Sunday, 28 February 2010

The Waves

I had to take my own photo of 'The Waves' by Virginia Woolf as I could not find an image that had the same cover. There is no nice 'wave' design on this one, it is rather ordinary.

For anyone really enjoying the 'Woolf in Winter' reading challenge, and who wants to read some very intellectual and erudite thoughts on The Waves, please visit over on Claire's site Kiss a Cloud and follow a few of the links.

This book is a real challenge, and I fully intend to read it all, just not this week (and To The Lighthouse is well down the TBR pile I confess). I should have known, after Mrs Dalloway, that I could not expect a novel in the conventional sense, but it did not prepare me for The Waves. So I launched in with naive enthusiasm expecting to find at least a 'story' of some kind. Then I tried the 'just read and let it flow into you' technique. I think it tells you so much about Virignia, how much she lived inside her own head, and how her life was centred on intellectual and emotional engagement and reflection.

You know the idea that some people are visual readers, who take in the words by looking, and some are aural readers, who take in the words by hearing them, actually saying the words aloud in their head. My daughter says she reads slowly because she says the words to herself. Now I think I probably am mostly visual, but with Virginia Woolf I think you have to be aural, to go slowly and appreciate the density of the language. Older daughter Tish (having helped me writing the Mrs Dalloway review) commented that surely such writing would never get past the editor, and I said that was probably one of the perks of self-publishing (that you can do something that has never been done before and not just end up with a pile of rejection letters.) If one of the rules of good writing is to not overdo the adjectives, then any editor worth his salt would have cut this book down by at least a third. But then I have to take it all back because when I look at the half dozen little notes I have made myself they are all about the language:

Rhoda speaking of a chorus of birds startled by the opening scullery door: "Off they fly like a fling of seeds."
The boys talking (am often unsure who) and within a few lines we get: "incorrigible moodiness", "innumerable perplexities", "profound distinctions" and "ferocious tenacity" (this last one being my favourite).
Susan, later, (p.70): "The day is stark and stiff as a linen shroud."
Rhoda (p.77): "I see the wild thorn tree shake its shadow in the desert."

I am yet to discover what life has in store for Susan and the rest (and I can't help but have an image of Susan from the Narnia books when I read her name) so I will leave you with her feelings about school, which are just so perfectly expressed I may post them to my home education e-mail list. Here she is watching from the train window going home for the holidays:

"But the day is still rolled up. I will not examine it until I step out on to the platform in the evening. I will not let myself even smell it until I smell the cold green air off the fields. But already these are not school fields; these are not school hedges; the men in these fields are doing real things; they fill carts with real hay; and those are real cows, not school cows. But the carbolic smell of corridors and the chalky smell of classrooms is still in my nostrils. The glazed shiny look of matchboard is still in my eyes. I must wait for fields and hedges, and woods and fields, and steep railway cuttings, sprinkled with gorse bushes, and trucks in sidings, and tunnels and suburban gardens with women hanging out washing, and then fields again and children swinging on gates, to cover it over, to bury it deep, this school that I have hated." (p.44)

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Modern Times

'When I Lived in Modern Times' by Linda Grant was the year 2000 winner of the Orange Fiction Prize.

It follows on quite interestingly from 'Voluptuous Delights' that I reviewed a few weeks ago, in that it also deals with a politically and historically significant moment for the country concerned. In this case the country is Israel, or Palestine, depending on your point of view, and the year is 1946. I thought I knew quite a bit about the middle east and it's recent history, but this inside view of the birth of a nation was quite an eye-opener. I kept getting the feeling that the entire book was some kind of allegory; for the character searching for her own identity, for the birth of Israel as a political entity, and for the notion of the Jews and the Diaspora and their search for a homeland and an identity.

The story is told from the perspective of Evelyn, a young British Jewish girl, briefly through her childhood and the (second world) war until she sets off into the unknown world of Palestine. At the time it is a British protectorate struggling with the demands for immigration from holocaust survivors that the government is trying to prevent. Evelyn is a rootless person, with an unknown father and grandparents coming to Britain from eastern Europe, and a mother who provides love and security but no sense of belonging anywhere or to anything. 'Uncle Joe', her mother's boyfriend, supports them and pays for her education, but he has a real wife and children elsewhere and she grows up with a sense of being his "shadow family", a life lacking reality. She picks up some of his zionist politics, and after her mother's death he sends her off to a new world, but she has no real idea of why she is there or why she might belong. Evelyn enters the country pretending to be a christian tourist, then making her way to the Jewish Agency, whence she is placed in a kibbutz, an experience that is short-lived but seems to have quite a lasting impact. She ends up in a little flat, working as a hairdresser and with a boyfriend who turns out to be a terrorist. She adopts a new fake identity and begins to feed information about her affluent and important clients to Johnny (who's real identity is also a mystery). But she is really a very naive girl and when a local policeman becomes suspicious of her everything begins to fall apart, and as the political tension begins to rise she finds herself caught up in something more dangerous than she had imagined.

Really the politics is the main theme of the novel. From the kibbutz dwellers, to her neighbours in the block of flats, to the local Arab population, to her British customers and then the political activists who spirit her away from the authorities, all these people have their own view of what should be happening to Palestine, and all of them are at odds with the others. In fact the only point of view that you don't get is that of the orthodox 'religious' Jews, whom many of the immigrants seem to view as some kind of archaic oddity, not part of a new modern state. The story takes place in Tel Aviv, a place that sees itself as modern, rejecting the past, seeking a new future. It seems at odds with the essential historical nature of Judaism, because it is their past (both recent and more distant) that is driving the creation of Israel. And for the Jews, both religious and not, political and not, it is their historical suffering that is central to their experience and is what they expect the creation of the state of Israel to save them from:

"It was a country of so-what people. So-what you are cold and hungry? You want to know about cold and hunger? Let me tell you where I have been. I know cold and hunger. So-what you miss your mother? My mother was gassed. And my father and my grandparents and my sisters and brothers. So-what you want your boyfriend? My boyfriend was murdered by British soldiers. I was never going to outdo them. They had skins like elephant hides and they brandished their suffering at you like heavy clubs. They'd bash your brains out with those clubs if they could." (p.211)

