Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

Picking blackberries from hedgerows, making daisy chains, collecting acorns, playing conkers, wandering the fields looking for rabbits, daydreaming under a tree on a sunny day. These are the precious memories of my childhood when my relationship with animals and the natural world became an integral part of my imagination and personality.  I was lucky enough to grow up in the late sixties before the age of parental paranoia and health and safety fanaticism.  Children were allowed personal freedom to explore the world, test their bodies and minds,  learn about risk, learn about the magic of nature.  But times have changed. We live in an age of fear, much of it unfounded.  Kids spend more time alone with their tablets than playing outdoors.  I was sad to learn that the 2008 edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary aimed at children between the ages of 7 and 9 has omitted the following ‘nature’ words believing they are no longer relevant.

The obsolete words are catkin, brook, acorn, buttercup, blackberry, conker, holly, ivy, mistletoe.  No doubt they have been replaced by technology words like database, spreadsheet, voicemail, pixel.

Contact and knowledge of the natural world are essential to a child’s artistic and spiritual development, be it poetry, visual art, music.  How will future generations learn to cherish other living things and respect their environment if they don’t even have the right words?

 

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Photo taken by the author

 

Confessions of a Hollywood Cat

We are all born to die but for me
it’s my sole purpose. Survival
to the grand finale is impossible.

You can barely call it a walk-on part.
I spend the first act cute but vulnerable,
reclining on the designer sofa and a perfect

enhancement of the minimalist set.
Then, suddenly
I am catapulted from the balcony

of a high-rise apartment, so unseemly
and messing up my hair.
In my last scene I’m Jackson Pollocked

on the sidewalk, a splattered composition
in red, black and pink.  You hear the wail
of violins. It’s a shocking tear

-jerker moment, murder by my lady’s
sweet-talking lover and how else
would you know he is really a serial killer?

There will be no happily ever after.
But I still have my American dream of success,
last-minute rescue by a handsome tabby abseiling

down the wall and grabbing me as I fall.
After sunset we will wander through Central Park,
lapping lattes and gazing up at the stars.

 

 

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Image created by the author

 

Spot the Difference

Here are some beautiful words penned by a charismatic young man named Hamish Hawk from Edinburgh.  Is this a poem or the lyrics of a song?  What do you think?

Catherine Opens a Window

So you turn over,
Whisper into my shoulder
That you’re not clever enough to be sleeping with me.
But it’s not about schooling.
It’s more about using what you’ve been given, what you’ve got
And what you’ve got is more than enough.
I remember when cancer was just a constellation,
A starry-eyed crustacean with nothing to say of whether you and I live or die.
I don’t remember Glasgow until I was fourteen.
It’s where people I know tend to let themselves go when they’ve got something to bring to an end.

Well, it’s one, two, three
Steps in the cul-de-sac
You and me,
Your feet on the ground, mine hitting your back.
We’re running so fast that we smash into the bins
And we tumble over.
Catherine opens a window,
‘Now boys, that’s not how you play’.
Catherine, just wait,
What a peculiar thing to say.

I remember Maxwell.
I remember his mum too.
Her hands in the cool drawer of the fridge and her man’s fists on the window ledge.
I remember Michaela.
I remember her last name.
I know she could dance, I know she could hide, and that she won a netball game.
But she’s gone now,
Sticks in the corner.
There’s a bus ticket in the breast pocket of her green blazer.

Her mum has hung it up to dry in the airing cupboard
In the hope that she might need it the morning after.
Just once, maybe forever, again.

Well, it’s one, two, three
Steps in the cul-de-sac.
You and me,
Your feet on the ground, mine hitting your back.
We’re running so fast that we smash into the bins.
And we tumble over,
Catherine opens a window,
‘Now boys, that’s not how you play.
Catherine, just wait,
Well, you know
You’ll both have jobs one day.’

 

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Photographic image created by the author

 

So have you decided? Is this a poem or a song?

Song lyrics and poetry have much in common.  They both use rhythm, rhyme, repetition, refrain.  They both work through the building up of images and utilize metaphor.  But song lyrics have the advantage of music to help communicate emotion, atmosphere and meaning.  Poetry has to work that much harder because it exists in an empty space either as typed words on a white page or spoken aloud in a silent room.  Poetry has to look good on the page, it has a visual element as well as aural. This is particularly the case in concrete poetry.  Line endings are more important and can make all the difference to interpretation, to create pauses, to aid the flow of words.  In song, music takes care of these things.

