Wednesday 30 June 2010

Work Winge of the Week 4: Customers

I know, I know, I have already winged about customers once before, and I'm sure this won't be the last time either.

Having a crappy few weeks doing too much overtime (crappy apart from the extra money that is). People going sick is my other work winge of the day but I'll try not to be too judgemental (except that person who skived the day of the football match last week!). Anyway I was being Guy again this afternoon, after having 'been Mike' all morning, and it was half past two and I was nearly finished when I called at Fox Farm house and this b****y woman comes out and tells me that they leave post 'to go' in their box and that I had forgotten to pick a couple up and she had been obliged to take them herself. By this time I was pretty hot and tired and when I get some 'I'm so rich my house is in the middle of nowhere' woman implying I am not doing my job properly it was the straw that broke the camel's back. So I rather-less-than-politely told her that we do not run a private collection service in this country and it is at the discretion of the postman whether he takes your letters for you (something I am more than happy to do for the elderly or housebound or people who live in the middle of nowhere). And I drove away absolutely fuming, but also fuming because I am never rude to customers so I was annoyed at myself for being rude and annoyed at her for being so officious that I felt like being rude.
Rant over.

Tuesday 29 June 2010

To The Wedding

To The Wedding by John Berger. I bought this book some time ago after reading 'From A to X' early on last year and I have been looking forward to reading it, but confess I was a little disappointed after how much I had enjoyed the previous book.

The story is about Ninon, who has found she has HIV, and about Gino, who decides he loves her so much that he will not allow it to come between them. It is also about Ninon's estranged parents, who are making their separate ways across Europe to attend their wedding. Maybe reading it in this hot weather affected how closely I was paying attention but I found it very difficult to follow. The story is narrated by a blind Greek man who sells 'tamata', some kind of quasi religious/superstitious talismans, who meets Ninon and her father briefly in the market, but he has a kind of god-like omniscience as he watches and relates to the reader the events and the thoughts of the various characters. The story jumps back and forth in time, telling the background of Ninon's childhood, and also jumps from person to person without preamble or indication, frequently leaving me not knowing who was speaking or when it was supposed to be happening.

I found it quite a sad story, because the parents are both much more wrapped up in the thought of losing their daughter than the idea of a celebration. This is the scene when they meet each other at the quayside, having not met for some years:
"Jean Ferrero and Zdena Holecek spotted each other before the ship was tied up, but they didn't wave. She came down the gangplank and walked across the paving stones to where he was standing beside his bike, by a white bridge which is like the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, except that it is not roofed. He has taken off his helmet.
They look into one another's eyes and, seeing the same pain, fall forward into each other's arms.
Jean! And her voice, so helplessly expressive, carries his name across the entire continent.
Zdena! he whispers." (p.170)

We watch as Ninon goes through her anger and frustration at what has happened to her, until, after she accepts that Gino still wants to be with her, she decides to celebrate what is left of her life with relish. The description of the wedding itself it wonderful, it is an event that really draws the family and community together. Here they are when the dancing starts:
"Soon other couples join them. the music is loud. It bring the village to the square. The waiters serve wine. Federico is organising a game of leapfrog on the grass for the youngest kids. The sun is low in the west, and more and more people dance on the deck: a platform of planks which has been laid on the square in front of the band so that the dancing floor is level. The boards were borrowed from the fish market in Comacchio. there are many spectators, including a man in a wheelchair. Only when Gino and Ninon are lost in the crowd does the music come close to them." (p.193)

I think 'From A to X' was such a good book because it focussed so closely on one character, where this book tries to do too much, and I did not feel I got to know Ninon very much and so was not really wrapped up in the love story side. The people you really come to know are her parents as you watch them both on their lengthy journeys, seeing how they behave with the people they encounter along the way. Zdena in particular develops a bond of friendship with a man on the coach, to whom she confides practically her whole life story. The process of talking to him helps her see her own situation and grief over Ninon more clearly:

"It's hard, he says. We're living on the brink, and it's hard because we've lost the habit. Once everybody, old and young, rich and poor, took it for granted. Life was painful and precarious. Chance was cruel. ...
For two centuries we've believed in history as a highway which was taking us to a future such as nobody had ever known before. We thought we were exempt. ... We forgave the past its terrors because they occurred in the Dark Ages. Now, suddenly we find ourselves far from the highway, perched like puffins on a cliff ledge in the dark." (p.148-9)

This was the only quote I made a note of because I loved this idea of puffins on a cliff ledge in the dark. So many people, even good writers, when they write, use rehashed metaphors, tired old ones, but this is so imaginative and gives such a wonderful sense of vulnerability, of having to step into the unknown. This is what makes it such a good book. I still think (as I did last year) that I will seek out more of his books.