It is the story that is important. It is Evelyn's story but it is also Israel's story. And when she finally returns, many years later, when an old woman, she reflects on what has changed, and what remains of the Israel she experienced:

"Look at it this way, we are the people of the Book. It is the first thousand years of Jewish history and though we have no second volume for the next two thousand years, each story a Jew tells is part of that book. We have no choice but to listen. Our history was in our story, for the Arabs of Palestine, it was the land. Without a story we're not jews. Without a land they're not just DP's (displaced persons), they're an abstract idea - a cause. That's not a human being. This is the great wrong we did them." (p.239)

I was concentrating so hard on the 'issues' that I paid much less attention to the writing, but it is a very well written book. The atmosphere, cultural, political and geographical, was rich in details and the cast of characters strong and authentic. The history and politics of Israel is a very complex subject and this is a brave attempt to incorporate them into a novel. A very challenging book, but in some ways it left me none the wiser. How do two so different political/religious/cultural groups coexist in such a small space? I guess there are no definitive answers to the many questions that you are left asking.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

John Keats

Today is the anniversary of the death of
John Keats, I was attracted to the article in The Times when reading something else, and just thought it nice to commemorate having enjoyed the film Bright Star so much last month. This image is a copy of the actual death notice placed in The Times 189 years ago. The phrase "of a decline" was apparently common at the time, and constituted an actual medical diagnosis of his death. If you visit the John Keats website you can see that a great many of his poems were published posthumously, he having died believing himself a failure. I am not very familiar with his work, apart from the "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" well known quotes. Here is one I found on the website, that seems highly appropriate to the occasion. It is entitled "When I have fears that I may cease to be":

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high piled books, in charact’ry,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love! - then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Picking Wild Strawberries

'The Trouble With Poetry and Other Poems' by Billy Collins is not his most recent publication, just the title they had available through the library. I first came across him a few weeks ago and was so taken with the poem I found that I wanted to read some more.

The word that springs to mind to describe him can only be unpretentious. He does not need to use unfathomable vocabulary to get his point across or subtle references to obscure philosophical ideas, in fact in 'The Introduction' he gently mocks the way some poetry does just this. The poem addresses the reader, setting out to explain the references contained within the poem they are about to read, to enable them to appreciate it more fully. He explains that they will need to understand the meaning of 'Imroz', 'Hypsicles' and 'helminthology', that "Wagga Wagga is in New South Wales./ Rhyolite is that soft volcanic rock." but then he politely adds, "The rest of the poem should be clear./ I'll just read it and let it speak for itself./ It's about the time I went picking wild strawberries./ It's called Picking Wild Strawberries." I liked it because while he is making fun he is also making a serious critical point about how poetry can be over analysed, as if there is a correct way to understand a poem, a process that can destroy individual appreciation.

Several of the poems in the collection are what I think of as self-referential, poems that talk about either themselves or the process of being a poet and writing poetry. The first poem 'You, Reader' addresses the reader again, then the second one 'Monday' describes how the poet spends his Monday morning, in contrast with other more normal occupations. I particularly loved this stanza:

"The clerks are at their desks,
the miners are down their mines,
and the poets are looking out of their windows
maybe with a cigarette, a cup of tea,
and maybe a flannel shirt or bathrobe is involved."

though he does reflect wryly a few lines later that "because it is their job for which they are paid nothing every Friday afternoon." In 'The Trouble with Poetry', the penultimate poem of the book, he returns to the troubled life of the poet, wondering what they will do "when we have compared everything in the world to everything else in the world" because "mostly poetry fills me with the urge to write poetry". Then he ends with a reference to Lawrence Ferlinghetti:

"whose little amusement park of a book
I carried in a side pocket of my uniform
up and down the treacherous halls of high school."

and I have this lovely image of him as a teenager, already so possessed by poetry that he knows that it will consume his life.

The other repeated theme is death. In 'Reaper' the writer encounters a man with a scythe who becomes, in his imagination, the grim reaper. 'Bereft' was one of my favourites, a woman musing on how easy it must be to be dead, to escape all the mundane things that make up existence, all the things you could do without, exchanging them for simple emptiness. But the writer adds his understated horror at the end:

"a region of silence except for

the occasional beating of wings-
and, I wanted to add
as the sun dazzled your lifted wineglass,
the sound of the newcomers weeping."

And then in 'Breathless' he starts talking about people sleeping, only to digress into the notion of being buried in a comfortable sleeping pose. I really liked this idea, to eschew the "dark suit" and "ridiculous tie" in favour of an "earthy little bedroom":

"curled up in a coffin
in fresh pair of cotton pajamas,
a down pillow under my weighty head."

Some of his poems are slightly disconcerting. They start telling one story, but then the last couple of lines seem to go off at a tangent, almost as if he has forgotten what he was intending to say. But you have to assume it is deliberate, to stop the reader predicting the outcome. I know you do that sometimes, particularly where you have a nice neat rhyme, you think ahead to what other words will fit, and subconsciously try and anticipate where the poem is going. For example, in 'Building with it's face blown off' (and many others are available on Youtube) he describes in detail a bomb blasted building, it's innards exposed to public scrutiny, and then the last couple of stanzas he seems to look off into the distance, and then further away, into another country, where we have a couple on a blanket having a picnic. I was confused. Similarly in 'Class Picture, 1954', Superman makes a surprise appearance at the end of what is a nostalgic tale of a childhood moment.

Others contain beautifully complete stories, capturing a simple idea so succinctly. In 'Eastern Standard Time' he describes the day, from the point of view of people living within his own time zone, that in spite of their different lives, they are bonded together by the common experience of the time of day.

Am going to end with the final poem of the book, entitled 'Silence'. Not typical of Collins, but I think it is hard to pin down what might be a 'typical' poem. Just wonderful images, wonderful use of words, which is what poetry is about.

There is the sudden silence of the crowd
above a motionless player on the field,
and the silence of the orchid.

The silence of the falling vase
before it strikes the floor,
the silence of the belt when it is not striking the child.

The stillness of the cup and the water in it,
the silence of the moon
and the quiet of the day far from the roar of the sun.

The silence when I hold you to my chest,
the silence of the window above us,
and the silence when you rise and turn away.

