Sunday 25 September 2016

Still Light Tunic

The 'Still Light Tunic' is designed by Veera Valimaki at Rain Knitwear DesignsJulie and I have been making it as a joint project for the last couple of months. I bought some Araucania Ranco at Black Sheep Wools in the sale and the contrast stripes are done in Louisa Harding Pittura. It has these lovely folded in feature pockets; clothing without pockets annoys me, or, like the Bressay dress, pockets that are too small to be of use.
Julie's is done in Drops Baby Merino
We will do a joint photo some time but it has been a bit warm to wear them; today is cooler so I am enjoying just getting used to it. I treated myself to new leggings to wear with.
We ended up waited nearly a fortnight for new needles to do the bottom ribbing. I had purchased circular needles that had come apart, been returned for replacement and then come apart again. I finally returned them to the supplier because the shop in Chorlton had no more of the right size, and the kind people at customer services at Essentials sent me a lovely selection of bits and pieces: you can never have too many needles. I should add that I have bought this brand several times and never previously had any problems with them.

Sunday 18 September 2016

Motorcycle Diaries

I was one of those predictable students who had a Che poster on their bedroom wall; to a naive teenager there was something romantic about the idea of pursuing and then dying for something you believed in. Ernesto Guevara must be one of the most iconic revolutionaries, almost more so than Lenin, and his early death has allowed him to remain a romantic figure rather than his image being tarnished by a lifetime as a politician. 'The Motorcycle Diaries' recounts a journey taken when he was a 23 year old medical student with his friend Alberto Granado

I was left a little bemused by what the fuss is over this book. To begin with so little of the journey they take is on the motorbike that I felt the title was somewhat misleading; the bike disintegrates and has to be abandoned only a short time into the trip and they continue as hitchhikers, blagging lifts and accommodation and food along the way, using their kudos as medical students to good effect. And to be honest there is very little politics: it is often reviewed as a journey that formed him politically and led directly to his revolutionary ambitions and yet although he observes much in the way of deprivation and inequality in the communities they pass through his reaction is not always sympathetic and they were occasionally somewhat contemptuous of the illiterate indigenous people. They are travelling to see and experience the continent, as tourists, not to learn about the lives of the people. There is much more discussion of their own hunger than that of the poor people they encounter, and their talk is frequently directed towards acquiring some alcohol and recovering from the after-effects. The book is written very much as you might imagine a young man's diary; it is mostly a catalogue of where they went, how they got there, who they met, what they ate and so on, with elaborate descriptions of some of their most desperate hardships and dangerous scrapes. I think what I liked about the book is that it humanises the icon; Che becomes a real person, a real young man with the interests and concerns of a young man, and there are some very thoughtful and perceptive descriptions of the places they visit, showing Che as having a true appreciation of the history of the continent. But I do feel like I got to know him somehow and it reminded me of Boris Pasternak's letters and how it was their very ordinariness that allowed you to see the real person. Some of the writing is mundane but occasionally he waxes lyrical, so I'll give you one of those:

the navel!
The word that most perfectly describes the city of Cuzco is evocative. Intangible dust of another era settles on its streets, rising like disturbed sediment of a muddy lake when you touch the bottom. But there are two or three Cuzcos, or it's better to say, two or three ways the city can be summoned. When Mama Ocllo dropped her golden wedge into the soil and it sank effortlessly, the first Incas knew this was the place selected by Viracocha to be the permanent home for his chosen ones, who had left behind their nomadic lives to come as conquistadores to their promised land. With nostrils flaring zealously for new horizons, they watched as their formidable empire grew, always looking beyond the feeble barrier of the surrounding mountains. And the converted nomads set to expanding Tahuantinsuyo, fortifying as they did so the centre of their conquered territory - the navel of the world - Cuzco. And here grew, as a necessary defense for the empire, the imposing Sacsahuamán, dominating the city from its heights and protecting the palaces and temples from the wrath of the enemies of the empire. The vision of this Cuzco emerges mournfully from the fortress destroyed by the stupidity of illiterate Spanish conquistadores, from the violated ruins of the temples, from the sacked palaces, from the faces of a brutalised race. This is the Cuzco inviting you to become a warrior and to defend, club in hand, the freedom and the life of the Inca.
High above the city another Cuzco can be seen, displacing the destroyed fortress: a Cuzco with coloured-tile roofs, its gentle uniformity interrupted by the cuppola of a baroque church; and as the city falls away it shows us only its narrow streets and its native inhabitants dressed in typical costume, all local colors. this Cuzco invites you to be a hesitant tourist, to pass over things superficially and to relax into the beauty beneath the leaden winter sky.
And there is yet another Cuzco, a vibrant city whose monuments bear witness to the formidable courage of the warriors who conquered the region in the name of Spain, the Cuzco to be found in museums and libraries, in the church facades and in the clear, sharp features of the white chiefs who even today feel pride in the conquest. This is the Cuzco asking you to pull on your armor and, mounted on the ample back of a powerful horse, cleave a path through the defenceless flesh of a naked Indian flock whose human wall collapses and disappears beneath the four hooves of the galloping beast.
Each one of these Cuzcos can be admired separately, and to each one we dedicated a part of our stay." (p.103-4)