There used to be a lot of snobbery about poetry.  It was seen as the superior, intellectual cousin to song lyrics.  Fortunately, this ridiculous distinction is fading and song is now considered just as worthy an art form.  Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, an event that officially gave lyrics the same status and gravitas as poetry.

Well, did you guess right? ‘Catherine Opens a Window’ is actually a song from Hamish Hawk and the New Outfit’s latest album called From Zero to One.  It’s a terrific album with a full band sound and every track is special.  Hamish is a young musician who reminds me of early David Bowie crossed with Morrissey from The Smiths  with a touch of Ray Davies.  Here is a YouTube link of Hamish singing the song solo in his living room.  Listen carefully, does hearing the words set to music alter your understanding….?

 

For Your Eyes Only

These found poems are based on the real letters of Annie Mackay.  She spent her brief life working the small family croft in a remote area of the Highlands.  Sadly, she developed cancer and died at the age of 21 in 1957. Her orphaned six month baby boy was left to be raised by an aged uncle.  At the time illegitimate children were considered social outcasts.  No-one ever discovered the identity of the baby’s father which might be hinted at in these letters.  They were written to Annie’s married sister Violet who had moved to Edinburgh.  I love these letters because they are full of joy and humor even though Annie was already aware of her illness. They also paint a picture of the preoccupations of a country girl and life in the 1950s.

December, 1956.

Dear Violet,

I sold eighteen turkeys
so we can have a night
out in the pub,
going from bad to worse (puff).
Ronald says Ray is a born lunatic,
that was his opinion when he saw
the photos and then the blue jersey.
Your hair looked very nice,
is that a new dress you had on?
I hope it’s nylon
I’m not in favor of wool.

Lots of love and kisses,
from Annie

 

January, 1957

Dear Violet

I can tell you about it. There was turkey for dinner, then at 3 o’clock tea.
I had my cake with 21 candles. All the family were there listening to Lux
and singing The Railroad Runs Through the Middle of the House.
I think its super, don’t you?  Lena brought the record Walking in the Rain.
I like it do you?
Jesse gave me £5 and Connie £2 and Grandad two aprons and Mary a nylon underset
and Margaret a necklace, sparkles all colors and Donald a mohair scarf (awfully warm)
and Sheena nylons and Jane a cameo brooch and Granny a Terrylene blouse.
I’m not in favor of blue.
And from Julie a ‘Le Page’ compact and from Johnny, Black Rose perfume,
very good of him and from Lynn a Coty lipstick, nearly ruby and from Alan a purse.
What a present, not much use with no money and then of course, your presents.
Johnny stayed till midnight… everyone else went off at six.

Lots of love and kisses,
from Annie

 

PS  A Separate Special Instalment for your Eyes Only:-
BURN AFTER READING

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Photograph by the the author

 

Highland River

Everywhere you look in the Highlands there are wild seas, sparkling waterfalls,  crystal rivers and lochs.  Rain falls almost every day.  Northern Scotland is a realm of water.  Perhaps that is why so many people choose to make it their home.  Human beings, like other animals, have an instinct to gather near water.  Water is a source of sustenance, essential to survival.

Many of the novels of acclaimed Scottish novelist Neil M Gunn (born 1891 – died 1973) focus on a watery theme:- Morning Tide, The Silver Darlings, The Grey Coast, The Drinking Well and Highland River which won the 1937 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction.  Neil Gunn was born in Dunbeath, a tiny coastal village which is a half hour drive from my home.  His father was the captain of a herring boat and Gunn’s writing explores the harsh lives, isolation and landscapes of Caithness fishing communities.  Gunn was a socialist and a political activist committed to Scottish Nationalism and independence.  His writing has a Zen-like intensity with an underlying mysticism, detailed descriptions of landscape and the slow unfurling of events.

 

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Photo by the author

 

Visitors to Dunbeath harbour today will see a striking bronze statue of a boy wrestling with a huge salmon.  The statue illustrates a dramatic scene from Highland River when nine year old Kenn captures a salmon with his bare hands.  The novel contrasts this childhood struggle for survival and dominance with the brutality of World War 1 when an adult Kenn joins the British army.

