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Wednesday 29 March 2017

Advice to Writers

You don’t need to use ‘howled’ or ‘growled’
or ‘yowled’ or ‘cried’ or ‘muttered’.
You don’t have to say ‘wailed’ or ‘wept’
or ‘yelled’ or ‘roared or ‘stuttered’.

You don’t have to use ‘moaned’ or ‘groaned’
or ‘sobbed’ or ‘griped’ or ‘grumbled’.
You don’t need to say ‘giggled’, ‘sniggered’,
‘snorted’, ‘sighed’ or ‘mumbled’.

You don’t need to ‘expectorate’,
‘reveal’, 'confess' or ‘cachinnate’.
You don’t need to ‘affirm’, ‘allege’,
‘deliver’ or ‘pontificate’.

These words all have their uses
but maintain a level head:
sometimes, when you’re writing,
it’s OK to just say ‘said’. 

Image result for said

Sunday 26 March 2017

Is Love the Opposite of Science?

Obviously they are not strict opposites, in the sense that if you look in the dictionary you will not find one defined in terms of the negation of the other. What follows is not rigorous philosophical analysis so much as an attempt to make a profound point in a scattered, imperfect and perhaps awkward way.

Let’s start with science. A cornerstone of science is that scientists change their minds if the evidence demands it. They construct hypotheses to account for observed phenomena, and then rigorously test these hypotheses, altering them or abandoning them as the evidence demands. Some hypotheses stand the test of time, and others don’t, but in order to have any validity a scientific hypothesis must be, in principle at least, capable of being proved wrong. In the words of philosopher Karl Popper, it must be ‘falsifiable’.

Love, it seems to be, is the opposite of this. It is unconditional, not falsifiable. The psychotherapist David Richo writes that love “is an unconditional response to what is, rather than a conditioned response to what we have learned.” In other words, love does not shift to fit the ‘evidence’; it integrates everything. It is in this context that we can see that the phrase “I just don’t love you any more” doesn’t make much sense – if you can stop loving someone then it wasn’t really love in the first place.

This might suggest that love is something that just happens to us, out of the blue. However, I don’t think this is true. The genesis of love is commitment, which is governed by choice. We choose to love someone unconditionally. Those of us who think of love as primarily a feeling will find this idea a bit weird – we can’t choose what we feel, can we? – but love is not (just) a feeling, it is action, or a commitment to undertake a course of action.

How does this relate to science? I’m not sure, except to say that gathering ‘evidence’ doesn’t strike me as an especially helpful way of deciding whether or not to embark on a course of loving someone. We might need a certain threshold, some indication that our partner is basically reliable and sensible, say. But love will always involve an element of risk. A commitment to loving is not a commitment to examine the evidence but a commitment to act in the light of incomplete evidence and the possibility of pain and disappointment.

I said at the beginning that my thoughts would be scattered, imperfect and awkward. Love itself is all of these things, so perhaps any treatment of it in writing demands nothing less. 

Tuesday 21 March 2017

A Comment on THAT 'OCD' Poem

Probably the most watched poem on Youtube is ‘OCD’ by Neil Hilborn. You can watch it here:

My initial intention when I started to think about writing this blog post was to discuss how much I disliked the poem. However, having thought about the matter a good deal, this will no longer be the focus of what I have to say. Instead, I am going to do three things: (1) highlight my misgivings about the poem (for I still have some), (2) engage in a bit of critical self-reflection regarding my response to the poem, and (3) say something about one of the redemptive messages of the poem.

My primary beef with the poem is that it glamourises mental illness. It makes it look like OCD is romantic, the remit of the tortured artist. It also plays into some stereotypes about what OCD is. In the public mind, OCD involves things like obsessive handwashing and organising the food on one’s plate. My experience of OCD does not involve these things. Hilborn is perfectly entitled to speak from his own experience, but then he shouldn’t call his poem ‘OCD’, as this makes it seem like he’s speaking for all OCD sufferers. Similarly, when he states “when you have OCD…[emphasis added]”, he purports to be speaking as some kind of ambassador. I too am an OCD sufferer, and much of what he says doesn’t represent my experience. I do not view the condition as in any way glamourous or romantic; it is a total and utter ball-ache, and far more likely to completely destroy any poetic impulse than to stoke it.

