Two Poems on Grief

Death of a Hero

 

The whip-crack of the thread, the

pin snapped like a rib and

we saw the cloud for miles, billowing

like pipe smoke trapped

in the big, beat-up black-country.

 

Some reached for the top shelf book

expecting a hollow hiding place but

most threw stones at the goof in the bullet-proof house;

besides, the buck-toofed lay told

us the troof – and the gallows-maker lives on.

 

A year gone, the tears turn to wine,

(after all, we

toppled the bronze, a whip-snap of the rope)

and the crowd grows and smiles, bubbling

like a bath bomb in the drip-tray.

 

The hero’s limbs rotting in the wooden box on

rotting silk in the mud of the black-country.

 

 

The Still Room

 

Pale walls, the jaundiced

lungs of the giant, wheezing, snap

sterile, like the crack of the ventilator, not

that he saw it

 

through the stale light of his eye,

hanging from the ceiling, wires beating

fat with the drag of

forced palpitations, not

that dad felt it,

 

the doctor’s pulse,

or heard it, the rain papping

on the window,

or smelt it, the stale thunderous

anaesthetic, but

 

he cried like I

sweated on the plastic

chair,

and dad didn’t know it,

but his tongue dried to leather.

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Terence Malick’s – The Tree of Life

Of all the trailers I’ve watched recently, none has seemed more appealing than The Tree of Life. I’m not a Brad Pitt fan, I didn’t realise it was a Terence Malick film, and the trailer didn’t really offer much other than powerful music and the possibility of good cinematography. But, in the face of the standard rom-coms, gross-out comedies, animated films and superhero flicks, The Tree of Life stood out. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy films from all genres, but it is good to see something different, something ambitious, something poetic. When I found out it was a Terence Malick film, I knew it would be all those things. I couldn’t wait to see it. I even watched The Thin Red Line and Badlands to remind myself what a great and interesting filmmaker he is. But the one thing that worried me was the casting of Brad Pitt. After watching the film, I feel my inkling was right. But Pitt aside, this film was a whirlwind of a ride, a true cinematic experience.

First thing’s first, this film is not for everyone. If you want something immediate you probably won’t enjoy this film. It is a slow, meandering, diatribe on grief, family, memory and, well, just about everything, the meaning of life, creation, religion. The cinematography is astounding, as we travel through space and time, but this aspect seemed too much for some of the audience. Some resorted to talking and giggling through it. At least three people walked out. Without it, I felt you didn’t get the true picture, the scale of our lives. If you want to see this film to gawk at Brad Pitt, don’t bother. The two girls next to me seemed only to be content when he was on the screen, and they groaned through the creative animation of time and space, sexuality and creation. This is not to say it isn’t worth watching it for the performances.

Hunter McCracken and Laramie Eppler as the two young brothers central to the plot perform wonderfully. McCracken particularly, playing Jack O’Brien, as he moves through his troubled and confusing youth, discovering sexuality along the way – Freudian undertones to boot. Sean Penn as the older Jack, is also fine. Jack’s mother, played by Jessica Chastain, gives a stunning performance as the conflicted wife of Brad Pitt’s role. Pitt, whilst you have to admire him for his film choices, is just Brad Pitt, in another complex role he doesn’t quite fulfil.

Overall the film is philosphical, as you might expect, but brought to us by a man with a true eye for human emotion. It is slow, at times, in that you become aware of time, but the true mark of the film for me came with its somewhat abrupt end. Not only was I left wanting more, but when I left the cinema I had the eerie feeling that it had only been ten minutes since I’d walked in. Pretty appropriate for a film that shows us the true magnitude of human emotion, whilst also showing us the true scale of life – from the big bang, through the birth of life, to dinosaurs, to now. In essence, the film is about a family dealing with the death of a son and brother. The message is about accepting this as a part of life, rather than avoiding it – avoid love and life will be over in the blink of an eye. Human emotion is the true scale of our lives.

