Friday, 27 March 2015

Friends Remembered

I’ve been thinking a lot about friendship. In my last post (scroll down – you know how this works!) I spoke about the inestimable love of parents. This ought to be a “given” – although sometimes it isn’t – but the love of friends is a far harder challenge in many ways. I have lost friends over the years for all sorts of reasons; people grow up, move away, have kids or simply slip into different circles.


Sometimes a friend can actively end a relationship, but that sort of behaviour highlights deeper truths about that friendship. I lost one of my closest friends because the person I married was deeply envious of our friendship. When my marriage ended, that friendship was resumed, and it is one of the closest friendships of my life – not least because the friend understood and accepted what had happened.


Betrayal of friendship is a chilling thing. A recent “friend” once said that if anyone ever tried to have a go at me, she would ‘viciously defend’ me. It was a pleasing, if over-reactive, show of solidarity that turned out to be part of a massive deceit. Being fucked over by friends really hurts, and Shakespeare’s biting satire on false friendship is a poem I have quoted several times in my own poetry.


Blow, blow, thou Winter Wind


BLOW, blow, thou winter wind,

Thou art not so unkind  

  As man's ingratitude;  

Thy tooth is not so keen,              

Because thou art not seen,

  Although thy breath be rude.   

Heigh ho! sing, heigh ho! unto the green holly:  

Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:          

        Then heigh ho, the holly!     

        This life is most jolly.             


      Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky,            

      That dost not bite so nigh      

        As benefits forgot:   

      Though thou the waters warp,             

      Thy sting is not so sharp

        As friend remember'd not.  

Heigh ho! sing, heigh ho! unto the green holly:  

Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:          

        Then heigh ho, the holly!     

        This life is most jolly.


These days, with technology and social media, it’s easier to keep in touch with friends. We know that Facebook friendship is hardly a true mark, and the fickle followings on twitter can be virtually meaningless (or meaningful only “virtually.”) Recently, I have been finding out who my true friends are as I have struggled with an unpleasant series of events attempting to make my life miserable.


I have found that true friends are those who will stand by you through thick and thin. For many, parents and family do this too; and a similar notion is contained in the traditional marriage vow: for better or worse. Yet although families and marriages can fall apart just as friendships can, there is an important distinction. We choose our friends. Some may say we “choose” our marriage partner, but there is a whole load more complex psychology going on with that kind of love.


Just after Christmas last year I had a moan on twitter, saying that, after spending many weeks hand-making poetry gifts for my family, they spent barely seconds looking at them. A friend texted me to say they would treasure any poem I gave them; another friend tweeted to say they’d be honoured to read one of my poems. (I sent the one at the bottom of this page: This friend also pointed out that ‘you don’t get to pick your family, just your friends.’


In many ways, our friends evolve through circumstance; our work, study, and leisure associations bring us into contact, and from there, deeper relationships form. To say we ‘pick’ these is slightly disingenuous, but true to an extent. We choose who we spend time with, and yet we rarely actively profess our feelings about friendships; less so, express this vital concept in terms of love.


I have posted several songs on my Facebook/Twitter feeds recently, including Carole King’s ‘You’ve got a friend,’ and Joe Cocker singing, ‘With a little help from my friends.’ But one song that never fails to move me is Peter Gabriel, with Kate Bush, singing ‘Don’t Give Up.’

This is a profound song and, like all good art, is open to wide interpretation. According to Gabriel, essentially, it is about handling failure, which is ‘the hardest thing to do.’ Despite my failings, I’ve not changed my face, or my name, and have learned that those who no longer want you ‘when you lose’ are not worth having anyway. Friends accept us for who we are, even if – or sometimes, especially if – there are things about us that are uncomfortable, disagreeable, or difficult.


After all, who are we to criticise? In another famous poem about hypocritical piety, the line ‘To see ourselves as others see us’ does not mean that we should let others’ criticisms, prejudices and judgements eat away at who we really are. It is about empathy and equality, not judging. Having empathy with those around us means we are less likely to judge others. And treating others as we would wish to be treated is a Golden Rule; a call against hypocrisy that the Gospel writers make clear.


The story of the “penitent prostitute” shows Christ saying to all the men (there were no women at the stoning, despite what Monty Python suggests) about to stone an adulterous woman to death: ‘Let the one without sin cast the first stone.’ Once every man has dropped his stone, Christ asks the woman if anyone has condemned her. After she says, no, Christ says: ‘Nor do I.’ This concept forms the basis of civilised society, and is one central tenet of Christianity that I wholly believe in.