Hilborn’s poem also perpetuates some damaging ideas about romantic relationships. When he states “how can it be a mistake that I don’t have to wash my hands after I touched her”, he is tacitly saying that the role of being in relationship is to have one’s flaws smoothed away. But problems do not just magically drift off once one is ‘in love’, and to think they do would be to enter the land of Hollywood. In fact, one of the cruel ironies of OCD is that it is more likely to latch onto and attempt to destroy one's intimate relationships than it is to just go away once one finds a loving match. It seems to me like the poet may have used his relationship, and his partner, to fix himself. This does not seem to me like a healthy basis for a relationship.

This is all very po-faced I know. Am I committing some kind of category-error? Is it appropriate to bring this kind of discussion to bear on what is just a poem, a piece of entertainment? Maybe. But it isn’t just a poem, clearly. If it was, not many people would want to watch it. It clearly speaks to something deep within a lot of people, and as such I think it behoves us to look deeply at it. The problem with dealing with things like mental health through the medium of a slam poem is that the complexity of the issues get distorted and simplified on the altar of brevity and the pursuit of a pithy phrase. Does this mean slam poetry can’t tackle mental health and relationships? I’m not sure. All I can say at this stage is that I often feel very alienated by this art form.

This brings me onto the second point of discussion, for it is undeniable that a good deal of my antipathy towards the poem stems from me, rather than anything inherent in the poem itself. I find it hard to see much, if anything, in the poem to justify its massive hype. It is fairly well-written, and well performed, but so what? So are millions of other poems. Its proliferation across social media seems to me as much to do with luck as with being a really deep poem.  

It is not easy for me to admit this, but I am jealous. I am jealous that probably fewer than ten people will read this blog post, whereas many millions have seen Hilborn’s poem. I am jealous that Hilborn was able to use his experience of mental illness to reach out to people (even if, as I discussed, his message seems a bit distorted) whereas I haven’t yet figured out a way to do this. I am jealous that someone else is getting lionised rather than me. I am jealous. I am jealous. I am jealous. I am jealous. I am jealous. I am jealous. How much art, how many experiences, have I cut myself off from because of jealousy? This is a question I seriously need to ask myself.

Having acknowledged this tendency, let us now turn to the third point of discussion. When Hilborn gets to the final lines of the poem, “I leave the door unlocked./I leave the lights on”, the audience lets out a little yelp of approval and wonder, as though they have just seen the Northern Lights or something. This reaction strikes me as a little pathetic and, well, American (granted, this may be just jealousy talking again). However, let’s consider the lines again. The message I take away from these final lines is that OCD has lost the battle. The purpose of OCD is to maintain the illusion of control; it is the ego’s attempt to use ritual to control the universe (is religion, then, a form of OCD writ large?). It is an attempt to make the world conform to us, at the expense of having to conform to the often painful vagaries and flux of the world. The loss of his partner is thus a gift that helps the poet see that his previous defences have not worked. When things happen that are truly out of our control, the healthy thing to do it to drop all pretences. In other words, it is to leave the window open and the door unlocked. It is to invite the intruders in, and let them do their worst. It is to say “yes” to life, rather than to OCD. 

I've no idea if the poet intended any of this. At a guess, I would say that most people would interpret the take-home message of the poem as saying that love conquers all, that being in a relationship was the only way the poet could salve his addled mind, and that the loss of his partner is a heartbreaking tragedy. I take home something far more empowering: it is time for us to face up to ourselves and stop using others to cover our raw spots. In this case, the failure of the poet's relationship should be seen as a gift, and the message of the poem one of redemption. 

