Blog News

1. Comments are still disabled though I am thinking of enabling them again.

2. There are now several extra pages - Poetry Index, Travel, Education, Childish Things - accessible at the top of the page. They index entires before October 2013.

3. I will, in the next few weeks, be adding new pages with other indexes.

Thursday, 31 March 2011

And the next letter is...

The pub I was in last night has a couple of boards where the beer menu is written up in chalk. Of course the names are also on the pumps, usually on properly printed labels but occasionally on hand written ones. I decided to have an American Pale Ale. On one board it said "Amrcn" on the other board it said "Amricn" and on the pump it said "Amrican". Surely it can't be that hard a word to get right.

Well that's done it!

Five minutes ago I sent back the contract accepting the job in China.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Small Stones: Extended Remixes #2

The 2nd January small stone was The Invisible People of Prague which already has a longer version. The 3rd January poem was this one, written while sitting having tea after visiting the Roman baths at Bath. One of the more interesting things about them is that they were lost. Bits of the stone were cannibalised for other buildings, much of the site was buried and subsequently forgotten. It was centuries before they were rediscovered and redeveloped.

Lunch In Bath
We sip green tea
And eat crumpets
In the Pump Room.
The trio is poised to play a waltz.

Based loosely on this small poem, and on the idea that our civilisation is built on top of theirs and as likely as theirs to survive, I wrote this.

The Romans And Us

We are so very civilized:
we eat crumpets and sip tea,
and listen to a trio play a waltz.
We converse on many topics,
but, oh, so quietly.
We do not number noise among our faults.

We are so very civilized:
We eat dormice and sip wine,
and listen to a minstrel pluck a lyre.
We converse on many topics,
both the earthly and divine.
Our erudition could surely not be higher.

We are so very civilized
that our society
will surely last at least ten thousand years,
before we reach the end
and our civility
fades away at last and disappears.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Great Travel Experiences: Doing Nothing in Yangshou

So, I have a job offer in China, not just in China though but in my favourite area of China. It seems that now might be an appropriate time to mention the joys of doing nothing.

* * *
We had been on the road for a long time when we reached Yangshou. Days of tedious driving interspersed with unremarkable stopovers had left us a little tired and dispirited.