Sunday 11 September 2016

A really bad bargain

'Tony Hogan Bought me an Ice Cream Float before he stole my Ma' by Kerry Hudson has a very distinctive title, but I'm not sure where or when I read about it. 

The story is narrated by Janie Ryan, from her birth to about sixteen years old, though her voice is that of an adolescent the entire time. It tells the story of a chaotic and deprived childhood starting in a neglected and rundown area of Aberdeen but gradually taking her to equally rundown areas of other parts of the country where Ma takes her in search of  a better life. Actually, on reflection, Ma does not take her anywhere in search of a better life, they drift on a stale wind of bad decisions from one from place to another with no intent or plan. I read with horrified fascination as I looked through a grubby window into a world I barely knew existed ... I've never watched 'Benefits Street'. Their lives are punctuated by useless and violent men, financial crises and midnight flits. It is a life of grinding poverty and the inability to imagine another way of doing things. What struck me most was the isolation; Ma does not seem to have a single friend. In emergencies she goes to her brother Frankie, her own mother does not appear to give a shit and she looks on her neighbours with suspicion and animosity. She develops a few superficial relationships based on shared drinking but never finds people she can rely on. The picture is painted of Ma and Janie, and then later Tiny, as a strongly bonded unit, they can only rely on each other. What I really had trouble with was the level of casual violence, aggression and conflict in their lives. There is lots of yelling and smacking of children and blaming it on the 'Ryan Temper', and when something goes wrong it is always someone else's fault. Ma never, never learns from experience. She trusts the men who let her down time and time again. When Tiny is born she falls into a post-natal depression and Janie basically become her carer at about seven years old, and in fact it felt like she becomes the grown-up in the relationship.  

I felt that the idea of Janie being able to escape the rut was not credible; she is bright and reads lots of stories as a child, seems to do well at school but still truants and finds no one there to encourage her abilities, only a careers adviser who puts her firmly back in her place. She might have 'street smarts' but she has no life skills, has never seen her mother cook a meal or manage her money or solve problems other than by hiding from them or running away from them. Janie finally finds a friend in Beth when she sits down with the Goths on the school playing field and you feel like it's the first positive thing in her life, so you know it's not going to last. She goes off at the end, not to forge a life for herself but vaguely in search of her mysterious father in London, like her mother, pointlessly expecting a man to be the solution to what is wrong. I was heartbroken; she buys travel sickness tablets (throwing up on journeys was a regular feature of her life) and it's almost as if Kerry Hudson thinks this symbolises some magically found new ability to solve problems by herself.  Although she brushes off the very helpful bloke who approaches her at the coach station I was just left feeling it was inevitable that that was who she would be turning to as soon as her pitiful roll of cash ran out.

