Thursday 30 August 2012

Strange coincidence

What are the chances that inside a week I would read two books where the protagonists end up at the Nag's Head in Edale. It was the final destination of Simon Armitage on his walk home and it is the venue for an assignation in 'I have waited and you have come' by Martine McDonagh that I have been reading over the last few days. 

In this story we have gone back from utopia to dystopia. It is set at some future point, in a world that is post-climate change and the population has been devastated by disease and starvation. It appears to be set somewhere locally as she mentions the Bridgewater Canal in passing (the author did a creative writing course at MMU) and it gave the book that little edge of reality because she had imagined the local environment as she wrote it. Our protagonist is Rachel, who has been abandoned by Jason, for reasons we learn later, and who seemed to have had some kind of premonitions about the end of the world as we know it, but then having mentioned it in passing the author does not make anything else of this idea; maybe it was something she planned to develop but then abandoned. Rachel has obviously been hiding from the world inside her fortress but is forced out it seems by sheer loneliness. Life is conducted by barter, mostly at a local 'market', run by Noah, who just happens to be the person Rachel decides will help her with her loneliness problem. By a twist of fate the person she meets instead in the Nag's Head is Jez White. At first you believe him, then things start to get a bit creepy. Nobody admits to knowing who he is, even at the equally creepy 'New Dawn' community. You begin to wonder if there is not some kind of conspiracy going on, no wonder it feels like Rachel is going a bit mad. Rachel's narration of her existence is punctuated by very brief excerpts from what turns out to be Jez's diary, and that really ups the creepy factor, until you would really rather she went back behind her barricades and stayed safe with the chickens. It is a study in survival, and the extremes that might be asked of the human race, but also the devastation of isolation. It is interesting that the people who appear to be functioning best are those who have chosen to live in communities rather than the weirdos who shun the world and try and make it on their own.

"As the heavy blinds creak up into their rests, a movement on the canal towpath catches the corner of my eye. I turn my head in its direction expecting to witness the languorous swoop of the heron, but instead my curiosity is rewarded with a rare sighting. Up on the path is a man, his coat, luminous against the grey sky, flapping in the breeze. Raindrops race across the windowpane like sperm towards the unfertilised egg; a living, moving curtain that separates me from the outside world and distorts and bends the stranger out of shape. I daren't open the window for fear of being seen, but peer across. At this distance I cannot tell which way he is looking. Nor is there evidence in any direction of anything likely to attract and hold his attention so. He has no umbrella. Maybe he is lost. I could call out, offer him shelter, but don't." (p.40)

Most of the book is foreboding and darkly atmospheric, life offers few compensations or pleasures. Then little moments of humanity creep in, but still tempered with the reality of the situation:

"I check the bedroom window, half expecting to see the return of the stranger. Nothing and no one is there, but a single great soft white flake rides an unseen current like a delirious fairy. Snow. It dithers towards the river below as if aware of its fate. What use is such precise individuality when faced with imminent dissolution?
Snow can lift my heart in a way that sunshine never could. I run downstairs, pull on my outdoor things, and rush out into the yard. Snowflakes catch on my eyelashes and tingle soft against my cheek. I look for a job that will keep me outdoors.
All that remains of the log pile are a few chunks of apple wood; as good for burning as a pile of wet leaves, useful only for filling the house with sweet-smelling smoke and therefore not useful at all.
I load the axe into the wheelbarrow and manoeuvre it out into the yard. The cold of the handles penetrates the loose knit of my gloves, stinging my hands; the axe bangs out a jumble of rhythms as we go, drums a half-remembered melody into my head that goes in one ear and out the other. I don't know when there stopped being music." (p.56-7)

