Sunday 30 October 2016

How to be Wild

Crafty Green Poet recommended 'How to be Wild' by Simon Barnes a few weeks ago and on the spur of the moment I requested it from the library, and it has been an absolute delight. I needed something uplifting and positive and this book certainly is. It is packed with enthusiasm for the natural world and Simon shares the many and varied experiences he has had just being outside; some of his 'outsides' are slightly more exotic than others, but the simple process of walking the dog has as much interest for him as trailing lions in Africa.

I don't know much about birds, British or otherwise, though have always enjoyed their presence. I recall watching swifts gathering to leave at the end of the summer when we first moved to Yorkshire and the way it made me feel as if I had arrived in the real countryside: the magpies and rooks dominate here in south Manchester. Birds are obviously his thing, and Simon Barnes waxes lyrical about the pleasures of recognising birdsong:

"It really was a garden warbler. Not a blackcap. These two are species that are notoriously confused, but I get it right every time. My method is simple: I listen to the song, make my diagnosis and walk on. I never look for the bird. That simplifies things enormously." (p.105)

His admiration for nature brings him back time and again to the damage that humans are doing, but for everything that loses there are also new opportunities, he manages to be perpetually upbeat:

"Global warming giveth and global warming taketh away. The cuckoos and the willow warblers are struggling under the stress of climate change: the little egrets and the Cetti's warblers are thriving. Does that make everything all right then?
Well, I;ll tell you the first thing that the egrets and the Cetti's show: and that us the extreme resilience and opportunism of life. If conditions change, there will always be creatures that find that the new way suits them down to the ground. If the world floods tomorrow, most of us will drown, but it will provide a wonderful opportunity for ducks and turtles. That is probably not, on the whole, a sound argument for flooding the earth overnight. The same argument hold for a nuclear winter." (p.128)

He shares his delight in the quirks of nature, pointing out both the mundane and the exotic. I found myself swept up by his enthusiasm for everything, just enjoying listening to his reminiscences and reflections. The writing is so engaging and easy, though you envy him the opportunities that his journalism careers has provided to travel the world. Here he is talking about swifts:

"A friend of mine told me one of the great memories of his childhood was the young swifts' annual emergence from their nesting darkness into the world of flight: and how some of them failed to negotiate the tricky bit between dropping from the nest exit and rising to the skies. They found themselves belly-down on the ground: legs too short and wings too long to get a decent flap going and get airborne. He remembered picking them up and throwing them skywards: launching then into their life in the skies, sometimes racing the cats to set the wild wings free." (p.153)

Here he is talking about flying squirrels:

"Are they an evolutionary mistake? No, certainly not: there are 43 species of the worldwide, including one in Siberia. There are fourteen in Borneo alone: from the pygmy flying squirrel at eight centimetres in length, to the giants, five times as big. They are a successful little group.
Are they then improving? Are the forces of evolution trying to make them more sophisticated, less funny? Again; certainly not. Why should they improve? They work perfectly well as they re. The blind forces of evolution are not seeking to create perfection: they are seeking something that works well enough: well enough to permit the creature to survive, breed, become an ancestor.
The flying squirrels are gorgeous proof that evolution is not perfection. This is an absurd and glorious jerry-rigged creature: a living breathing, thriving Heath Robinson device." (p.163)

Part of the point of the book however is to point out where it has all gone wrong for human being. He sees how we are part of the wild world, but that our progress has taken us out of it, and what we need is to get back: thus the title, How to be Wild. He reflects thus, in between stories of Germany and Africa, about what we have done to evolution:

"This is something takes place over the course of generations: if a change is good, the being that inherited the change is more likely to survive, breed, and pass on that change, and so on, and so on, until, in the classic example, a species of sky-reaching mammals becomes giraffes. There is no evidence to suggest the process went too fast for giraffes: that they are sad alienated creates who live with a perpetual nostalgia for the low and the short. Evolution goes at a natural pace: one that the hearts and minds of the evolving creatures can, it seems, readily deal with.
But humans have found an additional way of changing. What one generation acquires, the next generation can take on right away. There is no need for the prolonged, generation-after-generation process of testing. Humans can acquire changes within their own lifetime, implement them and then pass them on. as a result, the human way of life has changed as a speed no other creature has ever experienced.
We are city-slickers with hunter-gatherer souls: we have evolved for the wild and we have created a world of oppressive tameness. We are out of step with ourselves and the society we have built with such reckless brilliance. We need wildness in our lives: and the more wildness we destroy, the more clear it becomes: we need it more than ever." (p.190-192)

He then talks variously about the process of what is being done to mitigate the damage that we have dome, specifically the idea of 'rewilding', to replace animals in areas where human destruction has wiped them out. He goes out looking for dormice that have been rewilded in Bradfield Wood, and does not see any:

"That begs the question: why bother to put them back? This has two answers. They're completely contradictory, and they're both right. The first is that conservation is not about human gratification. It's about doing the right thing by life, by biodiversity, by the requirements of the wild world. The second is that al conservation is gratifying to humans: that Bradfield Wood feels the better, the richer, for knowing that us has dormice in it. The world itself  seems slightly better for knowing that dormice have been put back into it." (p.208-9)

It's not just that he makes you feel that the wild is important because it provides something important for people, but that it is vital for it's own sake. He never says it explicitly be he recognises that humans are just one part of the ecosystem and to a certain extent it is our destruction of it that has landed us with the responsibility for it. He comes back to the swifts, and how their coming and going symbolise the turning of the year and whether the world is "still somehow unfucked":

" When you see the last swift of the year, you feel a pleasant frisson at the year's turning. But you also cannot help but wonder: so much for the last swift of the year: and will there be a first swift next year? In eight months time, will they be arriving to show us that the globe's still working? Or not? To every sight in the natural world, the ancient haze of permanence is gone. We see things clearer now, clearer than ever our ancestors did. We see the world in all its hideously fragile perfection. In every revelation of beauty, those with ears can hear the faint ticking of the time bomb, the faint whisper of the voice that says: enjoy it while you can. The high summer is the season of ease and plenty for humankind: and all the better, it seems to me, for that faint touch of melancholy: for that subtle sense of disquiet." (p.225-6)

The book is so positive though, encouraging the reader to notice what was there all the time but so easily ignored. I liked particularly where he talked about the wildlife that is around you and the ability to tune yourself into it rather than tune it out, being 'nature-deaf' as he calls it:

"I am incomparably richer for having found my hearing, and for having developed my sight. Not in terms of expertise, but in terms of noticing. It's not that I am a better scientist or a more useful recorder. It is rather that I am that little bit wilder. As a result, that little bit richer, that little bit happier. Joe found frogspawn in his own small pond, and a goldcrest sang, high and thin from the top of the pines. I looked, listened, wildly." (p.41)

I found myself standing on Fog Lane the other day listening to a chattering of birds in a tree opposite and trying to pick out how many different ones there were, not recognising them of course, but enjoying listening carefully. And here, to finish, is 'our hedgehog', visiting the cat food in the garage, and hopefully hibernating somewhere snug in our scruffy garden.

Monday 24 October 2016

Anne and Hollie and Salena and Eimear

Oh what a wonderful but exhausting couple of weeks it has been. The 2016 Manchester Literature Festival is finally over. Last week was full of literary delights for me, starting on Monday with Anne Enright, who's book 'The Gathering' won the Booker Prize back in 2007. She looks a little austere in the photographs but was a wonderful speaker and read a lengthy piece from her new book 'The Green Road', complete with the huffs, sighs and tears of her characters, making it a definite addition to the list.
I have been quite a long time fan of Hollie McNish and saw her last year in Edinburgh with the Loud Poets. Monkey, Julie and I went to see her at Gorilla on Wednesday. She read from her new book 'Nobody Told Me' about her experiences of pregnancy, breastfeeding and new parenting. It was very entertaining in a nostalgic kind of way, though there is a lot of personal/political stuff going on in her writing too.
Hollie was joined by the equally fantastic Salena Godden. I did not know her and quite deliberately did not seek her out on Youtube, and was glad I had not because her performance style is quite outrageous. She was very loud, energetic, in-you-face confrontational (in a good way) and uproariously funny. Her new poem 'You're a Citizen of Nowhere', written for Teresa May, is up there on her blog. As well as her own work she has contributed recently to a book called 'The Good Immigrant', a collection of essays that explores the issues of race and immigration in the UK today.
And Thursday I volunteered at the Martin Harris Centre for Music and Drama for Eimear McBride. She was so completely engaging and talked about both 'Girl is a Half Formed Thing', and her new book 'The Lesser Bohemians'. She was very inspiring in terms of writing what you want and stepping so far outside the box that your book is impossible to describe. 
I waited to the end of the signing queue and had a lovely chat with her.

