Learning & Education, Poetry and Writing, Travel

I want to write….But first you must read

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The written word is a splendid thing. It sits upon a page, decorating the paper in permanent ink, or it graces the screen, released from the confines of the keyboard, strung into prose by the creative, inquisitive, thoughtful mind.

I have long wished to write, professionally, personally, for payment or for pleasure. Writing is that most cherished of arts. An ability to share ideas and to connect with people far and beyond, in different towns and cities, cultures and countries. To have your thoughts impress, challenge, influence, please, entertain and create an emotional response from your readers.

But for one reason and another, I never had the time or the inclination to dedicate myself to writing. A career spent working 70 hours a week in the railway, the tiredness of the daily commute to London and back, travelling on business to Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow….Holyhead (er, yes. Holyhead. The Isle of Anglesey, North Wales. Next stop Dublin, Ireland. Great place to visit, but my word it is a long way there and back.) Then an extended period abroad, around 6 years of travel and teaching in South East Asia. A period in my life where I taught English, shared our beautiful language and helped others learn and discover its delights, as well as trying to demystify its complexities (still trying….it is a fiendishly complex language). But I taught English. I didn’t write it. However, what long periods spent travelling vast distances by train and bus and boat gives you is time to fill. Which other than looking out on majestic landscapes, passing people you would never meet and remarking on how different their life must be, you often spent a lot of time reading.

I travelled extensively from 1996 to 1998, before settling in Indonesia to teach English. In that 2 year period I travelled from Hong Kong to Athens overland, via China, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Greece. I then travelled around India. Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Australia and Singapore.

This was the pre Kindle era. In fact the pre Internet period. Only in the latter part of the century was the internet developing as a key and implicit tool in every aspect of our lives. But back then, 20, 22 years ago, travel was a blissfully disconnected experience. No Instagramming your favourite temple and uploading it to your 3 million followers, no Facebook albums of every meal you ate for the last month. Even a phone call had to be done from an IDD phone booth, none of this Skype or WhatsApp video calling. The future had yet to arrive.

So to travel unencumbered by technology and by instant connection to the world ‘back home’, was incredibly liberating. Time was present and you had to fill it. Not by endless, mindless scrolling through Twitter feeds and Instagram stories. I say unencumbered, but before the iPod or MP3 player, I would be loaded with cheap cassettes bought in markets in Quetta or Xi’an or Antalya. And that brings me to books.

Books were the mainstay of travelling. I devoured as many books as possible. I sought out backpacker second hand book shops, or exchanged them with fellow travellers. I read and read and read. Sure, my backpack was a weighty affair, loaded with 5 or 6 books. Not the Kindle of today with hundreds of titles stored on it. I would have loved to have travelled with a Kindle. But I don’t think I would have seen any of the countries I was travelling through. Books were there to pass the time that was not fulfilled with the pleasures of travel. The joy of discovering a new city, of getting lost in labyrinthine back streets, finding a cafe populated by friendly , welcoming locals with whom you shared no common language  (today, just ask google to translate…where is the fun in that?). When night fell on a long train journey, books were there to pass the time. And what a joy they were to have. Travel can be immensely boring. Sorry to disappoint you. But it can. Try travelling for 60 hours from Xian in central China to Urumqi in the far north west of China. 60 hours. One train, through the featureless Gobi desert. You see one impressive set of dunes, you have seen them all. And how many games of ‘Shithead’ can you play in 60 hours? (Actually my great friend and travel partner Simon and I played marathon sessions of shithead – it is a popular card among backpackers. Well it used to be. I expect everyone it too busy on their phones now.)

Every travelogue written or documentary made will inevitably distill the journey to its salient and most interesting parts. The incidents, good and bad, the highlights, the sights, the most memorable and interesting people and conversations. But they rarely emphasize the tedium of long, hot (or cold), seemingly endless, interminable journeys through landscapes that do not scintillate, enrapture, enthrall or amaze. And I am 100% confident that the authors and documentary makers fill these voids with reading.

