Notes from the Desk – Farewell

The Headmaster said his farewell today with a good speech that reminded anyone who had been swept up in the growing trend of obtuseness, that the last eight years had been momentous; that things which happened never could have been foreseen. Terrorist attacks in this country and in his home town of Christchurch in New Zealand; the uncertainty of Brexit; the pandemic and more recently’ war in Eastern Europe. Enough to last a lifetime, let alone less than a decade. We’ll look back fondly at it all one day. The Headmaster did a grand job to steer us through. 

I look back at the pictures of him when he started and see a much younger man; a man with plans and an ambition to take things this way or that and yet to find himself swept away in all manner of directions. I admire him and I know that I am not like him. I do not have his conviction or courage and I often wish that I did. 

But we are what we are and the past few years have tumbled us all around. The world has changed. It has lung us apart and thrown us back together; it has made us fear and made us rejoice, doubt and celebrate, bang spoons on pots and watch in breathless silence the daily briefings. 

I dislike goodbyes. The walk out with the dog was wet and dreary tonight; the raindrops tapped on my Tilly like a reminder of something I’d forgotten to do. I always feel this way at the end of term; like I have forgotten something, like I might have done more. That I don’t want to say goodbye when I never really spent enough time on hello. 

But there it is. Welcome to my life. I have aged in the last eight years and what have I done? Ticked over. Brought up the girls. Kept up with the bills. Send a few hundred kids off to university and maybe made them se the world a little bit differently. 

I don’t know why I feel sad. It is an achievement to reach the end of the school year with no bones broken again. It is a good thing that I am doing and it is me. That’s the bottom line. Things work out how they’re meant to I guess. 

Notes from the Desk

A man knocked on my door today.

He wants to start a conversation in the town about climate change.

I’m not sure if we are on the same page about it.

I have no political agenda.

Too many people have political agendas these days.

But it seems that we both have the same concerns.

So I think I am going to help him.

Notes from Africa – Progress

Progress is what’s needed. Just some good old British progress that can be quantified: measured, weighed and counted. 

From the back of the pickup truck we drove through the compound on the edge of Zambia’s capital, Lusaka. The buildings, such as they were, were rough-shod constructions of breeze-block and dried mud. Wooden poles held up the slatted roof and banana branches lifted lazily in the afternoon’s breath. There were no windows, only square holes draped with dirty sheets and hung like curtains. Was cold at night, I knew this, and I wondered how many warm bodies it would take to be warm enough; how it would smell in that place after a hot and dusty day in the city; the smell of sweat and feet and dust. 

Outside each dwelling a little wooden frame held another soiled sheet in the shade of which a young girl stood to attention, guarding her wares on the table set out before her. Fruit, mostly. Sometimes dried fish or a pile of nuts. Each girl’s face black as the African night and teeth and eyes brilliantly white. Eyes that followed our white faces as we passed by, defying us not to stop. 

Some of the stall, though not many, were crammed with fruit and other stuffs but many more held a pathetic selection. On one stall just two apples. On another, a single banana. 

I wondered what these girls though about progress. If they sold two apples yesterday would they urge themselves to sell three today. Would five put the pressure on for tomorrow? I know that I would feel this way. That is the way that I see progress, though now I start to wonder who has it right. 

Around the fire that night as we ate steak and drank wine I asked out local guide about the girls, I told him that I couldn’t stop thinking about the poor girl with just a single banana to sell. 

He laughed at me. Told me that I cam from a world where supermarket shelves are filled every time an item is removed. I felt foolish. You should not feel sorry for the girl with a single banana, he went on: feel sorry for the girl with a stall full of fruit. She has sold nothing today.   

Notes from the Desk – Gift

Getting children to read these days is difficult. It is important, I think, to insist on books – actual books. They will say that they have books on their phone or that they read texts on their laptop. I don’t even want them to read on the kindle, because the line between technology and reading becomes too blurred; it becomes too easy to slip out of the book and into something else. Something easier. Something instantly gratifying. 

One of the kids said to me today that he used to read a lot, before he got his phone. Another said that he will spend the summer playing on his playstation: at least eight hours a day. 

I insist that they read real books because real books have a story that is beyond the story. There is a process and a journey that a book goes through; a succession of owners and a history of love and maltreatment. The pages age and the smells change – from the sharp fishy aroma of a new book to the musty dust of an old book: the smell of memories. 