All in all an excellent book. Short, you could read it in one sitting. I found myself sucked in to Rachel's world and her mindset, feeling her fears and irrationality, the rising tension is well sustained. Little things confused me, or seemed incongruous; why would there be telephones, and electricity? You would have to work much harder than she did or simply starve to death. It felt as if the author had a much bigger story in mind, one that encompassed more of the community Rachel lives in, more background, but that as she wrote it became about one thing, the 'relationship' between Rachel and Jez. In a way, while nothing like as good a book, it reminded me of The Road; she did manage to achieve something of the same sense of hopelessness and emptiness and desolation. I will leave you with the Nag's Head, not as cosy as it no doubt is nowadays:

"One brave step forward reveals that a log fire is still blazing away in the snug. Two men on high stools sit at opposite ends of the bar. One of them directs a murmured comment towards the other via the barman who, leaning with his elbows on the bar reading a news-sheet, catches the word and passes it on verbatim, as if the language is no longer strong enough to manage the full distance unaided. No one looks up. With no talking or action to move it around, the air is as still as in a painting; a Hopper revisited in yellow and brown. I am the character you cannot see, just out of frame." (p.33)

Wednesday 29 August 2012


Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
This classic feminist novel, written and published originally as a serial back in 1915, is the story of an isolated all-woman country that is 'discovered' by three blokes in a plane. Hearing a rumour of such a society they set out to find it, basically assuming that when they get there they will be treated like gods and have the pick of the nubile and deprived young women. The reality is however far different and the book, written from the perspective of one of the men, is the story of their experience. 

It is very much a period piece, the language and the attitudes are very much of the early 20th century and the society that Gilman dreams up for the women is utopian in the extreme. Her aim is obviously to argue the potential strengths of women, how they might choose to organise their society if it were outside the influence of men, and to show up the men's arrogance and the flaws in what they consider to be their own superior society.

So, just quotes really. Demonstrating partly the attitudes of the men, towards women in general, but also towards this new society as they begin to understand it. It is interesting because Gilman has a subtle understanding of the nature of sexism, how some of it is blatant, some of it outrageously patronising, but some of it more understated and couched in nice language to make you think that you are in the wrong for being offended by it. Of course the three are all middle class Edwardian 'gentlemen' and have attitudes and opinions to match.

First encounter:
" 'Woman' in the abstract is young, and, we assume, charming. As they get older they pass off the stage, somehow, into private ownership mostly, or out of it altogether. But these good ladies were very much on the stage, and yet any one of them might have been a grandmother." (p.20)

Later, after much acquaintance, they reflect on their expectations:
"And we had been cocksure as to the inevitable limitations, the faults and vices, of a lot of women. We had expected them to be given over to what we called 'feminine vanity' - 'frills and furbelows,' and we found that they had evolved a costume more perfect than the Chinese dress, richly beautiful when so desired, always useful, of unfailing dignity and good taste.
We had expected a dull submissive monotony, and found a daring social inventiveness far beyond our own, and a mechanical and scientific development fully equal to ours.
We had expected pettiness, and found a social consciousness besides which our nations looked like quarrelling children - feebleminded ones at that.
We had expected jealousy, and found a broad sisterly affection, a fair-minded intelligence, to which we could produce no parallel.
We had expected hysteria, and found a standard of health and vigour, a calmness of temper, to which the habit of profanity, for instance, was impossible to explain - we tried it." (p.81)

Van, the narrator, talking to their guardians:
" 'We like you the best,' Somel told me, 'because you seem more like us.'
'More like a lot of women!' I thought to myself disgustedly, and then remembered how little like 'women,' in our derogatory sense, they were. She was smiling at me, reading my thought.
'We can quite see that we do not seem like - women - to you. Of course, in a bi-sexual race the distinctive features of each sex must be intensified. But surely there are characteristics enough which belong to People, aren't there? That's what I mean about you being more like us - more like People. We feel at ease with you.' " (p.89)

Terry, the obnoxious one, continues to rail against them throughout the book, learning nothing:
"Terry persisted. 'They've neither the vices of men, nor the virtues of women - they're neuters!'
'You know better than that. Don't talk nonsense,' said I, severely.
I was thinking of Ellador's eyes when they gave me a certain look, a look she did not at all realise.
Jeff was equally incensed. 'I don't know what 'virtues of women' you miss. Seems to me they have them all.'
'They've no modesty,' snapped Terry. 'No patience, no submissiveness, none of the natural yielding which is a woman's greatest charm.' " (p.98)