And there is the silence of this morning
which I have broken with my pen,
the silence that had piled up all night

like snow falling in the darkness of the house -
the silence before I wrote a word
and the poorer silence now.

Saturday papers on Sunday

Dunk spotted this interesting piece in The Guardian yesterday, so we popped out late and found a copy, Ten Rules for Writing (which you can read online but I like to have the real thing scattered across the bed myself). Someone I had not heard of has just written a book with this title so the Guardian asked a load of writers what their 'rules' were, and what an interesting selection of ideas resulted.

Some took the project less seriously than others, but I think that it tells you just as much about them, and about the process of writing a book. Roddy Doyle's comments particularly appealed, from the silly, "Do not search for the book you haven't written yet" to the more helpful, "Do change your mind. Good ideas are often murdered by better ones." The other silly comments included "Don't have children" (Richard Ford), "Prayer might help" (Margaret Atwood) "The first twelve years are the worst" (Anne Enright) and "No going to London" (Colm Toibin). Many things were repeated by several people; the advice to read widely, edit ruthlessly, go for a walk if you get stuck, write what you love, be self-disciplied, avoid cliches and basically just stop dreaming and get on with writing. Oh yes, and avoid having access to an internet connection ... very, very distracting.

Other people took the whole thing much more seriously, and gave some very helpful insights. Michael Morpurgo tells us "Ted Hughes gave me this advice and it works: record moments, fleeting impressions, overheard dialogue, your own sadnesses and bewilderments and joys." Hilary Mantel's thoughts on description; "Description must work for its place. It can't be simply ornamental. It usually works best if it has a human element; it is more effective if it comes from an implied viewpoint, rather than from the eye of God. If description is coloured by the viewpoint of the character who is doing the noticing, it becomes, in effect, part of the character definition and part of the action." Similarly Sarah Waters suggests "Don't overwrite. Avoid redundant phrases, the distracting adjectives, the unnecessary adverbs." In fact Elmore Leonard asserts that using adverbs is a "mortal sin", and that exclamation points are to be definitely avoided, also "I have noticed that writers who use 'suddenly' tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points." Basically, you can't add atmosphere with punctuation. Joyce Carol Oates continues in this vein, "Unless you are writing something very post-modernist - self-conscious, self-reflexive and 'provocative' - be alert for possibilities of using plain familiar words in place of polysyllabic 'big' words." I really liked Roddy Doyle's other sensible comment, "Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, eg 'horse', 'ran', 'said'."

Only someone like Andrew Motion is going to say stuff like "Honour the miraculousness of the ordinary" and Philip Pullman dismisses us with "My main rule is to say no to things like this, which tempt me away from my proper work." The other things that made me smile "Learn poems by heart" (Helen Dunmore), "You see more sitting still than chasing after." (Jonathan Franzen) and "Proceed slowly and take care. To ensure that you proceed slowly, write by hand." (Annie Proulx) I could almost rush out (or is that stay in, I think) and write a book. Or maybe just a blog post.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Tuesday poetry

Linking today to another blog that I follow, Andrew Shields, who's recent post pointed me to this poetry magazine site called SoftBlow (and on to the weirdest site ever, that of Donna Ong, who created this lovely cover image for their front page. I thought at a glance it was butterflies then realised it was tree seeds).
Anyway, I was really struck with this poem, mainly because I used to have really bad train anxiety dreams too.

Stand Clear Of The Closing Doors by Andrew Shields

The train hums in to Mannheim where we change
for Kassel, all our stuff's still strewn about,
Andrea picks up Miles and the backpack,
my arms encircle papers, toys and snacks,
we're on the platform, we just made it out,

I have to go back in for one more thing,
I grab it, but someone's standing in the aisle,
the button's just a second from my finger,
the door is slipping shut, I force it, fly,

and wake to write these lines to keep the dream
from recurring, to close the doors on it.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Chocolate mousse

Yesterday turned out to be one of those "where did the time go?" kind of days, so the chocolate mousse that I promised Dunk never got made. So this morning I started as I mean to go on (in the "not wasting a couple of days holiday just mooching on the computer" way) and got up to make mousse.

It really is idiot proof. I adapted the recipe from several different ideas. I like to include whipped egg white because it makes it a bit lighter, compared to just using cream and chocolate, but totally unsuitable for the pregnant or the elderly because of the presence of raw eggs.
So from the top middle going clockwise (all in separate bowls)
  • 1/2 pint of whipped double cream with a bit of sugar
  • two teaspoons of gelatine dissolved in hot water (make sure there are no jellyish lumps when you mix it in, that can totally spoil the mousse, if it has started to set rewarm it in the microwave for a few seconds)
  • two egg whipped whites (or three if they are a bit small, or you like it fluffy)
  • 200g of melted chocolate (I used Galaxy but dark is probably better, or whatever your preference really)
  • 2 teaspoons of instant coffee dissolved in a small amount of hot water (then left to cool), because I like it a bit mocha and it takes the edge of the sickliness.
  • the two egg yolks mixed with 2oz of castor sugar
Blend the whole lot carefully and thoroughly together with a plastic spatula. (I think I over whipped the cream as it did not blend very smoothly, and sometimes the chocolate sets too quickly and you get little lumps, but it doesn't detract from the general yumminess) Refrigerate for a couple of hours. You end up with a brown sludge that looks totally disgusting, but tastes fabulous, and has practically no calories. Vegetarians can replace the gelatine with some suitable alternative .... vegans can just sit on the sidelines and watch:-) Serves four very generously or six if you are a bit more frugal (but who thinks frugality is a virtue where chocolate mousse is concerned). Enjoy.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Un-valentine day slippers

The girls, in a spirit of un-romantic solidarity, decided to celebrate un-valentine's day, with terrible macho films and a lack of make-up and general appearance neglect. I am not sure I will be joining them for Mortal Kombat or Starship Troopers, but South Park The Movie is always good fun.

