Nicholas Mackey

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I write. I take photos. Go figure.

A New Life

I'm Ivan Musto and today was a strange first for me as I celebrated a near-solitary birthday, my 90th - a milestone, I guess. Let me explain the surrounding circumstances which culminated in an unexpected result.

The day started normally enough in my little flat on the 17th floor of a nondescript, shit-coloured tower block where I live alone in west London. I delayed getting up as much as possible and eventually surfaced at about 9 o'clock shivering and shuffled into the cold kitchen. Central heating is way beyond my means and I didn’t put the paraffin heater on to save money; the pleasure of warmth in the dead of winter has been reserved for later on. A huge pile of washing up stared back at me from the sink and dirty clothes were lying on the floor beside the washing machine. I ignored this evidence of my virtually extinct domesticity and turned on the ancient transistor radio. For company.

I was jubilant when I found the last clean mug in the cupboard and made myself a coffee. I glanced at my only item of correspondence of yesterday: my quarterly bank statement which helped to underline that I am existing without the means to enjoy a decent lifestyle. Lifestyle, my eye, whatever that concept is. Yet again for the nth occasion in my life I thought, "Bugger this – more economising necessary”.

No birthday cards as my wife, Karen had passed away many years ago and I have now outlived all my close friends as my final surviving chum, Nicolai died a few days before Easter and I just about made his funeral despite my arthritis and other sodding health issues. No other relatives that I know of except for my only offspring, Katarina who has lived in Australia since the early 1980s with that well-connected husband of hers. She stopped visiting Britain when Thatcher got the heave-ho as our Prime Minister and so I haven't seen my daughter in nearly two decades. She phoned me out of the blue I think about two years back on her way to some ‘big shindig at the ambassador’s residence in Canberra’ (as she put it) to say that she’d be sending me ‘eecards’ from now on – whatever that means. I don’t expect a call from her on my birthday anymore – that’s a far-flung memory in keeping with the distance between us.

Anyway I had the old black bakelite phone removed in early September. The pain of recollection now outweighed the joy of reminiscing so it had to go. It saddened me as this ancient bit of kit had seen good service in a variety of houses and flats over the years where my family had lived. Back in 1940 when we first got the phone installed it had been a precious lifeline between my new wife and I when we were parted just after marrying during the Blitz. But we did manage to squeeze in a 2-day wartime honeymoon. That was truly glorious and for 48 hours the passion in our togetherness by the Lincolnshire seashore in summer enabled us to forget there was a war on. But then Karen was transferred absolutely miles away to Scotland to work for the RAF in Aberdeen and I was stuck in Kent on a radar station near Kingsdown on the south coast. But we had been very fortunate as our love had lit the spark for an incredible intimacy between us that lasted throughout our married life until her death from cancer in 1995 and I can recall as if it were yesterday how many sweet nothings from separated young hearts was poured forth through that familiar receiver at the time during the war. Despite the physical separation we had devised a way of staying close.

But I am widowed now and when I looked at this object connected with intimate verbal communication I was regularly reminded of my late wife and the happiness we had shared over the wires during the war. What with being apart for many months between our simultaneous periods of leave when you lived day-to-day never knowing if you would survive the hostilities or not we turned phone sex into a fine art and probably made the operators blush. We didn't care as life was precious to us as we were so much in love and we had so much to look forward to as our entwined existence had this magnificent zest to it. Everything had promise. But that was a lifetime ago - and besides now that I am of a certain pensionable age I could no longer afford the cruel bills that always seemed to contain extra hidden charges and I was tired of receiving an endless stream of calls from mindless people trying to sell me things I didn't need. Or, for a 'larf', some local ruffians got a kick out of phoning my number at all hours and insulting me because of my age. Old age.