Education thoughts:
" 'We try most earnestly for two powers,' Somel continued. 'The two that seem to us basically necessary for a noble life: a clear, far-reaching judgement, and a strong well-used will. We spend our best efforts, all through childhood and youth, in developing these faculties, individual judgement and will.'
'As part of your system of education, you mean?'
'Exactly. As the most valuable part. With the babies, as you may have noticed, we first provide an environment which feeds the mind without tiring it; all manner of simple and interesting things to do, as soon as they are old enough to do them; physical properties, of course, come first. But as early as possible, going very carefully, not to tax the mind, we provide choices, simple choices, with very obvious causes and consequences. You've noticed the games?'
I had. The children seemed always to be playing something; or else, sometimes, engaged in peaceful researches of their own. I had wondered at first when they went to school, but soon found that they never did -  to their knowledge. It was all education but no schooling." (p.106)

It's only right at the very end that they seem to come to some understanding of the gulf between their societies:
"In missing men we three visitors had naturally missed the larger part of life, and had unconsciously assumed that they must miss it too. It took me a long time to realise - Terry never did realise - how little it meant to them. When we say men, man, manly, manhood, and all other masculine derivatives, we have in the background of our minds a huge vast crowded picture of the world and all its activities. To grow up and 'be a man', to 'act like a man' - the meaning and connotation is wide indeed. The vast background is full of marching columns of men, of changing lines of men, of long processions of men; of men steering their ships into new seas, exploring unknown mountains, breaking horses, herding cattle, ploughing and sowing and reaping, toiling in the forge and furnace, digging in the mine, building road and bridges and high cathedrals, preaching in all the churches; of men everywhere, doing everything - 'the world.'
And when we say women, we think female - the sex.
But to these women, in the unbroken sweep of this two-thousand-year-old feminine civilisation, the word woman called up all that big background, so far as they had gone in social development; and the word man meant to them only male - the sex." (p.137)

In a way I ended up thinking of the author as one of the women in Herland. She mocks the men quite gently, making them struggle to deny or hide the failings of their own masculine society, when the women around them see through their evasions and avoidance of certain subjects. Where the three men are constantly harping on about the way these women ought to be behaving and what is wrong with their way of doing things she coaxes them quite slowly into an understanding of a different way of thinking about women, never criticising them directly, just nudging them to acknowledge the alternative. While the perfection of the society irritated me somewhat, it was illogical to think that illness and crime would disappear completely, her picture of cooperation was inspiring. What was also interesting was her level of ecological consciousness, the care the women took of their environment and the understanding for a need for balance and respect. At a time when the thoughtless plunder of the world's natural resources was not really questioned this was also quite radical. While dystopian novels are all very interesting I do enjoy a nice utopia sometimes, it is a bit more encouraging.

Friday 24 August 2012

Cup of tea

I also found in the library a copy of 'Dog' by John Hegley, which I took out just out of interest, having seen him perform at Hesfes. Although his poems are mainly pitched at children and have what you would think of as 'child' themes, and are mostly very straightforward, I liked the fact that they often had quite subtle meanings couched in very plain language. My favourite had to be, however, the Cup of Tea poem, the most perfect synthesis of poem and life philosophy. Enjoy.

Wednesday 22 August 2012

Walking Home

The Manchester Literature Festival is coming to town on 8th October and, as well as doing a bit of volunteering like last year, I am planning to get to a reading by Simon Armitage. He is one of my most read writers with three other reviews on the blog, and while random browsing at the library the other day I came across 'Walking Home', the story of his trek down the Pennine Way. Having just read and enjoyed 'The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry', this was a little like a real life version, following Simon as traverses some of the country's roughest terrain, and the random real people he encounters along the way. It has a smattering of personal anecdotes mixed in with the story of his journey. Unlike Harold it is quite well planned in advance, but in common with Harold he makes the journey without financial resources, giving poetry readings along the way to fund his exploits and relies of the goodwill of supporters to provide him with bed and board. 

