Sunday 29 August 2010


Free: Adventures on the margins of a wasteful society by Katherine Hibbert.
I read about this book on another blog and requested it from the library. Basically it does exactly what it says on the tin. Ms Hibbert leaves her job as a journalist, packs up her possessions and walks off with just a rucksack of clothes and £20 (for emergencies) with the aim of spending a year living without money (and, one assumes, with the intention of writing a book about it). It is the story of how she spent a year squatting in derelict houses, eating out of skips and bins, living off the things that other people threw away. It is apparently not that remarkable a tale, since thousands of people live like this around the country, not included in the homeless figures and mistrusted by a society that doesn't like people on the 'outside'.

What is most interesting about the book is not so much her own adventures as the opportunity she takes to expound about the social/political/economic problems that her decision highlights: the vast quantity of disused housing alongside the homeless problem; the wastefulness of our food distribution and supermarket system; society's shift towards consumer items being disposable rather than designed for long term use. What she discovers is not a bunch of shiftless dropouts and drug addicts but a real supportive, politically active community of people who have created their own niche on the margins of society. They cooperate extensively since taking possession of an empty building requires quite a group of people. To occupy 'legally' you must 'enter' without 'breaking', then secure the building from the inside and it must remain occupied at all times. The legal owner cannot then remove you from it by force they must apply for a possession order through the courts to get you evicted. What people frequently found was that they would be ignored for months at a time because there was no urgent need to empty the building, and some groups of squatters would make agreements with owners that they could occupy the house undisturbed if they undertook to live quietly and peacefully and leave promptly without need for eviction when the owner was ready to renovate or demolish. The squatters also freely share their collected food, their skills and other resources. There are community gardens, arts and performance collectives and an advice centre run by volunteers. Some people have jobs but many live by recycling items they retrieve from skips.

The book occasionally became a repetitive diatribe against the wastefulness of our society but on the whole it was an interesting read. As someone who shops almost entirely from charity shops and ebay I am not averse to the idea of using stuff that other people want rid of, and I can see the appeal of a life without the need for paid employment. She discovered a whole new way of life that did not revolve around spending money, but on just 'needing' less, making do and enjoying things that were free. She did not acquire many possessions, there was no point getting attached to things that you might loose, though things lost were soon replaced via their regular haunts. It really did seem to change her attitude to money because when she made some money selling skipped items and it was then stolen her reaction was quite philosophical and she did not dwell on the loss or seem to feel angry about it. What I found though was that she underplayed the sense of uncertainty, that your home was never really your home, and it could be gone, repossessed and boarded up, when you get home from 'skipping' one evening just when you thought everything was going fine. It would not be something you take on lightly, although many of the people squatting were students or migrant workers (trying to live cheap and send money home to family), almost all were young and without responsibilities. The issue of having a secure home is a vital one and this is an interesting alternative view of the situation.

My brother Giles lived in a squat in London after he left home as a teenager (I remember when my parents visited once they were horrified to find there were no floorboards in the downstairs rooms). With other people they set up a kind of housing cooperative, the buildings were repaired and eventually 'legalised' and they paid a peppercorn rent to the local council for many years. I stayed with him there once a dozen years ago. The low rent allowed him to get together some savings that eventually got him onto the housing ladder, and him and his partner Cynthia and their three lovely kids now live in a large four bedroom victorian terrace he has mostly renovated himself. I think that this way of life could only ever be a stopgap, a means of living cheaply when you need to, or even as this author set out to, to make a political point, but society is very antagonistic to people who make unconventional choices, the rules are designed to make life very difficult for them. Thought provoking ... but not for me:-)

It's duvet time again

The second of my baby birds is flying the nest next week so the bank holiday weekend has been well spent making a duvet cover for Tish. It has a central panel of red satin embroidered and decorated with sequins (it comes like this, I do not do all that embroidery!), edged with a patchwork of velvet and a thinner border of shot pink satin ... so she will be cosy and fabulous at the same time.
We trawled the charity shops yesterday and came home with two nice cookery books, one on pasta sauces and one from the 'Ready Steady Cook' programme, and a yoga book, as well as a collapsable washing basket. Tish herself spent today clearing out 'under the bed', a very scary process (fortunately she didn't find anything dead), and has filled the recycle bin with her college notes.
Dunk made us a delicious banana cake, which has kept me going while I sewed, and has worked on the short film he made of our jam making process. It is finally up on his blog, so you can pop here and see how it is done. He is a bit of a perfectionist and tends to tinker with his projects indefinitely and resists putting them up for others to see. He did a brilliant one of the process of making bread but refuses to upload it claiming it is not finished.

