Thursday, 19 July 2018

I Disgrace You By Exploding

It's three weeks ago now, but the final chords of Busoni's piano arrangement of Bach's Chaconne in D Minor are still ringing in my ears. Maybe it's because of the commitment with which you played; maybe it's something to do with the heat that evening and since then: a heat in which everything expands, rises; something to do with returning to Cosy Hall, Newport, Shropshire, to re-record the first half of the concert ... but I'm getting ahead of myself.


Here you are, intent at the piano, as I noticed all those years ago in my poem The School Concert.  And we were intent too - your audience. Intent on the music, on your youthful confidence in attempting a huge programme. Beethoven. Brahms. Bach. All the Bs. And as if that wasn't enough of a challenge - three pieces for guitar by Villa Lobos. And Chopin to conclude. You have such style. 

Son, you don't know this, but last night 
at the concert, I disgraced you by exploding.

I try to hold myself in at these events - those occasions when my heart threatens to give out, give up, give over, give in to the pride, terror, passion of watching you play the music. 

It was when you were sat, back straight,
intent at the piano and all my love for you
crescendoed into beats so loud they surely 
drowned out your perfect notes.

Performance is communication, and you communicated power, youth, hope beyond perfection. And in the Brahms Intermezzi, tenderness. And through the Villa Lobos something else - playfulness and intensity. Most of all, you communicated passion for the music and the sheer pleasure in skill resulting from hours and hours of practice. 

I had to shut my eyes at times. It wasn't that I wasn't sure of you. I wasn't sure of myself. 

I shut my eyes, controlled my breathing
as at your birth.  It was as useless 
as it was then, and my life burst out of me
flooded the hall red with all the years 
since our final strain of childbirth.
           
I wrote the poem after the first school concert - this concert was the last marker of your school days. A flourish before what comes next - holidays, student life, moving on, finding other patterns and rhythms. 

Last night, they applauded you 
as they should've done then, when
open-mouthed, you sang cries to the new world. 

And, oh yes, I have privileges. I got to hear the first half again, when we went to re-record it the following week, having discovered that it hadn't recorded first time. And here it is ...

Live at Cosy Hall
Jonty Lefroy Watt
Click on this link for Jonty's Albums on Bandcamp - £3 to download. CDs also available. 

Thursday, 5 July 2018

I Watch Football


My mother told me once that when I was born, my eldest brother was disappointed to find out he had a sister. With two brothers already, a third would have meant that two-a-side football could have been a feature of childhood. (It's okay - I've had therapy, and my brother is a big fan of my poetry, so no hard feelings.) But if you should hear me, in this World Cup season - by way of fitting in - say that I understand the off-side rule and that I'm an Arsenal supporter, please don't ask me any follow-up questions to which the answer isn't Thierry Henry.

Since being overlooked for the 2018 England Football team, I've been trying to make sense of my footballing career. It started in the back garden, where I filled in as player number 2 for whichever team was going to lose. We wore the grass to muddy patches and I insisted on short hair and trousers, wincing whenever the ball came too close.

Growing up in Highbury, I went once (or maybe twice) to an Arsenal game sporting the red and white striped scarf knitted by my grandmother (I Return To Highbury). This same grandmother took us for Christmas treats to the Arsenal restaurant. Everything about those occasions seemed exotic and red - tomato ketchup, napkins, paper chains, the Arsenal emblems.

I can put a date to one of the most exciting moments of my childhood - 1971 - when Arsenal won the double and we were allowed out of a church service, dressed in choir robes, to cheer the successful team parading their trophies from the top of a double decker bus travelling down Highbury Grove. Even God recognised the need to acknowledge such a miracle.

Whenever there was a big game we were invited to Auntie Margaret's flat to watch it. I loved these occasions for the comforting sight of moving pictures; and the tea and Jaffa Cakes. Whenever Arsenal or England lost, though, I thought that maybe if I hadn't been watching, the result would've been different.

Despite all this experience, I realised early on that I would never be able to rely on football for an income, so I trained to be a teacher as a back up plan, and kept secret my plan to be a poet. There are some parallels between classroom management and captaining a football team, and some parallels between football and poetry, but not many.

On Tuesday, my eldest son and I watched England's precarious win over Columbia to reach the World Cup quarter finals. The crowd's reaction to the see-sawing of the teams' fortunes was not that different from the reaction of the crowd at the game I went to last year at Marine AFC in Liverpool. In minor league football the same passionate response was evident in the chanting, shouting, cussing, roaring song, and criticism of the referee's decisions. Everyone in the crowd seemed to enjoy having an expert opinion, based, no doubt, on years of footballing experience. But despite the similarities, I found Tuesday's game uncomfortable to watch: the behaviour on the pitch ill-mannered, uninspiring and tense with unwarranted aggression. Many of the players had a disdain for the referee which overshadowed and diminished the rare flashes of talent and inspiration.

