Monday 11 November 2019

The Night of Camp David

I read about 'Night of Camp David' by Fletcher Knebel (published in 1964) some time last year and had put it on my Wordery wishlist. This is going to be a quickie because it does exactly what it says on the tin (or cover in this case). Senator Jim MacVeagh has some weird encounters with the President. He spouts weird conspiracies and has outrageous plans to make America great again. Why has nobody else noticed that there is something odd going on? He's not sure who he can tell. Trying to negotiate the tangle of political allegiances is no easy matter, will they believe him or turn on him! What I really enjoyed about this book is the fact that the author was a journalist and plainly had much inside knowledge on the workings of American politics, I really felt like I was inside the world of Washington. Wasn't it all so much more intriguing when there were only telephones and whispers in corridors. It is such a wonderful picture of 1960s America with all its blatant unapologetic misogyny, but you know what, I enjoyed it anyway.

It's his wife's fault he's having an affair:

"Rita. He wanted to see her tonight. Inwardly he reproached Martha for calling him that morning to say she and Chinky could not return until Saturday. Her mother had picked up a cold, and at her mother's age, Martha said, she wouldn't feel right leaving her. Old ladies got pneumonia so easily, she'd said, and he agreed. But, damn it, her mother had no business getting a cold right now. it exposed him, left him vulnerable. By her physical presence, Martha could protect him  - and this gnawing ambition - from temptation. He grew petulant. Didn't Martha realise that he had a chance to be vice-president, and that her duty was to be beside her husband? ... The Congressional directory lay open before him, but his mind went back to Rita and the curve of her wide, bare skin. He could smell the scent of rich perfume on her olive skin, and feel the warmth of her breasts on his chest and the soft nuzzling of her lips on his throat." (p.62-3)

Or maybe it's just Rita's:

"With the first sharp taste of the martini-on-the-rocks, he thought of Rita. Martinis at her place at seven, they had agreed. But God, he couldn't now, not with the vice-presidency within his reach. The risk was too great. He hadn't been able to bring himself to mention the problem to the President. How could he have said it? 'Mr President, before you commit yourself, I must tell you there is another woman in my life.' Christ, it sounded like showboat melodrama. Besides, the affair was over, a thing of the past. Rita knew it and he knew it. He had slipped this morning and she'd called him 'cruel', but it wasn't really that. It was the insistent pull she exerted, like a twitching rope that slackened only occasionally. That was her fault, not his. Besides , it took two to make an affair. Women always managed to arrange these emotional denouements so that the man came out the insensitive villain while the woman, bruised and crushed, appeared to weep for unrequited love. That was the cunning of the sex, and even Rita, with her factual, bookkeeper's mind, was not above playing the woman who nurses her wound." (p.75)

Eleanor Oliphant

Mum gave me 'Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine' by Gail Honeyman and I read it during the readathon a couple of weeks ago. Eleanor is plainly a little odd, she likes life just so. It reminded me very intensely of the song 'The day before you came' which describes a character with a routine and empty life.  Some unmentionable trauma marks her childhood and her life is still overseen by intermittent social worker visits. Apart from that she keeps to herself, a conscientious worker who passes the time at weekends with two bottles of vodka. After an elderly man takes a fall across the road on the way home she finds herself unwillingly entangled with Raymond, the IT guy from the office. He first coaxes her to visit the old man in hospital, and then invites her over to have tea with his mum. While she initially flinches from this extension to her non-existent social life she comes gradually to enjoy it. It is, however, all a sideline to the main event. She has her eye on a man. She has picked him out as suitable for her needs, is making personal preparations, researching him on the internet, and plans to arrange a meeting. As they say, the best laid plans of mice and men ... When things go wrong and the rest of Eleanor's life begins to unravel it turns out that friendship is more important than she liked to admit. 

Here she orders a drink at the pub, in her own inimitable style:

"I was bored and knocked hard, three times, on the wooden bar, as though it were a front door. They both looked up. I asked for a pint of Guinness, which the boy began to pour from a tap. 'Anything else? he said. I was still stumped. I reasoned that part of his job would be to help customers in such situations.
'What would you recommend? I asked him. He looked up from watching the black liquid trickle into the glass.
'I said, what would you recommend for me? I don't drink in public houses, as a rule.'
He looked to his left and right, as if expecting someone else to be standing there. There was a long pause.
'Erm,' he said. 'Well ... Magners is very popular. With ice? Nice summer drink.'
'Right,' I said, 'thank you. In that case, I'll have a Magners drink, please, on your recommendation.' He opened a brown bottle and put it on the bar. He put some ice in a tall glass and placed it next to the bottle.
'What's that?' I said.
'The Magners.'
'And what's the empty glass for?'
'It's for the Magners,' he said.
'Am I expected to pour the drink from the bottle into the glass?' I said, puzzled. 'Isn't it your job to do that?' He stared at me and then slowly poured the brown liquid over the ice and put it down quite hard; indeed, he practically slammed the bottle onto the counter."  (p.73-4)

Add a very controlling mother to the mix and you can begin to see how this tale might progress. But it seems that a little human kindness goes a long way, and learning to both give and receive it helps Eleanor through some troubling times ahead. 