It is a dying art. And it is an art. It is the nurturing of a skill that demands half and gives the other half. Half comes from the writer and the other half from the reader who must complete those half-formed ideas and shape them into the things that they recognise. These shapes change over time, over geography, over circumstance: a well-told story is a living, breathing thing: it is why we talk about the contents of the pages in the present tense. 

I have been collected discarded books from the library and today wrapped them, added a bit of a synopsis and made them look pretty and mysterious. For the summer they will have the gift of story. 

Is there a better gift? 

Notes from the Desk – Grip

I’m absolutely certain now what it is. No. That’s not right. It’s not what I mean. It’s worth getting it right before we go on. That’s part of the point, after all.

I’ll start differently. 

I’m absolutely certain now what I am. That’s more what it needs to be. 

The trouble is that I can’t say the words. I know the words, I mean, it’s been a part of my professional career to know these words and what they mean. An irony is that I shunned these words and often rejected them as justifications for the behaviour of individuals. I can’t say the words now that I am certain that they apply to me. Not just yet. That, and the rejection of others’ adherence to them are just more signs that I’m finally right. That I’m finally there at the place I have always been destined to turn up at one day. 

Maybe if I was a kid in these times I would have got here many years ago. Maybe my life might have been different. I think and have thunk this a lot even though it hurts my brain and is useless. 

If things hadn’t happened in exactly the way they did for the last 46 years then I wouldn’t be precisely here with precisely the people that I have. I wouldn’t have my girls and all suffering is worth knowing them. 

The question is, now that I have realised that all that has passed and the grey fog that has followed me all places; that has coloured relationships and found and lost a lot of good people; that has made people think me an arsehole just because of the way that I have said things. Sometimes I look back and realise that even a look or expression that I have given has defined the course of events or relations. The tiniest flutter of an eyelid seen in the wrong way: a butterfly effect. The question I’m getting to is what happens next? 

I’ve got through this far, this ridiculously far, because of the mask. The act. The great show. All the world’s a stage and this performance has been going on for decades. Plath wanted to unpeel.  

I’ve never been me and I am so tired. 

Getting in to the Creative Frame of Mind

1. Find your ritual  

Everyone has a ritual, like a set of emotional anchors, for accessing the perfect writing state (where things just flow). All good athletes have a ritual for getting in the zone – sometimes as simple as a quick bounce of the tennis ball, for good luck. Everyone who writes has a ritual for writing performance, but most people are not aware of them. 

Have a think about last time you wrote in that perfect way… and remember the little things you did (environmentally and behaviorally) right before you got started. Find your ritual. 

2. Have a clear outcome  

So many people start of writing projects (especially the more creative ones, like blogging) without a clear outcome in mind. Then, they start deleting whole paragraphs saying “what rubbish!”. 

The question is, how are you measuring what “good writing” looks like? What is your intention behind writing this piece? What would it look like, when finished? How would the reader respond? 

These are all questions that clarify your outcome. It’s much easier to write successfully, when you know where you’re headed. 

3. Find a creative environment 

This one is simple and probably eye-rolling obvious. Thing is, few people understand the significance of the psychological implications of a bad writing environment. 

If you tried to get good writing done at, say, a nightclub… imagine your mental state! Your unconscious mind anchors certain states and behaviors to specific environments. Therefor, having a special, reserved “creative space” is useful… and, attempting writing in regular, everyday environments will tend to focus you on everyday, distracts thoughts. 

4. Get inspired by awesomeness 

Want a shortcut to getting in that hyper-effective state? Go read something written by a genius. 

Chances are they were in that “zone” when they wrote it and that’ll come through, between the lines. Your brain will pay attention and vicariously feed off the creativity of others. 

5. Clear your head 

Don’t try and transition from filing your taxes (or hanging out on twitter) direct to working on some creative project. Take a 4 minute break to just sit and be. Clear your head and then bring a decent game-face (and mind) to your writing. 

6. Write at the right time 

Inspiration, creativity and motivation tend to naturally ebb and flow. For me, it probably has more to do with my blood sugar than I’d like to admit. 

Seize the day and write when your brain wants you to write. Disclaimer: Don’t write and drive. 

7. Create your state  

Above all, recognise that great writing isn’t dependent on some mysterious, external force. Your state, above all else, is what will determine the quality of your writing. We’re talking emotional state-of-mind. Your state is yours and yours alone. It is up to you to maintain it. After all, who else would you want to be responsible for your state? 

When you own your state, great writing can happen whenever you want it to. 