All this just confirmed what I have felt for a long time: that I have become an established lonely old git who is to be avoided and has entered into that dubious sector of society classified as 'surplus to requirements'. This train of thought is complemented by something else that I find upsetting: that the span of my consciousness on this planet of ours is proving to be like that of a favourite book of mine, 'The Go Between' by L.P. Hartley and where I feel that my past can be compared to that of living in a foreign country where things are different there. Even though I strive to keep up with life today and want to get on with everyone around me as I have always loved people - all people, I am at sea with modernity as everything's a blur. No clear divisions anymore and I find it bewildering. I know that if Karen were with me, she would help make sense of it all. How I miss her and the inner strength that comes from the closeness of being with someone you love and who loves you back in return. But I find myself looking at the vacant spot on the sideboard where the phone used to be and recalling the thrill of our inseparableness.

At the moment, I am writing this availing of the unused portion of an ancient school copybook of Katarina’s from when she was aged nine in Form IVC and I was feeling quite triumphant for a moment this morning as I was conscious that I still have my faculties intact – despite my decrepit and outmoded state. As I sipped away quite alone in this tatty kitchen of mine, the warm sweetness of the tasteless instant coffee was strangely comforting. I cradled the mug in my hands allowing the feeble heat to spread gradually through me and I did not know whether to be uplifted or dismayed when I heard, ‘Stairway to Heaven’ played on the radio.

It seems as if my life has come full-circle where ‘make do and mend’ which was the mantra when growing up in England in the 1930s during the ‘Depression’ and then throughout the war years of the 1940s will find ready application yet again more than seventy years later in the early part of the twenty-first century during this recession that dares not speak its name. Come to think of it, this relentless economic struggle of mine has etched itself into the entire arc of my life and I’m still grubbing for money in my old age: my childhood, adolescence, when I first got married, those so-called middle years and right now where this post-maturity age is it as nothing else comes after. Well yes there is if you want to be pedantic – death, of course and then if you are of a spiritual nature, the afterlife as some people say. A lazy expression if ever there was one as I have always felt it should be called the ‘next state’, the ‘next phase’ or possibly and less popular perhaps, ‘nothing’. But who am I to argue against the ‘great and the good’ who decide how we live and die and how we should nurture or torture our souls now or in the hereafter.

Over the years thanks to my local public library, I have read widely and continued doing so during my former working life as a tree surgeon. After a relatively happy working life among trees I was let go three weeks before my 70th birthday so in a way I can look on my entire retirement so far as borrowed time. How have I got through it? I'm not sure but as a positive I have greatly enjoyed such easy access to books and fortunately my eyes (with the help of my oft-misplaced spectacles) can just about handle those little squiggles on the page as my daughter would say when learning to read as a young girl.

I came to understand that my job provided a much-needed outlet to the open air and I got a real kick out of the daily experience the miracle of nature served as my escape from the confines of living in an urban sprawl. But still something niggled for far too long. I have felt as if I owned a prized possession that was never properly made use of and was continually restricted by forces way beyond my control: my imagination. Instead, this creative aspect to my thinking which can effortlessly soar over boundaries of geography, language, ability, gender and social position has been hemmed in by the tyranny of possessing inadequate cash – the damning full-frontal evidence that is contained on the pages of a bank statement – the latest chapter of my self-induced monetary despair sitting only a few feet away from me on the table there. My failing was to hold back this imagination of mine from vaulting over these very-real financial hurdles. So, in a way, reading books then became my substitute creative life as I felt unable to write anything longer than a letter let alone a short story or even a volume or two.

They say that you should embrace old age without regrets but that’s complete bo**ocks as far as I’m concerned as I’ve many. I won’t bore you with a spreadsheet of a ho-hum life up to now but I do lament that I permitted a lack of money to act as an insuperable mountain to stop me delving further into a world of wonder and exploration. It’s almost too late now but I should have railed against this cruelty of a kind of deprivation and been more courageous in striking out for something new. When I think on how lack of money put the kibosh on my life's grand schemes I could weep.