Instead I have gone for another slipper experiment ... and it was much more successful than last time. I scaled the pattern down by about half, and I used merino this time, which in general I much prefer anyway.
  • I laid out layers of undyed roving for the sole and the inside then added some colours that will go up the sides and around onto the top. This was all wetted down and then turned over.
  • I put the plastic pattern pieces in the centre of the roving and wrapped it around.
  • Then I added a bit more decoration.
  • Then this is all rolled around the rolling pin for about half an hour or so, unwrapping and changing the direction every now and then. Then I made a small incision with a craft knife and removed the pattern.
  • Then you just rub the slippers by hand with lots of soap for another half an hour or so, maybe it was longer I lost track of time. The shrinkage will cause the hole to get bigger so don't make it too large to start with, though I did even mine up a bit when one hole looked much bigger than the other (in fact one slipper is a bit bigger than the other too, but we'll try and ignore that)
  • When you are satisfied that it is all well felted you rinse them *thoroughly* with hot and then cold water. I did try them on at this stage to see how they fitted.
  • and on the whole they fit pretty well. I left the edges kind of rough, I am worried that if I attempt to trim them neatly it will just spoil the whole thing.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Nostalgia and all that

"The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam" by Lauren Liebenberg, has been my delight for the last couple of weeks. This book was shortlisted for the Orange Award for New Writers in 2008. I have decided to add the New Writers Award to my Orange Prize reading challenge (listed in the sidebar) just on the basis of this book (and it didn't even win), it has only been going since 2005 so that's not too many extra books. I picked the book purely on the basis of it's title, being a fan of peanut butter and jam sandwiches from my childhood, and there is certainly a strong nostalgia element to my enjoyment of it, even though there is nothing remotely familiar about it's setting.

(Spoiler warning: sorry, it's hard not to give the plot away if you want to discuss what was so engaging about the book.)

By the way, the picture is a vervet monkey, and they appear through the book as Oupa's adversary, he sits with his shotgun trying to fight them off, but they seems to be pretty determined little buggers. Words in various african languages are scattered throughout, and I was half way through the book before it occurred to me to look in the back of the book for a glossary, some words were obvious but knowing others was definitely important and added to the story. Oupa is grandfather to the story's two heroines, Nyree and Cia, they look upon him as the source of all wisdom, and of course all family history. The story is narrated by Nyree, looking back on her childhood, but very much telling it from the point of view of an eight year old. The girls live their life in what can only be described as benign neglect: their father is off fighting the 'Terrs' (terrorists, or as some might call them, freedom fighters) and their mother is thus left to run the farm, leaving the girls to be cared for by Oupa and Jobe. School is mentioned in a few places but it seems pretty peripheral to their lives which are a patchwork of fantasy and exploration. The story is set in Rhodesia in the late 1970's, during the 'Bush War', a political and historical event that hovers in the background of the girl's lives, something they are aware of, but as children it is never quite close enough to preoccupy them. They idolise their father, who is a fantastic figure who appears and vanishes unpredictably. Nyree describes the effect of his sudden reappearance:

"Mom changes around him too. From striding around the farm in a pair of flared hipster denims, a rifle slung over one shoulder, not taking any nonsense from the likes of us, she lets her hair down, slips into satin petticoats and perfume and the timbre of her laughter changes. The world tilts dangerously, and I feel a little giddy." (p.28)

But the tale of great-uncle Seamus (shot in a skirmish with a kaffir, as it says on his gravestone) rears it's ugly head and their lives are intruded upon much more directly by the arrival of Ronin, who's history is not really explained until the end. To begin with they are fascinated by him, in spite of his distain for them:

"For the most part Ronin seems rather aloof and he ignores us as studiously as we're studying him. He proves worth the scrutiny. He tears branches from trees and thrashes their trunks. He broods for hours down by the riverine, his hands shoved deep in his pockets, scuffing his shoes through the dirt. It's not long before Cia and I take to mooching about, our hands shoved deep in pretend pockets, brazenly scuffing our shoes through the dirt, in flagrant violation of Mom's shoe-scuffing rules." (p.67)

But things then take a more sinister turn, and their mother seems totally taken in by his superficial charm, whilst the girls find themselves the victims of his malevolence. At one point when they go to stay with friends 'in town' and at the swimming pool Cia is dragged unexpectedly under the water:

"Cia is choking and gasping, her eyes huge, the pupils dilated. I look around wildly. I am confused, panicked, and then somehow I look straight across on a diagonal to the far side of the pool. There is Ronin, squarely in my line of vision, and he is staring directly at us. He holds my gaze for a suspended moment, then turns and pulls himself smoothly from the pool. In that instant, I know it was him." (p.85)

There are lulls in the tension during term time when he goes off to boarding school, but on his return the girls live in a state of surreal fear, exacerbated by the death of their beloved dog Moosejaw and culminating in the terrifying final confrontation.

The book captures the atmosphere of childhood so wonderfully. The girls live in a magical world inhabited by fairies, their naive beliefs fostered by influences from african pagan superstitions and catholicism. They sneak out at night to perform ceremonies and try and make contact with them:

"As my fingers grope around the gnarly bark of a tree-trunk, I wonder if we'll see fairies tonight. I'm half hoping we will, half hoping we won't. Fairies are strange beings. They dine on the perfume of flowers; toadstools spring where fairy feet have gone and they cast white shadows. There are fairies of the earth and of the air, and water fairies, who dwell in lakes, rivers, pools, springs, wells, fountains and even in raindrops and tears." (p.114)

But then the fairies come to symbolise the gradual loss of innocence that permeates the story. There is a fierce bush fire (apparently started deliberately to target their farm) which destroys their fairy grotto:

"'Do you think the fairies got burned up?'
I lift the shell of a small tortoise and peer into it. I can smell the singed body of the tortoise curled up inside - his own house must have become the oven in which he roasted alive. I know she wants me to tell her they escaped. I look at her and shrug." (p.155)

And then at the very end, her family is struggling to mend itself, but Nyree knows that the fairies are no more:

"Some of the magic is gone though. The fairies have withered and died, their wings crunchy like dragonflies'. Now glow-worms are just glow-worms glowing faintly under the bushes at night." (p.229)

The other equally dominant aspect of the story's atmosphere is Africa. But this is not a lush and beautiful Africa, but an Africa that is at war with human beings:

"When he's not on vervet detail, Oupa mounts campaigns against the legions of invading invertebrates, from white ants who secretly eat the wood in the farmhouse leaving nothing but husks in their wake, to swarms of technicoloured locusts who simply devour everything, to the disease-carrying flesh-eaters .....
'Pestilence and disease afflicting the human is everywhere on this God-forsaken continent, but I tell you there is naught so apt a metaphor for the grotesque fecundity of life in Africa as her gut-dwelling flatworm parasites,' he concludes, as he grips the head of the exposed guineaworm infesting Blessing's foot and tugs at it." (p.48)

(The descriptions of potential diseases and parasites gets more explicit, but I'll spare you any more details.)
There is very little description of wildlife until the drought season arrives:

"Sometimes Cia and I march out with the army of cripples. Between their contorted skeletons low thorn scrub claws at our bare legs and we have to navigate the veld wreckage strewn everywhere: abandoned termite mounds, husks of dead trees, suspicious pits bored into the earth. We've started to find the carcasses of impala, nyala and even great kudu bulls lying there in the veld." (p.146)

Though I did love this:

"Fat lizards idle in a stupor next to the enthroned Oupa on the stoep, their bulbous, blue-green scales gleaming lizardly. Wasps wasp noisily in the gauze across the front-door screen." (p.135)

The tales that Jobe tells them are the only time we get any picture of life for native Africans. He lived for a time in what must be a kind of township in South Africa, referred to as 'The Location', where the resident's lives are totally controlled by the Location Manager called de la Rey. He is despised by the people and they pass their time, and make it more bearable by fantasising about his departure:

"You could get yourself arrested for just about anything - for possessing a spiked stick, for sitting on the wrong bench outside the Court of Native Affairs, for disobedience, trespass, nuisance, impertinence.....
The people came to him one by one. De la Rey almost never looked up. Next. Question. Answer. Bang. Shuffle. But the line never grew shorter. It smelled in there of sweat and insecticide, ink and floor dust.....
The people were preparing wonderful celebrations for when he left. Nobody knew when he would go, but they liked to think about him leaving and to plan the celebration ....
And there were schemes too, to hurry up his leaving. There were ways to make his car have an accident and ways to get a snake to bite him ....
Then there were the funeral schemes. Who will organise the procession, who will be the pall-bearers, what will the choir sing and on and on. If they ever raised funds for a coffin for de la Rey they'd get enough for a solid gold one." (p.104-5)

Their family's disintegration is mirrored in the political situation which deteriorates until of course you get the capitulation of the Rhodesian army, leading to the election of the ZANU party and Robert Mugabe in 1980. Their farm is repossessed and their uncertain future is left hanging. It was strange because of course your sympathies are with the family you know, but it is almost more so because of course we know the future and what it holds for the newly born Zimbabwe, and you cannot help but feel doubly sad that the people of that country have never got the freedom that they were really struggling for.

I could write so much more. I have not even touched on Angelique, the girl's grandmother, and their obsession with her. Such lovely writing, full of subtle themes and images. An interesting contrast to 'Property' from a few weeks ago, in terms of the portrayal of the relationships between the white farmers and the indigenous population. Again because of the perspective of the writing you are not passing judgement on the attitudes that are portrayed, they are just part of the society that the story is describing.

But what I loved most about the story is the relationship of the two girls. They do everything together; bicker in the back of the car, listen to Oupa's stories, face their fears in the darkness and consume their peanut butter and jam sandwiches. Nyree acts as Cia protector and teacher, by virtue of being older, but she needs her sister just as much in return. Something she recognises most poignantly at the end of the book; I leave you with this quote, it reduced me to tears:

"I don't want to stay in our bedroom either. Tonight will be only the second time that Cia isn't sleeping next to me in it. The other time was long, long ago. Cia went to hospital to have an operation. The hospital was called the Salisbury Central. I was taken to visit her in the children's ward. I remember her toddling towards me down the centre of the black and white chequered aisle between ranks of sterile metal cots and starched white linen. I was jealous of her, but she was so pleased to see me that I forgave her. I remember it in the fragmented way you remember the earliest things, mainly because it was the first time that I understood Cia was separate from me, was not me, could go places I couldn't go, could know things I didn't know. Alone now in our room, without Cia to smother whispers with and pretend not to be scared of the dark for. I don't know what to do. We are still one after all, and with her gone, I am no more." (p.217)

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Nelson Mandela

Sometimes it is good to be reminded of what is important. Today, the news reminds us that it is 20 years since Nelson Mandela was released from prison in South Africa. I remember the day quite vividly, we sat with the television on all afternoon, one of those times when you watch nothing, just waiting and not wanting to miss the moment. And, unlike the Royal Wedding or the presidential inauguration, it was completely lacking in spectacle, just an ordinary man, walking hand in hand with his wife, but someone who symbolised so much.

I tried to find a poem that said something about freedom, but instead found this brief tribute to Nelson himself.

Free Nelson Mandela

Perhaps we'd rather be
than free
that's why we hate
those that break
the tyranny.

Vince Gullaci

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Life, death and all that

'Somewhere towards the end' by Diana Athill, is the most recent of Athill's memoirs, written when she was 89. I am going to include this in my Women Unbound Reading Challenge because it seems a very appropriate book. She is quite a remarkable woman who has lived a life that challenged many of the assumptions about the way women should live. As a young woman she was abandoned by the man she was supposed to marry, and instead went on to have a long and successful career in publishing and to carry on a series of unconventional affairs, ending up living for 40 years in a comfortable arrangement with a former lover.

While there is a certain amount of reflection in this book it is much more about the adjustments, demands and compensations of old age. She is already well known for her candour regarding her sexual life, though very discreet she did conduct several affairs with married men during her life. This book reflects at length on the decline of her sexual life and adjusting to this new idea of herself. There is a sense of regret at this aspect of growing old, but she is very accepting of the changes. Her own health seems to have been remarkably robust, certainly she describes nothing life shortening, but she finds herself having to take on a caring role, initially, in her seventies, for her mother, and then again over recent years for her cohabiter Barry. In both situations not something she has relished, but something she has endured philosophically. She also discusses the idea and imminence of death, describing her mother's death most poignantly, and another experience at a crematorium which seemed to have quite an impact on her, emphasising the everyday nature of death.