We reached Yangshou at four thirty and checked in at the hotel. I had been intending to take just one night and then seek cheaper accommodation but two things changed my mind. The first was the weight of my rucksack. As we were changing trucks in a couple of days everything needed to be in it and I could barely lift it. The thought of carrying it around while I searched for a new hotel was horrible. The second was the ‘dorm’. I had thought that for dormitory rooms the price of forty yuan was a little high and so it would have been. However the "dormitory" turned out not to be exactly what I was expecting. Instead I found myself in a Spartan but adequate, large, high-ceilinged room, approximately a cube with a twenty foot side. with its own shower and toilet and, moreover, the sole occupant of it. In fact, as a little exploration verified,I was the sole occupant of the whole building. It was great.
Next morning I rose early and took my breakfast in one of the cafes. A quick count gave the impression that if I stayed a month I could eat three meals a day without twice visiting the same establishment. Yangshou, was as I said, a backpacker town, one of those places that seems to have no existence independent of the travellers on its streets. It’s a small place with two main streets joined by a series of parallel alleys and the buildings are a fifty-fifty mix of tourist shops and bars. They all have either jokey names - Minnie Mao’s, The No-Name Cafe or mock classical ones - The Golden Lotus, The Shining Mountain. One famous one was the Mei You Cafe - Mei You is a phrase you hear a lot in China - it means ‘we don’t have it’. You could buy T-shirts with the slogan ‘Hold the Mei-You’ , a pun that must surely have been incomprehensible to the people selling them.
The stalls, except for a few at the far end of the main street sold statues and paintings, T-shirts and carvings, lanterns and jewellery and of course CDs. Every fifth one seemed to be selling the now familiar stock of pirated CDs.
Those few shops at the far end were more interesting though. They were the Chinese equivalent of junk shops. They sold everything - old coins, broken toys, ‘antique’ jewellery, clocks, Chairman Mao watches, ivory carvings, old books, statues of everything under the sun. Whatever you wanted was probably in there somewhere. Finding it though... that could be another matter.
The restaurants and cafes all spilled out onto the street and everyone would stop to chat with no effort to persuade you to buy or to come in. It was superbly relaxed and friendly. I walked around for a couple of hour, stopping now and then for a lemonade - the day was very hot - and a chat. Most people had limited English but what they lacked in vocabulary they made up for in enthusiasm.  
On the whole it was one of those wonderful, relaxing but essentially event-less days. The more I saw of the place the more I liked it.
The following morning was pretty much a retread, substitute different bars, restaurants and company but otherwise similar. The afternoon was different though.  I had decided to join a group taking a boat trip along the river. It’s a remarkable place, every bit as lovely as I remembered it. With the sun high in the sky the water is calm enough to be a mirror reflecting back the slightly wavering images of the conical mountains that rise from the plain like giant molehills. Here and there, there were groups of children playing in the water and the sometimes a long low boat with a fisherman. We sailed downstream, watching the birds wheeling overhead and the water buffalo cooling off in the shallows. When the sun started dip towards the mountain tops we turned around and sailed back, the new light changing the appearance of everything, filling the sky with flaming hues. I sat at the front of the boat doing nothing but just watching it all. I could have spent hours more there.
It was clear that any day spent in Yangshou was likely to be uneventful and relaxing  and so it proved once again on our last day there. It was nevertheless an enjoyable one. Yesterday I had bought a Tang Dynasty T-shirt (so much I had grown to like the band) and it proved a nice conversation piece with the locals.  First, as I sat finishing off my second cup of coffee after breakfast in yet another of the restaurants the very bored looking waitress remarked
            “Ah, Tang Zhou - famous Chinese Rock band !”
A pleasant if inconsequential fifteen minutes of chat about western rock music ensued until the arrival of some customers ended the conversation by dragging her back to work.
Later, in similar circumstances as I was having a beer after my chilli dog and chips lunch at the 7th Heaven Cafe another local girl approached, drawn by the T-shirt and introduced herself as Angela. We sat talking for well over an hour. Angela - that’s her English name of course, she had a real Chinese one as well - was visiting friends. She was from  Zhaoqing in the Guangdong Province. It’s supposed to be a nice place in itself but she said she preferred Yangshou. She was on holiday but her friends were at work. She was at a loose end and wanted to practice her English. She was also perfectly charming. Our chat was wide ranging if shallow covering the topics of English and Chinese language difficulties, my impressions of China, her desire to travel and the difficulties that presents. We also covered BSE and CJD (which had actually made the Chinese news broadcasts !), British, Chinese and European agriculture and the House of Frasier (she worked for one of their suppliers) .
Scarcely had that encounter ended than I wandered into another bar (just for a lemonade this time) and found myself in another long conversation with the waitress and then again as I ate my evening meal at eight O’clock and again shortly afterwards as I became involved in a conversation with an English woman and a large effusive Israeli in a T-shirt almost as loud as his stentorian voice.
When I finally went off to the hotel at about eleven thirty I reflected that it had been an excellent day and an excellent stay in Yangshou. Today had been the most sustained conversation I had had for months with anyone outside the group. Tomorrow though we would be leaving and heading for the South Coast ready for Hong Kong and the end of this leg. A few days of essentially doing nothing had been a very pleasant interlude.

* * *

And that's the area where the school that I have been offered work at is located. Until I went over my notes from the period to write this entry, I had forgotten how much I like it. 

Small Stones: Extended Remixes #1

My small stone poem for 1st January was

View from a Train

Snow hides the ground;
Fog hides the sky;
A whole white world with no horizons.

Here is the extended version of it, where I have taken the essential idea of the piece and expanded it into a proper full-length poem.

View From A Train

The snow hides the fields
as the fog hides the skies.
I race through a world
where horizons are lost.
The shapes of the trees
where the wintertime lies
are painted with diamonds,
bejewelled by the frost.
The fences that follow
each dip and each rise
tear rows of black holes
in the covering sheet,
their jagged incisions
a constant surprise,
in a landscape that, elsewhere,
is pristine and neat.
A tractor, abandoned,
throws red in my eyes;
a solitary crow
takes to flight as we pass;
and, cocooned in the carriage,
I breathe out my sighs,
held apart from the world
by a panel of glass.

A River of Stones

The eagle-eyed among you may have spotted that the "River of Stones" logo to the right has changed. The VERY eagle-eyed may also notice a new link in the list of my blogs to Stones From The Road.

The reason is simple - the River of Stones was a project that ran throughout January in which people from around the world wrote small observations every day about the world around them. I took part both by writing my own and by reading everyone else's. When it was over the organisers produced a book containing a selection of the best pieces. 

Now they are doing it again in July.