Later on, accompanied by the estuary tones of a woman narrating the 1 o'clock BBC news and after feasting on a luncheon of a few sardines enrobed in olive oil, an apple and some good old-fashioned tea, I take a nap; it helps to pass the interminable hours. On waking to a metallic grey threatening sky, I summon up the courage to venture out on this special day and realise that I have not spoken to anyone yet on my birthday. It’s well into the afternoon on this bitter October day. As I put on my coat and scarf, I wonder if anyone else even cares about this highlight of mine.

Even though I needed a few things and something decent to read I had another agenda for braving the outside world. I had set out in the hope of acquiring a small gift on this special day of mine: to have a half-decent friendly conversation with another individual. This was to be my present to myself and I did give it my best shot but in the end my trip was a complete shambles from the socialising point of view. Defeated, I plodded back home from my outing to the local library and supermarket where I got the vibe it was frowned on to exceed perfunctory verbal exchanges with silence the preferred option. I so wanted to talk to someone, anyone about my birthday but the veiled woman at the checkout barely acknowledged my presence never once making eye contact and the young librarian with a cropped haircut and a tattoo on his neck didn't attempt to disguise his impatience with me when I took a while to find my library card.

My well-thought out tactics to encourage warm verbal spontaneity between two people were thwarted and I trudged back laden with a few groceries plus the local rag and two books. I was so disappointed and noted it was getting dark with spots of rain falling. Luckily I made it into the whiffy foyer of my block before the heavens opened, a renamed tower in memory of some overblown Latin American politico recently-deceased revered by our out-to-lunch local bigwigs on the Council who seem more in tune with their brothers' difficulties in far-flung lands than problems on our own doorstep. I detest taking the lift as it is always dirty and smelly but I’ve no choice as I can no longer traipse up all the stairs to the umpteenth floor. My dodgy right hip and left knee have restricted my freedom of movement lately. I hate to admit it but I can feel my body slowing down and over the last 12 months or so I have become aware of my physical deterioration. I'm also a little frightened as I've no experience of being 90 before and I am coming to the realisation that my rebellious streak at resisting the usefulness of a walking stick or Zimmer frame is probably misplaced. I have however yielded in another area as it were by permitting a hearing aid for my left ear to overcome deafness.

The lift reaches my floor uncertainly and I mind the wretched gap beneath my feet exiting gratefully but unsteadily as I'm getting jaded now. Further down the dreary corridor I bump into a neighbour living across the hallway from myself, Mr Winston Jackson. I instinctively rejoice at the prospect of coming into contact with another person I am on nodding terms with but then I groan inwardly for very good reason. Just for my private benefit, I call this man, ‘Alright’ Jackson as that word – ‘alright’ – appears to be the only item in his vocabulary, uttered with a faint Jamaican twang. When I informed Mr Jackson that it was my 90th birthday, he grunted a non-committal "Alright" as the eyes of this middle-aged man narrowed and his head nodded just a tad to register fleeting irritation with the information I had imparted. No smile or good wishes were offered. No warmth was forthcoming.

He then proceeded to stand there with the hint of an amiable expression playing about his face but not bothering to further our conversation. I then attempted to inject some daft humour into our lopsided dialogue by telling Mr Jackson that I was going to raise some additional income by selling my soul on the interweb but it backfired badly and he responded with a scowl and a strongly disapproving "Alright". I then remembered that my fellow resident is a member of a certain West London Congregation. Oh dear. Mr Jackson then usually signals that his patience with me is at an end by muttering something inaudible as he edges away from me looking relieved when he makes his getaway. The door to his identikit flat slams resolutely shut. I linger for a moment and strain my ear for conversation, any conversation. I adjust my hearing aid to its highest setting and I hear raised voices from inside their flat: Winston and his wife must be arguing as usual.