Monday 10 October 2016

10 X 10 X 10 Giveaway post

It has been creeping up slowly over the last couple of months, but finally I have reached my 1000th post! It feels like a huge milestone, who knew I had so much to say. I decided to celebrate the things that I have enjoyed about blogging with a 10 x 10 x 10 post. 
Up first are my ten most visited posts:

10: Cool Aid Dying with 1031 visits

9: Cooking and Sewing Post with 1114 visits
8: Carol Ann Duffy with 1124 visits
7: for the home educators HESFES : long self-indulgent holiday post with 1216 visits
6: for the reptile fans Tegu Walking with 1123 visits
5: for the Philip Pullman fans Midsummer's day with Will and Lyra with 1496 visits
4: Engelby by Sebastian Faulks with 1158 visits
3: Luscious Lemon Cake with 1565 visits
2: an early poetry post, visited by many students I think Margaret Atwood Poetry with 3247 visits
1: (not quite fair on Margaret Atwood but combining two as they go together) Lizard Cake and Lizard Cake Tutorial with a total of 4985 visits

Next I give you, with much torturous decision making, my ten favourite books of the 462 that are labelled at book reviews (alphabetical for I could never rank them one to ten):

Any Human Heart by William Boyd

Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald
Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles
Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
Words from a Glass Bubble by Vanessa Gebbie

And the final ten posts are the ten that I love, either because they mark significant things that have happened over the last few years or just times when I wrote something important to me or that I was particularly pleased with:

Don't Apologise speaks for itself, I was angry, I should write like that more often.

Nostalgia ain't what it used to be is a brief post that celebrates 15 years of friendship with the Ridley Birks family. 
Two Deaths, Three Kisses and a Punchup was written in 2011 when I blogged for the Library Theatre's production of Hard Times
Monkey Quilt the Final Chapter is the result of over two years working on our beekeeper's quilt.
Favourite Moments gives the best bits from my visit to Costa Rica with my mum in 2014.
Dead Dog Poems is one of many many post written during my longstanding involvement with the Manchester Literature Festival, it was one of my favourite events.
What I Think is a course review of 'A Brief History of Humankind', of the many courses I have done with Coursera since 2013 it was the most interesting and engaging.
Night of Writing Dangerously: Monkey and I have participated in NaNoWriMo several times, and are planning to again this year.
Luggage: I have taken part in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge every year since 2012, several years I have done flash fictions, and this is one I particularly liked.
Blogger (a poem) that I wrote back in 2010

I hummed and hawed about what to do to celebrate, and thought that of course there should be a give-away. I know people visit when I post stuff and I hope you get some interest or enjoyment out of reading but I thought it might be nice to know who you all are. So here are three outrageously unique tote bags that I made for my short-lived Etsy shop, so maybe if people just say hi and leave their email contact/blog link and I will pick three people at random to send them to.
Red and Black flocked satin lined with white cotton.
Brown satin with gold spirals lined with pale pink satin.
Pink paisley satin lined with pale pink satin.

Sunday 9 October 2016

Literary failures and successes

I have admitted defeat (for the time being) with Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. I picked it up in the library on the spur of the moment and struggled with it for a fortnight, but it is impenetrable. Even though there is a wiki specifically designed to lead you through the finer points of the novel I decided that this is just not the right time for me to tackle something that needs an explanation of what is happening in each paragraph. Maybe when I have a year with nothing better to do, or when the arthritis has removed my ability to do anything other than read, or perhaps I'll get one of my grandchildren to read it to me as I lie on my deathbed. Anyway, I'm sure I'll give it another go at some point. 

On the plus side the Manchester Literature Festival is now well under way. I went to my first event last month however, one of the preview events, that saw my wonderful Professor Harari visiting to promote his new book. I did his Coursera course, 'A Brief History of Human Kind' three years ago (unfortunately it no longer seems to be available) and I was so excited to discover he was going to be coming to the festival. His new book, Homo Deus, is an examination of where the human race might be headed next.
I was a little starstruck when I went to get him to sign his book and managed to mumble something barely intelligible about how much I had enjoyed the course, but it was really lovely to see him in person, and he was just like he seemed in the online lectures. 
Last night I did my second event; the most wonderful Lemn Sissay was performing as part of the 8th annual Black and Asian Writers Conference organised by Cultureword at the Contact Theatre. I confess I had not heard any of his poetry previously but knew of him after he was elected Chancellor of Manchester University last year. He approached me in the foyer when he arrived, because I was wearing a MLF volunteer t-shirt, and asked about books for sale, and he was very distressed to find that, due to some very poor communication, there were none. The event, nevertheless, was a roaring success, sold out, and he was so funny and engaging and chatted on during the question and answer session way past the official finish time. 
His new collection is called 'Gold from the Stone'.
I will just give you this poem, called 'Some things I like', which is quite a good example of his style and delivery, though this video is from a couple of years ago. 

