richard pierce

richard pierce

14 December 2011

Amundsen at the Pole, 14th December 1911

This is not what I had dreamt of.
My childhood’s goal is half a world
Away, at the top of the globe, north.
But it was stolen from me, and
I needed to succeed.

We need to pace it out, need to
Encircle this rounded patch of earth,
To make sure of our claim. Our
Instruments are too fallible to be
Certain exactly of where we are.

We shall be here for one night only,
For the time it takes us to fix position,
To pitch our tent and rest, to make a
Pole home, to write our letters, to
Leave for the next what we don’t need.

And then away, away from this
Awful place, back across the trodden
Ground before the English arrive,
Before I have to see into their broken
Faces to understand what I have stolen.

Richard Pierce
From K175 - Antarctic Fragments


Dead Men, my debut novel about Scott and Amundsen is published by Duckworth on 19th March 2012. I will be giving a lecture on the book at the Natural History Museum on 15th March 2012 at 14:30, followed by a book signing.

22 November 2011

Of heroes (including Sir David Attenborough)

Last week, last Thursday to be precise, I had one of those days which will remain in the memory for a long time. A day to evoke a variety of emotions it would take longer than a simplistic blog post to explain.

Most of the day I spent at a conference on children's palliative care, organised by Together for Short Lives. The conference, called the National Square Table Event, was the culmination of a series of local Square Table events, at which service users (ie parents and children), politicians, clinicians, children's hospices, and palliative care providers came together to discuss the state of children's palliative care, and how it could be improved, what the road forwards is. I was there with a trustee of one of the charities I administer (and please note I write this post in a private capacity, not in a work capacity).

The story, of course, is always the same; there isn't enough money to provide interlinking services, where GPs talk effectively with parents and specialist providers, where parents aren't pushed from pillar to post, where they don't have to fight to get the best for their life-limited children. What many don't realise is that children with life-limiting conditions live for much longer than they did ten, fifteen, twenty years ago, and that service provision for such children is underdeveloped, compared to the (albeit still struggling) provision for adults. Whilst one might expect such an event to be sad and depressing, it wasn't, except for the intransigence and flag-waving of politicians with party-political axes to grind). I met with many people, from service providers through to parents, who were unrelentingly optimistic and cheerful in the face of the gale of spending cuts blasting down from the North Face of government and recession. It was, for me, an uplifting experience (and educational, and vital for my job). The most telling comment came from a large Irishman, Frank, who lost his son last year, after looking after him for almost twenty years, who said - paraphrased from memory - 'I'm frustrated that I'm no longer a parent who can fight for better things.' The first thing I did when the formal part of the conference was over was to go down into the forum and shake this man's hand. He, and the other parents (including Karla Turner) are the real heroes of this difficult time we live in.

After the conference, I was lucky enough to have been invited to a book launch by someone who has become, contrary to expectations, a really good friend of mine. He is David Wilson, the great nephew of Edward Wilson, one of the men who died in the same tent as Scott on his way back from the South Pole in 1912, which is the subject matter of my forthcoming debut novel, Dead Men. David has been somewhat opposed to the restoration of Scott's Hut at Cape Evans, and, when I was due to meet him for the first time, I expected to be faced by an aggressive man determined to impose his view on others. Nothing could have been further from the truth, and I am very lucky to have seen yet another deep friendship come from my obsession with the Antarctic.

David was launching Edward Wilson's Antarctic Notebooks, co-authored with his brother Christopher, at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust in Barnes, with a special guest, Sir David Attenborough. I have admired Sir David for over half my life, so to be invited to the launch was naturally something I was very excited about. But before then, I was lucky enough to meet lots of people who are obsessed with the Antarctic, including a young gentleman called Henry Evans, who will be going to the Antarctic for a couple of months in November 2012.

Being a writer (prerequisite - have a personality disorder), I spent the first part of the evening hanging around in the vicinity of the food and wine, staring impressively into vacant space, giving the impression that I was absorbing the atmosphere and observing the assembled masses to include them as bit parts in my next book (working title A Fear of Heights. Fortunately, Henry took pity on me, just as Sir David was due to come out and be interviewed and make a speech, and suggested that if we pretended to be joined at the hip, we might stand a greater chance of getting to meet the great man. Never one to be forward in coming forward, I accpted this suggestion with good grace.

