Remember these? Panoramic school photos. And the challenge that some found irresistible…to see how many times you could get on the same picture. Do they still get taken? Probably not. They get taken to school reunions by the ones who genuinely believe that their schooldays were the best days of their lives (which always feels inexpressibly sad). But I don’t know many folk who can resist t the business of finding half-remembered faces, and invariably sharing stories..wasn’t that ..? remember that time when..? wasn’t she the one who…? Am I wrong to think that they’re almost always tales of transgression and subversion?
The thing about school photos and school stories seems to be that we only really remember the people in our own year group…and often, only from our own form group. And I guess that’s why we’re slightly miffed when we meet a teacher we used to have and he or she doesn’t instantly remember us. Because (Secondary) teachers aren’t tied down to one year group; because in any year, they teach students from 5 or 6 year groups, because the faces start to anonymise…like the ones on panaoramic phots that are more like pixels than individuals. It doesn’t stop me from feeling guilty when I don’t recognise or instantly remember the ones who come up to me, or contact me on Facebook. You won’t remember me, they say (though they really think you will) but you taught me in 1972. On Facebook it’s likely to be Are you the Mr Foggin who taught English at [ ]? It’s even more confusing when it’s a woman who now has a different surname, and she doesn’t tell you the name you know her by. Happened again only last week. And as it happened, I did eventually realise that I remembered her, and, indeed, still had photos of her in a school school play.
Which provides me with a peg to hang this week’s cobweb post on. It’s a curious business being a teacher, this license to strut your stuff in front of captive audiences and to be paid for doing it, on the assumption that you know what you’re doing. And, what’s more, to do that for a significant minority who are more talented, more intelligent, cleverer than you’ll ever be. The only difference between you and them is that you’re older and you’ve read more stuff. But they catch up. And overtake you. I can look back and pick out students who are now successful actors, novelists, musicians, Head Teachers, dentists, doctors,education advisers and inspectors. One scored the winning try at Wembley in the match that ended Wigan’s monopoly of the Challenge Cup.One is a (retired) university linguistics lecturer who puts me in my place on all matters linguistic.One managed tours for Elton John, the Bee Gees…and knew all the Beatles, socially. One became a Professor of Education, and thereby became my boss. Another is a judge, and plays drums in 60s/70s covers band. And so on and so on. So much talent, so much accomplishment. And why did they once have to listen to me? Dylan nails it.
I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now
I had a headstart by being born first. And then got overtaken, not least by today’s guest, Andy Blackford who I invited to be on the cobweb in September 2014. This is how I introduced him..with a picture first. I can’t resist using it again. He’s one of the divers.
I wrote about how I taught him in the late 1960s and how, 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. I found that he’d been a diver, run ultra-marathons, worked in advertising, done a stint as a professional skateboarder, written 20-odd books and for three years or so, he’d been lead guitar in ‘Spreadeagle’ (I can’t resist this image). If you want the fuller version, check out the 2014 post.
In December 2013 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 a book called GAP YEAR and would make us even more famous. And so we did. We started awkward and tentative and apologetic, and there was still a residue of that teacher/student relationship. But after a month or so we could 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 write back: Absolutely nothing, mate. And then to bin it.
And here we are again. I asked Andy to bring us up to date and send me some new work. So he did.
“On the face of it, not very much has happened since 2014. We ‘finished’ Gap Year and made a rather half-hearted attempt to interest publishers in it. I moved from a rambling 15th Century house with a lovely cottage garden and a barn full of the accumulated junk of a lifetime into a two bedroom flat in Cambridge. Weirdly, I haven’t missed the country or the house, and am enjoying cycling between the gym, the Picturehouse cinema and the Buddhist Centre.We look out on the River Cam and we’re a mortarboard’s throw from Stourbridge Common… ( at this poem he blindsides me with with a dark take on the merry month of May)
EXPECT THE WORST
Expect the worst and then
you won’t be disappointed.
That’s what Mum said –
or would have if she’d thought of it.
It’s why I don’t trust May.
Just take today: It’s all so bloody perfect.
A pigeon wobbles
on an emerald willow waterfall.
(Can there be a bird more stupid than the pigeon?
Yes. The pheasant).
The creak of rowlocks on the Pembroke eight
the coxswain’s barked arcane commands
the patter of the jogger’s fluorescent trainers
on the towpath.
A brace of dancing damselflies, kimono blue.
May doesn’t smile, it positively smirks.
The sickening conspiracy of lilac and forsythia
the bullocks bucking in the meadow
out of pure exuberance.
Mindless, ignorant exuberance.
For on a motorway somewhere
a truck with slatted sides is winding
its relentless way to Stourbridge Common.
And all of us – the cox, the bullock
and the witless pigeon,
poet, jogger, damselfly –
must one day climb its dung-encrusted ramp.
And while you absorb the random inevitability of it all, and the smart juxtapositions of that list in the last stanza, he reminds me of a different persona:
You asked about children’s books: I began writing when a friend gave me a cutting from the Independent, inviting entries to the writing competition they sponsored in partnership with Scholastic Books – The Children’s Story Of The Year. I wrote a story called Spare Bear, about a teddy bear saved from a wasted life as understudy to his identical twin, and it won. I received a cheque from Andrew Marr at the Groucho Club.