Several of the chapters talk about the things that she has done to try and adapt to old age, the things, like gardening, reading and writing, that have provided her with enjoyment, and solace for the other pleasures that have waned. It is lovely how she is such an optimistic person and takes pleasure from the smallest thing. She is discussing relations between the generations, and how the old are viewed by the young:

"So if when you are old a beloved child happens to look at you as if he or she thinks (even if mistakenly!) that you are wise and kind: what a blessing! It's not that such a fleeting glimpse of yourself can convert you into wiseness and kindness in any enduring way; more like a good session of reflexology which, although it can cure nothing, does make you feel like a better person while it's going on and for an hour or two afterwards, and even that is well worth having." (p.84-5)

She tells some wonderful little personal anecdotes, in particular one about great-aunt Gertie, who's scandalous behaviour became a family secret. She was plainly somewhat exploited in her role at Andre Deutsch's publishing company and appears to have reached old age without much financial security, though I guess she is the kind of woman who would have found it hard to retire any earlier than 75 anyway, and her retirement has been pursued with such vigour that she has done much of her autobiographical writing during this time. She does talk a little about people she encountered during her publishing career, but I plan to seek out her other books which no doubt discuss it in more detail. She is the second writer recently to specifically mention W.G. Sebald as remarkable (Susan Hill being the other) and I found a copy of his book 'Austerlitz' in a charity shop recently, so it may very well move up the TBR pile based on this second recommendation.

The part of the book I found quite moving and interesting was when she discussed her childlessness. She admits to having had abortions as a younger woman, viewing herself as somewhat devoid of maternal instinct, and when she finds herself pregnant surprisingly at the age of 43 she assumes inwardly that she will do so again:

"But when I caught myself making excuse after excuse not to take the necessary steps just yet; I hit on the truth ; I wasn't going to take them at all; and at that point I suddenly became happy with a happiness so astonishingly complete that I still remember it with gratitude: my life would have been the poorer if I hadn't tasted it, and any child to emerge from that experience could only have been loved." (p.163)

The pregnancy ends at four months with a potentially life threatening miscarriage, an experience so frightening that it overshadows the loss of her baby; she is so glad to actually be alive her response to the loss felt, to her, somewhat muted and relatively short lived. She acknowledges freely her ambivalent feelings towards small children, but as she has got older the pleasures of other people's children, most especially those of Sally (a former lover of Barry's who lived with them in an unusual domestic arrangement for some years), seem to have becomes more significant. In the chapter about regrets (in which this quote appears) childlessness is not one of them. What she does regret is the idea that she was essentially rather 'cold' and that was what made her chose not to have children. Her only other regret is her laziness. It seems like a strange thing for such a woman to accuse herself of. Reading this book I wish I could achieve half as much in a lifetime, but she talks about all the various other things she wishes she had learned, places she could have visited or things to be achieved, and she puts it down to just being happy with the little niche that she carved out for herself and liking a nice quiet settled life. Earlier in the story she had talked about how hard it was for her to become a carer for her mother because of how much it disrupted her own life, how she arranged things so she did not have to move in with her. It is this essential honesty that draws you to her and makes her so likeable. She doesn't mind (another perk, she admits, of old age) what anyone might think of her, and so can be open about her own shortcomings.

I think she felt the need to end the book with a 'life philosophy' chapter, I guess you can forgive her a little self indulgence, because in essence old people can't help but think they have some wisdom to pass on. Her conclusion is not startlingly original, but it is wonderfully expressed:

"The majority of human being leave their genes embodied in other human beings, others things they have made, everyone things they have done: they have taught or tortured, built or bombed, dug a garden or chopped down trees, so that our whole environment, cities, farmland, deserts - the lot! - is built up of contributions, useful or detrimental, from the innumerable swarms of selfs preceding us, to which we ourselves are adding our grains of sand. To think our existence pointless, as atheists are supposed by some religious people to do, would therefore be absurd; instead, we should remember that it does make its almost invisible but real contribution, either to usefulness or harm, which is why we should try to conduct it properly." (p.180)

I loved reading this, mainly because this lady is twice my age; I feel like life has been pretty long already, that so much has happened, and to think that I potentially have the years left to do as much again is just wonderful. This book is a real celebration of life, from the perspective of age, but not just a celebration of what is past, because although she ends with a contemplation of what her final words might be, she is definitely not thinking that this is the end.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Dispatches (a work related rant)

I sat up a bit late last night to watch the Dispatches programme about Royal Mail (available on Channel 4 On Demand). This was a follow up to programmes that they produced in 2004 and 2005, with two reporters going undercover to see the inside workings of the postal system. Last time they uncovered an organised gang of agency workers stealing credit cards, which caused quite a stir. This time focussed mainly on really bad mismanagement and poor training. I feel quite angry really because in spite of these reporters claiming that it was objective because they had not chosen the offices but had been sent there by an agency, the mere fact that they used an agency to gain employment was putting them in what was inevitably going to be a poor situation. So they were sent to offices with staffing problems, which always means poor staff morale, and also where there was plainly incredibly poor management of a restructuring of the working schedule and a history of industrial relations conflict.

But if they had arrived as a new recruit in my office it would have made really dull television. When I popped in this morning to prepare my door-to-door (advertising crap) items for tomorrow there were no piles of delayed parcels lying around, no frames half full of undelivered mail, no postmen slouching in the cafeteria or skiving off home early because they thought the pavements were too slippery. When we had a foot of snow we struggled through it; some places went without deliveries for 4 or 5 days, but we are rural and many farms are very remote and inaccessible, but everyone in our office worked hard to try and make sure that as much mail went out as humanly possible. I have never encountered the kind of 'don't really give a damn' attitude that some postmen in the programme displayed. Their disregard for people's post was astounding and the management's attitude to problems was terrible. We go out of our way to make sure that even the badly addressed items get where they are supposed to go. The local knowledge of most of the blokes is incredible, many have been in the office for over 20 years. I am proud to work with them and know without a shadow of doubt that not one of them has ever interfered with anyone's post (we might occasionally play 'pass the parcel' with intriguingly shaped packets, or ones that make a noise ... and I do consider reading people's post cards to be a perk of the job.) You do tend to know a lot of personal stuff about people in this job; you know when people split up, when they die, when they get married, when they go on holiday, if they get letters from the county court or the police, but that's the kind of thing that is no one's business but theirs and I signed the Official Secrets Act when I started to say that I do not pass information to anyone about either the business or it's customers.