Work Perk of the week: the summer lull

Maybe it's the whole holiday season, who knows, but our business is very quiet over the summer months, no catalogues, not even much junk, so today was happy to get home at 12.20pm, having taken a mere three and a half hours to finish my delivery. So am looking forward to a few more weeks like this .... and then when it all perks up again at the beginning of September (which it does very abruptly) I am taking the week off then:-)
Lovely photo courtesy of Dunk, used totally without asking, but I'm sure he will let me off.

Monday 21 June 2010

Wedding Day

This evening my dad sent this lovely photograph. It was taken the day of my parents wedding, and shows my paternal grandmother (known as Nanny), my mum (in the middle) and auntie Helen (married to uncle Dennis but she sadly died of multiple sclerosis back in 1985). I am not sure if it was taken before or after the actual wedding, which took place on 31st May 1958. Mum looks so young and so lovely, it made me smile.

Lives of Others

I put 'The Lives of Others' on the Lovefilm list ages ago, and as usual had forgotten why I thought it was interesting or even what the story was. It turned out to be in German (took us a while to get the subtitles on) and set in East Germany a few years prior to the fall of the Berlin wall. It follows the tale of a member of the secret police who is charged with surveillance of a popular playwright and his actress girlfriend. The man starts off as a hard line party man but as he observes them he becomes more and more sympathetic to their efforts to hold on to a sense of integrity in the face of state control of all aspects of people's lives. And as he changes I found myself becoming more sympathetic to him too. It wasn't that he changed his attitudes but that he came to understand that an alternative viewpoint was not necessarily a damaging thing. Although it was quite hard work to watch it was very interesting in terms of the picture it portrays of eastern europe and the political oppression that was so invasive. Dreyman, the playwright, struggles with the balancing act of what he is permitted to write and to support his friend who has been blacklisted, while his girlfriend Christa-Maria has to tussle (quite literally) with the unwelcome attentions of a senior politician who can end her career with a word. The film is a good balance between the human drama and the political situation, and the impossible decisions such an environment puts on people. It ends with the fall of the wall and the changed fortunes of all the characters, and the politician points out to the playwright how hard it is to write when you have nothing to rebel against.

It made me reflect on the only occasion that I visited East Germany, coincidentally in 1984 when the film is set. I went with my college course and we were only visitors so did not really have any contact with local people. My impression was one of the distinct contrast between West and East Berlin, but that East Berlin was very clean and tidy, no rubbish in the streets or grafitti, very few cars, well kept blocks of flats contrasting with piles of rubble that remained from WW2 bombing, and long queues of people waiting to buy newspapers. I always felt it had been an important experience to go the 'the east', it was somewhere viewed during that period with suspicion and fear, and in reality it was quite ordinary. The film gave me a view of an aspect that you can't see on the surface, but that whatever role people might have had in the system they were still human beings.

Friday 18 June 2010

What is the What?

What is the What by Dave Eggers.
I encountered Dave Eggers first book, 'A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius' and was drawn to read it via an article in the Sunday paper, where it described an encounter with a whale when out canoeing with friends. I always admired the audaciousness of the title and it certainly lived up to the claim. This book however is quite a strange book, because it is strictly an autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, but written by Dave Eggers, because unlike a biography it is written in the first person, in the voice of Valentino, you never feel as you read as if it is written by someone else.

Valentino is one of the 'Lost Boys' of the Sudanese civil war and this book tells his incredible story of escape and survival and eventual relocation to America. It is told as if he were talking to the people he encounters during a particularly bad day. In the opening scene he opens his door to find people intent on robbing him. They proceed to beat him and tie him up, take all his stuff and leave him to his fate. When his friend finally finds him they proceed to encounter the worst of US police and medical care, but these experiences are put in poignant contrast to the experiences of his earlier life which he relates to us over the course of this day.

