Sunday, 13 December 2015

Christmas - and other ridiculous myths


On this day, in certain parts of The Church, they celebrate the myth of the Virgin Mary. In the ancient Christmas Carol, The Cherry Tree Carol it states from the outset that...

Joseph was an old man

And a very old man was he

When he married Mary

In the land of Galilee.


Questions may be asked as to why this old man was marrying someone who was, it is suggested, very, very young. It seemed his arm was somewhat forced, since she’d become pregnant through some mysterious encounter about which Old Joseph was in the dark. But let’s get one thing absolutely straight: she was no virgin. This was just a silly idea, a cover-up, and a theological sleight-of-hand to explain the yet-invented Holy Spirit.

The Bible’s pretty hot on mystery pregnancies, and doesn’t rule out rape or incest, so the age-gap thing was less of a problem for young Mary explaining herself to Joseph. What’s more, it paved the way for the modern paradox, that it’s okay for young women to go for older men, whereas older men fancying younger women is troublesome. For some.

And this is how it happens in the Bible.

The women-folk are all so desperate
to be ‘with child,’ a patriarchal God
performs a winning hand of magic tricks
to help them out. In the beginning, He
creates a snake and, with a piece of fruit,
imbues creation (or sex) with original guilt.
The Lord, of course, abhors homosexuality,
but after turning Lot’s Wife into a pillar
persuades his daughters to date-rape their father.
To other women, too haggard or barren,
He introduces spite and jealousy
and then opens their wombs to fertility.
Some women are less-keen to get knocked-up;
but Rachel, like Rapunzel who was locked up
in her tower, ended up with twins
who in her womb quarrel like Cain and Abel.
It’s a bitter battle no woman wins.
And Abram, finding his elderly wife unable
to bear a son and heir, abused his servant-
girl, Hagar. Some call this canny; others, deviant.
In years to come, the same capricious Deity                 
by-passes conception immaculately –
although just how this ‘virgin’ explains
it to her aged husband-to-be remains,
in retrospect, the bigger mystery.
He must have been an understanding man.
Or did the Lord endow him with the Wisdom
of King Solomon? The man agreed,
at risk of losing face, to raise a son
conceived not of his own but of another’s seed.
After all, what was this man to do?
He couldn’t exactly chop the child in two.

 

Lately there was a piece on a crappy website shared on Facebook which, for some reason, I clicked on – and read with horror. In these days of Thatcherite post-feminism, when women get what they want at any (or, if they’re canny, at no) cost, these fifteen reasons for dating an older man were so devoid of love – surely the bedrock of a relationship – that I found myself extremely riled. This was the premise of the piece:

WHY YOU SHOULD DATE AN OLDER MAN


Are you interested in dating an older man, but unsure about making the leap?  Then we suggest you take a look at some of our reasons why you should snatch yourself a silver fox, because let’s face it: older men just do everything better!  *Wink-wink*

Perhaps *Wank-wank* sums it up better. This was not the most intellectual set of suggestions, nor was it based on a particularly robust understanding of psychology. The user-responses were hardly academic either (nor are mine, especially) but they ranged from describing women as ‘gold-diggers,’ to expressions of seemingly genuine love of older men. A general denial of pot-bellies and little blue pills was evident. There was a wide range of age-differences from the women who spoke of their older partners, and this, I guess, is the most significant factor.


It is said (by god-knows who) that a good age-gap calculator is to half a person’s age then add seven: this gives a socially acceptable age-difference. So, generally speaking, teenagers date their own age-band; it’s not unusual for a woman of, say, 22, to be with another person in their twenties, or for a man of 35 to have a partner in her mid-twenties. It would be less-normative for a 25 year-old woman to be married to a man well into his fifties. But behavioural psychology does not presume to question love; nor does it offer any answers.

In psychology – and love – nothing is ever quite what is seems. Ultimately, the age-gap calculation is only a rule-of-thumb, and can be used as judicially as terms such as cougar, panther, silver fox, or manther. Who are we to judge? Yet questions remain. Some people turn to the Bible for answers; some to other ancient sources, or to art, or literature, or music. Some go to the incalculable idiocy of the Internet. And this is how it is in Modern Life…

(I have quoted, in full, the statements but not included the stomach-churning pictures. My response follows each)

1.

For the most part, older men don't live with their parents or share their living space with roommates. Hell. Yes.

So a Younger Woman can free-load off a man who has his own living-space, subtly impose her stamp on his lifestyle, but keep her own cheap shared-flat in case of needing a quick-and-easy get-out. Sure, it’s good if a single, Older Man lives in a nice wee flat, or – better still – mansion but that won’t guarantee they’ll be free of the fortnightly visit of offspring from a former relationship. Unless they are so significantly older their kids have grown up. In which case, you’ll get to meet someone your own age at Christmas, lucky Younger Woman! Hell? Yes.

2.

They typically know exactly what they want out of a relationship. That means no games.

