Thursday, 17 October 2013

The Ponies

If you think about it all of life is like this:

The ponies of Snowdonia lived in the fields of the mountains.
They were used to being cold.
Everybody thought they were safe and fine.
Then the winter of 2012/2013 came,
And with it the heaviest ice and snow,
And the ponies froze.

The ponies, dead, were buried beneath the snow.
And when the spring and the thaw came,
They appeared into the world again,
And were then buried again, only now in mass graves under cold soil.

They became one with the earth,
And thus fed the survivors and young foals.

They were born again, content and fulfilled. 


When I was in Year Three I had my First Holy Communion. It was a big occasion for the whole of my class and the school, every year about thirty children started taking the Eucharist like all of the adults. They became one with the rest of the Church, the rest of the world and with the Lord. Nobody liked wine, but just the idea of drinking the blood of Jesus Christ excited us enough to forget the horrible taste that it left in our mouth long enough to appreciate the meaning. We were supposed to know enough about the Church and the whole grand meaning of the schemes so that we could fully understand what we were doing, but I doubt we did. Even now I think I don’t fully understand it properly. There are simple things that I miss and certain parts of faith that have escaped me, or I’ve simply turned my back on.
                Sister Mary was a nun and Irish with grey hair and long, modest dresses and cardigans, glasses and tissues up her sleeves. Simply the fact that she was a nun made us terrified of her, even though she couldn’t place a finger on us. Part of me wishes she could have, just so that I’d have had a better excuse for hating her other than I just did. She took us through the ceremony. We walked in twos with candles towards the altar, we sang our hymns in squeaky out of tune voices. Then we took him in, blood and body, wafer and wine. She said it was Jesus’ orders that we do it, he said so when he was going to die, just before at the Last Supper. He told his disciples that they should do that to remember him, in his honour. She told us the same, and when to say Amen at the right moment. No longer did we take a blessing like children, we took Jesus in like people.
                There were some kids who only came to our school because it was the closest, not because of the faith. They weren’t getting Jesus, letting him into them and celebrating. They would on the side of our rehearsals with maths questions and literacy exorcises as if they were being punished. When mass was held at school they’d just get a blessing, their arms folded over their chests, hands flat on their collarbones; there wasn’t the option of sitting and waiting for everyone to come back.   
                It was going to be a big thing for all of the families, nearly everybody had Irish in them and so people were flying in from Dublin and all the other counties so as they could sit in the modern church with long, plain, sombre windows and doors and bare walls, breathing in the humidity and watching as children were given lit candles and told to eat the blood and body of their saviour. The distant great-aunt of a child would be there for the first time, watching with pride for a girl she barely even knew. My grandparents were going to be there, all four of them, half of them Catholic, the other half something they never said. Godparents too, one barely holding onto faith and the other something they never said.
                It was the travellers that took it the most seriously. Their mother’s barely dressed and their heavy fathers dressed for office work would stuff their children into dresses made up of fluff pink and lace, too heavy to walk in properly and enough to set the entire building on fire. I remember watching the boys in their full suits and golden waistcoats, heeled shoes, pawned signet rings, jealous to my bones of them. We came over in several cars, my family, stuffed into the Clio with the seats you had to move forward to get into the back and the Renault Espace with pine needles from last Christmas worn into the floor and biscuit crumbs on the cushions, seats in the back you had to open to boot to get out of. All of the English families were like this, but then we would watch the travellers roll up in their hired hummer limos, white and pink and silver, playing loud Top 40 songs and waving out of the sun roof and windows, holding in their hands flutes of children’s strawberry champagne and smiling, knowing that they were having a better time. The girls could barely get out of the doors there so much fabric. My friends were sleek and modest in plain creaseless white, far more beautiful, far more fitting; but they were still jealous of the travellers dressed in bubble-gum pink tissue paper.
                I didn’t have a suit jacket, or a waistcoat, and I didn’t know how to gel my hair right. My mother had to buy special ‘smart’ trousers for me, my first black pair, not like the itchy grey ones I had for school from George or M&S. We went to our mall and searched for an appropriate pair, but none of them fitted. In the changing rooms of BHS my mother struggled to do up the button and shouted at me, cursing my belly that spilled out over the top and I cried hard behind the curtain and the other mothers, whose children sat outside impatient and waiting, hopefully shook their heads. I thought I looked great, but up against those travellers I was nothing. I had cried loudly in public for absolutely nothing and now I felt a fool.
                My brother and sister were much older now, in university in London and Birmingham, above all this pageantry and superstition, left the idea of the Catholic Church and Sister Mary who was my teacher, Father’s Bosco and Rogers, Deacon Dom. They were made to come, and when it was little brother’s turn so was I. Standing outside the church my father took pictures of us all with fake smiles and when it’s all over we go back home and eat barbecue in the Spring time weather in our back garden. I play with cousins and my mother fills up wine glasses and some point I’m toasted, nobody really caring, me too.
                I don’t really have much faith anymore. I have inklings of it lying about. At secondary school I took lessons in philosophy and ethics, world religions spoke to me; Islam and Hinduism. I own the Bhagavad-Gita and I’ve read it twice and I’m pretty sure reincarnation exists as an actual law, dharma too. I own a Bible and The Prince of Egypt is one of my favourite films. Moses and the Exodus, Abraham and Isaac, Cain and Abel, these are among my most cherished stories. I own lots of things with the Buddha on them and I really like Japan. There is a postcard of Dante stuck on my wall and on my shelves you can find Moby-Dick and Paradise Lost. Here, at university, I joined a secular and humanist society, but I don’t really have the courage to go. I’ve been to almost all of the best cathedrals of Italy and I’ve seen the tomb of Pope John Paul II. My favourite singer is a devout Evangelist, my favourite poet a Jew turned Buddhist, my favourite authors Catholic and Atheist.

