Friday 29 July 2011

Armitage strikes again

Is it a bit suspect to say you are a 'fan' of a poet? I have come across Simon Armitage a couple of times before (his own poetry here and his fascinating introduction here) and really enjoyed his work and thoughts. I also did manage to get a copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, that Creature and I were reading aloud together, however it sat under the bed for too long and had to go back to the library before we had got very far. There is something about that type of epic poem that is far better when heard rather than read 'in your head'. I am thinking of finding an audio copy.

After a long week with extra overtime a while ago I treated myself to a selection of things that had been loitering on my amazon wishlist, and amongst them was Seeing Stars, Armitage's most recent publication, he apparently claims them as poetry, but I'm not so sure. What they are is more like stories, but not stories like anything I have read before. Sometimes the briefest of snippets of an existence, sometimes a moment that captures the whole of life, sometimes surreal, almost meaningless, or interrupted by apparently random thoughts. The language is certain poetic and they often get their point across in the same oblique way that poems do, but the sense you get is more like something you might overhear in a pub, where you have only caught half the tale. I have not finished the book, because it is a collection to savour, the humour and the ideas, so this is just to tempt you to buy your own.

From the second, 'An Accommodation', where a couple are divided by a net curtain:

"Over the years the moths moved in, got a taste for the net, so it came to resemble a giant web, like a thing made of actual holes strung together by fine nervous threads. But there it remained, and remains to this day, this tattered shroud, this ravaged lace suspended between our lives, keeping us inseparable and betrothed."

In 'Michael' we contemplate what early experiences might mean, the theory goes that the first item you steal is a symbol for what you will become:

"Clint stole a bottle of cooking sherry, now he owns a tapas bar. Kirsty's an investment banker and she stole money from her mother's purse. Tod took a Curly Wurly and he's morbidly obese. Claude says he never stole anything in his whole life, and he's an actor i.e. unemployed. Derek says, 'But wait a second, I stole a blue Smurf on a polythene parachute.' And Kirsty says, 'So what more proof do we need, Derek?' "

'Hop in, Dennis' tells the tale of a warm hearted driver who gives lifts to strangers (but only if your name is Dennis):

"I once drove Dennis Thatcher from Leicester Forest East service station to Ludlow races and he wasn't a moment's bother, though I did have to ask him to refrain from smoking, and of course not to breathe one word about the woman who introduced rabies to South Yorkshire."

In 'Aviators' an overbooked airline needs to bump a passenger, but the only volunteer is the pilot:

" 'But who'll fly the plane?' she wanted to know. 'Why me, of course.' I opened my mouth so she could see how good my teeth were - like pilot's teeth. 'Do you have a licence?' she asked. I said, 'Details, always details. Dorothy, it's time to let go a little, to trust in the unexplained. Time to open your mind to the infinite.' By now my hand was resting on hers, and a small crowd of passengers had gathered around, nodding and patting me on the back."

They are all witty and clever, leaving you with a wry smile or a pause for thought, mostly both.

Sunday 24 July 2011

Learning Nothing

A friend on Facebook pointed me in the direction of 'Learn Nothing Day', set up by a lady called Sandra Dodd, one of those americans who seem to have made themselves a career out of home educating their children (I mean one where they earn a living rather than it being something that just occupies their time). Certainly she is a passionate proponent of 'unschooling' and someone who I read when my children were younger. Just a note about the politics of the otherwise movement: 'Unschooling' is a US term, used to distinguish themselves from the homeschoolers, who, over there, tend to follow purchased curricula. Here in the UK we tend to call it 'autonomous education', and it is characterised by following and facilitating the individual child's interests and supporting them in making their choices about what they learn and how they spend their time.

