Monday 27 January 2014

Holocaust Memorial Day

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, and since the idea behind it is for people to remember I thought I would repost this brief review that I wrote several years ago, before this blog started, of Roman Frister's book 'The Cap or the Price of a Life', because I felt that it taught me a great deal about the history of the Holocaust and its impact.

"I knew that by writing the truth and nothing but the truth I would not only hurt the feelings of other survivors but also contradict the academics who have written many important books about the extermination of six million bodies - but very few about the extermination of a single human spirit."

Although I read Anne Frank's diary when I was quite young I had never read a Holocaust memoir before and this is so much more than a Holocaust memoir. Roman Frister is a renoun jounalist and writer and this autobiography weaves together his family's pre-war and wartime history with his own post-war life. The impact of the Holocaust is never insignificant but it affects people in very different ways and Frister is very honest about his own experience. Despite all we might think we know about the Holocaust only the people who went through it can ever understand how fundamentally the humanity of it's victims was undermined. How do you you react to such inhuman treatment? Frister reacts by refusing to bow to it. He cheats what should have been inevitable death on several occasions, by pure chance. 'Survivor guilt' destroyed many people in the years after the war, but Frister can recognise that there is no implicit moral judgement in his survival, he is not a better person than any that died, just luckier. His is essentially a selfish survival, his own life is the driving force behind all his actions and decisions. He admits to a terrible act, the one which gives the book it's title. He steals a cap from a fellow prisoner, leading directly to the other man's death. And yet you are left unable to judge him by normal standards; who amongst us can be sure we would not have done the same. He says, interestingly, at one point, reflecting on the person he might have become had not the war intervened on his father's plans for his education, that he accepts all that he has been forced to experience, that these experiences formed part of the person he is now and that is the person he wants to be. The book makes you examine your own motivations and acknowledge your own human weaknesses. Despite the horror of much of the story it is an incredibly life affirming book that tackles first hand the moral ambiguity with which we are all so often forced to live.

Sunday 19 January 2014

Five Years Old

What is it with bloggers 'answering' comments? I am a bit bemused by it. I read lots of blogs (though many I read on a rss feeder these days and only visit if I want to comment) and if I comment on a blog it's because I have found the post interesting or entertaining, however I do not pop back the next day to see if the blogger has thanked me for my visit, nor do I sign up to be emailed the other comments (who needs it?). So I don't make a point of doing the "hey, thanks for your comment x" thing here, though I always return visit people's blogs and often comment there thanking them. But then I have started agonising over whether it's something that visitors think is important and they get insulted if I fail to acknowledge their comment. So that brings me back round to the annual 'does it really matter?' and 'why am I doing this?' questions. Then I tell myself to stop waffling and just write the goddam post.

It's been a slow year with a mere 122 posts, the vast majority being reviews, though much more baking has also gone on this past year, a measly 153 comments but a staggering 107 followers. I am not going to mention the overall visitor stats as I am racing towards a major milestone sometime in the next month that will deserve a celebratory post. The most visited new posts from this year are both sewing posts from May: the shift dress and the peg bag each have over 600 visits. It is very gratifying when a google search brings my blog up on the first page, and if you are really in to increasing your traffic the advice would be to title your posts to coincide with questions that might be asked on the search engine. I have had loads of visits to my post about Kate Atkinson's Life After Life because I entitled it 'Darkness Falling' which seems to be the title of a popular series of zombie novels (maybe it even tempted a few readers to try something a little more challenging). 

So it's been five years and I'm still blogging; looking back at last year's anniversary post it has been a singularly uneventful year. As I commented to Creature last night, despite a couple of potential new roles at work and a couple of job interviews, my life is exactly the same as it was a year ago. Thanks for visiting and thanks for commenting, while I am mostly doing it for my own entertainment it is gratifying that other people find some interest too.

