Most of the times when I sit down to write, I’m in a more peaceful place than any situation I’m writing about. Sitting in a café in Dundee, for example, writing about a huge anti-fascist demonstration in London I was on years ago. As I write, the clatter of plates from the café kitchen is noisy, but it’s much more peaceful than the ominous, heavy clatter of horses hooves on the road – as hordes of mounted police officers charge towards us. People scattering in all directions, screaming.
Or, I might be sitting, writing at my desk at home, where the only sounds are: the gentle ticking from a small, square travelling clock (circa 1970-something, £5 from a charity shop); and the sleepy, muted hum of cars passing by outside. Yet, in my head, I’m back in Halley’s factory – hearing the unforgettable hammering of the huge looms, a sound that you seemed to hear through every bone in your body. (I was lucky – I only worked there for 3 years.)
The contrast between the stresses of life and the peacefulness of writing about it is not just about sound levels. The peacefulness also comes from – making use of my Time, at my own pace, breathing more easily, unless I’m worrying about some deadline. Yet, deadlines aside, writing is when I experience a peaceful species of Time which is like some unique kind of flower: it cannot exist in any other atmosphere. It’s a kind of Time I never experience when I’m busy in any other way, like when I’m helping people face to face with their welfare issues: one sad, real story after another and another, or answering phone calls, or trying to stay awake at long meetings. Then, I’m in another kind of Time – where it’s hard enough to get through each day and there’s no chance to write or to think much about the moments speeding by. Even my breathing is rushed.
A few years ago, I helped to run a Writers Group, in the Hilltown in Dundee. One of the ways we tried to encourage people to overcome any doubts that they could write was to pass an object around the group, and then we would all take twenty minutes to write a few passages or a poem about the object. Whatever came into our heads. No rules about what to write: it could just be a list of words. The object itself could be anything: an old gas mask from the 1940s, or a wooden shuttle rescued from a jute factory, or a recent train ticket to Edinburgh or Glasgow. It always worked – people would come up with amazing stories and poems, as if their words had been locked up inside them – just waiting for the key of that particular object to set them free.
The part I always liked best was watching the faces of people in the group: mixed feelings on every one – a little bit of worry at what to say next, and then – excitement when an idea appeared and pen was put to paper. Then, that peculiar peacefulness of a small group of souls: all quietly crouched over sheets of paper, writing. Memories. Sights and sounds of Dundee streets, rain on train windows, stormy relationships, and snow on mountains. Sometimes, the words were about hopes or dreams of a better future.
It was when I was recently thinking about those times that I decided to wander about the house gathering together random objects, so that I could try out the old way of sparking off a piece of writing. I wondered if it would work for me now, after years of planning exactly what I wanted to say. Instead, I would let the objects talk. (Not literally. Or, if they did, it would be time to end the experiment!) In a way, it would be the opposite of a lot of my normal writing: instead of writing about the stresses and worries of life while working in a peaceful situation, I would be writing about a few peaceful-looking objects – and it would be my writing-situation which could become not-so-peaceful, as anything could rise out of thinking about the objects. It’s quite a daunting thing to do alone.
The nine objects I chose were: a fossil, a piece of green chalk, a used book token, a torch, an old JFK fridge magnet, a magnifying glass, two Star Wars figures, a ‘See Me’ badge, and one sorry-looking chestnut. I put them all into an empty biscuit tin and photographed them. Then, I took them out and photographed each object individually. Then, I placed them all back in the tin. I glared at them for a minute or so, wondering: “What on earth am I supposed to say about that lot?” Then, because it’s my rules, I left them for a few hours. Later, I came back – taking out each object, one at a time, thinking about it, and writing. I knew, somehow, before I started writing, that each object had some important meaning to me – so, to write a few words about it would be to say something about me. I did not know what that would be.
The fossil I chose as my first object is an Ammonite.
When my children were little, they used to say to me: “Dad, you were alive when there were dinosaurs, weren’t you?” I wasn’t; but – from reading – I know that Ammonites were around for 140 million years, and died out around the time when dinosaurs did, about 66 million years ago. The fossil I have is common in gift shops and museums around the world: it’s the fossil of the shell of the creature which died. The one I have was sliced and polished. It looks like a spiral staircase, descending into nothingness – which seems eerily appropriate, considering their extinction.
I’ve always had a fascination with very old things: fossils, meteorites, and the light from dead stars which has taken so long to arrive in my vision that it represents an entirely dead and extremely distant past.
