Tuesday, 11 May 2021

Messy life


Apparently it is Mental Health Awareness Week and while I try to be very honest on this blog the temptation is to write about the nice things so that life seems good to anyone looking in. I know that social media generally is guilty of people presenting a glossy image of themselves, which mostly serves to make others feel inadequate. Life is messy. Here is my messy life. Monkey is stressed about her Japanese oral exam this morning so we were sitting watching the cat catch fungus gnats (more on that later) and just looking at the dumping ground that is our front room, now dominated by a Lollipop that Tish bought recently, but also full of volleyball nets and random floor cushions that we never sit on.
The back living room is just a tip too, but you know what, I don't beat myself up about the fact that it needs a good tidy and a hoover. I feel bad that I threw out the cat castle this morning, but she had lost interest in it and it was just taking up space.

My joys are small these days and this gave me joy today. While we were sitting I looked up and found this rainbow cast in the ceiling by the window screens that refract the light:

So, anyway, back to the fungus gnats. They had become endemic in the kitchen, and it was time to tackle them. All the babies have been potted up and the old compost put in the compost bin. All the new compost has had the diatomaceous earth added, and I put more in all the other plants around (mainly the avocado trees), this kills the grubs as they hatch apparently:
The drosera capensis was so well fed that we swapped it with the one upstairs (look close you can see how smothered in gnat corpses it is):
and we added new and extra gnat traps (which I would recommend, they have been very effective and cheap):
This morning there was nary a one flying in the kitchen, so I call that a job well done.

Monkey just came down the stairs and said 'your friend Nick is on the news', and so he is. Here is one of his videos that he makes about sea kayaking, including a recent magical encounter with dolphins:

Stay safe. Be kind. Find small joys (and share them).

Tuesday, 4 May 2021

Things growing

Right now the slugs seem to be biding their time. I have done a slug patrol a couple of times and only found a few tiny ones. A few of the rocket seedlings were slightly nibbled.
Everything is coming along well, and enjoying the rain and blustery weather.
Bunch onions that Julie gave me last week: 

The cornflower and wildflower seedlings:

The oak trees, having spent the winter as tiny twigs, are coming back into leaf:

The spinach is looking vigorous, and I thought I should probably plant more:

I stole the seeds for this lovely blue/green grass when we went to Chester Zoo last summer and it was a tiny sprig over the winter. I know it's just a clump of grass but I love it:

Stay safe, Be kind. Love the green stuff.

Sunday, 25 April 2021

Killing my babies


So I went searching to try and find out why some of my seedlings were not thriving as I might hope. They get sunshine, they get water, they get my daily encouragement. One suggestion was that they might be overcrowded. I have felt that every seed that comes up should be given a fair chance, which is why I have more tomato seedlings than I have room for, but I decided that a gentle cull could well be the answer. I went round the whole house and garden tweaking out the smaller sprouts and leaving space for the others to grow. I feel as if I am killing my babies. I have loved and nurtured them and now they are worm food. Oh well, I can see I will have to be less sentimental.

Sitting outside with Monkey this afternoon she noticed that the Choisya Aztec Pearl had come into flower:

and I am excited about the spinach, which has popped up this week, my first foray into growing greens:

Stay safe. Be kind. Eat your greens.

Saturday, 24 April 2021

New growth


I got an email from the Wildlife Trusts the other day, inviting me to join 30 Days Wild again, so even though it doesn't start for another five weeks you can anticipate lots (by that I mean even more) post about the garden, and probably ospreys too. On the first day of the challenge last year I went out and chopped down the bay bush that started a summer of growing stuff and getting very excited about my garden. It is nice to look back at the photos of how empty it was, and see how much it has changed. I will wait for everything to leaf out and flower up before putting them side by side. One thing that hasn't changed is how impatient I am for things to grow.  I went out this morning to take out the seedlings and was so excited to find the plum tree has several actual new branches. 

Also, more poetry, just because:

Stay safe. Be kind. Admire a tree.

Thursday, 22 April 2021

Tree joy


Rode home from Dunk's this morning and realised my tree was in leaf.
I had barely been noticing it, even though I was waiting for it.
Too much watching the seedlings at home I guess.
Spring has officially sprung.
Planted cucamelon seeds this morning, are they not just adorable:
Off to work now.
Stay safe. Be kind. Stay human.