Thursday 16 January 2014

"to read without joy is stupid"

'Stoner' by John Williams was recommended in a plethora of places as a newly rediscovered 'classic', and there was a queue for it as the library. In small ways it reminded me of Larry's Party by Carol Shields that I really loved, it is similarly a realist tale of one man's life, but William Stoner is more tragic and sad. In the story Stoner is the only son of hard working farmers who goes off to college to learn skills to help the farm, but instead he falls in love with literature and discovers things about life and himself that he had never considered before. He abandons his former life and eventually become a literature professor. Life however is a succession of disappointments to which he becomes merely resigned and stoical. He marries a strange girl, who turns out to be squashed down by her parents and apparently without imagination. His academic career is thwarted by a disagreement with the chairman of the university that spirals out of control and becomes a decades-long silent feud between them. His initial close bond with his young daughter is undermined and then obliterated by his wife's interference. He is unremarkable, the opening page says this of him:
"Stoner's colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers." (p.1)
and mostly he shies away from confrontation, allowing his wife to turn him out of both his study and his bedroom as well as his daughter's life, but when it comes to the university he makes his stand and manages to reassert himself in a clever and subtle way. Even when I felt frustrated with him because of his resignation, particularly the refusal to fight for his daughter, I guess I liked him because he is a good man. Literature becomes his escape, his inner life is truly more important than what could be viewed as the petty concerns of everyday life. It is his passion and what gives his existence meaning, and you have to ask yourself why is that any less valid than anything else he might have done with his life. He refers regularly to a friend from his youth who chose to enlist during the First World War and was killed; it is almost as if he wants to remind himself that life is so short and death so arbitrary, and what we choose to do is not so important as the integrity with which we do it. 

The book lingers regularly on his thought processes and it becomes something of a meditation on the nature of existence. Everything about it is understated, it lacks drama, even his wife's 'tantrums' seem muted by his lack of response to them. Periodically he sinks into a kind of depression that is then lifted by a renewed enthusiasm for his teaching; this quote I liked because it gives a good impression of Stoner's sense of unreality and meaninglessness:

"He heard the silence of the winter night, and it seemed to him that he somehow felt the sounds that were absorbed by the delicate and intricately cellular being of the snow. Nothing moved upon the whiteness; it was a dead scene, which seemed to pull at him, to suck at his consciousness just as it pulled the sound from the air and buried it within a cold white softness. He felt himself pulled outward towards the whiteness, which spread as far as he could see, and which was part of the darkness from which it glowed, of the clear and coldness sky without height or depth. For an instant he felt himself go out of the body that sat motionless before the window; and as he felt himself slip away, everything - the flat whiteness, the trees, the tall columns, the night, the far stars - seemed incredibly tiny and far away, as if they were dwindling to a nothingness." (p.185)

The book also felt as if it were an examination of the quote "Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man" (regularly attributed to Saint Francis Xavier). There is not an extended description of Stoner's childhood, but it was hard and his parents are accepting of their place and lot in life, and the truth is that he never leaves this behind, it is ingrained on his personality and colours the way he reacts to the new life he makes for himself. I found this final quote is very moving, talking about Stoner's reaction to the Great Depression and shows the character as profoundly empathic, probably, on reflection, his strongest quality:

"And although he looked upon them with apparent impassivity, he was aware of the times in which he lived. During that decade when many men's faces found a permanent hardness and bleakness, as if they looked upon an abyss, William Stoner, to whom that expression was as familiar as the air he walked in, saw the signs of a general despair he had known since he was a boy. He saw good men go down into a slow decline of hopelessness, broken as their vision of a decent life was broken; he saw them walking aimlessly upon the streets, their eyes empty like shards of broken glass; he saw them walk up to back doors, with the bitter pride of men who go to their executions, and beg for the bread that would allow them to beg again; and he saw men, who had once walked erect in their own identities, look at him with envy and hatred for the poor security he enjoyed as a tenured employee of an institution that somehow could not fail. He did not give voice to this awareness; but the knowledge of common misery touched him and changed him in ways that were hidden deep from the public view, and a quiet sadness for the common plight was never far beneath any moment of his living." (p.226-7)

(Post title is a quote from the author as given on his Wikipedia page)

What's happening?

