Bartender’s Oath

You know you can tell a bartender your life’s story with all the grubby details and they will keep it to themselves. There isn’t an actual document to sign or swearing-in ceremony, but all the men and women working behind the polished surfaces have put their commitment to the Barkeep’s Hippocratic Oath of It Ain’t Nobody’s Business But Yours. After last night I have to wonder if this also applies to a guy who just sells booze, like the fella yesterday when I told him all about it….

I am in a strange town trying to find a place where a couple of dames I know are going to be, one celebrating leaving the game and the other who has already gone. We’d all been teachers and worked together, but now with the final gal departing we’d be doing it solo and finding things to pursue here and there, in our own time, on our own dime.

I don’t know where the hell this place is. I drive through the town looking but not finding and eventually wind up at the boatyard where I park amongst all the Friday night show-offs’ automobiles: Mercs and premier SUVs as buffed as one of those bar tops, the occupants swanning towards the quayside eateries, men in their ironed denim and the women wearing skimpy summer dresses wafting store-bought perfume in the evening breeze.

It isn’t next to the river. I walk up through town passing all the other inns, but not the one I am looking for. Not in the town. I take a tangent out towards the railway line but turn back when it seems I am heading nowhere sociable. It isn’t just a guy thing, but I don’t see anyone I feel I can ask, others seeming strangers too or in a hurry or just miserable. It is getting warm and I can feel the sweat in my armpits.

Heading back into the main part of town I see the open liquor store on the corner at the crossroads. I walk in and notice immediately it is full of decorative character with wood shelving and long counter, a range of alcohol for drinkers rather than party goers – fine wines and major but also independent label spirits, all compartmentalised in their boxed partitioning – and the proprietor sitting behind the oak top with a bright smile anticipating business on what seems by the otherwise empty room a slow night so far.

‘How are you Sir?’

‘I’ll be just fine if I can find the place I’m looking for. Do you know where the Bridge Inn is?’ I ask.

‘Certainly Sir,’ he says without dropping his seller’s smile, seeming a friendly enough guy despite the fact I don’t appear to be buying. ‘You just take that road opposite up towards the railway station and at the top turn right and it’s about a three minute walk away.’

I tell him I have just been up there but gave in too soon. He keeps smiling. Looking to the right of his head I clock the shelved box of bourbons, again mainly the well-known stuff, then also a bottle of Evan Williams staring back at me with a grin larger and even more welcoming than his. I think about it for a few seconds and still decide to go for it.

‘I know this is going to sound odd, but I wrote a poem about Evan Williams bourbon only the other day.’

He keeps smiling, and it could be inside my head or it could be in his, but something still definitely alters. If he’d asked, I could have told him it was a sonnet, but he doesn’t. I could have elaborated it was about change but also staying the same, and obviously it was about drinking, yet he doesn’t inquire.

‘Thanks for your help,’ I say leaving.

‘Good evening Sir.’

As I get to the railway station the safety gates come down across the road and sidewalk and I have to wait for quite a while for a slow train to amble in and stop at the platform. It gives me plenty of time to wonder if I should have told him about my poem, not that I was able to go into any detail, grubby or enlightening. I also thought about that Oath, and whether he was in the same category for observing one.

I suspect not. It’ll be a potential anecdote for him when the next occasional customer walks in, unless things pick up later and people are heading home for extensions to their night out and want to resource this, and perhaps then he’ll have an even bigger smile as well as a bigger audience, and maybe a smirk and laugh or two when telling about that weird guy who came in tonight who wanted to lay it on the line of his writing a poem about bourbon.

And it’s not like I’ve talked about being with a friend’s partner, or took something I shouldn’t. It’s not even like I told him about dark thoughts he would have had to consider sharing for his own sense of security against the weight of that unspoken Oath. But it was a private observation made across a real wood top between two guys surrounded by alcohol. That has to count for something.

I guess it will be down to his integrity.

When I finally get to the place, I wonder if I will share the story with the two broads. He might, for all I know, but these two definitely read, and they’ve also read plenty of poems. It’s what teachers of English do.

Writing Workshops – Teacher’s Resource: free download

I am pleased to see my Teacher’s Resource for the Writing Workshops book is now available to download free here. Obviously, its value is only realised in conjunction with the student book, but for anyone who would like to know a little more about what that book contains, including detail about its approach to encouraging and supporting students as writers, having a look at the TR may be of help.

