Poetry four times in a week: can it be good for you?

At school I was shy and hated speaking in public. I remember having to give a five-minute talk to my class on railways: the idea of it terrified me, and the execution was even worse. The fact that I knew next to nothing about railways didn’t help. I was on the wrong track from the outset.

A couple of weeks ago and roughly 60 years later, I performed my own poetry four times in a week, to four different audiences. I am not boasting: it just happened like that. But it shows that if you’re born shy, it may not last. This may be good news for someone.

The first performance was on a Friday at Halesworth, at what is known in some quarters as a Poetry Café. Originally this group of mainly Suffolk poets led by Mike Bannister met at an actual cafe – Pinky’s – but it burned down a few months ago. So now we meet upstairs at the White Swan, while pool and darts are played downstairs. So I guess it’s a Poetry Pub.

Yes, I’m a Suffolk poet, though I live in Norwich. The second reading was at the Seagull Theatre in Lowestoft, which is still a Poetry Café, though it’s really a theatre foyer – a smaller gathering run by the genial Ian Fosten, who used to live and work (as a URC minister) in Norwich, which is where I first met him.

At the Seagull I have also been known to sing my own songs, a phenomenon which my teenage self would have viewed with horror.

My third outing in this fearsome week was on the Tuesday at Jurnet’s Club in Norwich, where a Norwich poetry group meets. It’s not a real café either: it’s the ancient undercroft of the Music House, rumoured to be the oldest house in Norwich (it’s on King Street, once called Conesford Street). And it was once owned by the Paston family.

Which is a rather a neat link to my final outing, which was two days later at the Maids Head in Norwich. No poetry café, this, but something much grander. The event was a celebration dinner organised by the Paston Heritage Society, of which I am a trustee, to mark the anniversary of the first mention of the Maydes Hedde in a Paston letter, on 22 November 1472.

For this I not only had to perform but also dress up and, truth to tell, I still don’t like doing that. Between courses we performed a number of poems and some excerpts from the famous Letters – and enjoyed some excellent food and wine.

In all this I steered clear of railways. I don’t know why.

What’s so fascinating about Cley? We pronounce…

Until quite recently I thought the most fascinating thing about Cley, a small village on the North Norfolk coast, was whether you pronounced it Cl-eye or Clay. Even locals disagree about this, and they are all sure they’re right. So they probably are.

However, I recently spent a week living in a house fronting on to the narrow street that twists through the village and forms part of the coast road. This particular street is a Coasthopper and HGV challenge second only to Stiffkey – and don’t get me started on how you pronounce that. But there is much more to Cley than traffic jams.

I already knew about the stunning coastal walk leading from Cley to Blakeney and on to Morston and points west. I also knew about the Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s lovely nature reserve and visitor centre just down the road – marsh harrier, anyone? – and the long, beautiful trudge out to Blakeney Point starting at Cley beach. Ladies and gentlemen, I had tried them all, and they were all good.

But I was less familiar with the village itself: the tiny harbour by the windmill and the intricate and cunningly crafted little brick paths that snake round the back of the 3D jigsaw of beautiful old houses and keep you away from the traffic. The paths on the edge of the marsh and out to the beach road. The “inland” way to Blakeney through Wiveton Hall farm.

I was also unaware of  the delicious smoked fish obtainable from the Cley Smokehouse almost next door. And although I knew of the strangely named Picnic Fayre deli, I had forgotten the delicious range of pies, cakes and Pastonacres bread that can be purchased there – among many other delights. It was close by, and we were in and out. Who cares that you can’t buy a daily paper anywhere in the village? You can buy Sunday papers, but that’s another story. Several other stories, in fact

There’s also the George (no Dragon), the Crabpot Bookshop and the church – safely positioned way above sea level and a home for the Cley Contemporary Art Exhibition. And if you’re into art there’s the Pinkfoot Gallery and the Wildlife Trust’s visitor centre – at the time of our visit home to a series of stunning photographs.

