Monday, 9 December 2019

Freebie Decorating

I made a plan when at my sister's house to try and get the decorating of the house finished by the time we have been in the house a year. I don't want to project to just hang there for several years, with the piles of decorating stuff occupying the kitchen side and window sill. The front half of the living room is a bit bogged down with stuff so I decided to tackle the hallway. The money situation is not that good so decorating on the cheap became the way to go. As a result I decided to bring out all the bits of left over colour from the bedrooms. Tish's bedroom colour had the most left so it has gone down the hall, up the stairs and along the landing. The orange that dominated the downstairs took a couple of coats of undercoat but it has covered beautifully.
 I took the white up the side wall to keep the space from being too dark.


Tish and I picked out this fabulous bright red for the bannister on our first trip to B&Q. It is oil based so much more troublesome to apply and dry. 
I was not worried about whether it would clash with the purples:


On the landing I used the much smaller bits left over from mine and Monkey's paints:
And the art wall that we had started in the last house has become something more permanently fixed to the wall:
And having invested about £10 on some charity shop art books we have gradually covered the gap between the colours over the last week or so. It may be protected with varnish at some point, but not having small children any more means it shouldn't get picked at and vandalised:

 The ceiling was a bit of a challenge, but I didn't fall down the stairs once:

This was 2.5 litres of satinwood that has so far done all the woodwork in the house. It finally expired so the bedroom doors and frames have not been finished, and the cupboard on the landing may yet get the bright red. The panelling round the upstairs bannister is not done ... but you know what, I am not beating myself up about it, and will get around to finishing over the next couple of weeks.

My new favourite painting, it is called 'After the bath, woman drying her left foot' by Edgar Degas.





Saturday, 7 December 2019

book neglect

What do you do when the pile of books to review gets out of hand again? Well, firstly, you don't beat yourself up about it. Then you give in and write a little quickie about each one, even those that deserve a much better assessment. I do worry that I am reading without reflecting properly, or maybe just that I am but only inside my head and not being able to get it into words on the screen. I have had much enjoyment from my books recently, all very different.

First up, 'The Cockroach' by Ian McEwan, a wonderful rethinking of Kafka's 'The Metamorphosis'. I was really slow on the uptake and it took me a whole page to realise it was a cockroach transformed into a human. Very much a story of the moment, where the cockroaches are on a mission to fulfil the will of the people at any cost. I bought it for my sister, with the intention of borrowing it, but read it overnight when I visited so she could lend it to Geoff and then sent it on to dad, so we really got our money's worth out of that copy. I won't spoil the plot. The only bit that disappointed was that they seemed to adapt to being human far too quickly. Here is the last time their natural insect instincts are mentioned:

"They were in the cabinet room. Halfway down the long table by the largest chair was a tray of coffee, which the Prime Minister approached with such avidity that over the last few steps he broke into a run. He hoped to arrive ahead of his companion and snatch a moment with the sugar bowl. But by the time he was lowering himself into the chair, with minimal decorum, his coffee was being poured. There was no sugar on the tray. Not even milk. But in the grey shadow cast by his saucer, visible only to him, was a dying bluebottle. Every few seconds its wings trembled. With some effort Jim wrenched his gaze away while he listened. He was beginning to think he might sneeze.
'About the 1922 committee. The usual bloody suspects.'
'Ah, yes.'
'Last night.'
'Of course.'
When the bluebottle's wings shook they made the softest rustle of acquiescence.
'I'm glad you weren't there.'
When a bluebottle has been dead for more than ten minutes it tastes impossibly bitter. Barely alive or just deceased, it has a cheese flavour. Stilton, mostly.
'Yes?'
'It's a mutiny. And all over the morning papers.'
There was nothing to be done. The Prime Minister had to sneeze. He felt it building. Probably the lack of dust. He gripped the chair. For an explosive instant he thought he had passed out.
'Bless you. There was talk of a no-confidence vote.'
When he opened his unhelpfully lidded eyes, the fly had gone. Blown away.
'Fuck.' " (p.13-14)

