Conversations with a Taxi Driver, Falmouth by Tania Hershman

Politics? Bollocktics!” said the taxi driver when I told him I was studying the subject, back in ‘92; he then went on to berate a history of politicians in a way that made me believe he must be a ‘student’ of the game himself. His words could apply to a general feeling towards the people’s representatives some twenty four years later.

rsa cabbiesWhen I used to wait for my sons to come out of school, I was one of only a few men in the playground amongst the mothers and other female carers. There would be the ‘odd’ stay-at-home father like me, a granddad or two (usually with the wife), but the other men were mainly Bengali taxi drivers, whose shifts gave them the flexibility (or burden) to pick up their children. A study by the RSA showed that most taxi drivers do the job for their family, and thus for the money, as do most working class people.

Theirs is tough job, especially at night when the back of the cab may be filled with laughter, alcohol (aka motion) sickness, heavy petting, fighting, etc.. In Scotland, the advice given to one new driver was not to wear a seat belt, as you were likely to get strangled if the passenger decided to rob you. At the same time the liberalisation of the market with mini cabs and Uber, means it is a far more precarious occupation financially. Imagine spending three years doing ‘The Knowledge’, only to see the market allowing any person with a banged up motor to call themselves a cab driver.

Taxi drivers also spend a lot of their time waiting; hoping that the next fare doesn’t want to simply go half a mile up the road (only about a third of their working time is paid for). “When you get one [low-paying fare] after another, after another, you know your day’s wiped out.” But when the wait is over, their job is not just driving but also conversing with the punter, whether voluntarily or as part of the service. The one stereotype I do like of a taxi driver is them having an opinion about everything, whether they know what they’re talking about or not. They are not an uneducated group who ended up taxi driving because there was nothing else going for them. One bloke even won Mastermind one year.

IMG_2839Poets have often taken an interest, as they do with most things, in taxi drivers. Michael Symmons Roberts wrote a poem recently for Carol Ann Duffy’s Guardian poems on climate change (taxi drivers are ambivalent about it, as you can imagine when measuring it against their own income). And Tania Hershman does the same in Conversations with a Taxi Driver, Falmouth when ‘informed’ about Mirabella’s Mast; “the world’s largest, he tells me,/holds inside its vastness: stairs. Nor more scaling/rigging, a civilised ascent.” I like this taxi driver because although he wishes to impart his knowledge of the giant yacht, he also likes the mystery (i.e. not knowing) of its height. “Mirabella’s mast, he/tells me, is made of lead, MIRABELLA - From the Mastand we don’t know, he/says, why it is so tall. Just because it can be.” He then goes on to speak with pride about his son who’s in the army and is responsible for driving a General. This allows our passenger to imagine a link to the yacht and a relationship of power. “I imagine, as we go, the son, inside Mirabella’s/mast, leading his General by the hand.” This is a fascinating short poem because it leaves a lot to the imagination, allowing us to drift with our thoughts the same way a taxi driver must do when waiting on their next fare.

 

Tania Hershman is the author of a poetry chapbook, Nothing Here Is Wild, Everything Is Open (Southword, 2016), and two short story collections: My Mother Was An Upright Piano: Fictions (Tangent Books, 2012), and The White Road and Other Stories (Salt, 2008) and co-author of Writing Short Stories: A Writers’ & Artists’ Companion (Bloomsbury, Dec 2014). A third short story collection and her debut poetry collection are forthcoming in 2017. Tania is curator of ShortStops (www.shortstops.info), celebrating short story activity across the UK & Ireland, and is working on a hybrid prose/poetry book inspired by particle physics for her PhD in Creative Writing. www.taniahershman.com

 

Conversations with a Taxi Driver, Falmouth

Mirabella’s mast, the world’s largest, he  tells me,
holds inside its vastness: stairs. Nor more scaling
rigging, a  civilised  ascent.  Mirabella’s mast,  he
tells me, is made of lead, and we  don’t know, he
says,  why  it is  so  tall. Just because it can be. A
son, he tells me, drives around a General; he’s an
army man. David,  he says,  David is  treated well.
I  imagine, as  we  go,  the son, inside Mirabella’s
mast, leading his  General  by the hand. Where is
my  command? says the old man. Here, whispers
David.

