Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Harvest

I confess this review is now months overdue and so I have lost the sense of what was so good about the book so this is likely to be thoroughly inadequate. 'Harvest' by Jim Crace was sent to me by mum, having been highly recommended by a friend. I was disconcerted at being unable to place the time setting for the story; at some moments it feels almost modern, but at others back in the dark ages. A small community, bringing in their annual harvest, has their celebrations interrupted by a fire and a group of interlopers, who are duly blamed for the conflagration. From there events spiral rapidly out of control, although unbeknownst to the villagers the recently widowed Master Kent, the owner of their lands, is about to be usurped by another family member with very different plans for the village and its people. 

Our narrator Walter has in common with Master Kent the status of newcomer; they arrived together, Kent as husband to the owner's daughter and Walter his manservant. Though now part of the community there is an element of the begrudging about their acceptance, a continued wariness and suspicion. The story has a strong sense of their community, but I felt as I read that it was based on their dependence on each other. They are people who have shared their lives, through bounteous years and lean ones, with their family bonds creating as much division as cohesion. Walter befriends the man who comes to survey the village lands and finds himself at odds with the other villagers. Master Jordan arrives from city, with his thuggish entourage, then Master Kent's horse is killed and people begin to question the proposed changes to their lives. Blame is allotted to those unable to defend themselves, accusations of witchcraft are soon bandied around, an easy tool for controlling a superstitious populace, and before our very eyes the community crumbles and disintegrates with frightening rapidity. A disturbing tale, with parable like qualities; it has such close parallels in modern life, where so many decisions about peoples lives are taken by remote corporations or centralised governments. 

Here the atmosphere at the beginning of the tale, where the land, the seasons and the harvest are what dominate their existence:

"What wind there was yesterday after we dispatched the final sheaf gathered up and spread much of the lighter, finer chaff. The village has been freckled by the chaff. The service trees between our dwellings and the gleaning field are still embroidered with it and with straw, despite the rain. On the way between the harvest and the stackyard, unsecured bundles of cut barley have dropped on the verges from our wagons and our barrows, providing pickings for the ruddocks and the dunnocks to contest, and there are signs in the disrupted soil that someone's pigs are on the loose and have been snouting for fallen grain. There is a silent ripeness to the air, so mellow and sappy that we want to breath it shallowly, to sip it richly like a cordial. No one who knows the busy, kindly, scented universe of crops and the unerring traces of its calendar could mistake this morning's aromatic peace and quiet for anything but Gleaning Day." (p.60-61)

And as Walter watches the departure of Master Kent and the prisoners. He manages to sum up the devastation of what has been lost:

"The lane is empty once again. This hilltop is a friendless place, and capped in cloud. I've bought the end-of-summer sorrows on myself. They spread their great black wings and cast their peckish shadows over me. The sun's still shining in the valley but its warmth's no longer reaching me. It is the middle of the afternoon, late harvest-time. I should be as dry and ripe as barley corn. Instead, I feel as chilly as a worm. I feel no prouder than a worm. I am almost tempted to run down the hill to that now empty way and join the pageant as it heads off for town. I'm panicking, not only for myself, but also for the prisoners, and the departed villagers, every one, and for Mr Quill as well. I have to fight the nightmares. I can't imagine living here for the coming seasons without someone to love or like, or any neighbour to share my troubles with. I can imagine living there, where they will be, above those smelling, busy, crowd-warmed streets, with Kitty, Gosse as my hands-on-belly second wife. I can imagine bringing Lizzie Carr into our rooms and taking care of her. I'd be as loving as her uncle John, until the day that uncle John himself arrives. I can imagine being Master Kent's town man again, like in those lively days when he was still a bachelor. The prospect is not frightening. It wouldn't take me long to catch up with that mummers' show. I could tag on at the end and follow Despair and his dejected mount as  ... Shame, perhaps. As Servitude. I'd put up with their switches and their staves, so long as I could be with them and not beset by clouds." (p.202-3)