Wednesday 5 October 2016

Viddy those malenky droogs - Banned Books Week

Banned Books Week was last week and it managed to take me all week to read 'A Clockwork Orange' by Anthony Burgess, it being the third time I have tried to read this book. I finished the last few pages this morning with my cup of tea and was well pissed off I can tell you. Have you read it? What the hell! I searched for some reviews and came across the information that the final 21st chapter was, under pressure from the American publishers, omitted from the original publication, and this version was the basis for the film (I have seen the film but too long ago to recall the ending.) Burgess, however, later in life, reasserted his original plan for the story and now most copies will include the final 'redemptive' chapter. It is wrong, so very very wrong. I am not sure I have disagreed with an author about his own book like this before. There is no redemption for Alex, there is no way he is going to 'grow out of' his profoundly violent, anti-social behaviour, it's just not on the cards for him. 

I decided not to look up a Nadsat dictionary and just went with reading and guessing from context the meaning of the words. The creation of this new way of talking I think is probably the most interesting aspect of the book. The reader is forced to think hard about how we get meaning from language and what words are, and about the way, for some social groups, the way they talk is an important part of their identity and social cohesion (I mean in terms of accent and dialect rather than separate languages). It takes some getting used to but by the end it was totally normal. While some argue that Burgess is writing about a dysfunctional society, I thought that the society, though in some measure reflecting the violence of the gang, was really quite normal. Alex, however, was a psychopath, not merely a wayward youth, and if the book is about whether you can change someone's moral framework, the answer has to be no, if they don't have one in the first place. He utterly lacks empathy or a sense that anyone else is an autonomous human being with rights and emotions of their own. He is impulsive and uncontrolled, thinking only of his own pleasurable experiences and seeks out victims for his violent urges. They are not random events caused by anger or frustration but planned and carefully executed to cause the most extreme trauma. His contempt for women in particular is obvious. He initiates, participates and also observes and gets pleasure from all three. There is no explanation for his behaviour, another thing that makes him seem psychopathic, that there is no reason, he just does it. His reaction to prison, the Ludovico experiment and his subsequent release from prison are all based on how to minimise his own suffering and inconvenience; there is never any change in his attitude towards others, they are always just things that might or might not provide him with amusement. I wondered whether his enjoyment and admiration for classical music was supposed to be some kind of redeeming feature, and there were moments when I felt some sympathy for him, but on reflection maybe that was because he felt so so sorry for himself. This suddenly reminded me of 'Lolita', and the 'unreliable narrator' issue, because Alex is telling us this story, and although he is completely honest about the violence he commits, what you are reading is his excitement at the events, which manages to undermine your own reaction to the description. I wonder if this is why the book, and the film, have sometimes been accused of glamourising violence, because it is Alex's view we have of each incident, so it is almost as if the reader/viewer is almost forced to adopt his 'moral' code. So when I reached the end and he muses about the idea of getting married and having a son it was just completely wrong. This is a boy who has no real relationships with other human beings, not even his parents, you cannot envisage him forming a loving bond with anyone, he is incapable of it. He seems to think he is becoming bored by the ultra-violence and is growing up, but you can't see him getting a nice settled job and being a reliable member of society. 

In my browsing I came across Daniel at The Gemsbok who has a brilliant analysis of why Clockwork Orange is better without the last chapter, and some interesting quotes from Burgess about the book. It is strange to think of a writer disparaging his own most well known work, though it makes me curious to read something else he has written and I may have to seek out some advice at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation where the Manchester Literature Festival holds many of its events. I am not sure what else to say about the book, something this well known does not need further description. The issue of whether someone is still 'human' if their ability to make moral decisions has been taken away seems quite a minor feature of the book, and in fact I felt more that the way the politicians use Alex as a pawn in their game was showing how politicians use people's lives to justify their policies and that they are as amoral as Alex is in their use of other people for their own purposes.
Will finish with this quote, because you need to read it to believe quite how linguistically inventive this novel is. Here is Alex, being arrested after being abandoned by his gang at the house of the old cat lady:

" 'A real pleasure this is,' I heard another millicent goloss say as I was tolchocked very rough and skorry into the auto. 'Little Alex all to our own selves.' I creeched out:
'I'm blind. Bog bust and bleed you, you grahzny bastards.'
'Language, language,' like smecked a goloss, and then I got a like backhand tolchock with some ringy rooker or other full on the rot. I said:
'Bog murder you, you vonny stinking bratchnies. Where are there others? Where are my stinking traitorous droogs? One of my cursed grahzny bratties chained me on the glazzies. Get them before they get away. It was all their idea, brothers. They like forced me to do it. I'm innocent, Bog butcher you.' By this time they were all having like a good smeck at me with the heighth of like callousness, and they'd tolchocked me into the back of the auto, but I still kept on about these so-called droogs of men and the  I viddied it would be no good, because they'd all be back now in the snug of the Duke of New York forcing black and suds and double Scotchmen down the unprotesting gorloes of those stinking starry ptitsas and they saying: 'Thanks lads. God bless you, boys. Been here all the time you have, lads. Not been out of our sight you haven't.' " (p.53-4)