The implication here is that younger women don’t know what they want, and therefore game-playing is on their agenda and will be one-sided. Which is insulting to both genders. Games, quarrelling and bargaining are important aspects of any relationship. That said, if a relationship is simply a game, or if either is playing off the other, this is not a stable basis. It’s more of a gamble. You’d better keep your ‘poker-face,’ Younger Woman, if he’s gonna ‘put a ring on it.’ (Don’t worry about him not getting the contemporary cultural references: just keep singing ‘The Winner Takes it All’ – he knows that one. Or soon will.)

3.

Older men won’t try to change you because, like we said, they know what they want out of a relationship.

Do they really know what they want? If they do, then they are perhaps more controlling and conniving than is comfortable in a new relationship. If they want equality and shared experience, they’re onto a loser anyway. But feel free to try and change them because, as these statements seem to be saying, Younger Woman does not know what she wants. Older Man will be humming ‘Just the way you are,’ while Younger Woman drunkenly hollers, karaoke-style, ‘I am what I am’ – fully intent on changing according to her whim (or developing maturity.)

4.

Older men typically have good manners. And who doesn't love a polite gentlemen?

And younger women have none? Courtesy, politeness, good manners, etiquette: the definition of all these is pretty fluid, and dependent on so many factors, not least age and upbringing. The word ‘typically’ seems to floating on thin ice here. Out-dated manners are insulting to many women. The indication that men should be ‘gents’ and woman, ‘ladies’ applies only to the signs on lavatory doors these days. If bedside-manners are not equal, then neither is the relationship. Put away your Debrett’s, Older Man, or hang on to your regrets.

5.

Oh, and did we mention older men are just plain hot? Two words: Silver fox!

Does it not concern the reader that ‘hot’ is not a sensible or pleasing description? Neither is ‘plain.’

6.

They are more experienced in and out of the bedroom. You know what they say: practice makes perfect!

If you’re expecting ‘perfect’ sex (the ‘out of the bedroom’ bit is unqualified) then you may well be disappointed. The idea of sexual ‘performance’ seems to be the tone here. If Younger Woman yearns for something a little less vanilla, she will go and find it (out of Older Man’s bedroom.) Conversely, if his experience leads him to want something a little more ‘exciting,’ the chances of this being grounded on equality seem dubious, given that Older Man has the upper hand of experience, so we’re told. Of course, he might not be so experienced or willing to experiment; in which case: good luck, pal. She’ll be taking you for a ride, either way.

7.

With age comes wisdom and intelligence. Not to mention, older studs usually shell out great advice.

Do you want an aged counsellor to whom you are peculiarly attracted, who exudes fake wisdom and may not be as clever as he seems just because he has had a few more years’ life experience? Go on then, Younger Woman. But be prepared to agree with everything he says, if that is your perception of him. Until you find you’re wrong. Let’s shell out one more piece of advice while we’re at it (whatever ‘it’ is.) If your ‘older stud’ calls you a ‘fine young filly,’ feel free to kick him in the knackers. That’s where – if he’s an older stud – he’ll be heading anyway.

8.

Older men make you feel young(er) because, well duh, they're older than you. That's definitely a plus!

No: younger women make older men think they are younger when, in fact, the age-gap will become even more contentious as it diminishes. Down the line, should children appear in the arrangement (and they might already factor, if he’s seen a bit of life) it be clear to the Young(ish) Woman that a retired man may not have the necessary income to raise her child(ren.) He may die before seeing the child(ren) into adulthood. Furthermore, he may be a grand-parent to his first flush of child-bearing sexual encounters. Younger Woman, you married a Granddad. Ew.

9.

Older men are generally more well off. Even though that's not a be-all, end-all, it's still a nice perk.

Let’s face it; if they’re not well-off, then the tenor of this statement suggests there is little point in dating them. If money is a ‘nice perk’ then you might as well forget about the sex. As for love… I was coming to that. But, nah!

10.

Maturity is key in a relationship, and who wants an immature man?

And why would a mature man want an immature woman? Then again, age and maturity are different things. It’s perhaps likely that Older Man will want Younger Woman because he has ‘immaturity issues’ (too many to begin to contemplate here) that will be revealed as the relationship develops while he no longer does so. To keep this idea simple:  there are two ‘key’ elements to a good relationship: maintenance and reparation. These are what help a relationship develop and mature. The idea of a pre-packaged maturity seems, paradoxically, rather naïve.

11.

Older men are usually easy-going and much more relaxed than their younger counterparts.

If only that were true: this is a stereotype that the younger woman will soon see through if he is emotionally unstable. Which he may well be if he is being seduced by womanly youth. And the ‘younger counterparts’ – what the hell does that imply? Perhaps, ‘Potential Suitors’ is the term we’re looking for. The potential for jealousy seems to be simmering under the surface. Well, Older man, you’d better stay relaxed while your Younger Woman is out with those naughty counterparts. Let’s hope that ‘easy-coming’ isn’t ‘easy-going’ as far as she’s concerned.

12.

They can also be more grounded.

Such a meaningless statement, there are no grounds for any response.

13.

Older men are more able to help you get through tough times, both emotionally and mentally.

Do older men really have more emotional or mental stability? Tough times: what does that mean? The tough times will be when you’re having to care for them in old age when physical and mental attributes diminish. You’d better fit that stair-lift, Younger Woman. Or save up for those Nursing-Home fees. Or just get out while you can.

