richard pierce

richard pierce

27 July 2012

Of trains and taxis

On Monday, I got up at 5:30, left the house at quarter to seven, caught the 07:23 train to Stowmarket, then the 08:15 from Stowmarket to Peterborough, and from there on to York, where I arrived at half past eleven. All in a day's work.

I met two men who are bound to be characters in a future novel, the first sentences of which are gradually taking shape in my head.

They met here every Monday, Wednesday and Friday; the older, thinner one opposite his younger, more rotund friend, who wedged himself between the table and the bar and ordered his usual goat's cheese pie before he'd even sunk into the softness of the chair.

"Well," the round one said. "What do we talk about today?"

"Anything but work,' the thin one said.

Anyway, that's a tangent. I'm lucky to meet so many inspiring people, not just because they morph into characters, but because they teach me things about life, about my life, about the rush inside me that could do with being slowed down a touch, because they're real, like all characters in prose and poetry should be, because they move me.

I was very lucky, on Monday, to find time to get to York Minster, to see parts of it not many people get to see, to get to walk around the stonemasons' yard, to meet some of the stone carvers (who say they are more artistic than the masons), and to wander across the floor at the Glaziers' Trust, and to touch some of the centuries-old stained glass that has adorned the Minster since time immemorial.

This is what I take with me on my work travels: papers relevant to my meetings, which I try to read, annotate and memorise in the first half an hour of my trip; my Kindle (reading Anna Karenina at the moment, and have been doing so for the last year); printed-out draft of my work in progress (A Fear of Heights at the moment - needs to be finished editing asap; Moleskine notebooks (the red one for work, the black one for poetry and prose notes); at least one full pack of smokes; lots of Dead Men postcards (who knows when I might get the chance to do some guerrilla marketing); two mobile phones (the basic one for work, the smart phone so I can pick up emails and tweet); and a bottle of water; oh, and my wallet, of course, so I can pay for stuff like parking and train fares (these minor things that try us).

I was in meetings for four or so hours on Monday, and then wandered back to York railway station, aiming to catch the half past five train, which I did, having turned down an invitation to attend Evensong at the Minster because I wanted to get home to my family by half past nine. Ha!

The train from York to Peterborough left on time, but was two hours late because of a slow-moving freight train (has anyone ever heard of joined-up services? Re-nationalise the railways, please). Not just that, but the air conditioning on the train had failed, so free water was being handed out to the poor, sweating passengers. Oh, my word. By the time we got to Peterborough, I thought it couldn't get any worse, and rejoiced in the sun on my face while I waited for the Ely train - which arrived on time, but which was an hour late into Ely.

By this time, resigned to my fate of not arriving home in time to see the family, I sent one final text asking for the front door not to be bolted, and set about one more part of Anna Karenina, playing with plot changes to A Fear of Heights  while reading, and smiling at all the girls who looked smaller in the distance than they did close up, and hoped for Norwich to get closer quicker than the timetable told me. The very attentive guard on the train then  told me they'd pre-booked a cab to get me from Norwich to Diss because otherwise I'd have to wait for the next train for too long.

Norwich - Greater Anglia staff claim not to know anything about the cab bookings (I wasn't the only one with such a booking), and treat us with disdain until the guard from the Ely train turns up, bless her, and reads them the riot act. I get the impression that there are a bunch of people here who are doing the minimum necessary, who don't care about customer service or even about people, who just count the minutes until their shift is over, and see numbers not people. Ok, I don't know how much they're getting paid, nor how good or bad their employer is (re-nationalise the railways!!!!!), but I don't know how much the knackered guard from the Ely train is getting paid either, and she has really gone beyond the call of duty.

I'm about to tell the spaced-out Greater Anglian staff not to bother, when a very large gentleman arrives at the glass house they call the Customer Service Centre. He tells me he's my driver. I ask him if I've got a time for smoke. Sure, he says, he'll just take a leak. I finish my smoke, and he comes back and tells me you can only take a leak at Norwich station if you're a passenger, because the loo is beyond the barriers. RE-NATIONALISE THE RAILWAYS!!!