TR Cover

TR Intro

Popping Evan Williams

Pulling the cork top on the bottle of Evan Williams Single
Barrel, it pops – being two thirds gone – and echoes in the
empty dining room next door, glancing off the new oak laminate
to be absorbed in the still drying plaster of the walls: that space,
when finished, where I will be drinking much more in the time
I still have to waste, as happily. Its old carpet had been there for
nearly thirty five years, and even at its start was second-hand,
so it too will have seen plenty of drift and deterioration over its
bourbon days. The room is gutted, cleared for renovation, but also
the Feng Shui of imagining fresh beginnings, returning only those
things necessary for nostalgia to feel reconciled with what it has
abandoned. Like the scent of Grandpa’s whiskey sniffed as a boy
from discarded empties, there is a memory that will remain, and
it will still make noises like that ricochet in the shell of its boom.

Oscar Wilde, ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, [Oxford Student Texts] – Jackie Moore


This was a society based on money; utilitarian politics sacrificed the well-being of the poor for the prosperity of their social superiors. Human relationships were determined by rank, status and wealth. It was an age of the introduction of new commodities and of a huge boom in consumerism, from which the poor were totally excluded.

Charities and social enterprises attempted to alleviate suffering through relief agencies for the working poor….

This is such an apt and astute commentary on the state we are in today, George Osborne soon to announce his Budget’s further ideological attack on the poor who allegedly desire and perpetuate their own desperate needs through the aid and succour of the Welfare State, the existence of food banks to help ‘alleviate suffering’ being a social consequence with which he and his government, now empowered by a dubious electoral mandate, can make no intellectual – nor emotional – connection.

If only. The opening quote comes from the concise and excellent introduction in the Oxford Student Texts Oscar Wilde – The Importance of Being Earnest by Jackie Moore. She reminds us how Wilde exposed such social inequities in 19th century England because he had a conscience: intellectual and emotional and artistic.

Moore provides other succinct and apt illumination on Wilde’s life, for example his homosexuality and imprisonment for this, further connecting him in the past to the present where gay marriage is only just becoming ‘acceptable’ in the Western world, though even here the continuing moral criticism is as narrow and nasty as ever. I mention because students today need to understand the relativity of change over time and thus also appreciate the modernity of Wilde’s ideas and literary expression of this, certainly in the context of an ostensibly mannered play like The Importance of Being Earnest where they could easily overlook the revolutionary core of Wilde’s satire.

As someone who isn’t knowledgeable about Wilde in both his life and oeuvre, I found Moore’s introductory insights sharp, revealing and persuasive. A particularly influential chapter is Wilde’s philosophy, especially the focus on his need for aesthetic critical judgement as essential to personal development because this both illuminates an understanding of his art but also reminds us all of such a need, especially at a time where our government controls and restricts its citizens’ engagement with the dynamism of literary ideas, thus limiting our intellectual and cultural appreciation [yes, I am thinking especially of Gove and his insidious attacks on the GCSE English curriculum].

In a quick but convincing tracing – and an outline one hopes would prompt students and teachers to further explore – Moore delineates the philosophical route Wilde took as influence from Ruskin to Arnold to Pater and then Carlyle, accepting, differing with and rejecting in arriving at his own ‘revolutionary’ notion of the artistic purpose. When Moore tells us that Wilde believed that anarchy is essential to individual freedom and how the critic [so, writer] must realise that all things are relative; he must reconstruct the object for himself, in the context of his own age we see Wilde as both revolutionary and modern, a radical thinker prepared to deconstruct convention and expectation to serve his social conscience and the expression of this – and to do so in the Establishment’s arena: the theatre.

So these introductory assertions and frameworks provide significant food for thought. We then have the eating of the actual text, accompanied by detailed textual notes. As a student text, it is therefore brilliantly set up, and we are assisted through our reading with considerable support.

The latter third of the book provides us with an amalgam of Moore’s continuing critical insights and explanations in the section Interpretations where characters, style and structure get further elucidation, with focused discussion points and exploration. Students are rightly challenged by demanding if brisk introductions to deeper thinking in A queer reading of the play and Wilde as a feminist writer: two examples of a closing set of areas of study.

I am embarrassed to say I think I taught this play once – but have completely forgotten when, and to whom! What I do know is that I would have loved to have had this study guide text then [whenever it was – a long time ago, I’m sure] as it would not only have informed my students and me with its knowing – both academic, as it should be, and accessibility – but also provided me with that background detail which convinces me of the play’s abiding relevance, both as a theatrical reality, and of Wilde as writer with thoughts and feelings we should continue to value.


Did someone further down the Missouri
snare my bamboo fishing pole,
maybe by accident, and later
when the river slowed and lowered,
sit down calmly at its side and dangle
a line into the cold steady flow,
hooked a fish I could only dream about
when so scared I’d dropped the pole in rapids
from a railway bridge up near Niobrara?
It is always possible that someone
will find triumph in another’s fears
and it could be this optimism that drives us on
even if we only discover it years later
when hankering after an idea of hope.