So to anyone who watched the programme I would like to back up the bosses here, and say that it is not a true and complete picture of Royal Mail and the service it provides for people. I am going to blow my own trumpet a bit here to give the other side of the coin:
Two Christmases ago a woman phoned our office about a parcel she had sent. It turned out she had put half of an old address mixed up with half of a new address on the parcel (people do the stupidest things at Christmas). So I took all the details from her including the correct address for the parcel. I then phoned the local office that it would be arriving at, explained to the bloke there what she had done and asked him to look out for it. A day or two later he called me back to say it had been found and sent on to the correct address. I then called the woman to assure her that it should make it to it's intended destination. Now I am sure that I am not the only person who does this kind of thing. Just the other day Brian had a letter, a returned item to one of his calls, and the postman from the other end of the system had written on the back, "I am sorry to have to tell you that this lady passed away some time ago last year", and I thought how nice that was, he could have just put a red sticker on and thought nothing more of it but he chose to go to the trouble. To me that is what Royal Mail still does at a local level, Posties who treat their customers like real people.

Monday, 8 February 2010

What are you reading Monday

Ok, I think it is finally getting silly how many books I have on the go. Maybe it is a sign of some dissatisfaction, that nothing is holding my attention too firmly that it is drifting from book to book.

On the kitchen table is "Letters to Georgian friends" by Boris Pasternak, that I plucked from my mum's spare room bookshelf in a moment of extreme esotericism. It is just a collection of letters to friends, mostly saying very little, often just sending greetings or discussing plans or work projects, but I have come to feel quite affectionate towards him as he is a devoted and caring man. I have been reading this over my breakfast for a couple of months.

The library came up with "The trouble with poetry and other poems" by Billy Collins which I have been dipping in to at bedtime. And also "You are not a stranger here" by Adam Haslett, a collection of short stories, picked out because of this interesting cover photo of an ornate spiral staircase, which I find can often be as good a reason as any other for borrowing a book.

"The voluptuous delights of peanut butter and jam" by Valerie Liebenberg is a wonderful book and I will probably finish it this week, so watch this space for a review.

And then this morning Brian (the postman) bought me Diana Athill's "Somewhere towards the end". I had requested this from the library last August, and when I asked the lady about it she suggested that perhaps it might have gone missing, so I gave up and bought a copy on the Amazon marketplace for 21p ... and it is practically new, seems to be unread. I started reading it when I opened the packet and am loving it already. It is a memoir, mostly about being old, and I think I am so going to like her, and will probably have to get her other books.

Then M and I are reading "Lost in a good book" by Jasper Fforde, which is just brilliant, but requires us both to be in the mood for reading. We are doing alternate chapters, and I rather like being read to, it is such a different process, and I love also the fact that we can discuss it was we go along and share all the jokes. His books really do defy genre definition and his sense of humour is both quirky and original.

Friday, 5 February 2010


Just to add for the record, not that we'll forget or anything, my daughter Tish has been offered an unconditional place at Manchester Metropolitan University (or MMU as we can affectionately refer to it now) to study Ecology and Conservation. She is very pleased with herself, I am very proud of her.
p.p.s. those are not her babies:-)

... and they all lived happily ever after.

Our copy of Pride and Prejudice was a freebie from the newspaper, but I think it says more about the ridiculous things papers will do for circulation than any merit or otherwise that the book might have. It is a strange process reading a book that you are very familiar with but have never read. I saw the BBC adaptation many years ago and we have watched our copy of the Keira Knightley film quite a few times, then my sister gave us a copy of the series 'Lost in Austen' which we really enjoyed, so the basic plot held no surprises. I do not think that I am going to become one of those people who reads this book over and over and extolls the delights of Jane Austen to passing strangers. I am kind of glad I read it, almost to 'tick it off the list' of books that one ought to have read, but I fail to see what all the fuss is about.

By the time I had got through the first 100 pages all I could think was that these women lead the most boring lives imaginable, and what possible interest was there in reading about these stifled artificial conversations and their petty narrow concerns. But I decided to persevere and as the story developed I did get to like some people a little more, and also saw a different side to other characters. Elizabeth I grew to like enormously. It was particularly the scene where she comes to understand Mr Darcy's motivations and to recognise her own prejudices and acknowledge to herself that she has misjudged him. It was one of the few places where you saw something subtle happening in the disclosure of character. Throughout the book Austen does not allow us to draw our own conclusions about her characters but tells us straightforwardly their defining characteristics, and most of them are unfortunately rather one dimensional. Mostly they have one way of behaving and reacting to situations, and they do so with tedious predictability. The person I saw quite differently was Mr Bennett. In the film he is viewed as affectionately distant but essentially good and kind, but you discover much more about him in the book. He had married a pretty but shallow woman and then discovered that she did not become the wife he hoped for and in essence he has come to despise her. I felt sad about this, because, although self centred and over-emotional, I did not see Mrs Bennett as a bad person, she is merely the ultimate product of her time and her upbringing. So basically Mr Bennett had failed his family by failing to provide properly for them (relying on the birth of a son that never happened to ensure they were cared for) and preferred to hide in his study than face up to the Lydia situation. The uncle deals with the whole thing on his behalf and he is just relieved that the whole thing is settled with so little inconvenience to himself. I found him to be weak and selfish. Mr Collins on the other hand is so thoroughly awful that you just love him for the pleasure of laughing at him. The scene where Elizabeth and Maria are trying to leave after their visit was just ridiculous. It takes two pages to get out of the door and into the carriage because he is talking so much. He is like a symbol of everything that is tedious about the book, the endless polite exchanges and expression of thanks and regret and admiration and humility .... I just wanted to scream some of the time, I am so glad I live in the 20th century. Tish defined her style most succinctly earlier when she said that she writes a lot but says very little. I sped through the second half of the book as I did finally get engaged with the narrative disclosure. It is rather like watching 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' or 'Love Actually', they are fun to watch precisely because you know what is coming next and the familiarity of the exchanges and the characters is rather like chatting with a close friend. I can see why people might read this book again and again ... it's just not going to be me.