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The Tree of Life

I was probably 13. There were 3 of us. In the fresh cold of an Autumn night we stood in a circle on a field in Lutley Park. I often think about this moment, I feel the youthful excitement, it’s as real and memorable as those dewy nights in an English Autumn. For this reason this particular night is my tintype of those boyish evenings, after school, where the aim was nothing but curing boredom. This was before we discovered alcohol or fireworks, the things that required us to look older than we where. We might play football, climb a tree, make silly home videos, but just as often we would just stand and chat and take the piss, make ourselves laugh. Or we would talk about girls, only very generally if there was a few of us, but if there were two or three we might reveal something about ourselves and the girl we really liked at the time – it always struck me that there was rarely a conflict of interest; an unspoken, perhaps unthought, pact. I like to think the three of us were talking about girls that night, but memories tend to blur as we age and it takes more than one of you to truly piece the memory together, and that is if more than one of you remembers it at all. As there were many, many nights, and many uneventful, I have to accept some of those nights are lost forever.

But this night stays with me. And not because of girls or alcohol or fireworks or fights, but because we decided to play knock door run. Yes, at times, we were those guys. But many of us were those guys at one time or another; it’s funny how easy it is for us to forget. Anyway, we’d left the park and set about our mission: knock, run, giggle out of breath, knock, run, laugh and banter.

In a bid to raise the stakes, on this particular night, we decided to knock on the door of one of the boys from school. Andrew Basterfield, his name was – you can imagine the stick he got for his surname. I had known Andrew since primary school. We had never really got on. He was a weak, snivelling child; I was always, well… more free, I guess. I wasn’t a bully, but I wasn’t about to be bullied either, and so when he got the brunt of it, I sometimes joined in. On the otherhand, I didn’t have it in me to be really mean, like some of the kids could, and although I’d doubt he’d believe it, he could’ve had it a lot worse, had I not stopped some of the boys going too far. And when we got to high-school, seeing we were in the same class, I took him aside on the first day and said, ‘listen, Andy, let’s forget the past and start a fresh.’ I held my hand out, but he refused it. Well, there was nothing I could do, so I left it at that. He, on the otherhand, didn’t. It just so happened he knew another boy or a couple of boys in our class from his church. These were clever kids, Matt and Matt, and he hung around with them. I was eager to befriend as many of my classmates as possible, so I didn’t let this stop me. In trying to prevent me from becoming friends with them, he told the one Matt I was a bully and that I had pushed him in the brook. I couldn’t deny the bully label to some extent, but I had not pushed him in the brook. This was, pure and simple, a lie. As it turned out, much to his chagrin, I became firm friends with both Matts, and I still see both today – one is my closest friend. And, of course, I have nothing against Andrew now, although I don’t see him. He is happily married, living somewhere up North.

At the time, it was different. I was more than happy to knock and run. So it began. Knock, leg it, giggle out breath… and repeat. We weren’t stupid enough to repeat this straight away. We would wait, go again. By the third time, his dad had come out and we could hear him wailing in the streets, screaming at us. This just spurred us on. We waited an hour, and again. But this time his dad had been waiting. By the time we’d ran to the end of his drive he was chasing us. Hearts pounding, giggling in hysteria, the three of us ran and ran and ran – and I’m no runner. Eventually we’d ran around the block and back to the park. We stood and got our breath, but then we heard him yell. We were at one end of the park, he was at the other. He just wouldn’t give up and, being kids, we began to fear for our lives. There was no option, we decided to split up. Through the park, under trees, out of the park, back in the park, my friends and I crossed paths a couple of times, before running on, his voice screaming at us from somewhere, it was like the keystone cops. After a while I couldn’t hack it anymore. It was very dark now and I decided to sit against a giant oak tree and remain quiet until I was sure he’d gone. Then I’d go home.

