Friday 28 November 2014

The Song of Achilles

Madeline Miller's 'The Song of Achilles' had been sitting on the side of the sofa for a month. It looked like a big fat book that would take me a while to read so I put it off in favour of shorter reads. It won the Orange Prize, since renamed the Women's Prize for Fiction, in 2012 (I discovered on browsing the archive that I have read four of the twenty long listed books from that year, and five from 2013.) This is a wonderful and enthralling book, and a fascinating alternative view of a well loved Greek myth. It is not so much the story of the Trojan War as the story of Achilles and Patroclus; Madeline Miller takes a story of friendship and transforms it into a bond of love that spans from their childhood into the long years of the war. It is a multi-sensory book, filled with rich descriptions of the time and place and people of ancient Greece. In the opening chapters we meet the cream of the Kings and heroes as they gather to bid for the hand of Helen, and the atmosphere bristling with testosterone sets the tone for the whole book, the undercurrents of tension and distrust. Add in the tensions between gods and mortals and you have the basis for a pretty eventful story. 
The young Patroclus is exiled after the death of a boy, so he is sent to be fostered at the palace of Peleus, where he is befriended by Achilles. As son of the goddess Thetis, Achilles is destined for greatness, but he is also a mortal and has human weaknesses. She does not approve of the friendship between the two boys and tries to separate them, but the bond between them almost has a destiny of its own and they try, pointlessly it turns out, to resist the prophesy. 

I have dithered over this review for several days because much as I enjoyed the book it was overshadowed somewhat by the frustration and anger that it evoked in me every time any women appeared in the story. The concept of women as mere chattel pervades the tale, beginning with Helen who is being sold off to the highest bidder, though in an unexpected turn of events is invited to choose her own husband (I think so her father doesn't have to upset any of the very tough men congregating in his palace). Thetis is a goddess but is 'given' by the gods to Peleus (for being such an all round great guy), who proceeds to rape her and she is then obliged to stay 'married' to him for a year. Slave girls in the house of Peleus exist partly for the pleasure of whoever feels like it, and to produce offspring who become new slaves. On Scyros Deidameia is 'given' to Achilles by Thetis in order to ensure a son to come after him. The woman Briseis taken in battle is 'rescued' from ravishment by Agamemnon by Achilles who takes her as a war trophy, but she becomes a pawn in their macho confrontation game. The events paint Patroclus is a positive light when he intervenes to save her again, when Achilles was more concerned about his own honour, a truly flawed hero I felt. While I know that this is part of the cultural attitudes and therefore part of the legend I found myself bristling in annoyance as I read, and so was left with the feeling that Achilles was a bit of a self-centred arsehole. 

" 'Do you not wonder why he did not prevent you from taking her?' My voice is disdainful. 'He could have killed your men, and all your army. Do you not think he could have held you off?'
Agamemnon's face is red. But I do not let him speak.
'He let you take her. He knows you will not resist bedding her, and this will be your downfall. She is his, won through fair service. The men will turn on you if you violate her, and the gods as well.'
I speak slowly, deliberately, and the words land like arrows, each to its target. It is true what I say, though he has been too blinded by pride and lust to see it. She is in Agamemnon's custody, but she is Achille's prize still. To violate her is a violation of Achilles himself, the gravest insult to his honour. Achilles could kill him for it, and even Menelaus would call it fair.
'You are at your power's limit even in taking her. The men allowed it because he was too proud, but they would not allow more.' We obey our kings, but only within reason. If Aristos Achaion's prize is not safe, none of ours are. Such a king will not be allowed to rule for long." (p.277)

If you add in the glorification of violence and senseless slaughter the actual context of the story left me cold. Patroclus tells the story in first person so it is his view of the situation that is most real, I came to care about him, and respect his love and utter devotion to Achilles. So, in conclusion, while it is beautifully written and true to the spirit of greek mythology, it's not really my kind of story.

Thursday 27 November 2014

Happy Chocolate Advent Calendar Week

So it's the last week of November, and you all know what that means for the posties of south Manchester ... yes, it's 'Chocolate Advent Calendar Week'. All those mums and dads who anxiously saw their precious offspring off to university in September are now eagerly anticipating their return for the Christmas break, and are reminding them of their parental affection by sending them a chocolate advent calendar. The good thing about delivering to the students is that there is usually someone home ... it's getting them out of bed to answer the door that is the difficult bit. 