Friday, 8 June 2018

The Trial

The Actor's Wheel is a touring and actor training company based in Plymouth. Last night they brought one of their current productions, The Trial by Steven Berkoff, to Z-Arts in Hulme. The play is an adaptation of the novel by Franz Kafka, and having listened to 'The Metamorphosis' on the radio some time ago I was anticipating something unconventional. We were greeted in the theatre by smoke, atmospheric lighting, 
and loud music, and were drawn swiftly into a disorientating dystopic world where questions definitely were not answered. The scenery consisted of multiple wheeled filing cabinets, very emblematic of bureaucracy, which were repeatedly moved around the stage and used for different purposes. The actors, most of whom were on the stage almost continuously, moved themselves and the filing cabinets around in a complex and beautifully choreographed dance, interacting and then moving on in one flowing scene. The whole staging was very imaginative, using duplicate characters, on stage together, acting out mirror images of the same scene. Four women played Josephine K, the main character; each one taking turns to express her outrage and confusion at her arrest, each one in turn pleading to be heard, and for answers. The performances were all excellent, and I liked the fact that the staging allowed more cast members to take centre stage, rather than a single central character surrounded by a multitude of minor players. The whole production was engaging and the execution very slick; they certainly created a world worthy of the adjective Kafkaesque. The audience was very small and I apologise to the actors if I was a little droopy by the end, I had been up since 4am; the company has not been around long but I definitely think they are worth keeping an eye on if you are interested in experimental theatre.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Happy Birthday Avocado Tree

I started sprouting an avocado pit this time last year. It was a very slow process to begin with, but our little tree has come on in leaps and bounds since then. I have cut off the larger leaves at the top a couple of times because it became top heavy and the stem is still rather spindly. It gives us much joy to have it growing on the kitchen windowsill.
The 31st of May this year brings my parents 60th wedding anniversary. They are having two parties. One on the day for local friends and neighbours, and a second much larger at the end of June for family and old friends. Claire and I have made cakes to help feed the multitude, that will in time be appropriately decorated. 

When we first moved into the house I had a plan in my head to make a screen for the scruffy board that covers the front room fireplace. It was to be a felted image of a fire. It is amazing that the finished piece that Tish and I worked on for a couple of weeks looks exactly as I envisioned it. You can't see well in the photo but it is also embellished with a scattering of seed beads that glitter slightly like sparks. 
My recycled stripy jumper is coming along well. I am improvising on the pattern to make the raglan sleeves rather than sewing the pieces together. I am pleased with the lovely random stripes, and looking forward to making more use of it than the cardigan got.

I really should write some book reviews

I read some books during the read-a-thon, and now it was weeks ago. In my defence I have been working a lot, including my Sundays in the cage (the cage no longer looks like a cage since the renovation of the office, but it is still referred to as the cage.) 

Michael Marshall Smith's book 'Only forward' was quite a change of genre for me, and a thoroughly engaging and surreal one. Set in a future where a massive city extends from shore to shore; it is divided into autonomous neighbourhoods each with their own very distinct 'personalities', some keep themselves separate by high walls while others have a more open access policy. Our hero Stark is hired to search for a missing person, and finds himself breaking into one particularly isolated neighbourhood, the North Korea of the story. Mixed in with the main plot is the story of how Stark and his friend ended up in this world in the first place, with an amusing little twist at the end. It is well plotted and engaging written, and I can see it would make a great film. 

Here Stark is in Natsci, finding his way around with an interactive map:
"All in all, I was a stressed little bundle of fun as I tramped down a variety of streets to one of the Neighbourhood's residential areas, guided by the quiet promptings from the map. I stopped off at a newsagents to pick up some more cigarettes and scanned a copy of Centre News to see if there was any mention of Alkland's disappearance, but the whole thing as clearly still under wraps. Back on the streets I tossed my old packet away and a nearby catcher droid made an astounding leap to take the catch three inches off the ground.
'Nice one,' I said.
'Got any more?' asked the machine enthusiastically, scooting up close to my feet. It was a little metal cylinder with a flashing red light on the top, and had a spindly metal arm with a tiny mitt at the end.
I rooted in my pockets.
'Don't think so.'
'Boo hiss.'
'Go away, droid,' said the map, irritably.
I found an old matchbox and held it out.
'Brilliant! Go on, chuck it really hard,' the droid said, poised for action.
I spun the matchbox down the street and the droid zipped after it. It was touch and go, but with another full-length dive the machine managed to get its mitt to it. It waved and then sped off down the street towards a leaf falling about a hundred yards away. Two other droids got there at the same time and there was an audible clang as they made contact, but one of them got it and went bouncing off down the street, waving the leaf triumphantly above its head." (p.211-12)

