When I see birches bend to left and right Across the lines of straighter darker trees, I like to think some boy’s been swinging them. But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning After a rain. They click upon themselves As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel. Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust— Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen. They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load, And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed So low for long, they never right themselves: You may see their trunks arching in the woods Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair Before them over their heads to dry in the sun. But I was going to say when Truth broke in With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm I should prefer to have some boy bend them As he went out and in to fetch the cows— Some boy too far from town to learn baseball, Whose only play was what he found himself, Summer or winter, and could play alone. One by one he subdued his father’s trees By riding them down over and over again Until he took the stiffness out of them, And not one but hung limp, not one was left For him to conquer. He learned all there was To learn about not launching out too soon And so not carrying the tree away Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise To the top branches, climbing carefully With the same pains you use to fill a cup Up to the brim, and even above the brim. Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish, Kicking his way down through the air to the ground. So was I once myself a swinger of birches. And so I dream of going back to be. It’s when I’m weary of considerations, And life is too much like a pathless wood Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs Broken across it, and one eye is weeping From a twig’s having lashed across it open. I’d like to get away from earth awhile And then come back to it and begin over. May no fate willfully misunderstand me And half grant what I wish and snatch me away Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love: I don’t know where it’s likely to go better. I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree, And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more, But dipped its top and set me down again. That would be good both going and coming back. One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
Remember me when I am gone away, Gone far away into the silent land; When you can no more hold me by the hand, Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay. Remember me when no more day by day You tell me of our future that you plann’d: Only remember me; you understand It will be late to counsel then or pray. Yet if you should forget me for a while And afterwards remember, do not grieve: For if the darkness and corruption leave A vestige of the thoughts that once I had, Better by far you should forget and smile Than that you should remember and be sad.
Just loved this poem when reading it to sixth-formers the other day.
My early schooling was spoilt by the fact that I found it almost impossible to learn to read. My friends were running through the programme as if it was a ride in the park. They were fast readers, accomplished learners who never had to endure the torture of actually learning something from scratch. Me? I was just a dumbo whose brain had not evolved to the level required to decode the books that were placed before me.
These two little ‘lovely’ children made my life hell, on a daily basis.
It was common practice to let children read aloud. It was a way of getting everyone to participate in the story. It ought to have been good, but I found it excruciating.
I grew to hate these two.
I also grew to dread that long path that led towards my desk and the moment when one of the easy reading community passed on the bemusing baton for me to latch on to. I would stumble over the easiest of words, struggle with compounds and blends, and collapse over consonants and vowels. I absolutely hated reading aloud.
READING SHOULD NOT BE ALLOWED!
Apart from my dad, nobody else took much notice of my lack of literacy. It was funny for many of my pals when I stumble and fell off each and every sentence that was placed before me. I discovered that the laughter was a screen that I could hide behind. I had a talent that could make my life a little easier. My talent was not reading, but it was the ability to prompt amused responses from those around me. I couldn’t read so I decided to try to make people laugh instead.
I have come across this in students that I have taught throughout the twenty-five years I have had in teaching. The class-clowns, often razor sharp, frustratingly ahead of the game (if the game is to avoid learning), practiced in numerous techniques and strategies to avoid going anywhere near their Achilles Heels in the course of any given school day. They have mastered diversionary tactics that mask their deeply-rooted anxiety about the one thing that trips them up. They build around the problem, develop new skills, nurture talents that may not have been cultivated if it hadn’t been for their issue. Often, they succeed in avoiding the literacy thing all together; that is until it comes back to bite them when they cannot hide any longer. I had the chance to become one of these kids, but something stopped me. I loved learning. Even the class-clown that I was, loved learning.
My literacy problems did not go away overnight. I still have them. When I first became a teacher, I would fret about my poor spelling. I would fret about writing on the boards. Back then, it was the old blackboards that took some rubbing clean. Any mistakes that I made would stubbornly remain, ghostlike behind my intention. Smart kids would offer up alerting hands to point out words that I had incorrectly placed before them. I would joke and point out that that was why I kept a dictionary close at hand, so that I could check before I wrote. Even now, many years an English teacher and practiced writer, I still check my words. I have mild dyslexia. A gift from God.