Getting anywhere near the front, with at least 4 TV crews in attendance was somewhat of a trial (which I'm sure prepared Henry well for his Antarctic travails), and the number of blurry shots on my camera easily outnumber those in focus. But, hearing that familiar Sir David voice (I'm glued to Frozen Planet every week), and watching those wonderfully exaggerated English gesticulations was more than reward enough. And then, after the speeches were finished and Sir David met the people, Henry and I did manage to manoeuvre our way to the lectern, second in the queue after a young, dumbstruck gentleman from Ireland being filmned by his local TV and hardly able to get a word out. Of course, he asked the Sir for an autograph. Disaster! No pen. I had, in my pocket, the Spacepen which travelled all the way to the Antarctic band back with me, so I handed it over - it was used to sign autographs for the rest of the brief session. I managed to press a copy of my self-published Antarctic poetry into Sir David's sweaty palm ('you want me to sign this?' 'no, it's for you' 'thank you' *stuffs slim volume into voluminous jacket pocket*).

Now, I'm never one to bask in reflected glory - I am me, after all, not the image of someone else, - but in this case I have to make an exception. Sir David is an old man, a legend of my life-time, so I pressed my phone into someone's hand as he was on his way out and asked them to take a picture, which, very fortunately, turned out, and was on facebook five minutes later, a photo of me with another one of my heroes, a very different kind of hero to the ones I had encountered earlier in the day.

19 October 2011

Charlotte's birthday poem 2011

A New Language

I tried to think of a new language
In my old age
To tell you I love you
But to build it
Would leave you unbelieving
Not able to understand.

So I have to use used words.

There was a little girl once
Who used to bite and scratch
With a storm of anger
When I held her ready for bed
And she didn’t want to sleep
Who fell asleep in my arms
And smiled while I bled.

So I have to use the old language.

There is a young woman at my table
Who argues with me, who storms away
When I can’t say what she wants to hear,
Who makes my soul bleed
Because I love her so much
And there is more to say.

So I have to use the ancient signs.

I walk into your room after dark,
Listen to you breathing, and speak
To your sleeping shadow.
I’ll be here when I’m gone.
I’ll be here forever.
Don’t be afraid.

R, 19 October 2011

3 October 2011

Serendipity

I've been meaning to write this post for ages, ever since just after Easter, in fact, but real life just keeps intruding and dragging my mind and hands away from what I really want to be doing. At least the heavy lifting's over (we've just moved and did it all ourselves with the help of some friends, he says in explanation).

Those of you reading this who are writers can probably empathise with what I'm going to say. Writers are a shy bunch, often afraid of being criticised publicly, often convinced that what they write is awful, too easily persuaded that someone else could do a much better job with much better words, and much better plots, too. And we hate the sound of our own voices.

So this is my story, severely shortened. As a kid, wanted to be a journalist and writer, and my father duly indulged me by buying me an Olivetti portable typewriter (remember those, kids?) for my seventh birthday, a machine I dragged round Europe with me till I was in my late twenties. When at home, I used Dad's heavy-duty Adler. Then, almost thirty, I got an IBM electric typewriter, one of those with the golfball typehead. I wrote over 500 poems on that one. And then my first PC with five and a quarter inch floppy disks, MS-DOS and WordStar.

On my second novel by now (and courting), I still refused to show anyone I didn't know any of my words. And so it goes on, until 6 years ago, when I wrote 76,000 words in 23 days as part of nanowrimo while living in Norway, a book (Bee Bones) which ended up as Number One on authonomy in October 2008, two years after we'd moved back to England. Slowly, I began to believe that maybe I could actually write, and write well, so started sending out queries to agents, without much luck (although I still think the book's almost perfect women's fiction, and it will get a publisher one of these days). I should mention that none of my books are on there anymore.

