Fear is a super power

You know that ice-breaker question, if you had a super-power, what would it be? I usually pick photosynthesis. I like my food, but just think of all the time it would free up: no more planning, sourcing, prepping, cooking and clearing up after meals. I could repurpose the kitchen cupboards as (yet more) bookshelves. I suppose I’d have to get used to green skin. That is less appealing, though anyone who wants to test my anger management skills by referring to my 5’1” frame as Hulk, give it a go. Although… in winter I am already a pale blue, which in summer becomes a startling white that reddens after twenty minutes beneath an overcast sky. I could adapt.

I hadn’t given much consideration to anxiety as a potential super-power. But now I think of it, residual traces of OCD in my system have likely helped keep me safe from Covid-19 these past twelve months. (For the record, I am NOT washing and sanitising my hands more than usual. We don’t all begin on the same starting-line: some of us are further round the bend than others.) But perhaps a long-term relationship with anxiety has put me in the novel position of feeling like the sanest person in the room as repeated lockdowns wreak havoc with the mental health of the populace at large. I have accidentally been in training for this for years.

And then I was awarded this mentoring opportunity. I was indeed anxious at the prospect of discussing my poems, in detail, with Pascale. Actually, I was anxious enough to wake at 5am for a 3pm Zoom meeting. But when everything has the potential to trigger the anxiety response, facing something properly scary doesn’t necessarily become the grand drama it would otherwise be.

Pascale is thorough! I’d sent her 25 poems and she talked about each one. I was delighted (if ‘delighted’ is a synonym for ‘incredulous’) when she called a handful of them ‘stunners’ and said she had no improvements to suggest. She talked me through some writing exercises I might try, for generating new work. And then we spent the rest of the three hours discussing how best to edit and improve ‘good’ poems. Primarily by being less abstract and removing anything that hinders the rapidity of the line (and by not introducing famous painters halfway through a poem only to drop them two lines later. Or having a seagull utter a phrase stolen from the mouth of a tetchy academic. How to goodness did I not notice those howlers?! The horror!) I had no idea how I would respond to having my work critiqued. Pascale did so with good humour, sensitivity and care. By the end of the three hours, I was mentally exhausted but emotionally buoyant. It is such a privilege to see my poems through her eyes. And as for hearing her read them back to me… .

Since then I have read through Pascale’s notes and made a rough schedule for ‘fixing’ those poems. I wrote a (terrible) draft of a poem using only one vowel (from one of Pascale’s exercises). I started two new pieces. I realised the enormity of the task ahead of me and felt briefly overwhelmed but mostly excited. I have so much work to do! I stepped into the unknown and booked a series of six poetry workshops.

I also sent two stories to Stroud Short Stories, one of which went on to be longlisted while the other was chosen to be broadcast on YouTube on 9th May. I have been invited to record it at the Cotswold Playhouse later this month. I am delighted. Having my story chosen and reading at SSS’s event in November 2019 was a turning point for me. It was a timely and much needed confirmation that I might actually be quite good at this writing malarkey. I was also astonished to discover that, despite threatening to go out-of-body with nerves (I was the ninth of ten readers that night), I loved being on stage and reading to an audience. Good memories, and positive things to take forward.

Notes from beneath the floorboards

It’s now three weeks since I learnt I’d been awarded three months of poetry mentoring. This past week has been full of good challenges, if very little actual writing. The week before that was horrible. My buoyant mood sank overnight and I woke with the familiar queasy awareness that I had committed to something when feeling reasonably capable that I will likely have to deliver on when feeling wholly inept. Sure enough, my path was soon littered with random obstacles (the injustice of one such incapacitated me for a whole day). I am blessed with the skill of turning a minor setback into a major catastrophe, except that I have learnt to recognise this pattern as a backlash that occurs whenever I approach escape velocity. I think of it now as a kind of threshold guardian whose job is to ask, “Do you mean it? Do you really mean it? How much do you really mean it?” before it will allow me to pass. Which sounds nice and empowering but is precious little comfort when I am stuck under the floorboards again with only dust-bunnies and desiccated woodlice for company.