Wednesday 25 August 2010

Day off adventure

Here are two intrepid explorers, feeling a little the worse for wear as we waited damply for the train home this afternoon. We don't get coinciding days off very frequently and I had dropped a few hints about spending the day together ... so we did. In the spirit of adventure we got on the first train that arrived and landed in Oxford, where we had pie and mash for lunch in the covered market, spent some time perusing the extensive poetry section in Blackwells and then called at the Museum of the History of Science and visited the 'Pleasures and Sorrows of Work' exhibition, based around a book by the same name by Alain de Botton:

"An exploration of the joys and perils of the modern workplace, the book beautifully evokes what people get up to all day - and night - to make the frenzied contemporary world function."

There is also an interesting video here where he talks about his book. All round very interesting and I would highly recommend it if you happen to be in the area.
If you pop over to Dunk's Blog there are other, slightly more 'arty farty' photos from our trip:-)

Tuesday 24 August 2010

Carol Ann Duffy

I am having trouble settling to things at the moment so I have been dipping in and out of a pile of books by the bedside. I have been reading 'The Behaviour of Moths' by Poppy Adams, but very slowly, even though it seems like a good book and the characters are quite engaging. But mainly I have been reading Carol Ann Duffy, and wanted to share a few thoughts before they disappear into the quagmire that is my brain at the moment.

You would have to consider 'Feminine Gospels' a feminist poetry book. It chronicles the experience of women in all it's guises, from witty commentaries on modern existence like 'The woman who shopped' and 'The diet' to the more allegorical 'The map woman'. The one that I really loved from this collection however was 'The laughter of Stafford Girls' High'. This is a 20 page poem that reads more like a short story. It starts with a scribbled note that causes some amusement, that then spreads, first throughout the class and then throughout the entire school, until all the pupils are laughing uncontrollably.

"Five minutes passed in a cauldron of noise.
no one could seem to stop. Each tried holding
her breath or thinking of death or pinching
her thigh, only to catch the eye of a pal,
a crimson, shaking, silent girl, and explode
through the nose in a cackling sneeze."

Despite the stern admonishment of the Head this situation continues for the remainder of the term, with teachers struggling to give what appear to be terribly tedious lessons while their pupils giggle and snigger around them. It is like the ultimate case of mass hysteria, which allows the girls to express their latent, long-represed rebellion:

"... and Diana Kim,
Captain of Sports, jumped on a chair and declared
that if J.J. was no longer Head Girl then no one
would take her place. All for one! someone yelled. And one
for all! Diana Kim opened the window and jumped down
into the snow. With a shriek, Emmeline Belle jumped after her,
followed by cackling Anthea Meg, Melanie Hope, Andrea Lyn,
J.J. herself"

I liked the way the girls all have two names, it makes it feel slightly dated in an 'Enid Blyton' kind of way. We watch as the entire school begins to disintegrate.
This strange new situation and the breakdown of discipline has some surprising repercussions amongst the staff, and their stories are taken up, describing the effect of the laughter on their private lives. This also dates the story as many of the staff seem to be unmarried women. Miss Batt and Miss Fife have been sharing dinner and piano music together for some years, but suddenly:

"... A broken A minor chord stumbled
and died. Miss Fife said that Ludwig could only
have written this piece when he was in love. Miss Batt
pulled Miss Fife by the hair, turning her face around, hearing
her gasp, bending down, kissing her, kissing her, kissing her.
Essays on Cardinal Wolsey lay unmarked on the floor."

Dr Bream, the Head, appears to go crazy, Miss Dunn runs off to climb Everest, Miss Nadimbaba writes poetry and Mrs Mackay just walks away. Thus is the scene at the final assembly:

"And so, Doctor Bream summed up, you girls have laughed this once
great school into the ground. Senora Devises plans to return
to Spain. Cries of iOle! Miss Batt and Miss Fife have resigned.
Wolf whistles. Mrs Prendergast is joining the Theatre Royale.
A round of applause crashed on the boards like surf. The Head stared
at the laughing girls then turned and marched from the stage,
clipped down the polished corridor, banged through the double doors,
crunched down the gravel drive to the Staff Car Park and into her car.
Elvis, shrieked Caroline Joan from the Hall, has left the building."