In the meantime, I'd been lucky enough to go to the Antarctic with work, a trip which (along with the encouragement of new writer friends on fb and authonomy) spurred me on to write a book about the mystery of Robert Falcon Scott's last ten days alive. Dead Men took 8 months to write (108k words), and then some more months to edit. And I did get an agent, a very good one, the first one I approached, who helped me edit Dead Men down to 88k words. I still cannot believe how lucky that was. And then the waiting began, because publishers aren't exactly throwing money at writers.

For some odd reason, the lovely people at Radio Stradbroke had given me my own shows by now, which seemed to be quite popular around the world (Italy, Germany, Hong Kong, the US, even England), and, on Good Friday this year, I decided I'd read live from Dead Men as part of my show (podcast to be up later this month - late, I know, but real life ... - refer to openening paragraph). This is where SJ comes in, the wonderful SJ Heckscher-Marquis, one of the best friend I made on authonomy. SJ listens to me regularly (again, I don't know why), and donates money to the charities Radio Stradbroke raises money for. On Good Friday, she decides to call Mel Hagopian, and asks her to listen to me reading. Well, Mel does, and an hour after I finish my broadcast, there's an email in my inbox asking for an interview to be turned into a blogpost. Me, gobsmacked and flattered.

One week's emails later, and Mel has completed a blogpost that still makes me come out in goosebumps - because it makes me sound like a writer, makes me look at myself from the outside and reckon this bloke knows what he's talking about, what he's writing about, and he writes good words, all in the right order, with proper commas in the right place, and all that. She posted the article on 10th May. On 12th May, I got an email from my agent telling me that Duckworth had picked up the book, and would be publishing it in 2012.

I don't believe in coincidence. I believe in serendipitous circumstance, series of fortuitous events, brought about by decisions we make of our own free will, and I believe in the power of friends' prayers and faith. So, thank you, SJ and Mel, for believing in me.

Mel and SJ are co-writers on My Ink Project. It's more than a blog, it's a way of life. Go check it out at myinkproject.com.

25 May 2011

Twentieth Wedding Anniversary

I wrote this the evening after our first date.

A Better Song

This is a fragment.
This is only a piece of it.
Nothing more than
a glimpse of the darkness,
a flash of the light,
one thunder of the storm,
a solitary single second of a million life times,
some restless continuation of the dream,
one motif amongst a thousand themes,
and
one tune from a scattered multitude of songs.

Maybe this is all there is.
A dream,
an imagined illusion of peace,
a sentimental depiction of desire,
a solitary imprint in the snow.

And yet;
I have seen her,
held her,
loved her.
For just one second.

Oh yes, this is one of the better songs.



And this I wrote this morning, on our twentieth wedding anniversary.


Twenty Better Songs

There are times when life changes,
Just like that, and nothing is the same
As it was before,

Almond eyes.

Have we counted the years since then?
Once a year, maybe. The living of them
Takes all we have, because

This all there is.

And yet, what was a fragment
Has become a whole. Those moments,
Those births, those frightening hours

When all we held

Were hopes against death,
And prayers for everything to be fine,
When we could have lost

What we made.

This is not a dream, not imagination,
Not sentimental desire, even if we
Are solitary, in the end,

At the reckoning.

That first song became one of many,
So many themes, so many stories
To be told, and they are

Only all for you.

There are times when life changes.
That day, that time, that breath,
Changed mine, and made me write

Twenty better songs.


Thank you, Marianne. R

17 April 2011

From my Antarctic Diary - entry dated 6th January 2008

13:20
Sitting on Cape Evans shore about 500 m northeast of Hut. The other two have gone on to the Hut. I can still hear their voices. Sounds travel far here. On the way here (where the Greenpeace camp was years ago), got dive-bombed by skuas. I can see across to an ice cave in the Barne Glacier.

13:35
Back at Hut. Look in Ponting's darkroom, and find a painting (Wilson?) Ross Island from Cape Roberts Granite Habour. It's not signed or dated. Also find crucifix-shaped hole down by the floor in the darkroom. Did Spencer-Smith put it there when he used the darkroom as a chapel? Was there any reference to it in his diary? There is so much stuff in the darkroom. WE also find some cocaine for the relief of snow blindness in the medical supplies.

