During my teens, I wrote poetry. Most of it was predictably bad - full of a sense of self-importance, really rather melodramatic - but I vaguely regret no longer having copies to hand of all of it, so carefully prepared, yet ultimately really rather sad, terribly over-cooked. Some of it I think was alright: I like to think I periodically had a decent turn of phrase, the ability to undercover an arresting image, but I may be deceiving myself. What really marred it was the temptation, which I could never resist, to lay it on with a trowel. There was no lightness of touch, no sense of the ridiculousness of the whole enterprise of writing poetry, no understanding that far more skillful others had been there first. It wasn't even really in the prose itself but in the choice of topics: whatever else one might think about the lines, and I retain some affection for them
But it never seems we get what we want,
So don’t come and see me and my colostomy bag.
Shut your eyes to see me as I was,
As I wanted to be,
As I wanted to remain:
Help me cheat death
they do not lack a sense of their own significance. That may well be endemic to adolescence, but I had a particularly chronic case, I suspect. It's not like I didn't realise this. The poem from which those lines are taken is, as the quote quite clearly suggests, about the unavoidability of death, full of a sense of the tragic futility of it all. This was something of a recurrent theme. There is another, later poem, written during my entirely accidental gap year, which, like that quoted above, trades heavily on the gap between the possibilities of life and the certainty of death, and I half-remember writing or trying to write others, doubtlessly even more cack-handed. It was basically that or politics.
Keep smiling, please keep smiling,
Because without that saccharine appeal,
That dilution of fire into warm piss,
That debasement of gold into shit,
That destruction of ideals,
That abandonment of principles,
That dishonesty about everything,
That theft from all the wrong places,
Without these and so many more,
I could not hate you.
Those lines were written in 1996, before Blair even came into power. This party is a moral crusade or it is nothing indeed. I've always had a weak spot for the rhetorical power of repetition, for accumulation and reinforcement, evidently, because, quite apart from the reappearance of this stylistic tic in my writing here, sometime in 2003, well after I ought to have known better, I thought that this was an integral part of the best way to express my disapproval of our dear leader's Mesopotamian adventures:
The same day, a mosque is seized;
Soldiers ambushed; missions flown;
Mosques bombed; children killed;
Mines exploded; roadblocks formed;
Cities attacked; sieges begun;
Supplies cut off; reinforcements called for;
Risks calculated; reinforcements sent;
Plans pursued; strategies handed down;
Orders given; hierarchies obeyed;
Weapons loaded; shots fired,
Blood split and lives ended.
I flatter myself though. These are amongst the better results of my delusion that I had a serious poetic talent. I also thought I could draw, but, thankfully, almost all the results of that conceit are definitely consigned to the scrapheap of history. The point of this though is twofold. I wanted to express both an admiration and a sadness, each of which colours the other. The sadness first. Whatever remains of the desire
to have arrogance and intelligence preserved beyond the morgue
it is atrophied, quiescent, when compared with its former strength. That is a loss.
I once sought to inscribe fire here,
An incandescence of words,
A lighting of the way forward.
Subtlety has overtaken me now
Well, quite. The sense of infinite possibility and of certain finitude are doubtlessly initially deeply reciprocally implicated. Both are gone, dissipated by each other and by time. Not vanished, maybe - the urge to generalise, to draw a grand conclusion out of everything, may well be unavoidable - but diminished, too aware of themselves, of their brazenness. At the beginning of 'Apocalypse Now', Martin Sheen's character gets paralytically drunk on leave in Saigon, and ends up standing on the bed in his hotel room, throwing stumbling face-high kicks at imaginary enemies, all to the quasi-prophetic sounds of the Doors' 'The End'. Time was I couldn't hear that song without wanting to be standing on a bed, paralytically drunk, throwing stumbling face-high kicks at imaginary enemies. Not, or at least not so much, any more. The world doesn't seem so open or so dangerous. I have become settled, and something, something I do not admittedly generally regret the loss of, has been lost.
So, now the admiration. A relative of my mother's died last autumn. He was a very settled man, content in himself, having lived the majority of his life in a small, isolated Scots fishing community. In the best way possible, he died as he lived, carefully, with the minimum of fuss, with concern for both his dignity and that of others, without any grandiloquent gestures, in fact, doing his very best to keep them away. He had a near-perfect sense of the harm such gestures could do to others, of the limits we live under, of exactly why you shouldn't be standing on a bed, paralytically drunk, throwing stumbling face-high kicks at imaginary enemies.
I may have got the admiration and the sadness the wrong way round.