We have systems in this country for upholding law through judgement, and while they are a better system of justice than in many other countries, they are not without flaw. We have institutions such as Amnesty International to challenge those who think it acceptable to flog, stone, or kill people in the name of “justice” – which is why I have been a lifelong supporter of Amnesty. Sadly, we also have journalists who are a long way from religion’s Golden Rule, let alone from dropping their stone.


So I’ll say it again, before we move onto the next of my cautionary tales: true friends (and maybe family too; and possibly lovers) accept – and love – you as you are. If they don’t, they are not worth having… in which case they may be seen as enemies. In which case, you must love them even more. Whether you believe in God or not, this commandment is the basis of all the prophets and the law.

from Charlotte & The Charlatan – and other cautionary tales

Have-a-go Harry


Once upon a time, as all good cautionary tales should begin, there was a man called Harry. While nothing especially bothered him, he was quick to have a go.

            ‘You’re always having a go at me, Harry,’ his girlfriend said: ‘You’re not my mother, you know.’

            ‘That’s true,’ he concurred, but he knew the reason why he saw fit to pick on other people.

            ‘Eat up, Harry,’ his mother would say to him as he struggled with his food, toying with every mouthful, complaining if it was too hot. ‘Too hot?’ she said, doubtful of his plight. Tasting his porridge, she’d assure him: ‘It’s just right: here, have a go, Harry.’ But the boy would tarry until his breakfast was cold.

            At the swimming pool, Harry was just the same. ‘It’s too steamy,’ he complained. His mother thought the water was tepid, and considered her son’s attempts wet and insipid; his reticence quite pathetic – particularly when compared to her daughter’s assertive nature.

            This was how Harry approached the things he did or ate: he’d put things off until it was too late. After all, if you leave a task to the final minute, there are only sixty seconds in it. But of his views, Harry took little time to choose what he believed in. Where others might have procrastinated, Harry was highly opinionated.

            ‘You can’t do that,’ he’d say to his sister. She was seen as the golden girl of the family (oh, how he wished she was perfect) because she was cheeky and bold. In truth, she was naughty, and got away with… well, not murder – unless you’ve heard a different version of this tale.

            At meal-times she was always first at the table, and took as much food as she was able; at bed-times, the last to switch off the light, she listened to music late into the night. She’d play kippy from school; broke more rules than the average exception, and at card-games, Harry’s sister was a mistress of deception.

            While she cheated and skived, Harry derived from her behaviour the piety of a born-again saviour. While she somehow kept off the hook, Harry lived his reticent life by the book.

            He stored up his self-righteous views and, as he grew from boy to man, meted out his opinions on anyone who fell short of his upstanding standards. Including his girlfriend who, much as she loved him, resented the way he presented his high-flown thoughts on Society.

            Although she didn’t demur, she felt he was nonetheless having a go at her. The thing is, Harry wanted everything to be perfect but, despite his presumption, lacked the gumption to tell the people who needed to know.

            There’s little real point to this tale, and certainly no happy-ever-after. Harry’s marriage was hardly made in heaven, but it wasn’t a disaster. His wife would say, ‘Harry, don’t have a go at me – and leave your poor sister alone.’

            Accepting he wasn’t so perfect himself, Harry would drop his stone.


The link to Inky Fingers is currently unavailable, but the same poem can be found here

Saturday, 14 March 2015


I’m one of those people who like to celebrate their birthday. It’s one day of the year when one can feel ‘special.’ I’m less inclined to celebrate Mother’s/Father’s Days. Because they fall on Sundays, it’s impossible to send a card timed to hit their door-mat on the right day anyway.

This might seem a poor excuse, or selfish; I owe my parents for my very existence, after all. But since my birthday is on the eve of Mother’s Day this year, I thought it more appropriate to send a ‘happy my birthday’ card to my mum.

Over the past years, since my life went through colossal turbulence, I’ve been in touch with my parents far more than previously. Frequent texts, regular phone calls; letters by email, and even sent through the post are so important for them (especially a worrying mum) to know I’m okay.

There was a time when I was far from okay. I neglected my parents and their inestimable love, and chose to dwell on hatred of myself and the ‘shitty’ world I perceived. It was a cognitive dissonance that led me into a dark, dark place, and the coping mechanisms I employed went badly wrong.

I’m not going to spell out what I did, or why, or what happened as a result, but I will say this. Because I thought my life was broken, I found a way to ruin it. And I might have succeeded on my mission of total self-destruction, had it not been for my family and friends.

What prevented me was straight forward, pure and simple: Love. Not that love is pure and simple; it’s bloody hard. Knowing that my parents (and my friends) love me in spite of what I did has given me strength to re-build my life, earned me a great deal of respect, and made many proud of me.

