life

Saying no – when politeness fails

When someone won’t take no politely, what do you do? Earlier this year I had a conversation with a man on other business who said that he would like to hire me as a writer. That’s fine, I do that sort of thing, write things for people and help them express themselves. I’ve worked ghostwriting books and letters, edited emails, all sorts of things.

But this older man had an obsession, as I realised. He told me that he had been badly treated and, as he put it, wrongly accused of paedophilia, and had been beaten up by a social worker when he was at his lowest. It was a pretty shocking story, if it were true. And it had all happened, he told me, in Northern Ireland in the 1950s.

He wanted it written down for the world to see. At this point I became uneasy. I understand the terrible sense of grievance that can occur in someone when they don’t express themselves – but at the same time, what did he hope to achieve? Did he really think the world was interested in what happened to him when a young man? Did he really think he was going to go around accusing people in written form in order to feed a half-century-old grudge? And more importantly, did I want to be involved in this?

I worked to put him off at the time. I warned him that he would end up in the middle of libel actions if he published a book naming names without evidence. He seemed to accept that.

Then just today he came back to me. He had tried over the last few months to contact me, and I was so busy that he was not a priority. But today, I called him back. The conversation went along these lines:

“I’m sorry I haven’t replied to you earlier, but I have been very busy. But if it is something to do with writing your biography, it’s not something I’m interested in doing, thank you.”

“Well, it’s not to do with my biography. It’s on something different. Could we meet for lunch today?”

“I’m sorry, I’m really busy, that’s just not possible. If it’s a different job, maybe we could meet in the New Year.”

“You see, I’ve read your book. Some of it is very good…” (Ah, how well he knows how to woo an author’s ego.) “And I want someone who can write me a letter.”

“I see,” I said. “Go on.”

“I want to be able to put it into good English so that I can tell some people some home truths.”

“Ah, I’m sorry. But if you want to spread ill will in a world that is already full of it, please, don’t include me in it.”

“It’s nothing litigious. I just need a letter that will tell a few home truths to the people who did me wrong.”

“Look, I understand how unexpressed anger can make you feel a deep sense of grievance, and it can eat you up, but this is not something I’m interested in being part of.”

“No, you see, the head of the Salvation Army thought it was scandalous, the way I was treated…”

And so he pushed on. My real thought was, what did he hope to gain from this? If these people he was involved with are as hard-hearted as he says, a letter will do nothing. Indeed, it would quite easily start a cycle of anger that would just make things worse for him. The thing I’ve come to realise is there is no objective truth in these sorts of matters. Just motives and misunderstandings and self-preservation and exertions of power and ego. There is no higher court of appeal. The world is a bloody mess, and it’s only when events get momentous enough or criminal enough that an attempt at objectivity occurs. And that is usually woefully inadequate.

But how to explain that to this obessive man?

I have a three strike rule, and he had now had his three strikes. So, my tone hardened.

“Look,” I said. “I’ve tried to be polite to you, but that’s clearly not worked. I don’t want to be involved in your grievances and your grudges. Do you understand? I don’t want to get mixed up in your shit!”

There was silence for a moment. Then he said. “Yes.”

“Thank you. Goodbye!”

And there it is. Sometimes being polite just won’t cut it. I don’t know what it is with older people that won’t get the message, but I seem to encounter a lot of them. Remember. If you are asked to work for someone, be aware of whether you want the job. Don’t let them browbeat you. It’s your life after all.

Goodbye Silence, My Old Friend

Since I was a child I’ve had the most extraordinary hearing. I’ve revelled in the sounds I can hear that others can’t. Really precise sounds.

The pleasure of hearing the expansion of a teapot as hot water is poured into it, tick, tick, fizz at the lowest levels. The sound of the feathers of birds as they fly by catching in the wind as I stand on a lonely moor. The rain coming off the sides of buildings and puddling and pooling, so that you can hear the locations of each spot as it drops, in a 360 degree soundscape.

There have been nights when I woke to the sound of voices, and complained about the noise of people talking in the streets – to the bafflement of my partner.

The crisp rustle of dried autumn leaves plucked from the branches, the whisper of the wind though a poplar stand while we camped out in Ireland years and years ago. And the sea, of course, the wide open sea that floods my head in oceanic stereo.

And the thing that made it all so clear and powerful was the silence. The powerful, echoing silence that made everything else so stark, like the gaps between words.