Within the first two pages Gunn introduces the novel’s main protagonist, establishes the remote community setting and the landscape whilst building dramatic mood and tension.  It is an example of Neil Gunn’s great skill as a writer.  Here is a short excerpt describing when Kenn on a cold morning, reluctantly goes to the river pool for water for the breakfast tea just before he sees the salmon:-

“Out of that noiseless world in the grey of the morning, all his ancestors came at him. They tapped his breast until the bird inside it fluttered madly; they drew a hand along his hair until the scalp crinkled; they made the blood within him tingle to a dance that had him leaping from boulder to boulder before he rightly knew to what desperate venture he was committed.”

 

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A tangle of creel baskets at Dunbeath harbour where small scale crab and lobster fishing has replaced the thriving herring industry of the early nineteenth century.

Tales of a Sea-Dog

In the old days I was Canis Marinus, Dog of the Sea.
I was born in a mangrove swamp of the Antipodes,
abandoned by Ma at first swim to the murky
mysteries of waves, death and capitalism.
I was crated frozen to the Land of the Free.
Now they call me Tiger, Blue, Hammerhead,
Great White, Art-wank. I prefer Sea-Dog
but they call me shock, ragged, monster, demon
or jaws (cue scary music and pearly sharps to die for)
the perfect engine and eating machine, soulless
beast, killer of slaves and pretty girls in bikinis.
I can morph into fin soup, a Chinese delicacy
or a shifty money lender. A role model for the aspiring
acolytes of Damien or a trophy tanked up on formalin
stinking behind the thin glass wall of privilege.
Predators queue and gawp
at the impossible.
I stare straight back
and what’s more
I never blink.

 

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Photographic image created by the author. The Heinz tomato soup can is a reference to Andy Warhol’s pop art featuring Campbell’s soup.

 

I was inspired to write this poem after seeing Damien Hirst’s so-called conceptual art entitled ‘The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’.  I found it disturbing to see a wild creature exploited and displayed in an art gallery.  My feelings of distaste and anger increased when I later learned that Hirst had several Tiger Sharks killed for his art work.  Even though the sharks are preserved in formaldehyde they start to decompose after a few years and need to be replaced.  Other animals have also been killed by Hirst for his art, including cows and calves for the piece titled ‘Mother and Child (Divided)’.   I find the morality of this indefensible.   It is one thing to kill for food or survival but not for art or entertainment.  Hirst’s pickled shark was sold for millions.

I also find it sad that humans have a tendency to demonise and label as ‘other’ anyone who is different from themselves, this includes other species, races, religions, sexual orientations, disability, etc.  Even sharks can respond positively to kindness and afffection.  They are not the vicious, mindless monsters portrayed by our culture but a beautiful creature trying to survive the best it can, just like the rest of us.  Please watch this amazing YouTube video showing a shark conservationist petting and playing with a shark.  Perhaps they are truly the dogs of the sea.

 

A Fashion Blunder

The February air is zesty with unexpected sunshine and the northern wind softened to a breeze. Spurning my faithful duffle coat I reach for the cashmere coat with a fake fur collar that I haven’t worn since leaving London.  This coat has been on a long journey and in storage for two years.  Its chic appeal seems incongruous in this land of anoraks and woolly hats but why not be different today?  Should I wear the sheepskin gloves or the fluffy angora ones?  I go with the fluffy.  The dusky pink matches my suede boots.

The street is quiet, not even the builders around and no sign of my elderly neighbor who likes to feed the seagulls every morning.  A battered red pick-up truck rattles down the road towards the harbor trailing an aroma of fish.  I’m heading to the village shop for milk and bananas.  As my clumsy fingers place the house key in my coat pocket they dislodge a crumpled piece of yellow paper from the silk lining.  It flutters onto the waterlogged front lawn. The sulfur color reminds me of old moss, the sort that clings to old stone walls.

It’s not a discarded shopping list or a receipt for some long-forgotten object of desire but a couple of cinema tickets; Twenty One Grams.  It’s a poignant film directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu about how people’s lives intersect and fragment due to a random event.  The story reveals the patterns concealed beneath the surface of everyday life.  The twenty one grams refers to the amount of weight which is mysteriously lost at the moment of death.