This time they are organising things slightly differently - which is why my "Small Stones" for July, and any that I write before then, are appearing on a separate blog. It has given me an idea though. When I was writing in January there were quite a lot of things I wrote that I thought would make very nice longer poems. So what I hope to do is post my short pieces of writing on Stones From The Road and here, when I can, post a kind of "extended remix" version with the pieces expanded into full length poems. 

Now, as everyone knows, I am always starting projects and not finishing them so it may or may not actually happen. Nevertheless that's the intention. I shall start today by going back and revisiting some of the ones from January. They will appear here in due course.

Sunday, 27 March 2011


A TV ad running over here at the moment for a bank features the line

"We guarantee you'll never get less than 3.75% for the first twelve months."

Personally I find this an interesting use of the word "never".

To Put Away Childish Things #26

Well... not really, but it's as good a title as any for the post.

Ever since I was a small child, and for reasons long forgotten, there has been a standing family joke repeated so often it's almost become a conditioned reflex. Whenever my Dad asked me what I wanted for Christmas or my Birthday or whatever, I have always replied, "Can I have a penguin?"

Yesterday my brother and his wife visited and, because I am now going to be working overseas, brought a mascot for me. 

And here he is, relaxing in his favourite room in glorious 3D. (And he's in glorious 3D to publicise the fact that my other blog, The World Through A Lens, will soon have a whole series of these 3D pictures.)
Apologies if you are one of the small number of people who can't see what are technically known as "stereoscopic free-viewing images".

Look at a point somewhere in the middle of the picture, allow your eyes to become unfocussed so that the two halves seem to slide towards each other, eventually they should merge giving you the 3D image of my new friend.

You can click on the image to get it on the screen without the rest of the post. You can (probably) adjust the size with Ctrl + and Ctrl -.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Moving On

The title of this blog, "The Hitting The Road Again Blues" seems to have extra significance lately. As followers will know I took the decision in December to leave my job, accept voluntary redundancy, and seek work overseas. Accordingly, I actually finished work at the end of January and since then have been, mostly, sitting on my backside at home.
Well that's not completely true.
I have done some bits of work around the house.
I have cleared loads of stuff - books, music, clothes, bric-a-brac... even furniture, by giving it all away to charity.
I have got rid of at least 70% of my extensive comics collection by giving it all to a fellow collector. In exchange he gives me beer.
I have had the house valued and even, though it isn't on the market yet, had interest from one potential buyer.

Most significantly though, I now have a job offer. My original intention, back in December, was to seek a job in China. I even had an agency in mind to help me organise it all. The water was muddied slightly by the suggestion that I might prefer Singapore, a route I pursued for a while and may still resurrect next year or later. However I can't rely on possible future work so I went back to the Chinese plan.
I had told people that it would take me about a fortnight to get a job in China. I have a realistic idea of just how experienced and qualified I am. In the event I was wrong. It took four days. I now have an offer, a contract and a date. Moreover the date fits very nicely indeed with my previous summer contract commitment. In principle, if I chose to, I could take a cab from my summer contract to the airport and fly to my job in China. In practice I actually have about a week's grace to wrap up my British affairs before I need to.

Now I haven't actually signed the contract yet but I can't see a reason not to. The job has, at least on paper, everything I was looking for. It provides a decent package of accommodation and facilities, a good orientation package, assistance in all the necessary paperwork to work in China and an adequate salary. The money was never the point. The point was to go abroad and teach, as I had intended when I trained, ten years ago, before real life took over and held me in the UK. It's the experience that I'm interested in.

The icing on the cake, for me, is that the job is in one of the nicest bits of China, one of my favourite bits. The specific school isn't determined until later but all of them are in the Guilin and Yangshou areas, both of which are towns that I have visited before and really enjoyed.

As I say I haven't signed the contract yet but I expect that I will. Once I do the potential futures will all become crystallised into one. Things are moving on.

Friday, 25 March 2011

And while we're on the subject

Another partwork around at the moment is a magazine about Victorian dolls' house furniture, each issue coming complete with a single piece of such furniture, as a modern reproduction, naturally. In discussion of the latest crop of such magazines this one really baffled us. We absolutely couldn't see who they will appeal to. Serious collectors of dolls' houses and furniture won't be interested in these modern reproductions and no kid is going to want a set of furniture that takes several years to build up and doesn't even include the dolls' house. (Though I gather it is avaialable if you want to buy it separately.)

Almost the genuine article

There is a partwork being advertised on TV at the moment where, for your money, you get a magazine about baking and something to use in the process. The first issue, for example, had three cupcake moulds. As ever I'm baffled by who exactly the target audience is supposed to be but I was amused in own today to see some boxes for sale containing cupcake moulds made of the same heat resistant material with the caption "Similar to as seen on TV". It's an odd grammatical construction, at best, but it made me smile.