The recurring anxiety dreams came back and brought a new one along for my benefit (psychological habitat enrichment, perhaps?). I was in the room I had in my late teens and a horde of rats was pouring up from under the floor and making for the door, which I couldn’t open. But. Also in the room was a 12-inch tall solid chocolate Buddha, which I began to eat: you can overrun my personal space, ye squeaking multitudes, but you ain’t getting your paws on my chocolate Buddha!

So. I completed line-edits on a short story. I worked on a visual art project on a related theme to my poetry collection so could legitimately claim I was still facing in the right direction and sending out scouts, even if I was not actually on the road. Once I was feeling sufficiently resourceful again, I made an inventory of all the poems I have written in the past few years. That is how much I really mean it!

That’s just as well because on Monday this week I had my first meeting with Pascale Petit. Oh my word, the nerves! We had some tech issues which resulted in a flurry of emails and which served to break the ice. All very silly! I soon realised that while Pascale’s poetic credentials are intimidating, she is not. She is friendly and encouraging and goodness knows I didn’t make it especially easy for her. I’m not a talker at the best of times and, for past trauma-related reasons, I find it excruciating to speak about things that are important to me. I either avoid the issue altogether and absent myself (hey, dust-bunnies; did you miss me?) or else am helplessly vague and inarticulate. With coaxing on her part and flailing on mine, we established that I write philosophical, spiritual (human)nature poetry. Which feels like an embarrassing thing to have to own up to, but that’s the beast we’re dealing with. Pascale explained that building a readership is key at this point. She suggested some magazines I might send work too, and some poets I might like to read. She noted my lack of any sounding-board for my work and suggested I seek a poetry-buddy, and try some workshops. We agreed that our aim for the next three months is to create sufficient poems to form the core of a pamphlet. To that end she asked me to send 20-30 poems for her to read before our next meeting on Monday.

I spent a goodly while shovelling muck and looking for tiny hints of shine until yesterday (Thursday) I could send 25 of my least worst poems. Vertigo? Sea-sickness? Something of both. And yet, unpleasant though this was, in its wake was a sensation I did not expect: the marked lightening of a burden, the realisation that I am no longer carrying this entirely by myself.

Exciting news!

I haven’t posted in almost a year. I’ve had little to say and I’m averse to jumping up and down, squeaking, just for the sake of hearing myself make a noise.

Today I am delighted to announce I have been awarded three months of poetry mentoring with Pascale Petit, courtesy of Dialect, funded by the Arts Council.

Late last Friday afternoon, an email from Dialect dropped into my inbox. The poetry mentoring scheme I applied for! I made an impromptu plan for how I would respond to disappointment this time (have a cup of tea, read my book, and then research other mentoring opportunities on Monday). I opened the email: thank you for your application… high standard of entrants… . How many times have I been here now? But then it said successful…, it said congratulations. It called my work wonderful. It told me I’d been paired with Pascale Petit, who had selected me personally. Pascale Petit, with her eight poetry collections and all the awards and prizes! I won’t repeat what I said: suffice to say that my imagery was vivid and my juxtaposition of profanities was both inventive and thorough. I showed the email to my loved ones. I had a cup of tea. Then I went wild and had a biscuit. I’m not exactly Dylan Thomas.

I am properly, thoroughly (excessively adverbially) delighted. When I read Juliette’s email part of me wanted to cry with relief that finally, something! Part of me wanted to hurl my phone to the back of the kitchen drawer and go and live in a tree. Within minutes my demons began their whispering:

  • Something good has happened. You’d best be on your guard against something bad occurring, to keep things in balance.
  • What if you freeze with terror and can’t do the work or can only turn in humiliating shite that would embarrass a schoolchild? Even worse, what if you don’t even realise how awful it is?
  • It’s a mentorship. That doesn’t mean your work is any good right now. What it means is could do better.
  • You’d better not celebrate just yet in case the email was actually intended for another Kate (our name is legion) and they don’t mean you at all.

This chorus chanted on in the background of alternating elation and quaking terror for the duration of the weekend. On Tuesday I had my (first ever) Zoom meeting, with Juliette. I can’t be certain but I think I came across as recognisably human. (My humaning is distinctly rusty: in fact, if you’re considering approaching me, don’t just wear a mask: check your tetanus jab is up to date.) In any case, she asked for a brief bio and a photo.

It’s possible that Dante featured the author bio as a penance on Mount Purgatory in his first draft of The Divine Comedy. God, it took me ages! How to sum myself up in a few sentences in a way that “sells” me to the reader without making myself queasy? I soon realised it’s not the summing-up that’s the difficulty (the 50-word version was fine: that’s little more than a Twitter profile) so much as the holding up of my threadbare materials to the light and despairing of finding something halfway presentable. The fear of not having enough of interest or relevance to say about my small life. A reluctance to get into all the false starts and failures of nerve, to flay myself, just to make the word-count. The constant fear, that is so familiar I mistake it for certainty, that I do not measure up. The shame. None of this is new.

So that has been this week’s task: to be aware of the injurious internal monologue without paying heed to it. I am keeping my eyes open for signs of self-sabotage. Meanwhile I have got two poems I have been working on to “done for now” status. I have not even met Pascale yet, never mind discuss my poetry with her, and already this mentoring scheme has begun to challenge me. Good!

Wishbone

Birds, gods, bird-gods…

These past couple of weeks Writers’ HQ have been offering (in addition to their usual treasure chest of courses, blog posts etc.) a weekly flash face-off. Well, that sounds all kinds of horrible and confrontational! It’s nothing of the kind. Prompts are posted on Monday morning and writers have until midday on Friday to post to the forum. Of these, a handful are chosen to read at a Crowdcast event that evening.

So… to my delight my story, “Wishbone”, was chosen but, as my tech is stuck in the Dark Ages, the host had to read on my behalf. She did a grand job indeed but I wanted to share my own take on it. I hope you enjoy it! (Do check out Writers’ HQ, too, if you don’t already know them.)

Places of Poetry anthology

Have you heard of the Places of Poetry project? It is an online map to which writers were invited to pin poems to places of significance to them as a means of ‘celebrating the diversity, heritage and personalities of place’ in England and Wales. The project is led by poet Paul Farley and academic Andrew McRae. (The map is now closed to submissions, but is still available to read .)

Last summer I wrote a poem, “Welle”, and pinned it to the map in the stream that runs alongside my old primary school, here in Dorset.

I am now delighted to share that my poem has been selected for the Places of Poetry: Mapping the Nation in Verse anthology, to be published by Oneworld Publications later this year.

The Truth and Several Lies About Butterflies

I was delighted to take part in Mazurka and Other Stroud Short Stories, at the Cotswold Playhouse for Stroud Book Festival. I read my first published fiction since primary school, “The Truth and Several Lies About Butterflies”.

Thank you to judges John Holland (of Stroud Short Stories) and Chloe Turner for seeing merit in my story and inviting me to read. Thank you to Tim Byford for the fierce author photograph and for recording the event, which can be viewed here

Mazurka and Other Stroud Short Stories

I will be reading my story, The Truth and Several Lies About Butterflies, at the Stroud Short Stories event at Stroud Book Festival on Sunday.

Also reading are: Peter Adams, Sallie Anderson, Ali Bacon, Georgia Boon, Nimue Brown, Philip Douch, Sophie Flynn, Sarah Hitchcock, and Rick Vick.

When Rebecca Met Mrs Dalloway

It’s more than a stack, or even a shelf: to date, there’s a whole bookcase’s worth. I refer, of course, to my to-be-read list. And that’s only counting the physical books that I own: not the list of e-books, not the ever-expanding wishlist on my library account, not the endless ‘must look out for’ list picked up from reviews, publishers’ and booksellers’ emails, and from the recommendations of fellow readers. As a matter of necessity (not to say urgency) I have made peace with the certain knowledge that I cannot hope to read everything on my TBR list. And yet still there are certain books, old favourites that I return to again and again when nothing else quite draws me in. There is something in the act of reciting the opening line of a favourite book that sets off a chain of resonances much in the manner of Proust dipping his madeleine into his cup. It is necessarily a personal, highly subjective experience and while a novel’s opening line may appear to be a tasty little morsel enjoyed in private it is actually a Trojan horse, calculated to break through the reader’s defences (the three-second attention span, tiredness, inability to suspend disbelief, the compulsion to keep on scrolling, too much of importance going on in one’s ‘real’ life… etc. etc.) and lay the whole reading nation (in one’s more grandiose moments!) not only open to but powerless to resist the novelist’s designs.

With the benefit of copious amounts of hindsight, I want to look at the opening lines of two of my all-time favourite books, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. This time I want to do more than read them out loud to myself and stare off out the window while the resonances do their work: I want to scrutinise them, to see if I might figure out their workings. What is it precisely about these opening lines that catch me and how do they go about doing this? What expectations do they give the reader? It also occurs to me to wonder if they actually do more than this. Do they give any clues as to what will follow, in terms of actual and emotional content, if one is prepared to return from one’s reverie and pause for a moment to pay close attention before plunging in?

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

So, what do we have here? Nine words, twelve syllables. We have a strong iambic rhythm, giving a firmly measured and controlled feeling until ‘Manderley’ disrupts the pattern, only for ‘again’ to restore it immediately and, further, to provide forward momentum, in contradiction to the past-oriented facts of the sentence. We have a first person narrator. And already we have a lot of questions to ask!

There is a good deal of mystery and mood concealed in these apparently straightforward nine words. It’s all very uncertain: to begin with, who is this ‘I’ (two of the nine words)? Who is speaking? (Indeed we never do learn her name: so insignificant is she held to be that her story turns out to be named after her deceased predecessor.) To whom are they speaking? To the reader? To another character? To a diary? There are no clues as to their relationships within their world. The narrator is untethered. We do not know what or where Manderley is nor what significance it has to the narrator. We do not know the circumstances of their having been at Manderley previously, nor why they left nor what might call them back, even if only in a dream. We do not know the state of mind of the dreamer: was it a happy dream or wistful, or a cold fist of dread kind of dream? We know that recalling Manderley, and at the further remove of a dream (an involuntary production of the unconscious mind), is more significant to the teller at this point than are any details of their current waking life. The narrator’s attention is focused on the past (‘Last night’… and they went back to Manderley) yet the simple, direct verbs are active: ‘I dreamt I went’. The dreamer’s mind demands action and movement. There is no prevarication. At the level of the sentence, no sooner do they dream than they act. The effect could be described as one of wash and backwash.

The sentence’s iambic rhythm and primarily monosyllabic words, with the echoing of e and t sounds and near rhyme, provide momentum, their driving beat carrying us forward into the past (if that is not altogether too F. Scott Fitzgerald!). Trisyllabic ‘Manderley’ is musical and romantic in contrast.

In the opening line of Rebecca the mysterious narrator returns in a dream to Manderley but as we don’t know where they have set out from there is not the expected feeling of returning to a root note (to use a musical term). The matter is clearly not ‘settled’ or concluded. It provokes a sense of uneasiness (and curiosity!) at the suggestion of an action that happened in the past but which has left unfinished business that still weighs upon the narrator’s mind at unguarded moments.

I am happy to forget at this point that I already know the plot: I want to find out what happens next, what has already happened. I want to know who this person is. I want to go to Manderley! I want to read on. I must read on.

What then of Mrs Dalloway?

Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

Nine words again but this time we are given a third person narrative. The first thing we learn is the protagonist’s name. We know she is a woman and married. (We may or may not already be wondering who Mr Dalloway is.) By happy coincidence, it may be noted that ‘Dalloway’ has the same rhythmic stress as ‘Manderley’, likewise the a, d, l and y sounds. We learn that Mrs Dalloway is speaking to someone else. The stress falls on the words ‘said’ and then ‘buy’. This puts the emphasis on social activities and a relationship to others, contrasted with the ‘I’ of Rebecca who might only be talking to their diary. Mrs Dalloway is firmly rooted in her world, it seems, and has enough presence there that someone else has seen fit to write about her: she is not telling her own story. She is also looking forward, planning a future event. We are told she will buy the flowers. Not grow, not choose, not pick, not steal: she has the money for flowers, which gives a further clue as to her social standing. We might wonder what occasion she is buying them for. We might wonder who usually buys the flowers, runs her errands. As the final word of the sentence, ‘herself’ brings our focus back from the flowers to her. It is a circular sentence, a going out and an effortless return. To recall my previous analogy, Mrs Dalloway herself is the root note. There is a sense of completion, of all things being well in hand, with the satisfying feelings that brings, and she hasn’t even set out for the flowers yet!

This is such a contrast from the opening line of Rebecca that I can’t resist looking at the closing sentences, too.

And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea. Rebecca
Once again, the past (represented by the ashes, all that’s left of something that was but is no more) is seen to be blowing towards them. However, it is revealed that the narrator is not alone.

For there she was. Mrs Dalloway
There she is again, Clarissa Dalloway, at the beginning and the end of things, central to her own story, her presence book-ending all the events within.

I’m surprised by just how much and how easily I have been able to ‘read into’ the opening lines of these two books, chosen not randomly, exactly, but because I particularly enjoy re-reading them. Because I know what will come next, it is of course easier to see the seeds of the stories as a whole in their first words. I cannot say to what extent this was a conscious decision on their authors’ part. I do not know whether others books on my shelves would stand up to scrutiny in this way. I found it a fascinating exercise in resonance and possibility, and it is in that spirit that I offer this essay.

Timepiece

Three Poems by Hannah Sullivan, Faber 2018

Hannah Sullivan’s T. S. Eliot prize-winning debut collection comprises three long-form poems: You, Very Young in New York; Repeat Until Time, and The Sandpit After Rain. Her ambition in the age of the 9-second attention span is commendable. Likewise the confidence to allow the long lines of these poems their elbow room.

She says her aim with You, Very Young in New York ‘wasn’t to write a “poem” but a kind of essay in verse.’ Yet there’s plentiful poetic form on display, shape-shifting between terza rima and rhyming couplets amongst others.

She addresses her younger self in an unflinching, documentary style, capturing a particular, privileged, young life, oblivious to the luxury of ‘waiting to get older’, the impatience for things to ‘happen’ even in the expected excitement of New York.

Nothing happens. You try without success
The usual prescriptions, the usual assays on innocence.
I love you to the wrong person, I feel depressed,

… But the senses, laxly fed, are self-replenishing,
Fresh as the first time, so even the eventual

Sameness has a savour for you. Even the sting
When someone flinches at I love you
Is not unwelcome, like the ulcer on your tongue

Her self-exposure can make for uncomfortable reading. At times it resembles the kind of thing teenaged girls are warned against posting on social media, for fear it will show up years later and scupper their careers:

You are thinking of masturbating but the vibrator’s batteries are low
And the plasticine-pink stick rotates leisurely in your palm

There is a whiff of ‘too cool for school’, a passive-aggressive showing-off, which may indeed be the preserve of a privileged twenty-something:

Your psychiatrist said it would help your productivity,
But it feels like drawn-out sex on coke, like something dirty.

When she stands outside herself and considers the world of which she is a part/apart, this brittleness comes into its own and flowers into beauty:

Overripe in September they need to rest in the icebox, sitting with their bruises.
All summer you have been dreaming of Fall and its brittle confection of branches.

From peaches to novelists in Starbucks

Picking like pigeons at the tail of the morning croissant,

Shifts in tone accompany shifts in form, turning deftly from the wryly pertinent description of an ex-lover’s foreplay as ‘like someone testing the grass for a picnic’ to the bluntness of ‘trying out the bad banana taste of Durex on your tongue’.

Likewise from the height of self-absorption to what is surely a riff on T. S. Eliot’s ‘April is the cruellest month’:

Now plans have changed, it is April, and the first hot day of the year
Has exploded from nowhere. Skin is as profuse and white as funeral flowers.

Subtitled The Heraclitus Poem, Sullivan calls Repeat Until Time ‘an essay on repetition and history’. It is still personal, but there is a shift towards the philosophical. This is the hinge of the book. The theme, the familiar idea that one never steps twice in the same river, is addressed head-on in the opening lines:

1.1
The picked mosquito bites scab over, resin sap.
The bites are as itchy as ever, and the anaesthetic river
Still concentrates its cold, but the ankles are different this summer,
Less lean, veinier, slower in the river.

The poem includes within its scope pollarded trees, cats auditioning for a movie based on Poe, Henry James at the start of WW1, theories of the nature of the universe, the first atomic detonation … a potentially huge territory, but it is grounded in the particulars of the everyday:

2.1
Days may be where we live, but mornings are eternity.
They wake us, and every day waking is absurdity;
All the things you just did yesterday to do over again, eternally.

But, forever fumbling for the snooze button, the gym is there
Forever, and the teeth silt over yellow to be flossed, and there
Will be, in eternity, coffee to be brewed…

It is also the most poetically self-referential of the three poems:

3.3

Some words have also lost their pairs:
Some rhymes are only painful memories,
Recycled like family sagas at Christmas, cliches.
The almost-instincts of minor poets.

3.31
What will survive of us?
Larkin thought the answer might be ‘love’,
but couldn’t prove it.

There are intriguing ideas to consider:

1.2
When things are patternless, their fascination’s stronger.
Failed form is hectic with loveliness, and compels us longer.

With the suggestion that it is this, its limitations, that lies at the heart of linguistic compulsion:

4.2

Language with its simple action words, verbs:

Language with its ‘past’ and ‘future’ and ‘present’,
Pointing to what it doesn’t know, I love you, now, babbling of unicorns.

Meanwhile (in the shadow of the detonation of the first atomic bomb)

4.4

Now nothing will ever be the same again.
And everything will be as it always was.


Historic moments are as tiresome as first nights,
All lines to fluff, after being cooped up,
The meaning eroded by gabbling in rehearsal.

Contemplating the birth of her child and the death of her father, The Sandpit After Rain is the most personal of the poems. It is arguably the most accessible but not for that reason so much as for the clarity of its compelling imagery:

how the foetus lolls in the womb
swelling like a wine cork left out on the counter

how he wasn’t himself
why the new waxwork lolls in the bed,
the colour of A4 rubbed with Nescafe,
the distressed colour of fake parchment;
blank, dismayed, the worn-off face
of a cloth doll a girl is bored by

Here is the realisation that ‘birth and death happen on adjacent wards’, no respecters of our notions of proper sequence, ‘that both are labour, halting and starting’.

Three Poems covers a lot of ground from ‘belly of the beast’ autobiography from the perspectives of both a young self-involved woman to a more mature one whose experience and identity is inevitably bound up with others: the loss of a father, the birth of a child. The philosophical breathing space of Repeat Until Time acts as a bridge between the two, leading to the book’s closing lines (surely with a further echo of Eliot’s Four Quartets):

A mother and the child you were.
You have been among the living twice,
And loved both times.
You have fallen in the lurid air.

There is a sense of constant movement in terms of both restless formal variation and subject, and the seeking of an ongoing forward momentum with the acknowledgement that such is largely illusory. It is a book I admire rather than love (one for the head rather than the heart, perhaps) though it repays re-reading and thinking about as there is indeed much to appreciate.

Afterword
I regret to take issue with the cover blurb’s assertion that Three Poems offers the ‘unique perspective of a brilliant, new female voice’. If Sullivan’s perspective is unique, why is it immediately generalised (and simultaneously limited) to ‘female’? Can a woman who writes not simply be called ‘writer’ or ‘poet’? It is an unfair burden of responsibility to place upon her: the implied assumption that for a woman to write is to represent all women and not only herself.

The Ballad of Suburbia

It’s two hundred years to the day since the Peterloo Massacre, on the occasion of which Shelley wrote The Masque of Anarchy. So here is something from my own archive, for the ‘interesting times’ in which we’re living. (I’m not all bards and blackbirds, either.)

The Ballad of Suburbia

A salesman came to suburbia –
nothing unusual there
except every household invited him in:
he was so softly spoken and woefully thin,
sipping tea on the edge of his chair.

His business was life assurance,
he’d not give them the hard sell:
he could see they lived life by the book,
had never once leapt before they had looked;
oh, he knew their kind only too well.

They got on like a house on fire,
he put one and all at their ease
while he fed them tales of fire and flood,
and other such things as chill the blood
like (perish the thought!) disease.

Now these were ordinary, neighbourly folk,
the proverbial salt of the earth.
They listened politely and offered more tea
While he warmed to his theme of the agony
Of under-insuring their life’s true worth.

***

No-one recalls quite how it occurred
that he bought a house in the street,
became a pillar of the neighbourhood,
a breath of fresh air that did them all good –
how he swept one and all off their feet!

He ferried the local kids to school
in a top of the range 4×4,
stopped on the yellow zigzag lines
before waving them off at the door.

He shopped online and ran errands
for those who were not so able,
filled tax returns, asked Alexa,
got broadband and installed cable.

He alarmed the car, rewired the house,
he put up security lights.
He chaired the local neighbourhood watch
and ran popular self-defence nights.

He was, they agreed, a real treasure:
how had they managed before?
So many years deaf and blind to the dangers
posed by plausible-sounding strangers
who go selling from door to door!

They felt, to a man, so much safer
now they never went out after dark,
shaking their heads at the state of the nation
while their kids went AWOL inside Playstation
and the swings turned to rust in the park.

‘You cannot be too careful these days –
Don’t you watch News 24? –
terrorists, knife crime, asylum seekers,
the selfish gene, the pound getting weaker.
Not us though: we’ve never been more secure.’

***

Soon, their greetings were clipped like their hedges
on the few times they happened to meet.
Meanwhile, indoors their curtains twitched,
friendships were ended, allegiances ditched
as a cold war broke out in the street.

So the people live in the shadow
of the deathly fear of fear,
see its likeness in all they encounter
and its whisper is all that they hear.

Tell a lie three times, it’s as good as true:
who needs proof when they’ve got Twitter?
No, you haven’t a right to a different view;
get over it, loser. It’s a joke you’re so bitter.

Lives are lost in endless un-newsworthy wars
and jobs in a global recession.
Wives lose their husbands to work and TV
and husbands their wives to depression.

This, all this, must be somebody’s fault –
there must be someone to blame!
Are you at a loss for whom to accuse?
The tabloids will readily give you some clues
and your scapegoat a chant-able name.

‘Cause each of us would rather forget
the dark we keep inside –
the heart of every fear: the fear in every heart –
that softly, quietly, bides its time
and takes love and life apart.

So beware, good people of suburbia –
forget all else but remember this please!
Beware the blue-eyed charmer
who offers to sell you rogue warnings like these.