Since then I’ve had about twenty books published, illustrated by a variety of artists. One of them consisted of a poem about a boy who, inspired by a nature documentary on TV, resolves to run away to Brazil. He gets as far as his back garden…
GEORGE & THE DRAGONFLY
George watched a film about lizards and snakes
And creatures that slither in rivers and lakes.
He said to his mother, ‘Do you suppose,
For my birthday or Christmas, I could have one of those?’
His mum shook her head. ‘Most certainly not!
You wanted a hamster and that’s what you’ve got.
It’s me who looks after him, gives him his tea.
If you had a python, it’s not hard to see
Who’d be feeding and walking it Daddy and me!’
‘If I can’t have a snake,’ said George to his hamster,
‘Or a lizard or something, there’s only one answer.
I¹ll go to the jungle and live in the trees
With a boa constrictor and six chimpanzees!’
So George packed a bag with some socks and some pants
And left for the Land of Man-Eating Ants.
But George had no sooner set foot in the garden
Than a gorgeous green dragonfly said, ‘Beg your pardon!
Before you go off and live in a tree,
There’s a couple of friends that I’d like you to see.’
George followed the insect to where it had flown,
Then on its instructions, he lifted a stone.
There coiled a millipede, all shiny and black,
And a bright orange beetle with stripes on its back.
George was amazed. They were brilliant and pretty
Not what you’d expect in the midst of the city.
The dragonfly hovered and darted beyond
And waited for George by the side of a pond.
There were tadpoles and toads and a fat, friendly frog
And a great crested newt that lived under a log.
The fly guided George to a web on a shrub.
A red and green spider sat right at the hub.
Six of its legs were knitting a sweater
While the two at the back were writing a letter.
On a twig on a bush, the fly landed next.
‘I say! Do you mind?’ said the twig, clearly vexed.
‘I’m an insect, you know I just look like a stick!’
George was impressed: ‘That’s a well-wicked trick!’
‘Morning, young George!’ called a big bumble bee.
‘Who needs a snake when there’s all this to see?’
But the dragonfly showed him one final surprise –
A beautiful grass snake with beady black eyes.
‘Thank you!’ said George to his dragonfly guide.
‘That was totally brilliant.’ And then he sighed.
‘I think I’ll go home and not live in a tree.
Why go to Brazil when there’s all this to see?’
Now, you might think that isn’t the sort of poem you’re used to on the cobweb. You’d be right. But it’s hard to get right, a rhyming story for children, one that effectively storyboards itself, and, above all, one that’s a pleasure to read aloud. Oral tradition. Ace.
But I notice that Andy’s been posting a completely different sort of poem on his Facebook page. And he hasn’t run them by me first. They grow out of the latest phase of a multilayered life. Andy explains:
“I’m now working [as a Buddhist Chaplain] in four gaols, ranging from the very highest category of security to an open prison. Most of my lads are serving life sentences. [It makes me smile, that ‘my lads’] The most humbling aspect of the work is their gratitude and politeness; the most thought-provoking is how like me they are.
Meanwhile, I’m pursuing my path to Ordination with the Triratna Buddhist Community. This involves a number of intensive retreats at our beautiful centre in the dreamy backwaters of the Norfolk Broads. The place is stuffed with wildlife, airborne and waterborne. And bats:
Padmaloka June 2016
Flitwing Pipistrelle careers into the thickening dark
lancing boils of dancing flies that burst
in swirls of black confetti
The river dawdles in dementia
lost in reedy mazes
In the meadow by the bridge
a bullock moans the old complaint
mist brimming to his matted haunch
Flitwing, come and corkscrew with me
through the midgy dimness
We’ll swoop and dart and loop the loop
and tease the glaring owl
our talons plucking oily wrinkles
on the moonstruck fen
and we the manic navigators of the night.
This strikes me as the other side of the playfulness and fantasy of George’s garden. And I really relish the textures of these sharply observed creatures, from the manically cluttered first line, to the mist brimming to the haunches of the bemired bullock moaning ‘the old complaint’. It’s about focus. About keeping still and seeing how things are. Andy thinks he knows why he’s getting better at it.
“During a recent retreat themed on the ten ethical precepts of Buddhism, I had a quiet breakthrough in my meditation practice and so far, the effect seems to have stuck. I am suddenly steadier and calmer, less afraid, and I regularly gain access to a well of innocence, joy and bright amazement.
I’m back at Padmaloka in September to study and meditate upon my favourite topic, the Brahma Viharas – the ‘four great emotions’ of loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity.
I raise my mop, unwieldy with world-dirty water
twist its drowned girl hair about its knotted throat
force it up hard into the up-turned bucket of the night
and squeeze out the grey swill through the holes of the stars
I’m going to finish here, with the inside-outness of this poem, and drowned girl hair…almost. But I can’t resist reminding myself that Buddhist or not, Andy still plays guitar, and still gigs with his current band. You should go and see them.
Andy, it’s been a pleasure having you back. Thank you for the updates. And maybe one day we’ll write something together that actually gets published.