Stabberjocky by Steve Pottinger

ShelleyI can’t imagine there to be a poet who so enraged those in authority, that long after his death, his naked statue would have its testicles removed. Yet this was the lot of Percy Bysshe Shelley. As the late Paul Foot explains in his classic book, Red Shelley. “The naked Shelley was the subject of much sport each summer was at Oxford [University]. As a climax to what is known as Eights Week, the future leaders of the nation would mourn yet another disaster for the University College First Eight by squeezing between the bars of Shelley’s cage, and wreaking havoc on his statue. ‘We’ve got Shelley’s balls!’ was the plummy cry of triumph which would echo through the quadrangles at three or four in the morning.”

I don’t suppose that the Notting Hill posh heads of Cameron, Johnson, and Gove are great fans of Shelley, or similar modern poets so resistant to their right wing elitist values. Well, fortunately their short-lived bubble of power (remember they were only solely in office for a year), has been self-punctured. However, there is little to celebrate from such a demise; the country is in its greatest level of uncertainty for many years with Brexit, and the grip of the Right is still vice-like, especially with the battle raging between the Labour People’s Front and the People’s Front of Labour.

Poets have begun to respond to this exit from Europe and resultant political dislocation, with online magazines and anthologies from the likes of Well Versed (as usual), The Stare’s Nest, The Bogman’s Cannon, New Boots and Pantisocracies, and I Am Not a Silent Poet. Steve Pottinger is a stalwart of political poetry, whether with poems against tax avoiding corporations, or as steve pottingerwith his poem here, Stabberjocky, holding power to account in the most surreal and satirical way. This reworking of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky is a real classic in the making. So much so, that if Steve was to ever have statue made of him, I am sure that descendants of Shelley’s stealers would be on the lookout for Pottinger’s crown jewels. (more…)

Like Mother by Nadia Drews

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Image by G Travels

We are coming to the end of the school year; a year full of turmoil instilled by a Government who feels it needs to do more than tinker with the education of our children, treating them more like guinea pigs in an ideological battle to send us back to Victorian times. Both education Secretaries (Gove and now Morgan), seem to want a war with teachers with the proposed imposition of academy status for all schools (thankfully withdrawn), new SATs for Year 6 students, and the madness of testing those under the grand old age of seven.

Governments still struggle with mass education; with classes of upwards of thirty children, herded together like cattle despite their different needs and abilities and family circumstance, all with the sole intention of getting them to pass a minimum of five GCSEs. I know from personal experience with my son that this can be really damaging to their future; that if they don’t attain these grades they feel like a failure. It drains the appetite of learning right out of them. All done without the seeming understanding of both what the teachers need and what therefore is good for the children.

20160707_020819So, what then of the children both in school and then when they leave. Nadia Drew’s poem, “Like Mother,” shows us the variety of characters that can make up a class. “The flimsy, thin, sterling silver skin stinging slaps/The back of the class chatting up robbing from the stock cupboard smothered laughs/Julie, longing lashes, soft, leather wrapped in Frank/Debbie, bitty little. Biting lippy, outside the chippy/Gob full of fizz bomber jacketed hands jammed in high/Up in arms, sticking out like chicken wings, flapping/Clucking fuck this and fuck that.” Nadia poem looks at this from the perspective of a young woman’s rite of passage.

Having two sons of my own, I have felt that society is more set up for young boys; team sports such as football, rugby and cricket, and then when older the pubs with their own teams, are gendered to accommodate male activities and leisure. There is far less opportunity for girls and young women, “uniformly/Stubby short to skinny strip/Hanging from the tide marked neck/Now noosed round a reflection in a dressing table mirror/A face painted with disgrace/With no-one waiting till you washed it off/Full term came and went for some /An unmarked summer break becoming an endless spiral-bound roundabout/A mid-afternoon, windblown, swinging groan/With no bell ringing time to go home.” And then the child becomes a young adult, out of their teens and into a great open space of uncertainty. It is meant to be a time to be free to achieve those goals that were drummed into them.