'The Boy Next Door' by Irene Sabatini is set in Zimbabwe in the period after the end of colonial rule. It is the story of Lindiwe and Ian, the boy next door. It follows the years and struggles of their relationship, and the years of political chaos in a country struggling the decide what it wants for its future. It is such an intense picture of how a country copes with the aftermath of colonialism and how that history continues to impact so much of people's lives. While it focusses on the personal situation of the characters the political events sit in the background throughout.  This is the one that should have gotten a proper write up, so much stuff going on in the story



'The Bean Trees' by Barbara Kingsolver had been on the shelf for several years, picked out at random. It is the story of Taylor's escape from her claustrophobic home town, picking up a small child along the way, until she finds a random place and ends up staying there. It is just a lovely life affirming book, about people forming new bonds and building a life. It is about how community is built on mutual support and caring for those less fortunate. She leaves home not knowing what she is looking for, but has the wisdom to accept what comes and see the value of it. As always, thanks to Barbara for the sentences:

"The sun was setting, and most of the west-facing windows on the block reflected the fierce orange light as if the houses were on fire inside, but I could see plainly into Mattie's upstairs. A woman stood at the window. Her hair was threaded with white and fell loose around her shoulders, and she was folding a pair of men's trousers. She moved the flats of her hands slowly down each crease, as if folding these trousers were the only task ahead of her in life, and everything depended on getting it right." (p.119-120)


'Oranges are not the only Fruit' by Jeanette Winterson has sat on the shelf even longer. I had totally the wrong impression about this book. I assumed the rebellion was going to be against the religious upbringing, but she stays devoted to the church throughout, despite its rejection of her. Jeanette's religious devotion felt at odds with her growing sexual awakening, yet she seems perfectly able to reconcile the different viewpoints. She was just all round wonderful, thoughtful, assertive, forthright and morally certain; I could admire the way she stands up for herself even while disliking the upbringing she was getting. They really do eat oranges all the time. I thought the title was a metaphor. And again, she finds people who support her and works to build a different life for herself. Here she is chatting with the head teacher:

"'Well,' pressed Mrs Vole, 'I'm waiting.'
'I don't know,' I replied.
'And why, and this is perhaps more serious, do you terrorise, yes, terrorise, the other children?'
'I don't,' I protested.
'Then can you tell me why I had Mrs Spencer and Mrs Sparrow here this morning telling me how their children have nightmares?'
'I have nightmares too.'
'That's not the point. You have been talking about Hell to young minds.'
It was true. I couldn't deny it. I had told all the others about the horrors of the demon and the fate of the damned. I had illustrated it by almost strangling Susan Hunt, but that was an accident, and I gave her all my cough sweets afterwards.
'I'm very sorry,' I said, 'I thought it was interesting.'
Mrs Vole and Miss shook their heads.
'You'd better go,' said Mrs Vole. 'I shall be writing to your mother.' (p.41-2)


Whenever we go to Waterstones to browse I always end up in the poetry section, and I bought 'Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes' by Billy Collins, well, just because I love Bill Collins. The title poem is very subversive, but I found the four page meditation on the Victoria's Secret catalogue a little self indulgent. It has been bedtime reading for a week or two.





Sweet Talk
You are not the Mona Lisa
with that relentless look.
Or Venus borne forth over the froth
of waves on a pink half shell.
Or an odalisque by Delacroix,
veils lapping at you nakedness.

You are more like the sunlight 
of Edward Hopper,
especially when it slants
against the eastern side
of a white clapboard house
in the early hours of the morning,
with no figure standing
at a window in a violet bathrobe,
just the sunlight,
the columns of the front porch,
and the long shadows
they throw down
upon the dark green lawn, baby.


Making my way gradually through 'This is not a drill', a handbook of ideas and understanding the reality of the climate crisis. Get a copy if you want to be better informed about what is happening across the globe, and what people need to do about it. 
The election and the prospect of another Tory government has driven me to bury my head in the sand somewhat, but I did go out last week with some people from 'Stitch Up' in Chorlton to do some flyposting for the Labour Behind the Label campaign. 

