Uncommon Harmony 4

I know this is not poetry. I have joined a memoir writing group, and the wonderful phrase “uncommon harmony” comes from Faye Benedict who is a really gifted writer in that group. It was that phrase that made me decide to write differently, it seemed to make sense of what writing memoir might be. Though, it is likely to be me, me. [See the sidebar for poems.]


The day before my fifth birthday I went with my father to someone else’s house and the man there took a child’s bicycle from his shed. He called it a “fairy cycle”. It was quite obviously “previously loved” as the silver frame and mudguards were well scratched. I had never seen anything so lovely. The man lifted me to the saddle, and checked how my feet would reach the ground and pedals. Then I was told to turn the pedals while the man ran behind, holding the back of the saddle to keep my fairy cycle upright, as I took my first ever bike ride. Then I had to get off, while the men conferred. I wonder now when training wheels were invented, I never had any. I must have had fairy stars in my eyes as my father and the man were looking at me and smiling as I stood beside my bike with my arm stretched across to hold the handlebars. I knew my father was very pleased, I assumed it was with me. The men spat in their palms and shook hands. My father gave me a coin to give the man, so I did. He thanked me for the “luck-penny” and wished me good riding.

Back at Gortnaskea, a square house with an asphalt turning space in front and concrete paths on both sides running to the expanse of the back yard, there was quite a bit of saddle holding to come, and even more crashes into the brick walls that bounded the paths. These walls were about saddle height, just right for getting on and then using to push against to start off before wobbling a few yards and crashing into the wall further along. Although I remember this very well, I also feel certain that I have been riding a bike all my life, bicycles are part of who I am. Gortnaskea House faced the drive to the brickyard across the road, running downhill a few hundred yards to the dip where a stream was bridged, then up again to the canteen and the office. On weekends we were allowed to play there, not to go further than the lorry park beyond the office. Without my father there was no exploring of the kilns and fires or the loading yards by the railway line. All our playing was bounded by rules we knew to keep. At other times, in the fields behind the house, we got lost until the call for lunch, but never went near the mine nor the sand pit.

I must have learned to ride soon, as I remember a sunny day flying down the brickyard drive on my cycle, wind in hair, and of course in 1948, no hat or helmet of any kind. I saw a brick in the road just before I hit it. The next memory is of my mother lifting me and carrying me to the house. Now, I know that my sister had to run home, tell my mother, then my mother ran to where I lay. I must have been out, unconscious, at least five minutes. I still have a tiny scar under my chin, apparently the cycle stood on its front wheel and I went over the handlebar. I seemed to have taken no hurt, but of course my mother did not know what hut might be unseen, so that afternoon remains as very special. My mother was a golfer and a foursome, part of a competition, had been arranged. She took me with her and played her match while I walked alongside being fussed over and petted by all the women, allowed some ‘turns’ to play if I kept quiet while they had their turns. How I loved the attention that day, not knowing how my mother felt as she kept me beside her, watching and hoping that all would be well.

In fact, I think this was the second time I had been knocked unconscious. The first was a few months earlier, when I had just started at that awful school, and a bigger boy, Herbie Thomson, ran slap into me in the playground, so that I cracked my head on the concrete. When school was over I wasn’t hurting any more but I had a large lump on the back of my head. My mother arrived to collect me and my sister and she and were talking very seriously together for quite a long time. The talking was scary. The teacher was apologising, and apologizing again, so many “sorrys”. My mother was very displeased, even angry. Years later, recalling Herbie’s name for some reason, I learned that my mother had been deeply upset that Herbie had been punished for an accident, almost certainly caused by a nearly five year-old girl not watching where she was going.

My poor mother. I was a source of anxiety from the day I was born, as my father knew well. Maybe it was why he paid so much attention to me, and I know now that it was why he was angry when he heard about my pregnancy. However, giving anxiety at my birth was not my fault, and when I was only five it would be a long time before I would hear that part of my story, and begin to understand what it meant. But I already knew I was not like Veronica, that I climbed trees, tore clothes, scrambled in rock-pools at Portrush, and was regularly told to Please, be more careful.