Up to twelve years in an institution, getting them ready to earn and contribute, whether to parents with whom they still live because there is little affordable housing, or to society through paying taxes. But sadly, this is not for all. For example, not everyone can go to University, although the political mantra and investment has always been that this is what you should be striving for; the nobility of social mobility. “All your mates had to stay in evenings/Facing days framed by pram handles/And pacing familiar avenues/Dangling struggling little girls/Heavy with hope from the hip/Where you all used to stand about strangling laughs/Yanking tangles, swapping bangles.“

Everybody can be somebody’, is the Adidas-like mantra of my son’s school; well it all depends on how you define and measure what a ‘somebody’ is and whether you go on to repeat the life of another, ‘Like Mother’.

 

Nadia Drews was born in San Francisco and brought up in Greater Manchester. A Socialist mother with a suitcase of vinyl recordings by Leadbelly and Howlin’ Wolf and a well-earned Young Democrats badge led her to revolutionary politics and eventually to sing and write songs about changing the world first in the bedroom and then on stage. The stories of working class lives in the songs grew into plays and she left Manchester having written and co-produced ‘I Love Vinegar Vera (What Becomes of the Brokenhearted)’ based on the local legend of a woman that each Lancashire town seemed to have. Having moved closer to family roots in the East End of London in 2011 she began to perform poetry at the Poetry Cafe’s Poetry Unplugged night and then to become a Farrago Poetry Slam champion. Through this she has been able to start to find the ranting voice she was unable to achieve in the 80s. Thirty years of repressed rhymes mean she writes long poems…but she reads them fast.

 

Like Mother

Settle down, bottom set, poor concentration, what do you expect?
Failed tests, predictable results, staying behind red lines
Life viewed through windows in sticks, drizzling with tears of spilling piss
Clinging like dribble to chins of grizzling kids, you didn’t do what the other girls did
Tossed like crossings out on screwed up scraps
The Battersbys and the Bickerstaffes

The flimsy, thin, sterling silver skin stinging slaps
The back of the class chatting up robbing from the stock cupboard smothered laughs
Julie, longing lashes, soft, leather wrapped in Frank
Debbie, bitty little. Biting lippy, outside the chippy
Gob full of fizz bomber jacketed hands jammed in high
Up in arms, sticking out like chicken wings, flapping
Clucking fuck this and fuck that
Flicking V’s, not free to fly
Leanne, lanky, shrieking streak of ‘Miss!’
Witty, eyeing, disguised lined rims hidden behind
Sharp as a knife flicked fringe
Shading every ‘shameful’ cringe

All subjects of so much rigid invigilation
Tiddy-tipped, spit slippy, wetly dreamt of unplanned examination
Cupped like slurped chipped china cups spilled in saucers of your warmth
Held in belched petrol smells, cider swilled with fry –ups
Eyeing up, weighing out, measured in points for their pleasure
Stiff inches of sin counting you on scribbling fingers
Summing you up, in and out scratching walls
Hurtful mis-spelt spurting words
Running out and leaving
Stale-tasting tell-tale stained pockets of cock-eyed explanations

After all those years of teaching you lessons
Never reading your need to know
NO  …..NO…..NO
Minus one of them speccy gets noticed you go
Woe betide you’d ever forget it-they checked, uniformly
Stubby short to skinny strip
Hanging from the tide marked neck
Now noosed round a reflection in a dressing table mirror
A face painted with disgrace
With no-one waiting till you washed it off

Full term came and went for some
An unmarked summer break becoming an endless spiral-bound roundabout
A mid-afternoon, windblown, swinging groan
With no bell ringing time to go home
Down the dole to drum on doors hard
Then a card and a ticking clock
On the Verdigris, smocked copper bonnet, factory top
Making dull days, patinaed with wages
Catalogued to pay for life in reasonable instalments
24 or 36 weeks
Outfits in drips to disguise your defeat down the pub

Atmosphere thickly misted stinking with chart hits
Spewing what was up supped in the gutter
Up against a throbbing, glugging fug
Filling up belly-aching gaps, swallowing laughs, tapping off happiness
Getting ribbed, coins banged in avoiding trouble
Chasing, knocking back, seeing double