Barbara Comyns is on my 101 books list, but it was 'Our Spoons came from Woolworths' that I found in the charity shop. It is a 1930s tale of love and struggle for a young woman Sophia, based on Barbara's own marriage. She is this wonderful naive character, who is taken advantage of by a wastrel husband, but who has surprising reserves of strength and resilience. I liked her. The book reminded me very much, stylistically, of Cold Comfort Farm.

Here are her thoughts on contraception:
"After about three months I forgot about feeling sick, but the baby weighed on my mind quite a lot. Before I married Charles I used to hope I would have masses of children. I thought it would be nice always to have at least one baby and quite a number of older children all developing in their individual ways, but before we got married Charles told me he never wanted to have any children, and I saw they would not fit in with the kind of life we would lead, so I just hoped none would come to such unsuitable parents - anyway, not for years. I had a kind of idea if you controlled your mind and said 'I won't have any babies' very hard, they most likely wouldn't come. I thought that was what was meant by birth-control, but by this time I knew that idea was quite wrong." (p.26)

Samuel Taylor Coleridge published The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in 1798 and it has certainly stood the test of time. This version is illustrated with wonderful atmospheric drawings by Mervyn Peake
Here, the moment when the ghostly ship comes alongside:

"Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was a white as leprosy,
The Night-mare Life-in-Death was she,
Who thicks man's blood with cold.

The naked bulk alongside came,
And the twain were casting dice;
'The game is done! I've won! I've won!'
Quoth she, and whistles thrice.

The Sun's rim dips; the stars rush out:
At one stride comes the dark;
With far-heard whisper, o'er the sea,
Off shot the spectre-bark.

We listened and looked sideways up!
Fear at my heart, as at a cup,
My life-blood seemed to sip!
The stars were dim, and thick the night,
The steersman's face by his lamp gleamed white;
From the sails the dew did drip - 
Till climb above the eastern bar
The horned Moon, with one bright star
Within the nether tip.

One after one, by the star-dogged Moon,
Too quick for groan or sigh,
Each turned his face with a ghastly pang,
And cursed me with his eye.

Four times fifty living men,
(And I heard not sigh nor groan)
With heavy thump, a lifeless lump,
They dropped down one by one." (Part Three) 


Thursday, 3 May 2018

What We Lose

'What We Lose' by Zinzi Clemmons has something of The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas, but written more from the perspective on someone slightly older and wiser looking back than a young person relating their immediate experiences. Although a novel it is written first person and it comes across as quite autobiographical I am not sure how much of it is. It feels rather like a diary, but one that has been chopped up and put back together in the wrong order; the timeline is vague and sometimes looking backwards. The chapters are brief, often like vignettes of moments of her life, rather than one continuous tale, and it is interspersed, unannounced, by quotes from other people and other places, only referenced at the end of the book, but things that are significant to the character's experiences. It is the death of her mother from cancer that dominates the book; a relationship that she reflects on over and over, what would her mother have said or done about the events in her life. A sense of belonging is a very complex thing for human beings, made more so with social and geographic mobility which means often people find themselves bonded to different places and different groups at the same time. Often, instead of feeling they belong in many places, people end up feeling that they don't quite belong anywhere. Thandi struggles also to be part of the modern world without rejecting her mother's more traditional viewpoint. Here, while visiting relative in South Africa, she talks about the process of learning how she identifies herself: 

"When I called myself black, my cousins looked at me askance. They are what is called coloured in South Africa - mixed race - and my father is light-skinned black. I looked just like my relatives, but calling myself black was wrong to them. Though American blacks were cool, South African blacks were ordinary, yet dangerous. It was something they didn't want to be.
American blacks were my precarious homeland - because of my light skin and foreign roots, I was never fully accepted by any race. Plus my family had money, and all the black kids in my town came from the poorer areas. I was friends with the kids who live on my block and were in my honours classes - white kids. I am a strange in-betweener. " (p.26)