Alternatively titled, 'From Caller's Office to Customer Service Point'.
I worked the Caller's Office last wednesday evening.
Foolishly I took a book thinking I would get a brief break.
It is the only day we are open late, so the 'after work' callers formed an orderly queue that snaked out of the door 
and round the corner.
One man stormed off in a huff when he had no ID to match either the name or the address on the parcel, 
I told him it was my first day.
One woman sighed impatiently when she enquired and heard to 
the affirmative that I was working solo.
One girl waited (she said) 45 minutes to be told she had a Parcel Force card and it was the wrong office (it probably said quite clearly on the card where to go.)
The oldest card was the dated 5th December, the newest a mere hour and half previously with the instruction to wait 24 hours 
before calling on the reverse of the card.
Kevin (who was shelving the returned parcels in the back) 
stepped in patiently every time I panicked 
or was looking in the wrong place.
Five hours without pausing for breath.
On tuesday six managers came to the office 
to tell us what's happening.
Hold on to your hats parcel customers of Rusholme, 
Withington and Didsbury.
It will all be done by Easter they say.
Have they never watched Grand Designs?
It will take til Christmas, cost at least 50% more than they think 
and someone is going to have a baby.
It definitely won't be me.
There will be sliding glass doors and a plush new counter 
with a 'welcoming atmosphere'.
Screens will inform you of all the exciting products that 
Royal Mail have on offer.
All packets will be logged by computer and retrieval 
will be swift and efficient.
But most importantly there will be room to wait out of the rain.

Wednesday 15 January 2014

Middle aged blues

I found 'It's Hard to be Hip Over Thirty and Other Tragedies of Married Life' by Judith Viorst on someone's TRB Pile Challenge list and was curious at the title and did a search (isn't the internet a wonderful thing). It sounded just irresistible, so I bought this second hand copy from 1973 that has lovely heavyweight paper and is even stitched together rather than glued. Judith Viorst had written a whole series of these books of poems covering life's little, and not so little, annoyances and charting the ups and downs of human relationships with wry humour and astute observation. 

This book takes us from the post honeymoon stage:
"If I quit hoping he'll show up with flowers, and
He quits hoping I'll squeeze him an orange, and
I quit shaving my legs with his razor, and
He quits wiping his feet with my face towel, and
We avoid discussions like
Is he really smarter than I am, or simply more glib,
Maybe we'll make it."  (Maybe we'll make it, p.19)

via money worries:
"Once I believed 
That the only kind of marriage I could respect
Was a spiritual relationship
Between two wonderfully spiritual human beings
Who would never argue about money
Because they would be too busy arguing about
Great literature and philosophy." (Money, p.39)

European holidays:
"I am (where else?) at the Deux Magots
Moodily drinking a pernod
And trying to think thoughts
Jean-Paul Sartre would respect
And trying to convey the impression
That I am someone with a rich full inner life
Instead of someone
Who gets palpitations
When the washer-dryer breaks down." (In Paris, p.56)

and imaginings of infidelity:
"My pulse quickened,
And I could imagine ...
Cryptic conversations.
Clandestine martinis.
Tumultuous embraces.
And me explaining
That I can't slip away Thursdays because of cub scouts.
And that long kisses clog my sinuses." (Infidelity, p.67)

all the way to worries about their children's adolescence:
"Our sons are growing up
And any day now
They'll be doing their own thing,
Telling it like it is,
Denouncing the military-industrial complex,
And never trusting anyone over thirty,
Even parents
Who tried agitation
Before they did,
And Alienation
Before they did,
And never trusted anyone over thirty." (The Generation Gap, p.69)

While many of the references are wonderfully dated, making it a beautiful period piece of sixties writing, many of the thoughts are timeless and it is comforting to think that forty years on people are still concerned with the same things. It's not great poetry but it is witty and amusing and kept me entertained several evenings.
(note: this was purchased just before the new year and so is ok for the triple dog dare.)