On the plus side I delivered a letter addressed to someone called Ferryman, and when I read the name this song just popped into my head and stayed there all morning ... very annoying since I only know the one line. This is unfortunately how my mind works sometimes. Whatever. Enjoy!

Saturday 22 November 2014

First Aid

'First Aid' by Janet Davey (who doesn't have her own website) is the third of my random library picks. It was a very intense little read about the peculiarities of family dynamics. Just like many family relationship the reader is left to assume rather a lot in this story, people's feelings and motivations are mostly unspoken, lack of communication leading to upset and misunderstanding. 

You might think Jo is a slightly strange mother who ignores the fact that her daughter jumps off the train, or you might think that she is just level headed and pragmatic, knowing that she can neither make her come back nor go after her (having two younger children to take care of). In fact she is a bit strange, living in some kind of personal nether world, and rather preferring it when the real one does not in invade her head space. Having had, what appears to be on the surface, an uncharacteristic and violent altercation with her 'partner' (some bloke who she lives with), she is escaping the situation by running back to her grandparents home. In a very short space of time we learn a great deal about her life: parents killed in a motorbike accident, raised by overprotective grandparents, married young and since divorced, but she says so little, spends so much time gazing wistfully out of the window, that I didn't feel like I got to know her much. The story hops back and forth between the grandparents home in London and Ella (the daughter) wandering around on the south coast, trying to get her head around the idiosyncrasies of adult behaviour. I liked her friend Vince; she lands on his doorstep with no preamble and he just accepts her presence and doesn't ask too many meaningless questions. And I liked Trevor, who owns the junk shop where Jo (and Ella sometimes) works, he is equally down to earth and straightforward. 

But what I really enjoyed was Dilys and Geoff's home, and the atmosphere that surrounds them. It is about the way, for elderly people, life stays the same. I'm not saying this is true of all old people, but for some, they develop ways of living, possessions, daily routines, and they become permanent, unchanging and unchangeable. And when you go to visit it acts as a reassurance (and this of course is sort of what Jo is seeking when she runs back there), a reassurance that life is safe and reliable. It makes the scary uncertain aspects of being a real grown up somehow easier to deal with. 
Three nice ones that demonstrate this:

"Walking away from the supermarket, Ella thought that her gran might be right about Saturday shoppers. Everyone in there - even the ones who weren't talking to themselves or communing with the pet food - seemed to her to have some major personality defect. The human equivalent of wonky trolley wheels. Dilys would only shop on weekday mornings in the company of like-minded people. That was her phrase. She wasn't snobbish, her gran. She believed she was at one with the decent people of Great Britain - who were probably more than half the population - and that they were recognisable by wearing macs in wet weather and not eating anything on the street other than a boiled sweet or an extra-strong mint. Some of them could be black. That wasn't a problem." (p.87)

"Although she hadn't been to chapel or church for decades, Dilys's Sundays were corseted. Jo couldn't list the precise constraints, but she could always feel them. In particular, there were a couple of hours on Sunday mornings to which different rules applied and which accounted for them, at that moment, sitting in the front room and not in the kitchen. Jo had been surprised to discover that Sundays need not be like this, that they didn't possess an essential property, like the redness of cochineal. Though, as she had grown up, she had come to see that other people's families built different tyrannies and that the British Sunday was often part of the trap." (p.139-40)

And when Peter (ex-husband) comes to pick them all up:
"He glanced round quickly, at eye level. He wouldn't have been able to describe the room ten minutes ago; he wasn't good at remembering the look of things. But Jo could see from his face that he knew that it was exactly as it used to be. He didn't want to re-learn it." (p.141)

My own grandparents all died when I was a child and my memories of them are vague, so the description of their house and life reminded me more of my ex-husband's grandparents house that we visited several times when the children were young. The nostalgia that it provoked was quite striking. At the end Jo and the children go home, and the crisis is over, wounds healed almost as if it never happened. Life goes on.

Wednesday 19 November 2014

Dogs of Littlefield

'The Dogs of Littlefield' by Suzanne Berne is the second of my random pick at the library. Her Orange Prize winner 'A Crime in the Neighbourhood' was one of my very early blog posts, followed by 'The Ghost at the Table' the following year, both of which I really enjoyed, so I had no hesitation in picking this up. 