2 years, good friend on Trygve Gran's bunk in red paint, dated 19th January 1913.

15:25
Back at camp site for lunch. Cup of tea for me. Still amazed at how much there is in the Hut. The sun's shining, but the weather looks like it's closing in.

16:30
Back to hut. Help dig out about 3 metres of trench on eastern side of Hut. That takes about 2 hours.

23:00
Sitting in my smoker's place, sun still half-out. Snow forecast for tomorrow.

8 April 2011

The Emperor, the Practitioner and I - Chapter 1

I was at home when he died. It was one of those dank March afternoons, with no sign of spring, and darkness peering in through the window too soon. The music in my room was new, unreleased, carried an undertone of sadness and melancholy. I didn’t know then that he was dead. I went out in the evening, unaware. Later, back from badminton, tired and sweaty, I was checking my emails and drinking beer when the phone rang.


‘Yes?’ I said.

‘You sitting down?’ It was Mark, from the cricket club.

‘Yes. Why?’

‘It’s Jim. He got killed this afternoon.’

‘What?’

‘At about half past three.’

‘How?’

‘One of those hidden bombs.’

‘You’re joking.’

‘No.’

‘Shit.’ I shuddered. Unwanted images formed.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Can you get hold of some of the boys and tell them? I’ve not managed to call everyone yet.’

‘What’re we going to do? The season starts in four weeks.’

‘We’ll just have to go on. Nothing else we can do. He wouldn’t have wanted us to pack in playing.’

‘It doesn’t feel right, though.’

I could hear his shrug. ‘No. … Call me tomorrow to let me know how you got on.’

‘Might text you later.’

‘Fair enough.’ He sounded tired and distraught.

I put the phone down, stared at my computer. The house seemed even more empty now, the silence cold and no longer comfortable. I didn’t sleep that night.

The funeral was four weeks later, almost to the day Jim should have come home after his first tour of Afghanistan. A terrible day. Afterwards, we all got blind drunk and wandered through the streets of our tiny village not knowing what to do. He’d always led our drinking bouts, and now there was no-one to follow.

Before the season was over, before summer ended, the inquest was completed. And with it came a truth too graphic for us to handle.



Autumn comes. The bleary-eyed wind crashes into my body. Damn the damp. This always happens. Every year my back decides I carry too much weight, too little weight, too much energy, too little tiredness, and bends me double. This year it’s worse than ever, and I spend my empty weekends snapping at the pain which tries to defeat me.

My usual bone cruncher doesn’t have the desired effect. Osteopathy comes to a grinding halt against the rigid wall of my uncooperative and leaking vertebrae. Desperate, I look for alternatives. Homeopathy isn’t physical enough. I search the net, and find an acupuncturist who lives about ten minutes’ drive away. I’ve never thought of acupuncture before. Its healing properties seem too intangible, too tied up with some spiritual world I can’t believe in. And I’ve always had a fear of needles. That’s why I’ve never given blood. But the pain’s so bad I have to give it a try. I can’t concentrate, can’t work, can’t live. My spine carries my soul, is the centre of my being.

Although I know the acupuncturist is a woman, I’m surprised at her voice when I call to make an appointment. She tells me she lives opposite the church, that there’s somewhere to park, that I should just open the gate, and walk down the drive to the barn behind the house. She’ll be there.

I jam myself behind the wheel of the car, drive along the darkening lanes, and pull up where she told me to. I unlatch the heavy oak gate, walk through, remember to close it behind me as she told me to, walk past the old thatched house, along the noiseless gravel drive, round to the side of the barn in the garden. There’s a light on in there, shining out through the tall French windows. I can see her sitting on a swivel chair, feet under her, typing. I knock on the door.

She gets up and opens up for me. ‘Come in,’ she says. ‘It’s gone cold, hasn’t it?’

‘Sure has,’ I say. ‘Should I take my shoes off?’

‘Yes, please,’ she says. ‘Then follow me.’ Her bare feet make small sounds on the warm, tiled floor. ‘Under-floor heating,’ she says. ‘My luxury.’ She leads me to another door, which creaks as she opens it and holds it open for me.