What happened to the fairy cycle? It must have survived the crash, as a few years later, after a holiday in Blackpool had introduced me and my sisters to superior circus performances, it was the chief prop for the trick cyclist. I spent hours practicing how to push the bike to its fastest in time to get a foot on the saddle while my other leg performed its graceful arabesque, and then I would remove hands from the bars just in time to throw my arms wide before the bike hit the wall and I jumped safely to the grass. My sisters and I did circus displays for parents and aunts and uncles. I remember great daring, but not anxiety from the grown-ups. I don’t think any of those little girl bicycles survived to pass to other children, and I have to suppose there was not really anything dangerous happening. My early memories often split like this, feeling the self-as-a-child, and at the same time seeing the adults who loved me from my own adult understanding. I love both their amusement and their giving me applause and confidence with inexpressible gratitude.

The first full size bicycle arrived at Christmas 1955, the year I was 12, just moved up to class 3A. It was a dark red three speed Balmoral. Veronica’s was the same, but black. Irene had a slightly different model, probably smaller, blue. My new classmates in 3A rode bicycles. I rode the five miles from Coalisland to Dungannon, and met Olive about halfway where she came in from the Carland Road, and then Moyra met us both just out of town, and we reached school on the far side of town together.

One summer day many of us, including Veronica and Jean from 3B, went on a twenty-mile cycling history trip. We went towards Armagh, to visit Moy and the old walls of Charlemont Fort and learn some Irish history on-site. Charlemont was a significant military post at various times, sometimes held by the Irish army and at other times by the English, such as the brutal Parliamentarian forces who held it for Cromwell in the 1660s. More recently, in the 1970s the Ulster Volunteer Force, a loyalist paramilitary group, attacked and killed civilians in the village, repeating brutality. On the cycle ride I didn’t pay any attention to the history, not realizing that this was the only time we would be offered any Irish or Ulster history during our schooldays. What I know of Ireland’s story has been learnt since from newspapers and novels, and many rather good visitors’ centres in places like Ranfurly, Dungannon and Belfast. It is appalling to realize that our history curriculum was the history of England, its kings and queens, and the building of its Empire. Our school, and I suppose all in Northern Ireland, followed the curriculum set by the Northern Ireland government education department, and since partition many years before, that government had been staunchly Unionist. “Staunch” is still the word this group give to their own mindset, they know what they believe, and one belief is that they should not give way to change. When the Troubles began in 1968, what happened first was a peacefully organised Civil Rights march. We know now how wrong that went. The local culture had no understanding of civil rights, it was more imbued with ignorance of the kind that caned Herbie Thomson or thought that education meant memorising the history of a colonising country.

Thinking back, I cannot imagine how even then a history teacher was able or allowed to take a dozen girls on a bicycle ride. Our history teacher, like my father, seems to have tried to bring something wider into our lives. I regret now that all that I remember of that day is that we all wore our sky-blue summer school uniforms that were made from local Moygashel cloth. We cycled in the sun, we were tired with the happy exhaustion that comes when a healthy body has been stretched. I have an unexplainable strong feeling of pride, feeling good. Veronica may have listened, she always says Miss Hanson, the history teacher, was genuine and kind. Veronica, often vilified as “unrealistic”, spent a great part of her own professional life as a primary school teacher campaigning for STOPP, the Society for Teachers opposed to Physical Punishment. The law forbidding such punishment in schools passed through the British Parliament in 1987 by one single vote, on an occasion when not one Ulster Unionist member happened to be present to vote against it, as they were at that time in the middle of one of their boycotts of parliamentary engagement. Boycotts occurred throughout the times of the troubles when the British government tried to broker peace talks, or address some aspect of rights within Northern Ireland. What I remember is that Veronica and I enjoyed our talk together by phone that evening, with pride, and also triumph.

I have to own now that I must have been an unthinking careless teenager in many ways. My life was about me my friends and school and more about me than anyone else. Rides to school meeting Moyra and Olive gave way to the ride that met up with Ronnie. Another day of riding was spent with Margaret as we took our bicycles and panniers and baskets on a daffodil collection hunt. Obviously it must have been springtime, as in all the outlying villages and farms daffodils were the flowers blooming on the driveways. We went to the houses and asked if we could pick them. What for? It was something to do with school, an occasion when bringing armfuls of flowers for decoration was a big success. It cannot have been “Speech Day” as that happened late in May with girls on parade in blue dresses. It must have been for a dance, when once a year we older girls were allowed to organize and invite the boys to the School Dance. Margaret and I would both have thought that was worth a lot of effort.