Monday 13 January 2014

Work whinge of the week: Americus Callahan

(Apparently) in June 1902 Americus Callahan patented the first window envelope and I have spent much of the last eleven years cursing him. It's all very nice that they save people time and money not to have to write the name and address on the outside of their envelopes but these things are the bane of my working day; the number of companies who don't bother ensuring that the address on the letter lines up correctly with the window causes endless annoyance. The worst offender has got to be Virgin Media who regularly send out large A4 adverts and as they are flung through the sorting machine the letter inside shifts so that only the postcode is showing. Now when you're sorting in the office it's mostly a simple matter of a gentle tap on the bench to put things right, but take the same letter, squashed in a  bundle of mail, creased at the edges and damp from the rain and the chances of being able to see the house number is negligible, so you have to tear away at the edge of the window to expose the printing on the letter inside, all the while muttering curses on the head of the previously unknown creator of this most infuriating of stationery. Damn him!
Ah well, at least it didn't rain today.

Sunday 5 January 2014

The Coward's Tale

Random library browsing brought me to Vanessa Gebbie's 'The Coward's Tale'. In November 2012 I wrote a review of 'Words from a Glass Bubble' and was so chuffed to get a visit and comment from Vanessa and reading some more of her writing has been high on the list of things to do. This book certainly did not disappoint. I was quite some way into the book before I recognised the voice and realised it is an extension of the story 'I can squash the King, Tommo' from 'Words from a Glass Bubble', taking the same imagined place and telling the stories of the other people who live there. It is narrated by Ianto Passchendaele Jenkins, the town beggar who lives in the porch of an abandoned chapel, and who loiters in the town square and exchanges stories for coffee, sandwiches and toffees with the people queueing for the cinema. Young Laddy Merridew arrives on the bus to live with his gran while his parents untangle their marriage, he forms an unlikely bond with the beggar and he becomes something of the focus for Ianto's story telling. The stories are all very cleverly tied in together, tracing the bonds within the community, and all focussed on the long ago tragedy of the accident at the 'Kindly Light' pit, the legacy of which has lingered down the generations. It is a book about secrets, how people keep them and how things are often not what they seem. It is a story about a mining community and how the pit dominates their lives as well as their livelihood, when it closes it is impossible for some to imagine another life. It is a story about sadness, people who lives were changed by the accident and who never recover. The only thing about it that was missing for me was the lack of women's voices. They are all stories of men; the woodwork teacher, the undertaker, the deputy librarian, the piano tuner, the gas meter emptier, the window cleaner. The women are there, bearing babies and scrubbing shirts, serving drinks and selling cinema tickets, mourning their men, but they have no voice. The community exists to hew coal, so inevitably women only have a supporting role, there in the background but not really heard. Having said that the stories are so exquisitely put together it would be churlish to criticise the book on that or any basis. 

Quote time now; this from The Halfwit's Tale and the Deputy Bank Manager's Tale, the deft contrast between the experience of the two men, one fiercely denying any relation to the other:

"Half Harris will catch hold of the pram and rock it like it holds a sleeping child. Then Ianto Jenkins will look up at the windows of the Savings Bank where the Deputy Manager, Matthew 'Matty' Harris, no relation of Half's, may not yet have left for home - instead, he will be standing at the window as his Clerk Tommo Price puts on his coat and says, 'That's it for today then.'
Matty Harris, no relation, will have straightened and straightened his papers that need no straightening at all. He'll have opened and closed the drawers of his desk to hear the small sounds of their importance." (p.33-4) 

Sometimes the men in the cinema queue abuse him, but Ianto Jenkins plays something of a role of secret keeper for the town, or perhaps more like a conscience. He seems to bear the weight of the blame and the responsibility for all the consequences of the tragedy, as if he is the Kindly Light incarnate. Throughout the book we also get snippets of his story, his place in the events that have shaped the town, so secondly is the description of Ianto acquiring the boots of a deceased neighbour, boots that will enable him to go down the mine:

"There was no arguing with Divine Intervention either. Divine Intervention was worse than Da. And I had my fingers crossed behind my back that Divine Intervention would please please please give those boots to Geraint Jones so I would not have to go ...
But oh it was gloomy in that kitchen. It all smelled of embrocation and polish and dust, like Ebenezer Chapel on a Sunday when the minister had a chest. I kept thinking that the house was still ringing with the last air breathed out by Mr Ellis. That had me thinking about the world being full of the last air of everyone who had lived, and trying to work out where new air might come from, and whether ..." (p.105)