Wednesday, 21 April 2021

Briefly Gorgeous

'On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous' by Ocean Vuong. This was a gorgeous book; beautiful writing telling a sometimes harrowing tale. Little Dog is writing to his mother, even though he knows she cannot read. But she can tell stories, as does his grandmother Lan. His life is full of stories, some of which are true, but you are often not sure which. The story of Trevor is true, and it is a love story in the most intense and sensuous way, it is as if being loved like that allows him to love himself in the face of everything. (From the very end of the book):

"I felt this sudden surge of tenderness for him right then, a feeling so rare in me it felt like I was being displaced by it. Until Trevor pulled me back. 'Hey,' he said, half-asleep, 'what were you before you met me?' 'I think I was drowning.' A pause. 'And what are you now?' he whispered, sinking. I thought for a second. 'Water.' " (p.237-8)

Little Dog tells the story of their family history, back to his mother. He thinks of himself as a product of the Vietnam War, someone who exists because of it. His grandmother is sinking into old age dementia, but she tries to protect him from his mother's uncontrollable rages. In spite of everything the bond between them is unbreakable:

"It's true that, in Vietnamese, we rarely say I love you, and when we do, it is almost always in English. Care and love, for us, are pronounced clearest through service: plucking white hairs, pressing yourself on your son to absorb a plane's turbulence and, therefore, his fear. Or now - as Lan called to me, 'Little Dog, get over here and help me help your mother.' And we knelt on each side of you, rolling out the hardened cords of your upper arms, then down to your wrists, your fingers. For a moment almost too brief to matter, this made sense - that three people on the floor, connected to each other by touch, made something like the word family." (p.33)

Mostly the story is about them, but the comment the mother makes to him on leaving the house sums up their experience of life in America, 'don't draw attention to yourself. You're already Vietnamese.' He does not talk about overt racism, though he describes his mother being harassed and assaulted as a child for being the daughter of an American, but what he does do is describe how it felt. This passage talks about the relationship between manicurist and client:

"The most common English word spoken in the nail salon was sorry. It was the one refrain for what it meant to work in the service of beauty. Again and again, I watched as the manicurists, bowed over a hand or foot of a client, some as young as seven, say, 'I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry,' when they had done nothing wrong. I have seen workers, you included, apologize dozens of times throughout a forty-five-minute manicure, hoping to gain warm traction that would lead to the ultimate goal, a tip - only to say sorry anyway when none was given.
In the nail salon, sorry is a tool one uses to pander until the word itself becomes currency. It no longer merely apologises, but insists, reminds: I'm here, right here, beneath you. It is the lowering of oneself so that the client feels right, superior, and charitable. In the nail salon, one's definition of sorry is deranged into a new word entirely, one that's charged and reused as both power and defacement at once. Being sorry pays, being sorry even, or especially, when one has no fault, is worth every self-depreciating syllable the mouth allows. Because the mouth must eat." (p.91-2)

The more I flick back through the book the more I realise it is two love stories. In spite of everything his love for his mother remains overwhelming, and he wants things from her that she is too exhausted to give. She is his connection to Vietnam and that huge part of how he thinks of himself. It is a true son's love because he essentially forgives her for her failings, does not blame for her for things beyond her control. This quote, because I love it when books teach me new words, and it is a beautiful notion:

"There's a word that Trevor once told me about, one he learned from Burford, who serves in the navy in Hawaii during the Korean War: kipuka. The piece of land that's spared after a lava flow runs down the slope of a hill - an island formed from what survives the smallest apocalypse. Before the lava descended, scorching the moss along the hill, that piece of land was insignificant, just another scrap in an endless mass of green. Only by enduring does it earn its name. Lying on the mat with you, I cannot help but want us to be our own kipuka, our own aftermath, visible. But I know better." (p.171)

The whole book is intensely descriptive, often of mundane things around him, but that added together allow you to picture his world so vividly. Altogether a sublime book. I sometimes worry that I get to the end of a book and find I can't remember 'what happened' but am just left with feelings. But mostly they are the books that I am glad I discovered.

Stay safe. Be kind. Read a book.

