BBC India reports The Universe has summoned Keeley and Kyle From Nottingham To The Great Temple of Om In central India Where they will truly Discover themselves (presumably The Universe thinks this is unlikely to happen in Nottingham) LOCKDOWN ‘Hell on Earth’ Snaps Keeley To our reporter Close to the ground ‘God knows When the tailor Will be able To return my saris And I can’t even tell you When I last sipped a latte And does our government care?’ In the background Of the shot Another elderly Indian Kneels in the dust Sips water from a puddle Kyle (the sleeve of his kaftan frayed by anxious chewing) Whimpers ‘How can Consciousness expand When a dude’s been abandoned? And does our government care?’ (he’s always been a bit of a lingam) Then one or the other bleats ‘All we want Is enlightenment Then to drift down For a few days On the beach’ (nearest beach 837 miles) Just out of shot Oblivious To the stranded throngs A child kneels in the dust Playing solitaire Unaware She can never win the game Because there are Cards missing * Marquee farewell party In Mummy and Daddy’s pile Buckinghamshire Bucks Fizz Outside caterers And so on ‘Long Island in the Bahamas’ Mummy snorts ‘It sounds just like a cocktail’ Tosses back her mane Did Daddy marry his horse? Rose-petal speech ‘We’re off to Paradise But how could we possibly forget you And we’ll always be on Skype Of course’ Cue polite applause Twelve months later CYCLONE Rips the roof off Eden Splinters In the sea ‘Our boss has done nothing Though he’s so big in pineapple London doesn’t care Although we used to pay our taxes How could these peasants Forget To fix the signal For the Internet?’ Maybe this poet Has a chip of ice On each shoulder He’s never shaken Or stirred With the smart set But I hope I’m not the type To pleasure in asking When you moved into A cyclone zone What the fuck Did you expect? Did you think You’d been born To sleep soundly Swaddled in the eye Of every storm? Yes, there’s a plane overhead No, it won’t be landing Be thankful You’re the chosen With a bit of your house Still standing * It would be wrong To add insult Stick the boot in But what on earth Possesses people To splash thousands on a trip Scrimp a hundred on insurance? ACCIDENT A drunken dive A scooter ride Family bereft ‘We might have To sell the house The government Has left us Hospital cares for nothing But who’s going To pay the bills’ I’m truly truly sorry Nothing is so cheap As human life itself Why should they Make sacrifices For a complacent Tourist When every single day Hundreds of Breadwinners Lie down in their shacks Die Of preventable illness? * I don’t wear a halo But I’m touched By midday sun When the attitude Rising to the surface Is that for all We should have learned Countries and their natives Exist purely for our service Please do me a favour Stick to Blackpool Weymouth Shanklin Send me your passport I’ll refund the postage Take care of the recycling
Like any faithful hound I scent dinnertime From a country mile Come bounding Sit up Devour my bowlful Slaveringly Slavishly Eternally grateful For a full five seconds So Why Broccoli Leaves me Dyspeptically full Green Begging to get down Is a mystery Of the cosmos I chew over Endlessly While Tim Glowers Over the rim Of his no dessert School ma’am Glasses Mimics ‘I’m full’ Like a whining Whelp Until I skulk off With the dishes Tail between my legs Sneak a Wistful sniff Of the cheese And crackers Leave seizing For a furtive night time Raid Because What garnishes Wistful and crackers If not Fistful And knackers
A couple of weeks ago marked the 101st birthday of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet, still active activist, resident of San Francisco and writer of my all-time favourite poem, ‘Two Scavengers in a Truck, Two Beautiful People in a Mercedes’ (see link below). In the 1950s, Mr. F. was co-founder of City Lights, America’s first ever paperback bookstore and every bit as iconic as the man himself. A champion of those who need champions, Ferlinghetti’s poetry is heartwarmning, honest and, most importantly, accessible. Anyone with a tenner to spend could do a lot worse than invest in his ‘Collected Poems’.
Why is ‘Two Scavengers…’ my favourite poem? It’s an idea of ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ simplicity used to show very deep and complex issues in a way which engages, rather than preaches. Clever, or what?
Enjoy the poem.