Daft Topics

Since I became one of the great unemployed I usually turn the TV on in the morning while I have a cup of tea, eat a bit of breakfast and check my emails. The morning selection isn't great and I usually end half listening to whatever daft topics are being discussed on The Wright Stuff on channel five. It can, surprisingly, be quite entertaining but I think even the presenter would have to admit that, as daft topics go, the idea that the Bible should be edited so that animals are no longer referred to as "it" but as "he" or "she", is about as daft as they get.

Some people seem to have even more time on their hands than I do.

Bilston Voices

Yesterday was Bilston Voices time again and the five performers on offer played to the usual packed and appreciative house at the Cafe Metro in Bilston. First on the bill was Louise Stokes. I've seen her a few times now and, because she usually performs character comedy in the guise of one of her alter-egos, have often been a little indifferent. Character performances, however well done, are just not my thing. Last night, however she he did only one poem in the voice of Kimmy-Sue Anne, one her most popular characters, but chose to perform most of the rest of the set as herself. I enjoyed it all the more for it. Her poems are often on very serious topics. Whether it is the pain (rather than the pleasure) of love in "Stay" or how mental illness can cause you to push away those who most want to help in "Meltdown", they are powerful and provocative. She finished with a rather self-knowing poem about writing in the voices of those other characters, interspersing verses in different voices with verses in her own. It was all very clever stuff and worked very well. A fine performance that had me warming to her work much more than on previous occasions.
Gary Longden is another accomplished performer, well known on the circuit. He started with an slightly uncharacteristic serious piece that he announced as a short trilogy though I would have been hard pressed to divide into three what seemed to me a single coherent description of an area of parkland and the adjacent motorway. He followed with a couple of pieces that employed a device he often uses - poems that seem to start out very serious but suddenly have a twist that undermines their seriousness. So, for example his poem about Tigers initially seemed as if it was going to be lyrical but changed rapidly with the introduction of Tony the Tiger, the well known cartoon breakfast cereal salesman. He raced through a set of  humourous verse on subjects as diverse as new babies, adultery (another poem that gradually warped from sounding relatively serious to something much lighter and funnier), stealing stuff from work and Anne Widdecombe not to mention a new piece about an unfortunate encounter with a pub condom machine. Good stuff.
The first half was rounded out by the gentler and quieter humour of Maggie Doyle. Like Gary, she started with a serious piece, reflecting on her memories, but soon moved on to a set that meandered humorously through her life. We had the ever popular poem about a disastrously bad blind date, the slightly more serious one about someone missing out on life because of living with her mother. She finished with the lengthy and accurately funny "I Want To Retire And Write Poetry".

The second half of the very strong bill started with another favourite, Tom Jenkins who did a set of his best pieces including the witty Iamb Cat, which demonstrates not only the cleverness of his humour but also the sureness of his actual knowledge of poetry theory. He also gave us Chemistry, the poem he performed at the Love Slam and Rockstar about being (rather not being) cool. Like Gary in the first half he included a slightly less characteristic serious love poem which was also very good.

The final performer was David Calcutt who admits that he doesn't write humourous poems so what we got was a serious and lyrical set. Secret Fox is an excellent descriptive and evocative piece. His description of gathering frog spawn from a pond was, he told us, not a poem, but it sounded pretty damned poetical to me. Sword In The Stone was rhythmic and compelling. Zoo Tiger painted a stark picture of how tigers fare in captivity. My favourite piece of the whole night was Gabriel's Hounds, a terrific portrait of mining in the Black Country. How can you not love something with imagery that includes a description of music as "crashing round the room like a crazed bird"?

Bilston Voices never disappoints but this line was one of the strongest yet and all of the performers were at the top of their game. Another great night out.

The Future Approaching

I have, this morning, received in my email an offer of a job overseas.

It's not the one in Singapore as that process seems to have ground to a halt. It has however completely vindicated my oft repeated assertion that it would take me less than a fortnight to get a job in China. This job, which is in China, I first applied for on Tuesday morning. Today it's Friday and I have a copy of the contract in my hand awaiting my perusal and my signature.

Looks as if the future is approaching.

Thursday, 24 March 2011


It has been drawn to my attention that I haven't posted much recently.
I'm not really sure why that is. I have plenty of time on my hands but I haven't felt any urgency in my writing. Of course I have published two books and started work on preparing two more. I have also scanned literally thousands of photographs. I have also, unsuccessfully, been looking for jobs overseas.
I have also been posting ahead on my photoblog which is set to produce a picture a day until the end of June at the moment.
And I have a cold.