Others would try to get in the club
The price was too high for you to pay
And you were too old to run away again
All your mates had to stay in evenings
Facing days framed by pram handles
And pacing familiar avenues
Dangling struggling little girls
Heavy with hope from the hip
Where you all used to stand about strangling laughs
Yanking tangles, swapping bangles
Mixed up ten pence teeth sticking sweet dreams
Twisted in bags ripped from string
Escaping tear away paper thin lips
Skinned suckling pale pink dissolving flying saucers
Sore ochre cracked with sleeping smiles inside
That mithered mothers now bribe their daughters with
Outside Claire’s shop beyond the school gates when you were meant to stop

You paid your debts to Great Universal
Ticking the box to say you would no longer like to be a representative
And walked out in a patent leather patiently anticipated excellent value for you shoe
Through the front door this time
With your mum’s packed away sadness and matching set of unused suitcases for all occasions
Full of qualifications to be somewhere else
And you slipped into the empty seat on the empty bus
Like a popped in pear drop from a shared quarter
Passed between mother and daughter sat on the sofa staring at the blaring telly
Yelling jokes at soaps her stroking your hair and hoping.

Transient Lives by Emer Davis

16536352701_702e66abf2_mWell the European Union is to lose a member. Maybe it will lose other members. Maybe it will be the end of the Union. What it won’t make a difference to (at least in positive terms), are the crises from Libya to Afghanistan that see thousands of refugees attempting to come to European shores. I am not going to get into the reasons for this fracture in European politics, which is as worrying at it has been since WW2. But one reason is not immigration. I don’t mean people didn’t vote with immigration as an issue, what I mean is that, whether there is an EU or not, it won’t make the slightest difference to these war torn people. And that is the shame of the referendum, which in my opinion should not have been undertaken. It was an ego trip of Cameron to have a legacy; well he’s got one now, but like Blair, it’s not the one he wanted.

Yes, the EU has failed the refugees, not least by paying off Turkey to keep them from making the journey. But that is not why people in the UK have voted to leave; setting aside the few on the Left, many of the others voted to Leave because they feel the EU has failed to keep these people out; that Britain can’t control its borders. If there is a problem, it is not with the numbers, it is more one of distribution; relatively large concentrations of refugees in a short space of time in small areas, without the necessary public services to help their integration. There should be a targeted investment in the community as a whole (both new and not-so-knew members); done in a way that doesn’t make people feel there is an unfair competition for services, whether for housing, jobs or school places. This is what we have done in the United Kingdom for many years. Not now. Not with an ideological austerity-driven government, who with tragic irony has managed to hand power to a small group of right wing demagogues.

20160107_080517The other sad irony of the decision to Leave is that the United Kingdom couldn’t be further away (in European terms) from the influx of large numbers of refugees. Added to this tragedy has been the fact that this has been left to the most crisis ridden country in Europe, Greece, to deal with it. Emer Davis shows us first-hand the situation facing Greece during this time in her poignant poem, Transient Lives. (Emer was selected as an asylum expert to assist the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) with the EU Relocation Programme on Lesvos Island). “Lesbos/Home to ouzo/And olive oil,/Cobbled lanes and wooden balconies,/The rambling stillness/Of the petrified forest,/Burnt skin trembling/Among dead trees,/We tremble in the evening sun/Re-telling the stories we heard,/And watch an old fisherman Bashing an octopus against a wall.” (more…)

Work by David Cooke

fathers-dayAt the birth of my first son, after a somewhat traumatic first week of his life, my father said to me, in his dry wit, “You’ve a lifetime of worry ahead of you. When you’re 80 and he’s 50, you’ll still feel the same.” Now my father is in his 80s, for me the worry works both ways, to my teenage sons as well as my parents. The greatest parental experience I have had is becoming a stay-at-home/househusband/underling of my two sons some eight years ago. I was brought front stage on the gender divide of parenting; evidenced at first hand the plates mothers are juggling, as many of my new plates smashed on the floor.

The fluidity of parental roles is more dilute than it has ever been. This is most certainly a good thing, but it also leads to uncertainty as to the gender roles each partner should play, mainly because the ‘economics’ are still paramount, especially when women continue to be discriminated against.

After the Second World War (up until Thatcher), there was a general consensus across political parties as to the basic tenets of the country’s objectives for its citizens, one of which was full employment – a job for life. The first bricks were taken out of this wall during the 1980s, and those men, now well into their seventies and eigthies, were being made redundant some ten or more years before pensionable age.