If I'd been on the pitch for the England v Columbia game - say if I'd been picked as captain after a long career - I would've have tried to get my team mates and the opposition to simmer down. "It's just a game," I would've explained. Once I'd got their attention with this surprising news, I would've followed this with something about how it's the joining in that matters, and that both teams would achieve more football through co-operation and respect for the referee's decisions, even if they would have made different ones in his position.

I think that might have made all the difference.





Thursday, 28 June 2018

I Try To Stay Cool

Living on the top floor has advantages - no footsteps overhead, a roofscape that is as good as any view I've lived with, in-built climbing-stair exercise, some separation from the bustle of a thriving town.

But heat rises - and as the day goes on, it traps itself under the roof, accumulates in the late afternoon sun, slumps on the sofa and is reluctant to move. And heat gets trapped behind the glass of my office window when the sun swings round to the front of the building in the afternoon.

During this heatwave, I've been giving considerable attention to keeping my cool - leaving curtains drawn when I leave for work, closing the blinds in my office at noon, circulating air by opening windows, doors, turning on fans: leaving them on whilst going for evening walks by the river ... getting things moving.

As a child, I slept in a London attic room, and in the summer of 76, I learnt to take a bucket of water to bed with me and, when I couldn't fall asleep, to sit on the edge of my bed with my feet in the relief of tepid water.

Sleep comes more easily these days. At lunch time, I've been spreading a rug under a tree in the university courtyard, dozing for a while.

I nearly lost my cool yesterday - by 4pm my office had reached 30 degrees. My computer screen was pumping out its bright, dry demands. The train home was busier than usual and when I got back, I received some unwelcome news that niggled away at an old, familiar hurt. I felt sweaty, defeated: I got myself into a stew.

I couldn't simmer down, so quite late, after nine, took myself out for a walk. Before I'd got 200 yards, I saw Emily pass in her car. She stopped, got out, and we hugged. We went for mint tea, sat in a courtyard under an indigo sky, chatted about Scotland, mountains and secrets. We giggled a lot, and made plans for wild swimming, and I found my way back into peace.

How cool was that?


Wednesday, 20 June 2018

We Finish With Frasier

One of the comic situations which recurs in Frasier is the moment when another woman ends her relationship with him, usually because of some clumsy misdemeanour: he's accidentally dating two women and they find out about each other, or he calls his date 'mother' in a moment of intimacy, or he brags about his date's celebrity identity, losing her confidence in the process. Much of the humour depends on the way in which, as a psychiatrist, Frasier struggles to apply to his own life the insights he has, and those he ought to have.

In a final twist of plot, both my younger son and I have finished with Frasier, or rather with the eponymous series. After a year, probably two, spent watching each episode of each of the eleven seasons, we finally reached the last one.

We've enjoyed the ritual - sitting side-by-side on the sofa for twenty minutes of undemanding entertainment, which often had the satisfaction of a well-crafted line of script, or an exquisite moment of acting from David Hyde Pierce (Frasier's brother, Niles), or a great put-down from Roz, or simply the panoramic view of Seattle from Frasier's balcony: a backdrop to the series which is apparently not visible in this precise way from any actual apartment. Such was our commitment to the Crane family, that when John Mahoney (Marty Crane, Frasier and Niles' father) died earlier this year, we texted each other our sympathy. I felt gratitude for all the laughter  he (and his dog Eddie) gave us.



Although I didn't think I would be, we were both ready to finish with Frasier when we did. Those early seasons sparkled with wit and originality: by Season 11, the predictability of plot trajectories and the increasing unlikelihood of Niles and Daphne's long-going romance were not sufficiently balanced by wit. I grew tired of Frasier's ineptitude: of the inevitable moment when he would dim the apartment lights, flourish the remote control towards his high-end hi fi in an attempt to set the mood for yet another first date. It was becoming irritating - either he or I would have to move on.

The slow decline eased the ending. And so it was that we finished with Frasier without regret - or maybe, in the end, it was Frasier who finished with us.




Saturday, 9 June 2018

I Complete My 51st

I have finished my Fiftieth (50th) parkrun, but that was last week's news. Today, I ran my Fifty-First (51st). I was fuelled and inspired by the cake and candle Lucy Jay (LJ) gave me to celebrate.


I ate my slice of cake whilst my younger son ate a slice of his birthday cake, leftover from Monday's celebrations of his 18 years. We discussed the significance of 18 (voting, marriage without asking parental consent, drinking in pubs, 18 films). We discussed 17 and driving, then 16 (marriage with asking parental consent, age of consent).