An hour or more had passed and I’d just been sitting there, picking at bark, flicking acorn shells into a brook. At one point I was sure he was the other side of the tree. I could hear heavy breathing. I remained perfectly still in absolute fear, perfectly still when I was sure he was gone… but was that his breath?… or the breeze through the leaves? The ground was damp, firm but muddy and pebbley. My bottom was cold, my back was sore from leaning against the bark of the tree. I was sure I was covered in mud, but it was hard to tell. My eyes had adjusted somewhat to the grainy night and I could see flickers of light in the brook. We found my cat dead in that brook. I had cried my eyes out, and my sister and I walked around our neighbours houses one by one to tell them what had happened. It was the first time we’d experienced death. That brook! I’m supposed to have thrown Andy in that brook, I thought. I wished I had. You had to jump that brook to get into the park. I’ve walked through that brook in my wellies, under branches, in some mystical and giant world. I flicked an acorn in the brook. Plup. Then, all of sudden, I heard the breathing again. I froze. No, it’s gone. No, wait, that’s my breath. I smiled to myself. I stopped feeling scared. But I remained there, picking at the bark, picking at the dirt, and the cold smell of mud around me, the wet stench of Autumn leaves. Flicking acorns, the plup, before it rose back to the surface. I dug pieces of bark into the mud, made a little mosaic. I heard the occasional rustle, but I was sure it was a bird or a squirrel. I’d stopped caring about the mad man. What could he do? Tell me off? I stood up and put my face against the tree, a bark imprint in my cheek.

I casually walked away, my mind quiet. I heard a rustle, knew it was a cat. Maybe the mad man killed my cat. I thought, I’ve learnt my lesson. I won’t knock door run again. I felt the fresh Autumn breeze and shivered. I won’t knock door run again, I knew I wouldn’t.

I did.

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Armchair Adventures and Maltese Memories

After yesterday’s hearty – or heart-straining – blow-out, today, I find myself resigned to the bear-shaped rut in my settee. By blow-out, I mean 2000+ calories of booze or 28 units. Yes, as an overweight alcoholic, my life is measured in units, calories and grams of fat. As an alcoholic, yesterday’s blip was like popping the cork on a champagne bottle. As an overweight man, it was a little disappointing – still, I went for a five-mile trek on the afternoon. I long for the day when my introversion no longer inspires binge-drinking, but that day is not here and needs must. I try to take comfort from the five-mile walk and the four miles the day before and two miles the day before that – and I try to forget the three days prior, when I was paralysed to the bear rut, curtains closed, enduring a freak-but-common period of severe depression, coupled with grief. Anyway, for what it was worth, yesterday was good and I feel better for it, even if, today, my hangover from last night’s drunk enforces a day of reclusivity.

So, yes, today my travels will be of the imagination. Perhaps a few episodes of The Office (U.S) for light relief, but the main event will be a revisit to Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. The title itself, beyond the literal term, is a morbid image, for me. I see a tear of blood down the stony face of a soldier.

This film holds a special memory for me, one that may induce a tear in itself. Over 12 years ago, and using the inheritance my grandmother had left me, I booked a holiday for two to Malta – on impulse (nothing new there). The same day, I walked into my local watering hole and asked my father, ‘What are you doing next Tuesday?’ He joked, ‘How the bloody hell should I know? I’ll probably be in here having a pint.’ I said, ‘No, you’ll be in Malta with me.’ He was stunned and happy, proud that his son was doing this for him, and more so for declaring it in front of his friends. But then he turned and said, ‘Oh, I can’t, I’ve got a doctor’s appointment.’ His friends laughed at this comment, and I told him to stop being so bloody stupid. We sat and drank the afternoon away and talked all things Malta – ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘the resilence of the Maltese during the war; a wonderful people,’ (the other day I was watching The Malta Story, and I know this was the basis of his thoughts and feelings; I know my dad, he read very little, other than in the newspapers and the novels of his youth – Douglas Bader was his war hero, he loved Reach for the Sky). The next day my dad cancelled his appointment.

Malta was a drunken affair. With the exception of a fortnight camping in Norfolk, the same can be said for all of my trips – and Norfolk was after a stint in rehab – but this holiday was an especially drunken affair, because I was drinking double JD’s and double So Co’s, with coke, in the same glass. My dad paid for his holiday in my drinks – and he always knew, and said, it would end up being this way. We drank hard on the nights, in Qawra, Buggiba, St Paul’s Bay and even in St Julian’s Bay (which is supposedly the party capital of Malta, although it is actually rather tame), and I’d wake-up at midday, to the usual hangover, to find my dad gone. I’d always find him in the hotel bar, where he had, as he always would when we went away, made friends with the staff. My dad had so many stories to tell and people loved them. I used to be embarrassed by them and thought people found him boring, but I learnt over the years how respected he was, by all ages, but more often than not by younger people, and then I felt proud of him, like I was as a young kid – but adolescence and the petty ego of youth often seems to beat this pride out of us.