                It’s all a mesh now and it seems that you can’t really escape it; but I’m too scared to embrace it. Ideas buzzing around my head, not really knowing what my First Holy Communion meant besides drinking blood and being jealous of clothing and hair, who has the better car. I don’t like thinking about, but I can’t help it, and while I wonder whether I’m alone in the whole grand enterprise, whether I like the institutions or if I’m just going to rot away, there’s a part at the back of me saying it’s nothing and trivial and there’s nothing to question so don’t debate it anymore. But I guess it’s just human to ponder it, get sucked in and lost in the void of the question. I doubt many people fully make their way out knowing their own answer. I’m not jealous of waistcoats and suits, limos and good hair anymore; I’m jealous of the people who make it out with an answer they believe in.

Thursday, 4 April 2013


Our apartment was in the Ghetto; or it would have been if the Ghetto still existed, but it didn’t, and so it wasn’t. Instead it was merely in an area where the buildings were more run down and dilapidated, where the apartments were less well kept, more rustic and bare, where the water was more filthy and rancid, where the rubbish was collected less often and the dog feces and mould was more common. Behind our building was the waterfront and to the left a canal. The building was five storeys high, two apartments to each and ours was on the bottom canal side, and through the living room and kitchen windows you could watch the boats go up and down frequently and sometimes the driver would wave and sometimes he wouldn’t. I wouldn’t say our apartment was minimalist as that would suggest it was the owners intention to furnish it so, instead I will call it minimal. In the most of corners the plaster was crumbling and most cupboards were empty, the cutlery and crockery were grimy and unclean to the greatest extent, in the bathroom there was mildew and it wasn’t worth its five days rent. My small simple iron bed was hard and uncomfortable, the two too many sheets left me sweating throughout my broken sleep and fractured dreams, leaving me tired, unfulfilled and of bad temper till midday. Outside you could hear children, not the Venetian Ghetto children who from photographs and stories are depicted as blatantly jewish with stocky wise hasidic fathers, but small blonde Italian boys racing eachother on their scooters and girls sitting on doorsteps chatting loudly, all with bad teeth and generally bad eyes and all with either a mother or a grandmother with hazel skin and wiry black hair and kind eyes and mouths who would call them in for dinner or lunch, or scold them when they caused trouble.
On Easter Monday evening my family went out for a boat ride down and then back up the Grand Canal, but I didn’t have a ticket so I didn’t go and instead at around nine-thirty I went for a walk by myself. As I stepped out of the building I could smell the polluted salty water of the canal as the high tide lapped it up onto the pavement near the door, mixed with the smells of spilt beer and anonymous urine that was found throughout Venice. But in Venice you can see the stars clearly and the moonlight reflected off of the river shimmers on the buildings and its is grand and beautiful, but it was lonely and windy and the saltiness made me feel slightly sick. I started to walk down the alleys towards the roads and streets that I knew led to St Mark’s Square and the lights of the restaurants around the piazza and the slow buzz of tourists and I felt a slight and strange want to listen to the jazz bands outside of these restaurants. But the alleys lined with their colourful houses and closed stores were still cold and lonely and so was I so I decided to phone my friend, to talk with someone who I was neither related to or handing money over to.
She was happy to hear from me for the first time in ten or so days and I was relieved to hear her, to listen to her talk of my friends drinking and somewhat missing me. I knew the way to St Mark’s Square so well by then, my fourth day in Venice, that I didn’t pay much attention to the journey and focussed more so on my friend’s talking and when she hung up I felt slightly saddened and slightly near to tears and in a need for something sweet; a chocolate bar, a crepe, best of all an ice-cream, parlours of which can be found most frequently in Italy, more so than any institution it probably being the country’s biggest tourist attraction, the greatest ice-cream of course being found in Italy, displayed out in great chilled platters. But as I walked closer and closer to St Mark’s and the wild spontaneous bands I longed for to uplift me somewhat, there was nothing open. Not a supermarket with an over-priced bar of chocolate, not a corner shop-cafe with chocolate pastries and sweet citric crepes, nor a tobacconist which contained the thing I craved for second most after getting blind drunk with my friends and to go out and dance and laugh, make friends with strangers I’ll never see again and watch my friends tell lies about their lives and roar out laughing when the strangers believe it, and drink some more and dance, move to a beat, a slow and glorious, magnificent bass beat, the sound of a snare drum, anything.