We get in the car. It's his first day of cabbing, he says, and he's not sure it's been a good day, because he has nothing to compare it to. He used to be in restaurant management but got made redundant, and he doesn't want to sit on his hands on benefits. His wife is doing a Masters in Psychology at UEA on a £8k grant. He has two sons, 18 and 16. He's a refugee from Kuwait, came to England, when Saddam invaded Kuwait. His nickname is CJ, which everyone calls him, including his wife, because his boxing trainer called him it once, and it stuck. His real name is Quorosh, and he kisses it as much as he misses his home.

It's a half hour drive back to my car. We talk about our children, about our education, our wives, our aspirations, our dreams, our determination to succeed and not just to be like everyone else. His face shimmers in the reflection of the speedometer light, and the scattered beams from the cars heading in the opposite direction. He asks me what's better - to sit around waiting or to go out and do. He knows my answer anyway. It's like I've met a brother a long way from home.

We pull up to my car. On impulse, I ask him for his address, because, I say, I want him to have a copy of my book, and I know he can't afford to buy it. He gives me his address, grabs my tiny hand in his huge mitt and tells me I'm a good man. I squeeze his hand back as hard as I can and reciprocate the compliment, because I mean it.

The next day, I send him a copy of my book, along with a letter and my email address. I hope I hear from him. Not because of the book, but because I'm rooting for him, a man who has to work harder than me at being a part of this tired island.

20 July 2012

On Mortality

There is a time in every man's life when he has to reflect on what has been and gone and what will be, on how he may have wasted his time, on how he may have changed other people's lives. I suppose that time is now.

I am not a man who thrives on rational argument; in fact quite the opposite. I have this discussion regularly with my philosophy-addicted son, who feels I am incapable of having a coherent conversation with him which lasts for more than fifteen seconds (less, probably). But he is cut from a different cloth, manages to analyse every action, every moment of life down into its most infinitesimal component. I can't do that, nor do I think I want to. I'll look at emotions and paint them on my canvas with broad, impressionist word strokes, and turn away. Because that's enough for me. Let the minute implications and interpretations work themselves out in the minds of those who read and think more deeply than I do.

We celebrated my mother's life last week, dressed in bright clothes of many colours. We laughed, and talked, and drank, and cried. She'd been without Dad for almost twenty years, and for the last five years, at least, she no longer knew who I was. I am an orphan now, a real orphan, and finally, maybe, a real grown-up. And a man closer to death than to birth. I remember reading somewhere once, a long time ago, and I don't remember who wrote it, that we are only complete and wise and grown if we think about our own death at least three times a day. I think about it more often than that, and have done ever since my reading moved on from the Famous Five to something more exacting and complex.

So I sit here, this miserable summer's evening already darkening and closing in around me, and contemplate the road ahead. The road behind, yes, it has been marked with some exceptional experiences and achievements, with much luck and hard work, but it's gone, done and dusted, sand passed under my soles never to be seen or trod again. What's to come?

There's that old cliché, so little time and so much to do, but that's how it feels to me each day, with ideas and errands and necessities cluttering my head, my desk and my life, and only a finite, unknown time to go. It doesn't depress me, the thought of having only a limited number of days; it makes everything more urgent, makes everything a priority, and leaves me having to choose what I will and will not do. And some things do seem a waste of time, even though I enjoy them, and some things, on the other had, seem a necessity, a duty, even if I don't enjoy them. There we go again - choices. It seems my leitmotif at the moment. Ideally, I'd like to do everything, be able to exist without having to resort to sleep or rest, without being drawn to sit and catch my breath, would rather just chase around the world, race around life without having to choose, and then, at any given moment, find that I'd miraculously managed to do everything without even noticing.

Back in the real world, I want to write as many books as I can, need to move on and edit A Fear of Heights and send it to my agent, and do it before the calendar summer is over. I have to get protestpoems rolling again. And I have to start writing poems again. And paint again. And teach myself, properly, how to get my stubby fingers round the F chord on the guitar, and how to play the piano properly (once we move the piano we've been given into this house from somewhere else). And tidy up, and do my fair share of the washing up, and not shout at anyone who's on holiday in this household while I plod my way through a working summer. And, and , and ...