In almost twenty years of living on the Mozart Estate in west London this is the norm of social interaction with the community and my neighbours. The supreme irony of living in this part of such a heaving metropolis where old people are unwittingly exiled within their own back yard as it were is anything but sublime as the supposed connection with a celebrated Austrian composer might have one believe. For me, exchanging a few consecutive sentences has become a victory for free speech. I peep out the windows at the end of one corridor and I can see it’s almost dark now as I turn to enter my deserted flat. Once inside, I put the lights on and cart the heater into my tiny lounge setting it on low to take the sting out of the chill around me but I keep my coat and scarf on. I fetch the radio which is still on only turning it off when going to bed. As I begin to read my paper I hear some presenter reporting dramatically on a stabbing yet again in our esteemed capital city. Unusually this broadcasting voice is almost posh with crisp, clear enunciated diction - the way I recall how airwaves crackled in the past with 'received pronunciation'. I have become fascinated by this slavish addiction of ours to the modern phenomenon of 24-hour reporting and how a regular fix is required. Mass mindless addiction to a never-ending tickertape of prattle as I see it.

But really at my stage in life I couldn’t give a toss anymore about the immediate reporting of such lurid details which in my opinion is another way of announcing the petty failures of all our pitiable lives on a nationwide basis. But this background sound whether musical or a voice talking has become a reliable companion of late nevertheless. It helps keep the abyss of loneliness at bay - the bane of advancing years and boy does it creep up on you quietly because one day you suddenly notice you're alone. And don't even think of consulting a thesaurus for synonyms of the word isolation or you'd probably want to top yourself. Old age is a scary place as it means unyielding obedience to decay and this inevitable godforsaken loss of connectivity to people. Please believe me.

On an inside page buried among the type of nonsense I have waded through in numerous newspapers over many decades, I come across an article that catches my attention. It’s about a new group of people coming together and calling themselves the ‘MEWS’ – the ‘Mozart Estate Writers Society’. Something in this notice appeals, I’m not sure why – maybe it’s the play on the word mews – a small and unpretentious appendage attached to something bigger – a bit like my tenuous connection with life really – that I can identify with. Easily. And then of course another word that rhymes with this acronym: muse. So this London MEWS could well become a muse, an inspiration for hopeful scribblers like myself who will attend.

The MEWS organisers announce they will be based at St. Saviour’s School which fortunately is nearby within 10 minutes’ hobbling distance for me. They want to meet every fortnight to review each other’s literary offerings and are looking for budding authors gathering for their first confab on the 30th of this month - less than a week away. I am grateful that they have resorted to publicising their activities using the old-fashioned medium of this weekly publication because if they had availed of the interwebnet-thing this blurb would have passed me by completely. Another aspect to age that I’ve gotten used to since retirement: discrimination and exclusion - both deliberate and the unintended - thanks to the cold contemporaneity of our lives today as it does it in spades as far as I’m concerned.

The chimes of Big Ben on the radio herald the passing of another hour and I make a mental note that I must stop these internal rants of mine. After all, I’m preaching to a converted audience of one - myself. Nothing will change. Or, will it? I pause and look up my eyes catching sight of a few family pictures on the mantelpiece including one of Karen and Katarina as a toddler taken in Regents Park in London in the 1950s. For many years despite us being cash-strapped we were generally happy as a family and my wife was truly wonderful and yes, I probably took her for granted. I remember much laughter in our home. But they are gone now from my horizon of existence and all that is my former life. Slowly, a germ of an idea takes hold of me and I think, "Could I begin to consider myself as a writer?" And really daring for me: what does destiny hold for me now?

