‘Those who turn from delusion back to reality,
who meditate on walls, the absence of self, and other,
the oneness of mortal and sage, and who remain
unmoved even by scriptures
are in complete and unspoken agreement with reason’
A windy monastery
higher than clouds care to climb:
Bodhidharma gazes at the wall.
He stares so hard the plaster crumbles.
The wall stares back so long his eyelids droop.
He cuts them off as one might trim a wick
and where they drop spring tea-green shoots
For nine years
he gazes on through bloody tears.
The wall will neither blink nor flinch.
Then, one ordinary day,
there is no wall,
there is no Bodhidharma
Last week I posted an article about ‘the oral tradition’ that, smugly, I’d written a good week in advance. And what happens? This week I’m a day late. Mea culpa. But I thought that at least I could start with a bang. The picture and the poem are both experiences way outside my comfort zone. Buddhism and swimming with sharks; ideas yoked together by violence (is that Coleridge on the metaphysicals?)…except they’re not. Somewhere among that team of tiny divers, looking like remora fish against the bulk of that shark, is my friend Andy Blackford, who also happens to have written the poem.
Now, I say ‘my friend, Andy’, and I don’t say it lightly, but I should explain something. I taught Andy when he was a super-smart, clever, cocky, just-this-side of arrogant 6th former in Middlesbrough, round about 1968. He was not only clever and subversive, but good company, and funny. He was also, even then, a pretty good guitarist…he almost, but not quite, persuaded me to feel enthusiastic about Cream.
He went to Oxford to do PPE, and, in about 1973 I met him again in a hotel in Gateshead, on his way to Amsterdam to start (I think) a job in the music industry. Now, I was more than a bit of a left-wing puritan in those days, and, to my undying shame I lectured him on my disappointment that he sought to fritter away his god-given talents on feeding trivia to the masses. (I am relieved to find he does not remember this, but feel in no way absolved).
Anyway, that was it until, after a gap of 40 years, thanks to the wonder that is Facebook, we met again. In May 2013, I went up to Staithes where he has a holiday home and spent a day with him and his wife, Sandra. 40 years simply melted away. Nothing had changed and everything had changed, and all was well.
Last December he emailed me to say that the film director Louis Bunuel had been in the habit of meeting a fellow artist each Monday to exchange and critique a new work of art. He proposed that, via the magic of email we would do the same. We would exchange new poems every week for one year. It would become GAP YEAR. And so we have. We are now into ( I think ) week 40. We had a week off around June, but have made up the omission since. We started awkward and tentative and apologetic, and there was still a residue of that teacher/student relationship. But now we happily give each other’s poems a good kicking, and I was delighted when Andy was able to say of one of mine: Sorry…it does nothing for me. What’s it for? And I was able to say: Absolutely nothing, mate. And then to bin it. I’m going to give you another poem of his from the Gap Year, sent from his hospital bed when he was having unnerving things done to his heart, and then leave him to speak for himself about himself.
On the blink
Two TV screen flank this clever bed.
One is my Hospimedia.
The news looks bad…the picture’s slashed
by pixellated bands,
the sound is intermittent.
The email has a dodgy keyboard
doubling up one character
The other screen is monitoring me.
It’s picked up nasty habits
from its wayward friend.
The trace that should be docile and predictable
is bucking like a bullock in an abattoir.
Be still my pixellating heart.
With Andy, I never know whether I’m going to get black humour or some unflinching take on a Buddhist’s way of seeing the world. Maybe this biography will go some way to explaining why I expect to be surprised and unsurprised by anything he does or writes. Here he is in his own words ….he writes of himself in the 3rd person. Considering the many lives he’s led, it could be in the 5th or 8th or 13th.
Andy was born in Middlesbrough and spent much of his childhood at Runswick Bay near Whitby. When he was nine, his father built him a small boat, and encouraged him to row it out to sea. After leaving Oxford (St Catherine’s) with a degree in PPE, he disappointed nearly everyone by joining the rock band Spreadeagle.
The band disappointed the record-buying public, despite touring regularly with Genesis and Lindisfarne, and after a period as the editor of a teenybopper fanzine Music Star, he moved to Amsterdam as an A&R executive for Phonogram Records. Returning to London, he became a professional skateboarder, and in his alter ego of Bengt Maelstrom, the editor of Skateboard Scene magazine [Ed:….and that’s not all..]