'The World's Wife' is from 1999 and is another collection about the lives of women. This one has a very strong theme in that all the poems are about 'woman behind the man', telling the story of what it might have been like to live in the shadow of some renown character, or giving a woman's perspective on some of the crap that men seem to have got away with over the centuries. Some of the poems are quite esoteric, I could not tell you what Tiresias or Eurydice are known for, and often assume a knowledge of myths and legends, Mrs Midas and Mrs Sisyphus for example. Only a few are about 'real' people, Mrs Darwin, Anne Hathaway, Queen Herod. 'Mrs Quasimodo' was very sad, who's love for the deformed hunchback is betrayed when he falls for Esmerelda:

"Something had changed,
or never been.
Soon enough
he started to find fault.
Why did I this?
How could I that?
Look at myself.
And in that summer's dregs,
I'd see him
watch the pin-up gypsy
posing with the tourists in the square:
then turn his discontented, mulish eye on me
with no more love than stone."

In the end she gets her own back and destroys his beloved bells:

"I sawed and pulled and hacked.
I wanted silence back.
Get this:
When I was done,
and bloody to the wrist,
I squatted down among the murdered music of the bells
and pissed."

They are all interesting stories, with a wide variety of styles, but always very accessible and with her lovely turns of phrase and use of vocabulary. I think the appeal of the book is the cleverness of the tales, twisting what you think you know and seeing it from another angle, but still great poems, not sacrificing the poetry to the story. Will finish with one that tickled my fancy:-)

Mrs Rip Van Winkle
I sank like a stone
into the still, deep waters of late middle age,
aching from head to foot.

I took up food
and gave up exercise.
It did me good.

And while he slept
I found some hobbies for myself.
Painting. Seeing the sights I'd always dreamed about:

The Leaning Tower.
The Pyramids. The Taj Mahal.
I made a little watercolour of them all.

But what was best,
what hands-down beat the rest,
was saying a none-too-fond farewell to sex.

Until the day
I came home with this pastel of Niagara
And he was sitting up in bed rattling Viagra.

Monday 23 August 2010

New baby:-)

Here I am after work today cradling my new baby. My big baby (aka Tish) is off to university in two weeks and is expecting to take the decent laptop with her (for a price says I) so I have invested in a 'new' (reconditioned from the Apple store) Macbook with a brilliant magnetic power cable and fancy new trackpad that scrolls and zooms and moves windows around. So everyone has to keep their sticky fingers off ... only I'm allowed to spill tea on it:-)

Wednesday 18 August 2010

ummm... jam

It's that time again ... though it seems a bit early to me, I think of late August being blackberry time. Tish and I visited my sis Claire over the weekend and we spent Sunday morning picking a few pounds of blackberries. I dug a couple of bags of apples from the freezer (been there since last autumn!) and started boiling it up last night. I decided it was rather late by the time they had cooked down so came home from work today and added the sugar. Now popular opinion is that you add same weight sugar to fruit, but I had found my jam a bit syrupy so the last few years I have cut the sugar content down a bit, so this batch had (approximately) 3 1/2 pounds blackberries, 3 pounds apple and 4 1/2 pounds (or actually 2kg) of sugar.
I scald the clean jars with boiling water then empty and put in a warm oven, and boil the lids for ten minutes (I have never had problems with any jam going mouldy). Put in the jars still hot, this ensures as it cools you get a good seal on the jars. I did not make any last year but discovered the last of my 2008 batch hidden on the top shelf only a few months ago, and it was yummy. Here we have 8 jars, but I think we might go out again at the weekend and get some more as I have to give some away to a few favoured friends and family.
Note to self: try and remember not to wear white when boiling up blackberries:-)

Tuesday 17 August 2010

The Quickening Maze

The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds was shortlisted for the Booker Prize last year and I have been reading it for my book group. It is the story of the poet John Clare, or a part of his story, based on time he spent in a mental asylum and shows the stages of disintegration of his identity alongside the story of other people around him, the family of the doctor in charge, other inmates and acquaintances. Although based on factual events there is some poetic licence in the telling of the story.
Why would someone write a book about a brief period in the life of a well loved but somewhat neglected poet? A strange subject matter. Maybe it is intriguing to consider the possible link between poetry and madness. Clare begins the book quite lucid but as time passes begins to imagine himself to be other people, from Byron to Robinson Crusoe, taking on their persona. He absconds and spends time at a gypsy encampment where he seems to feel most at ease. He obsesses over his lost family, his real wife Patty and his imagined wife, Mary, a childhood sweetheart. Some of the scenes at the asylum are quite disturbing, though no doubt common practice at the time. Also present in the story is Alfred Tennyson, not a resident but staying with his brother Septimus, but who also seems to sink into depression, self doubt and grief at the loss of his close friend. Both of them seem to have suffered at the hands of the critics and changes in public taste for poetry.