Again, I consult the Mozart Estate Writers blurb and I appreciate the welcoming tone, "We extend a big hand to all writers on the Mozart Estate - young and old - who would like to see their work published. So, come on down". It's a while since I've seen my age group included so openly in a public event of this sort albeit using borrowed language from some infernal TV game show. But I feel that a touch paper somewhere in my sub-conscious has been lit and I pluck up the courage to wonder if a publisher might be interested in my handwritten tale spread over nine old school copybooks gathering dust on this small table in the corner of my tiny sitting room. I change the channel on the radio to something classical and fortunately my ear picks up the opening bars of ‘The Lark Ascending’ by Vaughan-Williams. I sit back on my frayed utility sofa of 1960s vintage and the heater burbles away as it reluctantly releases its warmth. I loosen my coat and take off my scarf. Gradually, I can detect this tiny thread of hope begin to flow through me and I decide to take my manuscript along to the new writers group to seek some feedback. You just never know. Perhaps I can even make new companions and call them my MEWS muse friends! But then wise-cracking humour was never my forté. But I can feel something vaguely familiar stirring inside me and it reminds me of my youth long time past: excitement about the future.

No longer will the dread of a meagre bank balance hold me back as I won’t have many other opportunities. I’m well beyond that biblical three score and ten so I’ve overdrawn badly here about to enter into a third decade of extra life. Oh, and my story – let me give you a taster: thanks to a handful of old family papers along with some faded photographs and supported by a little research I did at the local library into my ancestral history earlier this summer, I came across details of my (paternal) great grandfather, Jacob Alexandrovich Musto who decided to go to Russia in the 19th century and after a series of exploits serving in the Tsar’s army rising through the ranks to become a general, how he mastered the local lingo and amassed a fortune, apparently acquired a large family, got caught up in the Revolution of 1917 and then for some reason ended up playing a piano in Hollywood. But you’ll have to come along to the forthcoming authors' meetings to find out more. MEWS here I come – my muse for an exciting future devoted to creative writing. All of a sudden, I feel as if my life could resonate with promise all over again and I can't wait.

 

Note: this is a work of fiction and bears no resemblance to any actual or historical event(s), place(s) or person(s), living or dead.

©Nicholas Mackey 2013

(First appeared in Red Room, 27 November 2013)

 

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My Mother - A Memoir in Poetry

Dublin, Ireland

Early morning, Thursday 4th February 1960

 

We’re alone together.

Mother and I are sitting at the kitchen window.

It’s chilly yet sunny

No clouds

Ever-stretching blueness in the sky.

A big brightness bathes my world.

My mother says, "I have a surprise for you on your special day."

The thrill of anticipation zings through my young bloodstream.

She goes and fetches it

And presents me with it.

I open it

Excitedly.

I can feel her smile at me.

Today is going to be different.

Why?

I have no idea it’s just a thought that’s popped into my mind.

Something mysterious but warm and lovely radiates from her, my dear mother.

I stare at the revealed colourful gift I hold in my small hands

It’s a birthday card

I’m excited to see the number 5 emblazoned in bold red on the front.

A milestone

I have attained half a decade

All these endless seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks and months

Amounting to just a handful of years

A pinnacle for me

So much have I lived and yet so much to look forward to

from this vantage point of innocence.

We talk and I converse in adult tones as only a new 5-year old knows

We laugh together as we chat and

She takes me on her knee.

She is wearing a turquoise flowery patterned dress

I breathe deeply as I savour her tender maternal smell.

I begin to understand what this enchanting aura is that surrounds us.

Her arms clasped around me as she continues to bestow happiness on me.

I drink in the joy.

The greatest gift a son could ever have on his birthday

His mother’s love,

Everlasting love.

 

©Nicholas Mackey

10.39am 14 November 2013

 

(First appeared in Red Room, 14 November 2013)

 

 

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That Wondrous Pleasure

You know that feeling, you open a book – yes, I’m sounding old-fashioned already having not yet truly joined the burgeoning kindle brigade – but on reading that first page I was hooked. Well and truly hooked. As I continued to read I felt the smoothness of the writing flow like a clear-running river as it navigated effortlessly the descriptions of the various bumps and eddies the main character of the book was experiencing in her life. But beneath the smooth surface there is an edge to her tale with murky depths not far off. 