I have digressed a touch. My travels were enriching and enlightening. But without an array of reading material, it would have felt far more uninspiring, much more of a hardship. And travel should wherever possible, be something that gives pleasure and experience to remember and share. There are a few hardy souls who deliberately set out to experience travel in the raw. I met someone who was travelling overland from the UK to India and had £1,000 for everything. Every meal, every bus ticket, every hotel. He was dishevelled, looked like he had been dragged through a hedge backwards and looked as if he hadn’t eaten a decent meal for weeks. Indeed, you can travel very cheaply and £1,000 can get you a hell of a long way in places like Turkey and Iran and Pakistan. But I asked if he was enjoying his trip – sans comfort. Oh yes, it’s great! It takes all sorts. I experienced discomfort on many occasions. I endured long, uncomfortable journeys on overcrowded, overheating trains. I endured, but ejoyed the retelling later. A little discomfort is inevitable and should be embraced from time to time. But not every single day, every single trip, every single meal, or rough, flea-bitten hostel.  Yet he loved the discomfort, the rawness of the experience, the up close and personal, being one with the people he met, from the poorest villager and farmer to the middle class civil servant on a train. He was devoid of possessions, carried only a few clothes in a beaten up rucksack. But he read. He carried books and they helped carry him on his journey.

Since returning to the UK in 2002 my life has been one of immense challenge and difficulties. Our children were born 16 weeks prematurely. We had triplets, one of whom, Jewel, passed away after 17 days. Our other daughters Milla and Louisa were in hospital for 6 months. Milla had severe cerebral palsy and passed away in December 2016 aged 10. Louisa is doing really well and is now 12. She has sight problems caused by her premature birth; partially sighted in her right eye and blind in her left.

The stress and exhaustion of caring for our daughters put pay to any aspirations I had to write. It also severely limited my reading opportunities. Our evenings were constantly devoted to caring for Louisa and Milla, our days spent working and trying to function through a fug of tiredness. The moment I picked up a book to read, my eyes would glaze over and my eyelids became immediately heavy. I would be asleep in seconds.

But today I am able to give more time to writing. I am two thirds of my way through completing a novel. I have written an extensive range of poetry which can be seen on my other website or on instagram (@ajfrobisherpoetry) . Later this year two of my poems will be published in an anthology of poetry.

Writing is cathartic, an escape, a release and a way of expressing myself. I value the opportunity I have to write. But without the hundreds of books I have read, I would not be sitting writing this blog, my poetry or my novel. I have met people who proudly proclaim, ‘Books, nah, I have never read a book’. As if that is some sort of badge of honour, a decoration of the illiterati, something to trumpet and smile about. So much time is invested into our education, a free education at that. To have been given that chance to learn to read and then throw it away dismissively smacks of extreme arrogance and laziness. To read is to discover. My daughter Louisa has struggled to read. Her level of sight impairment is so pronounced that it has been detrimental to a ‘normal’ education. However, after years of patient dedicated assistance at her special need primary and secondary schools, last year at the age of 11, she made a huge step and began to recognise words. Then sentences, and eventually able to read paragraphs. It was incredible to witness and something we feared may not happen.

To read is to discover, no matter that it has taken years to reach this point. She is now discovering and able to do so herself. Not idly dismissing books as something uninteresting and unimportant.

So now I pride myself on being able to write, but also to have access to so many amazing authors and writers. To be able to consider opinions and ideas and to formulate my own in response, or separate to them. To be able to read a book and allow it to influence my thought process or not. To help me consider the words I choose to write and the purpose of them. The importance of what I wish to say.  The relevance to those who may choose to read them.

I now take pleasure from dipping into poetry books and savouring the sentences and poems crafted so intricately. To read and learn of Japanese philosophy, to understand the ideas of silence and mindfulness, to consider and challenge my own problems with anxiety, to escape into fiction.

To read is to discover, but to read is also to write. And long may it continue to be.

As Morrissey once said,

“There’s more to life than books you know, but not much more.”

Best wishes,

Tony

 

 

 

Poetry and Writing

The Forgotten Art of Handwriting

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I am a writer. There, I said it. “A writer?” you say… By what definition?

At the simplest level I am a writer, because I sit down and write. I am writing a novel (21,000 words in and 80,000 to go…), I write poetry; at last count over 280 poems featured on my instagram account (@ajfrobisherpoetry) and on my poetry website . I sit down and tap away at a keyboard, but I also sit down with a notebook, a blank page and a pen and write long hand. The words flow from my brain and ideas tumble to my fingers and my hand moves smoothly across the paper, recording my ideas as my poems unfold or my story in my novel takes shape. A fluency and speed of writing I can not match with a keyboard.

In many ways, I prefer the long hand style of writing. The feel of pen in hand, scratching ink to paper, to place ideas into a physical, present form. There is a permanence and solidity to the handwriting process (that is unless your notes and ideas are chewed by the dog or blown away through an open window or door, scattered to all corners of the neighbourhood.)