The doctor Matthew Allen and his family are the other main part of the story. His daughter Hannah becomes obsessed with Tennyson, is disillusioned, forms at attachment to another inmate and eventually accepts a proposal from a business friend of her father. I liked her because she was quite honest and open, obsessed with the idea of marriage, trying to follow her sister down the only escape route open to her. Living amongst the mentally ill was obviously a strange upbringing for her, and her father's reckless business ventures put further strain on the family through the story.

The book is beautifully written, very poetic in style, descriptive and also highly emotionally charged, lots of tension and upset between the characters. The historical setting is well researched, ideas about mental health, science, business and innovation, and then details about things like debtors prison and social etiquette, and the difference in the lives of ordinary people from the more privileged. The scenes of madness and delusion are very dramatic and vivid, you really get a sense of how frightening it is and how he struggles to regain a sense of normality. He is known and loved for his poems about the natural world but the Wiki page led me to a poem that Clare wrote towards the end of his life when in another asylum in Northamptonshire, in it he is very lucid and it shows his yearning for life and normality. I am by John Clare:

I am: yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death's oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life's esteems;
And e'en the dearest--that I loved the best--
Are strange--nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil'd or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below--above the vaulted sky.

Wednesday 4 August 2010

Work Winge of the Week 5: electric gates

What is it with rich people and the need to close themselves off from the outside world? When I rule the world people who want to put electric gates at the end of their drive will be obliged by law to have a post box on the outside. They can be just about bearable if they operate on a proximity switch and open automatically as you approach but some places you are obliged to get in and out of the van THREE times just to deliver the post: once to plug in the code to open the gate, again when you have driven down to the house and again to plug in the code to open the gate to get out again!
But this morning was the pits. This house (not the one in the photo I might add) does have a box in the gate post but today I had a small parcel that would not go in so, not having a gate code, I pressed the buzzer. I should mention at this point that it was raining ... quite a bit. So a woman answered and I anticipated the gate opening to admit me. It opened a couple of inches and then shut again. The woman appeared at the door, I thought coming out to fetch the parcel ... but no ... she had a remote control in hand and operated it again. Again the gate opened a few inches and closed again. The woman made some inaudible comment about it not working properly. Her porch was mere feet from the gate and all this time I am standing in the rain. Not a bit of rain, but torrential rain that ran down my face and dripped off the end of my nose, soaked into my hair and dribbled down inside my waterproof. Third time lucky and the gate swung open, torturously slowly. And I managed to smile and be polite and at least she didn't make any comment about the terrible weather cos I think that might have tipped me over the edge.

Tuesday 3 August 2010


I am just going to write a brief thought about this book before I pop up to the library and return it.
Now if you read the title too quickly you might assume that this was a book about near death experiences, when actually it consists of forty little tales imagining different versions of 'the afterlife'. I guess I should start by saying that I don't have a belief of any kind in any kind of afterlife. What we have here is someone using 'the afterlife' as a story writing exercise, to see how many different worlds he could create within the confines of the idea that after death your 'soul' goes on to somewhere else and exists forever. As my ex-husband used to say (see how you really can't get people out of your head no matter how you want to) heaven would have to be absolutely perfect, because an eternity of anything else would definitely be hell. None of the places described in this book come anywhere close. In many of them God seems to think he or she has created something pretty amazing, only to find that the human beings do not experience it as they anticipated. I like the one where God decides weighing up everyone's good and bad deeds is too complicated and opens heaven up to everyone, that just pisses off the 'good' people. In another people get to watch what is going on on earth in a huge video lounge. People spend their time following the ripples left by their own existence, until their membership expires, seen as a punishment, but saving them from having to watch things going wrong and everything they thought important whither away. In 'Death Switch' people try to cheat death and pretend to still be alive by creating a series of automated computer exchanges that take over when they die, and existence ends up simply being replaced by computers. In another God has vanished and people spend their time debating what has become of him. In yet another you are invited to pass judgement on yourself, based on comparison with all the 'you's' that you might have been if you had made better cleverer decisions. And in the end we have the final solution, the universe reaches the end of it's expansion and begins to contract and the whole of existence plays out in reverse, with the dead rising and babies returning to the womb, and nobody really understanding the meaning of it all any better on the way back.
It would be an excellent book for students or book groups to discuss because there are lots of interesting ideas in it about human frailty and the need to make sense of existence, and the search for meaning via external sources. I am in the middle of writing about Philip Pullman's 'Dark Materials' trilogy and he has an interesting 'afterlife' and solution to the problem which gave a lot of food for thought. So here's a poser: what would be your idea of heaven?