This isn’t about forgiveness, which is a far more complicated issue, involving judgement and understanding. Sadly, society is far quicker to judge than to love. For anyone who is, or about to become, a parent, whether of their own or someone else’s child, the only way to protect children from all the ‘shittiness’ of the world – perceived or otherwise – is to LOVE them; totally, unconditionally.

We cannot LOVE while venting hatred on those we find abhorrent; nor while whipping up hysteria and paranoia about non-existent threats; nor by channelling energy into judging those who fall short of what we see as our own self-righteous paradigm. Chances are we are all deluded by a cognitive dissonance that leads us to do harm more easily than to seek for good. We can only LOVE with love.

Last year, Stephen Fry was a guest on Radio 3’s Classical Collection programme, and was speaking about Oscar Wilde, a man who was judged harshly by a hateful society, sent to prison, and became a thoroughly broken man. This is what Stephen Fry said about him on that broadcast:

“He was a giant brought down, and it was monstrous, really, how he was treated. When he came out of prison he was a wreck, a ruin, and he said, at the very moment in this Christian society, especially when you should be embraced when you have completed your sentence: that, in Britain, is actually when your sentence begins.

“He was utterly outcast; no sense of redemption or forgiveness at all - which is one of the reasons I continue to write to people in prison and support prison charities because, no matter what someone has done, although I’m not a Christian I do have the fundamental Christian value that the people for whom one has the most distaste are the ones to whom one should most reach out.”

I’ve never believed in life after death; I regard it as religion’s biggest scam. But I do believe (more now than I did ten years ago when my life was in a mess) that making the best of this strange and beguiling existence is the only way to give back to my loving parents what they have given me. And that is LOVE.

In the meantime, here is the next of my ‘tales of woe.’
from Charlotte & The Charlatan – and other cautionary tales
Kevin the Complainer
The complements came in as the requiem was recited: a sea of sycophantic eulogy and euphemistic excuses for what everybody thought: Kevin was a cunt.
                        “Kevin lived life to the full,” they said, meaning he was constantly drunk. “The life and soul of the party,” meant he filled his cup with others’ generosity.
                        “Kevin kept us entertained all day,” – aye right: and kept us awake all night. “He was gentle and thoughtful,” – allegedly, except when pissed; then became an angry, marauding maniac.
                        “Kevin never complained about being ill,” apparently – but when healthy, was a hypochondriac. They called him Kevin the Complainer. If you think he led a colourful life, it was, in fact, a great deal plainer.
                        And that was what made his funeral even stranger. A good (well, bad) Catholic, he knew to keep the priest and his lot sweet as he faced the final curtain. Agnostic about God (but not his illness – of that he was certain) Kevin attended Mass more times in those three weeks after his diagnosis, hedging his bets against religion’s prognosis.
                        “How long have you got,” asked Father O’Flannel.
                        “About three weeks,” said Kev, “At the most.” The priest gave a sympathetic, head-tilted look as he gently placed the host on Kevin’s tongue. Thinking it was a doctor’s spatula, Kevin said, “Ah,” then quickly turned it to “A-men.”
                        Piously, Father O’Flannel replied: “Bless you, son.” If the church can be trusted for doling out salvation based on spurious certainties, then a Doctor of Medicine surely must be believed in? More than a Quack of Divinity! If one was all in the mind, invented by mankind, the other was proof enough. Given three weeks to live, even a con-man like Kevin didn’t need to seek out a second opinion.
                        “But what if he’s wrong?” the Sceptics asked, knowing Kevin’s track-record for inventing more ailments than a fantasy-footballer’s hamstring. Kevin, overhearing, replied:
                        “Who – God, or the Doctor?” He considered the question so pointless. “I’ll find out, I guess, when I get there,” he scoffed, although whether he meant heaven or hell, nobody offered a thought. Not three weeks but a fortnight later, Kevin was dead.
                        “I told you he was ill,” the Doctor said. But as Father O’Flannel read the last rites, with ‘Placebo Domino in regione vivorum,’ that Doctor started looking shifty. He had a secret to carry to his grave: it wasn’t drugs he gave to Kevin the hyper-conman, but non-effective pills. Kevin wasn’t even slightly ill.
                        For two-and-a-half weeks, Kevin learned a lesson of humility as he came to terms with a made-up God and the truth of his humanity. No wonder he never complained in his final hours: his ailment was indeed in the mind, governed by the power of eternal punishment for his life of sin than the various claims of science, religion, or medicine.
                        “Living life to excess,” the Doctor said to Kev, “Will be the death of you.” In Kevin’s case it transpired to prove the opposite that was true.