None of which are reasons, simply excuses.

I shall do better from tomorrow. In about forty minutes I'm off to this month's Bilston Voices poetry evening and there will, at the very least, be a review. I shall try to dedicate some considerable amount of time to this blog tomorrow.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Nothing ever really changes

Among the things I've come across while clearing out the house are a couple of collected volumes of Maxwell The Magic Cat, an old newspaper cartoon strip written by Alan Moore under the name Jill de Ray. I sat and read through a few of them. The strip ran from 1979 to 1986.

Among the targets of the cartoons in the volume I was reading were

* Government drugs policy
* problems in Libya
* radiation leaks from a potential nuclear meltdown

and my favourite

* tacky Royal wedding souvenirs including Royal Wedding sick bags.

Oddly all those topics also appeared in newspapers in the last week. Including the sick bags. Nothing ever changes.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Get out your money!

Both of my books are now available.

You can buy The Hitting The Road Again Blues here.

You can buy Anyone Can Do It here.

Or if you have any problems you can go to, click "BUY" and search for the title.

Prices are £7 for The Hitting The Road Again Blues and £8 for Anyone Can Do It. Lulu do charge postage and packing on top of that.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Also Coming Soon

And, for the literally two (though a different two) who have been clamouring for this...

This description of my travels in North and South America was actually written in 2001 but is only now, finally, about to see print.

I reckon about a fortnight.

Keep on watching this space.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Coming Soon...

For the literally two of you who have been clamouring for this to happen...

Available very soon.

Watch this space for further details.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011


Before we actually move my autobiographical series on to my University days let's stay briefly with my Secondary School but step out of the schoolyard and into the real world. Teen years are when we first discover the pleasures and pains of relationships. This poem will fit nicely in here as it's title might indicate but also, nicely in many years later when I was actually at a Garden Festival where there was an art exhibition. Beyond those details it's quite self-explanatory.
(And for the one single person reading this who may possibly recall the actual events of at least one of the verses, there is a little poetic license involved in the retelling.)

"First Love- In Flashback"

I saw her years later,
At an art exhibition:
Saw her drawings first
And knew the style,
Read the signature,
Remembered that she'd married,
Walked away before she returned;
Before she saw me.

I watched from the doorway
As she adjusted the position
Of the display,
And all the while,
From half a lifetime gone,
Inside my head I carried
Her, aged seventeen, and yearned
To alter history

I remembered the party
Where she'd appeared in front of me,
Waiting for my conversation
Where at last I'd spoken
Overcome my silent heart
And we'd had two years
To be together.

I remembered the riverbank
And the afternoon with three
Of her school friends
And three of mine, all on vacation,
Where with trivial tokens
We lied that we would never part,
As clouds drew slowly nearer
To change the weather.

I remembered the wintertime,
When she'd not returned my calls
And I'd not seen her,
And remembered the final meeting -
Another party in another town -
Where conversation that was bile
Disguised as banter;
Was all we'd had to say.

And I saw her all those years later,
Within the gallery walls,
And I watched for just a moment
A nostalgic glance, however fleeting,
Of a different life that might have been.
And for that brief while
Let fantasy supplant
Reality on a rainy day:
And I turned and walked away.

Great Travel Experiences: The Midnight Sun

We were in Scandinavia. Of course when I say "we", what I mean is an assorted group of people who didn't, at least to begin with, know each other, on a package trip that took in parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland. 
A group of us rapidly became friends, mainly by virtue of being prepared to share whatever alcohol we had brought with us because the Scandinavian prices were rather higher than we wanted to pay. Scandinavia had its problematic aspects for the traveller. Sky high prices for booze is one of them. The mosquito problem is another. Any bit of exposed flesh rapidly becomes a pulsating mass of itching red lumps that merge into throbbing relief maps of agony.

So far, I imagine that you are wondering exactly why this is a "Great" travel experience as opposed to, say, a really rubbish one. The simple answer is the stark, bleak  beauty of the landscape and the sheer pleasure in sitting watching what appears to be a sunset suddenly turn miraculously into a sunrise as the lowest edge of the midnight sun skims the distant horizon and then begins to climb again as if it has dipped a toe into the freezing arctic water and changed its mind about going swimming.