Another way you could look at the spiral ‘staircase’ of the Ammonite is to see it as leading up from nothingness to increasing beauty and complexity.
I could also write about Chalk historically, I suppose, and then say what it means to me, but this would be wrong, as I don’t know about the history of chalk, and don’t have any inclination to know. The fact that it’s a green piece of chalk is arbitrary and has no part in its’ story. I have a box full of colours: blue, white, red, yellow. Yellow chalk sparks a recent memory: it was featured in a book I was re-reading , after watching Alex Guinness in a TV adaptation of Smiley’s People, by John le Carre. The yellow chalk was used by an old, doomed agent as a secret sign to his handler. Yet, the important thing about chalk for me isn’t colour or the tradecraft of spies, it is: drawing with chalks.
When I was a youth worker, a part of my job was teaching art – to young people who had various behavioural problems. In the centre where I worked, we would all sit around a huge table (I rescued it from a school that was being demolished). With paints, and scraps of paper for mosaics, and lots of other materials – we made art. There was rarely any trouble because everyone liked making things, and we tried to come up with new ideas every week. One activity involved copying out old paintings – using coloured pencils and eventually, chalks. The outlines of trees and people could be made with a few simple strokes of a chalk, and by smudging and blending we could all make faces or waves in an ocean.
One nervous boy with red hair liked making drawings with chalks and coloured pencils. I had to keep an eye on him as sometimes he would get bullied and I would need to intervene and distract the bullies with doing something else, so that the boy could be left in peace. One day he made a copy of a painting of a lake with long grasses and trees by the shore. I’ve long forgotten the original artist, but I remember the boy and how proud he was of the drawing. Shortly afterwards, he went on a trip with another group, and drowned – in a place similar to the one he had drawn.
I did not know what to do with the drawing he left behind: it had taken on a significance I did not want to see. I was surprised but relieved when his family said they would like to have it, so I framed it for them.
I had second thoughts about including this object. I buy a lot of books – more than I need, although I read a lot, and I always have; so, I worried that anything I would say about books would be too long and probably too boring. I have around 3000 books at home, and I can, without much prodding, talk or write a lot about T.S.Eliot, or Sylvia Plath, or Walter de la Mare, or Haruki Murakami, or any one of dozens of writers whose works I have read and in some cases studied in depth. Or, I could limit the infinity of my book-ravings to broad subjects I’ve read about at length: subjects including – philosophy (particularly logic and epistemology); political, economic, and military history; literary movements and groups (including Bloomsbury, the Beat writers, the Inklings, and British and American expatriates living in Paris in the’20s and ‘30s); psychology (especially, the ideas of the great Russian theorist L.S.Vygotsky); and popular science books about; evolution, genetics, cosmology, and quantum physics. Oh, and I nearly forgot: espionage.
I sometimes get a book token as a Christmas present or for a birthday. It’s always very welcome but always gives me the problem of how to choose from so many interests. Yet, somehow I choose – and I always try to get something I’ll read and not lay aside half-finished. I’m getting better at that! And, even when I may not be sure what to get or what to read, I’m always conscious of the value of reading. I wrote about this in December 2011, in a Blogpost about Kindles and ‘real’ books:
For many people the experience of handling and reading ‘real’ books involves more than just taking in the meaning of what is written. Specially prepared capsules for astronauts can contain all the proteins required for a healthy diet, but they’re not as much fun as a cooked meal! And this analogy can be extended to the whole social experience of becoming a reader, through childhood, into old age – giving and receiving books, and talking and writing about them.
When I was about 11 years old, I found an old, abandoned house – near Seven Arches Bridge, a disused railway bridge in Monifieth. With some friends, torches, and equal measures of fear and excitement, we climbed on to the roof of a side building and through the remains of a window: there was no glass in the window and no fragments on the floor. The house itself was big, square, and damp-looking: it looked like an angular toad from the outside, and inside its’ rooms had high ceilings but little else. The floorboards creaked as we crept over them, our torches casting giant, moving shadows on the bare walls. I think we all expected to fall through the floor at any second.
We found a staircase and went down to the ground floor which was just as bare and damp-smelling as upstairs. All the windows were boarded over, but here and there – long slivers of sunlight hit the bare walls – making them seem more real and sad. We grew quieter as we walked down some smaller stairs to a wide cellar. A few empty, dusty bottles stood on rickety shelves, waiting for a part in a horror movie that was never made.
For years afterwards, we boasted to each other about how brave we were to go all the way down to the cellar in the ‘haunted house’. But we never went back.