Ole Bottomless and ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ and Recollecting


I’ve not read Fifty Shades of Grey, nor its succinct sequel Grey, and don’t imagine I ever will. This is not a censorious exclusion: I simply don’t read enough at all and have many others to pursue before I would consider this infamous erotica. I have two Richard Ford’s to read – his last two which I bought but haven’t touched – and other Cormac McCarthy waiting.

In terms of erotic literature, I have never pursued this as a precise genre, and in thinking about this [you’ll see why more clearly in a minute] I was surprised that I don’t recall reading much at all that could be considered so, even if ‘literary’. In fact. all I could genuinely recall is DH Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover obviously, although even here I can’t remember any specific scenes apart from what I recollect as its general notoriety [at the time], and then Sons and Lovers, even though more metaphoric as innuendo: Miriam being pushed on the swing, and Clara with Limb’s stallion scene, and I only know this latter well as I wrote a unit on it for the AQA A level English Lang and Lit unit Talk in Life and Literature, a unit that is still on – and useful I believe – Teachit. There are others of his, uncomfortably so in his latter misogynist work, and I also recall writing about his own writing proclivity for ‘non-fricative sex’, a Freudian/Lacanian reading which I understood then, the late 70s studying for my degree.

So reading on the beach at Sidmouth the other day I was surprised to find myself encountering 13 pages of sustained erotic writing from Donald Harrington’s delightful novel Lightning Bug, one I have been trying to read for far too long. The chapter is called SUB ONE: Recently – not that anyone would seek out that on its own, surely – and within this often poetic and often highly comic narrative, the ruse for this episode is the idea of the main character Latha remembering ‘as if’ a situation had happened, which as readers we soon learn obviously has, and in summary it is the sexual encounter between her and a stranger, the suggestive and sassy and sensual foreplay of that encounter told in a mix of colloquial and vivid [rather than explicit, though perhaps a nuance difficult to defend] detail over most of those 13 pages. I say ‘most’ because it starts with the ruse of imagining if Latha had gone fishing at a stream called Ole Bottomless, and the descriptive detail of this is so sparkling I was thinking of how this would be a great exemplar to encourage descriptive writing at Key Stage 3! I understand it could still be used in isolation, but knowing the full context it would seem wrong. And it reminds me of that ‘mistake’ written about here!

This will seem somewhat bathetic, but in reading the start to this chapter about fishing, I was also reminded of myself fishing as a kid at a stream near my house in Norfolk, Nebraska. I used to hang a line over the bank to catch what in the book are called ‘crawdad tails’ [and that sounds likely, if not by that name] for bait, and also being told by a man who would also occasionally fish there that if I threw sweet corn on the surface of the water, and waited just a little, then placed my line there, I’d be more likely to catch the catfish [or bullfish?] attracted to this, and he was right. So I won’t print any of the erotic detail, but will just provide this sample of the more innocuous fishing tease [and Latha is, by the way, telling her ‘as if’ reminiscence to the youthful narrator Bug who is therefore ‘retelling’ it]:

It could have been a Sunday morning in late June or early July, when most god-fearing people were at church and you, Bug, could not have feared God more if he had appeared in a burning bush before you and called you dirty names. It could have been you rose just before dawn and quickly tended your chores then dug a bucket of redworms out of the compost pile and pulled your cane pole out from under the porch and took off, up the creek. It could have been Banty Creek that you chose, because there were a couple of deep holes in deep-forested timber up below the south side of Dinsmore Mountain

You could have taken your time getting there, because you liked to stop and identify the wildflowers. You could have known them all by name: Beebalm, Mallow, Lady Slipper, Bouncing Bet, Fleabane, Loose Strife, Bluecurls, Lobelia, Dayflower, Mullein, Saxifrage, Bedstraw – you might have known a hundred other names. You could never have picked one.

And finally, that last part of the second paragraph reminds me, in a less luxurious way, of a conversation with a good friend the other day where I described the Sheep’s Parsley growing in the lanes and he corrected me by calling it Cow’s Parsley. Turns out his is a northern name, mine from Suffolk, though I later learned one of my daughter’s also called it Cow’s Parsley, having learnt this at her Devon school. My friend later emailed me that it was also called Queen Ann’s Lace. Not as linguistically rich perhaps as in Arkansas, where Lightning Bug is set, but rich enough.

And all evoked by one surprise chapter. It is a bottomless prompt, and I should read more.