We did have a trip up to Nordkapp to see it but the truth is that Norkapp isn't a terribly interesting place. It has a viewpoint and it has a gift shop and it has a crowd of tourists almost as big as Oxford Street on a Saturday afternoon during the sales but it's not the best place to see it. Choose instead somewhere else, pretty much anywhere out of town and near a lake or the sea will do. Then put up a few folding chairs, dig out a bottle of whisky that you had the foresight to take with you and sit and enjoy the novelty of watching the sun change direction before your very eyes.

It more than makes up for all the other problems - beer prices and mosquitoes included.

City Voices

Yesterday was International Women's Day and so it was entirely fitting that City Voices presented us with an all woman line of entertainment. It was a brilliantly well-thought-out selection too, featuring artists of Canadian, German, Indian and West Indian origin. And one from Wednesbury.

We started with Carol Howarth  whose long introduction led into a story and a number of nicely observed poems. The story was a vignette about a girl smoking in front of her parents for the first time and drew a sharp picture of the different public and private relationships within families. Her poems too were mostly observational word-pictures including poems about childhood, Guy Lombardo, Linda McCartney and limestone kilns in an eclectic selection. What really sold them for me though was the delivery. Told quietly and confidently in a Canadian accent they were expressive and thoughtful.
Yvette Rose followed with a West Indian slant to her poems which were mostly about childhood and her grandmother but also included included some love poetry and a descriptive piece about Barbados. While the style was a little too sentimental for my own taste it was well-received by the packed audience and a very good example of the style.
The first half was finished off by Ruth Parker who moved to England from Germany many years ago in her teens. She gave a slightly tongue-in-cheek apology to the men in the audience before delivering a set of largely feminist poems, often about the burdens of being a woman - though Heroes was rather more equal ops in that it criticised not just the heroic tradition of Wellington or Alexander but also Boadicea and Joan of Arc before suggesting rather more pacifist substitutes. There was also a good poem about the Chilean miners and a couple that she had chosen written by others. As with Yvette and Carol it was a very good set.

After the break we started with Raj Lal who told us that her first person narrative was not autobiographical but it was, nevertheless, convincingly rooted in her own life experiences. It was a vivid description of the drudgery of being the oldest teenage sister and having to balance school life with home life when looking after younger siblings is involved. It included my favourite line of the evening, "Mom always left the dishes unwashed to prove my laziness."
Marion Cockin was up last with a very balanced set that was probably the best I have seen her perform. Opening with a couple of travel poems - Havana Balcony being especially striking - she moved smoothly through an excellent performance that included poems about Christina Rossetti, a weekend at home, childhood holidays and sparrows in Wednesbury. All of the poems were sharply written and well-delivered and she provided a fine end to the evening's line-up.

So, overall, another fine evening and one that couldn't have been better chosen for International Women's Week.

Sunday, 6 March 2011


There ought to be a lot to say about my schooldays but there isn't. Which is kind of half the point of this very slight bit of exposition. The other half  of the point is to explain how I ended up studying maths at University. It's not very good. It just moves things on.

Long Division: Reprise

Though school days were not heaven
Neither were they hell,
And seven years slipped by
With little there to tell.
There were lessons I enjoyed
And lessons I did not
When examinations came
I took, and passed, the lot.
And everyone assumed
The course my life would take
And I walked along their path
As if I'd had no stake
In any of the choices
And as if each new transition
Had been decided years ago
By that simple long division.
So schooldays came and went
And I moved up and on
To study for my BSc
As if all choice had gone.
Mathematics, they decided
Was where my future lay
And so it was, for I behaved
As if I had no say.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Great Travel Experiences: Under the stars in the White Desert

Sleeping out under the stars in the White Desert, Egypt

An extract from my diary for 16th/17th May, 2001.

An accurate, though minimalist, summary of the day would be - long drive, camped in the white desert.
Accurate it might be but it wouldn't begin to describe it adequately. The desert is so bleak and barren for such long stretches that it becomes hypnotic. The highway and a parallel railway line run arrow straight across it trisecting it like scalpel cuts. We lunched at an inexplicable concrete shelter which was as far as we could determine a bus stop. Exactly why there was a bus stop in such a palpably empty place where there could be no conceivable reason for anyone to be waiting any more than for anyone to be getting off, was a mystery destined to remain unsolved.
We were still in the desert when we pulled off the road and drove behind one of the very few rocky outcroppings to park and camp.
The White Desert is of course a desert. And it's white. It's also randomly scattered with thousands, probably millions, of the oddest pieces of rock I have ever seen. They almost all have a shiny black surface and an interior that looks like it is machined coaxial cable. Some look like two inch lengths of metal rod, others form branching geometric shapes, yet others lie in perfectly formed spirals. I have no idea what bizarre geological processes have resulted in these rocks but they are all different and endlessly fascinating in their diversity.
After dinner I climbed to the top of the outcrop and sat watching the sky again until it became so dark that I feared that if I remained longer descending might become lethally dangerous. 
When I slept it was not in a tent but half a mile from the camp out in the desert on just my sleep mat where I lay even longer watching the stars. The flaming white spark of a shooting star crossed the sky and I made a wish and went to sleep.