I went to see this film on my thirtieth birthday, the first of March, many years ago now.  We ate lunch in the roof top restaurant of an art gallery overlooking the Thames before going to the cinema.  After the film we drank cocktails in a trendy bar in Knightsbridge.  It was an enjoyable day in a faraway life. Tom and I were both in a good mood and we didn’t mind the cold wind, dodging the rain showers without an umbrella or searching for an elusive parking space.  I didn’t complain about the dirty pavements, the crowds or the traffic.  At that time I’d never heard of Caithness and living in Scotland was a romantic dream.  I was wearing this same grey coat with a leopard fur collar.  It felt like the wrong coat for a wet day.

Today I queue in the village shop while two incomers, a mother and teenage daughter stock up on junk food.  They are horsey types who have adopted a feral lifestyle.  The mother wears a red bandana and a dirty shredded t-shirt any eighties punk would be proud of.  Her bare feet are encased in flip flops.  Jagged green toenails protrude from a crust of mud.  Both women exude a smell reminiscent of rotting potatoes.  They spend more than twenty pounds on sweets and chocolate.  As they exit the shop Elaine reaches under the counter for the air freshener and sprays it around in a protective circle.

On my way home I wonder if I’m wearing the wrong coat.

 

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Photograph taken by the author

 

The Good Housekeeping Guide to the Apocalypse

In the aftermath of  the Hawaii ‘whoops apocalypse’ fiasco, here are a few tips for surviving a nuclear war gleaned from the internet.  (A good sense of humour, a vacuum cleaner and a four leaf clover are also essential):-

The best advice for surviving a nuclear bomb is to be somewhere else when it goes off.  If that doesn’t work out for you then remember ‘duck and cover’.

Think of radiation as dust that can be consistently and carefully cleaned and disposed of. Twice daily vacuuming of house hold surfaces is recommended. Warning! Do not dry dust or sweep because this will cause dust, and potentially isotopes, to become airborne where they can settle onto surfaces or be inhaled.  Feather-type dusters should especially be avoided. Internal Contamination is 20 to 100 times more harmful than external exposures. Run the air conditioner 12 hours a day on the re-circulation setting. Warning! Do not use fans or AC units to blow outside air into the house.  Be sure to try and keep indoor air from becoming too dry.

 

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Artwork by the author

 

Some careful kitchen habits:-

Keep your dinnerware in clean cabinets with doors, or place in containers such as Tupperware bins.  Remove covers carefully so dust doesn’t land on clean surfaces. Rinse your cooking utensils with clean filtered water before use.  The best filters use activated charcoal or reverse osmosis which are very effective against radioisotopes. Rinse the outside of food cans before opening them.

Survival Checklist:- Think of radiation as an invisible layer of dust on all surfaces that needs to be carefully cleaned away and managed.

Create an air tight seal in your home. Seal all external doors and windows.  Duct tape is handy and comes in twenty seven different colours and patterns to match your décor.  I recommend Penguin Invasion and zebra print for a modern funky look. The glow in the dark option will help you find your way around when the lights go out.

Aggressively clean off surfaces in your home without creating dust (wet wipes and water filled vacuums essential).  Keep food in clean, sealed containers.

When you go outside, wear a set of coveralls, goggles and good quality dust masks to cover your mouth and nose.  Shower every time you return from outdoors.  Sleep at least two feet above the floor.

Carry young children while outdoors.

Fight fall-out with duct tape, mop, water filtered vacuum, sponge, paper towels, plastic bags, sturdy trash container, hand-held radiation detector.

Essential reading: Step-by Step Home Butchering, A Beginners Guide to Hunting, Self Defense for Dummies, DIY Burials.

Reading Between the Lines

You can’t judge a book by its cover

but can you judge a woman by her books?

 

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Photo by the author

 

Credit to http://www.stevestillstanding.com for inspiring me with his recent black and white photos of bookshelves.  You can see his pictures at

Upstart Photographer#4. Book Shelves.

They made me look at my books afresh.  My shelves are all full so I have mini piles of books around the house.  This was a random selection.