Wednesday 29 June 2016

The Offering

'The Offering' by Grace McCleen has been my breakfast book for a few weeks. I am not sure if I liked it. No, I didn't. It was well written but too much about the story made me angry and frustrated. It is about a young girl and her parents who travel to live on an island, making a new start and hoping to proselytise their own brand of fundamentalist christianity. It made me angry in the same way that 'Song for Issy Bradley' did; that such dogmatic faith does something damaging to a child's understanding of the world and their sense of safety in it. In both stories we have a child who thinks that god will help them if only they believe hard enough, or in this case, if they make a large enough sacrifice. Madeline is telling her story from a future in a mental hospital, where she has been for twenty years. A new psychiatrist is helping her to revisit untouched memories using hypnosis. Along with the past we also learn about the life she lives now; institutionalised and controlled, so in some ways not so different from her childhood. With parents who are wrapped up very much in their own concerns she spends a lot of time alone and is forced to rely on her own resources to make sense of life. She discovers masturbation and thinks it is the religious experience that she has been searching for. Her mother's decline into depression and her father's unemployment and alcoholism bring things to a crisis point where Madeline thinks that she is the one who must take drastic action to call on god to save the family. 

I felt there were too many unanswered questions and loose ends in the story. And all the other characters in the story are underdeveloped and somewhat one dimensional. Maybe five minutes over breakfast is not the best way to read a book, the story becomes too disjointed. I'll leave you with this quote; they buy an ancient mouldering farmhouse and their precious bibles catch book mites. I think there is maybe some symbolism going on here:

"At the bottom of the garden the book pile gathered fungi. Foxgloves took up residence there; nettles, dock leaves. One afternoon, when clouds were flying and the garden was full of breezes and watery rustlings, I rummaged with a stick until i found the big bible. Snails had made shining paths across the cover and woodlice fell from the spine. Instead of gold leaf there was a spattering of white spots at the edges, and the pages were, if possible, even more wrinkled.
My arms and legs felt so heavy that I sat down on the ground. After a moment, I tried to pull back the greaseproof page from the picture of the garden. It tore wetly. A curtain had been rent. The Most Holy was now Most Ordinary. Beneath the veil were no longer sword and tree, serpent and errant humans, but an old world slowly dissolving." (p.139)

Sunday 19 June 2016

Things Fall Apart

'Things Fall Apart' by Chinua Achebe. I encountered post-colonial Nigeria a few years ago with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's 'Half of a Yellow Sun' but 'Things Fall Apart' takes us way back in time to pre-colonial times and follows the life of Okonkwo and his family and village and the impact of the arrival of Christian missionaries and colonialists.

Reading a book like this evokes some very mixed reactions. To begin with there is cultural curiosity. The story comes to the reader from a tradition of oral story telling, and it reads as if it is being spoken aloud, almost spontaneously but not invented in the moment, it is a story that has been told many times. The purpose of the story is to say, 'this is how we live, these are our traditions'.

"Oknokwe's prosperity was visible in his household. He had a large compound enclosed by  thick wall of red earth. His own hut, or obi, stood immediately behind the only gate in the red walls. Each of his three wives had her own hut, which together formed a half moon behind the obi. The barn was built against one end of the red walls, and long stacks of yams stood out prosperously in it. At the opposite end of the compound was a shed for the goats, and each wife built a small attachment to her hut for the hens. Near the barn was a small house, the 'medicine house' or shrine where Okonkwe kept the wooden symbols of his personal god and of his ancestral spirits. He worshipped them with sacrifices of kola nut, food and palm wine, and offered prayers to them on behalf of himself, his three wives and eight children." (p.11)

"'Listen to me,' he said when Okonkwe had spoken. 'You are not a stranger to Umuofia. You know well as I do that our forefathers ordained that before we plant any crops in the earth we should observe a week in which a man does not say a harsh word to his neighbour. We live in peace with our fellows to honour our great goddess of the earth without whose blessing our crops will not grow. You have committed a great evil.' He brought down his staff heavily on the floor. 'Your wife was at fault, but even if you came into your obi and found her lover on top of her, you would still have committed a great evil to beat her.' His staff came down again. 'The evil you have done can ruin the whole clan. The earth goddess whom you have insulted may refuse to give us her increase, and we shall all perish.' His tone was changed from anger to command. 'You will bring to the shrine of Ani tomorrow one she-goat, one hen, a length of cloth and a hundred cowries.' He rose and left the hut." (p.23)