"In the second week of comprehensive school I came home to hear Ma roaring with laughter. The last year, since Frankie, had left Ma as thin as skin on a blister and I tried my best to watch for the sharp moments that might leave her raw and sore.
Hearing that laugh made me stomach twist, though I had my own worries resting on my nylon-blazered shoulders. The table had a half-empty whiskey bottle, a pouch of Drum tobacco and a Sun newspaper on it, and before I saw him I knew he was back.
They looked so cosy, the three of them sitting on the sofa, knees pointed into each other's and Tiny, four now, with a sturdy body a miniature of her da's, sitting on his lap. Stupid Tiny, she didn't even know him. Not as stupid as Ma though, because she did.
'Janie!' She was pissed, words sliding off her tongue like oil. 'Look who's come tae visit an' he got yeh a present!'
She sloshed her glass towards the table where a bright yellow tape player sat.
'I wonder who he stole the money off fer that then?'
I didn't want a visitor. I definitely didn't want Doug. I wanted to disappear into the sea of bottle-green uniforms like all the other kids at comp; just another sloping back and shy bobbing head." (p.166)

I was just depressed by this book. I have lived on benefits in my time, for extended periods, and on very low income, and lived in crappy housing, but I guess my advantage was always that I knew life did not have to be like that. I had supportive family and a sense that I was capable of making my own life. I think she was trying to write an upbeat story of redemption but what the book does for me is graphically portray the nature of the poverty trap and how it holds on to its victims. 

Friday 9 September 2016

The Many

'The Many' by Wyl Menmuir is on the Booker longlist and I read about it in several places, so it was one that I picked up in Waterstones the other week. 

I am not sure that spoilers is the right warning, because not much happens in this book but in order to say anything about it I need to disclose what kind of nothing happens. I did not feel surprised by the denouement of the story because as it went on I began to realise that the whole story is a kind of metaphor. This is not a story about a man buying a house in a tiny isolated fishing village. The blurb on the back makes it sound like a weird psychological thriller, and it's definitely not that either. The house is not a house, the boats are not boats, the fish not fish and the people not people. Nothing is what it seems. I felt the entire time like I was reading a bad dream and in reality that is what it is. 

Timothy buys a long neglected house in the village thinking he will bring his wife to live in this place they once visited. The village is hostile to his presence, though in time he befriends Ethan one of the few remaining fishermen. The boats go out but they do not catch anything; their fishing grounds are demarcated by a row of anchored shipping tankers on the skyline, the waters polluted by mysterious poisons. Timothy persuades Ethan to take the boat out beyond the tankers and they catch shoals of deformed fish which are then purchased by a rather sinister government official. Timothy's attempts to renovate the house are half-hearted and ineffectual; he finds himself distracted by questions about Perran, the long dead man who used to live there, questions nobody seems willing or able to answer. 

Timothy is grieving and the story is his struggle to cope with and make sense of what he is experiencing: the house he is clearing out, his inability to communicate with his wife (the 21st century 'no phone signal' metaphor), the unwelcoming and suspicious people, the cold and dangerous sea, the flood followed by the cracks as the village itself seems to be disintegrating, his desperate and thwarted attempts to leave, are all part of this struggle. He starts out with some determination, trying to forge a new normal life out of the desolate shell of a house, but his efforts wane and he becomes ill and cold, lonely and afraid, the village become even more threatening, eventually destroying all his feeble attempts at reconstruction. The writing often has the same confused and disorientating feeling that dreams have, without logical sequences or predictability in the events or behaviour of the people. The whole atmosphere is dark and threatening, an abiding sense of unease. I just realised that it is written in the present tense, which is probably why it is so intense, as if it is happening in the present moment. It is almost impossible to describe but the book left me very disconcerted and confused, as if I just woke up and definitely didn't want to get back to sleep.

"The house has not been cleared, the agent had said to him from behind a wide empty expanse of desk, and the words come back to him as he lies back in the bath. Timothy gets out of the bath quickly and wraps a towel around himself, and not bothering to dry off, he goes down to the kitchen. With a growing puddle of water gathering around his feet, he stands in front of the kitchen units and takes the handles of the cupboards nearest to him in both hands, opening both units simultaneously. There is the briefest moment in which he feels the open cupboards retain their darkness for a fraction of a second longer than they should  before they allow the light in. Both cupboards are empty, and so too are the drawers in the kitchen and the small pantry cupboard by the fridge. All he finds is yellowed newspaper lining the bottoms of all the drawers and shelves. He takes some of the paper out of one of the drawers and, on the paper that is still legible and that does not disintegrate as he pulls it up, he sees the articles are written in a language he does not recognise and the pictures that accompany the articles are blurred, as though the hand that took the photograph was shaking at the time they were taken. Going through all the rooms he finds the small items of furniture that have been there all along and the items he has brought to the house himself, but not sign of any clothes that were there before he arrived, no personal belongings. His search becomes more and more frantic but he finds nothing that could give him any clue about the previous owner, as though all the evidence of who he was has been erased." (p.92-3)