In fact, I realised that as I read with increasing pleasure, I was consuming the book far too fast. I slowed down to savour the enjoyment of such incredibly good writing. I marvelled at how this writer broke the rules of authorship with finesse, redefined the word ‘silence’ for instance and then in a manner that was so ‘right’ manages to intertwine the physical and the abstract worlds that she was describing in her writing that I thought: “Gee whizz, this author knows her stuff”. I have grown envious of her well-honed and inimitable skill that at a touch adds drama to what she is talking about. Her phraseology can take on the essence of an expertly-flung, luminous javelin as it hurtles through your imagination with an unparallelled spiritual kick to it. It pierces deeply and you can feel it. It rocks you to your core so that somehow her moral thrust enters into your soul and you realise that she is forcing you to re-examine the most sensitive DNA of your ethical make-up. Permit me to quote a relevant part of the story I’m reading as the heroine skis down a mountain: “A keen wind that had been hiding itself struck me full in the mouth and raked the hair back horizontal on my head …… I plummeted down past the zigzaggers, the students, the experts, through year after year of doubleness and smiles and compromise, into my own past.” It also has the air of the confessional about it.

So far I’m half-way through her story and I’m amazed at my reactions and thoughts. It’s not often you read a book which makes such a unique impression. Now, here is a work written by a young woman some fifty years ago in America and I know her writing has affected me – a middle-aged man living 3,000 miles away in England in the 21st century. She has touched me profoundly and it is such an exciting discovery. There is something in her poetically sparse yet honest style that is so articulate which captures exactly what is being described at any given point in her book. But that’s not all. Somehow within this richly-endowed but concise technique of hers, the author can convey imagery and emotions with pinpoint accuracy. Every time she’s on the money with a minimum of narrative that is easy to read while communicating so much to her reader. Let me give you another example: the main character – a woman – is at the top of a snow-covered mountain in winter and the scene as experienced by her reads, “The cold air punished my lungs and sinuses to a visionary clearness.” It's her use of the word 'visionary' in this context that gives new meaning to the clarity of perception experienced on a freezing mountain during a clear winter's day. But yet at the same time within the same pithy sentence there are spiritual overtones verging on the poetic with the author penning the words, 'punished' and (again) 'visionary'. To pursue the quasi-religious metaphor further, she even touches on the idea of someone having a vision in connection with a supreme deity who might be living on high. In this way, her words multi-layered in meaning with differing 'connections' resemble James Joyce et al. in the use of this literary device.

I'm sure I've given you a sufficient number of clues as to who I'm reading at the moment and the well-known writer and poet who was married to another poet who went on to become Poet Laureate of England but, the author in question, sadly took her own life shortly after the publication of this her only novel in 1963 - a half century ago. I recall coming across this book as a first-year undergraduate way back in 1973 (only a decade after the author's sad demise) but was dissuaded from reading it because a group of militant feminists in Trinity at the time had hijacked this oeuvre loudly brandishing it as their pressure group mantra. But I'm glad to say that 40 years later I have rediscovered this gem and it is a wondrous pleasure. 

There is nothing like writing excellence and my goodness don't you know it when you come across it? This author's creative verve, in my opinion, provides us with an exclusive insight into the main character portrayed and the world around her. Why? Because as readers we have been most fortunate in being bequeathed a distinct 'visionary clearness' by this exceptional author, Sylvia Plath in 'The Bell Jar'.

(First appeared in Red Room, 18 September 2013) 

 

Recent Comments
Rosy Cole
A nice tribute Nicholas. I had same reaction upon reading The Bell Jar in my twenties, having been similarly stunned by Sylvia's p... Read More
Monday, 31 December 2018 13:31
Nicholas Mackey
Couldn't agree more with your comments, Rosie and the one major regret is that Sylvia Plath's early (and tragic) death removed a s... Read More
Sunday, 06 January 2019 18:53
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The Bolingbroke Hook

A note from my diary, Sunday 25th November 2018:

Yesterday, my wife and I joined four dear old friends in a south London watering hole called The Bolingbroke. We had a marvellous evening together and the name of the venue served as a hook to memory from 1969.