Bicycles disappeared for a while after I went to Belfast, though there was a temporary flirtation with a motor-bicycle, and its rider Allen. I didn’t tell my mother about the accident. I was riding pillion, of course no helmet, wearing a pink gingham checked dress, when approaching a side road Allen accelerated the bike to pass a white van in front. I saw the van indicator lights switch on, he was going to turn into our path. Did my body remember the brick on the brickyard drive? I think it might have remembered the trampoline that I had lately taken up as a new sport. I went up in the air, turned a somersault over the top of the van and landed on my feet at the base of a huge tree on the other side of the road. At least so the bystanders told me when I stood up again, with a scrape on my ankle from the tree root. Allen had fallen into the road, he and the van driver were unhurt, though his bike was not. The next year, no Allen, I was offered a ride to a party by Des, a friend of a friend, and found myself looking at a white van with a long rusted gash along its side. I said something like “what happened to the van?” and got the reply: “an idiot on a motorbike tried to pass when I was turning, the girl on the pillion should have been killed, but some miracle saved her”. It was a good party, I liked Des, but have not seen him since. That was the end of liking motor bikes though I did have one of my own briefly in London, in the year I began my PhD study. It seemed the quickest way to get around in that huge sprawling city, but I didn’t like it, and on the next trip to Ireland I rescued the red Balmoral from the garage at my parents’ house. It had migrated from Gortnaskea to The Grange, further along the road beyond the coalmine and the brickyard, when my father retired.

Bicycle love returned, and even though the Balmoral was soon to be the first of many that were stolen, I have had a bike ever since. I do not know if a luck-penny gift makes a wish real, but I do know I have had good riding.



Uncommon Harmony 1

OK, this is not poetry. I have joined a memoir writing group, and the wonderful phrase “uncommon harmony” comes from Faye Benedict who is a really gifted writer in that group. It was that phrase that made me decide to write differently, it seemed to make sense of what writing memoir might be. Though, it is likely to be me, me.

The Red Suitcase

I am 21 years old. My aunt Sybil gave me a red suitcase “in case I want to travel”. It was something like 18 by 12 inches, and 8 inches deep, measurements in inches of course, no-one said centimeters then. It was the kind with one handle on a long side, flanked by spring clips. I think it was taffeta satin inside some kind of pressed cardboard covered by faux leather. That was red, very “mod”. I returned to Belfast, my final year at university, my first year out of “halls”, sharing a rented ‘flat’ that was actually just a large victorian front room with kitchenette carved from the rear and a bathroom shared with other ‘flats’ down the hall. The suitcase went under my bed, a twin facing Jean’s twin on the other side of the room, a wide rug in between. Do you remember 77 Sunset Strip? We were 77 Botanic Avenue, Ground Floor.

The Applied Maths Department was up the hill. five minutes walk to all my classes. Jean was ten minutes further, English Department and Library. There was a table to eat at, but not much space for desk work, so I lay on my stomach on the floor to read, between the beds. Sometimes it was Lord of the Rings, or Georgette Heyer, my wonderful honours english Jean provided the library at number 77. Sometimes it was Quantum Mechanics or relativistic something or other I have long forgotten. Sometimes it was my sort-of-secret indulgence Hardy’s History of Mathematics. There’s a story behind where that came from.

To look back, the suitcase, three or four times as heavy as my current wheelie bag that moves at fingertip touch, was not the only thing that had to change.

That year, there were twenty-one of us in applied maths honours, three girls and eighteen boys. We said girls and boys, not men, women, nor male, female. (And I at least had never heard of LGBT). This number, three girls, was unprecedented. The history love came about through a girl thing too. A few years before, as a fresher straight from a country school, I had happily and dutifully joined the university maths society, as one did if one had arrived to study maths. And, as a girl, I got the privilege of arranging meeting refreshments, the tea and buns. I discharged this duty so faithfully, clearly able to count the cash, that the following year I progressed to being treasurer. (I have never since taken on being a treasurer.) This post put me on the committee with the professors, lecturers and postgrads, who also served. I became part of the welcome for the visiting speakers, possibly the committee showed their modernity with this, I say it myself, quite attractive female person. Then I became the person who arranged for speakers. Being a girl, who knew her place was to serve and agree, in the year before finals, I was asked to be President, President of the University of Belfast Mathematical Society. Yes, said Elspeth, the first ever female undergraduate president.