Later, he met a drunk at at the launch party of The rude food guide, and was so impressed by the drunk’s salary…he was an advertising art director…that he decided to try his hand at copywriting. Armed with a short story, The day Mrs Osmond cried, he landed a job with Lonsdales Advertising (later he discovered this was because the agency band was short of a guitarist). His CV includes creative directorships at Saaatchi and Saaatchi, IMP and Joshua. At Grey, he made the agency famous by persuading the entire staff to to take off their clothes for a publicity shot. In 2003 he became founding partner of KB49, an agency in Covent Garden.
Andy’s friend, the editor and writer Susan Hill encouraged him to write, and he produced books on implausibly disparate subjects, including the the Newcastle R&B band The Animals, and a history of the discotheque. When his daughter was born, he tried his hand at children’s fiction. He won The Independent/Scholastic Children’s Story of the Year competition, and has since produced some 25 books for children, mainly for younger readers. [Ed…..if you have young children it’s odds on they’ve unwittingly encountered Andy’s writing via Oxford Reading Tree]. However, sadly, his main qualifications for immortality may well be the NatWest Piggies savings scheme, and the legendary 80’s advertising campaign for Um Bongo…[still to be heard in parts of the world. um bongo, um bongo; they drink it in the Congo.]
Andy took up distance running to break his smoking habit [counter-intuitive as ever], and for 25 years was columnist for Runner’s World magazine. He has run the Marathon des Sables in the Sahara, and ultra-marathons in Greenland, the Amazon rainforest and the Himalayas. His acclaimed collection of articles Running on empty is available as an ebook. [Exhausted?…there’s more]. For 30 years he had a column in Diver magazine (two more books: Blackford’s Diving Life and Times and Deeper with Blackford). Andy has his own publishing brand, The Littlington University Press …Google it for titles, which can also be found via Kindle. His most recent (Aug.2014) is Twenty cheery tales about death.
Well. He’s now retired from full time work to concentrate on life with his English-teacher wife and daughter in Cambridgeshire, on his rock band 1967 which has played festivals in the UK and Europe, on writing their anti-war single Afghanistan which featured Van Morrison’s musical director Paul Moran, and a 50-strong choir….and so on
The ultra marathon stuff might just contextualise the hospital poem, and the diving magazines the shark photo. But the opening poem? Saving the best till last. Andy is a mitra in the Triratna Buddhist Community, he teaches meditation, and works as a prison Chaplain through the Angulimala Charity.
A couple of weeks ago I posted about my friend Gyula Friewald, who I met up with for a day’s walking a week last Wednesday. We got horribly hot and scratched and bloody, scrambling to the base of a golden sandstone cliff to find fragments of Iberian pottery, 2000 years old, and we had an easier walk…but still hot…in the afternoon, and Gyula mused on the need for the acknowledgement of Chaos in our lives and the failure of most people, now, in the 21st century, to understand that, because their lives are too chaotic. That kind of conversation for a hot sweaty walk.
A month or so earlier I went on a clifftop walk with Andy and his dog, Merlin. Staithes to Runswick and back..8 miles or so of rockband stories, diving stories, drinking stories, advertising stories, marathon stories, prison stories, buddhism, meditation, children…I count myself more than blessed to have exhausting friends who have lived more lives than the times I’ve stopped smoking. Delighted to be writing a poem a week for and with Andy, and to have him as my undiscovered [sic] gem for this week, albeit a day late.
Now, for 40 weeks I’ve been niggling away at Andy’s penchant for abstractions in his poems…comes of being a Buddhist, I say. But he still blindsides me with reflective, meditative poems quite unlike anything I write, and this makes the weekly exchange more than fascinating.
I’ll leave you with the poem, but before I go, this is just to say I’m having a gap of my own…no posts for two weeks, while I do some reading and thinking, and stock up with gems and walks and friends and things worth saying. See you in a couple of weeks. Now, big hand for ……..Andy Blackford!!!!!!
Some memories are too sweet to drink –
even sipping them is like self-harm.
And yet we’re drawn to dwell on what we’ve lost
in case the recollection might retrieve it.
If so, we can expect a rough reunion:
the pain is in the pleasure, indivisible.
Remembering is like a lizard’s tail
it snaps off in your hand
the living part escaping
in the thicket of the past.
And thanks to Merlin, for showing me the world’s biggest rabbit hole.