The room’s much smaller than the other one, Chinese paintings and etchings on the wall, and the scent of joss sticks. It feels comfortable, safe, hidden. The windows are curtained shut with semi-transparent, silk drapes. On the floor, books line the wall.

She sits down at an ebony desk. The patina of age has taken the edges off it. ‘Sit down,’ she says, and points at an old, dark chair.

I lower myself into it.

‘So, how can I help?’ She’s tiny, black hair down past her narrow shoulders, much too delicate.

‘My back,’ I say.

‘Very bad?’

‘Insufferable.’

‘Tell me about you.’

‘What do you want to know?’

‘Start at the beginning.’ She scribbles something onto a sheet of paper on the desk in front of her.

‘When I was born?’

‘If you think that’s important.’

‘I didn’t realise you were a psychiatrist.’

‘I’m not, but I need to know you if I’m going to treat you.’

‘But … I’m not very good at monologues. … Ask me questions.’

She smiles, not at me, but to herself. She rubs her nose. ‘Have you got a history of back pain?’

‘Yes.’

‘Since when?’

‘I was seventeen when it first happened.’

‘How?’ she says.

‘Playing hockey.’

‘Play much sport still?’

‘A bit.’

‘And then?’

‘Lots.’

‘What?’ She’s as monosyllabic as me.

‘Hockey, like I said. Football. Both as goalie.’

‘Ouch,’ she says.

‘What do you mean?’

‘High impact sport. Not good.’

‘What about cricket?’

‘Let me guess … You kept wicket.’

I nod. ‘Still do, sometimes.’

‘Another ouch, I’m afraid.’

‘Running?’ I know what she’s going to say.

‘All these bads don’t make a good. I thought you said you only did a bit of sport now.’

‘So I should just be totally inactive?’

‘No. But you need to look after yourself.’

‘I do.’

‘Of course you do. That’s why you’re here.’ She looks at me. Her eyes are as dark as her hair.

I shrug.

‘What about work?’ she says. ‘Very active?’

‘No. I sit on my bum all day.’

‘Like we all do.’

‘I’m lazy.’

‘I’m sure you are. … Are you happy?’

'I haven't thought about it.'

‘Why not? Doesn’t it matter to you?’

I notice the wedding ring on her finger. ‘I’ve never thought about that either.’

‘What matters to you then?’ She opens the door to an emptiness I’ve never noticed before.

‘Beauty?’

‘Is that an answer or a question?’ Her voice is as pale as her skin.’

‘Both, I suppose.’

‘It’s not what I’d have expected,’ she says.

‘What did you expect?’

‘Most of my patients talk about their families, or their dreams, or their failures.’

‘I have none of those.’

‘How odd.’ She scribbles some more. ‘What drives you then?’

‘The shape of the world, I guess.’

Her look is a question.

‘I love photography,’ I say. ‘If I see something beautiful, I take a picture of it. It’s so easy now, with a digital camera, to grab a shape and keep it.’

‘Hence the beauty, I suppose.’

‘Yes, I think so. … Is that the right answer?’ I blush at feeling I have to justify myself.

‘I’m not judging,’ she says. ‘I just need to try to understand you so I can treat the cause of your pain, not just the symptoms.’

‘And you do this for every patient of yours?’

She nods. ‘Treatment is impossible without it.’ She gets up and leans towards me. Comfy cotton trousers and a T-shirt. ‘Show me your tongue.’

I stick out my tongue.

‘Mmm.’ She makes a note. ‘Again.’

‘Aaah.’

‘Good. Thanks.’ She takes a deep breath. ‘I need you to relax now.’

‘I am relaxed.’

‘You’re not, actually. … Lean back. Close your eyes. I’m going to take your pulses. I need you to let your arm go limp when I take hold of it. Otherwise I won’t be able to feel anything. I sense you’re someone who doesn’t like to let go.’

‘Fine.’ I lean back, close my eyes, and take a deep breath.