Not even an ice-cream parlour was open, not one in Venice, not one, and by then I’d made it to St Mark’s, with the Cathedral in all of its Byzantine glory and the bell tower reaching far up above me. I wandered towards the lines of restaurants and inside in my spirit, in my soul I got excited about hearing the jazz, the first great music of life and energy, a music which when I listen to it I felt better afterwards. I passed restaurant after restaurant, one, two, three four five and all had the same message; I was too late, far too late by the looks of things. I watched three bands pack up and away, folding the accordion and breaking up the oboe, cracking up that black stick, and I felt even sadder so I looked down the piazza at the twenty or more Indian street sellers flinging their goods up into the air.
Little plastic toys that cost one euro and would fly up into the air and float back down coloured all red and pink and purple and and blue like little faeries in the dark cool salty Venetian night, the light glimmering on the golden mosaics of the Basilica and creating patterns on the gray floor, the lagoon water reflecting off of the pale green onion domes. I thought about buying nine or ten for my friends, only nine or ten euros, not a lot, because they’d been wherever we’d been in Italy, Florence, Verona, Bologna, Pisa, and I loved them so by then. But I decided not to, because that would be cheap and tacky and bad.
I considered getting a drink, a tall beer with a thick cool fulfilling head or a hard and waking and warm whiskey, but all of the bars were and restaurants were far too expensive and busy and I was far too young, immature, poor and generally usually positive to do such a thing and take it seriously. I looked down to the ground and noticed my boots getting wet as the piazza slowly flooded, rank and filthy water gurgling up through the drains with the tide and I thought “good, drown the whole bloody place” and I stormed off in anger and grief back the way I came and I felt even closer to tears and in even more need for an ice-cream, a cigarette, a drink.
I went back the way I came through the alleys until I came to the Dominican Basilica Dei Santi Giovanne E Paolo and the adjacent hospital with it intricate facade in comparison to plainness of the church, modest, the hospital with its water ambulances and canal side A&E entrance and I walked up past it towards the waterfront, the lagoon and its great expanse of green bitter and foul water.
Like all sea-sides, the Venetian waterfront is cold, bare and depressing, especially so as just over the water you could see the cemetery island of San Michele with its grand imposing walls and in centuries worth of golden-age Venetian corpses buried deep into the cool and still silt and sand and clay, where they lie quietly, undisturbed and content. Even on the waterfront there wasn’t an ice-cream parlour open and I think that that’s my problem with Venice.
From afar, from the books and photographs, films and TV shows it seems like a grand and magnificent city frozen by time in its peak and grandeur, still with its churches, its palazzos and piazzas and canals, still with carnivale and fireworks at night; but really its not. Its lost and empty, void of substance and purpose anymore. Only the tourists ride gondolas and by those carnivale masks. Like a poor meal it leaves you still hungry, hanging around for more and irritated and in want for your moneys worth. Venice likewise leaves you with a bitter taste and scent, heaps of tourist junk and a sense of pity for the people who must always live here to keep up the charade, who pay extortionate prices at the supermarket, who live through the flooding and salt knowing that one day they’ll end up on the cemetery island lying with their forefathers in the silt and the sand and the clay. Its sad and lonesome, and leaves you all but fulfilled and I guess thats why the bars are always so busy and expensive, because after a certain point even ice-cream can’t make you stop feeling bad for yourself, only cheap liquor, whiskey and gin, can do that. But, then again, it wasn’t soulless, it just wasn't what people wanted out of it and as I made my way back to the apartment I realised that one day, and maybe one day soon, Venice may be gone. This opulent, lavish and excessive  and grand beautiful city, bella Venezia, will be flooded and drowned and vanish forever except in the books and the photographs and films and TV shows, and maybe by then it won't matter and all the nostalgia and yearning for the Renaissance golden-age would have sunk with the city into the green salty lagoon and down into the silt and the sand and the mud.