The following year, Jean also lent me Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. When I read it lying on that floor, I was again saying Yes, Yes, some different kind of yes articulation on its way.

It sounds like I was a with-it achieving person, but the reality was that I did not actually know that the president had to give a presidential address, had to be a speaker offering a topic of interest to the whole of the society. I was an undergrad whose only discovery so far had been that being very clever in a small school didn’t mean I was particularly outstanding among other really clever students, let alone someone who knew enough math to address the society. I didn’t have either a “Beautiful Mind” or a new idea for proof theory. In fact, I didn’t have any idea, but fortunately I had a good friend in the postgrads, who said “Do History”. So I did, with a brief byway into philosophy where the history books took me. I remember only the title “Development of Calculus from Anaxagoras to Newton and Leibnitz”. But, I found a love, the thought and curiosity that led to my life had happened to happen. Or, not yet, as like the Second Sex, it took time for what had been begun to emerge.

Our final year in applied maths produced something else unprecedented in the department history. Four, four students achieved first class honours, in those days something that did not even happen every year, was achieved by two boys, and two girls, Heather Knox and myself. Now I know about the resonance effects of diversity, connection and positive motivation in groups, I wonder, did that achievement we each claimed as our own, which it is, also owe something to the contributions of all twenty one of us feeling some change in the blowin’ in the wind? Dylan’s song recorded first in 1962, our year was 64-65, was frequently sung, along with We Shall Overcome and folk songs from Ireland, not to mention hot debates on the papal encyclical 1965 that repeated the Roman Catholic Church position decrying birth control.

Whatever, the first class boys both joined one of our professors at post-graduate work, exported with him to MIT in Boston, USA. In my final interview with the Head of Faculty, seeking advice, he suggested that teaching was a good career for a girl. Maybe he had seen the ring I proudly carried on my third finger, another clear expectation of going to university being to meet a better class of man, and the ring was the visible sign that I had achieved that too. Maybe he knew I was already pregnant, though at three months in, just finished final exams, and meeting up with my mother to plan the wedding, I had hardly registered the consequences of that finding myself. The man of good class also graduated, though in psychology, second class. We made the local papers as the human interest couple who returned from their honeymoon to be present at the graduation ceremony, in my case in forgivingly covering graduation robe. They all asked an embarrassing “class” question. Nobody noticed that no-one would have cared if the first and second had been the other way round.

I had not registered that after achieving aims, there was a new place to be, a change. I had not registered that ‘being a girl’ was going to have to change. The red suitcase retired to store in my mother’s attic, never again big enough or useful enough for any journey.



Past Present Future

A prompt from Jackie Kay’s Fiere, “and child in that back garden waving at this steam train” – hence this poem arrives writing itself

Past Present Future

Railway lines were always built
as straight as the engineers could make them.

Regardless of the local communities passed by
even when now and again they had to bend
or wind around the base of a hill.
After all, that’s what the train is for:
to take those in it, or the quantity of goods
or cattle carried
As far as wanted.
In a much shorter time than the horse
ambling along the canal bank
or clopping the lane that then was
more or less all grass
and certainly grass up the middle.

So the attention of the magnate
and the engineer, and the platelayers
and eventually the drivers
is always ahead, along, arrowing
to a future, and so they miss it,
the future, the one waiting to be.

There is a child there in that back garden
Waving, waving as the train moves steadily
steaming unsteadily puff puff
Going there, going there, going there
as the hand of the child flies
Left Right, Left Right, See me, see me

At last the fireman rests his shovel
Glad of the chance to take his cap
And wave while the sweat dries.



Emergence, a wreck?


Photo from one of Armagh’s cathedral sites. There are also some of John Hewitt’s words there, a more hopeful and generous perspective.

When I saw the title with South County
My mind reversed the words.
From a childhood place
I see Armagh, the county south
of my own county,
A place of orchards and apples.

Small hills topped by two cathedrals
Both called St. Patrick
Looking at each other across the town
Glaring rather. Or ignoring.
More, I am the high point here,
So long as I pretend you are not there.

Emergent intolerance and ignorance.
Trouble. I wish I saw a change.
I think I see the brittle ribs of hate
Slipped a little while under the sand.
The cathedrals on the hills still stand.
Waiting. Watching. Ignoring their arrogance.