Learn Nothing Day was started to answer the 'don't you have holiday's?' question (one of many that come from random strangers who think they have the right to comment on your lifestyle choice), because, of course, since learning is a natural function of the human brain it could be quite hard to spend an entire day learning nothing. The main trouble with the school system (so many troubles so little time) is that it divides the world into two halves: the time in school when you are 'learning' stuff, and the time outside when you aren't. This is the basis for the government's draconian punishments for parents who take their children on holiday during term time, because if they are not inside the school building they cannot possibly be learning anything. Because something is only really 'learned' if you have written it down in an exercise book and had it ticked off by the teacher.

So here I am desperately trying not to learn anything and already, while blog browsing, I have followed the instructions on how to sew, and put a baby into, a baby wrap, how to do a Colonial knot and how to do a French knot.
Go on, try it for yourself, see if you can 'not learn' today.

Wednesday 20 July 2011

Going blind in Moss Side

Back in January of 2009 I thought I was one tough cookie wandering the streets of Winchcombe unsupervised. Since arriving in South Manchester Delivery Office nearly nine months ago I have had a grand total of *one day* training. All the other duties I have done have been blind (five new ones in one week last month), just a process of Neil pointing me in the vague direction of the frame and leaving me to get on with it. I have developed my own process where I write out the streets in order the day before and then pop over to google maps and plug in a street name and then sit with the pink highlighter and mark out the route. I have found this to be pretty successful.

My method was confounded yesterday when I arrived expecting to do my scheduled duty and was pounced on when I walked through the door and given several options, none of which I had done before. I was given jokey warnings about not forgetting my bulletproof vest and avoiding the dead bodies but the reality of Moss Side is not so bound up with its history. I ended up on Hartington Road, and in looking for the photo I discovered that these refurbished streets are being officially 'opened' today. Admittedly yesterday only bits of the street were this tidy, most of the houses still had scaffolding and several were mere shells, but it's all progress in the right direction. I did struggle a little round the Freetown Close estate, where the developer's need to make it seem less like a council estate meant that the blocks of houses were all jumbled at angles to each other with no particular logic, but I survived the experience unscathed. What you do notice is that there are people on the streets. On School Grove I would sometimes hardly pass a soul all morning. Along Claremont Road it's quite a different matter, cars, people, activity, life; a group of young men were having a heated row on the corner of Rosebery Street, it might have been in english but I couldn't understand a word.

Things do take an awful lot longer than they might when you don't know where you're going and it was past 2 when I got back to the office. Dunk sweetened my day by fixing my puncture and walking out with the bikes to meet me.

Tuesday 19 July 2011

when the whatsit hits the fan

"Sometimes whether it is a family or ... any other institution, one has to wait for people to die, or until one knows that things won't matter any more for some reason or other. Though, it has to be said, some things seem never to cease mattering. Or, one has to wait until one knows one is about to die oneself, and so won't care, frankly, when the balloon goes up. You know; when the whatsit hits the fan."

The Steep Approach to Garbadale by Iain Banks was written 23 years after The Wasp Factory but the voice was immediately recognisable, the initial approach to the story being narrated by Tango, a down-on-his-luck glaswegian, who is putting up his mate Al, our hero. Al's cousin Fielding has turned up to try and persuade him back into the family firm, there is a corporate buy-out in the offing and together they try to garner the resistance. Mixed in with the buildup to the Extraordinary General Meeting and Grandma Win's birthday (the family matriarch) is the sad tale of Alban's life and loves and how he came to be estranged from his family. A little like The Wasp Factory (but only in the most superficial of ways) it is a story about family secrets, and the shadow of his mother's suicide that exerts unexpected influence over his life. Alban falls in love with his cousin Sophie, and their illicit teenage affair is abruptly torn apart, the cruel and ongoing separation continues to be a torment for Al in the years ahead, influencing his decisions and thwarting his happiness. He is something of a tortured soul, clinging to the past and not really getting to grips with what he wants out of life.

