Black or white or shades of grey?

With the current government’s tendency to want to divide people into sheep and goats – the ‘hardworking family’ or the ‘shirker’ (the latter previously known as the ‘undeserving poor’) – I find myself wondering which category I fit into, as a freelance writer and writing consultant who lives alone.  Last night, for instance, I had a book review to finish for the FT.  I duly finished it and sent it off to the editor at 3.00 a.m.  Consequently, being tired and with no one else’s routines to consider, I decided not to set my alarm for (later) this morning, and didn’t get up until 9.00 a.m.

So, now, having had six hours’ sleep and filed my piece on time, can I claim the mantle of ‘hard-working family’?  I feel as though I’ve been working fairly hard, but have to pass on the ‘family’ bit, as there’s only me.  Or, as someone who wasn’t up with the lark, am I a ‘shirker’ in comparison with that hypothetical neighbour who ‘does the right thing’ and who will apparently be offended by my drawn curtains when s/he sets off for work at 7.00 a.m. (according to I-forget-which Tory chump a few months ago)?  Fortunately my basement windows are not overlooked by anyone, and few of my Hoxton neighbours fit too easily into a government stereotype.  So I don’t think I’ll worry about it too much.

Lament for Ivor

As promised, here is my poem about Ivor Gurney

Beside the son of his dearest friend,
Their names linked still in death,
A Celtic cross and an inscription to
Ivor Gurney: a lover and maker of beauty.
In low land between Cotswold and Malvern,
A place he might have chosen,
He knows the silence after song.

In an act of pietas I knelt
To spread the flowers on Ivor’s grave –
Humped up like a well-made bed,
With more blankets than in the asylum –
Like sitting by the side of a sleeper,
Leaving grapes and magazines against
The pain of waking to the day.

Day brings a stooping shadow
Shuffling in hospital pyjamas;
He thinks himself Beethoven,
Talks with dead composers
Till moments of hopeless lucidity
When he knows himself Gurney
The poet, born with shell-shock.

Time out of mind he walked
The streets of Gloucester
Where in flood-time water
Like a sheet lay on her fields,
And floating in the Severn air
The softly etched Cathedral,
“Ages’ friend of Cotswold and the sun” –

Here in the golden afternoons
He drank the psalms at Evensong –
“Oh my soul, why art thou so disquieted within me?” –
Where pillars are dappled
With blue and purple light
“Do not forget me quite,
O Severn meadows”.


The wordless wind blows
Yesterday, today and forever,
While the hills sink slowly to earth;
Pebbles and footprints scrape the ridges
Which bleed raw and aching,
Caked jigsaws of mud;
Sombre, dark and austere
Yet sternly embracing,
Slowly they are rubbed to dust.

In the desolate churchyard
Opposite a layby and a grey hotel
The wind no longer stirs the sleeper,
Though rain seeps through
To the long and long-dead skeleton
And rots the roof of the crumbling church
Where in his boyhood an energetic Ivor
Would run to meet his friend and teacher:


The time for book-talk being long past,
Death, whom once you sought so hard,
Has fretted the flesh from your bones
And cradles you, in endless sleep.

[Previously published in Ironing the Hankies: A Selection of 20 Poems (Pikestaff pamphlets)]

Ivor Gurney, poet and composer

The wonderful concert I went to last week at The Hall, St Botolph without Bishopsgate, as part of the Song in the City series, reminded me of how significant Ivor Gurney is in the pantheon of 20th-century English composers.  His songs are gems, in the tradition of earlier composers such as John Dowland – succinct, instinct with emotion, by turns melancholy and energetic, and utterly captivating.  Often he set his own, or his friends’, poems to music.  Several recordings of some of his work have been made in recent years; I would particularly recommend Paul Agnew’s recording of a selection of his songs on the Hyperion label, Gurney: Severn Meadows and Other Songs. IBG Gurney’s life was a tragic one.  Always a rather unstable, though brilliant, character, he was badly affected by the First World War in which he served as a private (writing many of his songs and poems in the trenches).  He was gassed, and his mental problems were exacerbated by his war-time experiences.  After the War, his family became increasingly unable to cope with him and had him committed to an asylum.  He remained incarcerated for the rest of his life (he died in 1939).  For more about Gurney, I would recommend Michael Hurd’s biography: The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney.  Best of all, read Gurney’s poetry: Collected Poems. Ivor is buried in the churchyard at Twigworth, a couple of miles outside Gloucester.  In a neighbouring grave is Herbert Howells’ son Michael, who died aged only nine, and after whom Howells’ well-known tune to the hymn “All my hope on God is founded” is named. Several years ago, after visiting Twigworth, I wrote a poem about Ivor Gurney.  I will put it in my next post.