Although I enjoyed the story of the community and their lives I felt very aware of how remote their experiences and beliefs were from my own. A young boy, Ikemefuna, comes to live with Okonkwe's household, as a tribute from another village after a young woman is killed. He becomes part of their family for three years, at the end of which he is taken into the bush and killed. At this point I was not shocked but saddened that the human relationships between the people in the story were trumped by these arbitrary cultural rules. You see in the portrayal of their community all sorts of valuable things that modern western society has lost, but I would not want to go back there. The book was not inviting me to make moral judgements so I tried not to; as a reader you can only try to understand the motivations and actions of the characters based on their lives and experiences rather than your own, but sometimes it is hard. 
When Okonkwe's gun caused the accidental death of a young boy he and his family are exiled from the village for seven years, and he bears this punishment with fortitude. On his return he finds things have changed a great deal with the arrival of christian missionaries. It is at this point that my reactions began to change. It shows how much, in spite of myself, I did form a bond with the character of Okonkwe. The missionaries, and in their wake a new colonial administration, are here to civilise the natives, to make them change their ways, by force if necessary. 

"But apart from the church, the white men had also brought a government. They had built a court where the District Commissioner judged cases in ignorance. He had court messengers who brought men to him for trial. Many of these messengers came from Umaru on the banks of the Great River, where the white men first came many years before and where they had built the centre of their religion and trade and government. These court messengers were greatly hated in Umuofia because they were foreigners and also arrogant and high-handed. They were called kotma, and because of their ash-coloured shorts they earned the additional name of Ashy-Buttocks. They guarded the prison, which was full of men who had offended against the white man's law. Some of these prisoners had thrown away their twins and some had molested Christians. They were beaten in the prison by the kotma and made to work every morning clearing the government compound and fetching wood for the white Commissioner and the court messengers. Some of the prisoners were men of title who should be above such mean occupation. They were grieved by the indignity and mourned their neglected farms." (p.127-8)

Finally there is a confrontation when Enoch, one of the converts, unmasks one of the egwugwu (ceremonial masked spirits) during the annual worship of the earth goddess. There is a showdown with Reverend Smith:

"Mr Smith said to his interpreter. 'Tell them to go away from here. This is the house of God and I will not see it desecrated.'
Okeke interpreted wisely to the spirits and leaders of Umuofia. 'The white man says he is happy you have come to him with your grievances, like friends. He will be happy if you leave the matter in his hands.'
'We cannot leave the matter in his hands because he does not understand our customs, just as we do not understand his. We say he is foolish because he does not know our ways, and perhaps he says we are foolish because we do not know his. Let him go away.'
Mr Smith stood his ground. But he could not save his church. When the egwugwu went away the red-earth church which Mr Brown had built was a pile of earth and ashes. And for the moment the spirit of the clan was pacified." (p.138-9)

But things can only get worse and having studied the colonial history of Africa I know where it is heading. As an atheist I read with horror as the British come in and replaces one set of superstitions with another set of superstitions. As a resident of the colonial nation my response becomes one of shame, at the arrogance with which the colonial government rides roughshod over every aspect of the indigenous culture and beliefs. I watched Okonkwe's suffering as he sees the village and way of life he loves being destroyed, and he knows he is powerless to prevent it. It's not even subtle; it is simultaneously bludgeoned with a cross and throttled with a British flag. This is not fiction, this is the modern history of Africa. The ending left me subdued and horrified by turns. 

Friday 17 June 2016

Resistance is Futile

I picked up 'Alone in Berlin' by Hans Fallada at the library, catching sight of it on the shelf and recognising the title as one I had read about. Written immediately after the war and reflecting the author's experience of wartime Berlin the book was not translated until 2009 but has since been considered a classic novel about wartime Berlin.