Monday, 19 April 2021

the meaning of it all


Etienne Leopold Trouvelot

Brainpickings brought me today a reminder that we are all headed 'back to the void' and in the short space between our emergence from it and our return it is in the nature of human beings to try and find some meaning. So she shared this image and this poem:

Kiss of the sun by Mary Ruefle

If, as they say, poetry is a sign of something
among people, then let this be prearranged now,
between us, while we are still peoples: that
at the end of time, which is also the end of poetry
(and wheat and evil and insects and love),
when the entire human race gathers in the flesh,
reconstituted down to the infant’s tiniest fold
and littlest nail, I will be standing at the edge
of that fathomless crowd with an orange for you,
reconstituted down to its innermost seed protected
by white thread, in case you are thirsty, which
does not at this time seem like such a wild guess,
and though there will be no poetry between us then,
at the end of time, the geese all gone with the seas,
I hope you will take it, and remember on earth
I did not know how to touch it it was all so raw,
and if by chance there is no edge to the crowd
or anything else so that I am of it,
I will take the orange and toss it as high as I can.

In return I share this, since it is what is giving my life so much meaning, purpose and joy (foxglove seedlings):

Stay safe. Be kind. Find meaning and share it.

Sunday, 18 April 2021

Simon, Wilf, Louis and Aila


One of the highlights of the first lockdown last year was watching Louis and Aila, the ospreys of Loch Arkaig, raise their three chicks. We discovered them at the end of April when they were already sitting on the eggs and watched until the chicks fledged in July. The other week the nest was covered in snow and very neglected when I checked it out, but today it looks like this, lots of new moss, and according to clips on youtube they are around:

I have little interest in the royal family but our Simon currently has the role of Poet Laureate and has written an elegy for Prince Philip that is a truly lovely poem, it ends with this wonderful image:

But for now, a cold April’s closing moments
parachute slowly home, so by mid-afternoon
snow is recast as seed heads and thistledown.

And Wilf was interviewed earlier this week about his life as a hill farmer, a story that left me thinking that here was a person who was truly happy:

"If someone offered me £2m to move, I would tell them to keep it. Most evenings I walk right up to the top of the valley. I look down and everything looks small and far away. And I feel like I’m on top of the world. "

Stay safe. Be kind. Stay human.

Tuesday, 13 April 2021

Instead of cake there was cheese


What should you do when you have been doing excessive internet purchasing ? ... why build a cat castle with all the packaging of course. And the cat even plays on it.
So I came home from work today, watered my seedlings, got changed and rode to the gym, did gym stuff, went to the shop for dinner, rode home, stretched, made a pot of tea, sat down and opened my computer, saw a message from the library to say they had three books for me to collect, jumped back on my bike and rode to the library (which is in the same place as the gym, fortunately only a few minutes bike ride), rode home, poured my cup of tea and finally got to relax.
As usual I can't recall why I have most of the books on my request list, since the library has been shut since December, though they all sound great, especially Ocean Vuong, who's poetry I read not very recently.
So, books to read, knitting to do, plants to water, what more is there to enjoy in life?
I very much enjoyed this short story, 'The Irish Wedding' by Elizabeth McCraken; I was attracted by an interview with her because I read 'The Giant's House' and 'An exact replica of a figment of my imagination' back in 2014 and loved them both, and am sure I will love her new story collection. I also very much enjoyed, Because, the poem of the week in the Grauniad.
Stay safe. Be kind, Stay human. Read a story, or a poem.

Monday, 12 April 2021

Tiny joys


The sun was shining after my post-lockdown trip to the gym so I took my tea into the garden ... and look, plum blossom.

And bluebells:

All sorts of things are springing into life and it gives me joy.
The cornflowers seeds are sprouting, outside, in spite of being covered in hail stones on Sunday:
But most of the joy is still on the inside.
Kitchen windowsill: basil, cherry tomatoes, rocket, sunflowers and sweet peas:
Front room windowsill: echinops, gaillardia, stocks, butterfly flowers, and more wildflower seeds (that came free from Haws with my yellow watering can):
Tish's bedroom windowsill: lots of dahlias and echinacea, pansies, more sunflowers and sweet peas:
And outside I am even enjoying the multiple pots that might or might not just have weeds in them:
Stay safe. Be kind. Stay human. Grow some plants.