The Crow Road

I picked 'The Crow Road' by Iain Banks off the shelf in Oxfam and read the first line "It was the day my grandmother exploded" and bought it. I just realised (you can see in the photo) it has a tyre print embossed across the front cover; Dunk asked if that was significant and when I thought about it it did seem that motor vehicles of various kinds are quite important to the unfolding of the tale therein. 

I like big families. I come from a pretty big family and enjoyed counting up my 32 cousins when I was a child. Like 'The Steep Approach to Garbadale' this story is also mainly about an extended family and the ins and outs of their life. Our hero is Prentice and he is in love with his cousin Verity. But more importantly he wonders what has become of his favourite Uncle Rory who rode off into the night on a friend's motorbike years previously and hasn't been heard of since. The story however hops back and forth in time, which I found a bit confusing at first; sometimes the same group of cousins and friends were young children, then they were suddenly in their twenties.  Prentice becomes fixated on the project that his uncle had been writing when he disappeared, trying to piece together the notes and random pieces of information that Rory had collected for what might have become either a film or a book or a piece of poetry, because really he didn't know which. Gradually, however, something much more sinister begins to emerge. And in the meantime Prentice struggles with his adolescence and making sense of his feelings for Verity. 

I liked it because of the wonderful family portrait Iain Banks paints of both the family unit and the quirky individuals, and the wider environment of the town they live in, dominated by the glass works owned by Uncle Fergus. It has the same wicked sense of humour that I loved in 'Wasp Factory', like Chapter 5 that begins "Right, now this isn't as bad as it sounds, but ... I was in bed with my Aunty Janice." and the slightly outrageous behaviour of some of the characters: here Aunt Charlotte wants to conceive a child under an ancient yew tree because of the 'magical Life Force':

"It was a dark and stormy night (no; really), the grass under the under the ancient, straggling, gnarled yew was sodden, and so she and her husband, Steve, had to settle for a knee-trembler while Charlotte held onto one of the overhanging boughs, but it was there and then - despite the effects of gravity - that the gracile and quiveringly prepossessing Verity was conceived, one loud night under an ink black sky obscuring a white full moon, at an hour when all decent folk were in their beds and even the indecent ones were in somebody's, in the quaint Perthshire village, back in the fag end of the dear old daft old hippy days.
So my aunt says, and frankly I believe her; anybody wacko enough ever to have bought the idea that there was some sort of weird cosmic energy beaming out of a geriatric shrub in a back-end-of-nowhere Scottish graveyard on a wet Monday night probably hasn't the wit to lie about it." (p.60)

In fact I think the pleasure of the story lies mostly in the characters and the ties that bind the family together; I grew to like them all and care about where their lives were going. Monkey keeps commenting how I am reading a lot of depressing books so actually it was nice to read this and be entertained rather than challenged. I will give you the other quote I wrote down, mainly because I love meringue (though I am not sure there is any such thing as a seal's 'den'):

"My mother, new and slim as ever, ploughed crunchingly into the loaf-sized meringue cream cake like a polar bear breaking into a seal's den. She gave a tiny giggle as a little dollop of cream adhered to the tip of her nose; she removed it with one finger, licked the pinky, then wiped her nose with her napkin, glancing round the restaurant through the confusing topography of slats and uprights of the seats and screens, apparently worried that the minor lapse in hand-mouth coordination was being critically observed by any of the surrounding middle-class matrons, perhaps with a view to passing on the scandalous morsel to their opposite numbers in Gallanach and having mother black-balled from the local bridge club. She needn't have worried; from what I had seen, getting a little bit of cream on your nose was practically compulsory, like getting nicked on the cheek in a ritualised duel before being allowed to enter a Prussian drinking sodality. The atmosphere of middle-aged ladies enjoying something wicked and nostalgic was quite palpable." (p.265)

Read enjoy, it's like comfort food for the soul.