So it all sounds a bit unpromising, man trudging in the rain for days at a time does not sound that fascinating but his writing style is so down to earth and amusing that you really warm to him, and the characters he meets are more engaging than the invented and occasionally clichéd ones in Harold's pilgrimage. He begins by explaining why he decided to take the trip:

"I wanted to write a book about the North, one that could observe and describe the land and its people , and one that could encompass elements of memoir as well as saying something about my life as a poet."

and why he chooses to do the walk from north to south:

"But as a poet, I'm naturally contrary. ... It is a dissenting and wilful art form, and most of its practitioners are signed-up members of the awkward squad. So against all the prevailing advice, against the prevailing weather, and against much of the prevailing signage, I undertook to walk the Pennine Way in the 'wrong' direction. Walking south also made sense because it meant I'd be walking home." (p.4-5)

At Byrness:

"Nine people come to the reading. by which I mean the nine people sitting in the residents lounge attend a poetry reading whether they like it or not. This includes a father-and-son team from Wales doing the Pennine Way in three stages, a woman from Kelso who was (of course) born in Huddersfield and knows my mother, and a truly magnificent wiry old boy from County Durham who has walked 230 miles in seven days carrying not much more than a pac-a-mac and a packet of mints." (p.45)

Reminded of St Michael's Mount after reading a piece called 'Causeway':

"the island-castle reached via a stone causeway which disappears under the sea then re-emerges at low tide. Visitors can walk over to the island and get marooned there, and it's all very exciting, in an English sort of way." (p.85)

The strangeness of staying in stranger's homes:

"Stranger still for the hosts, I imagine, having a complete outsider disappear behind the door of the spare bedroom, rooms which are nearly always reliquaries or shrines, museums of past lives or mausoleums devoted to a particular absence, a place of mothballed clothes, stockpiled books, musical instruments locked in cases, photographs under cellophane, framed certificates, dusty trophies, threadbare soft toys, objects which have no function or place in the everyday world of the living room or the kitchen or the master bedroom but whose significance to family lore borders on the sacred. I am sleeping in the memory vault, and  none of the memories are mine." (p.174-5)

A chat with the apprehensive Colin (Pennine Way Ranger) in a regulation green Land Rover:

" 'What did you think I'd be like?'
'I don't know to be honest.'
'Some kind of bespectacled, fragile intellectual in a velvet jacket and unsuitable shoes, right?'
'No,' he says, unconvincingly, then a moment later, 'OK, yes.' " (p.177)

Then a little something just to remind you he's a poet:

"I lie on the bed for a while longer, watching five starlings perched on a set of telephone wires outside the window, like notes on a page of sheet music, and try to hum the tune" (p.186)

Little anecdote about the small community that is poetry:

"The next time I looked up it's because there's a little old man standing in front of me, blocking the path, his arm extended, wanting to shake my hand.
'Are you Simon Armitage?'
'Ha! I don't believe it!' he says. 'That's two of you now. I met Seamus Heaney last week!'
'He's not doing the Pennine Way, is he?'
'He was in a pub,' he says then, 'Unbelievable!' Then he spins on his heels and disappears, leaving me with the thought of walking into the Old Nag's Head in Edale in a couple of days time only to find Heaney sitting at the bar having got there first, Amundsen to my Scott, the story already told, the book already written." (p.246-7)

There are a few poems but that's not really the purpose of the book. A surprising and wonderful read, made me laugh out loud and gave food for thought. 