Aside from drinking, we saw enough of the island during the day, so we didn’t feel like we were wasting our time. We took a bus towards Popeye Village, only to miss the last connecting one and have to walk the last two miles through the sparse and romantically primitive farming land of Malta – this was no mean feat for my aging father and he felt good to have done it, although not at the time (we had to stop every 200 metres). Robert Altman’s Popeye had been my favourite film as a child and my dad had been forced to endure the feature enough times that he was content to see the film-set-come-tourist-attraction. However, when we arrived we only had 20 minutes to look around – thanks to my waking up late, which my father was good enough to remind me of, many times.

We also went to Valetta. I went twice actually, the second time dad stayed with his ‘new friends’, the staff, at the bar in the hotel. We went into some of the churches and read about some of the history of the place, and we stopped off many times in the bars, the most notable of which was a small bar, off the main shopping street, called The Pub. It is now called Olly’s bar. This is the bar where Oliver Reed would die, a few months later, after a typical session and arm-wrestling with some sailors. We were actually in Malta when they were filming Gladiator and we met some of the producers. We had been on a prepaid trip to the Blue Grotto, but it had been too windy to take the boat (this happened the second time I went to Malta too). Instead they took us to a bar, and my dad, typically involving himself, started talking to some men who told him they were making a film about gladiators. At the time I was studying Performing Arts and my father insisted on telling them this in the hope he might swing me a role. I made him hush, out of embarrassment, which seems very silly in ever-faithful hindsight. It wasn’t until the second time I went to Malta that I realised we had been in the pub Oliver Reed had died in. Then, The Pub had become Olly’s Bar, newspaper clippings on the walls, and I spent many hours drinking in there, in some ridiculous homage to the great actor. I remember stumbling out after drinking seven double whiskeys in quick succession (and I was already drunk when I entered), mostly bought by a sweet old man I had befriended – and against my will (every time I turned round I had another whiskey). I remember pretending I was Catholic, for some saft reason (I was probably questioning my thoughts on God again), and when I left the bar I could barely stand up. I was writing a diary at the time and the writing on this day is barely legible. But this particular trip to Malta is a story for another day – two alcoholics and not a moment sober, literally.

On the night of the blighted Blue Grotto trip, we went to St Paul’s Bay. It was raining and we went to the cinema to watch The Thin Red Line. It was the first time I’d ever tried salted popcorn – which is all they sold in the cinema. Dad hated the popcorn and fell asleep during the film. I loved the film and the popcorn. Afterwards we went into an English bar. We had been contemplating taking a trip to Sicily, but the barman told us it was a bad idea, said it was dangerous in the streets after 6pm, because of the mafia. It didn’t stop me wanting to go, but because of the time of year we could only get flights and they were too pricey. The Thin Red Line, whenever mentioned, was always a cue to relive our memories of Malta.

One thing, like a film, can hold so many memories. Ironically, I can barely remember the film. I just remember thinking it was better than Saving Private Ryan, which came out about the same time and sweeped the oscars, over Malick’s critically acclaimed drama.

A couple of days ago I watched Malick’s Badlands, again, and today I shall watch this film, teary-eyed as it makes me, missing my dad, all in preparation for a trip to the cinema to watch his new film, The Tree of Life. I expect this film will make me wish I was director, believe I could be a director. This will be my armchair adventure. I shall come away with delusions of grandeur and no doubt start planning a film. Perhaps the main theme will be grief. Grief and Alcohol.

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Waking with the Enemy

It is the early hours of the morning, not half a day after beginning this blog. Whilst I was all set to relive my introverted and often drunken exploits in Budapest, Prague, Amsterdam, Northern Spain, Offenbach/Frankurt, Morocco or one of the other trips of recent times, I find I am more concerned with my localised travels, and by that I mean following the contours of the sinewy tumours of tension preventing me from getting some rest.