I dreamed of the dead rising up from the desert and silently standing in their thousands in perfect rows and ranks, a shadow army who filled the world from horizon to horizon. Slowly they turned and walked away. I rose and followed them but they were marching to a drum I could not hear and as they receded from me they faded into mist.
I woke and looked at the desert, ghostly in the moonlight, a distant faint glow of cities somewhere beyond the horizon.
I slept again and dreamed of aliens descending from the sky and offering me a franchise to sell toys in their likenesses around the world.

I woke again and the sun was rising, painting the white desert in golden shades. I watched as it climbed from the horizon, spreading like a syrup stain along the rim of the world until it unglued itself and sailed into the sky.
I sat watching in quiet fascination, unaware of anything other than this gorgeous stark sunrise, unaware of the others from the group who had, as I had done, instinctively spread themselves far and wide through the desert, to feel alone in this emptiness.

As the sun rose I wrote this poem.

In The White Desert

Awake on the bone ground
In shattered geometries of stone
Alone, surrendered to the night,
In the White Desert
Starfish stranded, darkness bound
The centre of the silent dome
Of scattered, ancient frozen lights
In the White Desert

A falling star, a spark
Ignites the breaking fire
Pours flame over the circling heights
Into the White Desert
Drives wedges through the dark
Until it's clutching hand expires
And reveals again the sight
Of the White Desert.

A River of Stones

Throughout January I, along with a lot of others, participated in a project called "A River of Stones" organised by Fiona Robyn and Kaspalita.  They have now selected some of the work produced during the project and made it available as a book. Details of how to obtain a copy can be found at the end of this interview with Fiona and Kaspa.

For anyone not already familiar with the project, what exactly is "A River of Stones"?

Kaspa: "A River of Stones" is the name for the project we ran in January, encouraging people from around the world to have a daily writing practice - using a form that Fiona created a few years back called a small stone.

Fiona: A ‘small stone’ is a short piece of writing which describes something we’ve noticed – something we’ve seen, touched, heard, felt, tasted or smelled – as precisely as we can.

Kaspa: We asked people to create a blog for their small stones, or to use the #aros hashtag on twitter - the idea being that I could collate the .rss feeds from people's blogs and create a huge stream of everyones writing...a river of stones...
In actual fact the technology I used for collating the feeds Yahoo! Pipes, couldn't cope with the amount of data going through it, and only worked intermittently. It would collect, and broadcast to our twitter feed @ariverofstones about five stones an hour, much less than the number of stones that were being published.

Where did the idea originally come from?

Fiona: I don’t know really – it was one of those ideas that just appeared from the blue. I thought it’d be nice to encourage more people to write small stones, and people like a challenge, so one-a-day during January felt like the right thing!

Did you expect to get such a large response when you started?

Kaspa: I honestly had no-idea. Fiona was optimistic, and as the numbers of people signing up kept going up and up, I caught her optimism. By the beginning of January we had over 300 people that we knew about taking part, and as time went on we would see people using the hash tag, or writing on blogs, that were completely new to us.

Fiona: We were both very encouraged by people’s response – I think we could all pay more attention in our day to day lives, and writing small stones is a practical way to do that.

Just how varied were the "stones" that people created?

Fiona: Very. Some people had never written creatively before. Some people were used to writing haiku and their small stones were very haiku-ish! Although having said that the same subjects did crop up again and again – snow, birds…

Did the things people wrote about match your expectations or were there any surprises?

Fiona: We enjoyed reading the more surprising small stones – about an empty crushed can of beer, or the sweat on a bud in the winter sun… the best small stones encourage us to look at something that we usually don’t look at properly, or to look at something familiar in a fresh way.

Was it always intended to gather the best into a book or did that idea come later, when you realised how good the writing was?

Fiona: I think it came about half-way through January? Something like that - we began to imagine how beautiful a collection might be, and also wanted a way of people showing support for the project, we toyed with the idea of a 'donate' paypal button but wanted to offer something really lovely in return as well.