The views in and around the village are classic and irresistible, as many a camera fiend will tell you. But if you still think the most fascinating thing about Cley is how to pronounce it, my preference is for Cl-eye, because I rather like the establishment that sells binoculars and telescopes and calls itself Cley Spy.

My friend Dave “Swacking” Cuckoo claims that a Broad Norfolk pronunciation of Clay  comes out pretty close to Cleye anyway. But then he would.

Hard to sleep and hard to stay awake? You’re not alone

Erich Fromm, who described himself among other things as a “nontheistic mystic” (I wish I could come up with snappy phrases like that), had some interesting things to say about being awake. Possibly the most immediately accessible was this: “The paradoxical situation with a vast number of people today is that they are half asleep when awake, and half awake when asleep, or when they want to sleep.”

I can identify with this. My wife has been suffering with a virus which, among its many joys, features a persistent cough. The result of course is that she finds it hard to sleep and, being of one flesh and usually one bed, I find it hard to sleep too.

But there are other times when for no good reason sleep eludes me. I know many people are worse off: I have no wish to make you feel particularly sorry for me. I do sleep, quite often.

In any case I am more interested in the other half of Herr Fromm’s pronouncement – that we are often half asleep when awake. You can take this at different levels: some people are so dozy that they rarely have much idea what’s going on, for instance. This is probably the only thing that makes democracy work.

As I get older, however, I find it easier and easier to doze off at embarrassing times – during a sermon, for instance, or silent meditation. Indeed, I spend most of any meditation session that I happen to get involved in trying not to go to sleep, which is annoying because I’m supposed to be tuning into God. If I can sleep at such a time, what hope is there for me? It’s like dozing off while making love. No, I haven’t done that. As far as I can remember.

Even more surprisingly (perhaps) I often go to sleep while watching television. This happens even during programmes that I enjoy and which to other people are gripping. Dr Who,  for instance. Last Sunday I surfaced towards the end of the programme, slightly puzzled and thinking I had missed a crucial moment or two. But hey, the Tardis was back,  and the sonic screwdriver; so I got over it.

Later I re-ran the programme and discovered I had slept through a good half of it.

Falling asleep during TV dramas can be quite interesting. I have noticed on several occasions that my mind continues the drama after I have lost touch with it, and all kinds of things happen in my mind that never happen on screen. So I wake up thinking I’m at a certain point in the  narrative and find that not only am I somewhere else, but the bit of narrative I thought I was watching never happened.

If I was Erich Fromm, of course, I would see this as a valuable area of study – possibly source material for several books. As I haven’t read his books, he may already have sorted it all out.

But I have to do my tax return now; so I’ll leave it at that. Wake me up when it’s all over.

Everything you thought you knew about ears is wrong

After I had got in the habit of turning the sub-titles on during TV dramas as a matter of course, I realised suddenly that it might not be the Geordie, Liverpool or New York accents  to blame after all. I might have a hearing problem instead.

So I went to the opticians – which is where you go nowadays if you have a hearing problem. Doctors do very little. They are too busy.

The hearing expert at the opticians had a good look and said she couldn’t do a hearing test because there was too much wax in my ears. I needed to get them syringed by a nurse at my local surgery. So I rang the local surgery, and it turned out that  they didn’t do that either. They said I should go to my opticians.

Odd, Holmes. This could be a tricky one. I rang the opticians back, and they said they didn’t do it (yet), but they knew a man who did. His name was Nick, and he didn’t have a surname or an address. Just a mobile number.

I know what you’re thinking. Bit risky. I didn’t want just anyone poking about in my ears. But what was the alternative? I took a deep breath and rang Nick, who sounded reassuring. He was a nurse specialising in ears, and he did have an address. Admittedly it wasn’t in the smartest part of town, but that might be a good thing, cost-wise.

The opticians and the surgery had told me to put olive oil in my ears for a couple of weeks, but Nick said this was a bad idea. I could get the job done straight away. It wasn’t a syringe; it was more of a vacuuming. He had the latest equipment.