Writing in a digital format has more advantages than handwritten text. It is easier to alter and correct, to reorder sentences, to cut and paste ideas, to insert or delete as required and has an almost infinite capacity for storage these days. You can back up to memory stick, external hard drive, upload to Google Docs, Dropbox etc etc. Even if your computer blew up in the night, you would have a good chance of recovering your precious writing (unless you failed to back anything up at all…and it wasn’t so long ago that the only option for back up was done on a flimsy 3.4 inch floppy disk, with the storage capacity of a goldfish brain).

But the keyboard clatters and the fingers are thick and clumsy. And I still type with a rapacious, quick inaccuracy with my two index fingers and my right thumb. Letters are scrambled and mis-ordered, words are joined by errant letters; Imdobnotmknowbwhy… My text is peppered with additional b’s and n’s and m’s when I hadn’t even requested them and the space bar eludes my thumb with annoying regularity.

Half of the time I spend in composing written work on the computer screen is spent in editing and correction. You can never trust your fingers to follow what the brain instructs them, nor can you place your faith in the spelling and grammar checking Word or other writing software provides. “Their are plaices wear there faces where smiles.” Funnily enough my spell checker failed to pick up any of the 6 spelling errors in the previous sentence.

I remember being at university in the late 1980’s. The advent of the personal computer for anything more than playing stick tennis and ‘Chucky Egg’ was just around the corner. But the fantastic array of writing tools we have literally at our fingertips were not present then. My studies required a considerable amount of essay writing. Trips to the library produced reams and reams of hand written notes. Lectures too were another round of hand ache and cramp inducing information gathering. No plethora of photocopied papers to read, but a reading list of recommended books and journals. No quick looking up “What gases comprise the stratosphere?” or asking “OK Google, tell me the most active volcanoes in the world and when they last erupted”. And the essays were 2,500 – 5,000 word behemoths and written. Not typed. Every word written. Painstaking, laborious, frustrating when, as often happened, you realised you forgot to insert the most relevant argument in your discussion on page 3 and had to rewrite it. So too the examinations we sat. End of year or finals. 3 hours of furious pen action, trying as best you could to compose a valid and accurate, knowledgable and informative answer to the question posed. In as legible a handwriting as possible. I can still feel my fingers cramping to a spider’s shape at the mere mention of written exams.

Yet change was afoot. The word processor (remember those?) had arrived and the fledgling computer department had a bank of WP’s for students to use. And despite the hand written essays and notes and exams, the final year dissertation, the last big project; 10,000 words, could be submitted in typewritten format. Praise be. Hallelujah.

And so I found myself beginning to get to grips with the vagaries of technology. Type written on a word processor. And so the frustrations of type written text began…as I checked and re-checked my work, failing to pick up spelling errors that were homophones (e.g. wear and where), or spelling mistakes that required a liberal use of Tippex to correct once the final work had been printed and bound.

So, you can call me a traditionalist, conservative, stuck in the 80’s type of chap. But I am not really. The majority of my time writing is spent on a digital platform. I write/type on Word, I compose poetry online or on notes on my smart phone. The convenience is fantastic. I can be in the supermarket and I will get inspiration, the bones of a poem to flesh out later. I can’t request “Table, chair, notebook and pen to checkout 3 please”. But I will get the phone out and type my ideas. I love the flexibility of composing in Word, writing direct to screen. Chop and change, save and delete, edit and refine.

But I still pride myself on the ability to write. By hand. Handwriting that is legible, neat and honed from years of practice at school and university. I was even writing letters and reports, presentations, emails and meeting notes when I was a senior manager in the railways in 1996. My brilliant personal assistant Bev would roll her eyes as I asked her if she would be so kind as to type up and send this report / email for me. I didn’t even have a computer on my desk.

Has handwriting become a forgotten art? I believe so. Ask a candidate at a job interview to write a 300 word essay on “What do you believe you will add to this company if you are selected?” and they will immediately look around for a computer. “Er, excuse me, is there a computer to write on?” “No, the clue is in the instruction…I would like you to WRITE, not type”. “Yeah, but, well, I don’t write see, ever…” And therein lies the problem. People just don’t write anymore. They tap and type, but rarely put pen to paper other than to sign a name. Watch someone in their 20’s and 30’s  be asked to fill out a form at the dentists and it is painful. Their hands are so unused to writing anything. Of course I am generalising with such a sweeping statement. But it really does appear that handwriting is slowly being eliminated from the necessity of daily life and of any need for those in the next generations to employ it.