When her friend Aminah falls pregnant she supports her in getting an abortion but when Thandi in turn finds herself pregnant she delays and prevaricates and eventually has a son. The relationship with Peter, so sweetly idealised at the beginning cannot last, even though they work hard at parenting together:

"I have also felt sublime terror since he was born. it is impossible to think of him without thinking of his death - when he falls from  the couch, when I struggle to hold him after a long day. I imagine him falling from great height, the terrible sound, the way his body will become foreign with the life gone. I have never wanted someone as much as hi, and simultaneously been so afraid of that person being taken away." (p.177)

I loved her for the intensity of her feelings and the ways she is not afraid to struggle for what she wants. The style is very matter of fact, about the people and their relationships, with strong political overtones; certainly a book that is deserving of its enthusiastic reception. 

End of an era

I am savouring my final cup of tea. 
Not really. There will be more tea, but it won't be quite the same.
I have been drinking this lovely Fair Trade Tanzanian tea for about thirty years now, but Traidcraft, in their infinite wisdom, decided to discontinue it.
I am bereft.
Unicorn has a huge selection of teas, but most are not real tea, so I came home with this Clipper Organic Assam. Doing a little research I came across this report from Ethical Consumer into the wages and conditions of tea workers. It is pretty damning, including of tea labelled 'fair trade'; it does add that the report focusses solely on plantations and does not cover tea grown by small farmers and cooperatives, which is how Traidcraft source their tea. Clipper state on their website that their tea comes from 'the finest estates across East Africa and India' ... so I'm guessing the search for an alternative will continue.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Inside the Wave

I have been reading 'Inside The Wave' by Helen Dunmore for a few weeks, kept on the bedside table. I have loved her novels and was saddened to read of her death from cancer last year. I had not come across her poetry before, and look forward to reading more of her collections. 

This one, written during her illness, is warm and friendly, reflecting occasionally on her imminent death but more often simply nostalgic. I loved 'Leave the door open' because it reminded me of my own childhood, it is so full of atmospheric details:

"Leave the door open! We cheep and command
From the shared double bed or from the cot
With the bars that make tigers out of the dark.
We want the fume and coil of your cigarettes,
The smoke that has embraced us from birth,

The click of your footsteps in the wooden landing,
The wedge of light that parts us from the dark" (p.22)

And 'The Duration' telling of an old couple visiting the same beach, but without their son who has grown and left:

"Here is the place where he built his dam
Year after year. See, the stream still comes down
Just as it did, and spreads itself on the sand" (p.41)

She has such a lovely eye for tiny detail, and taking the most unassuming of subjects. In 'Ten Books' she describes examining old books of her father's before they are consigned to the tip:

"MacNeice, freckled with brown
From many damps in many different houses.
On the inner page, under my father's autograph
An early flourish of blue crayon
Where I scribbled a figure so primitive
There are not even legs for it to walk upon." (p.61)

But it is death that she returns to at intervals and they were the ones that struck me, poignant but utterly without self-pity, truly someone come to terms with their mortality. In 'September Rain', the penultimate poem:

"I lie and listen
And the life in me stirs like a tide
That knows when it must be gone.

I am on the deep deep water 
Lightly held by one ankle
Out of my depth, waiting." (p.65)

And comparing herself to a flower, in 'My life's stem was cut':

"Wait while the sun moves
And the bees finish their dancing,
I know I am dying
But why not keep flowering
As long as I can
From my cut stem?" (p.23)

The one I felt captured the mood is called 'The shaft', it seems to encapsulate her persistence in seeing the beauty of life:

I don't need to go to the sun -
It lies on my pillow.

Without movement or speech
Day deepens its sweetness.

Sea shanties from the water,
A brush of traffic,

But it's quiet here.
Why would have thought that pain

And weakness had such gifts
Hidden in their rough hearts?" (p.21)

A collection to come back and back to, to copy out and pin up, tiny exquisite moments of appreciation of life.

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