A trifle hesitantly, I made an appointment, walked to the address and after a while, I found it. It was through an arch which looked as if it led nowhere, but in fact it led to a rather modern-looking glass door, behind which was a reception area. The idea, apparently, was to press a button, and the receptionist would let you in.

Unfortunately there was no receptionist.

Eventually a woman came up behind me, pressed a combination of numbers, and the door opened. I tailgated her. She didn’t seem to mind. I asked her about the ear man, but she had no idea: she was there because her son was having a music lesson. I scanned the reception area, but could find no indication of where anything was.

So I followed the woman upstairs. I am good at that sort of thing. We met a couple of guys in business suits, but they looked mystified when I mentioned ears. I tried various floors and then bumped into someone who looked as if he might have been a caretaker, though he probably wasn’t. He knew about the Ear Clinic. This was a reassuring phrase that I had not heard before. He directed me to it, and to cut a long story short, behind a door marked Ear Clinic (handwritten) I found Nick.

Nick was brilliant. He was calm, professional, explained everything and answered my questions. He then had me lie down while he vacuumed my ears. He warned me about the noise, but in fact it was quite a pleasant sensation. It cost £50.

I went back to the opticians, where I saw a different hearing expert. She reassured me that there was no wax now, and gave me a hearing test. It turned out I was marginal, though good at cognition. She gave me a hearing aid to take on a test run with my wife, but while I could hear the background noise more clearly, and my own voice much more clearly, it made little difference to my wife’s voice.

It would have cost a minimum of £500; so I decided to pass, and take another test next year.

I am quite happy about that, because I know where Nick is now, and sub-titles are not so bad.

Follow me, I’m a friend of the Pastons

If you saw someone wandering around Norwich on 15 September with about 16 people in tow, it was probably me. To be honest, it could have been any number of official City Guides, but they would have known what they were doing. For me it was a one-off Heritage event, and I had been plunged into it almost by accident.

I am a trustee of the Paston Heritage Society – in fact the only such trustee living in Norwich; so it falls to me quite often to introduce visitors to the various Paston-related sites in the city. (If you don’t know who the Pastons were, I refer you to pastonheritage.co.uk; there is also a Facebook page.)

Recently, as the more alert Norwich-dwellers will know, there has been an extensive  Castle Museum exhibition on The Paston Treasure – it finishes this weekend (September 23). There has also been a more general, highly informative exhibition in St Peter Hungate, which continues until November. One of the spin-offs from this was my walk, which was inserted when something much more exciting was cancelled. I cannot reveal what it would have been. If I did, I would have to kill you.

I was a little concerned about how many sites I could include in the advertised 45 minutes. I was also slightly worried about whether I would be blamed if someone fell under a bus or was flattened by a cyclist, but I did warn them about it beforehand. They were a cheery bunch, and took full responsibility.

One of the problems with the Pastons was that they did not restrict themselves to a small part of Norwich – an area with a 45-minute radius of the Castle, for example. But we did what we could, taking in the main areas, such as St Andrew’s Hall, St Peter Hungate, Elm Hill and those ruins behind the Cathedral. We also slipped by the Guildhall, and stood for a while on Whitefriars Bridge. We ended up in front of the Cathedral after 90 minutes, having lost a few people on the way (all for very good reasons).

So what did we miss?  Mainly the Music House – the oldest house in Norwich, owned by the Pastons in the 16th century and now containing a Paston Room; and Dragon Hall, created originally by their friend, the equally famous Robert Toppes. But other sites of interest to Paston-lovers are scattered not only throughout Norwich but throughout the entire county, from Paston itself across to Appleton and taking in such beautiful buildings as (part of) Oxnead Hall and Barningham Hall.

As relaxation the following day I sat with my wife in St Augustine’s Church, which has nothing to do with the Pastons (as far as we know), but which is the church where I am a member. The building itself is owned by the Churches Conservation  Trust, and the church hall is used for worship. But on heritage days the church is open to visitors, and the experience is always interesting. This year I met someone who was born in the same place as I was – Earlham Hall.