14.

They know how to have an intellectual conversation and keep you interested.

Unless they turn out to be intellectual frauds whose conversation runs quickly out as your shared life-experience turns out to be limited and exclusive. People in their 50s have chest-freezers and quote lyrics from Rod Stewart or Carole King. They drive slightly embarrassing cars, like Peugeot Estates, and wear jumpers. They have a penchant for reminiscing on children’s TV-shows and quoting adverts from the 1970s. Hardly intellectual, but if you don’t know what brand of beer “stays sharp to the bottom of the glass” your relationship will soon lose its fizz.

15.

Young men like to score as often as they can, but older men like to take things slow. That being said, they are usually also more loyal.

These three statements do not make syllogistic sense. Older Man will see Younger Woman as a ‘trophy.’ Given his (implied) inability to “go fast,” Older Man will be reluctant to lose Younger Woman. This said, it is no wonder he is likely to be loyal – even if his ‘trophy’ has the tendency of her male counterparts (by which I mean age, just to clarify my use of ‘counterpart’ here) to score often. Older Man may not get another chance, and will (if he is as wise as his years suggest) forgive Younger Woman for even the most horrific infidelity.

He may resort to bringing up a child that was possibly conceived while his ‘trophy’ played – and scored – elsewhere, even in the knowledge that this child might not be his. And all the time, Younger Woman has Older Man exactly where she wants him – domestically, financially – tied around her finger. If she is really canny, she will have got him to put a ring on it, binding him, while biding her time ’til Older Man is, frankly, far too old to be of use. And then she will spit him out and pick on someone her own age.

Which is what Older Man should have done in the first place.

 

I will post more of my “And this is how it is…” poems in the coming months, and plenty more over the year. Meanwhile, I’m off to sing Christmas carols about Virgins, Angels and Wise Men - and other things that don’t exist.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Loved and Lost


Around this time two years ago a friend of mine died, suddenly, unexpectedly. We had fallen out of touch; his work had taken him far away, and I had moved away from full-time music-making. We initially came to know each other through doing concerts and recitals. Sometimes we would get together simply for the pleasure of making music; entertaining friends, neighbours, or family.

When I first visited his house, I discovered he had a daughter of around eight years old. She often sat in on our rehearsals, learning the songs (the English ones) by heart.  She spent some nights with her father, but lived with her mother, a short distance away. This arrangement worked reasonably well until the mother voiced plans to move to the south of England. Naturally, the father objected.

Because the two parents were never married, the child’s father had no official parental rights and responsibilities. He took his ex-partner to Court to prevent her from taking the child to the opposite end of the country. Things get messy when resorting to legal action. Ian McEwan, in his novel The Children Act, described the children in these sorts of cases as

Counters in a game. Bargaining chips for use by mothers…the pretext for real or fantasized  or cynically invented charges of abuse, usually by mothers, sometimes by fathers; dazed children shuttling weekly between households in co-parenting arrangements; mislaid coats or pencil cases shrilly broadcast from one solicitor to another.

The poor girl became a pawn in the parental wrangling; accusations were made against the father – all entirely false – and the Courts refused the father any parental rights and responsibilities. He was ostracized from his daughter. It broke the man’s heart. And although he was active and fit, his heart gave in: something took his life as cruelly and abruptly as his daughter had been taken from him.

At the reception after the funeral, I learned that the daughter had been invited to attend but on the strict condition that none of her mother’s family should be there. By then, the daughter was just months short of her 18th birthday. She was offered a chaperone. But, unable to make her own decision, she was prevented from attending her father’s funeral.

Whether she will regret that for the rest of her life, I’ll never know; nor will I know what she felt or thought about being removed from her father. Years ago, when I was running a music event, I saw her in the audience with her friends. I went up, said hello, asked how she was; said it was lovely to see her. As I moved away I heard her proudly announce to her friends: ‘My dad plays piano for him.’

Her mother fed her lies, just as anyone who wants their own way can make up stuff and manipulate the innocent. The method was wrong (what do the Courts know?) but the reasons were simple: love. Both parents, no doubt, loved their daughter and wanted what they thought best for her. But the love of two parents should never become a competitive wrangle. Sadly, however, often it is.

Besides being a fine musician, my friend was a highly-respected G.P. and also, an occasional poet and playwright. At the time of the Court case he wrote a ‘triptych’ of radio plays that were given a live public performance which I produced. It was a quirky, entertaining, and moving piece of work that presented all sides of the story in a far-more balanced way than the Courts ever could.  
 

Art tells the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Except, it does so through a lie.
 

 
 
Recently, walking through the Botanic Gardens, I saw a new memorial bench. I was not surprised to see that it was dedicated to my friend: somehow, I felt drawn to it, as if his spirit, his memory, and my part in his story drew me towards the dedication on the brass plaque. I sat and wrote a poem. It seemed the obvious thing to do. The title seems obvious too… it is the title of my friend’s play.

I will preface it with a related poem from a previous post on this blog.
 