She takes hold of my left wrist. Her hand’s temperature is such that I almost can’t feel it, as if my wrist is being held up by an intangible, invisible force. I let my arm go limp so that she is bearing its weight. She breathes loudly, deeply; in through her nose, out through her mouth. Her fingers press down on my veins as if they were playing a flute. But it’s a nothing touch, a wisp of skin. Then she lets go of my arm, slowly. She says nothing, walks round to my other side, and does the same with my right arm.

Back at her desk, at right angles to me, she writes something down. Quick, jagged, small movements. ‘You’re out of energy,’ she says, and puts down her pen. ‘Your fire needs stoking up again.’

‘And how will you do that?’

‘That’s for me to know and you to feel. I need you to take off your socks, your shirt and your trousers.’

I hesitate. My osteopath was a man.

‘Don’t be shy.’ Her smile mocks me. ‘I’ve seen it all before.’ She points at the treatment table in the middle of the room. ‘Lie down on your stomach when you’re ready, please.’

I stand there in just my pants, still fearful. It’s dark outside by now. I can see the street lights through the curtains.

‘Pillow or hole?’ she says.

‘Excuse me?’

‘Do you want a pillow for your head, or do you want to stick your face through a hole in the table?’

‘Pillow, please.’ I’ve always loved the touch of cool cotton.

‘I’ll give you a gentle massage to begin with,' she says. ‘Just to loosen you up a little. If it’s too hard, you must tell me. This isn’t about being brave.’

I’ve never been brave. It’s easier to hide than stand up for something. Jim was the brave one.

She runs her fingers from my heels up along the back of my legs until she reaches the small of my back. ‘Here?’ she says, her hands right over the pain.

‘Yes. … How … ?’

‘Shh. relax.’

‘I am.’

‘Not enough,’ she says. ‘Let your body breathe for you, right down into your stomach, like babies do. Don’t hold it back. Don’t hinder it with your consciousness.’

So I let go. I feel myself sink into the table’s padding, my head into the soft, white pillow.

Her hands slide into my flesh without touching me. She parts my skin and touches the pain inside. She pulls my spine apart and caresses each single bone she finds, holds the sharp shards of me in the palms of her hands, and rolls them into smoothness.

‘Is that ok?’ Her voice is muffled by my trance.

‘Mmm.’

‘Good.’ She puts me back together again, each fragment of my body returned to where it belongs, until I am whole again. The pain has already lessened. ‘The needles now.’

She stands next to me, her belly in line with my eyes, a needle in her hand. ‘They’re very bendy, so they can’t actually do any damage.’ She breathes that deep breath again. ‘Ancient needles were made from stones or bones, and they could quite easily have poked someone’s eye out.’ She bends the needle backwards and forwards to show me. It’s no thicker than a thin wire. Then she opens her other hand.

‘This is an old one,’ she says, and lets the thick needle roll across her palm. ‘That could do some serious damage if you used it in anger.’ She puts it back into a small box on her desk, under the picture of an old Chinese face. She sees me staring. ‘That’s Huang Di,’ she says. ‘The Yellow Emperor. They say he invented acupuncture.’

I say nothing, put my head back down onto the pillow.

‘I would love to have met him’ she says. ‘The books say he was a very wise man.’

‘If he taught you how to do this, he must have been.’

‘Now you know not to worry about my modern needles, I’ll start,’ she says, like she hasn’t heard me speak. ‘You’ll hear me tap them into you. You must tell me when you feel pain. I’ll feel resistance if there is pain, but you still have to tell me, so I can be absolutely sure.’

‘And then?’

‘Then I’ll have found where your energy is blocked. And then I’ll free it.’

‘That simple?’

‘Not that simple at all,’ she says. ‘Specially not with you.’

‘Why?’

‘You talk too much.’

No-one’s ever accused me of that before.

The first needle boils into me like a coil of poison. I buck and jump, nearly fall from the table.

She catches me. ‘I’ve got you,’ she says. ‘The others will all be easier.’

I grunt. How can she be so strong? She’s only half my size.

She runs her hand down my back. ‘Shh, shh.’

As the needles pierce me, warmth spreads from where the pain was, out into every extremity, fills me entirely. I feel heavy and tired. I can’t move, don’t want to move.

