Saturday, 30 July 2011

The Reward

I was chatting with a friend of mine who is working in Uganda at the moment. He had just finished a hard day flying and was settling down to a nice cold Nile. His description of the beer; “Cold and sweet amber nectar, moisture is running gently down the bottles exterior. One takes a thoughtful look into a distant horizon, as it gently flows across ones lips. Ahhhhh” reminded me of a similar occasion 20 years ago when I served in Belize. I was responsible for discharging two “Maintenance ships”. These vessels bought all the heavy equipment the forces required to operate, and returned equipment that was damaged or not required to the UK.

Unloading these ships was both challenging and rewarding. The equipment available to us for the discharge was basic, and on both occasions there was a rain storm which made everything that bit more treacherous and difficult.

Two things I remember most about that job, were this sign on the Port gate;

and the tradition of retiring to the beautiful colonial veranda of number 4 Fort Street after the job was done. There the exhausted Ops team sat and drank ice cold Pina Coladas served in what I can only describe as a glass the size of a small goldfish bowl.

The seed for the following poem had been sown;

The Maint. Ship

Harsh dockside lights illuminate the pier sparkling in the heavy tropical rain.
Stevedores wait patiently as Pilot and Master bring her alongside,
scuppers spewing rainwater.

Heaving lines are thrown and caught, hawsers drawn in and made fast,
the Gangway’s lowered. As the Pilot disembarks he shouts greetings
to boarding Customs and Ship Agents.

The Radio crackles, sparking a flurry of activity as stevedores spring into action.
Hatch covers are raised as chain gangs descend on the cargo to un-lash.
High above crane operators peer through the rain - waiting.

The hold reverberates with the rattles and clangs of shackles, chains, strops, hooks,
As they compete with the incessant drum of the torrential downpour.
A torch summons the hook from above.

The hours pass in a flurry of activity, hooks dip into the hold, their chains dangling
Stevedores clamber over the vehicles and ammunition pallets readying each lift
and vital equipment emerges from the hold.

Shore side, high-viz vests and flashing lights dance an intricate two-step
as vehicles are unlashed and driven off, and stores are loaded on trucks
and all the while the rain pours.

The light changes as dawn passes unnoticed and the crews change shift,
tired grease and rust stained bodies exchanged for fresh eager faces.
But the discharge doesn’t pause.

Tween decks are cleared and the hold’s vertical walls disappear into the depths,
The chain gang finishes un-lashing, in the boot deep rain water,
As they clear the dunnage, the last load emerges.

Down on the pier dented, broken or redundant equipment starts to arrive.
and with hardly a pause the re-load commences, equipment bound for home.
And still it pours.

Finally the job is done, formalities complete, customs and ships agents down.
As the pier’s cleared of debris the vessel slips its berth and heads for home.
Suddenly the rain stops.

The troops head back to camp, exhausted but proud of the job they’ve done.
The boss and his ops team retire to the cool veranda at Four, Ford Street
to savour a ‘Pina Colada’ like no other.

John Carré Buchanan
30 July 2011

Monday, 18 July 2011

Smiles Apart

I met one of my school masters in town today. He retired from teaching a few years ago and returned to Bangladesh with his family.

We had a bit of a chat and he told me that he had returned to teaching, but rather than at a public school he was now teaching street children. These young children were attending school between jobs or instead of scavenging for the next meal. Many of them had no home to return to and lived on very dangerous streets.

We discussed the difference in attitude towards school between the kids he used to teach and those he teaches now. I must admit that having seen kids walking miles to school in a number of countries; what he told me came as no surprise.

I decided I would write this poem to record the difference;

Smiles Apart

The kids sit in the back of the car
A big, posh four by four,
Their mother’s taking them to school
A place they all abhor.

They’re dressed up smart at start of day
and their faces wear a frown.
by break they’ll have their shirt tails out
as tie and socks come down.

They talk in class and muck about
And tease those keen to learn
They have to hear things several times
As they their lessons spurn.

Their homework seems to take an age
and boy don’t they complain
they’d rather play on their x-box
then develop their brain.

These kids are a privileged lot
most eat three times a day
they get to sleep in their own beds
and have toys with which to play.

In other parts of our world
The story’s very different
Some kids live on the streets alone
while society remains indifferent.

These kids have horrific tales,
they’re often all alone,
Two things they have in common.
Abuse; and nowhere to call home.

There are kids who live with kin
and some even go to school
but they work in their spare time
and life is often cruel.

Governments, charities and missions
Offer some poor children schooling
And kids can walk for many miles
Their journey often gruelling.

Some lucky kids have uniforms
They are always smartly worn
and the children pay attention
when the teacher’s in front of form.

These children are all eager
To learn and better themselves
They take nothing for granted
And work as hard as elves.

They wear smiles on their faces
and grasp opportunity by the hand,
they do all they can to better themselves
and stride forth from where they stand.

Many kids of the rich, like their parents,
take for granted the privilege they share.
They moan at the chances they’re given
and with glum faces shout ‘It’s not fair”.