It's very much a book about the characters. I mean, what's not to love about Beryl and Doris, two elderly maiden aunts who like to get tipsy and are plainly very fond of their errant nephews., and the wonderful domineering Grandma Win, who puts on the frail-old-lady act whenever anyone threatens to thwart her plans. Despite being quite a large extended family they all have jobs in the family firm which keeps them in close contact and you really get a sense of what might be kindly interest sometimes turning into annoying interference. He excels too with atmosphere, moving the tale around the world, from Hong Kong to America to the wilds of the Scottish highlands, each equally evocative. The story hops back and forth, keeping your interest by giving you snippets of background information about the major players and details of Al's misspent youth. And just when it is running along smoothly and straightforward Iain Banks drops in this lovely poignant 6 page passage describing Irene's drowning:

"There is no discernible path any more. She stumbles down the side of the stream, nearly falling, then stoops to pick up another couple of rocks, adding them to the collections in the poacher's pockets. She thinks she feels something give as she adds the stones to the right pocket, and worries that the material will rip, letting the stones fall out. She recalls a fable about something like that. Aesop, probably. The fable of the woman who tried to carry too many rocks; that would be her. Not that it would ever be written, not that anybody would ever read it. Not that it mattered in the least. Not that anything did.
The tears roll down her cheeks and into the slapping waves, taking their own tiny cargo of saltiness with them.
She feels sorry for the child, for Alban.
The gently sloping shelf of the loch bed ends here; she walks off the hidden underwater cliff with a tiny surprised cry, bitten off, and vanishes immediately under the brown waves, her auburn hair sucked down last like fine tendrils of seaweed, leaving only a few bubbles which float briefly and then burst and vanish." (p.123-128)

He keeps getting hints that there is more to the story than anyone is letting on (like what Beryl tells him in the quote at the beginning of my review) and Alban seems to have dreams that are sometimes about his mother, her loss plainly preoccupies him more than he acknowledges.

It was just totally engaging, I loved the people and the places, even all the politicking behind the scenes about who wanted to sell, and who didn't, and who was just hedging their bets hoping the offer was going to rise. The loud Americans from Spraint Corporation were just a parody of themselves, spouting all the same stuff you read in the newspapers when foreign companies take over beloved British institutions. I was faintly disappointed with the climax of the story, it was not as momentous a revelation as I was expecting, and I was left wanting to know Sophie's story; what had happened to her, why did she not seem to pine for Al the way he had for her, who was the unnamed bloke she supposedly pined for in return. It was a bit of a neat happy ending, but I think that after all he'd been through Al deserved it.

jumperish holiday

The second half of my week off I ventured alone in the opposite direction to mum and dad's down in Devon. We had a very relaxing few days, mainly pondering the Guardian crossword together. Claire arrived Friday with Matt and Siobhan on their way to a cottage in Cornwall, and Bart and Vieanne came over for a family dinner. It was all very civilized ... until dad offered to let me take photos of the jumpers I knit for them, and then for some reason he got a little silly:
After he had finished with his senior moment they let me take a sensible one as well:I spent the time in devon working on the jumper that I started for Creature back at the beginning of July, and it is finished. I am so pleased with it, I added random stripes to enhance the already variegated yarn. It is just in time for HES FES starting on Saturday, a little something to keep her cosy on those damp and chilly evenings in the teen tent. I am missing out AGAIN because Andy had to change venue and moved the week ... maybe next year!
I also, at dad's suggestion, took a photo of this lovely family portrait that has been up in their living room forever. That's (left to right) me, Bart, Claire and Giles. Not sure about the boy's outfits but mine and Claire's dresses were definitely home made by my mum (and that sofa had really scratchy material).

Lizard Holiday

I managed to pack a lot of holidaying into my week off, which turned out to be a good thing as I was phoned at 7.30am yesterday asking where I was because, even though I thought it was still holiday, work did not agree.

Creature and I went up to visit the Geordie contingent and meet some of the new additions to the family. The reptile room now looks like this (you can't even see the bit that goes round the corner and has the specially built unit to house the eagerly anticipated baby snakelings):
(when we visited in July 2009 their collection looked like this, though they have moved from the flat to a terrace since then, mainly to accommodate the expanding collection.)