Two Scavengers in a Truck
Two Beautiful People in a Mercedes
At the stoplight waiting for the light
nine a.m. downtown San Francisco
a bright yellow garbage truck
with two garbagemen in red plastic blazers
standing on the back stoop
one on each side hanging on
and looking down into
an elegant open Mercedes
with an elegant couple in it
In a hip three-piece linen suit
with shoulder-length blond hair & sunglasses
The young blond woman so casually coifed
with a short skirt and colored stockings
on the way to his architect’s office
And the two scavengers up since four a.m.
grungy from their route
on the way home
The older of the two with grey iron hair
and hunched back
looking down like some
And the younger of the two
also with sunglasses & long hair
about the same age as the Mercedes driver
And both scavengers gazing down
As from a great distance
At the cool couple
as if they were watching some odourless TV ad
in which everything is always possible
And the very red light for an instant
holding all four close together
as if anything at all were possible
Across that small gulf
in the high seas
of this democracy
At certain points
Of the day
There is no time
Paint, sex, society
A shepherd boy lamb
No puncture marks
The Midday owl
The canvas freshly painted
Dear Mama and Papa,
Despite our differences
It has broken my heart to leave our village
To leave you so very, very far behind
This astonishing city holds many challenges
Yet, you may rest peacefully
I am happy, safe and well
I am writing to tell you of my first great accomplishment
Please excuse my lack of modesty
But I am absolutely sure
You will be beacons of pride
I have visited Chowpatty Beach
And stood shoulder to shoulder
Amongst the elite of Mumbai
On the most celebrated and prestigious
Rubbish dump in all of India
For a poor village boy
It is truly a sea of inspiration
No well, no river
But an ocean of plastic bottles
Stretching further than the eye can see
Farther than the mind can dream
I am so grateful for your sacrifices
Your lifetime of simple meals
Fruit, veggies, dhal, chapatis
To give me this opportunity
This golden wandering
Through potato chip packets
Ice cream wrappers
Even paper plates
This isn’t just trash
This is cash
And you know what?
I couldn’t resist removing my sandals
To feel Lakshmi’s love
Dusting my feet
And the sea
The sea harbours such indescribable smells
No outdated salt
Or bygone fish
But bouquets of industry, progress, exports
I’ve heard it said they’re channelled
In a pipeline from Malabar Hill
To serve as a reminder
Such beautiful pollution
Is attainable for us all
Mumbai couldn’t be what it is
Without Bollywood fantasy fiction
I have heard a most entertaining fable
About a mythical palace called Antilia
A palace of such treasures
It could not exist on this earth
I believe it serves as an inspiration
That no matter how great one wealth
There’s no harm in coveting more
Back in the real world
I am enclosing three hundred and twenty rupees
A small contribution
But Chowpatty has strengthened my resolve
To become more than you or I
Ever dreamed I could be
I am also enclosing half of a paper plate
I took as a souvenir
I was tempted to take two
But wish my successes
To be tempered with the humility
You have instilled in me
Please show it to my siblings and cousins
As the oldest, I need to be the strongest of role models
You have brought me up not to take without giving
So I dropped my bus ticket on the sand
May it serve as a symbol
I am a man of the modern worls
A capitalist, a Mumbaikar
Your loving son
Sometimes it’s easier to write about negatives than positives. When one feels disgruntled about something, it’s normally easy to articulate the source of said disgruntlement. Therefore, writing about my recent trip to Kolkata is comparatively difficult, because the trip was absolutely perfect.
I don’t like leaving unfinished business. In a sense, this applied here because I’d visited once before, but was uncharacteristically unwell and didn’t see very much. This time, I travelled in a way I haven’t travelled before, namely spending all of my time (19 days) based in one place. I didn’t get bored, and although I’ve seen now most of the touristy things and achieved my poetic goals, I’ve left thinking a return visit is certainly high on the agenda, and not just for poetic reasons.
Kolkata (often still called Calcutta, including by at one major national newspaper, but I don’t want to appear to be colonial) has a reputation for being the most cosmopolitan, liberal, artistic and interesting of the four great Indian metropolises. I haven’t spent much time in Delhi and Mumbai, and I haven’t been to Chennai/Madras at all. However, Kolkata has all of the aforementioned qualities in spades, so I’m prepared to believe the claim.