Monday 20 March 2017


I recently worked with a group of students to produce poems for Mothers Day. I started by asking them to write (or draw) TEN OBJECTS that are particularly important to them. We then used these objects to create metaphors describing their mums. This is a very simple technique, and it can be used to create poems about anyone and anything. Here are some examples produced by the students at my weekly lunch club at Plashet School:

You Are by Eliona

You are the key to my heart
You are the light showing me directions
You are my sweater keeping me warm
You are my pillow keeping me comfy
You are my umbrella protecting me from the rain
You are my teddy bear keeping me company
You are always by my side

I Love You by Fatima

I love you mum
because you gave me everything
I love you
I love you because
you gave me a gift
I love you
I love you like a star
shines bright in the sky
I love you
because you make me happy
because you laughed

My Mum by Safia

You are my book
When I open you
You get me laughing and excited
You are my sunshine
My shining star!
When you turn on
I’m really happy

You Are by Farha

You are my star
always leading the way
You are my key
always opening up new places in me
You are my glasses
always opening up my eyes
You are my umbrella
always protecting me from the rain/sun
You are my boat
always holding me up

You Are by Safiyah

You are my phone
My privacy
You are my chicken curry and rice
My favourite food
You are my anime
Thriller, Adventure, Horror, Romance
You are my medals
The achievements I've earned
You are my books
You are my glasses
My shield
You are my merchandise
Everything I cherish
You are my life
My everything

Image result for mothers day

Sunday 19 March 2017


On Sunday Mornings
mum and dad
have a lion.
They say to us
“we’ve been working hard
all week. Please don’t
disturb us in the morning.
We need a lion.”
When they get up
the lion
is always gone.
I’ve never even seen
mum and dad’s lion.
In fact
the next time
they have a lion
on a Sunday morning
this is what
I’m going to do:
I’m going to call to it.
I’m going to stand outside
mum and dad’s room
and shout


Image result for roaring lion

Thursday 9 March 2017


I recently had a chat with one of my students who is dyslexic. She explained to me that, whilst she feels she is clever, she has a very hard time demonstrating this on paper. She knows that she ‘gets’ things but she finds it difficult to express her ideas. If someone could see into her mind, she said, they would appreciate what she is capable of, but as long as her ability is gauged by her schoolwork, or by other such measurements of ‘success’, people will not know this.

I myself do not have dyslexia but there is a certain area in which I can empathise with my student. That area is music. I feel there is a huge discrepancy between my musical creativity and my ability to express this creativity in conventional ways – by singing, for example, or playing an instrument.

I’ve never spoken to anyone about this before, and I do not know how common this feeling is. Perhaps it is a kind of ‘musical dyslexia’. I constantly have tunes bouncing around in my mind, and I do not mean Coldplay or Mozart or whatever. I mean original compositions, tunes I have come up with myself. I am constantly playing percussion on any available surface, and am obsessed with making up little ditties. Perhaps it is a kind of tic. I could easily spend an hour in the shower, singing or humming to myself.

But I have never been ‘musical’ in a conventional sense. I was absolutely hopeless in music lessons at school. It didn’t help that the only music taught at my school was classical music, and that this was taught in an extremely dour way that seemed more akin to mathematics – tones, semitones, crotchets, quavers and all of that stuff. We had to play on pathetic little xylophones, and our teacher would bark at us if we made mistakes. I thoroughly hated music lessons, and used to put no effort in at all. I didn’t see the point.

As I got older I did take up a few musical instruments – clarinet, bass and guitar. I was even in a band for a while, but I was never any good. I could never for the life of me read music, and I didn’t have the patience to improve. It’s not that I didn’t, and don’t, enjoy playing the instruments; it’s more that I always felt inherently kind of crap at them, in the same way as my dyslexic student feels useless at reading and writing. The frustration, in other words, lies not in the fact that I am not musical, but that I am musical but unable to express it.

This feeling of frustration reaches its nadir when it comes to singing. I cannot sing with my mouth, but I can sing with my mind. This sounds very flowery I know, but that is how it feels. If someone could wire up electrodes to my brain and convert my mental compositions into actual songs, I would probably be a fairly successful musician. The creativity is there, but the ability doesn’t seem to be.

Maybe I am making excuses for myself. Maybe I just need to practice, to work harder to improve. Maybe I am lazy. However, it does feel as though, whilst all of this might be true, there is some kind of additional block as well, something similar to dyslexia. I wonder how many people out there feel like they have music inside them that is unable to get out. I would be really interested to know.