‘I’ll leave you for ten minutes or so,’ she says when she’s put the last of the needles in. ‘You won’t fall off the table if you go to sleep. Just relax and heal yourself.’ She touches the soles of my feet and is gone.

I can’t open my eyes, and yet they are open. I see into myself, have to face the emptiness behind the door she opened, and stare into the abyss I forgot about. No voices, no dreams, no anything. Where is my soul? There’s not even an echo.

16 March 2011

One year on - thinking of an absent friend

A year ago today, a friend and fellow cricketer, James Grigg, was killed in action in Afghanistan. I wrote the poem below when I heard the news, and was honoured to be asked to read it at his funeral.


I have been thinking about James all day, and about his family. I thought it appropriate to share the poem again, against the backdrop of what's happening in Japan and New Zealand. Our private grief is our strongest.

One of us (in memory of James Grigg)

He walks among us,
The twelfth man on our team,
With that invisible loping gait,
That dangerous mouth.

Low to the ground,
His hands ready,
A predator, an undefined haze
In the afternoon sun.

He chases from one to the other,
Whispers encouragement,
Barks at the opposition,
A smiled challenge.

Always in white,
Always in whites,
He claps us in,
Dares us to begin again.

25 February 2011

Alexandra's 10th birthday poem

Alive

Today, I met a travelling man, and walked
With him through one of the world’s largest
Cities. His home town lies in ruins, and his
Family have fled to the mountains, to live
From rain water and the power of the sun.

We spoke of our lives, and our need to
Always move on, and of the understanding
That comes with age, of what matters most.

The answer, he said, is with those we love,
And I agreed. The answer, we said, is at home,
With our families, our children, our loves.
We watched the sun make a circle and
Fall below the horizon of high buildings

And I came back to you, for you,
To celebrate your ten years of living,
As he will fly back to his,
To celebrate being alive.

4 February 2011

Save Stradbroke Library

As part of the National Day of Action to Save Libraries, there will be a read-in at Stradbroke Library tomorrow, 5th February, at 10 a.m.. This is one of the things I'll be reading, adapted from a 2007 poem of mine called why i love poetry.

why i love libraries

because words bound and wrapped
on pages of many colours
sing new voices

because one borrowed book
can be better than thousands
of bought ones

because reading beats hearing
when the words make
their own meaning inside me

because small words can change big things

because the wind and the rain
and love and hate and fear
and tragedy and joy

because the world outside
is so huge and round

because inside each story
there is true greatness
and great truth

because words are the warmth of life

because these sanctuaries
are gateways to the gods
our one chance at wisdom

because faith is a promise
regardless of belief

because each book is
a life-time on its own
a summary of all we can

Cape Evans Centenary

Robert Falcon Scott and his party of thirty landed at Cape Evans on Ross Island on the 4th of January 1911. To mark this centenary, I am posting a poem from my poetry collection K175 - Antarctic Fragments, which will be published on 29th March 2012, the centenary of Scott's death.

Campsite at Cape Evans

The bushman and I drop down onto the scoria,
in the lee of the wind, dig a hole with our hands
for the metal bowl, and light our cigarettes.
We look out across the ice, eyes shaded against
the hue and sun of the Antarctic night, and
shout our swapped stories into the gale that grabs
at us despite our shelter; talk of home and family.

His hands are brown, coloured by toil and climate,
sinuous as the wood he works. For many years
he has been rescuing history from the strife of time,
rebuilding travellers’ huts around the edges of this
continent. Each one different, he says, for each has
its own spirits, its restless ghosts, its faithful souls;
a presence shaped by suffering and sacrifice.

Human courage and determination has left its sweat
in each grain of wood, its grime on every particle
that dances on the sun’s music inside these places,
an exuberance beyond the achievement of construction,
over and above the intricacies of engineering, the
carpenter tells me, his face alight with reverence.
We are the servants of history, lucky to be here.

The bushman and I take a drink while we smoke
our next. The Transantarctic Mountains watch our
conversation from across the sea ice, see our breath
rise above the tops of our tents, wash away towards
the mainland and scatter. Behind us, Erebus smokes,
too, his plume rising to meet the clouds that gather
around his crown to create the coming blizzard.