There was a time when I was living on the Isle of Arran, a lonely young man who had had his heart broken by a woman and had hitched for two years, living in woods, on friends’ floors, in tents – just seeking some form of inner peace, when the depression had taken hold of me so badly that I couldn’t function. On the Isle of Arran, the long days and nights of pure, utter silence reached into my soul and cured me of my pain. It said: “There, there, this now is past. There is peace here. There is love. There is a world in which you can start again. The only voices you hear are inside yourself – your rage, your pain, your narrative of suffering, your self-created rage.”

And so, silence taught me, and nurtured me, and helped me grow.

All this went on a night out in Southsea. It changed when I got a text from a good friend of mine, Johnny, a few months ago, telling me there was a DJ set at a local pub in aid of charity.

It was a good night. I danced. I thought the music was loud, but no-one else seemed to notice, and so – unlike my usual habit of putting paper in my ears to protect them, I danced on.

The next morning I woke to a high pitched whistling in my ears. From then, till now, it has not gone away. I did my research, and I am now resigning myself to a terrible, soul-destroying fact. My hearing has been damaged irreparably by that one night. I will never hear silence again, and the clarity with which I heard the tiniest sounds has gone forever.

I can’t tell you how much this hurts me. Silence was the thing I relied on to gather my thoughts. It was the thing I used to unwind myself and find the centre of my soul. Silence was the touchstone I used to direct my life, the void in which the stream moved.

I had no idea how much silence was my friend until now. I had no idea that I wouldn’t be able to hear precisely the movements of wind and rain, or hear the slightest change of stress in a voice, or hear the tiny nuances of sound that others missed and that I took for granted.

So, what can I say? This little piece is goodbye to you, my old friend, Silence.

I loved you. I loved you, and I miss you so much.

Trip to Dartmoor, May Day Bank Holiday weekend.

I’ve just got back from a real surprise. And that surprise is Dartmoor. I mean, I just had no idea.

True, I went to the National Park when I was a kid. My dad was in the Royal Navy, and had gone along as a natural expression of the ruggedy outdoorsy thing that he was connected up with as Exped Officer.

My memories are: dad struggling up a hill with a caravan (attached to our car, obvs), a cute antiques shop in a small village where I saw a badge depicting a Nazi spreadeagle clutching a swastika in a laurel wreath and big, open empty spaces. I was young.

I’ve also crossed the edge of the moors on a number of occasions, often in the rain, and have been struck by its complete bleakness.

This time, we headed west on Friday afternoon of the Bank Holiday in the camper, and spent our first night part way there in the The Haymaker Inn, Wadeford, Chard – a real local’s boozer, which did great pub classics – my ham, egg and chips had high quality crumbed ham and was just yumptious. The team were welcoming of a camper van, and we slept well after a few beers.

Early next morning, we headed on our way – torn between Exmoor (which we love) and trying out Dartmoor. Both of us had the idea that Dartmoor was a big, bleak open space – but we decided to give it a try, just for a change.

What a great choice that was! The first day we headed to the wonderfully named Castle Drogo, a Lutyens-modelled modern castle, where we stopped for breakfast in the impressive entrance driveway, before heading up into the National Trust car park and taking a walk down to the valley floor. It was a steep drop down in glorious sunshine, and we made our ways through luscious woodland in light that seemed to have have been specially laid on for artists. It’s a weird effect at this time of the year that I’ve also noticed previously in Exmoor – as if the trees have not grown, but been drawn by a fine draughtsman, with black shadows and startling deep green mosses and lichens on trees whose newly-sprouted leaves make them the sylvan equivalent of life-loving teenagers. There is something beautiful about trees at this time of the year, with luminescent greens overhead spreading deep cathedral light.

At times, the path opened up to stunning views across the valley where the soft leaves cotton-woolled into  emerald clouds.

Jackie and I walked with a kind of joyous anticipation at what was next. The valley floor vouchsafed a kingfisher and a yellow wagtail, and so much greenery and reflections on the river that it was like the world was new-made. The climb back up took us out to a viewpoint in which the hills spread out far into the distance, and it seemed that someone had fashioned the perfect landscape with us in mind.

A bite to eat, and a drive through more gorgeous and verdant woodland took us to the village of Moretonhampstead, where we mooched in the shops and I couldn’t resist an antiques buy. Then, newly provisioned after chatting with the locals who were super-friendly, out, up, on to the moors.