Set in the early years of the war it opens with Eva the postwoman arriving at 55 Jablonski Strasse (which enamoured it to me immediately). Unfortunately she is bringing bad news to Otto and Anna Quangel. On learning of the death of their only son, they start a campaign of writing and disseminating anonymous postcards protesting against the Nazi regime and the war. The story is based on the lives of a German couple, Otto and Elise Hampel, who did just this; so prolific were they that the police were convinced for some time that it was a large and organised resistance. The Quangels and their neighbours form the basis for the story: Emil Borkhausen with his prostitute wife and hoard of children in the basement, retired Judge Fromm on the ground floor, the Persickes, fervent Nazis, on the first floor, and Frau Rosenthal above on the third floor who's husband has been recently taken by the Gestapo. After Otto and Anna launch their postcard campaign it is Eva's good-for-nothing husband Enno who becomes the focus of the story; he and Borkhausen try to burgle Frau Rosenthal's flat but are thwarted by Baldur Persickle, and then he is coincidentally in the vicinity of a postcard at the doctor surgery that brings him to the attention of Inspector Escherich of the Gestapo. The story goes off on these tangents, following Enno, following Escherich's investigation, then telling us about what became of Trudel, their son's fiancée, then bringing us back to the Quangels. And all the while the war is going on, but you would hardly know it.

This is the war that is going on:
"Once again she shivered. There was something so bleak, so gloomy, so determined in the words Otto had just spoken. At that instant she grasped that this very first sentence was Otto's absolute and irrevocable declaration of war, and also what that meant: war between, on the one side, the two of them, poor, small, insignificant workers who could be extinguished for just a word or two, and on the other, the Führer, the Party, the whole apparatus in all its power and glory, with three-fourths or even four-fifths of the German people behind it. And the two of them in this little room in Jablonski Strasse!" (p.141)

It is not really a spoiler to say they are eventually caught and sentenced to death. The book is not a tale of daring, valiant resistance against an evil regime, it is a story about tyranny and how it seeps into the pores of a nation and cannot to purged. It is about the inevitability of their deaths. It makes you want and need to understand how the Nazis went from being a democratically elected government to a dictatorship that inflicted such terrible repression on its own people that they were unable to protest or resist. The level of fear is quite graphically portrayed, but also is the level of apathy; people who just want to keep their heads down and get on with life as if none of the terrible things are happening. It is as if the fear becomes normal and there is no longer any sense of community or friendliness or trust between people. I found myself, at the beginning, idealistically thinking, like the Quangels, that people will read the postcards and be encouraged the find that other people want to resist the Nazis. Anna thinks that others will join them and blanket the city in postcards. They are so sure that other people feel as they do. Maybe they did, but the fear is so entrenched that there is no way for them to reach out to each other. When Otto is arrested he is taken to Escherich's office and sees on the wall the map of all the reported postcards, and it is then that he discovers how pointless his efforts have been, how he did not reach out and share his resistance, but how he engendered terror in the very people he wanted to speak to.

"'And consider this well, Herr Quangel,' the inspector continued, taking full advantage of the other's shock, 'all these letters and cards were freely handed in to us. We didn't find a single one of them. People came running to us as though they were on fire. They couldn't hand them in quickly enough, and most of then hadn't even read them all the way through ...'
Quangel still did not speak, but his face was working. The man was in turmoil; his sharp beady glance wavered: the eyelids flickered, the eyes wandered off, looked at the ground, then were drawn back to the little flags.
'And one other thing, Quangel. Did you ever stop to think how much misery and fear you brought upon people with those cards of yours? People were in terror, some were arrested, and I know of someone killing himself over one ...' " (p.416)

It is testament to the power of Fallada's writing that I came to feel sympathy for Escherich, even liking him. It is partly because his story shows most starkly the insecurity everyone suffered under. No matter where you were in the pecking order you could still end up in the 'basement' if those above you decided you had not done your job properly or enthusiastically enough or if your expressions of fervour were lacking or if you expressed any kind of sympathy for anyone under suspicion. Simply knowing someone, being related to someone or even just speaking to them on the street was enough to get you arrested. Anything other than unquestioning loyalty was suspect. When Escherich has not found the Quangels after two years he is replaced, and takes a trip to the basement with the SS. When he is eventually brought back several weeks later he is a broken man:

"'You see Escherich,' drawled Obergruppenführer Prall, all the while gorging himself on his subordinate's obvious fear, 'you see what good a little spell in the basement does! That's how devoted I am to my men! You no longer feel terribly superior to me, Esherich?'
'No, Obergruppenführer, certainly not. At your orders, Obergruppenführer, sir!'
'You're no longer of the view that you're the cleverest little bastard in the entire Gestapo, and that nothing anyone else does is worth shit - you don't think that any more, do you Esherich?'
'At you command, sir, Obergruppenführer, no, I don't think that any more.'
'Now, Escherich,' the Obergruppenführer went on, giving the flinching Escherich a playful but painful punch on the nose, 'whenever you next feel incredibly clever, or you undertake private initiatives, or you just think that Obergruppenführer Prall is as thick as pigshit, well, just let me know in time. Then, before things get too bad, I'll put you down for another little rest cure. All right?'
Inspector Escherich stared helplessly at his superior. He was shaking so hard a blind man would have heard it." (p.388-9)

The normal rules of society had been abandoned, replaced with utterly arbitrary ones, rules that could change at a moment's notice, rules you often didn't even know exist until you had broken them. The vicious circle of fear and self protection, trying to do what was expected of you and suspicion of others meant that there was no way out for anyone. The Quangel's chose to act to preserve their own moral integrity, even though it had little impact on the course or outcome of events, and died for their actions. Much has been written about the banality of evil but the afterword at the end of Alone in Berlin, that gives the reader the background of Fallada's life, ends with the comment that his book "comprehends and honours the banality of good." 'Alone in Berlin' is about such ordinary people, there are no heroes, and they all fall into the trap that the tyranny sets for them. They cannot oppose the system because it is fighting by different rules. The quote on the front describes it as 'redemptive'. I did not experience this. Despite the attempt at a hopeful ending it was overshadowed by the grinding despair of the rest of the story. Escherich looks into the abyss that he has helped to create and sees the only way out is death.
I recall discussion when I was in the 6th form about 'just war' and how the Second World War was a just war because it was to defeat Hitler. I felt at the time the argument was used disingenuously because stopping the Holocaust was never a war aim, but I finished this book with such a vivid image of the way the world could have become if the Nazis had won I feel more certain that it was important to fight whatever the cost. Hitler could not have been defeated from within. I commented at the end of the short review of Roman Frister's 'The Cap' on my More Reviews page that such stories force us to consider the moral ambiguities that we all occasionally have to face, and 'Alone in Berlin' challenges you to consider what you might do in such a situation. This was a very challenging book causing me to rethink a lot of stuff I though I understood about the war. This final quote comes from the afterword, describing how Fallada chose to handle the situation:

"In his life as a citizen, Fallada complied with most of the Nazi system's demands, for example by enrolling his oldest son in the Hitler Youth, but he also gave financial and legal support to some of the system's outcasts, particularly authors and publisher's employees who suffered discrimination on political or racial grounds. And there were contradiction in the way the Nazis treated Fallada, sometimes promoting his work and sometimes censoring it, sometimes sending him on propaganda tours and sometimes imprisoning him. It is not overly generous to point out, however, that what resistance he made put him in actual, deadly jeopardy, and what compromises he made were in the same context.
Within the debate about the justifications for emigrating from or remaining in Nazi Germany which has not ceased since 1933 is too complex to recapitulate here, it is worth noting that the conflicting currents in Fallada's story are not untypical of the stories of those who remained: collaboration was not necessarily prompt, uncoerced or unconditional, and resistance was not always immediate, impassioned or uncompromising. The only certainty for Fallada, as for all those who remained, was that even moderate acts of resistance carried the threat of imprisonment or death." (p.577)

Monday 6 June 2016

The Illusion of Separateneess

I picked up 'The Illusion of Separateness" by Simon Van Booy for the Readathon (weeks ago now) and only got around to it the other week. I liked it but was not as swept away as some of the reviewers seem to have been by his writing. The book is made up of a series of interlocking stories, characters who have all had an impact on one another's lives. Although I really enjoyed it I did feel it was more like short stories than a novel, it lacked some element of drawing together. 