Tuesday 14 August 2012


I don't see much of my extended family but they are a multitudinous bunch. Mum and dad, and Claire and Nat, went up to the wilds of Scotland at the weekend to celebrate the wedding of my cousin Frances to her young man David (she is the youngest cousin on mum's side of the family). Will have to rely on Claire to send me a picture of the happy couple. I had done a few home made cards for people recently, using white pen on black card, and came up with this to send with congratulations. I am not a brilliant freehand artist so I tend of pinch ideas off the interweb and adapt them. 
Back in January I knitted this hoodie for Thomas, and his dad Gareth (youngest cousin on dad's side of the family), then sent me this gorgeous picture of him wearing it:
Then just before we went off to Hesfes, Daniel (youngest of Uncle Doug and Auntie Eve's boys) announced the arrival of his daughter Sasha (WTH I didn't even know anyone was expecting):
so I rushed out and bought something a bit psychedelic and made her this cute cardigan (knitted to this pattern called the Maile Sweater, but am not sure I would recommend it as it was a bugger to knit). I hope they like it and maybe we'll get a photo of her wearing it at some point.

Monday 13 August 2012

Left Handers Day

Today is apparently Left Handers Day. Mostly I don't make too much of a fuss about the way the world is organised for right handers, I think of myself as pretty adaptable. I tend to think there are more important things to get upset over. My working environment however is very 'handist', as I discovered on my first day. When I started sorting letters on the first morning I found that I was putting them into the frame backwards because I use my left hand. The frame (a series of slots on shelves that allow the letters to be put into delivery order) is arranged from left to right and the letters must be facing left. I used to be able to get around this in my old office; if I was sorting with someone I would do it their way but when working by myself I would just put the letters in the wrong way around but then had to take them out of the frame one house at a time. In my current office however the frames are smaller (too many walks packed into a small space) and the slots are all doubled up, two houses per slot. I can no longer put the letters in backwards and am obliged to turn each letter as I put it in the frame, something that I have just developed a knack for. I did discover a left handed frame when I worked in Northleach because the walk holder was left handed and had arranged the frame from right to left ... it was great. After all this time however I find that I am just acclimatised to doing things to suit the righties. 
I do play the guitar right handed and knit right handed ... it's funny that only left handed people really notice that there might be another way to do stuff.

Sunday 12 August 2012

More of those lines: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

I sent 'Major Pettigrew's Last Stand' by Helen Simonson to my sister Claire for her birthday and she lent it back to me to read. 'Charming' seems to have been the most frequently used adjective in the reviews, and it is full of all the quaint assumptions about life that distinguish the home counties middle class view of how life is and should be lived. It is again a very nice novel; the Major started out as a stuffy old codger but he did grow on me by the end.

It is the story of the village, Edgecombe St Mary (which sounds more Devon to me), and, most significantly, it's golf club and the prestige of membership; it becomes somehow symbolic of how the social strata are maintained and the lines between the class divisions are enforced. The Major falls into a friendship with Mrs Ali who runs the local shop, and as it develops they become the object of some gossip and even censure by the locals, and to a certain extent his awful son, Roger. Roger is unpleasant, grasping, acquisitive and self-seeking, and possibly an indictment of his upbringing. Everything he says and does is with an eye on what career or material advantage it might bring him; I have rarely come across a character so devoid of redeeming feature. We have the committee of ladies (member's wives of course) at the golf club who are busy organising the annual shindig and exchanging gossip and scandal. Then we have the local lord, fallen on hard times and thinking about selling his village land for development, and the nasty american developer who is involved in the deal, but who, at the same time, just wants to find a way in to membership of the privileged establishment elite. Finally there is Alice, the Major's neighbour, who is out to defend the village against encroachment by change. Her character irritated me because it was lazy and clichéd, painting her as some kind of weird hippy-type. Here the Major discovers her watching the surveyors in the field:

" 'If we're going to take direct action, it won't do for them to see our faces,' she explained as if to a small child. She was crouched on a folding camp stool in the tiny space between her own compost bin and the hedge that divided her garden from the field. She did not seem bothered by the slight tang of rotting vegetables. Risking a quick glance, the Major saw a tripod and telescope poking into the greenery. He also noticed that Alice's attempts at discretion did not extend to her clothing, which included a magenta sweater and orange pants in some kind of baggy hemp." (p.172)