He lived as a young child a secure and happy life until the war arrives in his village, at which point he quite literally runs away. Along the way he meets many other boys also fleeing, both the government army and the SPLA, who are likely to recruit them and force them to fight. They end up with a huge gang who together trek for some months across southern Sudan and into Ethiopia. They go through unimaginable hardship, hunger and endurance, it is incredible how any of them survived at all. Many die of hunger and exhaustion, some are killed by wild animals in the forest, a cause of much fear among the group. Sometimes they are helped along the way by villagers, often they have to hide as the violence catches up with them. They almost become immune to the suffering, watching each other die, accepting it as inevitable, almost welcoming it for themselves as the whole experience threatens to overwhelm. Here Valentino describes the death of his friend:

"I had known William K since he was a baby. Our mothers had placed us in the same bed as infants. We knew each other as we learned to walk and speak. I could not remember more than a handful of those days that we had not been together, that I had not run with William K. We were simply friends who lived in a village together and expected to always be boys and friends in our village. But in these past months, we had travelled so far from our families, and we had no homes, and we had become so weak and no longer looked as we had before. And now William K's life had ended and his body lay at my feet." (p.217)

They spend some time in a refugee camp in Ethiopia until tension with the locals causes them to be driven out and they then end up in Kenya, in another camp called Kakuma, where he then lives for over ten years. But life there was merely existing, with a sense of impermanence, always waiting to be able to return home.

"What was life in Kakuma? Was it life? There was debate about this. On the one hand, we were alive, which meant that we were living a life, that we were eating and could enjoy friendship and learning and could love. But we were nowhere. Kakuma was nowhere. Kakuma was, we were told, the Kenyan word for nowhere. No matter the meaning of the word, the place was not a place. It was a kind of purgatory, more so than Pinyudo, which at least had a constant river, and in other ways resembled the southern Sudan we had left. But Kakuma was hotter, windier, far more arid. There was little in the way of grass or trees in that land, there were no forests to scavenge for materials; there was nothing for miles, it seemed, so we became dependent on the UN for everything." (p.373-4)

Partly his story is the story of Sudan, and an experience he shared with so many thousands of other refugees, but it is also his personal story. He falls in love with a young woman called Tabitha, and he describes the convolutions of trying to have a relationship that is not really approved of, with an uncertain future and nothing to offer, where there are strict rules about the behaviour of young people together. I loved the part where they discover that celebrating sporting achievement is considered acceptable for expressing affection:

"In any culture, there are certain loopholes that can be exploited by hormonally desperate teenagers, and at Kakuma we realised that under the auspices of the girls cheering us on, giving congratulatory hugs after a winning point was somehow acceptable.
... So this is how I first held Tabitha. She had not done this cheering and hugging before, but she took to it immediately and well. The first time I spiked a winning shot past the face of a certain overconfident Somali, Tabitha cheered as if she might explode, and came running over to me, jumping and hugging me with abandon. No one took notice, though Tabitha and I savored those jumping and hugging moments as if they were sacred honeymoon hours." (p.444)

Valentino's story is very simply told, and although quite harrowing in places what I learned from it most was about his own culture and how utterly different it is. We live on the same planet, have the same basic physical needs, form bonds of friendship with others and yet his life experience, his expectations and attitudes, his understanding of the world, was so totally foreign. And he felt it too, he is very aware of how alien the culture is in America and is constantly reminded of how different he is. Here he describes a feeling of being useless because he does not understand how the world works in America, even after a couple of years there:

"Achor Achor chose poorly when he chose me. Yes, there are far worse men, young Sudanese who enjoyed themselves too much, who involved themselves in any mess a young man can find, and I am not that, and neither is Achor Achor. But I have not bought him good fortune. As we sit I find it difficult to look at him. We have known each other for too long, and being with him here is perhaps the saddest of all the situations in which we have found ourselves. We are pathetic, I decide. He is still working in a furniture store, and I am attending three remedial classes at community college. Are we the future of Sudan? This seems unlikely. Not with the way we attract trouble, not with how often we are victims of calamity. We bring it upon ourselves. Our peripheral vision is poor I think; in the US, we do not see trouble coming." (p.236)