Taking a side road that squeezed and turned and twisted and dipped, single tracks with passing places and an occasional local farmer hurtling round corners with wild abandon, we climbed up on to the moors proper and found a space to park. We were up, now, in the sky, with the coconut smell of gorse bushes around us, and the steady khom khom khom of ponies that were sculpted by sunlight. Here we came to rest, sitting in the blaring silence that drowned everything else out, and feeling the slumber that sealed my spirit come upon me – that calm at the centre of being where the true me is. Except it wasn’t slumber. I didn’t sleep, but passed into eternity, the zen state where time reveals itself for what it is: illusion – and the world turns on its axis oblivious to the minutes and seconds of man. I was the same as the horses and the stones and the pools with the waterboatmen and the gorse in muddy green and the shaggy blonde of dried sedge.

Reading up here gave every word concreteness, and I read a novel, The Red Sailor, with joy as Jackie sat and crocheted, and we drank tea in the silence, and the sky came down to kiss us.

That night, I woke in the darkness to see the stars bewilderingly bright. The constellations seemed to be changed, and though some of the sky was familiar, it was teeming with new-bred stars. I aligned the centre stroke in Cassiopeia with the tail of Ursa Major to triangulate Polaris, but could not see it. Someone had stolen my night sky and filled it with milk, or the semen that fills the belly of the sky and creates newborn worlds – and I felt primitive and modern and bewildered and holy all at once, while the ponies stood around me, stock still, as old as the stones.

The next day, we headed through perfect countryside, and I felt as if we were suddenly in a fantasy world. Down into Widecombe where one of Dartmoor’s signature four-finialed church towers points stolidly at the sky, then out again onto the Moors. We climbed to the top of Haytor, a pile of striated granite left by a careless giant and sat in silence a while, taking in the scene. Then, joined by a pair of Slovaks, I broke the ice with the question: “Does this mean anything to you: Strc prst skrz krk?” They laughed and we fell into conversation.  They were I.T. developers out from London for the weekend, and had never been here before. We shared the sense of wonder at a place newfound.

And so the day went on, with us exploring, going through fairy dells where I was sure Mr Tumnus would suddenly appear, looking at Hobbit-shire fields and feeling like that small child again who stepped on to the moors. But this time, focussing on the really powerful stuff, the gentle and inexorable throb of deep life in the land.

That evening, we headed off the moors and stayed in a pub car park at Lydford. The Castle Inn is situated next to an ancient tower once used for court sessions and, next to that, a mediaeval church. The whole of life is there: social, legal and spiritual, in a microcosm. The food at the Castle Inn was excellent as was the beer, and we slept early and woke early, to break our fasts outside the castle tower as the sun beat down.

Next, a walk to Lydford Gorge before 8 am, descending down to stand at the base of the White Lady Waterfall, and feel the pagan magic of the world here. The thundering power of the water filled my ears and I felt more wonder. I paid an offering to the water deity in an atavistic moment and felt completed, somehow.

We lingered on the moors a while longer after eating a Devon Cream Tea at Lydford Gorge National Trust centre, and then made our ways home, filled with a kind of elation.

These moments, these are what life is for.

Stay here a few days and walk through your dreams:
down through green valleys, from high barren hills,
to lichen-scaled trees by numinous streams,
where moss-thickened walls ring deep fairy dells.
Feel, in your dreaming days far from the town,
all weight lift, till only a daisy chain
tied to your ankle keeps you on the ground –
else dandelion-clock-like, you blow away.
When you wake, you will wonder: were they true –
those careless nights and days which time fleeted
as though I walked in a magic-imbued
land, where world weariness is defeated?
If love is a dream of sky-kissing moors
Then I fell in love. Dartmoor: mon amour.

Stream of life – a piece of spontaneous writing

Stream of life:

This is the great stream of life, we are in. Wait. Stop. Listen. Notice the movement on your skin, the slightest of shifts as the sensory cells activate and fire off, reporting all that is going on in your life. It washes over you, washes through and drags you along in its current. There is nothing you can do but submit to it. It loves you, it is you, it is the whole universe, and it knows everything and nothing about you and your thoughts and your hopes and your fears. The stream of life is intimately you, and abstractly both uninterested and disinterested in your life, you future, your past, your pains, your joys, your woes, your smiles and your tears. It is greater than you and you are so much greater than the you that you think you are. The stream washes on. Wait! Stop! Do you hear that sound? It is the laughter of the water, washing all around you.