This is Lewis with the Sailfin, whose name I cannot remember. After the sad demise of Ozzy the water dragon he is the pride and joy, though he has a tendency to want to be the highest thing in the room and his claws are no respecter of human skin. He shares his enclosure with Alan the gay tortoise, who intimidates him and hogs all the nice food.
Here I am with one of the many many snakes (Lewis has given up naming them and has to number the vivariums to ensure everyone gets fed). I didn't get a photo of this one measuring herself up against Creature (they do that to see if you are the right size to eat:-)
This is Midge, the Bosc Monitor, several feet bigger than the first time we met him and now capable of taking your finger off if he felt like it.
Flik is the tegu, last seen on this blog being taken for a walk at the reptile shop. Now very big and fond of snoozing under the sofa.
Since the boys were working rather a lot we hung out with Rachel and ended up at this rather brilliant shoe shop in the Grainger Market and bought Creature some fabulous, and very shiny Doc Marten boots.
I hadn't seen Jacob in about a year so it was wonderful just to see him again and meet his young lady, who's name is Jenny. She seems lovely, and it's nice to have two such excellent Geordie girls to take on my sons and keep them out of trouble.

Saturday 16 July 2011

Should have gone to Didsbury

Today we in blogland are celebrating International Anita Brookner Day (hosted by Thomas at My Porch), it being her 83rd birthday and to mark 30 years since her first novel was published. So I went to Chorlton library and found Rules of Engagement, it was the only one of her books they had. It turns out I should have popped down to Didsbury, where they seem to have a much better choice of Anita Brookner novels.

I am not sure that they will want me to join in when I say how bored I was by this book. I mean there is introspection and there is introspection ... and this book takes it all to a whole new level (or is that depth?) I mean no wonder this woman spent so much time worrying about her motivation and her 'relationships' and her emotional reactions and what people thought ... because she had *absolutely* nothing else in her life. And the real trouble with all this introspection was that the woman was so devoid of personality that she never thought anything interesting. She never once said anything meaningful to anyone or had a real conversation about anything or really showed any interest in another human being or interest in anything beyond her own thoughts (ok she read a few books, but a very limited selection and only thought of them in terms of how they reflected back her own thinking or opinions.) She is never really happy, sometimes contented, never has a strong sense of attachment to another person, even her supposed affection for her lover is couched in oblique language. I am sorry because, on reflection, I feel like my intense dislike of the woman and her life distracted me from the writing, which was plainly very effective since the book had such a strong impact on me and created such a powerful reaction. The book was the story of a wasted life.

"Now my mood changed to one of weariness and incipient revolt. I played my wifely part adequately, and yet I could see it for what it was: a sham. And it was not only my married life that was a sham; my other life too did not, could not, bear active scrutiny. I saw the point of those grim days in Paris. They had been the means of preparing me for a life lived according to my own rules, rather than rules imposed on me by other people. I had had a glimpse of the freedom available to the purely selfish, though that freedom could be limited by desire. Once again I wanted to roam the streets unobserved, my thoughts confined to myself rather than anticipating another's movements, another's wishes. I wanted everyone to die and leave me alone. I particularly wanted Edmund to die, for I knew that without him I should be myself again and not the person I had becomes once I had chosen him, or been chosen by him." (p.60)

The whole book just goes round in circles as she rethinks herself: her friendship with Betsy, which is frequently broken beyond repair and then reestablished, her marriage, tedious to a fault but with Digby repeatedly referred to as 'honourable', her affair with Edmund, acknowledged as shallow and physical but to which she ascribes deep feeling, she recognises she should 'do' something with her life but utterly fails to act. Years go by, taking her from a newly married twenty-something to being middle aged, in which *nothing happens* apart from a couple of boring people coming round for dinner.