Touristically, it doesn’t have the ancient monuments Delhi has, but there is lots of more recent history, much of it concerned with the British Empire. Until 1905, Calcutta was the capital of British India, and London was the only city in the Empire which was bigger. Much of the colonial architecture is still standing, and it’s very easy to get a feel of how the city was back then. Lots of churches are still standing, plenty of old commercial buildings and very informative places, like the Park Street Cemetery, where the young ages on the headstones demonstrate chillingly why workers who made the move from the UK were very handsomely rewarded for doing so.
Modern Kolkata is comparatively user-friendly. Most of the touristy things are in a fairly compact area. For those which aren’t, India’s only metro system (cheap, efficient and under expansion) serves well. The chief backpacker area is Sudder Street, slightly north of centre. I stayed just off Park Street, ten minutes’ walk away, and more upscale, but right on the doorstep of the Lit Fest venues, including the venerable Oxford Bookstore, which organises the Festival.
For the first half of my time, I mostly played tourist, rather than poet, reversing the roles for the second half. As well as the major attractions of the Victoria Memorial and the Indian Museum (the country’s largest), the Asutosh Museum, the Planetarium, the remarkable Z Planet art deco house, the Botanical Gardens (containing the world’s largest tree in terms of canopy cover) and a few smaller galleries kept me well occupied. Throw in a side trip to the Sunderbans Eco Reserve (in theory, you can see a Bengal tiger, in reality, there’s more chance of the Loch Ness Monster) and the pre-Lit Fest time was filled easily and enjoyably.
The poetry side was an absolute pleasure. At the Lit Fest, I performed a few poems, and also took part in a panel discussion on Gender Sensitisation in Children’s Literature. I was a bit nervous about this, as I haven’t done such a thing before, but all went well, not least because the other panellists are established high-profile children’s authors, who generated plenty of ideas to talk about. The whole Lit Fest was great fun and very well organised by Maina, Anjum and their team.
Lit Fests also throw up the unexpected. The best example I have this time was that I talked football for fifteen minutes or so with a very nice man called Lorenzo, who happens to be Italy’s ambassador to India. He’s also a writer, and wasn’t just there for ceremonial purposes. Highest profile guest in terms of writing was Andrew Sean Greer, an American writer who’s just won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, with his comedy novel, which I’ll be reading before too long. He’s been writing for quite a while with limited success, so I take my hat off to him for his perseverance and achievement.
The final few days were taken up with three workshops I managed to organise while in town. So, thank you to The Creative Arts, led by the indomitable Ramanjit Kaur. Two of the workshops happened at this excellent organisation, one with child actors and another with women actors. For the third workshop, thanks to The British Council, where several staff joined forces to organise a stellar workshop attended by a whopping 26 students, mostly young adults. At all three events, the commitment, passion and generally being up-for-it-ness were amazing.
And last, but certainly not least, thanks to Saikat and Aquib, who at different times were most helpful with tea, directions and wholehearted attentiveness.
Finally, there’s a poem below that’s my thank you present for the whole experience. This year was the 10th year of the AKLF Lit Fest. It’s theme was ‘Celebrating Park Street’, where the festival is organised. Therefore, the below is appropriate, and features many of the street’s landmarks.
Finally finally, if anyone is facing a massive dental bill and fancies getting the work done well and cheaply while abroad, I can recommend Kolkata, and recommend an excellent dentist to anyone who asks for details. My Upper Left 6 hasn’t felt so good for ages!!
Park Street, End of the Festival
As the sun sets
For the tenth time
To an embryonic horizon
And the rest
Take their bow
Take their leave
Take to their nests
Sleep sixteen hours straight
In a flurry of sweet dreams
By the thought
Of a Job well done
The old ones are the best
Cracks his familiar smile
Holds a balloon
Bought from a child
The Park Hotel
Paints a brave face
On a five-star hangover
While in the cemetery
Raise another glass
The late Metro News
Illuminate to Mansion green
As an antique gas lamp
With a rag shroud
The naked eye
Of the tiny inside spark
Crikey. This site’s supposed to be easy to use, but I always struggle. I suppose with computers, there comes a point where you’ve either got it or you haven’t. I’ve been dealt a pretty good hand in life, so I guess I can live with it.