Now, there's a little story to tell about Bolingbroke, i.e. a character in a Tudor drama in this case rather than a location. Many years ago in Ireland, I was studying Shakespeare's Richard II at school as it was on our nation’s educational curriculum. Not only did we read it, but we studied it, we discussed it and then, joy of joys, we came to act it out. Among the dramatis personae of this play where our class was assigned the different roles of King Richard himself, Duke of York, John of Gaunt etc., I was given the part of Henry Bolingbroke, son of John of Gaunt. 

Our wonderful English master, Michael G. himself an Englishman and a veteran of the theatre where he had acted in repertory touring around England and Ireland as a younger man in the 1930s and 40s, would give us expert guidance on how to perform the various roles and what sort of play Richard II was. Fortunately, as our very same Michael G. was also our history teacher, he was able to place Shakespeare's drama within an historical context. This made for an enriched experience of not just the play, Richard II itself and the era in which the drama was set but Michael G. also delved into the technicalities of drama and even the structural aspect of Shakespearean plays. We even explored the fundamental nuts and bolts of Shakespeare’s dramatic writing in the form of rhyming couplets and the ubiquitous iambic pentameter occasionally interspersed with a trochee of course (not forgetting their classical antecedents) and our teacher even devised activities for us boys based on this poetic tool by organising the class into groups so that we would talk to each other in modern speech based on the iambic pentameter construction William S. himself had employed. We even played a simple game of consigning some of the capitals of the world either to the iambus or trochee camp on the basis of the inflection used in the pronunciation of the word. So, Madrid or Berlin, for instance, would be the former (unstressed followed by a stressed syllable) whereas Dublin, Paris or London would be the latter (stressed followed by an unstressed syllable).

It made the whole aspect of learning this stuff a complete and utter joy while also being very funny at times, so that I have such incredibly strong memories of these events of so long ago. I recall the intense excitement around this time as a young teenager when the whole shebang (iambus?) of the construct underpinning rhythm of speech used by Shakespeare and other playwrights ‘clicked’ one day and from then on there was no looking back. I found the role of Henry Bolingbroke so thrilling to act out and I remember researching about the actual historical character I was playing. Of course, in those days there was no internet so it meant a few extra-curricular forays on cold winter evenings where I had to hoof it down to our local public library which thankfully was well stocked with suitable volumes holding the kind of information I needed.

Our English teacher brought Shakespeare to life in such an imaginative and engaging way and as 14-year olds in class we revelled in the thrill of playing our respective roles in Richard II. For us boys back in Ireland in those days, it was exhilarating as we engaged with all the characters and the shenanigans of Richard II and his royal court. Michael G. did work us hard though. We initially read through Richard II and were also required to learn vast screeds of it off by heart, then we rehearsed it several times finally giving a performance of (most of) the play at the end of term.

It was around this time in the late 1960s, that the thought of acting and directing in the theatre entered into my consciousness as a possible future career and I remember the inner excitement that grew within as I learnt more about this fascinating universe. More later.

To add a frisson of delight to our connect with Richard II in our English lessons at this time, Michael G. invited a leading light from the drama society of Trinity College Dublin, Stephen R., to perform for us. Stephen was then an undergraduate who had already carved out a name for himself as an actor and director on the Irish stage while also building up a solid reputation as a ‘safe pair of hands’ when a theatrical production was under consideration. You have to imagine the buzz in that Dublin classroom of 49 years ago when Michael G. and Stephen R. acted out some of the 'highlights' from the play. I recall vividly how energised I was by this drama being played out in front of us during our remarkable exposure to literary education don't forget on some long-past rainy Tuesday afternoon and you were (mentally) whisked back to the end of 14th century England. As far as I was concerned, I had become witness to King Richard II and the nefarious goings-on in his kingdom. It was captivating. It was such fun.