You should known I hate dogs. I don't say that lightly because I don't use the word hate often. This predates my employment as a postie and goes all the way back to childhood. I cannot get my head around why people love dogs, and why most people who own them do not even bother to train them properly. Margaret in this book is one of those people. So the story opens with an incident of dog poisoning and a conflict within a small village community when the local dog owners petition the council to have an 'off-leash' park. The death of the dog made me concerned that the dog owners were going to be the characters I was supposed to identify and sympathise with, and that was never going to happen.

Fortunately as the winter progresses the story introduces us to the whole community (I was concerned I was going to have to remember all the dogs names as well as the people) and Margaret, Bill and Julia become the focus of our attention. We watch them through the hedge with Dr Clarice Watkins, a visiting academic, who decides to make this most-desirable-place-to-live village and its occupants the object of her study. I can understand her interest: you see these news articles about the best places to live, and wonder if the people who live there have charmed lives, but of course, they don't. They may not have the crime and the unemployment but they have the same worries and troubles as the rest of us. So we sit back and watch as Margaret and Bill's crumbling relationship reaches its crisis point, they struggle to keep up a front of normality, and the dead dogs become some kind of weird metaphor for unacknowledged anxieties. But as much as Margaret and Bill's marriage, it is Margaret's relationship with her daughter Julia that is under scrutiny. No wonder she is a mess .... :

"Margaret played the piano for an hour every morning in the living room of her big yellow Victorian house. Something classical and melancholy. Afterwards she moved back and forth past the tall uncurtained windows, picking up books, dishes, clothing, whatever everyone else had left behind in their rush to school or work. She walked her big black dog, got in and out of her silver station wagon. Her clothes were loose-fitting, tasteful, middle-aged: beige, gray or black, brightened by a patterned scarf or an arty hand-knitted cardigan. In the afternoons, when it was time for Julia to return home from school, she stood at the living room windows looking out towards the street until Julia turtled up the sidewalk under her enormous red backpack.
Almost always, Margaret opened the front door even before Julia had gained the steps, each time smiling and saying something that did not arrest Julia's passage, or even cause her to look up. Sometimes Margret continued to stand in the doorway for another moment or two after Julia had disappeared inside, still smiling, looking into the street." (p.49-50)

In fact parenting in general is put under the spotlight. I liked this one, it sums up the superficiality of many of the social interactions:

"Outside on the sidewalk Boris was barking again. Then he quit barking and began to howl. George offered to go out and check on him.
'I'm sure he's fine,' said Emily.
'But what is it's an emergency?' Nicholas was still fixated in the missed cell phone call.
Emily gave George another look of comic exasperation.
'Then the emergency will have to call someone else.'
He watched this exchange with disappointment. 'Performance parenting' is how Tina used to describe it. Seeking to charm listeners in public with one's patience and good humour, using one's child as a foil. Had George not been there, Emily would have told Nicholas to be quiet or no ice cream and that would be the end of it." (p.94-5)

There are burst of descriptive passages that seem deliberately designed to make everything ordinary. She does have a slight tendency to tell you what colour everything is, something which, once you have noticed it, becomes annoying but then entertaining as you keep an eye out for them:

"The leaves of Littlefield had turned red, yellow and deep bronze, drifting across glowing green lawns, onto hedges and doorsteps and the gleaming roofs of parked cars. As they walked to school, children ran to catch falling leaves before they hit the ground. In the collective gardens, purple aster and ragweed bloomed where the gardeners quit weeding and the pumpkins were fat and orange. Soccer season had reached its apex and in the afternoons squads of girls in yellow jerseys, black shorts and black knee socks sprinted back and forth in the park, while coaches blew whistles and soccer balls flew in the bright air. Houses, stop signs, bicycle fenders, all wore a precise gleaming look, a clarity brought on by the cool dry weather, and in the evenings the light turned gold as it was gathered into the harlequin trees, caught within nets of branches and leaves." (p.42) 

Here's another, but I like the way George (the 'sexist male novelist') is thinking about words even as he thinks them:

"Even now her skin looked sallow against the musty red upholstery of the chair, especially compared to the creamy flesh of the magnolia blossoms just opening outside the window. She had removed the raincoat to reveal a pale pink blouse with pink cloth covered buttons, darker pink lace at the collar. A thin gold necklace glinted at her neck and from her ears dangled jade beads set in gold filigree caps. Judging by the earrings and the lace on her blouse, her fay hair pulled back onto a clip, George saw that she had arrayed herself scrupulously this morning. He did not know from whence the words 'arrayed' and 'scrupulously' had come - they seemed to have blown in through the door when he opened it for Margaret, along with whence and a few yellow catkins that now lay like caterpillars on the braided rug in the hall."