And on the theme of the hand life deals you, I’ve actually sat down to write something about this week’s activities in schools for Refugee Week. Poetry workshops. Eight schools in Birmingham (8 primary, 2 secondary) and around 400 children, all of whom gave it their best shot at imagining being a refugee, or, in the case of quite a few, writing about really being a refugee or migrant.
I’ve long since suspected that pound for pound, children are far more open-minded and tolerant than adults. I’m now sure this is the case. 400 children aged 8-13 worked solidly for 2-3 hours and not once did I hear a word of the tired old racism propounded by the readers of our more ignorant newspapers. Discussions were measured, listening was attentive, and, crucially, those who disagreed with a point of view did so with respect, rather than dismissal. The work which was begun in our sessions (to be completed with the children’s class teachers) also showed a depth of perception which many outside the school system wouldn’t expect.
So, what did we do?
We looked at elephants! To be precise, David Attenborough’s ‘Spy in the Herd’, where a herd moves as they have no food. This necessity to move, making the elephants refugees, rather than migrants. (In all of the schools, the children understood this difference. I wonder what percentage of the adult population would get this right, or even think it important?)
Although it wasn’t the main focus of the project, as an English teacher, I wanted this work to enhance and reinforce literacy, so from the clip, we came up with some WOW words (one of my favourite phrases) to describe the feelings of the baby elephant as it was on the move. We then went on to looking at how the pachyderms’ (WOW word!) was a metaphor for human refugees.
This was followed by some clear and confident reading of a couple of my poems on the subject, and then the children planned their own and began to write them. This gave an opportunity to revise poetic terms learned, and they only needed a few thousand reminders that POEMS DON’T HAVE TO RHYME, AND ARE OFTEN BETTER WHEN THEY DON’T!!!!! And did this stop a few brave/silly souls from doing it anyway? Rhetorical question!
The aim of this work was to raise awareness of what it’s like to be a refugee. To be honest, the schools had done a pretty good job of this anyway (one school has used a classroom to make a mock-up of a refugee camp; another has written postcards of support to give to refugees). As I wanted expression and empathy to be the keynotes, pupils who have a second language were allowed to write in that language if was easier for them, or if it simply suited them better. Some work came out which sounded beautifully soulful, even to those of us who didn’t understand the words.
Once the teachers send me some of the finished work, it’ll be posted with due acknowledgement of authorship.
Hopefully, this will be repeated next year and rolled out to schools elsewhere in the country.
Meanwhile, I give heartfelt thanks to
About 400 children
Numerous teaching and teaching assistant colleagues
Carl Marshall and Razia Butt from Birmingham City Council
Schools of Sanctuary for supporting this project…
… and especially Barbara Forbes from Schools of Sanctuary who enthused about this from the moment I floated the idea, obtained the funding for it to take place, and put me in contact with her contact in the schools. Without Barbara, this really wouldn’t have happened.
Now for the hard part. Can I publish this without deleting it instead?
With a face
Like the sludge
On her boots
A man spitting
Into a plastic cup
Chastise his son
With the C word
That never sees home cooking
Of cracked statues
A guy talking into his phone
He were alone
Their kids all ate Happy Meals
The Sikhs’ magnificent Harmandir, or Golden Temple, is the centrepiece of the temple complex in the holy city of Amritsar. Tourists are welcome, and when i visited, I saw the following act of humility which on the surface looks small, but which is imbued with huge significance.
Knowing what pride precedes
Hitches her sari above her feet
A forward thinking lady
Descends the stairs
Clears her mind
Cleans God’s house
For the pious
For the tourists
For the peasants who spend their lives
Not born to be a cleaner
Right to left
Right to left
Gathering tiny piles
Of unholy dust
A speck of dirt
A broadstroke golden universe
Of love and hope
The one thing
No rug is big enough to cover
Sweet water reflects
Ten heavenly smiles
Nanak to Gobind
Pauses its reading
Flowing in and out
Of four open doors