Monday, 11 November 2019

The Night of Camp David


I read about 'Night of Camp David' by Fletcher Knebel (published in 1964) some time last year and had put it on my Wordery wishlist. This is going to be a quickie because it does exactly what it says on the tin (or cover in this case). Senator Jim MacVeagh has some weird encounters with the President. He spouts weird conspiracies and has outrageous plans to make America great again. Why has nobody else noticed that there is something odd going on? He's not sure who he can tell. Trying to negotiate the tangle of political allegiances is no easy matter, will they believe him or turn on him! What I really enjoyed about this book is the fact that the author was a journalist and plainly had much inside knowledge on the workings of American politics, I really felt like I was inside the world of Washington. Wasn't it all so much more intriguing when there were only telephones and whispers in corridors. It is such a wonderful picture of 1960s America with all its blatant unapologetic misogyny, but you know what, I enjoyed it anyway.

It's his wife's fault he's having an affair:

"Rita. He wanted to see her tonight. Inwardly he reproached Martha for calling him that morning to say she and Chinky could not return until Saturday. Her mother had picked up a cold, and at her mother's age, Martha said, she wouldn't feel right leaving her. Old ladies got pneumonia so easily, she'd said, and he agreed. But, damn it, her mother had no business getting a cold right now. it exposed him, left him vulnerable. By her physical presence, Martha could protect him  - and this gnawing ambition - from temptation. He grew petulant. Didn't Martha realise that he had a chance to be vice-president, and that her duty was to be beside her husband? ... The Congressional directory lay open before him, but his mind went back to Rita and the curve of her wide, bare skin. He could smell the scent of rich perfume on her olive skin, and feel the warmth of her breasts on his chest and the soft nuzzling of her lips on his throat." (p.62-3)

Or maybe it's just Rita's:

"With the first sharp taste of the martini-on-the-rocks, he thought of Rita. Martinis at her place at seven, they had agreed. But God, he couldn't now, not with the vice-presidency within his reach. The risk was too great. He hadn't been able to bring himself to mention the problem to the President. How could he have said it? 'Mr President, before you commit yourself, I must tell you there is another woman in my life.' Christ, it sounded like showboat melodrama. Besides, the affair was over, a thing of the past. Rita knew it and he knew it. He had slipped this morning and she'd called him 'cruel', but it wasn't really that. It was the insistent pull she exerted, like a twitching rope that slackened only occasionally. That was her fault, not his. Besides , it took two to make an affair. Women always managed to arrange these emotional denouements so that the man came out the insensitive villain while the woman, bruised and crushed, appeared to weep for unrequited love. That was the cunning of the sex, and even Rita, with her factual, bookkeeper's mind, was not above playing the woman who nurses her wound." (p.75)

Eleanor Oliphant

Mum gave me 'Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine' by Gail Honeyman and I read it during the readathon a couple of weeks ago. Eleanor is plainly a little odd, she likes life just so. It reminded me very intensely of the song 'The day before you came' which describes a character with a routine and empty life.  Some unmentionable trauma marks her childhood and her life is still overseen by intermittent social worker visits. Apart from that she keeps to herself, a conscientious worker who passes the time at weekends with two bottles of vodka. After an elderly man takes a fall across the road on the way home she finds herself unwillingly entangled with Raymond, the IT guy from the office. He first coaxes her to visit the old man in hospital, and then invites her over to have tea with his mum. While she initially flinches from this extension to her non-existent social life she comes gradually to enjoy it. It is, however, all a sideline to the main event. She has her eye on a man. She has picked him out as suitable for her needs, is making personal preparations, researching him on the internet, and plans to arrange a meeting. As they say, the best laid plans of mice and men ... When things go wrong and the rest of Eleanor's life begins to unravel it turns out that friendship is more important than she liked to admit. 