We fall silent, awed by nature’s brutal scale. This
is now no place for voices. Seals scatter from some
unseen tremor they mistake for a hunting orca. The
penguins race for the safety of the icy bluff. And
then nothing. The seals burrow back down into the
snow and the penguins dive into the pool exposed
in the breaking ice. Cape Evans is at peace again.

19 January 2011

Save our Suffolk libraries - and libraries everywhere

Suffolk County Council is threatening to close 29 libraries (the council calls it divesting) in an effort to save money as instructed by central government. Ever heard of standing up and being counted?

A consultation period on these proposals started on 18th January and runs through 30 April 2011 at www.suffolk.gov.uk/librariesconsultation2011.

What follows below is what I have put into the consultation response I sent them earlier today:

Please explain your idea or expression of interest below.

You may want to refer to the consultation document 'Have your say on the future of Suffolk’s libraries' for criteria and suggestions about different approaches to running libraries in Suffolk and elsewhere.

Also, please include in your answer:

• Whether you can personally contribute, or if your suggestion is made on behalf of a local organisation, company or individual(s)

• Who might provide the service and how?


Suffolk currently pay their CEO, Andrea Hill, £220,000 per year, which could pay for several of the libraries you are threatening to close. I would therefor like to suggest that her post is "divested", just as the Council is divesting other, more core, services.

Her post could be filled as follows:

(a) Suffolk and a neighbouring County could share a CEO. This is a real possibility and Suffolk Coastal and Waveney District do this already. They could also share several senior Director posts saving even more money for frontline services. This is precisely the model the County are suggesting for a schools who are pressed to share Headteachers and create partnerships.

(b) I am happy to volunteer together with others with senior management experience to help out and undertake the CEOs post in a voluntary capacity, ie free of charge. There will undoubtedly be many people in Suffolk who would each give some of their time on a rota basis, much much as they are volunteering their time for libraries.

If Mrs Hill thinks voluntary community services are such a wonderful thing (and I agree with her that volunteering is indeed a great way to contribute to our communities), I am quite sure she will stand aside without hesitation in the interest of adding value to Suffolk's communities and society as a whole.

I can provide you with my CV, and am also already proactively engaging with a number of friends, colleagues and service users to create a core group which can carry forward this proposal.


How will your idea or interest generate changes or significant efficiencies in the way the library operates to reduce what the county council pays by a minimum of 30%?

The above suggestion re the divestment of Andrea Hill also applies to other senior staff posts at Suffolk County Council, some of whom provide their services to the council on a freelance basis and on significant dayrates. These senior posts would be filled from the group I am now assembling, of volunteerswith senior management experience and the desire to make Suffolk County Council work for the benefit of the people of Suffolk.

If you have already sought support or interest from individuals or organisations in your community, please give details below (eg. meetings attended, level of support)

It would at this point be inappropriate to reveal the details of my negotiations with interested parties.

We have categorised libraries into county libraries and community libraries. (See Appendix 1 of the main consultation document, 'Have your say on the future of Suffolk's libraries'). What do you think about the criteria we have used and allocation of libraries to each category?

I believe your categorisation of libraries, and the criteria used, are inappropriate, and smack of cultural fascism.

The minimum distance between county libraries, as defined by you, is too small, which reduces the reach of libraries, effectively providing urban areas with services whilst ignoring rural areas. This is discrimination against those who live and work in the rural areas of Suffolk.

The claim that most community libraries are in areas of "relative affluence" is imprecise (relative affluence to what?), offensive (many rural areas such as Stradbroke are defined as deprived), and smacks of spin of the worst kind against libraries in villages and small towns. In fact, it makes it appear as if you have already decided to close these libraries.


What do you think about our overall proposals for the library service?

The proposals are poorly thought out, and do not take into account the crass overpayment of your senior staff, nor the importance of providing library and other core cultural services free of charge across the county. Whilst our libraries burn, the county's elected and non-elected members burn our money on expenses and overblown salaries.

I have set up a facebook page supporting the divestment of Mrs Hill's job. You can join it here.

R