Sunday 1 August 2010

Some Poetry

I have been dipping in and out of several books over the last couple of weeks so thought I would post something to whet your appetite.

The first is 'Voice-over" by Norman MacCaig. I could not find a cover image, nor take one as the camera has died, so I found instead this wonderful painting from the National Galleries of Scotland website by Alexander Moffat showing a group of well loved Scottish poets and writers (MacCaig is the man on the left). Now I have been fond of him since discovering the poem 'Aunt Julia' and I have enjoyed this collection. His themes are very straightforward, often observing nature, at it's wildest, with frequent reference specifically to Scotland, it's mountains, rivers and coast, and the people who live there. He seems to appreciate both the hardness and the simplicity of the lives they lead. In 'A room and a woman in it' we have, "And the old woman, lonely and sad, / sits wrapped in a shawl of memories", and in 'Crofter', "Last thing at night / he steps outside to breathe / the smell of winter." and 'Country cameo' "Talking (like crows) of crows / three old men by a wall / in interesting attitudes." I loved one called 'Slow evening' where he describes beautifully watching the night fall: "Night is long in coming. It's softest feet / pause at the horizon. Starts wait / for the light to go out, to perform / their brilliant rituals on their dark stage." They are all so perfectly composed, taking mostly quite simple ideas and encapsulating them in a few lines. In 'Small boy' he describes a child throwing pebbles into the sea, "He wasn't trying to fill the sea. / He wasn't trying to empty the beach. / He was just throwing away", but then brings you back to the essential human condition, "he was practicing for the future / when there'll be so many things / he'll want to throw away / if only his fingers will unclench / and let them go."

So many that I liked but I will leave you with this very short one, is what is wrong with human beings that we make life so so complicated:

Compare and contrast
The great thinker died
after forty years of poking about
with his little torch
in the dark forest of ideas,
in the bright glare of perception,
leaving a legacy of fourteen books
to the world
where a hen disappeared
into six acres of tall oats
and sauntered unerringly
to the nest with five eggs in it.

The other book is Lawrence Ferlinghetti's 'These Are My Rivers'. I gave you a brief taster of one poem a while ago, though it is unsatisfactory to try and reproduce his poems on the blog. As I have also found through this collection he frequently lays out the lines quite specifically and it does add something to the way you read it, creating pauses and emphasis in a certain way. This collection covers a huge swath of his career so as you might imagine the style and content is very varied, politics, history, popular culture, homage to other poets, and observational poems, many of which come across as very stream-of-consciousness, though who am I to judge, maybe each word is chosen with deliberate care. This book is going to take a long time to digest so I will just give you this one that caught my attention:

Two scavengers in a truck, two beautiful people in a Mercedes

At the stoplight waiting for the light
Nine a.m. downtown San Francisco
a bright yellow garbage truck
with two garbagemen in red plastic blazers
standing on the back stoop
one on each side hanging on
and looking down into
an elegant open Mercedes
with an elegant couple in it
The man
in a hip three-piece linen suit
with shoulder-length blond hair and sunglasses
The young blond woman so casually coifed
with a short skirt and colored stockings
on the way to his architect's office

And the two scavengers up since Four a.m.
grungy from their route
on the way home
The older of the two with grey iron hair
and hunched back
looking down like some
gargoyle Quasimodo
And the younger of the two
also with sunglasses and long hair
about the same age as the Mercedes driver

And both scavengers gazing down
as from a great distance
at the cool couple
as if they were watching some odorless TV ad
in which everything is always possible
And the very red light for an instant
holding all four close together
as if anything at all were possible
between them
across that small gulf
in the high seas
of this democracy

Finally Adrian Mitchell's 'Ride the Nightmare' published in 1971 at first glance seems to be the work of an 'angry young man', so we'll see where that goes in the next few weeks. I loved the inscription inside the front: "Note to examiners, children and students. None of the work in this or any other of my books or articles is to be used in connection with any examination whatsoever. This also applies to beauty contests." If you have a couple of minutes you can pop over here on Youtube and hear him reading 'To whom it may concern', wonderful piece of film.