Catherine the Great’s Maxims for Managers

Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia from 1762 until her death in 1796, was a great believer in ‘maxims’ – short, pithy instructions aimed at improving both herself and her subjects.  She was also, at least until her last years,  a very good manager of people.  So what could she teach today’s managers and HR professionals?  Here is a series of ‘maxims for managers’, adapted from Catherine’s own writings:

  • Whenever you want to introduce a new rule or law, stimulate discussion beforehand and find out exactly what people are saying.  Springing something unexpected on people may not bring about the results you desire.
  • If in doubt, it’s better to do nothing than to do the wrong thing.
  • Flatter your subordinates to ensure that they are not afraid to tell you the truth.
  • Only dispense favours (bonuses, perhaps?) if you are directly asked for them, or if you have already made up your mind to do so without the intervention of a third party, for it is important that the obligation be owed to you and not to anyone else.
  • One of your most important tasks is to select the right people to work for you; unless you know how to seek out the best, and do so, you are not worthy of being in charge.
  • Begin your day with the most difficult, most awkward and most tedious matters; with those out of the way, the rest will seem easy and agreeable.
  • Be prepared to do yourself what you want your subordinates to do (Catherine’s prime example of this was having herself and her son inoculated against smallpox in 1768).  ‘My object was by my own example to save from death countless of my loyal subjects, who, not knowing the benefit of this method, and fearing it, were remaining in danger.’
  • Know how to put people at their ease, while maintaining your own dignity.
  • Give praise in public; if you have to give criticism or blame, do so in private.
  • Have courage, keep on moving forward – ‘words which have seen me through good and bad years alike’.

It is a measure of Catherine’s success as a manager that, though belonging to a dynasty and regime famously characterised as ‘absolutism tempered by assassination‘, she died of natural causes at the end of a 34-year reign.

A new (or old?) model for housing

Zoe Williams wrote in The Guardian on Boxing Day about the opportunity presented by the current housing crisis: “The housing crisis is not a threat, it’s an opportunity. We need more social housing, we need a more vigorous construction industry, and we need things for a government to invest in, rather than rounds of quantitative easing, delivering money into the hands of the top 5% and eroding pension annuities. We could climb out of recession on the back of this ‘crisis’ at the same time as halting the hegemony of the private landlord, which is perverting wage spending-power and intensifying inequality.”

I agree with her, but would also suggest that it’s time to think imaginatively about our housing needs and how to fulfil them. Or maybe it’s about revisiting an earlier model and adapting it to the 21st century.

The British obsession with home ownership (see this article by Jon Palmer or this by Andrew Alexander) seems to me to be predicated on the nuclear family, a nice little unit of Mummy,  Daddy and 2.4 children living in a self-contained box, along with a lot of other little units in their own little boxes.  But many of us no longer live in such nuclear families (if we ever did), while more and more households are made up of single people, living alone.  According to Third  Sector Foresight of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, “By 2021 35% of all the households in the UK are expected to be habited by solo livers, and by 2031, 18% of the entire English population are expected to be living on their own.”  (While ‘solo livers’ may sound like a nouvelle cuisine offal dish, one gets the point.)  In our current model, in which the aspiration is for each household to own its individual house or flat, what an extravagant use of dwindling resources those statistics imply.  For each “solo liver” must have his or her own washing machine, cooker, microwave, dishwasher, TV and a host of other appliances and systems.  Plus each individual has to do their own ironing and cleaning etc., or maybe employ separate individuals for a few hours each to do such things.  Wouldn’t it make more sense if some of these resources could be shared?

I would like to be able to envisage the development of some form of multi-occupancy housing, more than a hostel or hall or residence but less than a block of separate flats, partly shared ownership, partly rented, with relatively small individual living spaces – bedroom, study/sitting room, bathroom, small kitchen area – and with communal space for laundry, more ambitious cooking (and washing up), maybe even for TV-watching and other activities.  And, given that more of us are also becoming freelance or self-employed, there could be shared office facilities too.  There might even be a restaurant on the premises.  Above all, this sort of housing would need to be genuinely affordable for the single person.

I am reminded of the Isokon building in Hampstead, a block of 34 flats designed in the 1930s as an experiment in communal living, and inhabited by a number of writers and artists who wanted to be able to devote more time to their work than to running a house.  And I think it would be a good idea to investigate this kind of communal living afresh.


Yes to life

It was my birthday last week and, in one way of looking at it, too many years have gone by, without enough achieved, and it’s all downhill from here. A few books written – but not enough, and not successful enough – and too much time spent in ‘the whole corroding business of administration’, as Peter Abelard calls it in Helen Waddell’s still unsurpassed retelling of the story of Heloise and Abelard. Nothing turns out quite as expected; indeed, expectation may be best avoided altogether.

And yet, and yet – I still believe that all that really matters is fully to appreciate the world and the life I have been given to live in it. Worldly success is ultimately neither here nor there. Enough – but not too much – money would be useful, since financial anxiety is possibly even more corrosive than earning one’s living from administration. And to create is a good thing, particularly if what one creates adds something to the sum of human joy or understanding. But appreciating what is already around us may be even better than, or at least as good as, creating something new. To taste, hear, see – really see – absorb, experience, and love. To say ‘yes’ to life, whatever it brings, to stay as fully as possible in the present moment, and to be grateful – immensely grateful – for all the blessings of this life.