Maybe this is immortality, after all, this errand-chasing life, not a reminder of mortality and transcience. Maybe. But I think I'll keep telling myself that my days are numbered, that I still have so much to do, and most of it of value, even if only of value to me.


4 July 2012

Choices

These have been hectic, mad weeks, these last few months, and it's difficult to relate, in a few words and impressions, how my life has been changed by what I've been lucky enough to experience in that time. That's why I'm going to be staggering some blogposts about my travels over the next few weeks. There's too much to tell in one single breath.

I have neglected many things, too, I have to say, putting all of myself into promoting Dead Men, of trying to persuade people that it's not just a book about the Antarctic, that, above all, it's a love story, a story led by strong women, and a book that's well-written and deserving of a read (although, for the sake of completeness, I have to add that some reviewers don't share my opinion).

This neglect I speak of is a choice all writers are forced to make. What to put first - a story of our own making or our own story, our own life? It's not an easy choice, nor is the final decision one which is easily taken, for it carves the flesh from our minds, it presents us with regret which lasts forever, it removes from us the feeling of ever having been human. Honestly.

What have I neglected, what? I have neglected protestpoems.org, a much-needed and much-praised poetry blog which stands up for human rights in a time where those rights are increasingly threatened, subverted and attacked (and not just by greedy bankers and hypocritical politicians). I have neglected my next book, my writing, something I need as much as I need air to breathe. I have neglected my village cricket club and those who work so hard to keep it alive. I have neglected my immediate family; my children, my wife, those champions of my way of life, those who breathe the same air as I do, those whose support makes my existence possible. And I have neglected, too, my extended family, my sisters, my mother, the roots of my existence.

And therein lies another story. At the beginning of June, I spent a weekend in my mother's residential home, expecting her to die, slept in the bed some old person had probably died in a few days before, in a sparse room, deprived of the belongings that had made it home for someone, spent most of that night awake, with a grey light from outside illuminating my insomnia, waiting for the call that Mum had died. It didn't come that day, and I came home again, to pack for two weeks of travel I could not put off. I went to Norway, to spread the word about my book, to praise the strong women who had made my book, read passages from the book which moved my audience to tears, drank too much wine, spent a Friday morning with a man whose opinion I have come to respect, flew home, spent two nights at home, and flew out to New York to carry on my promo work. And all the while, there was the hope against reality that my 87-year-old mother might regain, not just her health, but her self, that the dementia that had been devouring her for eight long years, would somehow disappear. Of course, it didn't, for dementia is not a symptom of old age, it is a disease as deadly as cancer.

Mum died five days after I got back from the US, five days before her 88th birthday. She had been without my father for nearly 20 years. She had been without her mind for longer than I would have wished on her. She wanted to go, but letting go is never easy. And so, when the call came, at 4 a.m. on 22nd June, I was still jetlagged, woke thinking I was still in some godforsaken hotel room in New York, mistook the quivering English shadows for American ones, pointed my face and hands in the wrong direction, and muttered monosyllabic words at those who had spent Mum's last hours with her. The lasting impression is that this was a merciful release, that this was Mum's time to go, that the only regret I will carry to my grave about my relationship with her is that she was not of sound enough mind to understand that her only son had finally become a published writer.

There's no point wondering about the choices we have to make as writers, no point asking ourselves if it's fair we have to make them. Life is not fair. It never has been, never will be. We have free will. If we want to leave something more than a pile of remaindered books which might be picked up, from time to time, by bargain hunters and name hunters, if we want to leave something we might regard as a true legacy, we have to make sacrifices, we have to push out the boundaries of our own existence, we have to believe in what we write, believe in it enough to leave our real world and skip, whistling dirges, into another world where we constantly smile, where we say the same thing over and over again, where we become the standard bearers for our own sentences, plots and endings, where we persuade others, and ourselves, that our art is extraordinary and perfect and true.

And in the midnight hours, a glass of wine in hand, we beg forgiveness from those who have given us their lives and faith.