Having lived amongst them for nearly a year Clarice Watkins departs, but I liked that she fails to capture what she came to study. We get little glimpses of her research and although this passage is full of trite clichés she is at least ready to acknowledge that her own assumptions and prejudices about the residents of Littlefield don't really say anything about the subtlety of the human condition:

"But the problems of Margaret Downing were all too obvious: the ennui of a loveless marriage, resulting in attempts to connect with external sources of emotional intensity: elaborate seasonal decorations; sentimental German music played endlessly on the piano; and, of course, the banal affair with a sexist male novelist, whose emphasis on sports culture epitomised the phallocentric world that simultaneously rejected and enslaved her, leading to the inevitable emphasis on youthful appearance amid the decline of middle age - blonde salon highlights, yoga classes, skin coddled daily with serums and moisturisers that cost as much as the yearly income of a bean farmer in Rajasthan - all adding up to the worst kind of social blight: the completely self-absorbed human being." (p.240)

What I enjoyed about the book is the way it blends the mundane with the existential, in watching the the characters you are lead to musing over what it's all really about and what their purpose in life is, and a suitably enigmatic ending, leaving Margaret in a state of continued uncertainty.

Monday 17 November 2014

Unbreakable cord

On the spur of the moment I went into town on Friday morning to a lunchtime poetry reading at the Central Library. It turned out to be a very brief affair so I wandered down to the lending library that had not been open when I visited for the beta test and I picked up three new books. I find that I don't browse the shelves very often these days; mostly I have something on reserve and I just go in, pick it up, and leave again, so it felt good to choose books more spontaneously.

'Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful' by Deborah Kay Davies won the Wales Book of the Year in 2009, and interestingly is published by Parthian, who also published 'Everything I found on the Beach' by Cynan Jones that I read last month. It is a collection of linked stories that follows the lives of two sisters, Grace and Tamar, through their childhood and adolescence and into adulthood. Because they are short stories there is no ongoing plot, they are incidents in the girls lives, sometimes about their relationship, sometimes concerning their separate existences. They feel on the surface quite mundane, about the kind of petty incidents and annoyances that fill everyone's lives, told with the minutiae that chime intimately with your own recollections of childhood. They are not tales of sunshine and childhood innocence; the parents and then a younger brother remain shadowy, almost irrelevant, features of their lives. And there are sinister undertones to many of the stories, beginning with Tamar's birth and her mother's utter detachment from her new baby and spiralling downwards from there. In this quote Grace has pushed Tamar out of a tree:

"She wasn't at the bottom of the tree. I searched the undergrowth and saw a scrap of gingham. I forced myself through the blackberry bushes and ivy. My arms and legs were stinging from the bramble thorns. She was still. Lying face down. One of her shoes was missing, her sock was hanging halfway off; her bare heel had a pearly sheen. Her hair was like a little crown standing out. Lying there like that, she looked like a different person. I had to turn her over. I did it with my foot. She made a sound as she rolled over onto her back - half a sigh, half my name, Grace. She had a sharp beech twig impaled in her blue, blue eye. I don't know how far it went inside. I don't think very far. Blood was pooling. There were some torn lime-green leaves on the twig. Her unhurt eye was moving. I think she was looking at me." (p.12. From 'The Point')

Tamar survives this incident, and another when she is lured away up the mountain by a stranger. The benign neglect of their parents does not make for wild abandon, but more weird insecurity, where they are forced together and so despise each other. From 'Fun and Games', it is the indifference that really strikes you:

"After lunch there's a silent, intense struggle to get into her sister's room. Grace, reading aloud, rests her entire body weight against the door while Tamar pushes and grunts from outside. When, suddenly, Grace walks away, Tamar tumbles in and crashes against the bedside table. She hurts her knee, but that doesn't matter. She's there. Climbing onto her sister's bedroom windowsill, she drums with bare feet against the chest of drawers. Stop that, Grace says, without interest, still reading as she does her skirt up. Why don't you go for one of your long walks and never come back? Go and play with a brick, you'd like that. Tamar feels she should continue. Go and kick your own stuff, Grace says. Or I'll kick you. Hard. She picks up her brush and begins to listlessly sort out her hair, still reading." (p.39-40)