It was Shakespeare who first helped me.
I loved Shakespeare because the language seemed as impenetrable as the ordinary stuff that was served up at school. Everybody struggled with Old Bill and that made me happy. All those self-satisfied smug looks fell away in one reading. All at once it was me who was finding the going amusing. I took a copy of Romeo and Juliet home and set about reading it aloud. Nobody at home worried about this because it was me doing it and I did funny things anyway. And you know what? When I read Shakespeare, I read it in role. I became a Shakespearean character reading Shakespearean English. I was not myself. I was not the lad who could not read. I could read and I was brilliant at reading Shakespeare! It wasn’t until later that I found that I had to become someone else in order to overcome the many challenges that were to stand in my way.
Sally Gardner From The Guardian newspaper November 2014.
(No! That’s not me dressing up. This lovely person is a writer who’s embraced her dyslexic gift.)
When I was at school nobody really knew what dyslexia was. They called it word blind. I always think not being able to spell is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s a bit like seeing the iceberg and saying there is dyslexia – but it’s what’s underneath it that interests me a lot more than the boringness of spelling and reading and writing. Because before the first dictionary was written by Mr Samuel Johnson, we spelt rather imaginatively. Nobody was dyslexic, there wasn’t such a word. Some really famous writers from the past such as Chauncer and Shakespeare would have been in a special reading scheme as they hardly spelt the same word the same twice. A lot of Shakespeare’s work was written down for him.
I was sent to a school for maladjusted (which means behaviour problems) children which I eventually left. Then I was 14 went to a posh girls school, but the girls were absolutely horrid to me. I eventually learnt to read at 14 and my mother told me if I got five O levels (old fashioned version of GCSEs), I could go to art school. I just memorised everything. And did manage to get the five, even English literature. When I took that particular exam my English teacher told me write very quietly and not make any noise. She told me: “There are children here going to university and you’re not. So don’t disturbe them please.” So you can see she wasn’t a very supportive teacher.
It has taken me my life to come to terms with the pain of not ever having been a natural reader. I think that I have passed my gift on to my daughters. And the good thing with that is that they are thriving because of it.
As part of a generation that grew up within twenty-years of the end of the Second World War, I was always keen on weapons. Any decent human being would assume that the dropping of two nuclear bombs on Japan ought to have persuaded me of the error of our human ways, but it seemed to have the opposite effect.
A fascination for Spitfires consumed me and drove me into playing parachute games (obviously I did not have enough true belief in my aeronautical abilities). From there, my friends and I moved into the realms of Japs and Commandos. The Japs had been depicted as a race of people totally devoid of human empathy. They captured our brave soldiers and made them into slaves on the railway of death. The problem with our game was that all of us wanted to be commandos. Subtle selection strategies were required in order to have an even contest; in which the commandos always won.
The game involved an awful lot of running and hiding, finding and shooting, being found and escaping. It was just like the real thing that we had seen on countless films. We used sticks for guns and sticks for long Samurai swords.
Quite often, the battle would devolve into a medieval melee of hitting each other as hard as we could with said sticks. There was the Chinese Strangulation which was a way of subduing captives. This was an extremely effective method of inflicting the best type of pain; the slow-burn oxygen deficiency method. That way, you knew who had won. The second form of torture was the Indian Wrist-Burn. This involved placing your hands on your enemy’s wrist and then quickly rotating them in opposite directions. It had the exquisite inbuilt reminder of its execution with the angry red mark that refused to shift for days.
Those were the days of innocence, before we moved onto imitation plastic rifles, botched affairs that only vaguely looked like the real thing, but with our ‘dak, a dak, dak!’ it was enough to convince us of their potency. Hand-grenades were invisible and exploded exactly where you wanted them to. All you had to do was to make a big boom sound, cover your ears and then throw yourself to the ground. If only all wars were so simple.
Things started to get more complicated from the moment that we started to grow up. One of our mates had an air-rifle bought as a Christmas present. He spent all that holiday practising on sparrows and robins. He even shot the cat. Our friend always seemed to be the one who got things first. He had one of the best bikes, he had golf clubs, he had a number of cricket bats, he had ridiculously bright blue eyes, he had a level of freedom that we longed for, he was a talented sportsman, and he shot Robins. He had everything that made him a top friend.