Friday, 15 February 2013


It was cold, not so cold that beneath thick layers of fleece and wool you were iced to the bone, but cold enough for the snow to have frozen over and icicles to have formed. It covered everything, the snow did, the pathways, the buildings, the trees and all of the grass. The buildings would look cold, I decided, even in the summer, but maybe that's because I know what had happened here all of those years before and what was marked in the basements and cellars and the various remains of the barracks and structures. Most of all the barracks and resource centres have been raised to the ground and in their place lie simply the outlines of their foundations which are filled in with pebbles and gravel, and I can’t help but feel terrified by the vast immensity of it all, how naked and open I feel admits the vast openness of the enclosure, as if I could be shot down from anywhere I looked.
I know what it is and what it was used for, it was a concentration camp where thousands of political prisoners, Jews, homosexuals, people like me, and other “non-humans” were held for years and years, starved to death, worked to death, shot and poisoned and experimented on, used to try and find a cure to their various ailments and illnesses, but instead butchered upon, mutilated and slaughtered in their masses. But no no no, it’s how empty and massive the whole complex is that scares me the most, how there can simply be nothing here.
The main gate, directly ahead now, is, just in itself, a building that makes my heart race. I have seen similar gates elsewhere in Germany, but these lead into quaint little gingerbread style villages and not a complex used by the radical and sadistically objective monsters of National Socialism to unleash their terror and tyranny. It leads into the vast emptiness of the main housing area that terrifies me so much. I march where the starved and deathly exhausted marched, look at where they were kept and where they ceased to be, and I grow scared at how little I feel besides the fear of the emptiness. I can see the memorial to the these deaths, a gargantuan brick obelisk behind a bronze statue of those liberated by the Soviets triumphantly declaring their freedom; ironically from the cruelty of the Nazis into the influence of the empathically desolate hearts of the Russian troops. The snow, unblemished and beautiful, covers up the remains which, under the inch, lie restful and waiting.
I move towards the memorial and feel nothing still, but simply remain aware. I can be seen from every direction, every guard tower, every foundation and every pathway and everything else is gone. I see the sign “gallows” and move past it towards the obelisk without a care, because it was sixty years ago that they were hung, their blood has long since eroded away; and I stop out of regret of my thoughts and pinch myself in punishment.
But, I must remind myself, it is true. They are gone, all gone from this place and it has ended, there are no bodies left and the even the buildings are gone, the remains of the execution room have to be specially preserved in some sick memorial and tourist attraction, the tent covering it disallowing the snow from hiding it away. You can even visit the rooms where they conducted the experiments, down in a basement, covered floor to ceiling with disgustingly clean white tiles and sinks so medical you skin crawls in anticipation of a needle or scalpel, and over in the corner an information board, waiting like a shunned little demon. I’m torn between two hypotheses; one, that the doings of the camp are slowly being forgotten and hidden up, whether its from the snow or the destruction, like one of the barracks being subjected to an arson attack in 1992 by Neo-Nazis; and secondly, its being turned into a tourist attraction. There’s even a gift shop and cafe. Strange, I feel, to gorge on schnitzel, ├ęclairs and strudel in a place where thousands starved to death and would kill each other for a crumb. Maybe I should just move on...maybe there’s a balance between hiding and, well, this. But if there is a balance, I don’t think it’s what there is here.   