David Cooke at beverley folk festx2My father was one of them, and so was David Cooke’s, whose father opted for retirement in his very early fifties, and is the subject of his poem, “Work”. His father was “a ‘man’s man’ my mother said, who needed/a joke to keep him going, and something to get him up in the morning besides/a late stroll to place his bets at Coral.” As a young son or daughter, the roles of your parents are defined by their actions; of what they do, and in them days it was the father who was out all day at work. So when he is made redundant, he is lost. “I’d learn that no one’s indispensable./So after he’d botched a shed, dug the pond/and built a rockery, the time was ripe/for change.” They had worked all their lives and didn’t want to lay fallow on the dole. My own father went on to do different jobs, as did David’s who “With a clapped-out van and a mate,/he started again on small extensions.

(more…)

Ice-cream box of frozen curry by Jasmine Ann Cooray

four_generations_handsAs we slowly make our way to the voting booth for the EU referendum, what has struck me is the divide between the young and old; opinion polls show an almost equidistant difference between the young who want to remain, and old who wish to leave. But this type of generational divide can be seen in lots of other ways; different histories of course, which then influence the socio-economic and thus political positions of the young and old. One problem, at least the higher income countries, is the gap between the baby boomers who are being blamed for keeping all the post-war socially secure wealth (e.g. pensions), and the millennials who will have to work forever, which is okay because technology will allow us to live that long.

But one of the age old (sic) differences is of culture; especially for those whose parents come from a different country, who may be more conservative or religious, and wish to pass on their ethos to their children, which they feel is the natural job of a parent. From my own background, my friends were made to go to church, but would often just nip in at the start of a service to see who the Priest was, then spend the next hour round the back smoking before going home and saying that Father such and such was the man at the altar to prove their presence to their mother.

JasCooray1Jasmine Ann Cooray’s poem, Ice-cream Box of Frozen Curry beautifully expresses this generational difference from her experience being of Sri Lankan and mixed European lineage. The poem conveys the journey of a newcomer to the country, the people they leave behind (“Dear village leavers/Dear fortune seekers/Dear don’t forget us/Dear whispered prayers”), and the new rules and racism the leavers experience (“Dear name,/Dear get to work/Dear roads and railways/Dear NHS/Dear filthy Paki/Dear bite your tongue”). This is an immense a coming-of-age/rights of passage story that is both funny and sad, matching the older generation (Dear ice-cream box of frozen curry/Dear tiny aunts with iron grip/Dear random portly shouting uncles/Dear grandma wince at dodgy hip) with the ways the younger generation try to create their own identity (Dear make-up practise after lights off/Dear boyfriend legs it out the back/Dear promise I was in the library/Dear shaving threading bleaching wax). (more…)

Paraic and Jack and John by Mike Gallagher

the internet of thingsIn computing, Moore’s Law stated that the overall processing power of a computer would double every two years. This has literally powered the start of a wave of technological development, whose social impact is unfathomable, especially if we remember we are still the same cognitive creatures we were hundreds of years ago, when things changed at a far slower pace. This is both frightening and exciting and has accelerated the outcome of international capitalism – globalisation; that great sway of moving things, from people to pins.

Around 2009, more people lived in cities and urban areas, than in rural parts for the first time in history. Partly explained by population growth it is also to do with mass migration to the expectant honeypots of city life, both in home countries and abroad. Those who work in the cities, sometimes leaving their families for many months or even years, send much needed money back to family members who are no longer able to make a living from the countryside. In the Philippines for example, ten percent of its population work overseas, generating some $25 billion in remittances to their home economy (10% of its GDP). But I have always wondered what of the country without the ten percent of its population. What effect can this have?

White House PoetMike Gallagher’s powerful poem, Paraic and Jack and John, tells a familiar story of the Irish diaspora, who have left to go to the UK, America and elsewhere, and the gap this left for those still living in Ireland. not too many options there,/the bus up Gowlawám,/the train to Westland Row./Holyhead gave them choices:/Preston? Ormskirk? Cricklewood?” These men traversed the 260 mile long A5 road that runs from Holyhead on the Welsh island of Anglesey all the way to London and the Kilburn Road. (more…)