I liked the story because, like Harold Fry, the Major is an old bloke who's life has been very measured and controlled, who has never even thought about the life experienced by other people, who only has to associate with other middle class people because he lives in this secluded little enclave where the real world hardly dares to tread ... but through the influence of events he comes to see things in a different light. "I suppose I was raised to believe in politeness above all" seems to be his defining characteristic, as he tells Amina when she is rude to the club secretary who objects to her presence in the lobby of the golf club. The incident is most interesting because he sees what has happened and is uncomfortable about it but is so stuck in his rut of conventionality that he is unable to even apologise properly:

" 'Got kicked out,' she said, tossing her heavy, clinking bag in the boot on top of his clubs. 'Some flunky in a bow tie suggested we wait by the servants' entrance.'
'Oh dear, I'm sure he wasn't trying to be offensive,' said the Major, who was sure of no such thing. 'I'm sorry you felt ...' He searched for the right word; 'excluded' and 'unwelcome' were too accurate to provide the comfortable vagueness he sought. '...bad.' " (p.159)

In fact reading this again it is very perceptive. Thinking back to how I reacted to The Help; it is as if when everyone knows where the lines are and sticks to the right side of them then everything is just fine, it's when people start denying the lines that life gets uncomfortable. The white employers in Jackson didn't want to be made uncomfortable, to have to think too hard about the situation they had created. The golf club members didn't like it when confronted by someone who refused to be invisible, a member of the 'working class' who refused to leave quietly by the back door. 'Excluded' is the accurate word, but the Major cannot say it out loud because it would force him to acknowledge what is wrong with the situation. 

Moments in the book irritated me; the author, though British has lived too long in the US, uses the word 'movie' instead of 'film' and the word 'pants' instead of 'trousers' (should have been picked up by the editor in my opinion) but mostly the writing is excellent and makes lovely subtle little expositions of the Major's character. Here he is having written to the planning office:

"The insertion of a crisp folded letter into a fresh envelope always gave him pleasure, and as he looked at the envelope now, he decided his words were adequately composed and the letter suitably concise and grave. He popped the envelope into the box with satisfaction and looked forward to the entire matter being resolved in an amicable manner between reasonable men." (p.176)

and his views on parenting;

"It was only as George sank his face into the icing that the Major remembered how he had never allowed his own son more than a single treat at tea and had sometimes, at suitably random intervals, made him do with no treats at all in order to avoid spoiling him." (p.213)

and when faced with Jasmina dressed for the golf club ball:

"He opened his mouth to say that she looked extremely beautiful and deserved armfuls of roses, but the words were lost in committee somewhere, shuffled aside by the parts of his head that worked full-time on avoiding ridicule." (p. 250-1)

Having said that I find it says so much more about what is wrong with the world. Often it is that books like this try to pretend they are nice little safe stories about village life when really they are about the prejudice and privilege that is entrenched in our class system and what an uphill battle it is even to get people to acknowledge the situation. And while it has this nice safe happy ending it comes about not because the Major confronts his own culture's shortcomings but because he thinks he has the right to confront the shortcomings of someone else's culture and gets to take Jasmina out of what he considers to be a 'suffocating' environment and take her into what he thinks will be a nicer one. The portrayal of the old auntie as some kind of demon morality enforcer was another lazy cliché and Jasmina's grateful acquiescence to her rescue is faintly patronising. It left me almost as uncomfortable as The Help.

One last quote, just because I liked it, and it relates to the postal system:

"He had never imagined so clearly the consequences of mailing a letter - the impossibility of retrieving it from the iron mouth of the box; the inevitability of it's progress through the postal system; the passing from bag to bag and postman to postman until a lone man in a van pulls up to the door and pushes a small pile through the letterbox. It seemed suddenly horrible that one's words could not be taken back, one's thoughts  allowed none of the redemption of speaking face to face. As she dropped the letter into the box, all the sun seemed to drain out of the afternoon." (p.214) 