Image result for reading music

Tuesday 7 March 2017


The psychotherapist and visionary Sheryl Paul, drawing on the work of Carl Jung, talks of different ‘characters’ that inhabit the mind. One of these characters, I believe, is akin to the Nazi. Consider this poem by Stephen Dobyns:


The Nazi within me thinks it's time to take charge.
The world's a mess; people are crazy.
The Nazi within me wants windows shut tight,
new locks put on the doors. There's too much
fresh air, too much coming and going.
The Nazi within me wants more respect. He wants
the only TV camera, the only bank account,
the only really pretty girl. The Nazi within me
wants to be boss of traffic and traffic lights.
People drive too fast; they take up too much space.
The Nazi within me thinks people are getting away
with murder. He wants to be the boss of murder.
He wants to be boss of bananas, boss of white bread.
The Nazi within me wants uniforms for everyone.
He wants them to wash their hands, sit up straight,
pay strict attention. He wants to make certain
they say yes when he says yes, no when he says no.
He imagines everybody sitting in straight chairs,
people all over the world sitting in straight chairs.
Are you ready? he asks them. They say they are ready.
Are you ready to be happy? he asks them. They say
they are ready to be happy. The Nazi within me wants
everyone to be happy but not too happy and definitely
not noisy. No singing, no dancing, no carrying on.
[from Velocities, Viking Penguin Books, 1994]

There is a Nazi in me. There is almost certainly a Nazi in you too. It is that part of us that can’t tolerate any perceived imperfection, that sees the world in starkly binary terms. It is that part of us that projects our own insecurities onto the world around us, and would rather annihilate that world than confront the monster within. (Indeed, there is a school of thought that postulates a possible Jewish ancestry as the source of Hitler’s vehemence.)

Do you deny that there is a Nazi in you? Are you horrified by the notion? That horror and denial are themselves facets of the Nazi. The Nazi in you can’t cope with blemishes. It believes itself to be pure, to be free from reproach. It believes itself to be entitled to “the only bank account,/the only really pretty girl.” And not for nothing did a whole society become enraptured by Hitler. His ideas obviously spoke to something very primal in us.

The challenge for us is to not let the inner Nazi win. For as I indicated at the beginning, there are other characters in us too. There is the inner Mother Theresa and the inner Gandhi. There might be an inner Casanova. There might even be an inner God or Jesus – Jung speaks, for example, of the “God archetype within.” So we have a choice. Perhaps we could smash the inner Nazi with our inner Stalin:

Does that not make us simply one of them? Won’t this produce an endless loop of self-loathing and self-reproach? After all, depression, as they say, is “anger directed inward.” Or we could break the circle with love, with acceptance and tolerance for what we cannot change about our fundamental nature. In other words, we can attempt to integrate all of the characters within us. Here is a workshop idea. Read Dobyns’ poem above, then have a think about some of the characters – good or bad –  within you. Using Dobyns’ structure, write a poem about ‘The X Within Me’. Here is my attempt:

The baby within me needs to be fed.
The baby within me wants to suck its thumb on the bus.
The baby within me wants to shit itself
and for nobody to mind.
The baby within me demands love and care
and to give nothing back but puke and noise.
It wants songs and laughter and lullabies.
It wants to be the only one to be allowed to cry.
The baby within me wants to cover its eyes
and in doing so make the bad guys
go away. The baby within me wants to play.
The baby within me can’t see black and white,
doesn’t perceive future or history.
The baby within me is innocent
and never proven guilty.
The baby within me is cooed over
by the judge and jury.
The baby within me hears its name as gospel.
The baby within me is learning to smile.

Here is a selection of lines produced by some of my students during a trial run of this workshop:

          The Hulk within me
          releases the bull whenever I get angry
          The dancer within me
          makes me think of sunshine and rainbows
          My eyes and my thoughts
          reflect the animal in me - 
          I am a liger, a hybrid
          The baby within me
          is a special gift
          The Spiderman within me
          swings from building to building
          saving the city from danger.

(Going back to the Nazi within, here is one final note. Jews sometimes refer to themselves as ‘God’s chosen people’. This pernicious phrasing has been at the root of much antisemitism and suspicion through the ages. In any racial sense it is obvious nonsense. In any theological sense it is fraught with problems. I don’t buy it at all. But consider this: every time I judge someone for their perceived imperfections it is incumbent upon me, ‘as a Jew’, to remember that not long ago my mere existence was perceived as just such an imperfection. This is not some kind of unique ‘chosenness’ but it might well amount to a  unique responsibility.)