Monday, December 17, 2012

Keeping going

A hillside in Mashau, Limpopo

Flicking through old pictures to make an album for my mother, who was 79 yesterday, I found one of James Berry, the wonderful Caribbean poet who used to live in Brighton. James also tutored on the first Arvon course I ever attended as a student and on the train back he gave me advice I've always remembered - writing is about stamina. Keep going, he said.

So that's what I've been doing today, against the odds, trying to find a way of writing a poem about sitting on a hillside in Venda listening to axes against trees. Writing seems to be a constant cycle of anxiety and elation, of frustration and a fleeting sense of achievement.

Perhaps the problem is, that I don't yet know what's driving the poem and poets I've been reading recently, Robin Robertson's The Wrecking Light and Anna Swir's Talking to my Body, are so clear, so focused and sure. I have enjoyed reading these books so much that I have to keep going back to them. Swir is a real find - I didn't know her work at all. She's so confident, her voice strong and original.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

We are all customers

Relax on the bus?
Shops, local authorities, doctors' surgeries, rail and bus companies and many more are increasingly displaying notices along the lines of: Our staff have the right to work without fear of abuse or rudeness, please treat everyone with courtesy and respect.

Companies spent thousands of pounds on drafting values statements, customer charters and trade unions dedicate time and resources to investigations into workplace violence. And rightly so.

But has this become an invidious way of suppressing a challenge to the status quo and complaints? Yesterday I witnessed a perfect example of how the tables can turn and how the power invested in that statement can be abused.

I'm waiting at a busy bus stop - there are probably 20 plus people, Christmas shoppers, teenagers on their way home, workers at the end of their shifts. The display shows four or five buses due and I've just missed mine, but there's another in 3 minutes. I have three bags of shopping, pick them up when I see the bus and watch as it goes past.

There's a lorry parked, so he can't drive fast. I run with my three bags alongside the closed door. He stops. I get on. The conversation goes like this: "Why didn't you stop?" "You didn't put out your hand." "I'm carrying three bags." "I'm not a mind-reader.""That's rude." "Get off my bus."

I sit down. I have a saver so don't have to buy a ticket. I'm sure he wouldn't have sold me one. This man is angry, who knows what about. Was it a bad day for him? Maybe. Perhaps he doesn't like my face, what I'm wearing. Perhaps he doesn't like me questioning his decision.

Whatever provoked him, he has now launched himself out of the cab, the engine still running, and shouts at me to get off. I stay put, but I can feel my heart.

By now other people at the stop are outside the doors wanting to get on. A group of teenage girls begins shouting at him. It escalates to swearing. One throws a cigarette in as he opens the doors. A woman gets on. He shuts the doors, opens them again, shuts them on a second woman. Drives off.

Clearly it bothered him. It bothered me. A week earlier, I'd tried to get a bus outside the train station. The rain was torrential. The bus was at the stop. I had a free hand - put it out. He drove off. I caught up with it at another stop, asked why. He didn't know when the lights were going to change so he couldn't let me on. Water was still dripping from my hair, down my face.

Five minutes or so into the journey, he stops the bus and turns to his passengers. He's addressing us now: "If you want me to stop, you must put out your hand."

I wonder what it is. He's early forties maybe, smart, clean shaved, cropped hair. I notice he has epaulettes on his white shirt. His trousers are snug, his shoes shine. Perhaps he'd rather be in charge of the empty one that drives up and down my street.

What I fear, when I stand on my doorstep later fumbling for the key is the unsaid.That it is me. My face. My hair. My clothes. Something about me. Old bitch, stupid cow....sentiments that cross the road, are suddenly in my face, follow in a car, are thrown at my back, hunker in passive aggressive politeness, in the deep sighs of someone with better things to do.