Here she orders a drink at the pub, in her own inimitable style:

"I was bored and knocked hard, three times, on the wooden bar, as though it were a front door. They both looked up. I asked for a pint of Guinness, which the boy began to pour from a tap. 'Anything else? he said. I was still stumped. I reasoned that part of his job would be to help customers in such situations.
'What would you recommend? I asked him. He looked up from watching the black liquid trickle into the glass.
'Eh?'
'I said, what would you recommend for me? I don't drink in public houses, as a rule.'
He looked to his left and right, as if expecting someone else to be standing there. There was a long pause.
'Erm,' he said. 'Well ... Magners is very popular. With ice? Nice summer drink.'
'Right,' I said, 'thank you. In that case, I'll have a Magners drink, please, on your recommendation.' He opened a brown bottle and put it on the bar. He put some ice in a tall glass and placed it next to the bottle.
'What's that?' I said.
'The Magners.'
'And what's the empty glass for?'
'It's for the Magners,' he said.
'Am I expected to pour the drink from the bottle into the glass?' I said, puzzled. 'Isn't it your job to do that?' He stared at me and then slowly poured the brown liquid over the ice and put it down quite hard; indeed, he practically slammed the bottle onto the counter."  (p.73-4)

Add a very controlling mother to the mix and you can begin to see how this tale might progress. But it seems that a little human kindness goes a long way, and learning to both give and receive it helps Eleanor through some troubling times ahead. 

A Keeper of Sheep

'A Keeper of Sheep' by William Carpenter was recommended by Juliet over at Crafty Green Poet a while ago and I found a copy on eBay. It tells the story of Penguin who is thrown out of college for attempting to burn down a fraternity house after a gang rape. She goes home to her father's summer house to contemplate her future and finds herself drawn into the life of her neighbour Joshua, an uncle figure who has been part of her life since childhood. She begins to form a friend of her father's new, much younger, wife, but decides that keeping her as a parental figure is preferable. As it gradually becomes clear to the local, rather conservative, community the nature of the illness of Joshua's houseguest tensions begin to rise, and a confrontation is stirred up by some members of the community who wish to profit from draining a local mosquito-ridden marshland area that is part of the communal land ownership. Against a background of evening cocktail parties Penguin begins to feel ostracised because of her growing loyalty to Albert, and in addition has to contend with the increasingly intrusive sexual attention from a local garage owner. 

Listening to birdsong and Albert's avant-garde composition Penguin takes on a philosophical mood:

"So I lay there a long time listening to the thrush and the chords growing more and more discordant until you'd think something would break and I thought what? What more was there to be broken, what in the universe remained to be destroyed? I had been born into a world disassembled by war, then dissected by universal divorce. Now, in this so-called time of peace, it was being eaten by a disease, a disease we thought we could save ourselves from through straight behaviour or armor-plating ourselves with rubber shields, so that only the evil or reckless ones would be exposed. My father was right, though. we're interconnected. As long as one person is suffering from this, we are all suffering. You couldn't protect yourself by being  woman, either, or any kind of division into we the healthy and they the diseased." (p.88)

She comes back to this place, so symbolic of her childhood, and uncovers the adult world in the space of a few months. She seems to test the water as she hops back and forth between her father's house where she is still considered a child, and Joshua and Albert who treat her as a fully-fledged adult. In the spirit of a coming of age story her concerns are both so practical and so metaphysical. I liked her for it, she takes her consideration of life very seriously. 

"I showed Sleezy and Robin the two cots in Dorothy's empty studio. Bondo announced he was going to crash. He shook the sand ritually out of each shoe and organised his sleeping bag on top of the couch. I went to my room and opened Fernando Pessoa.

I wrap myself in a blanket and don't even think of thinking.
Feeling creature comforts and dimly thinking.
I fall asleep with no less purpose than anything else going on in the world.

Robin interrupted my reading by knocking at the door. I said to come in.
- You mean you guys don't even sleep in the same room? Robin whispered.
- It's not that kind of relationship.
- We live and learn, she said. You two looked like the romance of the late twentieth century.
She closed the door. I lay there considering ways to kill Jerry Perera without actually hurting him, thinking about Arnold next door in his endless climb towards death, and wondering what it would taste like to sleep with someone who had just thrown up." (p.253) 

24 Hours of Peace

Peace means so many different things to different people. Peace is not just an absence of war, it is the creation of a world in which all people are safe to make a life for themselves. On Saturday, in advance of Remembrance Sunday, Hannah in the Manchester XR group organised a vigil for the 1700 environmental defenders who have been killed between 2002 and 2018. People all over the world die defending the natural world and protecting their land and lives from destruction, often at the hands of illegal loggers or miners, in collusion with the authorities.  About a dozen of us sat in St Peter's Square for an hour, and talked with a visitor from Brazil about the reality of life for campaigners in the majority world.