Afterwards I wrote the poem that appears below.

Canada – where the light gets in, and the occasional bear

For my birthday my son gave me a book called The World Needs More Canada. He handed it to me while we were in Canada on holiday, so that I could test the truth of it.

On the face of it, the idea seems unlikely. The world already has a great deal of Canada: it is the second biggest country in the world (after Russia, since you ask). If you travel from London by air to Vancouver – on the west coast – by the time you reach Newfoundland, on the east, you are about halfway there.

I have been to Vancouver once, and to the Rockies twice. The city is beautiful, and the mountains spectacular. The Icefield Parkway, from Banff to Jasper, is the most sensational road I have ever travelled on. It’s too far away, of course, but that is not entirely Canada’s fault.

I have been to other parts of Canada, such as Montreal, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Regina, Edmonton and Calgary, and I loved them all – a feeling that is partly to do with the people, who are extremely relaxed about everything except stopping at Stop signs. They show great understanding, except about the nature of roundabouts. And they smile a lot.

But most of my time in Canada has been spent in Ontario, which in my opinion is greatly undervalued. Toronto itself is an entertaining and pleasant city, especially by the lake, although it  struggles to accommodate all the vehicles that want to get in there (or out again). Its Highway 401 is a legendary road, 18 lanes wide at one point, carrying up to half a million vehicles a day. It was the first road I drove on in Canada, and the first time I had driven an automatic car. It was a memorable experience. I would commend it to those who find the new Northern Distributor Road in Norwich a challenging day out.

Further west, north and east, Ontario quietens down. It quietens down south as well, but that’s because if you go south you’re in Lake Ontario. We generally stay with friends in Caledon, which is close to the Niagara Escarpment, with its rolling country roads organised in amusing grids. Despite the woods, there is a great feeling of space and openness, and there’s always the chance of running into a coyote, or a bear. Just the one bear, which appears to be lost. It made the local paper.

Yes, there is wildlife. Where we stayed there were snapping turtles and chipmunks, geese and the occasional (non-poisonous) snake. But all the wildlife is Canadian, and therefore good-natured.

Did I mention the wineries? Canadian wine is surprisingly good, and so are the restaurants. Did I mention the malls? They’re big – so big, in fact that walking clubs use them before they open for business. Did I mention the farm shops? I could go on. Did I mention Penetanguishene?

In short, I concur with the book in question, which covered the proposition thoroughly, with numerous quotes from almost everyone except Leonard Cohen who, to be fair, is dead. I presume they left it too late to ask him.  Canada – that’s where the light gets in. That’s what he would have said. Probably.

The very model of a G & S enthusiast

I was born in Norwich, but between the ages of five and eleven I lived in Coventry, about as far as you can get from the sea in this country. Not that I was aware of that at the time. I’m not sure I was aware of very much except my immediate little circle of activity, which centred on Stivichall School. This was (and still is) pronounced Sty-shull – a fact that rather complicated life when I came back to Norwich in 1956, after the death of my father,  and went to the City of Norwich School.

My new teachers had to make a note of my old school, and they rather expected something like Lakenham, Earlham, Costessey or a name equally easy to pronounce and spell (for them). Stivichall rather stumped them – and embarrassed me, because of course I had to spell it.

When you’re just starting secondary school, the last thing you want to do is stand out, but I had no alternative. All those other eleven-year-old boys were strangers to me, and I was now even stranger to them. Who was this lad from a school they’d never heard of? Why did he have to spell it? I don’t remember ever being bullied – just feeling an outsider, something that I suspect has never really left me.

I was befriended, however, by a boy named Fred Riches, who turned out to play a big part in my life. Later, he introduced me to my wife, and was best man at our wedding. We were out of touch for a while, but now see each other fairly regularly. Like my wife, he became a primary school head teacher and then took on other educational roles.