A Keeper of Sheep

'A Keeper of Sheep' by William Carpenter was recommended by Juliet over at Crafty Green Poet a while ago and I found a copy on eBay. It tells the story of Penguin who is thrown out of college for attempting to burn down a fraternity house after a gang rape. She goes home to her father's summer house to contemplate her future and finds herself drawn into the life of her neighbour Joshua, an uncle figure who has been part of her life since childhood. She begins to form a friend of her father's new, much younger, wife, but decides that keeping her as a parental figure is preferable. As it gradually becomes clear to the local, rather conservative, community the nature of the illness of Joshua's houseguest tensions begin to rise, and a confrontation is stirred up by some members of the community who wish to profit from draining a local mosquito-ridden marshland area that is part of the communal land ownership. Against a background of evening cocktail parties Penguin begins to feel ostracised because of her growing loyalty to Albert, and in addition has to contend with the increasingly intrusive sexual attention from a local garage owner. 

Listening to birdsong and Albert's avant-garde composition Penguin takes on a philosophical mood:

"So I lay there a long time listening to the thrush and the chords growing more and more discordant until you'd think something would break and I thought what? What more was there to be broken, what in the universe remained to be destroyed? I had been born into a world disassembled by war, then dissected by universal divorce. Now, in this so-called time of peace, it was being eaten by a disease, a disease we thought we could save ourselves from through straight behaviour or armor-plating ourselves with rubber shields, so that only the evil or reckless ones would be exposed. My father was right, though. we're interconnected. As long as one person is suffering from this, we are all suffering. You couldn't protect yourself by being  woman, either, or any kind of division into we the healthy and they the diseased." (p.88)

She comes back to this place, so symbolic of her childhood, and uncovers the adult world in the space of a few months. She seems to test the water as she hops back and forth between her father's house where she is still considered a child, and Joshua and Albert who treat her as a fully-fledged adult. In the spirit of a coming of age story her concerns are both so practical and so metaphysical. I liked her for it, she takes her consideration of life very seriously. 

"I showed Sleezy and Robin the two cots in Dorothy's empty studio. Bondo announced he was going to crash. He shook the sand ritually out of each shoe and organised his sleeping bag on top of the couch. I went to my room and opened Fernando Pessoa.

I wrap myself in a blanket and don't even think of thinking.
Feeling creature comforts and dimly thinking.
I fall asleep with no less purpose than anything else going on in the world.

Robin interrupted my reading by knocking at the door. I said to come in.
- You mean you guys don't even sleep in the same room? Robin whispered.
- It's not that kind of relationship.
- We live and learn, she said. You two looked like the romance of the late twentieth century.
She closed the door. I lay there considering ways to kill Jerry Perera without actually hurting him, thinking about Arnold next door in his endless climb towards death, and wondering what it would taste like to sleep with someone who had just thrown up." (p.253) 

24 Hours of Peace

Peace means so many different things to different people. Peace is not just an absence of war, it is the creation of a world in which all people are safe to make a life for themselves. On Saturday, in advance of Remembrance Sunday, Hannah in the Manchester XR group organised a vigil for the 1700 environmental defenders who have been killed between 2002 and 2018. People all over the world die defending the natural world and protecting their land and lives from destruction, often at the hands of illegal loggers or miners, in collusion with the authorities.  About a dozen of us sat in St Peter's Square for an hour, and talked with a visitor from Brazil about the reality of life for campaigners in the majority world.

I spent Sunday night at 24 Hours of Peace. This has been a piece of theatre taking place from 11am on Sunday 10th through to 11am on Monday 11th November at the Royal Exchange Theatre. It was created by Neil Bartlett from 100 interviews that were done with campaigners and peace activists across the country; mostly just ordinary people discussing their work, how they came to be doing it and how they feel about the fight for peace in the world. Some work directly with victims of violent conflict, some teach about conflict resolution and others are active in political campaigning and direct action. While some of the interviewees seem to drift in to political activism for others their role comes from troubles within their community or country and for others it is trauma within the family. Whatever the route they all have in common a huge personal commitment to creating change and working to make the world more peaceful. The theatre performance was sometimes quite harrowing as people describe their own experiences or the lives of the people they are trying to help. It was punctuated by a rhythmical repetition of lists of people's names, ages and locations, and some of the key ideas that many of them shared. The project was intended as an extension of the two minutes silence that is intended for people to reflect on the sacrifice of soldiers and the hope for a world without such sacrifice. Many of the speakers questioned the role of the military and its acceptance by our society, the way the news becomes an agent of despair, making conflict seem inevitable and creating a feeling of weakness and powerlessness in the face of global conflicts. Neil himself spoke about the need to get past antagonism and see each other as equally human, to find the common ground and expect good from others as a means to solving conflicts. The message was very much that there is no magic route to peace, but that asking people what they imagine for their lives is an important starting point. The recording of the performance will be repeated on Resonance Radio on Wednesday and I believe may be available to listen on the website also. I particularly enjoyed Derbhle Crothy who told the story of a woman from Northern Ireland who set up the Women's Coalition and was involved in negotiating the Good Friday Agreement.