In Years to Come

You kept it hidden from me; even so
I sensed it long before you knew.
My chief regret: I never saw you grow,

I never saw when you started to show;
never got to paint the nursery blue.
You kept it hidden from me; even so

you told me. Exactly why, I’ll never know.
Left to my imagination, naturally I grew
my chief regret: I never saw you grow.

My banishment from you, a heavy blow,
yet separated, still I felt a part of you:
you kept it hidden from me; even so

I suspected you would bloom and glow
and so as time ticked on, each day renewed
my chief regret: I never saw you grow

or got to choose a name but, even though
I had no choice, I saw it as a gift to you;
you kept it hidden from me, even so.
My chief regret: I never saw him grow.
 

 

Loved and Lost

      If you could spend an hour on a bench
         with anyone living or dead, who would it be?

 
I began to notice benches when a friend
posted a status on her Facebook page.
‘If you could spend an hour on a bench
with anyone, who would it be?’ I replied,
‘Well you, of course.’ I proceeded to send
her pictures of specimens: contenders;
benches rotted by rain, warped by winter,
sunned in spring, tatty, peeling, august,
painted pink, tarnished, or red with rust.
Unfortunately, she left our beautiful city
before I had the opportunity to share
that precious hour with her; drinking from
our flask of tea, putting the world to rights.

Wandering through the Botanic Gardens,
this memorial bench catches my sight…
I read “Beloved” on the inscription.
Then almost without closer inspection
I see the name of someone I knew well.
Fellow musician, poet, playwright… friend:
you died too suddenly and much too young.
Guilty that we’d fallen out of touch,
I sit on your bench, alone, feeling
like a trespasser, remembering
recitals and concerts we used to give –
I sang Lieder and English Song; your sensitive
piano accompanied my subtle baritone.

A robin joins me on the bench, and with
a high-pitched ‘Cheep! Cheep!’ attempts
to claim its territory with a delicate staccato.
I greet the bird, enamoured by its sweet tone.
A recollection comes tweeting back to me;
how on another bench, when we performed,
a tiny, piping voice would sing along
to my rendition of the Songs of Travel.
As Robin hops onto the floor, I stand
my ground and, letting this thought unravel,
figure I belong here on this bench.
You who were belovéd never saw
your daughter into adulthood. What’s more,

being denied the right to call yourself
her father broke your spirit – and your heart.
I share with you a sense of grief and loss.
But justice isn’t based on what is fair;
less so on fact and even less, on truth.
You were a parent to the child you bore.
Imperfect – yes – perhaps, but aren’t we all?
My child exists, although I also never saw
him grow. Like you, I only loved too much,
and seeing love not lost but stolen was a wrench
that licenses the reason for this bench.
I sit here, contemplating for an hour
a man who showed how love can overpower.


Wednesday, 7 October 2015

I Can't Believe it's October


It takes a while to get over August in Edinburgh. Not because the Festivity stops – far from it. There was so much going on in September, with studios, galleries and various doors open to the public; art on the beach, in railway tunnels, towering demolitions, half-marathons, salons for literature and scran; poetry slams, book-launches, birthday celebrations. Well, that’s how my September was, which explains why October’s here and I’ve yet to ruminate over August’s Festivity.

As usual, I threw myself into Festival: everything from the International, Book, and Art Festivals, and of course, the Fringe. For the latter, I saw many shows; only a couple that were really mediocre. In my reviews, I gave an unofficial ★★★★★ to one new spoken word performer who I met for the first time, and another official ★★★★ to a piece performed by someone I’ve been lucky to work with. The star () system, however, is not the best form of assessment; in fact, it is flawed in many ways.

This year, I saw two pieces of extremely moving theatre, so different they don’t compare and yet, they tackled a similar subject: prison. The first was a straight forward recitation of Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol. The actor, in his introduction, was genuinely appreciative of his small audience and, after explaining the background of the work, recited the poem from memory over an eerie and atmospheric musical backdrop.

His performance (which might have been a slog without the music) was perfectly timed, and emotionally charged. He had a clear view on the injustice of the death penalty, the horrors of prison life, and the disgrace of incarcerating people who are punished in a way that reflects more on the attitudes of society than the crime that has been committed. Although part of the Free Fringe, there was a ‘bucket-collection’ for Amnesty International. I gave generously. If I’d reviewed the show, I would have given a generous ★★★★★ But the star-system – as I say – is flawed.

Another show that was entirely deserving of ★★★★★ – though a totally different piece – was not received with equal merit or enthusiasm. Shame on those reviewers who didn’t ‘get’ it. Key Change was devised by OpenClasp working directly with women prisoners. The resulting play was then re-developed and toured on the women’s behalf by professional actors. In this way, it was not only an accurate representation of “life inside” but also, a moving depiction of the stories behind what had led these people through the revolving door of the criminal justice system.

 
More important, it has been presented in male prisons to men who may have been part of the other side of these women’s stories. For these men, it was an eye-opener to their own behaviour. It was evident that incarcerating (especially) women who had fallen into difficult situations made their life considerably worse, not least because they were ostracised from their families. As the Guardian review pointed out, those on the ‘outside’ are equally punished: ‘they serve their sentence alongside these women; you just can't see the bars.’