On some of our summer holiday excursions, he would take his air-rifle, slung in a purpose-made rifle bag, casually over his shoulder. At any point in our journey, he would swing it off his shoulder, unzip it and take aim at anything that dared to move. We were once walking along a path that ran beside a golf-course. We had been on this route many times before on ventures of golf ball discoveries. The golf balls often got lost in the rough and they were of sufficient value that we heard some other kids had set up a rather profitable little business finding them and then selling them back to the golfers. Sometimes the treasures would disappear mid-play only for them to be strangely reunited sometime later with their true owners, for a small fee. We also prized tees, but nobody thought that they would provide a realistic sell-back option.
It was a lazy afternoon and we were mooching along, dragging through the dog-end hours, kicking pine cones and providing accompanying commentary for the excellence of each strike. I measured a masterful strike and my pine-cone flew straight and long down the path. When it finally rolled to a halt, I provided the commentator’s awe-struck admiration.
“It’s Best! What a goal! What a strike! What a player!”
My arms shot into the air in a triumphant reaching for the skies and I raced off down the shaded path to acclaim my glorious feat. I almost slipped on the badly wounded body of a mouse.
The mouse wasn’t dead, but it was dying. In such an event, we should have done the merciful thing and caved its head in with a brick. There were no bricks to hand. We could have stamped on it head with the heels of our shoes, but none of us wanted to be seen as the heartless perpetrator of such a heinous act. Instead, we turned to our rifle toting friend to provide the humane solution. He, however, never saw himself as one who would administer the coup de grace nor was he one to pass up the opportunity of a real-life kill. He was a sportsman and would execute his task in a manner befitting such a regal profession. He walked up to the soon to be corpse, turned and took thirty strides, checked the direction of the wind, took his rifle out, loaded it, knelt and took aim. We were in awe.
After he missed for the third time, he changed his tactics. He strode forward another five paces, loaded, knelt and was about to take aim when he realised that he had forgotten to double-check the strength and direction of the prevailing wind on that most breathless of afternoons. Satisfied, he took aim and fired.
After another five pellets had missed their target, the rest of us thought to check upon the unfortunate creature. It still lived. Its tiny breaths evident in furry inhales and exhales. I was thinking about the heel of my shoe when my friend angrily strode past me and aimed a final pellet, at point-blank distance, into the belly of the beast. It lived no more.
As kills went, I suppose this counted for something, but there was no commentary this time and no overt display of triumph. We had killed a dying mouse. It had died. It would have died if my perfect kick of the pine-cone had not found it. We had had sport and now we were somewhat ashamed.
Our friend went on to kill many other tiny creatures, specialising in birds that frequented his garden. This went on until he discovered girls. After that, he hung up his trusty weapon for ever.
Sometimes it is good to hang up your guns. For one thing, you look silly when you’re older, toting an air-powered, pellet firing rifle. There is also the problem with killing defenceless little birds, tiny ones with redbreasts. Nobody wants to be seen in any social situation with a bird slaughtering psychopath. At some point, many boys give up their pursuit of prey and bloodlust for everyday distractions like life. But it all came back to me this week when the deaths of Charles Manson and David Cassidy were announced. I am too long in the tooth to cheer about the eventual demise of a cult-leading murderer whilst I am not too old to feel a spot of sadness for David Cassidy, my elder sister’s dream boat and reason for having a bedroom wall. I asked a woman who I work with if she was saddened by the death of David and she told me that she was a Donny Osmond fanatic. I accepted that and was instantly taken back to my last adventure with an airgun.
Some years ago, in a land far away, in a kingdom of grey cold, lived me. Another friend of mine lived around the corner. We were both at Sixth Form and the Punk era was well and truly upon us. So, in a situation like that, what would any decent human being do if they discovered a Jimmy Osmond single in their collection? It was obvious. We decided to put it on trial for crimes against humanity.
“Jimmy Osmond, you have been tried and found guilty of unleashing your ‘Long-haired Lover From Liverpool’ without care or regret as to the damage that you have wreaked. And, as you have since shown no remorse, this court finds you guilty. You are to be taken from here immediately and be shot until you are dead.”