I wanted to scream in frustration, I wanted to give her a good hard slap. It's as if she never moved anywhere from the young woman she was bought up to be, learned nothing from her experiences, had such narrow expectations of life and no imagination. And as I often do I found myself clinging to the hope that it was all leading somewhere, an epiphany, anticipating some kind of denouement that never came, it just kind of dribbled to a halt at the end. I plodded through it, just as I am struggling with this review, because I wanted to contribute to the IABD. I do not feel inspired to read any of her other books.

Friday 8 July 2011

earning a living in my pyjamas

I found myself agreeing with Harrison Shepherd frequently, but never more so than on the subject of being a writer. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver won the Orange Prize in 2010, leaving me with four winners remaining to read for my challenge.

I tend to be a bit daunted by books that are well over 600 pages and it has taken me quite some weeks to finish this, but it was worth it. A couple of months ago Dunk and I watched a film about the life of Frida Kahlo and she was such a wonderful character, and she plays an important role in this novel, my interest in her kept me engaged when the story was slow. In the references in the front is a list of newspaper articles which are genuine and then the disclaimer: "Historical persons are portrayed and quoted from the historical record, but their conversations with the character Harrison Shepherd are entirely invented." He reminds me of Logan Mountstuart in Any Human Heart, when I was briefly convinced he was a real person, because he was so beautifully integrated into the story of real events. For a writer I think it is a clever and challenging thing to do, to take a real story and rewrite it from a different perspective, and make it thoroughly convincing.

I was a little thrown the first time he encounters Frida, attracted to the servant girl trailing along behind carrying her copious purchases, as she is described as old, and I knew she was never old. Through a series of chance encounters Harrison ends up working for Diego Rivera and then becomes part of their household, as a cook and sometime secretary. He lives with them during the period that they play host to Trotsky after his exile by Stalin. Though he is on the edge of political events Harrison is not really interested in them, his strength is entirely in his observations of people and their relationships, both the significant members of the household and the servants who looked after for them. With Frida's encouragement he records the events as a dispassionate observer, continuing his childhood habit of keeping copious notebooks about his life.

In the face of threats by Stalin and fear of attack from any quarter there develops quite a claustrophobic atmosphere, but when it comes Trotsky's assassination is shocking, even though the event is a matter of history, because I had become quite fond of him. And afterwards Frida sends Harrison back to the US to accompany her paintings for an exhibition. He takes himself off in his deceased father's car and ends up in a small town boarding house, spending the war employed by the government, moving valuable works of art to safe locations. Inspired by his time living in Mexico he subsequently starts writing historical novels about the country's ancient past, which are a surprise hit making him a minor celebrity. This however, in the post-war era, brings him to the attentions of the MacCarthyists and the UnAmerican Activities Committee, and you kind of see it coming that his political naivety is going to get him into trouble. So the book takes us through the background of both sides of the political spectrum, the communists and then the anti-communists.

This book is partly about people on the sidelines. Harrison himself is involved in these big political events, but not really part of them. It is Kingsolver's descriptions of the other 'minor players' that are also so touchingly poignant. This is the description of what became of Harrison's mother:

"How could a life of such large hopes be so small in the end? Her last apartment: one room above a lace-and-girdle shop. One trunk of frocks and phonograph records, donated to a coworker. Were beaux less generous over time? Her assets less marketable? If she had lived to be old, would she have resided in a teacup, to be sipped at intervals beneath some grey moustache?" (p.246)

And Natalya (Trotsky's wife):
"In the years with Lev her world has been so constrained, with so few objects of beauty in it. She is not a bulldog, only a woman pressed into the shape of a small jar, possibly attempting to dance in there. It shows in the way she places a seashell on the window sill, a red painted chair in the corner: she is practiced in the art of creating a still life and taking up residence inside it." (p.276)

And Trotsky himself it transformed from an icon into a real human being:
"He took off his glasses and turned his face to the sun for a moment, boots planted wide, the peasant brow facing heaven. He looked the very image of the People's Revolutions in one of Diego's murals. Then the former president of the Petrograd Soviet put away the manure shovel and went to his breakfast." (p.292)

The whole book is a treasure of closely observed moments, though you are left not sure if the political events are the background to ordinary life or the exquisitely drawn ordinary life is the background to the savage political events, both are narrated with equal care and detail.