I am just going to give you one quote, from my favourite story, of Danny and Mr Hugo. Mr Hugo's story is the most heart rending one of loss and searching for identity. I liked it because it captures the lonely person's need for companionship, his bond with his neighbour's son and the very particular kind of companionship that you get from being with a young child:

"Danny usually came after school. His mother didn't mind because she worked late. I made something for him to eat. Danny's favourite was fish fingers, beans, and American-style french fries. He took the french fries from the freezer, then arranged them on an oven tray. The fish fingers had to be cooked slowly or were cold in the middle. Danny watched television, laughing from time to time. I listened through the serving hatch and felt light, felt unafraid.
Then we ate together. A man and boy eating: I felt echoes from long ago. The knife and fork were too big for Danny. I thought of the knife. Remembered the knife. My father kept it on the mantelpiece. I should have buried it. Then Danny interrupts. Always more ketchup, Mr Hugo, always more brown sauce. He puts vinegar on his french fries, then on mine. I don't like vinegar, but it's too late and would just hurt his feelings. Danny always saved one fish finger for last. I never knew why.
I cleared up after he left. Sometimes I left the dinner plates until next morning. Beans hardened against the ceramic were almost impossible to remove, but I felt light, felt unafraid." (p.32)

Sunday 5 June 2016

Long time no felt

I made the mistake of mowing the lawn on the bank holiday last week and the bad karma broke the mower when it was only half done, so I started today cutting the rest of the grass with shears. It's really tiring so I gave up. Then I cleaned the deep fat fryer and made doughnut dough. 
Having made a present for mum this week I decided to do a house warming gift for my niece Natalie who moved into her own place a few weeks ago. I made a set of place mats for Claire a few years ago so decided to do some more.
The hottest day of the year does lend itself very nicely to outdoor crafting:
And Dunk leaned out of the window and captured the process:
I made the large piece then cut it into quarters to achieve more even sized mats than last time.
We decided that owning a set of table mats in the mark of being proper grown up ... so here you are Nat, welcome to the adult world x

Saturday 4 June 2016

Not A Simple Skirt Tutorial

If I had taken more photos I could call this a tutorial ... but I was so wrapped up in f***ing up the french seams that I forgot, so it is instructions but without the detailed visual aids. 
Our recent watching of the Great British Sewing Bee, and renewed enthusiasm for creation, coincided with my lovely mum asking me if I would maybe sew her a summer skirt in cotton jersey with a bit of purple. We didn't like anything down at Leons so I browsed the Abakhan website and they had Liberty cotton jersey in the sale. However it would only allow me to buy whole metres so I decided it would be worth the trip to town to have a closer look. And I'm glad I did because I changed my mind about the one I nearly bought and plumped for this fabulous pink and purple swirly stuff in a Liberty lawn cotton (which was half price!!)
I followed this basic skirt tutorial at Melissa Esplin: I cut four trapeziums that were 15" across the top, 23" across the base and 30" long (I just drew the shape onto the fabric with a washable fabric marker and a very long ruler). I drew a pocket pattern freehand on a sheet of paper and cut four and left a long strip to make a waistband. All I have left of 1.70 metres is a few narrow scraps.
A French Seam is a neat way of hiding all your raw edges so that you have a professional looking finish. However you have to firstly sew the seam with the wrong sides together ... and this is somewhat counter-intuitive and so of course I kept doing it wrong and having to unpick and start again. I followed this tutorial on Sew Mama Sew for putting in a side seam pocket with French seams, which is very clear and helpful.
Et voila! (it doesn't look like much but I felt it was worth the bother):
Instead of just sewing nasty elastic to the top of the skirt I cut a long strip to match to top of the fabric exactly, attached it, folded it in half and top-stitched at the top and bottom of the waistband, leaving a small gap. Insert the elastic using a large safety pin then adjust to fit the waist comfortably, stitch ends firmly and sew up the opening. I did a small roll hem just to tidy the bottom but will adjust the length to suit mum when I go and visit in a few weeks.
I have come to believe, as with yarn choices, it is always worth the money to buy lovely fabric because it is so soft and hangs beautifully. I hope she likes it: