Sunday 29 March 2015

Thank Smog

Naomi Klein's book 'This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate' was not an easy read; I could only manage a few pages at a time and then had to stop and do something else for a while to prevent my brain exploding, not because it is hard to understand, but because the examples of stupidity and injustice come so thick and fast you just have to take a break. I like to think that I am pretty aware of what goes on in the world, now I feel very well informed; the 100 pages of references detail the years of research that has gone into the writing of this book. The first half of the book deals with the many and various ways that modern human society has managed to trash the planet, and then she goes on to outline the possible things that might be done to mitigate the damage, and how far we are from doing them. (There are a lot of quotes here so beware, though in fact it will probably save you reading the book at all.)

Her first target is the climate change deniers, who have been getting more active and vociferous in recent years, and their shrill calls of 'socialism' aimed at any attempt to call out the capitalist system for the damage it is doing:

"More fundamental than any of this, though, is their deep fear that if the market system really has set in motion physical and chemical processes that, if allowed to continue unchecked, threaten large parts of humanity at an existential level, then their entire crusade to morally redeem capitalism has been for naught. With stakes like these, clearly greed is not so very good after all. And that is what is behind the abrupt rise in climate change denial among hardcore conservatives: they have come to understand that as soon as they admit that climate change is real, they will lose the central ideological battle of our time - whether we need to plan and manage our societies to reflect our goals and values, or whether that task can be left to the magic of the market." (p.40)

Then if it's not the deniers it's the people who are supposed to be doing something to fix the problem. The international meetings have been going on for decades, with very little result. Where the governments seem more than capable of enacting legally binding trade agreements, when it comes to responding to the imminent threat of climate change they barely manage to come to 'voluntary agreements'. This was one result that is reported from the Rio Earth Summit in 1992:

"Rather than push for the recalibration of the international trade rules to conform with the requirements of climate protection ... the Parties to the climate regime have ensured liberalised trade and an expanding global economy have been protected against trade-restrictive climate policies."

And everywhere, everyone seems to be unable to accept any responsibility for their own part in the crisis:

"And yet when the subject of climate change comes up in discussion in the wealthy, industrialised countries, the instant response, very often, is that it's all China's fault (and India's fault and Brazil's fault and so on). Why bother cutting our own emissions when everyone knows that the fast developing economies are the real problem, opening more coal plants every month than we could ever close. This argument is made as if we in the west are mere spectators to this reckless and dirty model of economic growth As if it was not our governments and our multinationals that pushed a model of export-led development that made all of this possible." (p.82)

And unable to accept that it is a systemic problem:

"This state of affairs is, of course, yet another legacy of the free market counterrevolution. In virtually every country, the political class accepts the premise that it is not the place of government to tell large corporations what they can and cannot do, even when public health and welfare - indeed the habitability of our shared home - are clearly at stake." (p.142)

What is so hard to read, of course, is that she doesn't let the reader off the hook. It's not so much an 'Us and Them' scenario as 'We'; we are all culpable of being part of the same mentality:

"And we tell ourselves all kinds of similarly implausible no-consequences stories all the time, about how we can ravage the world and suffer no adverse effects. Indeed we are always surprised when it works out otherwise. We extract and do not replenish and wonder why the fish have disappeared and the soil requires ever more 'inputs (like phosphate) to stay fertile. We occupy countries and arm their militias and then wonder why they hate us. We drive down wages, ship jobs overseas, destroy worker protections, hollow out local economies, then wonder why people can't afford to shop as much as they used to. We offer those failed shoppers subprime mortgages instead of steady jobs and then wonder who no one foresaw that a system built on bad debt would collapse." (p.166)

She outlines what she terms 'Extractivism', an attitude to the planet and our ability to use its resources:

"Extractivism is a nonreciprocal, dominance-based relationship with the earth, one purely of taking. It is the opposite of stewardship, which involves taking but also taking care that regeneration and future life continues. Extractives is the mentality of the mountaintop remover and the old-growth clear-cutter. It is the reduction of life into objects for the use of others, giving them no integrity or value of their own - turning living complex ecosystems into 'natural resources', mountains into 'overburden' (as the mining industry terms the forests, rocks, and streams that get in the way of its bulldozers)." (p.169)

Questions about the logic of this approach and the impact it is having have been going on for a long time:

"It was in this context that the underlying logic of extractivism - that there would always be more earth for us to consume - began to be forcefully challenges within the mainstream. The pinnacle of this debate came in 1972 when the Club of Rome published The Limits of Growth, a runaway best-seller that used early computer models to predict that if natural systems continued to be depleted at their current rate, humanity would overshoot the planet's carrying capacity by the middle of the twenty-first century. Saving a few beautiful mountain ranges wouldn't be enough to get us out of this fix; the logic of growth itself need to be confronted." (p.185-6)

But we really, really don't want to face up to it:

"The reasons for this political timidity had plenty to do with the themes already discussed: the power and allure of the free market logic that usurped so much intellectual life in the late 1980s and 1990s, including large parts of the conservation movement. But this persistent unwillingness to follow science to its conclusions also speaks to the power of the cultural narrative that tells us that humans are ultimately in control of the earth, and not the other way around. This is the same narrative that assures us that, however bad things get, we are going to be saved at the last minute - whether by the market, by philanthropic billionaires, or by technological wizards - or best of all, by all three at the same time. And while we wait, we keep digging in deeper." (p.186-7)

So, are there any solutions to the problems. Yes, lots. Are any of them working, well, not really. Because the culture of capitalism is so pervasive they have managed to make the solutions be more about ways that they can continue to operate as they wish than about achieving any real reductions is carbon emissions. Groups who's role is supposedly about protecting the environment and tackling the issues around climate change find themselves working with the enemy:

"The Nature Conservancy's job has been to identify habitat preservation and conservation projects to 'offset the impacts of oil and gas drilling pads and infrastructure.' From a climate change perspective, this is an absurd proposition, since the projects have no hope of offsetting the most damaging impact of all: the release of heat-trapping gasses into the atmosphere. Which is why the most important preservation work that any environmental group can do is preserving the carbon in the ground, wherever it is. (Then again, this is The Nature Conservancy, which has its very own gas well in the middle of a nature preserve in Texas.)" (p.215)

The whole arena of carbon offsetting seems to have been contrived by the major industries to enable them to put a positive spin on what they do, but has not forced them to change anything about their behaviour: look at us, we've planted all these trees, we love the environment, buy our petrol. The whole thing just became another means to make money, and carbon in the atmosphere ... it just keeps going up:

"Rather than straightforwardly requiring all industrialised countries to lower their greenhouse gas emissions by a fixed amount, the scheme would issue pollution permits, which they could use, sell if they didn't need them, or purchase so that they could pollute more. National programmes would be set up so that companies could similarly trade these permits, with the country staying within an overall emissions cap. Meanwhile, projects that were employing practices that claimed to be keeping carbon out of the atmosphere - whether plating trees that sequester carbon, or by producing low carbon energy, or by upgrading a dirty factory to lower its emissions - could qualify for carbon credits. These  credits could be purchased by polluters and used to offset their emissions." (p.218)

Organisations trying to protect the forests, for example, ended up trying to put a monetary value on the resources they want to protect, as if speaking to the capitalists in their own language might get through to them, but time and again it has been shown that trying to play the game their way only allows them to win more easily:

"The mantra of the early ecologists was 'everything is connected' - every tree a part of an intricate web of life. The mantra of the corporate-partnered conservationist, in sharp contrast, may well be 'everything is disconnected', since they have successfully constructed a new economy in which the tree is not a tree but rather a carbon sink used by people thousands of miles away to appease our consciences and maintain our levels of economic growth." (p.224)

And so the search for solutions goes from bad to worse. Solar Radiation Management (SRM) is science at its most insidious. It is all part of the same mentality that says, because we are such a clever species we can control the planet, and make it work the way we want, for our benefit. The premise is, assuming the temperature starts to go up, and do all the bad things that the climate change scientists say it will, we need instead (instead of dealing with our carbon emissions that is) to find a way to cool the planet down again. SRM involved putting various particles high up into the atmosphere to reflect the sunlight back and to reduce the temperature, a process that cannot be tested on  a large scale without potentially affecting a huge number of people, nor could it be reversed, we would potentially just have to keep on doing it:

"Given this, does it make sense to behave as if, with big enough brains and powerful enough computers, humans can master and control the climate crisis just as humans have been imagining they could master the natural world since the dawn of industrialisation - digging, damming, drilling, dyking. Is it really as simply as adding a new tool to our nature-taming arsenal: dimming?
This is the strange paradox of geoengineering. Yes, it is exponentially more ambitious and more dangerous than any engineering project humans have ever attempted before. But it is also very familiar, nearly a cliché, as if the past five humoured years of human history have been leading us, ineluctably, to precisely this place. Unlike cutting our emissions in line with the scientific consensus, succumbing to the logic of geoengineering does not require any change from us; it just requires that we keep doing what we have done for centuries, only much more so." (p.266-7)

What is most scary about the idea is that as the crisis deepens over the next decade or so such solutions could be explored much more seriously:

"This is how the shock doctrine works: in the desperation of a true crisis all kinds of sensible position melts away and all manner of high-risk behaviours seem temporarily acceptable. It is only outside of a crisis atmosphere that we can rationally evaluate the future ethics and risks of deploying geoengineering technologies should we find ourselves in a period of rapid change. And what those risks tell us is that dimming the sun is nothing like installing a sprinkler system - unless we are willing to accept that some of those sprinklers could very well spray gasoline instead of water. Oh -and that, once turned on, we might not be able to turn off the system without triggering in inferno that could burn down the entire building." (p.277)

And so she moves on to the beneficent billionaires who are going to save us all, or not as the case may be.
Richard Branson and Al Gore

"This frozen moment strikes me as the perfect snapshot of the first incarnation of the climate movement: a wealthy and powerful man with the whole world literally in his hands, promising to save the fragile blue planet on our behalf. This heroic feat will be accomplished, he has just announced, by harnessing the power of human genius and the desire to get really, really rich.
Pretty much everything is wrong with that picture. The reinvention of a major climate polluter into a climate saviour based on little more than good PR. The assumption that dangling enough money can solve any mess we create. And the certainty that the solution to climate change must come from above rather than below." (p.285)

Moving swiftly on (because this is an already monster review and I've probably lost most of you). She spends a lot of time looking at the work of indigenous peoples, mostly in the Americas and Canada, and their struggle to regain control over lands that were taken from them, and who have been a major force in the fight against extractive industries. It seems ironic that the people who's impact on the planet has been so minimal, who's way of life has been, and is being, destroyed by invasion, should be the ones struggling so hard to try and save it for the rest of us. she talks a little about the images of the earth taken in space, and how they changed something about the way that humans saw themselves and their planet. There is this quote from Kurt Vonnegut that sums up how maybe this slightly naive, idealised view of the beautiful blue planet floating in space did not tie up with the reality of life on earth: "It looks so clean. You can't see all the hungry, angry earthlings down there - and the smoke and the sewage and the trash and sophisticated weaponry."

"And all the while, just as Vonnegut warned, any acknowledgement of the people way down below the wispy clouds disappears - people with attachments to particular pieces of land with very different ideas about what constitutes a 'solution'. this chronic forgetfulness is the thread that unites so many fateful policy errors of recent years, from the decision to embrace fracked natural gas as a bridge fuel (failing to notice that there were people on those lands who were willing to fight against the shattering of their territory and the poisoning of their water) to cap-and-trade and carbon offsets (forgetting the people once again, the ones forced to breathe the toxic air next to the refineries that were being kept open thanks to these backroom deals, as well as the ones locked out of their traditional forests that were being converted into offsets.)" (p.287)

And so it turns out that we really do have to thank smog for what could be one aspect of a solution. The political and industrial elites in China that have been fuelling and benefitting from their race to industrialise over the last few decades had been determinedly ignoring the consequences of their actions. This was because they could shield themselves from the consequences, but the arrival of the 'smog', vast blankets of air pollution that cover entire cities, has forced them to rethink at least some of their policies:

"The reason, he explains, is that the elites had been able to insulate themselves from previous environmental threats, like baby milk and water contamination, because 'the rich, the powerful, have special channels of delivery, safer products [delivered] to their doorsteps.' But no matter how rich you are, there is no way to hide from the 'blanket' of toxic air. 'nobody can do anything for special [air] delivery,' he says. 'And thats the beauty of it.' " (p.351)

Are we left however to hope that the situation will become so bad that the 1% will finally find that their own existence is threatened, and then, finally they will become interested in finding a solution.

Whatever we do it's going to be expensive. Money is key, as well as the political will to act. But also we have to stop seeing the solution as something that will pit one part of the world against another:

"Saunter Narain, director general of one of the most influential environmental organisations in India, the New Delhi based Centre for Science and Environment, stresses that the solution is not for the wealthy world to contract its economies while allowing the developing world to pollute its way to prosperity (even if this were possible). It is for the developing countries to 'develop differently. We do not want to first pollute and then clean up. So we need money, we need technology, to be able to do things differently.' And that means the wealthy world must pay its climate debts.
And yet financing a just transition in fast-developing economies has not been a priority of activists in the North. Indeed a great many Big Green groups in the United States consider the idea of climate debt to be politically toxic, since, unlike the standard 'energy security' and green jobs arguments that present climate action as a race that rich countries can win, it requires emphasising the importance of international cooperation and solidarity." (p.414)

It helped the book a lot that she ended on what felt like a positive note. I think a lot of people would prefer to stick their heads in the sand because they are afraid of loosing what they see as all the benefits of modern life. The climate change movement, she points out, is not about us all going back to the middle ages, living in mud huts and growing our own turnips. It is not about stopping and going backwards. We need to be applying our technology, our intelligence and our creativity to finding real solutions to the problem, ones not motivated by profit but by a shared concern for the survival of our species. It has to be about going forward to a world where resources are respected and shared. It is about reaching homeostasis, where what we consume is balanced by what we put back, where the carbon we produce is balanced with what the earth is capable of absorbing. It reminded me that I should put E.F. Schumacher's 'Small is Beautiful' on my 101 books list. One of the striking things that I learned about in psychology is that the thing that really marks out human beings from other primates is our ability to cooperate in large groups. It is what lead to the development of more complex societies, and ultimately to the world we live in today. What we need more than anything  is to remember what a strength this is, and make our cooperative efforts the focus of our societies.

"Living nonextractively does not mean that extraction does not happen: all living things must take from nature in order to survive. But it does mean the end of the extractives mindset - of taking without caretaking, of treating land and people as resources to deplete rather than as complex entities with rights to a dignified existence based on renewal and regeneration. Even such traditionally destructive practices as logging can be done responsibly, as can small-scale mining, particularly when the activities are controlled by the people who live where the extraction is taking place and who have a stake in the ongoing health and productivity of the land. but most of all, living nonextractively means relying overwhelmingly on resources that can be continuously regenerated: deriving our food from farming methods that protect soil fertility; our energy from methods that harness the ever-renewing straight from the sun, wind and waves; our metals from recycled and reused sources."

Monday 23 March 2015

The 2015 A to Z Challenge

It is time again for the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge, and today is the official 'Theme Reveal' event. Themes are not compulsory, but they do give you a bit of focus, since posting every day for a month can be quite a challenge (it wouldn't be much of a challenge if it wasn't challenging after all). I feel very aware that my posting rate has dropped off significantly this year ... I blame Words With Friends myself but maybe it's just apathy, so anyway, I'm going to need all the help I can get. With this in mind I have aimed for something more low key that in previous years and am going to post you some poetry over the month of April. Not my own I hasten to add, but a selection of thought provoking and entertaining verse that will span a wide spectrum of styles and subject matter. I hope it's not being too much of an intellectual snob to say that I think the world would be a better place if people read more poetry. As a taster, just to show that it doesn't have to be all Grecian Urns and Daffodils, here is the wonderful Billy Collins, who's birthday was yesterday, reading 'The Lanyard'. I hope you enjoy this, and maybe pop back next month to read (and probably hear) some others.


Thursday 19 March 2015

Not so Fun Home

I reviewed Alison Bechdel's book 'Are You My Mother?' nearly two years ago and finally got around to requesting 'Fun Home', which recounts her childhood and her equally contorted relationship with her father.  She grows up in a funeral home, accustomed to the presence of death and the absence of parental interest. Maybe it just shows quite how resilient children are, and their life is just their life, they do not have expectations and so do not have any sense of being neglected or let down.
 Clearly she needs something from him, perhaps even just his acknowledgement, but the 'What' in the middle of this picture expresses the frustration that seems to be his only response to her presence.
 And he needs something from her, periodically trying to make her into the 'proper' little girl that she so vehemently resists being. Even the connection she makes with him later through their shared love of literature becomes stifling. 
 You wonder if the presence of extensive childhood diaries gives her the opportunity to re-analyse this period of her life, to try and pick apart what she experienced and reinterpret it in light of what she comes to know later. The book is in some ways just a collection of anecdotes but each one draws you into her life and allows to you watch the torturous struggle to make sense of her identity. The emotional isolation and obsessive behaviour that marks her childhood is quite heartrending and, again, I did not find it in any way funny. I think I related far too much to the child she was, wanting to wrap her up and take care of her. And, again, while I do sometimes wonder at how little memory I seem to have of my own, it did not make me wish for a more interesting childhood.

Sunday 15 March 2015

Lost Daughter

I have been reading recommendations for Elena Ferrante's 'My Brilliant Friend' all over the place recently, but ended up getting 'The Lost Daughter' from the library.

This is a most surreal book. It is the story of a woman, an academic, who is on holiday alone, spending her time reading at the beach. She finds herself observing a large and loud Neapolitan family who monopolise the beach and intrude on her solitude. She becomes fascinated with a young woman and her child who are part of this family; she watches them playing together, idealising the woman in her mind as some kind of perfect image of motherhood. Things take a strange twist the day the little girl wanders off and the woman helps to find her. The woman takes the child's beloved doll from the beach, and inexplicably chooses not to return it, instead cleaning it up and buying it new clothes. The book follows her over the next few days as she recounts her growing involvement with the family and in particular the young woman, Nina. 

The whole story is also bound up with her telling the history of her own motherhood and her abrupt abandonment of her own daughters when she chooses to pursue her academic career. She appears to feel both guilty and not guilty for the decisions that she took. In fact the whole book is essentially about motherhood, and in some ways how the reality of women's experience conflicts with their expectations and the image society has of it.

At the start of the story she announces:
"When my daughter's moved to Toronto, where their father had lived and worked for years, I was embarrassed and amazed to discover that I wasn't upset; rather, I felt light, as if only then had I definitely brought them into the world. For the first time in almost twenty-five years I was not aware of the anxiety of having to take care of them." (p.10)

She confirms the initial reaction on the next page, describing her reaction to telephone conversations and requests from her daughters: 
"I did what they asked, reacted in accordance with their expectations. But since distance imposed the physical impossibility of intervening directly in their lives, satisfying their desires or whims became a mixture of rarified or irresponsible gestures, every request seemed light, every task that had to do with them an affectionate habit. I felt miraculously unfettered, as if a difficult job, finally brought to completion, no longer weighed me down." (p.11)

This contrasts so sharply with the experience she describes later. As they search the beach for the lost little girl she recalls the time she lost her own daughter Bianca at the beach:
"Bianca was crying with they found her, when they brought her back to me. I was crying, too, with happiness, with relief, but meanwhile I was also screaming with rage, like my mother, because of the crushing weight of responsibility, the bond that strangles, and with my free arm I dragged my firstborn, yelling, you'll pay for this, Bianca, you'll see when we get home, you must never go off again - never." (p.42)

She befriends a young man, Gino, an attendant at the beach, and finds herself admiring him as if from the perspective of her daughters, and again, she reflects back on the responsibilities of motherhood:
"But I loved them all, my daughter's first boyfriends, I bestowed on them an exaggerated affection. I wanted to reward them, perhaps, because they had recognised the beauty, the good qualities of my daughters, and so had freed them for the anguish of being ugly, the certainty of having no power of seduction. Or I wanted to reward them because they had providentially saved me, too, from bad moods and conflicts and complaints and attempts to soothe my daughters: I'm ugly, I'm fat; but I, too, felt ugly and fat at your age; no, you weren't ugly and fat you were beautiful; you, too, are beautiful, you don't eve realise how people look at you; they're not looking at us, they're looking at you." (p.51)

She tries, in her recounting of the history of her motherhood, to disentangle the complexities of the mother/daughter relationship, something that is both a bond and a growing need to be separate. She thinks about how she watched Nina and her daughter 'mother' the doll together, and how distraught the child has become with its loss; this doll, that she stole from the beach, then takes on this somewhat symbolic quality. There is an element here of her needing somehow to make amends:
"Poor creatures who came out of my belly, all alone now on the other side of the world. I placed the doll on my knee as if for company. Why had I taken her. She guarded the love of Nina and Elena, their bond, their reciprocal passion. She was the shining testimony of perfect motherhood. I brought her to my breast. How many damaged, lost things did I have behind me, and yet present, now, in a whirl of images. I understood clearly that I didn't want to give Nani back, even though I felt remorse, fear in keeping her with me. I kissed her face, her mouth, I hugged her as I had seen Elena do. She emitted a gurgle that seemed to me a hostile remark and, with it, a jet of brown saliva that dirtied my lips and my shirt." (p.62)

She describes the build up to the moment of leaving her daughters, about the conflict between her intellectual desires and the demands of motherhood:
"They stood in front of me waiting, they assumed the poses of cool and elegant little ladies, in their new dresses. All right, I said, took the orange, began to cut the peel. The children stared at me. I felt their gazes longing to tame me, but more brilliant was the brightness of the life outside them, new colours, new bodies, new intelligence, a language to possess finally as if it were my true language, and nothing, nothing that seemed to me reconcilable with that domestic space from which they stared at me with expectation. Ah, to make them invisible, to no longer hear the demands of their flesh as commands more pressing, more powerful than those which come from mine. I finished peeling the orange and I left. From that moment, for three years, I didn't see or hear them at all." (p.102)

A very intense little book, fraught with deep seated emotional issues. Although, right at the start she claims to be relived of the responsibilities of motherhood, something that I have been going through in the last year or so, you find of course that the weight is never quite lifted; being a mother changes the way to look at and interact with the world in all sorts of subtle, and not so subtle, ways, and thoughts of your children are never far from the surface. It is exquisite in its honesty and tackles something that I am sure all mothers experience, a quiet yearning, that can be momentary or ongoing, for the life you might have had instead.

Sunday 8 March 2015

Birthday Poems

I had a just so birthday, nothing momentous, which is good really, I've never been much bothered by marking the passage of the years of my existence. So just a couple of nice things that have occupied my day today. This TED talk:

which was lovely with my morning cup of tea.
And this poem from the book 'Unsent' by Penelope Shuttle given to me as a gift by my dear friend Julie:


It is both sad and a relief to fold so carefully
her outgrown clothes and line up the little worn shoes
of childhood, so prudent, scuffed and particular.
It is both happy and horrible to send them galloping
back tappity-tap along the misty chill path into the past.

It is both a freedom and a prison, to be outgrown
by her as she towers over me as thin as a sequin
in her doc martens and her pretty skirt,
because just as I work out how to be a mother
she stops being a child.

Saturday 7 March 2015


'Weathering' by Lucy Wood is a lovely, though slightly disturbing book, a combination of family saga and ghost story. It made me think of a couple of things; Sick Notes by Gwendoline Riley because of the physical reaction that I had to the book, the intense and repetitive descriptions of the cold left me wanting to cuddle up to the radiator, and All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wylde because of the way it was about a woman alone, isolated, trying to forge her life without relying on others, and the harshness of the rural environment. 

This is the story of Ada and her young daughter Pepper, returning to the family home after the death of Ada's mother, Pearl. They have lived an insecure, itinerant lifestyle, partly because it just seems to be a family trait, and they arrive at the house with the intention of 'doing it up' to sell and then move on again. Ada is determined to keep to herself and not linger any longer than absolutely necessary in the place that she spent her childhood yearning to escape, but somehow things conspire to make it much more complicated than she had anticipated. While they battle the rising damp and the temperamental wood burner Pepper potters around with her grandmother's old camera and tries to befriend the cat, and Ada finds herself sucked back into the life of the local community. Becoming the embodiment of the river that in life was her source of endless fascination the ghost of the long suffering and long neglected Pearl, unable to find rest, drags herself back into the house to observe and comment on the struggles of her daughter and granddaughter. 

It is a very poetic book, with lengthy passages just describing the movement of the river. The cold and bleakness seems to completely dominate the book; in one passage the past life of Pearl and Ada is recounted but gives details only of what happened each winter, as if the warmth of summer did not exist in their life. The strange, slightly distant relationship between Pearl and Ada seems to be inevitably recreating itself between Ada and Pepper. They deal with the practicalities of life but refrain from talking at all about what they might be thinking. All three of them seem remarkably matter of fact about their privations; the word stoic seems the most apt description. In spite of what might appear to be standoffishness the warmth of both long standing friends (Luke, a sometime suitor of Pearl, and Judy, her childhood friend) and newfound ones (Tristan) manages to work it's way into their lives. The characters are nicely complex, each with their own troubles and concerns, but bonded together by the shared experience of the harsh winter snow. The writing is just beautiful, with exquisite little moments that are ripe with symbolism; here Pepper has discovers from Pearl's ghost that she has no film in the camera:

"'Nobody told me!' Pepper shouted. She looked in the empty compartment one more time and tried to remember all the things she'd taken pictures of but she couldn't, they were lost, and she couldn't even look for them because they had never really existed." (p.109)

And this lovely and poignant moment when Ada is leaving home, neither of them able to say what they are thinking:

"'See you soon, OK?' Ada said.
Still they waited. The cold draught. The car idling outside the door. Pearl slipped a rolled-up twenty inside Ada's bag. Then opened the door because if she didn't no one would. Said what she said when she was setting up a picture, when the image wasn't aligned, when she just needed to refocus the thing so that she could see it properly. 'There you go then. There you go.' Watched the closed door for a long time." (p.129)

Another tale of the human need for connection, and how difficult people sometimes find it, the fear of being betrayed or let down too acute. I liked it because it didn't wrap up all neat and tidy, life is not neat and tidy, human beings are messy creatures, we all muddle through. When the tide of chaos rises like floodwaters we wait for them to recede, then pick ourselves up again and carry on.

Friday 6 March 2015

Letters and Plays

Just a brief recap on my participation in the Month of Letters in February, which I enjoyed very much. While I did not manage to post something every day I did write a lot of proper letters including several to friends who I had not been in touch with for several years. I have had a couple of replies which was really wonderful, including a long missive from my Uncle Den, and I plan to keep going and try and write a letter at least every couple of weeks. The down side of hand writing is that I don't have any record of what I wrote to each person and so risk waffling on repetitively ... ho hum.

I have spent the last couple of days with Monkey down in London; she was having a break in the rehearsals for the London season (Fourth Monkey) which begins on 11th April. I am so annoyed that I took my camera but failed to take it out of my rucksack and so did not get pictures of us being silly in the Natural History Museum or eating Mexican street food at Wahaca round the corner from Waterloo station.
We very carefully copied down the instruction on how to find the Vault Festival and were glad we did because you would be unlikely to come across it by chance:
Leake Street Wiki commons
The entrance is off the notorious Leake Street graffiti tunnel (apparently also called 'Banksy tunnel') and the venue was in the railway arches under Waterloo, the performances were provided with added atmosphere by the gentle rumble of trains passing overhead.
First we saw a performance entitled 'Bitesize Chekov' by a small company called 'D'Animate'. Neither of us had ever seen any Chekov before. It was very physical and the three characters on the stage moved through a variety of scenes that gave us a flavour of his lesser known works (from the list on Wikipedia two of them were 'On the harmful effects of tobacco' and 'A Marriage Proposal'). Monkey said she liked this one better because of the clowning (and that doesn't mean red noses and grease paint type clowns, it's a theatre thing) that she learned about during her training last term and was enjoying seeing it put into practice. 
After going off to eat we came back and saw 'King of the Fucking Castle' by LAB Theatre, about a homeless man living by Edinburgh Castle who befriends a young homeless girl, and the story traces their volatile relationship over a few weeks. I felt that the atmosphere in the railway arches really added something to the performance and the two actors were utterly compelling; it really got across a sense of how homeless people experience life and how invisible they are. I am not sure I have ever heard the word 'fuck' quite so often in such a short space of time, it was more like punctuation than a word with any meaning by the time they finished. While the story felt a little predictable it conveyed some timeless themes about the need for human connection. We agreed that the most striking thing about the performance was the moment when they took their bow at the end, and the tension and anger in the stance and expression of the man were gone, and he looked like an utterly different person. 
The festival is finishing on Sunday but I would certainly recommend you look out for next year if you like that kind of thing. We are going to be looking out at Edinburgh for Charlie Tuesday Gates, who's show 'Sing for your Life', with taxidermy roadkill puppets, was sold out.

Monday 2 March 2015

Precious or Pretentious

"Black writers who do literary fiction in this country, all three of them, not the ten thousand who write bullshit ghetto books with bright covers, have two  choices: they can do precious or they can do pretentious. When you do neither, nobody knows what to do with you. So if you're going to write about race, you have better make sure it's so lyrical and subtle that the reader who doesn't read between the lines won't even know it's about race. You know, a Proustian meditation, all watery and fuzzy, that at the end just leaves you feeling watery and fuzzy." (p.335-6)

'Americanah' by  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is definitely a novel about race. I liked the quote because I wondered whether she was mocking herself slightly, though I don't think this book is either watery or fuzzy. This book is a huge jump from 'Half of a Yellow Sun' and gives us the Nigeria of the 21st century. In this story we have Ifemelu and Obinze who's university love affair is rent asunder by political  discord that leaves them searching other means to get an education; Ifemelu joining her Aunty Uju in America and Obinze heading to London. They both live lives under the radar, finding jobs illegally to support themselves. We join the story as Ifemelu is about to return to Nigeria after many years away, but then jump back in time to learn the beginning of their relationship and follow them both through their respective struggles. 

It reminded me somewhat of Fruit of the Lemon by Andrea Levy in that it deals with the character's sense of identity, both in their home country and as incomers in another place, and when they find themselves in an alien culture they struggle to fit in, to assimilate, not to forget their background but as a self preservation technique, to protect themselves even a little from the hostility they encounter. The story tackles the sense of confusion, particularly on the part of Ifemelu, about who she wants to be and what part her Nigerian-ness plays in her new life. She becomes a blogger and writes about her observations of American culture from the point of view of (as she terms herself) a Non-American Black. It is as if she wants to be part of this place, but can't help but keep her self at a distance, because she acknowledges that America is not keen to accept her. The book is punctuated by her blog posts, describing incidents and exchanges with people she encounters. 

I liked the book because it is really in-your-face about what she wants to get across. As she points out in the quote at the beginning there, most books tiptoe around the issue and allow readers to ignore it if they choose. 
Here Obinze is at a dinner party listening to polite conversation, but not daring to give his real opinions:

"Alexa and the other guests, and perhaps even Georgina, all understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well-fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty." (p.276)

Ifemelu, at a similar gathering, does not have quite the same restraint when encountering patronising crap:

" 'The only reason you say that race is not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it's a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America. When you are black in America and you fall in love with a white person, race doesn't matter when you're alone together because it's just you and your love. But the minute you step outside, race matters. But we don't talk about it. We don't even tell our white partners the small things that piss us off and the things we wish they understood better, because we're worried they will say we're overreacting, or we're being too sensitive. And we don't want them to say, Look how far we've come, just forty years ago it would have been illegal for us even to be a couple blah blah blah, because you know what we're thinking when they say that? We're thinking why the fuck should it ever have been illegal anyway? But we don't say any of this stuff. We let it pile up inside our heads and when we come to nice liberal dinners like this, we say that race doesn't matter because that's what we're supposed to say, to keep our nice liberal friends comfortable. It's true. I speak from experience.'" (p.290-1)

An Americanah is what one is called as a returnee, someone who has adopted the manners and customs of America, they gather together for company, a bit like expats in Spain. Ifemelu craves certain aspects of Nigeria, but once back she is loath to admit how much she has become americanised:

"They have the kinds of things there we can eat. An unease crept up in Ifemelu. She was comfortable here, and she wished she were not. She wishes too, that she were not so interested in this new restaurant, did not perk up, imagining fresh green salads and steamed still-firm vegetables. She loved eating all the things she had missed while away, jollof rice cooked with a lot of oil, fried plantain, fried yams, but she longed, also, for the other things she had become used to in America, even quinoa, Blaine's speciality, made with feta and tomatoes. This was what she hoped she had not become but feared that she had: a 'they have the kinds of things we can eat' kind of person." (p.409)

I found myself irritated by the Nigerian affluent classes that Obinze and Ifemelu live amongst on their return; their obsessive pursuit of not just money but extremes of wealth, and their tendency to judge themselves and each other by their possessions, the cars they drive, the houses they live in. Obinze, having lived in quite dire and desperate circumstances in England, seemed to slip back into that world easily and comfortably. It is not a political book, it is not making judgements or analysing the nature of political and economic corruption, just telling it the way it is; this is the way our country works, if you can work the system then good luck to you. I confess I was not completely convinced by the supposed intensity of their relationship and the love story itself did not seem so important, it felt more like a vehicle for getting across the other ideas. On last quote that did seem to explain some of the cultural attitudes to possessions:

"When I first started in real estate, I considered renovating old houses instead of tearing them down, but it didn't make sense. Nigerians don't buy houses because they're old. A renovated two-hundred-year-old mill granary, you know, the kind of thing Europeans like. It doesn't work here at all. But of course it makes sense because we are Third Worlders and Third Worlders are forward-looking, we like things to be new, because our best is still ahead, while in the West their best is already past and so they have to make a fetish of that past." (p.436)

The book swaps back and forth and tells both tales, then catches up on itself and we watch the resolution of their love affair back in Nigeria, and although I did not find myself invested so much in their relationship I did become invested in the two characters. It is a long book so there was plenty of time to get to know them. I did enjoy the relationship between Ifemelu and Uju, two women looking out for and supporting each other, a real bond that went beyond family loyalty. A wonderful book.