Thursday 9 August 2012

A Monster Calls

I read about Patrick Ness' book 'A Monster Calls' and the review gushed so enthusiastically that I added it to my library request list. It is written after an idea from the author Siobhan Dowd who died before she was able to complete the book. It is about a boy coming to terms with his mother's terminal illness. Chapters alternate between Connor's real world of hospital visits and school bullies, and the nightmares where he is visited by a monstrous yew tree who helps him face the emotional turmoil and suppressed anger he is experiencing. While on the face of it that sounds a little simplistic and almost patronising it is so well written that it never comes across like that. 
The book is really made however by the illustrations of Jim Kay which are dark and atmospheric and really emphasise the fear and loneliness that Connor is feeling.

Here is the monster the first night it arrives in Connor's garden:

And when it arrives again in his grandmother's 'best' front room:

But my favourite is the image of the tiny tree sprouting from the knot in the floorboards after the monster's departure:
A wonderful book, tackling a difficult subject very effectively; not just a story for children going through the loss of a parent or other family trauma, but a genuinely helpful book about expressing negative emotions. Probably suitable 8+ but I think a parent might want to read it themselves first to judge how their own child might respond to the ideas and images in the story.

(Linking back to my review of Michael Rosen's Sad Book, that also tackles the subject of death but aimed at much younger children.)

August Orange book: The Help

The Help by Kathryn Stockett
I have sat and stared at this part-written post for several days not sure how to write about this book. The book has raised a lot of fuss and response since it was published. It is a very good novel. It is very readable and the characters are warm and believable and real ... but it is an essentially superficial and slightly rose-tinted version of the situation at the time it was set. What discomfited me was that it did not discomfit me enough; it was as if it was saying that because these women were brave and strong and resilient that the situation they were in was somehow ok. The story is designed to be uplifting and heart-warming, not to essentially challenge or question the status quo.

Set in Jackson Mississippi in 1962 the book is narrated by three women, Aibileeen and Minny, black maids, and Miss Skeeter, an affluent young white woman with journalistic aspirations. Sparked by the unexplained disappearance of her much loved maid Constantine, Skeeter decides to try and write about the lives and experiences of the black 'help' who run the homes and raise the children of the middle class white families. The story follows the three of them as they learn to trust each other and attempt to break down the social barriers that keep them apart. While Stockett says in her postscript how "there was so much more love between white families and black domestics than I have the ink or the time to portray" I ended up feeling that the book was too cosy and brushed too superficially over the potential harm that could befall the women who help Skeeter with her project. She is presented as a much more sympathetic character than the odious Miss Hilly, who we are encouraged to despise, but for all her rising awareness of the social and political iniquity she is not interested in doing anything to change the way things are. The civil rights movement is really beginning to gain momentum but the people of Mississippi want to keep their heads in the sand and pretend it is never going to affect them. In reality the book is a character book, about the women and their friendship and is quite self-consciously not political.

That's it really. I can't think of a good way to articulate what I thought about it, so I will give you this long quote. It is from a chapter by Minnie. It seems to sum up the situation and expresses the catch 22 situation that they are all in. She is talking initially about her employer, Miss Celia, a 'white trash' woman who has married above her social status and is struggling to understand her position and gain acceptance:

" 'She just don't see em. The lines. Not between her and me, not between her and Hilly.'
Aibileen takes a long sip of her tea. Finally I look at her. 'What you so quiet for? I know you got a opinion bout this.'
'You gone accuse me a philosophising.'
'Go ahead,' I say. 'I ain't afraid a no philosophy.'
'It ain't true.'
'Say what?'
'You talking about something that don't exist.'
I shake my head at my friend. 'Not only is they lines, but you know good as I do where them lines be drawn.'
Aibileen shakes her head. 'I used to believe in em. I don't anymore. They in our heads. People like Miss Hilly is always trying to make us believe they there. But they ain't.'
'I know they there cause you get punished for crossing em,' I say. 'Least I do.'
'Lot a folks think if you talk back to you husband, you crossed the line. And that justifies punishment. You believe in that line?'
I scowl down at the table. 'You know I ain't studying no line like that.'
'Cause that line ain't there. Except in Leroy's head. Lines between black and white ain't there neither. Some folks made those up, long time ago. And that go for the white trash and the so-ciety ladies too.' " (p.311-12)

An interesting read, but you can see why it has also been widely criticised. I am going to move the film to the top of the Lovefilm list as I am very curious to watch it now.