The childhood they share leads inevitably to a sense of dislocation and isolation from others: Tamar's stories become futile attempts to find connection while Grace falls inevitably into a marriage with yet another shadowy person:

"Grace is walking down the aisle. Her sister is her bridesmaid. Earlier she had sat on the bench against the pine trees in her wedding dress and waited for her family to be ready. Tamar had come out and sat with her, both of them in their long dresses. Tamar read a magazine. Neither had spoken; they'd just waited. Through the smell of pine Grace could sense her own perfume rising from inside the neck of her dress as her body warmed. She thought about its glowing colour and the facets of light in the darkened bedroom, about the layers of chiffon spread out on the bed. Grace feels she has turned her back on many things. This is the day Grace is getting married, she told the morning garden as she walked towards the beckoning asparagus fern. What she really meant was, Grace is getting away, never coming back. No one else came out to see Grace in the garden. They had stayed inside the house. To Grace her family all looked like more beautiful replicas of themselves. When she kissed them at breakfast, they felt unyielding, chilly." (p.95-6. From 'Negligee')

What I admired was how she manages to get words on the page to describe what would be a momentary flash of memory. This one, from 'Wood', seems to sums up their whole childhood:

"She remembers the liver days when she was a child. The backs of her bare legs stuck to the plastic kitchen seat as she tried to cut offal into small grey triangles. She remembers slipping them through her lips. The liver crumbled like sour dust in her mouth. She smiles as she thinks about Grace retching like a fussy cat, tears flying from her eyes. Both of them getting sent to their rooms again. She remembers the precious one slurping up his soup and soft, floury rolls. Suddenly she wants to eat thin slices of cucumber and ripe tomato; maybe cold smoked fish and wobbly mayonnaise. The odour of the next door's food is the colour of gravy. She looks around for another table." (p.129-30)

The bond between siblings, I assume it is something the same for brothers, is a very subtle thing. You share things with them that you cannot compare to friendship, so there is no surprise when the final story finds the two of them in a cafe, Tamar reciting a recurring dream of a baby being born:

"We are both crying silently. I look around; several people are staring at us. The first waiter who served Tamar is walking towards our table, his eyes fixed almost hungrily on her face. I turn to look back at her. She obviously has no interest in our surroundings. She will not let me go. In the dream you tell me we have to cut the cord, she says. She squeezes me even harder, the now brown of her eyes glittering with tears. But you see, she says, shaking my clasped hands, this cord, we can never break it, can we?" (p.142. From 'Cords')

Sunday 16 November 2014


I was not convinced by the previous Nora Ephron book I read but I picked this one out to give her a second chance. 'Heartburn' tells the story of her second divorce and is similarly something you could skim through in an afternoon and just feel as if you have just had a long chat with a good friend. Although there is a bit of backwards and forwards telling you the story of her relationship with Mark (assuming the names have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty alike) it mainly follows her through the process of discovering her husband is having an affair while she is pregnant and her reaction and that of her friends and family. It is kind of nice because it is a story about how you fall in love and why you keep loving someone in spite of how they treat you, how love is as much about wanting to sustain the feeling as it is about the actual feeling because without it you have to mourn all the things you lose with it. In the story the character is a food writer, so some of her recipes are scattered through the book. I like the idea that things you eat can become connected to a time or a place or a person. So the story is basically the anatomy of a relationship, with all the gory bits laid out on display, and it's not a pretty sight.

I read the book over the few days staying at Claire's and finished the final pages on the train. I did not have a pen handy so (sacrilegious!) I folded the corners of a few pages over where things had amused or struck a chord with me. This one particularly:

"I considered staying in bed all day. I considered getting out of bed and into the bathtub and staying there all day. I wondered if even considering these two alternatives constituted a breakdown. (Probably not, I decided.) I contemplated suicide. Every so often I contemplated suicide merely to remind myself of my complete lack of interest in it as a solution to anything at all. There was a time when I worried about this, when I thought galloping neurosis was wildly romantic, when I longed to be the sort of girl who knew the names of wildflowers and fed baby birds with eyedroppers and rescued bugs from swimming pools and wanted from time to time to end it all. Now, in my golden years, I have come to accept the fact that there is not a neurasthenic drop of blood in my body, and I have become very impatient with it in others. Show me a woman who cries when the trees lose their leaves in autumn and I'll show you a real asshole." (p.46)

This, on falling in love and out again:

"And what is all this about picking, anyway? Who's picking? When I was in college, I had a list of what I wanted in a husband. A long list. I wanted a registered Democrat, a bridge player, a linguist with a particular fluency in French, a subscriber to The New Republic, a tennis player. I wanted a man who wasn't bald, who wasn't fat, who wasn't covered with too much body hair. I wanted a man with long legs and a small ass and laugh wrinkles around the eyes. Then I grew up and settled for a low-grade lunatic who kept hamsters. At first I thought he was charming and eccentric. And then I didn't. Then I wanted to kill him. Every time he got on a plane, I would imagine the plane crash, and the funeral, and what I would wear to the funeral and flirting at the funeral, and how soon I could start dating after the funeral." (p.83)

And this one really captures what divorce is all about:

"That's the catch about betrayal, of course: that it feels good, that there's something immensely pleasurable about moving from a complicated relationship which involves minor atrocities on both sides to a nice, neat, simple one where one person has done something so horrible and unforgivable that the other person is immediately absolved of all the low-grade sins of sloth, envy, gluttony, avarice and I forget the other three." (p.144)

I was talking to Claire about just this during our visit; how as the person who leaves a marriage you get to bear all the responsibility and all the guilt and the other person gets of scot-free. I have been left, over the years, feeling that I should have stuck with my gut instinct that had always told me that marriage was a load of crock and avoided it like the plague. And so now I do.

Friday 14 November 2014

Little Villages and Big Cities

'Notwithstanding' by Louis de Bernières was picked up randomly in the library because I was attracted by the title. It turned out to be a charming (the only appropriate word) collection of tales about village life, set in a somewhat bygone era, based vaguely on memories from the author's childhood. I'm not sure it was intended but many of them are about the old stalwarts of village life and their eventual demise, maybe symbolic of the fact that such communities are literally, as well as metaphorically, dying out. They are not a continuous story, but many of them have characters in common, particularly the 'hedging and ditching man', who appears in many but does not get his own story. The village is populated with people like Joshuah Entincknapp, Leafy Barkwell and Royston Chittock, the Major and the Colonel, Sir Edward Rawcutt and Miss Agatha Feakes. In one tale a young boy becomes a man when asked to catch a very big fish. Several include people who live with and chat to ghosts, and in several others people have complicated relationships with animals, both wild and domesticated. While bits of the book feel twee and clichéd there are moments when he really captures something quite poignant, here talking about Mac and Mrs Mac:

"They had married after the Great War, when she was a bonny laughing girl of eighteen, and he had already been reduced to a semi-silence by the infernal din and carnage of Ypres and Passchendaele. They were of a generation, more than any other that has ever lived, that had been cauterised by history, and come through it all with the conviction that there is no higher aim in life than to live with common decency." (p.69)

And this is young Peter, coming of age in the 60's:

"Peter started to wonder why life was meaningless. Given his Anglican inoculation, it was perhaps strange that this should have happened. But it wasn't that he knew life was meaningless; it was that, deep in his bowels, he began to experience it. His bones and blood began to tell him that one day they would be nothing but earth and ash." (p.104)

One of the encounters with the hedging and ditching man:

"The hedging and ditching man was an unexplained person. He was at that time in his sixties, very slim and fit. He wore braces and a flat cap, and worked in shirtsleeves even in winter. He had laid hedges and cleared ditches since he was a youth, but nobody knew who employed him or paid him, or where he lived. Parents told their gullible children that he was a supernatural being appointed by nature, who turned into a birch tree at night, and ate leaf mould in his sandwiches." (p.66)

And just because I loved the word 'disembog':
"Somewhat in advance of the hunting season, Piers de Mandeville set off one evening to scout the Hurst for fox earths. He encountered his particular little vixen at a place near one of the ponds where, within living memory, Prince George of Denmark had got bogged down in his carriage on the way to Petworth, and the men of the village had gathered to disembog him." (p.126)

I am on leave and so went to I spent a couple of days this week hanging out with my big sister Claire, chatting and eating cookies and watching films. We set the world to rights and sorted out our respective children's lives. It was a lovely way to spend a few days. We went to see 'Interstellar' ... it was unfathomable, and the story is full of black holes, but an excellent spectacle if you like that kind of thing.

Then yesterday I travelled back up to London and spent the days with Monkey ... who I have not seen for nine weeks, the longest separation we have had in her entire life. She is now a real Londoner and knows all about the underground and oyster cards and which way it is to the river. She met me at Victoria and we took a circuitous walk past all the tourist highlights of the capital. We started with Buckingham Palace where there was a big crowd for the changing of the guard, but I was more excited to get this photo instead, of the queen's postie.

And this photo of one of the many, many policemen dealing with the crowd out front; this is the first time I have seen a real live policeman with a gun. It felt surreal, who did he think he might need to shoot?

Then we passed the National Gallery and Trafalgar Square. I am a bit old to climb on a lion or jump around in the fountains. In searching for somewhere for lunch we detoured past the Houses of Parliament and the Thames and the London Eye. 

We called in on my nephew Mat who is an assistant manager in Morrisons on Tottenham Court Road and then spent a while with the mummies in the British MuseumWe saw the war memorials that had been decorated earlier this week for Remembrance Day and also, totally coincidentally, we passed by the small memorial to the people who died in the terrorist bus bomb on 7th July 2005.                           

By this time it had been a pretty long day so we ended up eating doughnuts in a packed Euston station and having amazingly found some empty seats we sat and chatted until Monkey had to go off to her class. They have a few more weeks of 'lessons' and then in January they start rehearsals for the 'London Season' which is going to be three Shakespeare comedies. For someone who hopes to spend her career performing she is still not fond of being photographed, but here she is in her Monkey hoodie. 

Thursday 6 November 2014

The list of my desires

I really love the cover of 'The list of my Desires' by Grégoire Delacourt adorned with multicoloured buttons, a nod to the occupation of our heroine Jo who runs a haberdashery shop. Jo is a woman who's life has not turned out as she had imagined, and suddenly she is given the chance to remake it when she wins a large jackpot on the lottery. 
It is a quaint little story that is really about what is valuable in life and whether money really can buy you happiness. So instead of jumping up and down and rushing out to buy stuff she hides the cheque from her husband and carries on with life, waiting for the right moment to break the news. She contemplates the advice of the lottery psychologist who warns her how everyone will want something from her and it may destroy every relationship she has. The book is punctuated with lists that she writes of things that she wants; starting with a simple catalogue of items to make life more comfortable, and ending with things in her life that need fixing. 
So we watch as Jo examines her relationship with her husband, and wonders if she wants to change it. We watch as her business grows and her crafty blog gets a loyal following, and she builds a life where she feels valuable. But the money manages to destroy things even without her using it, and it is only after everything has fallen apart that she can recognise the value of the money.

I thought it was interesting that in the discussion questions for book groups at the back of the book the first question asks, What would you have done in Jocelyne's shoes? If you had cashed the cheque what would you have spent the money on? This is exactly how the lottery works. It sucks you in by suggesting you to spend time thinking about what you might spend the money on if you won. Mostly people like to think that they would be more thoughtful and not allow newfound wealth to 'spoil' their life, but Jo recognises that such a huge amount of money will inevitably take over no matter how you might think you can control the situation. The book wants you to spend time thinking what impact it might have on your life. 

But the one quote that I wrote down was this, and it struck me as a stunning indictment of the consumer society. Jo's reflection is that her lottery winnings takes this sense of meaning from life because she can buy all her wants at once, with no need to wait or wish for them:

"It's the need for a non-slip bath mat that keeps us going. Or for a couscous steamer. A potato peeler. So we stagger our purchases. We programme the places we'll go for them. Sometimes we draw comparisons. A Calor iron versus a Rowenta iron. We fill our cupboards slowly, our drawers one by one. You can spend your life filling a house, and when it's full you break things so that you have to replace them and have something to do the next day. You can even go so far as to break up a relationship in order to project yourself into another story, another future, another house.
Another life to fill." (p.133)

So, not a very profound book and a little predictable in places but an interesting take on a 'what if...' situation that we all occasionally muse about. 

Don't apologise

Several things came together recently and left me with the need to articulate a sense of frustration that I often experience when people talk about their schooling experience. Listening to Kate Tempest the other week she was talking about hating school as a teenager, knowing that it was such a waste, but then she *felt the need to apologise* to teachers in the audience, because of course she didn't mean them, they are bound to be good teachers, who love children and helping them learn stuff and making their time in school joyful and meaningful. What a load of tosh. Why do people do this? A young woman (after admitting to being a teacher) asked a question at the end about how she might encourage her students to engage with and find enthusiasm for 'the classics' (Kate's main piece was inspired by ancient greek myth). One might rephrase the question like this: "I am enthusiastic about 'such-and-such random thing' (or it is on the curriculum and I must include it in this term's lessons), I want my students to be enthusiastic and engage with my lessons in a satisfactory way, how can I force them to do this?" Teachers don't seem to get that their enthusiasms are freely chosen. Children in school don't freely choose any of the things they learn there, why do the teachers keep expecting enthusiasm. Kate also commented, and this is something you hear regularly, that she had an english teacher who inspired her. Many people who hated school had one lesson or teacher who did give them something important; that's great for them, but does it make school a worthwhile exercise? What about the 29 other kids in the class who did not care about that lesson. What school does for 99% of the time for 99% of the pupils is to prevent them from learning stuff that matters to them.

Every time I read things in the news about this or that subject that should be made compulsory on the curriculum, because children needs know it, I just get more frustrated. Yes, lots of things out there are important, but everyone has their own little pet subject that they think is more important and deserves special attention. One of the most recent ones was teaching coding to primary school kids. What jumped out at me here was the comment 'get children interested in computing'. It is not about allowing children who are interested in computing to learn more about their enthusiasm but about obliging everyone, no matter what they might be interested in, to spend time learning to programme a computer. I use a computer all the time but have only the most rudimentary of knowledge on how it operates. But then the same is true of a car engine. The same is also true of the postal system in which I am a small cog. But *if I was interested it would not be hard for me to find out*. In this overwhelming 'information age' I have come to think that making anything compulsory has become even more meaningless. When someone finds they need to know something it is not difficult to learn, because their own purpose gives the impetus. My son Lewis manages a reptile shop. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the animals that he cares for and sells. He did not get this knowledge because someone told him it would be useful for when he grew up and worked in a reptile shop, he has it because of his own passion and enthusiasm. 

My good friend Jill, who has written a book entitled 'So what's wrong with school', led a discussion at Hesfes about what education is for. There were plenty of people in the audience even there who spoke up and claimed an important place for whatever it was that they loved doing or knowing about. But mostly the talk was about much more abstract ideas and qualities: self-confidence and self-reliance, resilience, how to learn, how to communicate, how to find and value what you want to know, being open to new ideas and experiences and not confined by other's and society's expectations. To quote (paraphrase) the much missed John Holt, education should be about finding a life worth living and work worth doing. 

And then I watched that lovely Ted talk posted at the top, and all the people clapped at the end when the man tells them they should stop fucking with children's lives and just let them get on with the important stuff of playing, and it's almost as if they don't realise quite how subversive this idea is. Play is the way that children make sense of the word and learn the skills they need to know to function within their society. He talks about how damaging it is that the 'schoolish view' of childhood has come to predominate. People think that time they spend in self-directed play is wasted. The government in this country is pushing for younger and younger children to have their lives and activities dictated by the needs of institutions (and by extension the long term needs of the economy), school hours extend and 'after school activities' that are structured and controlled by adults dominate much of their free time. It becomes really difficult to speak up against these pervasive ideas. On the blog 'I'm unschooled, yes I can write' Idzie posted this week about how even someone committed to alternative models of learning can't escape the pressures to prove herself. She talks about how she apologises for what she has not done or not achieved, the things that conventional education values (like bits of paper to prove her knowledge), and she has to remind herself of all the important intangible things that have made up, and continue to make up, her education. 
At the other end of the spectrum you get these lovely people in America who want to rip out the bits of the textbook that they don't approve of. It's all the same really, it's about controlling what children learn, either by dictating or preventing. 

I am in NaNo avoidance mode here so the initial ideas I had have, as usual, become muddied. The gist of the post is, school is crap, don't apologise for saying so. And just in case you're not sure:

(Rant over, and I'm not apologising.)