Posts Tagged ‘Dick Jones’

That Long Grey Corridor

June 15, 2007 4 comments

From Dick Jones’ Patteran Pages, June 3, 2004

Judi Benson, in her introduction to the poetry of bereavement anthology The Long Pale Corridor, writes of poets dealing with death in their work as ‘daring to give expression to the unthinkable in an effort to make sense of it.’ Certainly if poets have a task to perform in the service of all it is to engage with the unfathomable, the ineffable, & to try to distill from them some sort of lingua franca that will enable meaning. And from the earliest of writings to the contemporary, that function has produced some of the finest & most enduring of utterances. From the solemn, beautiful but ultimately didactic pronouncements from Ecclesiastes (All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again) to Dylan Thomas’s angry & desperate invocation to his father to rage, rage against the dying of the light, some articulation of the inconceivable is being attempted.

For my part, I have no belief in a divine being who is our author at the beginning, our custodian during the journey & our ferryman at the end. What lies beyond death for me is a mystery. I assume extinction but, of course, the force that drives me, my sense of self, revolts against the assumption. However, I seem to retain, at least to some degree, the child’s conviction of personal immortality. A combination maybe of immaturity & self-centredness preserves me against any active apprehension of the notion of my own non-existence. When I imagine the death of my partner or my children I am appalled, but ruthless analysis of what I believe I would feel in a world without them tells me more about my perception of myself than of them as independent souls. To be is to be perceived: with their passing there would pass also the greater part of what I am now, such is my absorption into who & what they are. Thus their deaths would involve processes of extinction for me too. But beyond some inchoate sense of the theoretical plausibility of such an eventuality – through a car accident, sudden illness, murder – their deaths have no developed reality or meaning for me.

So in respect of my own mortality &, by extension, the mortality of those intimately close, I seem to ‘cast a cold eye’ as I engage with day-to-day life. The death of my father six years ago, however, did produce in me a completely different dynamic. He died at the age of 88 after a short illness, moving rapidly from complete alertness to his condition through brief unconsciousness to death. What struck me forcibly during the few months of the inception & advancement of the cancer was his curious compound of calmness & phlegmatism coupled with fascinated absorption with the mechanisms of what he recognised from the start as the process of dying. Lacking religious faith too – although pretending open-minded agnosticism to my believing mother – he adopted towards dying the same Zen-like detachment that had characterised his living. As he awaited death the sense of excitement & joy in nature that so energised him throughout his life, moved into a state of equilibrium with an acute awareness of oncoming extinction. I asked him a couple of weeks before he died whether, even at the very end, he would still be asking questions that he knew would never be answered. He smiled & said, “Oh, I should think so.” I thought then, as I think now, of Jung’s declaration – a favourite of Dad’s – in Sermons to the Dead:

In all times and in all places is Creation.
In all times and in all places is Death.
Man is a Gateway.

He saw what few steps of his mortality were left as taking him up to that gateway. And that’s the closest that either of us got, or are likely to get, to a sense of death within a spiritual dimension.

What of poetry in relation to these contemplations of death? Firstly, a general proposition. Throughout time by far the most enduring poetic preoccupation has been with solemn, ritualistic considerations of death within the context of religious belief, & these largely concerned with death as a conduit to a better place. With the passing of fundamentalism & the emergence of a more humanistic existential view, the poet’s concern overlapped the spiritual & the personal apprehension of death – as, for example, in Tennyson’s synthesis in In Memoriam of personal agony & a sense of the immanence of God in the wake of the death of Arthur Hallam. Subsequently the 20th century poet – notably in the aftermath of the First World War – focused acutely on bereavement, seeking through verse, if not answers to mighty questions, at least some accommodation of unspeakable loss.

Secondly, my most focused reflections on the death of my father emerged not in the form of emotional reaction or rational analysis but as a poem. I conclude with it now, not with any great notions as to its artistic value but as a statement of personal accommodation that attempts some sort of inclusiveness. It comments principally on the characteristic nature of my father’s recording of his passage through illness. It also considers the manner of his passing & the peace that it brought him & his family, who were with him near to the end. For me a poem best marshalled, organised & codified my reactions to bereavement.


My dad was a man of prose – a specialist: words used
like gardening tools to conjure shapes, to fashion patterns.
Language mattered: correspondence ran to pages –
letters to the council; ‘thank you’ cards to nurses
that read like testimonials. Even notes to the milkman
came across like billets doux to an old and valued friend.
And the writing: tiny box-shaped words in biro,
whispering in lines, or gathered quietly in the margins,
small-voiced but insistent, looking for truths.

When he knew that he was dying, he sat at the edge
of his life, scribbling a commentary. Twinges
from a cancer hotspot got a note immediately,
draped around the Guardian crossword clues
or squeezed between the calculations in his ledger:
where it hurt, for what duration, and, in imagistic detail,
the character of pain (like a voice, like broken glass, an ache
like winter rheumatism). And, towards the end, in his little diary,
potted phrases: “Slept well,” “Insomnia,” “Coughing still.”

For we who sat around his bed, it was the silence
that confounded. To the nurses plumping pillows, lifting cups
from which he didn’t want to drink; to waiting family
fiddling with the radio, sifting through his laundry,
he said nothing. All his words were spent just days ahead
of the breath that carried them. And then, the afternoon
of the day he died, the clouds drew back, late spring appeared.
Mum leaned back towards the window, smiled and said:
‘Look – a clear blue sky,’ and we turned to see.

My father didn’t turn his head. Whatever sky he saw
was far behind in time, or maybe just ahead. Whatever sky it was,
no messianic veil, no chariots of fire obscured the view.
His great abundance, just like ours, was absolutely empty –
birdless, sunless, silent and ineffable, mocking the mad commotion
down below. He drew in breath, breathed out and said:
‘A clear blue sky,’ floating the words on the sterile air
like leaves. He didn’t speak again; he died that night
and, one by one, the stars went out, a lexicon set free.

by Dick Jones

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Night comes in

January 29, 2007 4 comments

Late evening.
I step outside.
At first the dark
means nothing

but conclusion.
Then the pocked
light of a few stars
and a sliver of moon,

creamy but tart, like
apple sliced, and
through trees
a fragrance of bells.

by Dick Jones of the Patteran Pages

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Up In The Morning & Off To School

September 11, 2006 5 comments

Sandown Lodge School, 1955

Friday. It’s 6.30 in the morning. The racehorses wake you. They walk them from the Roseberry Stables, round Worple Road & up onto the Downs. Your caravan’s parked against the high wall at the edge of the school grounds, & every morning they come along the lane high stepping & snorting, sometimes shuffling nervously, quietened by the grooms’ gentle voices.

You lie in the narrow bed. Another full night’s sleep. During the few weeks since the beginning of term when Rory & Isla moved you from the boys’ room to the old caravan, the insomnia has ebbed away, & with it the fear of the night’s long flood tide. Out here, once the light is off, the darkness is total. And within those first few nights while sleep still eluded you, you could hear the screech owls calling from the big beech tree in the Paddock. Once, in the small hours, one landed on the roof. The spread claws skidding as it landed woke you. It called twice – a haunting whistle on a falling note – & then took off. Your fear then was real. But it was a gut sensation, visceral. Not the spectral terror of being alone in a night that will never end. You fell asleep oddly comforted.

7.00. You scramble out of bed & pull on jeans, a shirt & a jumper & your wellingtons. Your breath clouds the air. You run across the dew-heavy grass to the side of the house, stopping by the kitchen door. An old ship’s bell hangs in the angle between two walls. It’s shaped like an inverted bowl & resting against its upper edge is a hinged clapper. You relish this moment of your appointed office, lifting the clapper slowly. A shiver passes through you & you slam the clapper against the bell, seven slow strokes. The sound, importunate, officious, thrills you even as its volume makes your eyes water.

You take the stairs in twos &, bursting into the boys’ room, you jerk the curtains wide & tug the bottom half of the sash window upwards.
– Wakey, wakey, rise & shine! you yell.
Somebody throws a slipper at you; it hits the upper windowpane. Down the corridor you can hear Rory & Isla’s lavatory flush. Outside on the landing one of the girls – Miranda, probably; she’s an early riser – yawns extravagantly & slams the bathroom door.

7.45. In the kitchen Maria stirs thick Scottish porridge in a huge aluminium saucepan. She steps back to peer through the doorway into the Scullery.
– Who’s here now gets to eat, she announces in her thick Bavarian accent. Who’s late gets it all cold.
Rory comes in, scratching his beard. He wears a shapeless cable-knit jumper & his Hunting Stewart kilt.
– Hulloo, wee-‘uns, he greets the kids. As he walks past Mikey’s tilted chair next to yours, he grabs it &, holding it firmly, tips it swiftly backwards to the floor. Mikey tumbles off it & seizes Rory’s legs.
– Are you on duty, Rory? he asks, pulling himself up.
– For my sins, yes, I am, Rory answers, entering the kitchen. Tea, Maria, black as tar & twice as thick!