Tuesday, 22 January 2013


The hill is steep and I’m tired, it’s late and all I want is to go home, to watch TV, to eat from the fridge and sleep till twelve the next day. It stands there like a dark green menace, smug and waiting for my clambering feet to climb it and then give up, for it to win... Well, she’s already half way up now and I’m at the bottom alone and cold cause it is nearly February. Does she not know that? She runs around all the time with her skirt flapping and no coat or scarf or gloves and hat on, as if she’s invincible. Or smug, smug like the hill I can’t climb. Smug cause I can’t climb a hill and I get cold. Well, I’ll show them both...
She’s at the top and calling down to me “Jack! Jack! Hurry, its b-e-a-utiful! Oh, I’ve never seen stars like these from up here, I could just grab one and put in my pocket!” What a child... She doesn't read either, not that I really do, sometimes I just pretend and show off in English cause i’m the only one bothered to read Wikipedia as if my life depended on it... Sometimes I don’t know why she’s my friend, Mother says I’m above her. That she’s a distraction, that all she wants to do is get smashed and kiss boys and in the morning gorge her little fat face out and say she’s going to learn how to cook and camp properly, like the experts on TV. I should study, she says, study hard and read more, more more more, that’s the key.
“Jill, well, that girl is raised as if she were a wolf. Wild and rabid and eating raw meat if she could! Ha! I bet she’s never even left the country.” Sometimes I don’t want to leave the country, but I do anyways.
It’s muddy and I slip and get dirt all over my clean and ironed shirt, so I call out that I’m taking a rest, so I do. I look out over the country and the town. I can make out landmarks, the church, the library, the schools and resource centres. I think I can see my house but i’m not sure, it might be a bit hidden behind the school. I can make out Jill’s house, out there alone in the country with its farm. That’s another reason Mother doesn’t like Jill, her family are farmers. My family are all important people she tells me. So important that they don’t have time to meet the farmers, too busy... I’ve met the farmers, they’re perfectly nice, charming and warm and they chuckle, all of them, deep and throaty chuckles, the best type of chuckling... That was when I was little and since then I’ve always reminded myself to chuckle, not giggle like my parents. They hate chuckles, say chuckles take too long, “a quick giggle is all that can be condoned.”
I get up and start again up the hill, slipping and cursing loudly into the darkness. Three-quarters of the way up. I can hear Jill shouting out and tracing star patterns with her fingers. Do I have homework for tomorrow? It’ll be too late by the time I get home anyways.
I get there and there she is, lying in mud, her skirt pulled up high and her eyes wide looking up at the stars, so I lie down next to her and look up, and...well, she was right, these are the best stars I’ve ever seen. So many that I’ve seen before and all of these new ones, scattered across like jacks. Christ, why does she always have to be right? She doesn’t deserve it...