And then there’s the kid in a million
Who grows up with a conscience fair
and devotes their life to poor children;
the ‘have nots’ in need of care.

John Carré Buchanan
19 July 2011

Wednesday, 13 July 2011


Between the ages of 7 and 18, I went to boarding school and access to family was pretty restricted. I spent most holidays with my parents who lived in a number of exotic locations overseas, but I used to spend my Sunday exeats with my Grandparents.

This afternoon I was thinking about all the Sundays we spent together back then. I remember Gran best as sadly Grandpa died when I was only 11. Gran always treated my brother and me as if we were her own sons and I guess during those magical Sundays we were!

I wrote this poem shortly after Gran died;


I sit beside her bed,
thinking of what’s ahead.

Her frail hand rests in mine,
and our fingers entwine.

Our hands wear their love,
as if it were a glove.

Her gnarled arthritic finger,
upon my palm does linger.

Could it remember the time,
it first met mine?

My tiny pink hand,
gripping her wedding band.

Perhaps it could recall,
holding me lest I fall?

Or swinging me by the arm,
As we walked around the farm.

And with a gentle squeeze,
my worries she’d appease.

But alas as I grew,
our embraces became few.

It wasn’t cool for a young man,
to be seen holding hands with Gran.

Yet in the autumn she took my arm,
and it had a certain charm.

Her hand would rest on mine,
as we walked beside the brine.

Well met these hands, o’er all the years,
They’ve shared both happiness and tears.

We sit in silence, no words needed,
as memories of our hands are heeded.

She draws my fingers to her lips,
And with a gentle kiss; she slips.

John Carré Buchanan
10 September 2010

Monday, 4 July 2011


In 1991 I was presented a beautiful Blackthorn walking stick with a silver ferrule engraved by the organisation that gave it to me. At the time it was a gift I never thought I would use, but it has remained one of my treasured possessions ever since.

Over the last few years I have found myself relying on the stick more and more. Whilst my heart made me use the blackthorn, I must admit that the root knob was pretty uncomfortable in the hand. Eventually I bowed to the pressure of the red circle in the palm of my hand and bought myself a new walking stick. It was a rather smart mahogany colour Derby Cane with a brass ferrule and a handle offering a more comfortable grip.

Within two days I dropped the new stick and the varnish chipped, two months later the stick looked like I had owned it for years. The thick layer of hard coloured varnish was chipped all over and the “brass” ferrule had been scratched to reveal a cheap aluminium band underneath the brass top coat. Whilst the stick itself is well made the manufacturers had spoiled what could have been a quality product by applying a veneer of cheap coloured spray-on varnish to finish it off, presumably to cut costs.

Aware that the stick was looking scruffy I decided to remove the varnish and re-polish it. Having stripped the stick back to clean wood I applied layer upon layer of a natural wax polishing the stick well between each application. The finished product was a big improvement and I feel confident that it will continue to look good for some time to come.

The physical process of polishing the cane was quite cathartic and as I sat in my shed, or hobbled around the garden buffing up the stick with a rag torn from an old T shirt, I got to thinking about how the stick could be used as a metaphor for progress.

It occurred to me that our modern society is often so eager to get things done quickly, cheaply or easily, that that we end up taking shortcuts. At the time the shortcuts seem like a good idea, but they often result in some form of re-work being required to put things right, or a lesser quality product being produced.

I asked myself; will the furniture, toys and buildings of today stand up to the rigours of history as have the antiques and historical buildings we enjoy today? It seemed to me that in the rush to produce vast quantities at speed for as little as possible we have sacrificed quality in almost all areas of our endeavour.

Our foods are artificially flavoured, coloured and preserved, to the extent that some of the fruits and vegetables we eat have been stored for a year before reaching our tables and the nutritional content has been virtually eradicated.

In medicine doctors prescribe drugs designed to address specific symptoms, these often have unwanted side effects which require other drugs to be used in order that the first ones can be taken. This leads to a situation where the cocktail of drugs being taken can be more harmful than the original cause of suffering. The sad point is that it is often the symptom that is treated and not the cause.

Treating symptoms is common in modern society. Crime, substance abuse, social housing. jobs, education and even foreign policy, all suffer from the effects of policies designed to be the quick fix for one symptom or another. Unfortunately they seldom address the real issues and money and resources are squandered.

The poem below is a light hearted attempt to illustrate how progress can have negative side effects. What is more it suggests a solution to the problems of traffic congestion, childhood obesity, parental stress and does all this whilst having a positive effect on family finances.

Progress – School Run

I used to ride or walk to school,
along with all my friends.
Now I sit breathing fuel,
as travel time extends.

The car in front’s a four by four,
as is the one behind.
They seem to have kids galore,
In safety seats confined.

Mums put on lippy as they rush
to drop kids at the gate.
Then back to get a quick Red Bush
before a lunch with Kate.

The little darlings clamber out,
dragging bags behind them.
Mobile phones are quick dugout
the traffic becomes mayhem.

Some would call this progress;
plump kids and jammed up street.
But I would call it progress
if more would use their feet.

John Carré Buchanan
14 September 2010