So while I will continue to embrace technology and cut and paste as Bill Gates intended, I will also continue to practice the dying art of handwriting. There is a connection that is intimate and solid; a fluid, fluent process of transfer from brain to fingertips and the motor skills needed to shape and write the written word. There is beauty in a piece of neat, rounded handwriting. No wonder our computer based writing software contain a myriad number of calligraphic styles….handwriting is aesthetically pleasing. When done well it aids the reader in passing fluently across the information and creating an unbroken input of ideas.

Perhaps we will one day see the  entire world slave to the screen. Everything typed and tapped. No pens, no paper to write on, only to be printed on, and maybe not even that. Handwriting an archaic activity best forgotten and not taught. Every school pupil equipped with a tablet or laptop, every desk plugged in and remotely connected to a printer, or Dropbox or external hard drive. But I hope not. There is discipline and style, personality and commitment in handwriting. There is care and consideration for the reader (or there should be…doctors please take note). Handwriting may be fading and may be seemingly less and less important in today’s modern age. But there is still a place for it, in my opinion

….an opinion which I type clumsily with two fingers and a thumb on a Word document on a screen on a desk top computer…..

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry and Writing

A Poet Writes

Over the last year or so, I have begun to read and write more and more poetry. From classic poems hundreds of years old, to modern day contemporary poetry; that speaks in language familiar and often raw, about every facet of life. From the social fabric of our communities, to the difficulties and stresses we face; the burden of work and stress, the desire to travel and to escape, the yearning quest for love and the heartbreak of love unrequited or relationships that end. And every other aspect in between.

My own personal development as a writer of poetry has seen me channel my ideas into reflecting nature and the beauty of the environment; celebrating our diverse landscapes and weather, the changing seasons and the miracle of nature. From the tree that appears lifeless and dead in winter, stripped of leaf, that suddenly bursts forward with new life in buds and blossom every spring. The snowdrops and daffodils that remain tall and proud despite being buffeted by gales and caught in torrential downpours. I also explore the experiences of travel; from the position of being able to reflect upon travelling for many years to 45 countries on 4 continents. But also considering the impact of travel upon those visited; those people who through circumstances welcome the traveller, but will seldom if ever have the opportunity to travel themselves.

Indeed, this passion for travel has afforded me some of the most memorable experiences of my life. An example was eating in Urumqi in North West China – in a small shack for a restaurant, where no one spoke a word of English, everyone stared in amazement at myself and my friend Simon, incredulous we had patronised their small eatery. But we were served the most delicious meal – though had not a clue what was in it.  Or to have been been taken to the top of one of the minarets of the Jameh Mosque in Isfahan, Iran. A lofty position where the muezzin call the faithful to prayer. A privilege to stand there and survey one of the most beautiful cities in the Middle East.

But my poetry also reflects the sadder sides to life. The plight of the refugees, forced to leave war torn, corrupt or economically poverty stricken countries in search of peace, security, stability, a future. But endure many hardships and perilous journeys and for some, tragically lose their lives, drowned at sea crossing the Mediterranean in overcrowded dinghies.

But also many of my poems have been written in response to my own personal tragedy. My wife and I had twin daughters. Sadly, Milla passed away in December 2016 aged 10. We remain devastated by her loss. It is incomprehensible and painful – and will always be. Yet, poetry, the written verse, has provided comfort and solace. It has reached out to my heart and it has helped soothe and ease the pain. It has allowed me to express my emotions, my thoughts and my fears. Without bottling them up. It has been cathartic and I am grateful to have discovered a love for poetry and an ability to write poetically.

If you would like to read any of my poetry, please look at my website; http://www.frobipoetry.com or on Instagram @ajfrobisherpoetry Let me know if you enjoyed any of the poems and of course I am grateful for feedback.

Before I finish I will share a couple of poems with you.

The first is called The Orchard. It is a poem for a refugee, who lived a happy life until the war came and they were forced to flee; leaving everything they held precious behind.

The second is called The Traveller and is written following experiences I had travelling in the Middle East many years ago.

The third poem is called Winter Walks. It reflects this most interesting time of year; when the weather is fickle and fierce, cold and chilling…and spring seems a long way off.