9.35. Jimmy watches his English class racing towards the shed for saws, hammers & nails. Under his arm is King Solomon’s Mines, which he would have read them had they not called the lesson off. In fact, there were to be no lessons at all this Friday. Strictly speaking, a day’s lessons could only be cancelled by a majority vote in the School Meeting the week before. But during the holidays several lime trees on the Ashley Road side of the Paddock had had to be cut down & now that the branches had been sawn off & stripped, the plan was to build the biggest camp yet. In company with all other teachers with scheduled lessons, Jimmy accepts force majeur & lets them go to join the others, jostling & yelling. But he tells them in the few impatient seconds between announcement & release that he intends to bring them all up in the Meeting that afternoon because they are breaking a rule that has been declared by the entire community.

12.20. You can’t choose between labouring packhorse or Canadian logger as you seek out a role, hauling two long, ragged branches across the grass towards where the camp is to be sited. As you wrestle them into the loose heap & shake off the ropes you can smell the sweet, juicy fragrance of freshly sawn wood.

Already several shorn branches are seated upright in a long, deep trench & Jules is pounding them into the earth with a rubber-topped mallet while Robbie nails crosspieces in place to bind them together. Supporting the branches gingerly are Mikey & Miranda. Jules is teaching them a song in his almost impenetrable Ayrshire accent. With the precision of a chain gang chorus leader, he bawls the strange lyrics on the downward stroke of the mallet:
Wha’ saw the tatty howkers? Wha’ saw the eenawar? Wha’ saw the tatty howkers, workin’ in the Broomilaw?
You lean against the trunk of the big beech around which the camp is being erected. Jules pauses, downing the mallet & leaning on the upturned handle.
– Now, he says, catching his breath. The next bit’s the best bit so listen, right? Some o’ them had bums like beetroots, some o’ them had een at aw, some o’ them had cocks like carrots, working in the Broomilaw.
Everyone laughs, shedding tools & falling upon one another. You grin & make your way back to the woodpile for more branches.

4.10. Lunch is taken in shifts, the keenest builders carrying their plates out to the site. Eventually Maria brings the saucepans full of macaroni cheese out to the Paddock & serves the workers in situ. By 4.00 a few day pupils drift away to collect their bags & go for the bus home. Reluctantly, the remaining work force moves away, wandering back towards the school building. School Meeting starts at 4.15 & Rory has asked that as many attend as possible because he has an important matter to raise.

As you reach the hedge that separates the Paddock from the old tennis court & the frontage of the house, you turn & look back at the day’s work. A ring of stout branches, part woven & part secured by nailed crosspieces & rope, contains the beech tree within a pygmy stockade. A frisson of excitement & pride trips your breathing for a moment. One more full day’s work to be done…

4.20. The Big Room is full. All the boarders are present & the majority of the day pupils & teachers. Most, like you, are perched on the tiny blue kindergarten chairs that line the walls. Only the Chairman & Secretary – Peter & Janine – are seated in comfort on a pair of winged library chairs behind a low table. Rory is seated, leaning against a closed door, cradling Cordi, who is only 4. Isla sits cross-legged beside them.

Peter raps the table with the side of a ruler.

– Order! he calls in his high unbroken voice. I’m opening the meeting at…4.20. Janine’s going to read the minutes of the previous meeting.

Maria had complained that a loaf of bread had gone missing from the larder. The Meeting directed the guilty parties to own up immediately. Jago & Dilly admitted to having removed it & both were fined 1/- each & denied a jam allowance for one week. Rory said that boarders had been seen climbing on the downstairs toilet roof. The tiles were not secure & if anyone slipped & fell the school would be liable for any injuries resulting. He wouldn’t ask the Meeting to support a proposal for any kind of action in this instance; he just hoped that the boarders would be sensible in future. Robbie, Mikey & the Burch twins proposed that there should be a rock-and-roll hop for pupils & friends for the weekend after Half Term. Jimmy asked if teachers & parents would be allowed to attend. By a narrow majority the Meeting voted to include them.

– Any matters arising? asks Peter.
Gilly Burch raises her hand.
– I’m not going to the hop if my parents are going to jive! she declares. And teachers too! And I won’t be the only one! It’s just embarrassing!
The Meeting defeats a motion to ban all dancing grown-ups by a narrow majority & moves on to new business.