Saturday, 15 December 2012


“Each one of us has a designed and set place and purpose in the universe and it is up to us to decide whether we accept this as undisputed fact, or rebel against and decide our own duty, our ultimate our personal duty.” I sat speechless staring at him, loving him and watching his lips move to form each marvellous and angelic syllable. He smirked that little wild smirk that every person has down inside of themselves and said “Ah, shit man, don’t be leaving me hangin’, c’mon, what d’ya say about that?” “It’s brilliant” I said and I knew that I loved him and I knew that he could also love me and he knew that too and we loved each other momentarily. So we stayed up all night staring at each other on his bed with our backs up straight and hands folded on our laps and breathed deep and slow and talked about everything and everyone, childhood, lovers, the people I loved and admired like my Grandfather and for him that one teacher and all the music I love and films and books and writers, and he did the same and he confessed (when I asked) that he’d never really read until he had had me and realised all the wonders reading could do to a man and his soul. I really was touched and he said that on the day we met he went straight to a bookstore and bought a copy of Ulysses and The Sea-Wolf. “Gawd, I read one page of Ulysses and went back and exchanged it for the first book I saw East of Eden.” I told him that both of these books had been favourites of mine when I was a kid and still were. “How did you like them?” “Well, I read them cover to cover to cover no problamo and I did not care for them, not one little bit.” “But the Timshel in Steinbeck and the Nietzsche in London are perfect for you! You went on about them near enough just then!” “I know I know and I appreciate their help to the depths of my soul I do, but they were just straight reads. I didn’t need to reread anything. I need a challenge, to be stimulated, ya know?” I told him to try Ulysses again – “Not that stimulated!” So I gave him my copy of Naked Lunch and The Wasteland, he thanked me and I kissed him on the cheek and wished him good morning and left him and went for the door quick. 

Tuesday, 11 December 2012


The chalet was up high in the Alps and was the highest in the village. We had a small flat there for the week and the view was glorious as a great expanse of empty space and forest and snow and river and mountain rose up high above you and swallowed up the sky. There are moments when you look at something grand and tall and broad and it doesn't look real to you, it’s far too big to comprehend, me at least. The church down the road from my house at home doesn't look real some days. The Shard in London when I saw it, the Duomo in Florence, I expect the Empire State Building, and these mountains. Blue and cavernous and cold. I've seen many mountains, the French Alps, the Italian Alps, Scotland, but the Austrian Alps were the only ones that kept their sense of enormous proportion and power for long enough to really understand it. The flat had a wooden balcony that looked down the valley and up at the mountains with their sharp peaks, and when it rained it was cool and sheltered  and you felt that the thunder and lightning bolts were far away and nothing could touch you because you were protected by a wall of mountains. I felt sorry for the people stuck in the cable cars when lightning struck as they would stop and bounce and sway in the wind and even watching them gave me the fear of God. The landlady would say that “You have to experience the cable cars when they stop! It comes with the price of living here! Fun!” The only time we sampled the cable cars they stopped during our descent and myself and my brother were alone in car with an Austrian family who laughed and screamed with joy and pointed, but I sat there with my eyes closed and looked down to the ground fifty feet below and prayed silently. When we got to the bottom I looked back up the cable car lines at the mountain and thought about how long it would take to climb to the top from the dead bottom, and how long it taken for the mountain to get that high, and whether it was really there because it didn't look it and the locals acted as if it were no different to anything else in the world and I appreciated the mountain. It may have been one of the oldest things in the world, but nobody appreciated that it was. It had seen wars and wars and deforestation and death and simply looked down with omniscience and content and grew ever taller and more unreal. It had been there before I was born and would be there after I had died and it was safe and separate and it would still grow even taller and look down on everything below it, and that made me feel safe and I understood the mountain from within and appreciated it.