Saturday, 10 April 2021

a pile of books

We have been buying quite a lot of books by Japanese authors, partly for Monkey, but partly because I want to become accustomed to cultural differences; formality in speaking and behaviour are utterly different from here. 'Before the coffee gets cold' by Toshikazu Kawaguchi (who does not have a website or a wiki page) is a curious little book about sad people. The 'family tree' in the front lists the main participants in the story; many of them are dead. Why else would you want to travel in time, other than to see someone who you could no longer see? You cannot move from your spot at the cafe table, nor alter anything about the course of history, all that is on offer is small comfort. And yet comfort is always welcome. The door goes 'clang-dong' as people come and go, the light and the decor remains unchanged over the decades, a pregnancy bump becomes Kazu, a young woman who hides her sadness behind the coffee pouring ritual, but you feel as if the chirpy Miki, keen to learn the secrets of the cafe, will bring a whole different atmosphere to the place.

"The woman in the dress was not a particularly fast reader. Despite it being the only thing she did, she would finish a book about once every two days. Kazu would go to the library once a week and borrow a selection of novels. These books weren't presents, exactly, but for Kazu, supplying them was more than just a 'task'.
Until a couple of years ago, the woman in the dress read a novel entitled Lovers, over and over again. One day, Miki remarked, 'doesn't she get bored reading the same novel?' and presented her own picture book to the woman in the dress. Kazu thought, What if I could please her with a novel I chose? ... and that's what led her to start providing novels in this way.
As always, however, without a care for Kazu's thoughtfulness, the woman in the dress simply reached out, took the book silently and dropped her eyes to the first page. The expectation disappeared from Kazu's expression like sand falling in an hourglass." (p.76)

I very much enjoyed 'You took the last bus home' by Brian Bilston, and have meandered back through it several times over the last few weeks. What's not to like about a poet who think's Jeremy Clarkson is a twat. I sometimes love pretentious poetry, I sometimes love old serious poetry, sad poetry, very sad poetry, beat poetry, wry poetry, in fact there are 113 poetry posts on this blog, and here's another one. He covers a wide variety of topics, from mobile phone chargers, to the Bee Gees, to Crocs, to the Chelsea Flower show. Many made me laugh out loud. He has a particular thing about punctuation. But I found myself drawn to the times when he was subtle and clever, here, one of quite a few haiku that I loved:

Haiku #478629
as he left the train,
he remembered to take all
his longing with him

and also:

you stitched together
the pauses

from old, discarded
Harold Pinter


until you had made yourself




'Stillicide' by Cynan Jones was as close to poetry as a novel can get, so much of it takes place inside people's heads. In a slightly dystopic setting, not so distant as to be unimaginable, the people in the story are linked in distant ways, and their minds are preoccupied with worries and memories, that distract them from the world in front of them. Branner, a train guard, David and Helen who scavenge on the seashore, Nita and Hillie who make flowers from rubbish, Cora and Leo, Colin the journalist, Ruth the nurse, their lives are dominated by the issue of water, the lack of water, the control of water. It has a feeling of drabness. As if things don't get washed much. Just thinking about it made my mouth feel dry. He creates this very intense atmosphere, but then scatters in little moments of hope, connection and loveliness, as if to ward off despair.

"The day seemed indecisive. The breakers of the outgoing tide smushed and drew. Sand martins spun from their tunnels in the cliffs.
Every so often there was a ticking pitter-patter as the low breeze rattled the dry seaweed.
There had been another August storm.
It has washed the sand from the foundations and fallen rubble of two houses that had recently gone onto the beach, and from the skeletal groin that stretched into the sea.
Against the shifting contours of the shore, the pilings of the old sea defences looked ancient and immoveable. Pitted and barnacled and hung with algae.
David considered that the principles, of how to build a structure to hold back waves, were the same principles his team had used to build footings for the pipeline, all those years ago. Before they had a train to carry water to the city. That had been his life. The engineering of support. Holding things back. Or holding things up." (p.40-41)