Rory raises his hand & is acknowledged by the Chairman. Still cradling the sleeping Cordi, he stands.
– I should like to suggest that we abolish all school rules forthwith, effective as of this Meeting.
He pauses. A ripple of shock passes around the room. A few kids laugh. You are appalled: a thin line between the silent, invisible machinery of ordered freedom & downhill chaos is about to be crossed.
– Do you have a seconder? asks Peter.
Rory leans down & gently passes Cordi to Isla.
– Well, it’s not a proposal at this stage. I simply feel that we have too many rules now & that to try to pick our way through all of them piece by piece, weeding out the unnecessary ones, will be too time consuming. So why don’t we just scrap all of them & start again?
He sits down. For a moment the Meeting is still. Then, one by one, hands go up, some assertively, demanding attention, others more tentative. Peter inspects the display.
– Jimmy?
– I’m not out of sympathy with Rory’s suggestion. But before this gets any closer to going to a vote, am I in order in bringing up my English class from this morning for breaking the cutting lessons rule? I think they should be fined & if we sweep away all the rules in one go right now, an important principle’s going to go with them.
Peter leans towards Janine & they consult for several seconds. Peter straightens up.
– No, Jimmy, you can’t. We have to finish this business before we can go onto new stuff.
You realise with a sort of disembodied surprise that your hand is raised. Peter’s cool scrutiny passes around the room.
– Ricky?
You swallow hard. When you speak your voice sounds alien, as if someone close by is mimicking you.
– But if we’ve got no rules at all then why would anyone…what would stop anyone from, like, breaking a window or, say, smashing down a camp..?
Rory smiles & begins to address you directly.
– Through the Chair, Rory, Peter interjects sharply.
– Sorry, Peter. Now, that’s a fair question & I guess the immediate answer would be nothing at all. But here’s the crucial issue: no one person here at Sandown Lodge has ever put together a list of rules & regulations & said, ‘Right, everyone, here’s what you’ve all got to do & you do it or I’ll tan your bum…’
The little kids all laugh. Rory takes a short step forward & leans an elbow on the fireplace mantelpiece.
– We make the rules. All of us. Together. From the wee kids right up to the grown-ups. And we do things that way because we all know that the rules we have make sense because they’ve come from what happens to us in our daily lives. So – safety, health, convenience, thinking about each other & not just ourselves. Each good rule grows from these sources. I think we’ve got a bit carried away recently & we’ve gone from saying no-one’s allowed to leave school by the main gate because it’s on a bend in the road & it’s dangerous, to things like if you spill sand more than a foot away from the edge of the sandpit you have to pay a 3d fine. And I think that’s a bit crazy. So I propose we dump the lot now & go back to the starting line. No rules, then good rules.
Rory turns & sits, pulling the still sleeping Cordi onto his lap.
– Do we have a seconder? Peter asks the Meeting.
Your actions still apparently governed by remote control, you raise your arm. Janine scribbles your name in her notebook as the debate breaks on a tideline of waving hands.

Wha’ saw the tatty howkers…? Jules howls as the boarders climb the stairs for bathtime & bed. Ruth, on bed duty, grimaces from her doorway. You carry your wash bag & towel, granted first ablution privileges so that you can make your way out to the caravan. As you clean your teeth in the basin you can hear five voices at various stages of pubescence following Jules’ lead:
Some o’ them had bums like beetroots, some o’ them had een at aw, some of them had cocks like carrots, working in the Broomilaw…

It’s a fine autumn night under a full moon. Silvery light shines around the gaps in the rudimentary curtains. You lie staring up at the curved ceiling of the old caravan, wide awake but free from fear. In the great beech in the Paddock, the screech owl quavers & you smile into the darkness.

The Downs = Epsom Downs, site of the Derby horserace.

Wellingtons = Rubber boots.

‘Wha’ saw the tatty howkers, workin’ in the Broomilaw?’ = ‘Who saw the potato pickers working in the Broomilaw Road?’

‘een at aw’ = None at all.

1/- = One shilling in pre-decimal coinage. Value, 5p.

3d = Three pence (pronounced ‘thruppence’.) Value, about one pence.

by Dick Jones of Patteran Pages

UPDATE: Dick has published a four-part essay at his blog called “The Practice of Freedom,” reflecting on what he has learned from 35 years of teaching in progressive schools. Here are the links: Down on the Killing Floor; A Manual for Revolution; Teaching as a Subversive Activity; and the conclusion.

Categories: Education Tags:


August 15, 2006 17 comments

Straight talking,
that was what
was needed, so
you said. And

you smiled a thin
and final line,
and you turned,
as they say,

on your heel,
on a sixpence,
and you strode,
straight-limbed, along

the coastal path,
direct, unswerving,
to the jetty, walked
its slick rectangle

to where the ferry
rode at anchor.
Just in time:
the straining lines

released, the anchor
hauled, the ferry
drove a silver
track, straight as

a rail, towards
a flat horizon. And,
as I watched
unmoving, you

slipped at last
around the slow
unyielding curve
of the world.

by Dick Jones of Patteran Pages

Categories: Short Shorts Tags:


July 20, 2006 9 comments
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