What do you think? How do you get in the zone for writing? 

Notes from the Desk – Usurped

I go to church every day. Sometimes, twice. I don’t go in. No, I never go in. But I go there because they’re beautiful places that poke out of the detritus of town and country and often have benches to sit on and quiet grounds to sit in. The church I walk to every morning at the moment so that Margaret can empty herself and stretch her legs is a couple of hundred yards away. Big and gothic with a splendid tower that spikes into the sky at all corners. I could see it from my desk now if I lean back, poking up, as I said, above the house roofs. But it’s dark and it’s not lit up.  

At our last house the church was a little further; about a mile through open country and much more quaint, tucked away as it was in the folds of the Worcestershire countryside. There’s a main train line running right outside the churchyard walls and I used to recall, as I sat on the bench by the south wall, times when I’d been on a train as it flew past and caught the tiniest glimpse of the old place in a thicket of trees; yew and oak. 

I thought then about how inconsiderate it was to have built a train line so close to such a venerable place of worship and to have disrupted the peace and tranquillity which it must certainly once have enjoyed, and still did except for when 1420 Birmingham - Worcester thundered past. How sad that the modern world had plonked itself right on the doorstep of an ageless institution and usurped the sacred monument. 

Then this morning I visited another of the beautiful little churches that used to walk to, this time when I was a student and had time to walk the five miles from home more often than I could now. Similarly the church is surrounded by yews, some of which are said to date back hundreds of years - perhaps as old as a thousand in some cases. There is no train line for miles around and the lane which passes is mercifully little used, but at the back of the building, hidden in a little gulley and overcrowded with willow and ash, is an old well. A well which, according to legend, had been visited as a holy site for millennia before the arrival of organised religion. It is not the Church that the yews surround, it is the well. Just as the modern need to get from one place to another at breakneck speed on iron rails has usurped many a sacred Christian site, there is a story that runs much deeper and tells of how these Christian churches were plonked right on the spots where people had been going to worship for time immemorial.  

In the church itself, under pews and even in the stained glass of the windows there are images of the Green Man and indications of a people who worked the land and worshipped the land for what it gave back. Looked up to the sun and revered its power to make the land productive and feared all other things that couldn’t quite be explained. 

Peel back another layer and there is another real story. It is all truth and one does not disprove another. Pyramids of truth, remember. 

I found something today that I’ve been looking for for ages. This will be a busy week at school but I’ll get round to the story in good time. It’s worth it because it’s a true one, like they all are.  

Notes from the Desk – Space

I have a lovely view from the study here. It’s completely ordinary and beautiful for that because it looks out across the front lawn and the little flower borders that we planted last spring and the Williams pear tree that I planted to mark my 40th birthday. The girls call it ‘the twig’ and it is rather meek at the moment: I have to be careful when I cut the grass that I don’t chop it down; but we were all surprised when it started to sprout leaves this summer and I’m sure it’s grown a foot or two. Directly in line with (little willy) the tree and looming over the roofs of the houses at the bottom of the cul-de-sac is the tower of All Saints church. I’d say it’s gothic, because I think it is; very square and imposing with a carved spike on each corner and arched belfry windows. But I don’ t think it’s old enough to be actual gothic, so we’ll call it mock gothic and sound like we know what we’re talking about. 

It’s a view of ordinary urban security that it would be easy to take for granted and assume that it will always be here, like this; that my children will always be as they are and have this safe place to grow up. 

But my desk doesn’t face the window. I have it facing the wall with the window to the side of me so that I have to move my position if I want to look out there. Anyone who writes knows that you don’t move position in mid-flow and the fewer distractions when writing the better (I have just turned off the football commentary and closed the lounge door to shut of those noises). In front of me, on the wall are pictures and notes which inspire, but don’t distract. They are, literally, the wallpaper of my life: photos of the girls and places we’ve been; quotations from writers I decide to listen to and photographs of writers that I want to see and whom I want to look on me as I write. They are (or were) just people with thoughts in their heads like me. 

Notes from the Edge – Connect

It has been hot again today. Beautiful for midsummer.

I walked over sunset field late this evening, as the birds were quietening down for the night and the air was less frantic and full of daytime activity.

It is always stunning up there, always.

I pause at the old oak halfway along the field and place my hand on it for a few seconds.

I do this every time in a gesture of connecting.

A gesture of respect.

I always thank the field, the world of the field, for allowing me safe passage.