Kaspa: And much of the writing really was very good. Once the idea of 'curating' a collection occurred it begin to take shape in our imaginations, it's only a small step to reality from there...

How did you go about choosing what to include?

Kaspa: We were looking for a couple of things, I suppose. The most obvious was length - although there's no word count we were writing small stones. Some pieces were huge boulders. Although we were often able to quote something from a longer piece of writing and use that as a small stone.

We were also looking for writing that observed what was 'other' in the writers life, something they noticed in their world, or an observation about another person. The book is called pay attention, and what we were encouraging people to pay attention to is the world. We did sometimes include a writers observations of themselves in the world... but we noticed that it seemed much harder to write about oneself without becoming indulgent. Whereas a really good 'noticing of something in the world' always makes a good stone.

Fiona: Yes, what Kaspa said! And what I said above about small stones feeling ‘fresh’.

Overall, how do think the whole thing went?

Kaspa: Really well. I'm looking forward to the next one in July.

Fiona: Yes, we’re both very heartened. People have told us that they got a lot from the project, and so have we. It also gave me the inspiration to write my free e-book (at so that’s been a big plus for me.

Any plans to repeat the project?

Kaspa: We'll be encouraging people to take up their pens again (some people haven't put them down) and to join us in committing to writing one small stone each day during July. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere January is a cold dark month, for writers on the other side of the equator it was the middle of summer. Wherever you are - July will offer quite different things to notice.

Fiona: We’ll do things slightly differently in July to cut down on the time we spend administrating the project, but I hope even more people will get involved. Our river will be even wider!

The book is currently available as a paperback, hardback or download from Lulu.

You can buy the gorgeous paperback
, the ultra-stunning hardback
 and the marvellous download
 from Lulu right now.

It will soon also be available from Amazon.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Great Travel Experiences: Helicopter over Iguassu

Wanderlust, a travel magazine that I subscribe to, is doing a special issue of the world's top 100 travel experiences later this year and have asked readers to send in their top ten lists. By the very nature of the exercise all they are looking for is a simple list of things to do or see and that's what I've sent them. However that's not enough for me.
So, I've decided to properly write up the ten that I sent them. There is no significance to the order, they are simply in the order that they occurred to me.

Great Travel Experiences: Helicopter over Iguassu,

My first experience of the Iguassu falls was at ground level. We took a boat out to a series of walkways that are built across the falls and walked out above them. They were incredibly impressive, much more impressive than any other falls I had ever seen, including Niagara. The water was brown and muddy but it thundered and roared so loudly that conversation was nearly impossible. The walkways were crowded with tourists gaping open mouthed and jostling for better angles for their pictures.
It was the next section, when we left the walkways and descended onto the paths that run alongside the falls where there is a first impression of the true scale and power of the series of cataracts. At one point on the trail you round a corner and there, glimpsed at first through gaps in the trees, is a long curving series of falls, perhaps a mile wide, pouring billions of gallons of water over more than 250 connected falls. It's a truly incredible sight and one which is said to have moved Eleanor Roosevelt to the words "Poor Niagara!" when she saw it.

The way to really understand the falls, though ,is to take a helicopter ride above them. Only then do you get a proper idea of the scale. From the air it looks as if some mighty Titan of legend has taken a gigantic axe and smashed it into the ground.
Down on the paths and walkways the sheer power of them is close and personal but from the air the Devil’s Throat is a great gaping wound in the Earth. The whole span of the falls is a series of vast arcs where hundreds of individual waterfalls tumble down in gigaantic steps in a torrent unlike anything I had ever seen before. 

There is absolutely no question in my mind that of all the natural wonders I have ever seen, Iguassu is by far the most impressive and anyone visiting must take the helicopter ride. Simply marvelous.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011


Another poem that slots in earlier, slots in in fact very specifically to the day that I started at secondary school. On that day I was due to catch the 8:20 bus to school with a friend from the next street. As I was getting ready his older brother knocked on my door and said that he was getting the 8:05 instead. I ran as fast as could. It wasn't fast enough so I ended up going on my own on the 8:20 and though I wasn't late I wasn't happy.

First Day

I remember being late
My first day at big school
Or more accurately
I remember not being early
Which felt as bad.

I'd run for the bus,
The five passed eight
But I'd missed it
I'd thought my lungs
Would burst, I really had

And trailing,
Failing so soon
I'd had to catch the eight twenty
Which still got me there
Before the bell

But all my friends had preceded me
And I'd sat alone
On the later empty bus
And I hadn't thought
"Oh, well!",
I'd thought
"Oh, hell!".