As a portrayal of a political era it is equally interesting, the newspaper articles really bringing to life the hysterical pursuit of a frightening dogma. Harrison in a letter to Frida:
"The radio is at the root of the evil, their rule is: No silence, ever. When anything happens, the commentator has to speak without a moment's pause for gathering wisdom. Falsehood and inanity are preferable to silence. You can't imagine the effect of this. The talkers rise above the thinkers." (p.429)

Then some very astute observations, put into the mouths of characters. From Violet Brown (Harrison's secretary), after the surprise re-election of Truman:
"Oh, Mr. Shepherd, it's a day to remember. Those news men could not make a thing true just by saying so. It's only living makes a life." (p.589)

And from Artie Gold, his lawyer:
"You force people to stop asking questions, and before you know it they have auctioned off the question mark, or sold it for scrap. No boldness. No good ideas for fixing what's broken in the land. Because if you happen to mention it's broken, you are automatically disqualified." (p.562-3)

And then I loved this little piece about the nature of the Mayan culture:

"Today we drove south through villages of Mayan farmers, most beginning with X - pronounced 'ish.' X-puil, X-mal, J├ęsus revealed the secret of the Mayan tongue: shhh. X does not mark the spot, it marks a hush. The Mayans speak their language everywhere in the countryside, and it sounds like whispered secrets. Women stand together in doorways, muttering: shhh, shhh. Fathers and sons walk along the roadside carrying ancient-looking hoes, quietly making a plan: shhh." (p.523)

A clever and fascinating book, about making your own life, which Harrison does (from a very unpromising beginning) recording it, which he also does, making it again and having it destroyed. Harrison's life is reflected in the experience of Trotsky, who's life slowly vanishes as Stalin has everyone he has ever known or loved executed, and also I felt to some extent in Frida, who's works of art document her own life (many, many of them are self-portraits). It is a book about Harrison, and interestingly his relationships with the women in his life, firstly his mother, then Frida and then Violet, all of which have both an intimacy and a reserve to them. And I have not even touched on the myriad of other characters who contribute to the rich tapestry of the novel. A worthy prize winner and I will definitely be reading her again. I'll end with this final quote that seems to sum up the ethos of the book (note: 'Lev' refers to Trotsky, it is his original given name):

"The notebooks are gone. It must have been like this for Lev at the end, with his past entirely stolen. A lifetime of people, unconfirmed by their living presences, or photographs or descriptions in a notebook, can only skulk in the corners like ghosts. They shift like chimeras. Careful words of warning reverse themselves like truth and newspaper stories, becoming their own opposites. An imperfectly remembered life is a useless treachery. Every day, more fragments of the past roll around heavily in the chambers of an empty brain, shedding bits of colour, a sentence or a fragrance, something that changes and then disappears. It drops like a stone to the bottom of the cave." (p340-1)

Thursday 7 July 2011

Many jumpers

Busy busy knitting ... I finished these two lovely cuddly jumpers for the Twins, who were 2 the other day. Unfortunately I think that the jumpers are more like a 3 or even 4 year old size. I am pleased with them. Creature very helpfully held them up so I could photograph them, but hopefully Carly (their mum) will send a picture of the twins wearing them which would look much cuter.
When I bought the yarn I also bought some lovely red/pink stuff, and then decided, when I saw it in the natural light, that it was too pink to make a jumper for a toddling boy. When Creature saw the first jumper finished she wanted one for herself and since I had this left just begging to be used I am doing one for her to take to Hes Fes, for when it gets cold at night.

Friday 1 July 2011

Cutthroat times

Creature made the press today after having taken part in yesterday's protest with some friends. Emma made some headless life-size puppets which some of them wore and then the others had a dramatic symbolic 'cut throat'. She even got up and spoke to the demonstration just to tell the crowd who they were and why they were there. Photo from the Manchester Evening News.