.

 Unfortunately, he's been unwell lately and he can no longer run, but he's  been talking to the press about his life and this story emerged.  My sister Marie is currently raising funds for MND research and I shall be joining her next year, as will my son.

Full story here:


Do you believe in ghosts? Well...read this...

The Schoolhouse
by Tony Barry 
(as told to Mark Barry)



I ran the coast-to-coast walking/fell route on three occasions, running from west to east, through Lancashire, across Yorkshire, and into Humberside.

There was one incident that’s worth recalling, an incident I still cannot believe happened – but it did.

______

Throughout the trek, I would run around twenty miles a day and my plan was to book a guest house “on spec” as I finished.  

One day, half way across the country, because of bad weather, mammoth fells and rocky terrain, I realised that I had completely miscalculated the distance between villages and found myself stranded in the middle of nowhere.


It was starting to get dark and cold and I was surrounded by forbidding moorland and overhanging crags. Luckily, I kept running as best I could in the remaining dusklight, and found myself in a tiny hamlet at the base of a giant fell.

The place had no more than ten cottages and I knew instinctively that I would be lucky to find a guest house here. As it was now almost completely dark, I found a cottage with lights in the living room window and knocked on the door. 

A ruddy-faced old gentleman in a cap and a green pullover came to the door, arms folded. I explained my position: He told me there was no guest house for twenty miles, but – kind of him - he pointed out an old schoolhouse at the end of the Hamlet, which was always unlocked and where hikers and stranded runners like me could stay overnight: I was clearly not the first to make this miscalculation!

I thanked him and ran swiftly to the schoolhouse, an old stone building with two big windows, surrounded by trees and framed by a colossal fell in the background, now illuminated by a full moon. 


Opening the gate, I walked up the path to the front door and with a shove, opened the door. It was warmer than I expected. The building was functional, with two floors, connected by a rusting spiral staircase right next to the door. 

The room below was empty of furniture and deathly silent – it was basically a long-empty space surrounded by four walls.
I removed my torch from my pack, climbed the rickety staircase and investigated the upstairs space for something I could sleep on, but that floor upstairs was empty too – it had been clearly a long, long time since this place had ever been witness to a child’s education!



All I could see was a chalkboard at the far end, which the faint guidance of my emergency beam revealed to be in serious disrepair. 

I went back downstairs, removed my sleeping bag and, exhausted after a twenty five mile day, wrapped myself up, rolled up my sweatshirt as a pillow, and lay staring at the moonlight coming through the windows.  I am the type of person who can sleep on a washing line, so it wasn’t long before I was asleep

________________________________________

That’s when it all happened. 

At five, still dark outside, I was awoken by a sound from upstairs.

I sat up, wondering what it could be. Strangely, it sounded like the moving of a wooden chair being pulled across a concrete floor.



Then I heard another.

I wondered who was in there with me, wondered if I were dreaming and realised that I wasn’t. I could see little, the moon obscured by night clouds and the morning darkness.  I unzipped my sleeping bag and rationally realised that someone had come in after me and had obviously gone to sleep upstairs.

At least that’s what I thought before I heard a wooden desk top being closed with a subtle click.

Not slammed, but closed carefully, with consideration. Then footsteps walking across the floor above me, shuffling, beams creaking.

The hushed, mischievous giggling of children.  

Curious, and, in general, no believer in the supernatural, I got up, reached for my torch, and climbed the staircase not quite sure what I was expecting to find.

Of course, when I got there, I was surrounded by darkness and emptiness. There was nothing there and the sounds had stopped.

But just as I began to think I was imagining things, I could feel a presence in the gloom.  

Someone was there. 

I cannot explain it even now, but there was definitely someone there with me in that upstairs classroom.

And I also cannot explain how I know this, but that someone was looking at me.

Curious no longer, I skipped down the rickety stair case. Put on my running shoes, rolled up my sleeping bag and organised my pack in double quick time. 

Left the schoolhouse and put as much distance between that place and me as I could.

That next three miles was the fastest I ran that week!!