I guess the book is very much a product of it's era. Jane Austen was writing about the position of women and their lack of financial independence or material security, but I really felt that she was just documenting it rather than trying to make some point about what a bad situation this was and how there needed to be some kind of social change. (Just been looking up) Mary Wollstonecraft's treatise 'A Vindication of the Rights of Woman' was published in 1792 but I am not sure how widely read it was amongst educated women of the period (Austen lived 1775 to 1817) and whether it influences the way women viewed their position in society. I confess I am much more keen on George Eliot who (although a little later in the 19th century) wrote much more about ordinary people with concerns beyond money and marriage, and is interesting in terms of social history. The world of the landed gentry is just so introverted and shallow, cut off from the reality of ordinary people's lives. Nobody in the book ever does a stroke of real work, in fact Mrs Bennett is adamant that her daughters do not need to do any cooking. I was just plain irritated by the lot of them, and she probably set back the cause of feminism by a century. I may go through it again, if only to help M pick holes in it for her exam.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

More from the Orange Prize

Property by Valerie Martin was the Orange Prize winner in 2003. This is a very different book from any I have read recently. It is set nearly 200 years ago in the south of America. The 'Property' referred to in the title is, of course, human beings. This made it quite hard to read, from a political point of view, as the author very convincingly writes from the perspective of her protagonist, Manon Gaudet, a young, unhappily married woman, who's husband runs a sugar plantation.

Within two pages I found myself cringing as Manon describes her covert observations of her husband's treatment of a group of young boys. She passes no judgement and appears quite dispassionate about their situation and possible fate. Her hopes for a happy and prosperous marriage has been tainted by her husband's financial mismanagement and his 'relationship' with her slave Sarah, by whom he has had two children. It is this strange contradictory feeling that she has towards Sarah, despising her but also in a way feeling belittled by her husband's all too obvious preference, that seems to dominate her thinking. In the background of her personal hell is the developing threat of a slave uprising, tales of escapes and the ever present fear of violence. But mostly the book has a very claustrophobic atmosphere, hardly venturing outside the closed world of her domestic concerns. The boy Walter, Sarah's son, is like a wild creature, without communication (it turns out he is deaf) and out of control. He is an ever present reminder of everything that is wrong in her life.

An epidemic of yellow fever and cholera is sweeping the locality and on hearing that her mother is ill Manon leaves for New Orleans to take care of her, taking Sarah with her, though mostly to punish her husband. The mother promptly dies but Manon is reluctant to return to her marital home. She discovers that she will inherit some small income, but despairs because she knows that her husband with have the right to control and dispose of it to his own benefit. This understanding, whilst not challenged in her mind (she has no notion of the idea that women might have property rights of their own) creates new resentments and, on hearing of a woman who has successfully divorced and kept her own property, new desires. However, this is not a story about a feminist awakening and she is much more wrapped up in her concerns about Sarah and a mysterious man she sees one night watching the house.

So she is obliged to return to the plantation and then the worst happens. News circulates about a gang of escaped slaves, and whilst preparing to protect themselves against possible attack the family are caught out, her husband is murdered and Manon herself is shot and then escapes into the marsh. Sarah meanwhile takes the husband's horse and absconds herself, taking her young baby with her. Manon's aunt arrives to care for her while she recovers and the slaves are rounded up and mostly hung by the militia. So, in spite of the huge trauma and her debilitating injury, Manon has got her wish, freedom from her unhappy marriage, but instead of relishing her new found liberty she becomes obsessed with recovering the escaped Sarah. It turns out that with the help of a free Negro who had previously wanted to buy her (and presumably free her and then marry her) she has travelled in disguise as far as New York, where the bounty hunter is obliged to kidnap her from the people aiming to get her on a boat to Europe.

This is a book about slavery. It is a story that gets right inside the experience of a young woman, sees her life without passing opinion on the rights or wrongs of the society she lives in. Although I found it hard to begin with after a while I stopped passing judgement on their society and just read the story for what it would tell me about this woman's experience. I think that the way people thought about their slaves is very different from the racism that came later. The book was obviously well researched and the author worked very hard to show something of the relationship between slave owners and their slaves. When you watch Manon with her slaves, it is not as if she thinks of them as lesser people than herself, it is more that she barely thinks of them at all. She does not consider that they have thoughts or feelings or wishes of their own. They are more like part of the furniture, or 'property' as the title says.

"The cholera has carried off over one hundred people this week, many of them negroes, at great expense to the community." (p.71)

It says something about how well the book is written that you begin to understand something of the mindset of these people. What you do get a sense of is how completely dependent they were on their slaves. Manon is utterly without skill, and utterly without occupation, appears to actually do very little. There is an interesting contrast between Sarah, who plainly desired her freedom and despised her owners, and Peek, the mother's cook, who seeks out new owners for herself after the mother dies, as she knows that Manon will not wish to keep her, and it is in her interests to find a decent situation rather than being sold and ending up with someone abusive.

(spoiler warning)
I am going to quote the final part of the book, because it captures the essence of what it is all about. Sarah has been returned and has sullenly returned to her duties but the uncle rightly points out that she has been totally changed by what has been quite an extensive experience of real freedom, and being treated by people she encountered in the north as an equal human being. she has had her eyes opened to the reality of life having other possible outcomes. She describes to Manon how she was served with tea by the people who helped her:

"I considered this image of Sarah. She was dressed in borrowed clothes, sitting stiffly at a bare wooden table while a colourless Yankee woman, her thin hair pulled into a tight bun, served her tea in a china cup. The righteous husband fetched a cushion to make their guest more comfortable. It struck me as perfectly ridiculous. What on earth did they think they were doing?" (p.209)

This story is set in 1828, quite some time before the Civil War and the subsequent emancipation of the slaves in 1865, and on reflection I think that the transformation of political and social opinions over that period is quite astounding if this book gives just an inkling of what the abolitionists were up against. This book does not try and say anything about the slaves' experience, that would be quite a different story, but it was certainly a very enlightening read. Highly recommended.


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