Here are some shocking facts from the programme notes:

The UK has one of the highest rates of women’s imprisonment in Western Europe. Over 50% of women in prison report having suffered domestic abuse; 1 in 3 has suffered sexual abuse, and nearly 40% of women leave prison homeless. Key Change builds on highlighting the women as survivors rather than victims.

This play, although packed with humour and drama, should leave the audience feeling angry about a system that further damages people through punishment rather than – as ought to happen – providing opportunity to challenge and change behaviour. There is an argument that prison focuses helping inmates to re-settle into mainstream society. But, if a prisoner’s experience is of an unsettled life, “re-settling” is a misnomer. The experience of incarceration is deeply traumatising. Prison takes in people who in some way are sick, then sends them out sicker.

My own research into this is for a novel I’ve been writing for some years and is, therefore, slightly out of date. But I unearthed some alarming facts that seem to have changed little. First, is the extent to which mental health problems are prevalent among those in custody, as well as other difficulties such as inadequate health-care, which is strongly focused on medication (let’s not even discuss methadone prescription) and many who are on the autistic spectrum, whether diagnosed or not.

Furthermore, the very act of taking away someone’s liberty subverts Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ which poorly-contrived psychological ‘offender management programmes’ may attempt to address.

But imagine the efficacy of a group-work session on, for example, anger-management for inmates who then have to take their newly-honed skills of cognitive reasoning back to the prison wing. There, the tension and adrenalin is hiked so high, the ‘fight or flight’ response is a no-brainer in both senses. There is nowhere to fly. Unless, of course, one partakes of the readily-available illegal substances: hardly the route to Self-Actualisation.

There are many strange anomalies. For some, whose lives ‘outside’ are so fragmented, the ordered life within the prison estate – structure, regular meals, some exercise, and authoritarian rule – is a boost to their state of health. Young prisoners, in particular, are sent out ‘fitter’ in some ways, but not in a way that equips them for the chaotic life-style to which they return. The authoritarian hierarchies on which they now rely leave them vulnerable, since they know they are at the bottom of society’s pile. As they come to ‘identify’ (psychologically) with their crime and accept this as a raison d’être, the tendency for recidivism is elevated.

For those whose lives were more stable before things fell apart, there are different but equally difficult problems to overcome when trying to re-integrate into mainstream society. The world is different. ‘White-collar criminals,’ or offenders who come from higher social economic backgrounds, can find themselves estranged from their former communities, friends or families. They may find re-employment hard or impossible and, as a result, may lose their homes (if not re-possessed already) since benefits (eventually) cover no more than the interest payments on a mortgage.

In his novel, A Long Way Down, Nick Hornby voices this paradox through one of the four characters in the book who are each driven to suicidal ideation. The character Martin, a minor celebrity who was sent to prison having ‘fallen from grace,’ points out that…

Criminals serve their time, but with all due respect to my friends on B Wing… I would never serve my time…You see, the other inmates would eventually return to their lives of thieving and drugs-dealing and possibly plumbing or roofing or whatever the hell the it was they did before their careers were interrupted: prison would prove to be no impediment, either socially or professionally.

Like all characters in a novel he is flawed – and I’m not going to condone his (fictitious) offence – but his point is interesting. Once a person has endured incarceration, he or she will have been damaged, not helped, by the criminal justice system that sees separation from a world which has eluded their cognitive reasoning as a fit punishment for their crime. While for some, their life as they knew it is ruined; for others, their position as perceived ‘low-life’ is cemented, yet all people are damaged by prison.

 
Bring back the Death Penalty

This is not something I thought I would say on this blog. I say it, of course, ironically. Recently I read a thread on Facebook discussing an article about a man who was involved in a protest that was intended to highlight the poor conditions in prison. It happened that the protester was a prisoner. So the comments were focussed strongly on his crime, rather than his protest. The person who posted the link pointed out that this man was acting, in a way, magnanimously.

By protesting on behalf of his fellow-prisoners, he jeopardised his chances of parole. ‘But,’ said the comments, ‘he was a murderer: he should rot in jail’ – or something on those lines. Hanging the man was not absent from the reactions. Reading the press articles on his crime, it was clear that there was a complex story behind what led to the man’s target offence. Again, I will not condone what he did, but I am extremely wary of what, and how, the newspapers reported it.

I will elaborate upon my views on The Media another time; for now, to return to my point. If prison psychology was or is doing its job, it would find many more causal links than newspapers are even vaguely capable of discussing or exploring. My research into this for my novel has given me far too much grist for this mill; suffice it to say, the prison service, the Government, and – the bigger evil by far – the media, have a lot to answer for. If only the questions were asked. What is prison for?

Prison is about revenge. It’s as simple as that.

Richard Holloway, in Between the Monster and the Saint, rightly points out ‘There will always be people who have turned so utterly against their own kind that they must be permanently separated from their fellows.’ However, the justice systems in both the US and the UK are so far from exploring the (certainly, complex) idea of restorative justice, with their ‘promiscuous use of prison as punishment,’ and ‘increasingly automatic use of imprisonment,’ as Holloway puts it.