I spent Sunday night at 24 Hours of Peace. This has been a piece of theatre taking place from 11am on Sunday 10th through to 11am on Monday 11th November at the Royal Exchange Theatre. It was created by Neil Bartlett from 100 interviews that were done with campaigners and peace activists across the country; mostly just ordinary people discussing their work, how they came to be doing it and how they feel about the fight for peace in the world. Some work directly with victims of violent conflict, some teach about conflict resolution and others are active in political campaigning and direct action. While some of the interviewees seem to drift in to political activism for others their role comes from troubles within their community or country and for others it is trauma within the family. Whatever the route they all have in common a huge personal commitment to creating change and working to make the world more peaceful. The theatre performance was sometimes quite harrowing as people describe their own experiences or the lives of the people they are trying to help. It was punctuated by a rhythmical repetition of lists of people's names, ages and locations, and some of the key ideas that many of them shared. The project was intended as an extension of the two minutes silence that is intended for people to reflect on the sacrifice of soldiers and the hope for a world without such sacrifice. Many of the speakers questioned the role of the military and its acceptance by our society, the way the news becomes an agent of despair, making conflict seem inevitable and creating a feeling of weakness and powerlessness in the face of global conflicts. Neil himself spoke about the need to get past antagonism and see each other as equally human, to find the common ground and expect good from others as a means to solving conflicts. The message was very much that there is no magic route to peace, but that asking people what they imagine for their lives is an important starting point. The recording of the performance will be repeated on Resonance Radio on Wednesday and I believe may be available to listen on the website also. I particularly enjoyed Derbhle Crothy who told the story of a woman from Northern Ireland who set up the Women's Coalition and was involved in negotiating the Good Friday Agreement.


Saturday, 2 November 2019

Feminists at the Manchester Literature Fesitval

 The Manchester Literature Festival has come and gone for another year, and much inspiration was found there. By both design and accident I ended up going to hear a string of feminist writers. Cathy Newman talked about her book 'Bloody Brilliant Women', a history of all the women who are missing from  ... history. Followed the same afternoon by Caroline Criado Perez, who lead the campaign in 2017 to have Jane Austen on the £10 banknote. Her book 'Invisible Women' catalogues, as she says she had to, the many thousands of tiny ways in which the existence of women is ignored and belittled by society that is designed around men. I kind of skim read the book because it becomes a little depressing and predictable, but all the things she says in it very much needed to be articulated clearly.
The following weekend I volunteered at the Deborah Levy event, and then stayed on with Julie to hear Mona Eltahawy in conversation with Mariam Khan (editor of 'It's not about the Burqa', an anthology of writing by Muslim women). Mona's book 'The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls' is currently being read so I will give you more on that later, nevertheless she is one forthright feminist who doesn't pull her punches.
I was a bit let down by the poetry: one event where neither of the poets used the provided microphone and were unable to project their voices across a small bookshop and the other where I was so tired that I struggled to stay awake. I loved Vona Groarke's reading and may well seek out her collection, and, though we had listened to some of his collection Deaf Republic on Radio 4, I found that Ilya Kaminsky's accent is so strong that I could not have followed the poems without the thoughtfully provided printout (which is pretty much the same as just reading them). Howard Jacobson left an impression by demanding to know why his picture was not on the T-shirts when David Baddiel is. Julie and I also went to the Castlefield Sermon which this year was given by Gillian Slovo. Although she has lived most of her life in Britain she has written about South Africa and expected it to be part of her talk about the hope for democracy, but instead she discussed her work with the Grenfell Tower survivors and then Extinction Rebellion. So it has been a fascinating, but very non-fiction, couple of weeks. 

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