This is a very, very long book, and I only finished it by skim reading parts that were long and repetitive. The description of their journey and the time in the camps was often not adding anything to the story. But he is such an engaging character that you are drawn in by his resilience and ability to pick himself up again after each blow that would crush a lesser man. What really strikes is what a small world he lives in as a child. He has no idea what 'Ethiopia' is and only the vaguest notion of his own country, his known world hardly extends beyond his village. And yet he launches himself into the unknown and survives. And he continues to identify with Sudan and is always determined to return to help rebuild his country. His efforts to get an education in the US is motivated not by self-interest but by what he can contribute back to his country.
The profits from this book go to the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation (you can donate money through the website) which is working to provide educational opportunities in southern Sudan and has built it's first school in the village of Marial Bai, Valentino's home village. The politics of the area seem to be long and convoluted, based on both tribal and religious differences. It is a part of the world that continues to suffer, mainly of course because of external political interference due to oil reserves that the government in Khartoum does not want the south to benefit from. The book does not dwell on the causes or process of the war but remains focussed on the experience of the displaced people and their hopes for the future. He does acknowledge that their time in the camps does create a culture of dependency amongst the refugees, but at the same time they have created their own community and network of support between the young people who have been settled in the US. Valentino himself has become an advocate for his country and community, he travelled throughout the US speaking about his experience to raise knowledge and understanding of the situation in Sudan.

So, what is the what? We don't find out. It comes from a story that we hear from Valentino's father, about the creation of the world: god offers man a cow, and man sees that it will provide him with everything he needs to survive (cows are very highly valued in Sudan) but then god offers him 'the What' instead, something that might be even better than the cow, but man decides to take the cow, and the moral of the tale is that god was tempting man to see if he saw the value of god's gift and appreciated it. The children speculate endlessly about what 'the what' might be. I like it as the title of the book because it speaks volumes about their culture and values. This book definitely filled a gap in my knowledge, an important story, the real life side of a tale that has not been very well told by news broadcasts or charity appeals.

Thursday 17 June 2010

Fleece update and Guerilla Art

The fleece had a total of five baths in the end, there are still some grubby bits but the felting process involves lots of soap and hot water so I am thinking that it will be clean enough by the time I have finished.
The other book I have been browsing recently is 'The Guerilla Art Kit' by Keri Smith (website link, or blog link). Her ideas are kind of the antithesis of vandalism, they are about putting something beautiful or thought provoking in a public place to try and get a response from people. She is very interested in getting people to express their creativity and share it with others, to help people see that anyone can create things, you don't have to be especially talented or clever. The book has all sorts of interesting ideas for how to go about making your mark.
I had been following her blog for a while and was interested after reading about 'yarn bombing', putting knitting in public spaces to decorate them. Anyway, all very interesting stuff. It is also 'Knit in Public Week' this week, aimed at raising the profile of the craft of knitting (and crochet too), to change it's image from the idea that it is something done by elderly ladies who are a bit scatty and make tea-cosies (though one day I intend to be a bit scatty and will probably knit a few of those).

Monday 14 June 2010

Belated Birthday present

I dithered about what do make with my piece of garden felt and then decided to make a gift for my lovely friend Julie, and cut it up to make a knitting bag for her, using the edging to make handles.
From this:
into this:

Thursday 10 June 2010

Step into the kitchen ...

... because it smells a bit sheepish in the rest of the house.
Dunk and I dropped M at her raft building yesterday afternoon at South Cerney Outdoor and drove on down to the lovely village of Leighterton to call on a lovely lady called Jennifer, who's neighbour has a small organic farm, and picked up this wonderful organic Dorset fleece. It is straight off the sheep (and I know we should have snapped a photo of them while we were there) so this afternoon it has gone in a tub of hot water, the first of several I expect. Though it was surprisingly clean there is a definite sheepy scent to the house at the moment. I will add progress posts over the next day or so as this is the first time I have processed a fleece from scratch and it will be a steep learning curve.

Monday 7 June 2010

overnight felt

I start out with good intentions but as usual I loose my way. And maybe 8pm on a Saturday night is not the best time to start a project, but it was a warm evening and there was no breeze so I laid this 'thing' out in the garden. It was supposed to be a long, thin, soft shawl thing, with a random pattern created from pre-felt pieces. It started out 200cm long by about 60cm wide.
I rolled it on the garden table for a while then worried that it would be too thin and have bare patches so I added what I hoped was a 'wispy' layer of undyed roving over the top. By then it was 10pm and getting dark and chilly so I left it outside overnight.
After cleaning the house all morning I came back to it, unwrapped, squeezed out and added fresh hot water, and rolled and rubbed for about another hour. All in all not very satisfactory. The design is very vague (though you can see it from both sides), the edging probably needs more work as it has not shrunk as much as the centre (both parts are Merino, though some of the pre-felt is Corriedale) and it is not really long enough to be a wrap, and too thick to be a scarf and doesn't lie flat enough to use as a cover for Trixie's vivarium. So it will probably go into the pile of 'very pretty but not much use for anything' felt.