The final poem is one written in memory of my daughter, Milla. It is called The View

Best wishes,

Tony

The Orchard

A face forlorn, resigned, but a flicker of hope
Refugee seeking refuge from winter’s cold
And searing summer heat
Set adrift on unknown streets
Cast into a future unseen unwanted
Far from those orchards of memory

Closed eyes to memories that stay
Torn from a land where childhood dreams played
In the warmth of a spring morning
Where the smell of orchards ripe mixed
With spice and laughter
Spilling from every kitchen…
And joy, love and happiness perfumed the air

Until
Torn from a land of beauty and trust
Thrust into violence that broke homes and bones
Discarded and thrown from their whole world
Destruction writ in every hate filled scream and face
That erased the grace and tranquillity
Of those sun kissed orchards of memory

And now
The orchards lay split splintered
The fruit of man’s toil rotten soiled
Replaced by the fruits of man’s hatred and greed
Power that replaced the seed
Seed that no longer grows orange, lemon or pomegranate
Seed that is blown and scattered with bomb and grenade
Far from those orchards that burst with life

And now…and now
Torn from a home wrapped in love
An unknown fate awaited
In unstable boat, wrapped against the cold
Wrapped up against the world
And all they have and all they have lost
Fatalistic accepting yet uncertain
If they should ever set foot to dry land again
And whether in those northern lands
The orchards grow too

A flicker of a smile
Sunken eyes and wearied lines of a face
That has seen too much
And wants nothing more
Than to be at home
But home has gone
Perhaps the chance those seeds blown
Will one day grow again
Far from those orchards of memory

The Traveller
(Of endless tea & timeless scenes)

Set adrift in a shock of culture
Of endless tea & timeless scenes
Immured in labyrinthine streets
Lost to a morass of sound and sights
And aromas that please and repulse
Drowning in a rising tide of tongues
That spill mellifluous and rhythmic
From corners of mouths
And corners of ancient courtyards
That absorb every word and guard jealous every secret

Where the sea of believers
Handshake and embrace as if meeting for the first time or last time
Aging wizened and wise, respected
A country’s history contained behind opaque eyes
These wisdomed few sit around smoke stained tables
Obscured by pungent clouds
Draining endless cups of lip scolding tea
Cafes more home than the places
They daily discard from morning til nightfall

And between each furtive sip
They berate and bemoan in toothless whispering angered tones
The loss of those pleasures of youth
And the politics and pain
Which constant intertwines and pervades life’s rhythm
An unwelcome interruption and inconvenience
As ubiquitous as the dust that rises and settles
From the clouds created by the crowds of wearied feet
That tread the worn streets of millenia

The crackle of static shatters the humid hum and sultry reverie
As the soporific mosque wakes and shakes
To the discordant cry of the ancient muezzin that decries and beseeches
Those who believe not to ignore
This call to prayer that is carried in pious air
Which secretes through cracked windows and splintered door frames
And swirls in time with creaking ceiling fans

And now the flies gleeful flit and dance from glass to glass
As the cafe deserts and the tea still steams undrunk
And the anger and ire cools
For now the faithful stream beckoned to the shadows of the minarets
That play in dusk’s gently fading light
To await the promise and purity of prayer
They shuffle with resolute purpose
Passing shadows that smile unseen
Behind veiled faces and sparkling eyes
Which gentle fade too in darkening passageways

The narrow pavements slowly empty
Leaving only the flies that gather
To sip the sweetened tea
That sits ignored by the lone traveller
Sat silent impassive in the narrowing night
Closing his eyes in fervent desire
To ensure those thousand images
Are forever recalled
And the muezzin’s call silent fades
Absorbed by those dutiful souls
And crumbling walls

 

Winter Walks 
I walked in light
That dazzled and dulled
Through a tunnel of boughs
All stripped of leaf
And stripped of thoughts
The only sounds
The gentle crack of fallen twig
And the exhalation of breath and branch
That disappeared as memories
Of summer gone and autumn chill
I walked on
Further into winter 
And the light changed to snow
Memories were once more
Covered and muffled and mute
Dormant until spring again to emerge
And tree buds to life
Where new thoughts breathe 
The air of future memories

 

The View

She didn’t move
Her memory present still
Where once we stared to hilltopped horizon
In shared space and time
To timeless hills coppice and cloud

She didn’t move
While I returned to views
Darkened in sadness
Dulled to pain and loss
Wanting to again gaze in togetherness

She didn’t move
I sensed her in the wind
And heard her in the bird song
I saw her vivid yet translucent
A memory that smiled with me
At such splendid view

She didn’t move 
And why would she?
This view of verdancy
Unchanged a constant calm
And peace and presence in memory forever held

She didn’t move…
The view remained
And so did she