And so it came to pass that the said 45 was taken from the kitchen of a council house overlooking the industrial greyness of West Yorkshire and shot to pieces by two rather judgemental youths with an air rifle.
Since that day, I have vowed never to touch one of those instruments of death ever again.
Say what you want as long as it’s rightwing and racist.
We are in a different world to the one that I left approaching three years ago. If I had fallen into a deep sleep, as I did, and awoken, as I did to this new place, I would have sworn that I had been transported to a parallel universe, an inversion of what I had previously thought of as normal.
Normal is a behaviour that can be predicted by having had contact or observed other behaviour that has occurred in similar situations. It is normal for me to wake up in the morning, turn to my wife and greet her. It is normal for me then to make, or she to make, a cup of tea for us to share over our then normal routine of reading articles from the news and then discussing them.
I am aware that this normality is not shared by others and I accept that that too is normal. The world is made up of folks who use different strokes and that is normal. People are normally real quite normal which means that they are not supernormal, paranormal, or abnormal. Okay, so some people are all of the above and more. And that’s normal (ish).
So, you see that I am quite inclusive in the normal sense of the word and inclusive of what normality should entail. My years have allowed me to accept a variety of deviations from my understanding of normal. Normal being that picture of behaviour that is untroubling, unperturbing, unthreatening, and under-floor-heating (unusual for many who were not about at the time of ancient Rome).
And now he gets to the point.
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, dogs and cats, the point that I am getting to is this:
When did the world stop being so bloody normal?
There is a conspiracy of silence guarding the exits. I was wishing for an uncomfortable pause, a pregnant passing of moments of time; something that alerted me to the possibility that other people were worried by this.
“After puzzling comments about 19th Century abolitionist Frederick Douglass and marveling that no one knew Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, President Donald Trump has just unloaded another historical non sequitur. In the latest strange aside, Trump said that Andrew Jackson, the populist rabble-rousing President with whom he has begun to claim political kinship, had strong thoughts about the Civil War — even though he died 16 years before the conflict broke out.
There comes a point when somebody takes out a soap box, or position at the head of others, in order to begin a blabber about what they have just read in their version of brilliant insight (usually provided by a newspaper prior to it being used to wrap up fish and chips). They state the unnacceptable as if it is a demystification of all that we have been blinded into believing. They may even throw in some dubious facts or statistics in order to bolster their case. The facts are the facts and are indisputable.
Let’s take slavery.
It’s now come to light that most people subjected to slavery actually prefer it as a form of existence that is free from responsibility. Indeed, slaves had the best of deals because they didn’t have to find work and make horrible choices such as, “What to do on a free afternoon.” The slave owners shouldered the responsibility of providing accommodation and inventing suitable punishments that would deter pesky dissenters (runaways). If it hadn’t been for the ‘do gooding’ rabble rousers everything would have been just fine and all those decent citizens would not have had to die in the carnage that was the Civil War.
As President Trump pointed out, it was a shame that Andrew Jackson had not chosen to die a little later as he would have avoided such a situation. Such a prescient president (Trump not Jackson).
And that leads us to some of the ingredients for a successful “rabble rousing”:
Don’t rely on the facts if you don’t agree with them.
Reshape history in any way that you wish, to suit your agenda.
Speak to the lowest common denominator in your audience (the guy at the back with extra lardage and drippling from the mouth).
Don’t avoid hate-filled speeches. Indeed, embrace them as they tend to excite the massess (especially fat drooler at the back).
Speak with conviction as these days you are not likely to be convicted for anything that may encourage violence.
Demonise your ‘snowflake’ targets and mock their ‘neo-liberalist’ views.
Point people towards the lessons of history (there would now be no middle-eastern problems if Hitler had been left to get on with it). Indeed, there would be no race problems if trendy lefties had not been allowed to portray other races, that were not WASP, as being vaguely human.
Read widely, within the narrow confines of your skewed views and quote often. Point out that Shakespeare was a racist and anti-semite as this will get under the skin of the so-called intellectual elite.
Do not suffer a reasoned, rational or fair response.
Take anything from holy scripture that will serve your cause and ignore all else. Rewrite The Bible. Edit out The New Testament.
Do as John Lennon would have suggested, “Make War Not Love”