In the last month, four months since my father’s passing, the depression of my grief seems to have intensified. I have been alone for a fair few years now, but having taken on the responsibility of caring for my father, and, indeed, being very close to my father, I was spared the black hole of loneliness I now find myself having to endure – especially in these, the silent hours. Of course, being alone and loneliness are two different things: you can be lonely in a room full of people. In fact, up until recently, I only ever felt lonely in a room full of people. Now I am lonely in a room full of people and more often than not in a room on my own. But then, this is the result of the passing of my father, in combination with my depression-alcoholism-induced introversion. And we must combat this with distraction – preferably not in the guise of booze.

At times, I find myself drifting off into fantasy lands, when it is at all possible, a land where I am free to roam – and free from the shackles of social inability. Let’s focus for a moment on the roaming land of my imagination. Yes, I see it now: a land without passports, a world where I could pluck a potato from the ground, an apple from a tree, a fish from a river – a land where I am not trespassing, pilfering or need a licence. This is a place where a community lives for its community; where a man, such as my father, who dedicated thousands of hours of his life to the community, isn’t hindered by career politicians. Because the people are out there to make this place better, but the people are out there to hinder them too, living their paper dreams. Of course, the world is the world, and even my imagination prevents me from dreaming this of the land I reside in.

I think perhaps I am mostly inspired to write on this subject by the pertinent words of the author of http://findinglifeinadeath.wordpress.com/. The second paragraph of the article titled What we leave behind.., I found particularly relevant. In having to deal with the legal wranglings of pensions and whether we would have to go through probate etc…, just seemed so meaningless in the light of my father’s death, when, as the author quite rightly points out, it seems more natural to be wondering ‘where we go from here?’ or ‘who we are?’ Being of a certain idealistic sway, and being a slave to my neuroses, I found myself getting very angry at a system that piles on so much pressure at such a time as this. There is a school of thought that suggests this may be a welcome distraction, but then perhaps the patrons of this school are also responisble for the needless complications we all must face.

But, as for myself, I will keep trying to avoid these complications. Hell, it’s hard enough to get some kip as it is.

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Death in the Afternoon

I hate to begin my first ever blog with a sweeping and perhaps trite comment like life is travel, but I guess I just have, and life is. There is nothing original in this. Many people already view life in this way and many more will come to. It is no coincidence that Lennon’s lyric, ‘life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans’, is so often quoted. Life is not about the destination. Life is about movement, going nowhere in particular – we all know where we’re heading, for God’s sake. I came to see this once again, a few months ago, when I would come to experience the deepest tragedy of my 30 years. One minute I was talking to my father about heading to Mainland Europe, the next I was trying in vain to revive him after he’d collapsed. I did manage to revive him in some way, but as fate would have it, I never spoke to my father again. He passed away four days later. My travel companion, in the truest sense, had died.

Whilst this is the most painful and gut-wrenching experience of my life (and even this feels like an understatement), I have to see it for what it is. It is a happenstance of my travels, on that one big train we all have to ride, from the moment we open our mouths to breathe. Of course, having to endure grief, and a grief so personal, is rather severe. In a literary sense, I might view it like one of Ernest Hemingway’s plane crashes; whilst I’m sure I’ll survive, no doubt I will endure a diluted pain of it until the end of my life – and perhaps, I’m sorry to admit, it will contribute to it. Yes, the brain, like any other organ is vulnerable to life’s crashes. As a long term sufferer of depression – and with a dependence on alcohol because of this – I know this only too well.

But this is by the by. I have no plan to jump off the train just yet. There is so much more to see of the world, in a literal and in an emotional sense. Whether that means staring at a crumb in my hand, from the bottom of the biscuit tin, whilst I try to cleanse my perception – sans the social lubricant; or whether I’m running from the bulls or chasing a fish – lubricated or not: I intend to fight for life. I have always strived for adventure, hampered as I am by mental illness, as anyone who chooses to view my forthcoming blogs will see. Tinged as I am by sadness, life is for the living.

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Hello travellers

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