He also developed  a lifelong love of Gilbert and Sullivan and sang in the school performances of their operas every Christmas. Despite being self-effacing, he was gifted and talented in that area (as in quite a few others). I too developed a love of G & S, despite being much too shy to get up on stage. I just loved the brilliant word-play of Gilbert and the ingenious way that Sullivan wove his music around it.

Last month I got a fresh taste of it when Fred took part in the latest CNS “Class of 61” reunion. These get-togethers – looking back to our year in what was then the fifth form, where we took what were then known as GCEs – were started by a couple of CNS old boys, Adrian O’dell and Tony Friedlander, a few years ago.

On each occasion it has become customary for one of our number to talk about his life, which is a lot more interesting than it sounds. One of us worked at CERN, for instance. He used to be quite a good country runner, but I could beat him at chess. He beat me at everything else.

As well as talking about his life in education, Fred chose to pay tribute to the former teachers (Doe, Court and Harvey) who had inspired his love of Gilbert and Sullivan. And, with the help of a few brave colleagues and a drafted-in female singer, he performed excerpts from such memorable shows as Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore and of course The Mikado.

With a minimum of rehearsal and costume, this came over remarkably well, and I for one could have done with more of it. The performance took place in St Martin at Palace Plain church, close by Norwich Cathedral, after an excellent lunch in the Louis Marchesi nearby.

The following day my wife and I had what was nearly an encore, when Fred spoke again at our golden wedding party and produced a brilliant adaptation of “I am the very model of a modern major general” in which we featured fairly strongly. A very special moment.

Stivichall seemed a very long way away.

Farewell to an old friend – David Coomes

It’s not often you find yourself in a congregation that includes top broadcasters Michael Buerk, Michael Portillo and David Starkey – as well as several others who I sort of recognised but couldn’t pin down.

The occasion was the funeral of my old friend David Coomes, who spent the major part of his working life as a radio producer at the BBC. He died after an incapacitating illness, and I was fortunate enough to spend some happy times with him and his wife Kristine fairly often during the last few years of his life.

We met when I joined a newspaper called The Christian back in 1966. It was my first job in journalism. I knew practically nothing, I was alone in London, and his infectious good humour was a great help in an office where I sometimes felt out of my depth. The paper was closed while I was on a year of absence at university, and he was made redundant too, working to start with on Middlesex County Times newspapers and helping me to get a job on the Acton Gazette as a sub-editor.

We were living opposite him in Winchmore Hill when our son was born. He and his first wife, Jennie, who was pregnant when we met, had a boy called Phil who became close friends with our son. So our families remained linked, even though we soon moved up to Norfolk to buy a house. Eventually David divorced and married newspaper editor Anne, moving up to Cheshire. She now edits the parish pump website for parish magazine editors.

When that marriage too broke up, David married Kristine, a highly talented German radio producer, researcher and trainer. It says something about him (and about his wives) that all three were at the funeral.

David was not only very, very good at what he did – hence the respect shown to him by people at the top of their game – he was generous, witty and kind. I don’t think he was ever quite sure about God, having periods of doubt and cynicism, but he never let go, and his love of the highly spiritual singer Leonard Cohen reflected that.

I would like to think I introduced him to Cohen, but my memory is not quite good enough to be sure. We certainly shared a love of his work, and it was absolutely right that instead of hymns at his funeral, three recordings of Cohen songs were played (You want it darker, Anthem and If it be your will). The words could not have been more appropriate.

David was a voracious reader of novels, and every time I saw him in the last few years, he presented me with two or three (or more) from his library to read – and to keep. He was making sure my brain kept working, and it was much appreciated. I will try not to let it slide, but it may be difficult.

My journey out of grumpiness and into a maximum

Watching Scotland beat England in a one-day cricket international was quite satisfying – partly because I feel a strong affinity to Scotland, despite my recalcitrant DNA, and partly because it wasn’t what I call cricket.

The bats are too heavy, and everything is weighted in favour of the batsman, who invent silly new strokes like reverse sweeps and overhead volleys.