Saturday 2 November 2019

Feminists at the Manchester Literature Fesitval

 The Manchester Literature Festival has come and gone for another year, and much inspiration was found there. By both design and accident I ended up going to hear a string of feminist writers. Cathy Newman talked about her book 'Bloody Brilliant Women', a history of all the women who are missing from  ... history. Followed the same afternoon by Caroline Criado Perez, who lead the campaign in 2017 to have Jane Austen on the £10 banknote. Her book 'Invisible Women' catalogues, as she says she had to, the many thousands of tiny ways in which the existence of women is ignored and belittled by society that is designed around men. I kind of skim read the book because it becomes a little depressing and predictable, but all the things she says in it very much needed to be articulated clearly.
The following weekend I volunteered at the Deborah Levy event, and then stayed on with Julie to hear Mona Eltahawy in conversation with Mariam Khan (editor of 'It's not about the Burqa', an anthology of writing by Muslim women). Mona's book 'The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls' is currently being read so I will give you more on that later, nevertheless she is one forthright feminist who doesn't pull her punches.
I was a bit let down by the poetry: one event where neither of the poets used the provided microphone and were unable to project their voices across a small bookshop and the other where I was so tired that I struggled to stay awake. I loved Vona Groarke's reading and may well seek out her collection, and, though we had listened to some of his collection Deaf Republic on Radio 4, I found that Ilya Kaminsky's accent is so strong that I could not have followed the poems without the thoughtfully provided printout (which is pretty much the same as just reading them). Howard Jacobson left an impression by demanding to know why his picture was not on the T-shirts when David Baddiel is. Julie and I also went to the Castlefield Sermon which this year was given by Gillian Slovo. Although she has lived most of her life in Britain she has written about South Africa and expected it to be part of her talk about the hope for democracy, but instead she discussed her work with the Grenfell Tower survivors and then Extinction Rebellion. So it has been a fascinating, but very non-fiction, couple of weeks. 

Friday 1 November 2019

The Light of Amsterdam

I read 'Travelling in a Strange Land' by David Park earlier this year, and picked out 'The Light of Amsterdam' from the library recently. It draws together a group of people and their disparate circumstances onto a flight to Amsterdam. They go their separate ways but their paths cross and recross several times over the weekend, gently intermingling their stories as they seek advice and consolation from strangers. I enjoyed it partly for the picture of Amsterdam, having enjoyed our visit there so much a couple of years ago, he evoked the atmosphere of the place well even though the characters were not being 'tourists' particularly. All the characters have their own troubles and backstory and their time away from their ordinary lives allows them a space to stop and think through what they want to do. It was all just very low key and thoughtful. A understated book that shows the human condition in all its sapping weaknesses and quiet strengths.

Here Karen talks to her daughter Shannon about her newly emerged relationship with her estranged father:

"'How much?' She shivered then started as a tram rattled round the corner, its warning bell a loud clang that seemed to echo inside her head. She felt sick. There was a shrill shunt and a wheeze of brakes as the tram stopped in front of them and people emerged from the opened doors. She glanced up at the illuminated faces behind the glass and saw them looking down at her. She turned her eyes away. There was no way of knowing what her daughter might say any more. The tram snaked into the mist and they were alone again.
'Twenty thousand pounds. He's giving us twenty thousand  to put down as a deposit. He knows a builder who's doing some town houses out near Dundonald and we're getting first choice of the site. And they're turnkey, which means everything's already done for you - the kitchen, floors and everything. All you have to do is put your furniture in.'
'And you think twenty thousand pounds makes everything alright?' She stared at her daughter but Shannon continued to keep her eyes fixed in front. 'Twenty thousand pounds - that's a thousand pounds for every year he wasn't there for you.' But as she said it she knew it was over. Shannon had been bought out and there was nothing she could put on the table to change that. She slumped back empty-handed against the glass and it felt cold on the back of her head. Faced with the hard currency and the power of money, what could compete? All the years she has scrimped and saved, the years she went without, all the times she got up half-asleep in the middle of the night to look after her, even the nine lonely months she carried her - none of these could be traded in for the deposit on a house. And so everything she had given her daughter was in the past and it was her father who was to give her the future. She felt the sickness in her stomach again and she knew she would have cried if that had been something allowed to herself." (p.292-3)