This punishment is all about causing pain, not in the “eye for an eye” sense, but through social exclusion, alienation and demonization.

Dostoevsky says. ‘You can judge a society based on how it treats its prisoners.’ The idea that people “pay their debt” for the crime committed is a lie since neither victim nor offender are able to reach a point of restoration or self-actualisation. The debt is not paid – ever. Hornby’s character, Martin, puts it like this: ‘Prison was humiliating terrifying, mind-numbing, savagely destructive of the soul in a way the expression ‘soul-destroying’ can no longer convey.’ Is this really fiction? I doubt it.

 
The story of Oscar Wilde certainly is not fiction, nor is the basis of his Ballad of Reading Gaol – a man who, when Wilde was is prison, was hanged because he 'had killed the one he loved.’ Wilde’s description of the atmosphere in the gaol that day is similar to what I have heard described about a modern prison when news of an inmate completing suicide percolates through the community. Not only anger and despair at a loss of life, but in acknowledgement of the real truth. Prison fails us all.


The vilest deeds like poison weeds,
Bloom well in prison-air;
It is only what is good in Man
That wastes and withers there:
Pale Anguish keeps the heavy gate,
And the Warder is Despair.

(The Ballad of Reading Gaol)

 
I will end with something Stephen Fry (whose film portrayal of Oscar Wilde cannot, surely, move us to question Justice) said about this great man.

He was a giant brought down, and it was monstrous, really, how he was treated. When he came out of prison he was a wreck, a ruin, and he said, at the very moment in this Christian society, especially when you should be embraced when you have completed your sentence: that, in Britain, is actually when your sentence begins.

So, giving Stephen Fry the last word, here is a clip of his entertaining, informative and sometimes amusing show, on a subject that left the panellists struggling to find anything funny to say.

 

Quite Interesting? Or disgraceful.

 

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Trigger Warnings


For those reading this post who have not seen the earlier ‘episodes’ of the story I am telling, here’s a brief résumé. Just over a year ago, I was in a new relationship. My ‘partner’ was attractive, amusing, intelligent, talented, and – so it turned out – a compulsive and unscrupulous liar. Whether people pity me or despair is neither here nor there. She took me in, and I fell for her lies. Yet in my poetry, it was clear that something was awry.

 

Night-Closure

He comes to her softly in the night
placing his life in her trembling hands
– for what cannot, or can be, or might –               

She opens to her ephemeral delight      
and though her heart at best is contraband        
he comes to her softly in the night.        

Though the moment is passed the demands      
of invisible, inarticulate delight 
for what cannot, or can be, or might      

find their place in the sweet indictment
of stepping stones or sinking sands,
he comes to her softly in the night.        

In the opposite window a woman stands
naked and swifting the curtains tight
for what cannot, or can be, or might;                     

he sees a silhouette of dreamt delight
return to his impassioned form again and
he comes to her softly in the night
for what cannot, or can be, or might…

 

After she cruelly dumped me I began to dig for the truth. I realised there were many things I had chosen to ignore. She wore at first a ring on her wedding finger, allegedly to deter the men in the office where we worked who were, she claimed, aggressively coming on to her. The packet of contraceptive pills she showed me when we had sex in her flat I now know were not what she claimed. Why she told me she was pregnant, I will never know. After we first had sex, she asked if I’d had a vasectomy. It was the strangest question: neither normal nor sensible for someone her age.

There was some truth behind the story of her eating disorder, since there was a newspaper article about her and two other young women who had come close to death through anorexia. This is not publically available online; only the picture and caption can be seen. I had no intention of subscribing to that shitty paper. Instead, I accessed the article through my university library, and discovered something significant.

 

The Facts

Given that papers rarely tell the truth
she told The Sun his age was thirty-six.
Needless to say, they didn’t ask for proof,
nor had an inkling this was one of her tricks.

He was, in fact, over 50. Perhaps she feared,
since his years more-than doubled
hers it might look dodgy or a little weird.
From the start, it seems her heart was troubled.

 
I learned that her eating disorder was all about ‘control’ – she attempted to regulate her body-weight through over-dosing on slimming pills. Despite her recovery, she continued to attempt to control other elements of her life. Frankly, I feel sorry for her – and for her husband, who might now be being strung along for another reason. She once told me that, despite never having craved a relationship, she wanted a child, and longed for a daughter called Olivia. I suspect she chose that name to flatter me after reading my ‘Olivia’ poems. How could I not feel flattered?

 

An Artifice

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways - E. B. Browning
                I' benedico il loco e 'l tempo et l'ora - Petrarch

How can I stop myself from loving you?
How many ways can I deny the pleasure?
Could I delete each note, each beat, each measure
until the rhythm of a lie beats true?
There’s not a single day compares to you,
nor gem, nor jewel, nor glint of hidden treasure;
even a season or a life of leisure
curtails what poetry must fail to do.
If I could emulate his love for Laura
that Petrarch could achieve in fourteen lines,
contain it in a sonnet; see it more
a fantasy for love achieved in rhyme,
would I rejoice that day, or yet deplore
a longing for an encore one more time?