When Michael G. and this supremely-talented Trinity player had concluded their virtuoso performance the whole class erupted into thunderous and prolonged applause. Then, our English master suddenly turned to me and asked me to stand and recite the famous speech of John of Gaunt which marks the start of the action from Act 2, Scene 1 of the play. As I’m sure you will recall, in this heartfelt address, a mortally ill John of Gaunt gives Kind Richard II a very frank dressing down.

I was utterly thrown by this request for two reasons: firstly, the teacher had not given me any forewarning of this and, secondly, as I had committed to memory all my lines as Henry Bolingbroke as directed by my teacher, I reckoned that he must have momentarily forgotten the original part assigned to me. I do remember standing in that class barely able to utter the words of another character, albeit the important personage of John of Gaunt. Thankfully, Stephen came to my rescue and assisted me and, little by little, I was somehow buoyed up by the magic of the moment, fuelled with adrenalin and swept along by the metrical cadence of the words of Shakespeare, the lines seemed to work their way through me and I was able to deliver John of Gaunt's soliloquy:

Methinks I am a prophet new inspired,
And thus expiring do foretell of him:
His rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last,
For violent fires soon burn out themselves;
Small showers last long, but sudden storms are short;
He tires betimes that spurs too fast betimes;
With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder:
Light vanity, insatiate cormorant,
Consuming means, soon preys upon itself.                                               

This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself,
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.                             

This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear'd by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home, etc.

Somehow, I managed to finish the speech and was surprised to receive applause from my classmates, our charismatic theatrical visitor and our inspirational English teacher. 

FYI, Stephen R. in later life went on to be the director of a well-known theatre in London and subsequently became a longstanding and successful head of a nationwide charity. Michael G. continued to inspire as our school's English and History master for many more years and he remains to this day a shining star in my firmament of learning. Subsequently, when Michael G.’s teaching career concluded, he had a long and happy retirement in Cornwall where I had the pleasure of spending some time with him in 1996 not long before he passed away later that same year. On that visit, I was particularly touched when he showed me that he had given pride of place to a family photo I had sent him some years before of my wife, two sons and myself. It was placed prominently on his mantelpiece.

So you see, when I come across the word Bolingbroke, I am reminded of that excitement of participating in a school play from nearly fifty years ago where, as a youngster, I got to play two parts, albeit briefly in a drama by William Shakespeare. Also, when reflecting on this episode of my life long past, I think I was most fortunate to have had such an excellent teacher during those formative years who encouraged a lifelong love of language, literature, reading, drama, history and learning.

P.S. Now that I come to think of it, the above speech of John of Gaunt could possibly serve as a swingeing metaphor for the whole ridiculosity of the entirotrocious Brexit debaclorumminimus but of course that is another kettle of physhch, as they say in Kinnegad.

Recent Comments
Stephen Evans
What a wonderful memory! I learned Shakespeare this way in college, by putting it on its feet and acting it, and I have loved thes... Read More
Sunday, 09 December 2018 14:51
Nicholas Mackey
Thank you, Stephen for taking the time to read and comment. Agreed that this method of acting the actual Shakespeare play brought ... Read More
Tuesday, 11 December 2018 11:53
Rosy Cole
I'm all in favour of being thrown in at the deep end! It's a great way to learn. No time for nerves or destructive self-consciousn... Read More
Sunday, 16 December 2018 16:56
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Hallelujah! Coleridge's thoughts (and yours!) are so much clearer than Emerson's who has a habit of ...
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Thank you so much, Katia. It's helpful to know you found it so. The passage is from Entertaining Ang...
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Thank you, Ken. I am so glad you enjoyed it.

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