When I write poetry I think I am often simply exercising “free association”. Is this is why prompts enable me to get around to it? The prompt on this occasion, here in USA, was in a “South County news report” with a headline “shipwreck buried under sand emerges on Charleston Beach”



Ubiquitous Bic

Ubiquitous Bic biclighter

(prompted at writer’s group by an old lighter)


It’s a bic lighter
Not alight even though
I have seen it used for the gas
I suspect somewhere there is a roll-up
Flimsy paper, sticky flakes
a stash, hash.

Lighten up people
What do you know about
some of this?
Names you talk about
without experience?
Lighten the load.

Anyway I go my road
Flame flickers yellow
Coward, frightened, burnt,
back-lit shadowland.
Never see the sun rise
No shining eyes.

Let it go to landfill.
Emptied now
Like life
Where went the light?
While I flew to the flame?


The king was in the Counting House

for a more ordered view on the subject of this poem look at what Ivo Mosley’s writes

The king was in the Counting House…

Banking is business
That’s what we do.
We produce money
and sell it to you.
We make it from nothing
[it’s not really real]
Everyone trusts us
There’s no need to steal.

You didn’t know this
Well that’s no surprise
It’s not that it’s secret
just hidden from eyes
behind lots of numbers
and labels and jargon
You need lots of patience
to get a translation.

In fact when we say
“We promise to pay”
it’s really quite funny
it’s never your money.
We’re owing you money
that we have just made.
We say that on the paper
And you are misled.

It’s a sort of in-joke
more a pig-in-a-poke
what you think is your money
is always a debt.
Whether yours or some others’
does not much matter
somebody owes us
and interest gets fatter.

you look for your earnings
the products of work
so does the businessman
he’s not a jerk.
You both use up energy
make things of worth
that’s goods and services
needed from birth.

These things of worth
start from gifts that are free.
The sun and the rain
fall on our earth
bring harvests of bounty.
Yes they ask for your effort
your skill and your sweat
Sharing them round is not happening yet.

If we make the money
then sell debt to you
Your work pays us back
Always more than was due.
For banking is business
and that’s what it does
But who ever decided
We wanted to lose?

Money is thinking
Just an idea
To help us move something
From somewhere to here
To privilege banking
above all our gifts
is saying capital isn’t for us,
just the risks!

Bosses and workers
Are both the bank clients
Their money is debt
It’s not rocket science.
The bank’s interest is interest
So everyone’s stressed
by the law that allows banks
to say debt is best.

Why is the money
issued this way?
if it’s just an idea
to help plan our days?
Just as the sun and the rain are for free
We can decide if we want to be!
We could decide
how we’d make the money!

Let the banks do the managing
They do that well.
Take from them the privilege
that acts like a spell.
As if we were unable
ever to choose
how the need for the money
could be planned for our use.

Freedom to choose
brings trusting and risk
that’s why we duck it
and give up our task.
That’s why we labour
give power to the banks
give up our lives
and forget to give thanks

For the freedom to live
For the free gift of life
For the capital in us
For sharing not strife.
For the money we could
if we wanted agree
Belongs to us all for our needs
Make it free.

Remember to look at Positive Money, and all the resources available there, if you want to learn more about what money really is in today’s global world.

Bees Know

Bees know

No-one told the bees to make honey
but they do.
No-one needs to know how the grass grows
but it does.
When the tree falls in the forest we do not hear
but fungi flourish
We have not asked the sun to rise and shine every time
Morning comes
In a darkened night we lift our eyes to the stars, or sleep
and dream.
Did you hear the rain pitter patter your window, or the wind’s rattle?
Planning permission not required.

Did you hear about the bananas? Dole’d to consumers faffing and Fyffing
Wanting golden skinned
Nations unfed while consumers led to love the bananas
not too soft or black
tons crated from plantations and tonnage tossing over seas,
Hands harvest the hands.
Fair trade or agribusiness. How do you know there are bananas
in your fridge?
Are you bananas? You forget the world will touch you with its gifts
Let your skin take it in
While the bees buzz on busy honey making.

No-one told you: you will get something for nothing every day
No-one told you: you will be born and grow
No-one told you love, or hate or fear or pride or joy
Let them come, as they will, as surely as the sun shines.
See what honey comes.

Inspired in part by ARTIST ROOMS, Joseph Beuys, A Language of Drawing, at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, 30th July − 30th October 2016

From the Life of the Bees, Joseph Beuys.