The interesting thing about cricket is not hitting the ball hard and getting a “maximum”, which I believe is a six, though that clearly has too few syllables. If you want to hit the ball hard without finesse you can play baseball (or rounders, as I call it).

The interesting thing about cricket is the subtleties that bowlers can use to make the ball swerve, spin or swing. Very little of that is possible in one-day cricket, with its white ball and hard pitches.

Yes, I’m a grumpy old man. I look back with longing to those days when cricket and other sports were played by teams rather than groups, going forward was rather taken for granted, and “positive” was an adjective.

Now that we have reached the much-trumpeted soccer World Cup finals, we have the same sorts of problems, except that most teams seem to prefer negatives to positives, and more emphasis its placed on possession of the ball than on actually scoring. The thing about scoring is that you give away possession of the ball, by putting it in a precise area: the net. You know, the kind of thing that most teams never seem to practise.

Yes, I’m a grumpy old man. There is a group of us, though not a team. But is it worth listening to us? I quote from a scientific article: “Every generation tends to see society going to the dogs as standards of education, behaviour, speech and pretty much everything else decline. In fact, what many people see as decline is simply a move away from the norms they are accustomed to.”

Well, that could be true, but it depends on your general world view. If you think things are generally improving, it applies, and I should shut up. If you think things are gradually getting worse, then it doesn’t help. I do happen to think that. Scientifically, it’s called entropy. It’s happening to me, and it seems to be happening to the world generally.

However, as a Christian I have to take a more optimistic view of the universe, and of myself. Entropy may not be the end. I quote from a non-scientific article: “This is what the Lord says— he who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters, ‘Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.’ ”

That’s more like it. I am no longer grumpy, going forward. I might almost say I’m positive.

Great evenings, thanks to Ross and Colin

One day many years ago I had something done to my teeth. I forget what it was (there are so many possibilities), but as usual it involved sitting still for quite a long time, and to distract me from the discomfort of it all, my dentist, Ross, put some music on.

It so happened that he chose an album by Mary Chapin Carpenter, which was why I ended up in the Theatre Royal during the Norfolk and Norwich Festival last month. I am not a great concert goer, but this one was exceptional because of the quality of the songs, and for some reason I hardly thought of my teeth at all. According to my cousin Mark – who is a constant concert goer – it was one of her best performances.

There was a warm-up artist, and her name was Emily Barker. She was part of the reason I went to the concert, because I had been so impressed with a song she sang that accompanied one of the Wallander series. It was called Nostalgia, if I remember rightly. It brought it all back.

In the video that I found after falling for Wallander, Emily was accompanied by The Red Clay Halo, and I fell for the video too. Also the name of the group. It’s strange how one thing leads to another. In Norwich Emily did not bring the Halo but was accompanied by Lukas Drinkwater, another talented musician I had never heard of. There are so many of them. If it had not been for my dentist, I would never have heard of him.

The same could not be said for Barb Jungr, who I heard for the first time the same week, singing Bob Dylan songs in a tent the end of the evening. I was introduced to Bob Dylan back in the 1960s by a temporary friend who I have not seen for well over half a century. I bought my first Dylan album without having heard a single song of his, and was bowled over totally and immediately. Great lyrics, great tunes, great singing technique. If I were to say it changed my life, you might think I was exaggerating. But it did.

Barb sang quite differently but also brilliantly in jazz/cabaret style, accompanied by keyboard and bass. It was a marvellous evening, and her versions of songs I knew well were riveting. She was also witty and fun to be with.

She opened with the relatively recent Things Have Changed and ended with one of my old favourites, Chimes of Freedom. In between came the rarely heard but quite outstanding Blind Willie McTell – plus many others, of course. I wish you could all have heard it, but I understand some of you don’t like Bob Dylan songs. What’s the matter with you?

Why do I bother writing all this down? Because – as I say – I was musing on how one thing leads to another, and how you never have any idea that it’s going to happen. So thank you Ross, and thank you Colin, my temporary friend. And the rest of you, of course.