 

This (un-named) women said to me, ‘Do I seem like the sort of person who’s only interested in men for their money?’ On reflection, having found out so many other things about her, my answer now
would be, ‘Yes.’ No wonder she didn’t want to commit to a relationship with a penniless poet with a difficult past. Having shared so much of my personal history with her, I had made myself vulnerable. And this woman, who I thought I had been falling in love with, was about to play her dirtiest hand.

 
 

No Apologies

My book of Cautionary tales, Charlotte & The Charlatan, is for ‘adults only.’ These days we have to molly-coddle people with “trigger-warnings” as if we must first apologise for the fact that art, if it is true to itself, might cause a reaction. So it should. The Tales of Charlotte took a sinister turn as I wrote about the strange experience I’d been through. But one story in particular, although fictional, was based more closely than anything that had come out of my liaison with this perfidious woman.

A few days before she withdrew ‘from our intimate relationship,’ she told me that, while on holiday (on her honeymoon, although I didn’t know it) she had had a miscarriage. On reflection, she didn’t seem too disturbed by this; only saddened that she hadn’t been able to make her own choice about the situation. As time passed, I concluded that the pregnancy was probably another of her fantasies.

But then I discovered the biggest shock of all. She excitedly announced on Facebook, with a picture of her 3-month scan taken a year ago today, that she was ‘going to be a mum next March.’ Though I was blocked from her page, she didn’t consider that a friend might see that post. I wasn’t told about this for a while; around the same time the Royal Pregnancy was announced by Buckingham Palace.

At least one may be sure of that child’s paternity (unusually for that family.) But I had good reasons to believe that this child may be a result of my having (as I now see it) unwittingly impregnated her. Or perhaps I was not the only man who she was screwing around with. She was, after all, a highly proficient adulteress.

When I wrote another of my Cautionary Tales – a fictionalised account of this story – and posted it here on this blog, it didn’t go down well with her and her dolted husband. My claim that all my work is “fiction” may seem flimsy, but I strongly maintain my stance. And I refuse to apologise for my art.

 

In Years to Come

You kept it hidden from me; even so
I sensed it long before you knew.
My chief regret: I never saw you grow,

I never saw when you started to show;
never got to paint the nursery blue.
You kept it hidden from me; even so

you told me. Exactly why, I’ll never know.
Left to my imagination, naturally I grew
my chief regret: I never saw you grow.

My banishment from you, a heavy blow,
yet separated, still I felt a part of you:
you kept it hidden from me; even so

I suspected you would bloom and glow
and so as time ticked on, each day renewed
my chief regret: I never saw you grow

or got to choose a name but, even though
I had no choice, I saw it as a gift to you;
you kept it hidden from me, even so.
My chief regret: I never saw him grow.

 
I know that this woman’s husband reads this blog, and may be reading this story which I now conclude. Not that’s it’s all over. Their reaction to the whole debacle was deeply unpleasant. With all the information they had about me, they proceeded to publicise, through social media, emails, and direct contact with my friends and associates, personal details about me that were misleading, defamatory, and potentially damaging. In doing so, they revealed their guilt and complicity. I also suspect – though cannot prove – that he, or they, did other malicious and unspeakable things too.

This man had been cuckolded and wanted revenge. Claiming, on twitter, to be married to an angel, he was/is clearly in denial, or being as deceived by her as I was. I know what it feels like to find the person you love has been fucking someone else. It hurts. I had done nothing but show her tenderness, unflinching love and utmost respect. By attempting to make my life miserable, he has made himself look foolish and pathetic. She is not the ‘angel’ he thinks he married. She is a ruthless liar.

Her mother had not taken her own life – this was just a sick deceit. The email alias she had used when writing to me turned out to be her married name-to-be. I found her vulture picture on someone else’s Facebook – it seems she had plagiarised that, plus the ‘dreamer’ video she made for me, passing it off as her own. She was married in the Church near to where we used to sit and kiss in Princes Street Gardens, although she claimed at the time she’d never been inside. She sent me a picture of flowers for her mother’s funeral: they were in fact her wedding flowers.

The stories about her university, her near-rape when working for a dodgy night-club, the parental abuse she suffered as a child, her brother’s premature death, and a string of other mendacious tales I will never know to be true or not. Her claim to own a sandwich shop in the midlands was inflated: she no more than a night duty-manager at that shop. My hunch is that everything she said was, at best, spurious. The rest, I can put behind me: it is for her (and her deluded husband) to consider whether her invented life is just as much a part of her controlling condition that led her to almost destroy herself with dieting pills.

What I am left with is the knowledge that I will have nothing to do with the child she had towards the end of March this year. It was born within marriage, so legally it belongs to them, whoever the biological father is. There is a poet who, having recently discussed the issue of trigger-warnings in performance poetry, issues an apology before one of her pieces. It is in the style of a letter written from a young person to an anonymous sperm donor. Perhaps, one day, I will receive a similar letter.

 

The Letter-poem

He writes another letter,
but like a poor deluded fool,
it turns into a poem.
With mock poetic sentiment
and dirge he writes
the trite old phrases.
I see you now,
or, I remember you,
or, I imagine you...
And right away, there and then
the love he once thought
true, or pained, or beautiful,
turns into cold emotion,
reminiscence,
or the product of imagination.
It is surely a nonsense,
to make a rhyme, lyric or romance
of something that was only in his head?
He writes it to her,
the long-forgot,
the one who left him,
or the one he never got,
and sated, but not
satisfied by his drivelling words,
he turns to find another in his bed.

 
My fear is that I may make this mistake all over again, like the person in the poem above. Maybe I’m completely mistaken about this strange episode that has taken up five long blog-posts. So be it: I still have my poetry – and a whole lot more. I have many friends who stood by me, and still do.

It could be said this unpleasant story has fuelled my pen, and that the woman who I thought I loved was – though far from amusing – a muse. I have written many unsent-letters, and tales, poems, stories, dramatic sketches and a play based on this upsetting experience. Much of this work has been published, although I will not yet acknowledge where. Despite their campaign to hurt me, this couple (and perhaps their child) have to face the truth. And that will hurt far more. I pity them.

 

Un-titled

It’s not the dying that bothers me
but the death I want to get right.
I don’t want to be hit by a bullet or bus,
or slip peacefully away in the night.
I’d rather be surrounded by friends
and loved ones when it happens,
to cheer my achievements, clap
or commiserate, forgive, make amends.
I want to go gentle into that good night,
not greeted by the kiss of death
but the releasing caress of life laid on mine:
the inquisitive lips of the child I never had;
the intoxicating tongue of unsavoured wine;
the familiar touch of a lover;
palliative hands of a nurse.
I don’t want a frog to wake me into death, or God,
a pope or a judge, a prince, a priest or worse –
I’ll leave all that shit to the living
to haply remember or haply forget.
When it comes, I want to embrace death
as the cherishing earth takes me since that –
and these lines from time to time –
is all that I have, all that I leave
and, in dying, all that I’m giving.

 

As a post-script to this long story, I will post one of the Cautionary Tales that didn’t make it into the final selection for my art-book, Charlotte & The Charlatan.  As Charlotte told the Charlatan: “To your own self be true, and be true to yourself.” For some, however, Truth is a puke-able Feast.
 
 
 

from Charlotte & The Charlatan

              – and other cautionary tales

 
 
Percy the Prowler
 
            “For she was wild and young, and he was old,
              And deemed himself as like to be a cuckold.”
                                                                      The Miller’s Tale, Chaucer.
 
‘He’s on the prowl again,’ the People said.
            Although they gave him all the facts he needed, this information went unheeded by Colin the Constable who, more a paragon of vice than virtue, said that Percy’s behaviour was “not very nice.”
            ‘While he may be causing alarm to some,’ the copper corruptly suggested, ‘there’s no harm done.’
            The People disagreed. ‘Percy has made it his personal aim to maim any woman or man he considers a threat.’
            The Constable said ‘If a person bears a grudge, it’s best not to grudge the bear.’ Percy was more of a bungling bear than a ravenous lion. While he considered himself a stealthy hunter, the People thought him a cunt, a cretin, a fool – and a cuckold to boot. ‘You can’t shoot a man when all he does is prowl,’ said the constable.
            ‘Even if his behaviour’s foul?’ said the People, ‘not to mention the manner of his intention.’ Everyone knew that Percy’d had wool pulled over his eyes regarding family issues. Although it would’ve been wise for him to use discretion, keep stumm, not talk to anyone, instead he chose to stalk with aggression and target those who might expose complicity with his domestic perfidy.
            By posing as a poet (though if you read his rhymes you wouldn’t know it) Percy posted lines expressing hate of perverts, pests, and any poets who met with his distaste.
            ‘His behaviour is disgusting,’ said the People, at a loss to know why P.C. Colin didn’t give a toss. ‘We can’t allow someone to prowl upon people who’ve done this man no wrong.’ United, if not universal, in their quest to put Predatory Percival to rest, the People decided he was simply a pest.
            Their first aim: to assess whom Percy felt needed protected, and from what. A committee was formed, a leader elected. It was quickly agreed his rhymes had bugger-all to do with verse; the lines were utter doggerel or worse, whose only slant was against other poets. It was apparent they had the greater talent.
            ‘He wouldn’t know a half-rhyme, metaphor, or sympathetic fallacy,’ the Chair concluded. ‘His words are governed by his own pathetic jealousy. The only thing the People need protected from is this man’s vitriolic pronouncements which are far from poetic.’
            There was a saying in Charlotteville that “your lies and misdeeds, your foibles and fears and worst nightmares remain if you try to be something you’re not.” While it was clear he wasn’t a poet, Percy wasn’t a lion, or bear, or hunter either. This masquerade was a front; a disguise to evade the Truth that all the People knew, and had known all along. Percy had been cruelly strung along.
            He cloaked himself in denial, thinking his young wife angelic. She was in fact demonic, adorned with claws and tail and horns. Poor Percy the Prowler, returning from his pyrrhic battle, ignoring the Cuckoo’s prattle, failed to spot he also wore a mocking set of horns.