I loved that because breathing somehow becomes a metaphor for history, that the air from people's breath is like the consequences of their actions, always there inescapably affecting people down the years. 
Here the Piano Tuner, Nathan Bartholomew, is tending to the old piano in The Cat pub, lovely description of both him and the place:

"He sits on a wooden chair for the piano stool is lost a long time ago, ridden on its three wheels for a bet down the hill once, late at night. He sits on the edge of that chair as though he might stand up and leave, but the sounds keep bringing him back as he taps at a key as yellow and pitted as a last tooth. Tapping the same key with the forefinger of his right hand over and over again, feeling it stick against the next where there have been pints and half pints spilled into the dust over the years. His left hand in its cotton glove resting on his knee. The front panel of the piano is against the wall, propped on a carpet the colour of cigarettes. And behind a coat of cobwebs, strings that are as rusted as the barbed wire round Kindly Light pit shudder as he touches the keys. And he hums the note as it should be, and talks low, poetry, hymns. Then he puts a gloved finger up to the strings and holds them, feeling them trembling almost against his skin." (p.174)

This final snippet, taken from The Clerk's Tale, a retelling of Tommo Price and Batty Annie's story, nothing to do with the story, just the most wonderful simile ever:

"But of course there are no boys in chimneys, or in tunnels, and Tommo Price goes home to his wife Sarah Price, who makes white fish for tea with white buttered bread and serves it silent. Lardy-faced, she is, and secrets slide from her like dropped bullseyes on a frozen puddle." (p.251)

There is something that reminds me of 'Under Milk Wood' about this book, the sense of community and the way all the characters' lives are bound tight together, and in fact what I want is Richard Burton to do an audiobook of this and I would listen to it over and over. Go buy, read, now.

Damn hippy home educators

We sat at Julie's the other day and watched the pilot episode of 'Raised by Wolves' on 4oD (available for another 17 days, and a somewhat pretentious Guardian review here); it is written by Caitlin Moran (no relation to Dunk) and her sister Caz and is based (loosely) on their own childhood being home educated in a large family living on a council estate in Wolverhampton. It is being cheered in home ed circles purely because it contradicts the notion that all home educators are middle class hippy types (for visitors from America please read that as 'all home-schoolers are fundamentalist Christian types'). It doesn't make a big issue about them being home educated, though the scene where they watch from the garden when the school kids come past was excellent, it is more about family relationships. Certainly hoping they make it to a full series, the two young women playing Germaine and Aretha are wonderful.

And it ties in quite nicely with my Christmas listening which was 'Wild Abandon' by Joe Dunthorne (who also wrote the book that became the film 'Submarine'), which is about a bunch of home educating hippies. It is the story of an intentional community, started by Don and Freya and Patrick but enlarged over the years by a motley collection of drifters and WWOOFers. The story follows the disintegration of relationships as people begin to change their ideas of what they want in life and Don desperately tries to hold the whole thing together; daughter Kate goes off to college and meets a young man who's home offers all the comforts of modern life that their farm lacks, Don and Freya's marriage crumbles and their son Albert is left feeling abandoned and turns for companionship to Maria, who has all sorts of wacky ideas about where the world is headed. The relationship between Kate and Albert was lovely, siblings who grow up quite dependent on each other for company. Albert remains embedded in his experience of and love for commune life while Kate, out in the 'real world', makes a conscious decision to avoid discussing her childhood experiences. The story build towards the 'Results Party' that Don throws to try and tempt his daughter home. I liked the way that the character's little dramas were going on while the rest of life carried on regardless. Don is not a sympathetic character but he spouts some well reasoned arguments against formal schooling which are randomly scattered through the story so I felt that was his redeeming quality. I think the story succeeded because although it is witty and Joe allowed himself to gently mock some of their efforts it manages to avoid tired clich├ęs, it created real people and a community who were trying to live their lives outside the accepted assumptions and values of society, and I can't help sympathising with people who try, it was hard and they made compromises but they didn't stop trying.