Sunday 6 June 2010

Poetry to clean the house by

I have been reading on and off for the last couple of weeks Earth Shattering, Ecopoems edited by Neil Astley (Bloodaxe Books). I tend to like anthologies because you get such an interesting variety of writing styles. This is quite a poetry lover's book, lots of introductory information and then quite detailed biographical information about each poet. These are scattered through the book alongside one or other of their poems so you don't have to look them up in the back (which is where they are often relegated) and I was much more likely to read them than I might otherwise have been. So, as you might assume from the title, this is a collection of poems about ecology, in the broadest sense possible of the word. They vary from 'nature appreciation' type poems to political protest poems to those mourning the destruction of our planet.

It is quite impossible to give you any real idea of the scope of this book but I did manage to choose one that gave to me an overview of the situation. I was tempted by Gerard Manley Hopkins 'Binsey Poplars', which I am very fond of, unusually for me because I am not that keen on 'old' poetry but I think it has everything that a great poem should have, and you can really feel how much it mattered to him (it was written to commemorate when they were felled in 1879).

Instead I went for something much more modern, entitled 'Dinosauria, we' by Charles Bukowski. It pulls no punches. And I loved this description of him, it made me strangely sympathetic to him: "Foul-mouthed and potbellied, ravaged by self-neglect and alcohol, with a huge misshapen head, matted hair and lump, pitted, porridge-coloured skin, he looked in his prime like something risen from the dead."

Dinosauria, we

Born like this
Into this
As the chalk faces smile
As Mrs. Death laughs
As the elevators break
As political landscapes dissolve
As the supermarket bag boy holds a college degree
As the oily fish spit out their oily prey
As the sun is masked
We are
Born like this
Into this
Into these carefully mad wars
Into the sight of broken factory windows of emptiness
Into bars where people no longer speak to each other
Into fist fights that end as shootings and knifings
Born into this
Into hospitals which are so expensive that it’s cheaper to die
Into lawyers who charge so much it’s cheaper to plead guilty
Into a country where the jails are full and the madhouses closed
Into a place where the masses elevate fools into rich heroes
Born into this
Walking and living through this
Dying because of this
Muted because of this
Because of this
Fooled by this
Used by this
Pissed on by this
Made crazy and sick by this
Made violent
Made inhuman
By this
The heart is blackened
The fingers reach for the throat
The gun
The knife
The bomb
The fingers reach toward an unresponsive god
The fingers reach for the bottle
The pill
The powder
We are born into this sorrowful deadliness
We are born into a government 60 years in debt
That soon will be unable to even pay the interest on that debt
And the banks will burn
Money will be useless
There will be open and unpunished murder in the streets
It will be guns and roving mobs
Land will be useless
Food will become a diminishing return
Nuclear power will be taken over by the many
Explosions will continually shake the earth
Radiated robot men will stalk each other
The rich and the chosen will watch from space platforms
Dante’s Inferno will be made to look like a children’s playground
The sun will not be seen and it will always be night
Trees will die
All vegetation will die
Radiated men will eat the flesh of radiated men
The sea will be poisoned
The lakes and rivers will vanish
Rain will be the new gold
The rotting bodies of men and animals will stink in the dark wind
The last few survivors will be overtaken by new and hideous diseases
And the space platforms will be destroyed by attrition
The petering out of supplies
The natural effect of general decay
And there will be the most beautiful silence never heard
Born out of that.
The sun still hidden there
Awaiting the next chapter.

Saturday 5 June 2010

Work Perk of the week: bubble wrap

Driving round an empty business park on a Saturday morning doesn't have much to recommend it .... but then I came across some empty packaging outside one of the units, piled up with huge sheets of bubble wrap. I had been thinking for a while that I was going to have to actually buy some new, and here was just what I needed that someone else had thrown away.
Here it is stretched out on the lawn ... I was having fantasies about a felted stair carpet but that's just silly. And coincidentally someone on our local home educators e-mail list is giving away fleeces so something more ambitious is definitely in the pipeline.