JFK fridge magnet
JFK – John Fitzgerald Kennedy, born 1917, died: November 22nd 1963, assassinated when I was 1. He was the 35th President of the USA, serving from January 1961 to the day he was shot and killed in Dallas, Texas, aged 46: ten years younger then than I am now.
The fridge magnet I chose as one of my 9 objects looks old enough to have been made in the 1960s but I don’t know for certain: I bought it in a charity shop. The discolouring, which could be damage from a fire or underlying rust, gives it a sense of an era burned down or fading away. Kennedy, as in most photographs of him, looks intelligent and determined. The full quote, which is partly contained on the magnet is: ‘ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country’, which comes from Kennedy’s Inauguration speech. (A video of it is here, and the exact quote is at 13 minutes and 56 seconds.)
If I had remained all my life as a ‘general reader’, not learning how to be critical about books or history as it is taught by the rich and powerful, I may have had illusions that Kennedy was the kind of politician we should all look up to. I don’t have that illusion because I learned about socialism and the way the world is: behind the images on TV or on fridge magnets. I learned that Kennedy was a part of one section of the American ruling class: the more ‘progressive’ side, but not so progressive as to prevent it from threatening the world with a global arms race or dropping bombs on revolutions around the world. Kennedy was opposed by another section of the ruling class, more openly committed to war in Vietnam and he was killed by them, and that was a tragedy. It is worthwhile studying those times, with no need for illusions in the JFK mythology.
My fascination with magnifying glasses began when I was very young. Looking at stamps or beetles or flowers through a magnifying glass was magic because it changed completely the thing itself. Sometimes, I would look at something through a magnifying glass – like the incredibly bright, red paint on a Matchbox Mercedes – and then look at it just with my eye, when the colour was less bright and I could see the whole, small car; and then I’d go back to looking at the giant, bright version of one detail, and I’d wonder: which is the real thing? Are they both real? And then I’d switch again and again, from eye to magnifying and back again. I kept wondering.
This need to look at things from different levels of focus carried on later in my life, when I got binoculars and microscopes; and it continued in a different way with words. I became interested in different levels of knowledge about everything. In a way, my going back and forward looking through and not through a magnifying glass, is the precursor to all of my reading. I was always looking at things from different angles, and different levels of focus, wondering what ‘reality’ is.
Star Wars figures
Star Wars came out in 1977. I loved it. I was completely drawn into the story of the Rebel Alliance against the evil Galactic Empire. Then, I identified with Luke Skywalker, as played by Mark Hamill, because I was young and wanted to have amazing adventures. Later, I identified with Obi-Wan Kenobi, as played by Alec Guinness, because I wanted to be wise and courageous. For a long time now, I’ve identified more with 300 year old Yoda – (a) because I often feel very, very old; (b) because I want to be wise, magical and slightly crazy; and (c) because I invented a cartoon character when my children were small: me, as Yodadad.
The figures, of course, are the robots: C-3PO and R2-D2. I like to have these on a shelf in my house, and also a few Yodas, because they remind me of the good things in childhood: amazement, excitement, and fun.
See Me badge
The ‘See Me’ Campaign operates in Scotland ‘to end mental health stigma and discrimination, enabling people who experience mental health problems to live fulfilled lives.’ In 2011, it produced a book of writings and images called: A Touch on the Shoulder. A poem I wrote for it said then what I still believe about the need to connect with people struggling with mental health problems.
Around Dundee, there are parks where I’ve often cycled or walked: alone, or with my wife Isobel. Most of the parks have trees, and some have chestnut trees. The sorry-looking chestnut I have chosen as my 9th object started off, when I found it, as a beautiful shiny specimen. We love kicking through leaves in Balgay Park and elsewhere hunting for chestnuts. Isobel usually finds the best, biggest chestnuts; and I’m sure this involves cheating of some kind but I’ve never found out how.
The best place to see nature is out there: in parks, and forests, marshes, trails, and mountains. The chestnut, like a few postcards of places I’ve been to, I keep to remind myself to never stop going out and noticing the world.
Like members of the Writers Group I mentioned, after writing about my 9 objects, I immediately thought of other things to say. Did I say enough about the fossil’s geometrical shape? Couldn’t I or shouldn’t I have said something about my own mental health now, when I was writing about the ‘See Me’ badge and a poem I wrote in 2011? Perhaps all writers, however amatuer or professional they may be, have some doubts about what they said or did not say, or how they said it – in a piece of writing. Yet, at some point, we all have to let go of the writing and send it out into the world and move on.