He asked: Who'd want to get married at 16?
I said: Well, I did.
He said: You've changed.

We wondered if reaching adulthood is a process, or attained on one day, or, for him, at 9.04pm on Monday.

For my 50th parkrun, I dreamed of achieving a Personal Best (PB). I ran a harder than usual course in the grounds of beautiful Montacute House in Somerset with my Longest-Serving Friend (LSF), achieving a Personal Worst (PW). So, rather than hanging up my trainers and resting on my laurels, I got up today with renewed determination, did what I thought was a brisk run around my familiar Shrewsbury course, achieving a Personal Average (WTF).

My 50th cake was very good - almond and blueberry - for which it was absolutely worth waiting Two Hundred and Fifty Kilometres (250km).

My son said that the cake I made him, topped by a floppy-haired Hugh Grant, shows that I understand him completely. Now that's what I call a PB.




Thursday, 31 May 2018

I Papier-Mâché


When we were young, papier-mâché meant newspaper made soggy with home-made flour and water glue, and the anticipation of a hill to go alongside the model train set, and the expectation of mould a few days later.

More recently, as part of projects at work, I've learnt techniques which involve more sophisticated PVA glue, and a microwave for speedy drying. Occasionally, this has resulted in small fires. I used these methods to perfect my Allen Ginsberg and 'Scream' Emoji masks. Time well spent, I'm sure you'll agree.



Tearing up something in order to put it back together with glue, and from there making something which will probably only give pleasure to its maker (and that a temporary pleasure) might seem a pointless activity. But there are things which need tearing up, and this can be therapeutic.

I did a lot of ripping in Antwerp recently, acting as assistant to my son for his latest fashion design project - a red top. Biased or not, I enjoyed the wit of it - creating a red felt jacket and embellishing it with papier-mâché pieces made from The Sun, The Mirror, The Mail and The Star bought at considerable cost to my sense of dignity (I Blurt Out Loud). My son had no idea The Star even existed, and this after he'd seen proof of it.

The papier-mâché on this occasion was made by pasting strips of absurdity (MEGHAN IS NO BRIDEZILLA) to a chicken wire stole, layer upon layer, then leaving it to dry before applying varnish. No microwaves were involved but there was a lot of giggling.

Here's his creation - modelled by a co-student, photographed and then painted by him. There's a strength here and a hope: her resolute gaze steady behind what threatened to mask, distort and limit her vision.




Thursday, 10 May 2018

I Look Back At Schooldays

School - one way or another, I've been going to it for thirty, no, thirty-eight years.

I went to school as myself - sometimes with a hop and a skip, sometimes sullenly.  Not creeping like a snail, but weighed down, perhaps by unfinished homework.

I went to school, briefly, as a trainee teacher - into schools in Bristol with hope and adrenalin sloshing around somewhere in the region of my stomach.

I go - have been going - to school for longest of all, as a parent to two boys. 

Here's my youngest on his first day at school, his older brother leaning over him, gently protective.  Look how they match - their coats, their uniforms, their collars poking out.



Tomorrow is the last of the school days.  Yes, there are exams to come, but this is it: this is the moment I've been anticipating - one of those beginning-endings which lift my perspective from the day-to-day, and which lead me to take a long view backwards, forwards, inwards.

I already miss the routine of it - the pattern of my years. The start of the autumn term, which brings late summer heat along with new shoes, oversized shirts, and an upgrade to the next class.  Then the darkening, cooling mornings, the frenzy of preparation for performances, the exhaustion of December before the wide winter skies of January, the walk or drive home under the architecture of leafless trees, red sunsets long before bedtime.

And I'll miss summer sports day which in later years has become athletics day - the day of the year I'd take off work to sit on the grass and watch young people do ancient things - throw javelins, jump hurdles, throw a discus, then run like fury in baton-tied teams.

Then those glorious slumps into long summer holidays - endlessness: endless freedom.  The sheer stretch of it out all the way over August.

For years, we made Monday 'Sweet Day' (why do people choose Friday? - Friday has enough built-in joy).  Monday needs an additional energy - a rationale like chocolate, or ice cream.

We made the best of Mondays and we made the best of the work-juggle - the rush to the school gates for pick up, the days of illness which had to be managed somehow. The exhaustion at my desk, at their desks, the morning after a school concert had gone on past the watershed. 

I'm proud of the way we've have made the best of the my sons' years at school: all that learning done in-between the need to conform - sit down, stand up, be quiet, speak, stand, walk, run, no holidays in term time, no exaggeration of uniform... all that learning we've done, leaning into each other, holding onto ourselves with both hands.