Wednesday 1 August 2012

Shawl and Harold

This was supposed to be my Hesfes project but when the yarn arrived it was so lovely I started it straight away, and it turned out quite nicely because it meant I did manage to finish it and wear it while we were there. It is a lovely simple pattern with just a variety of stitches to give it texture, stocking stitch, garter stitch, moss stitch, eyelets and wavy lines created by multiple dropped yarn-overs, and I have changed yarn every four or five rows, leaving the tail ends as a fringe.
 Here is the finished shawl being modelled by Kerry who wanted to run off with it. 
 ... and back home and smelling of bonfire ... but still in need of a bit of extra fringing. I am really pleased with it. It is a perfect size for wrapping around and the yarns are all soft and cosy.

My holiday reading was quite limited, we spent much time just knitting or wandering up and down or ... actually participating in the stuff that was going on on site. The stuffy tent and the need to get up and dressed to go to the loo meant I didn't lie in in the mornings. Since we had no fridge or cold-box that meant an extended wait for the little shop to open to get fresh milk for tea, so I sat each morning reading 'The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry' by Rachel Joyce (that I discover is long-listed for the Booker Prize this year). 

As you might guess it's about Harold, who gets a letter from an old friend, Queenie Hennessy, telling him she is terminally ill and when he sets out to post his reply he ends up walking from Devon to Berwick upon Tweed in Northumberland to see her. It is about what happens to Harold along the way, the people he meets and who both help and hinder him, but it is also about Maureen, his wife left behind. It is about a married couple who hardly talk to each other, who exist in the same house but do not share anything; it is about their sorrows and how they arrived at this terrible lonely life. To begin with Harold assumes that people will think his pilgrimage is foolish, but he quickly discovers that the idea catches their imagination. He struggles on for some weeks and then, encountering moments of kindness, he gives away all his possessions and makes the remainder of the journey relying on the support of strangers. Before long the media is involved and then a band of followers turns the whole venture into something of a three-ring-circus, but in spite of all the distractions, inside his head, Harold manages to stay focussed on where he is going and why ... because the why is something that has preoccupied him for 20 years. 

Harold is this wonderful mixture of determined old codger and polite english gentleman. As a quiet unassuming man he launches himself into the unknown, having lived a totally safe life up to that point. He tells everyone he meets how he is walking to Queenie. He has spent his life feeling like he has let everyone down, particularly his son, who's story hangs like a shadow over his parent's life. Harold seems to feel that the walk to save Queenie is some kind of penance for all his other failures. But at the same time he allows the 'pilgrims' to hijack his walk and allows the media to put it's own spin on his aims and motivation. Back home Maureen finds new friendship and consolation in their lonely widowed neighbour, Rex, but even though Harold phones her from the road they are still unable to say anything meaningful. The story, although heartwarming on the surface, is in essence a sad one, and Rex sums it up (talking about his wife):

'I miss her all the time. I know in my head that she's gone but I still keep looking. The only difference is I am getting used to the pain. It's like discovering a great hole in the ground. To begin with you forget it's there and keep falling in. After a while, it's still there, but you learn to walk around it." (p.198) 

Harold and Maureen have been living at the bottom of their hole for a long time. Because the human body can walk on auto-pilot it leaves the brain free for thinking about all the things he had been avoiding thinking about, the things that both he and Maureen had been avoiding talking about. Harold thinks he is walking to save Queenie but in reality he is walking to save himself, and in consequence Queenie manages to save him for the second time in his life.  A very lovely book, about the difficulties of the human condition, and about how real human connections can help heal very deep wounds., and how sometimes it does take a very long walk to sort things out.