As I said earlier, I like all kind of poetry. 'The Air Year' by Caroline Bird is another bedside book that I have meandered back and forth through over the last weeks. I went back and read some of the longer prose poem pieces. I particularly liked one entitled Small Children, much to relate to there, all the bad stuff: "They sit in plastic umpire chairs at the dinner table/ shouting out unintelligible scores" and "They're hypocrites./ They spy on you in the toilet. Parents aren't permitted/ even the smallest private perversion yet a child/ can secretly urinate in a drawer for three weeks/ until the smell warrants investigation" and "Little children are like/ the tsarist autocracy of pre-revolutionary Russia" but it ends beautifully "We kneel to tie the laces of their unfeasible tiny shoes." The one called 'Nancy and the Torpedo' is particularly surreal, as is 'Surrealism for Beginners'. They are incidents and accidents. Not funny or political. Lets have this one:


She has not converted a rusty bike into a device
for grinding wheat or sewn a family
of Hazmat suits or built a reinforced steel underground bunker
from the roofs of twenty double-decker buses or decorated her
decontamination room with laminated photos of bygone
natural beauty - sunsets over oceans, children laughing unafraid - 
she does not skin roadkill raccoons with a Bantaga knife or clean
her guns over breakfast but my mum's preparing

for the end of the world. She had written her own book of revelations.
It begins 'Expect to outlive them'.
She scrawls my brother's name with a sparkler just to
rehearse his evaporation, stands in the cemetery
of her mind, pre-grieves, seasons plots with tears, graves
so fresh they're still flowerbeds.

As I typed it out it reminded me of this last one in Brian's book, entitled 'Ceci N'est Pas un Poème':

I wrote
some words

and made them look
like a poem

put line breaks


but it was still

    just some words

and not
a poem

Stay safe. Be kind. Stay human. Read some poetry.

Monday, 5 April 2021



Julie lent me 'The Mermaid of Black Conch' by Monique Roffey and I wolfed it down. It is the story of David Baptiste, and of Aycayia, and of the island of Black Conch and its checkered history. It is told from a variety of perspectives, in different voices, then also third person, observing, more dispassionate. Some American tourists arrive on the island and hire a boat to take them fishing. After a struggle that lasts the day they land their catch, and it is a mermaid. Leaving her strung up they go off and get drunk, and David takes her home, intending to put her back in the sea. Almost immediately she begins a slow transformation back into a woman. He tries to hide her from the curious neighbours, and finds himself helped by Miss Rain and her deaf son Reggie, who befriend Aycayia and teach her to talk.

"Every morning, the mermaid, Aycayia, half-slept and listened to the rain, and remembered more and more of what it was to be a woman. She enjoyed the sound of the rain's soft heaviness. it reminded her of her old self, of long ago, when she had lived in a village on the island shaped like a lizard, when she was the daughter of one of the wives of a brave casike, when she has six sisters. She tried to remember the name and then the face of every man who who'd visited her, and watched her dance; then she tried to forget them all. Her loneliness echoed in her bones, the centuries of swimming in the sea, half-fish. She wondered what had happened to the old crone she'd arrived with - Guanoyoa. After the huracan, Guanoyoa, a wise old woman who told uncomfortable truths, had been cursed too, changed into a leatherback turtle, and that was how she'd ended up so far away from the coastline she knew. She had followed Guanoyoa's instincts of migration. As she lay under the thin sheets of David's bed she wondered how and why she'd transformed back into a woman. She wriggled her old toes, which were now her new toes. She curled herself into a C and listened to the musical sound of rain on galvanised and felt comforted because she knew that parts of the world hadn't changed. There was still rain. This meant there were still clouds, sky, birds - a world she could read." (p.59)

"David Baptiste's journal, June, 2015

Early, early, before dawn, I took my pirogue out to sea, to the same rocks off Murder Bay. The water quiet, and a small bit of rain coming down. Is like my place to go and pray. I drop anchor and sit for a while. I ent really go out to fish. The sea dark and the sky still dark too. There ent no feeling quite like being alone in a boat in the night. Land in sight, oui. Out there ghosts visit on the breeze, they visit from centuries past, from a time before all of we get mix up and lost. Though I always know who I was in Black Conch, family history don't go back far. That memory was rubbed out because of the badness of slavery. Baptiste is plantation owner name, French man name from way back. Yuh think I happy with that? I figure my real name would never be known to me, a mystery. I felt myself fill up with pain, with ol'time loss from those days. It does come from nowhere now and then. the feeling come like a message on the wind, or that is how it ketch me. Now and then. Mostly, when I was out alone in my boat. That is where I met my soul friend, the mermaid woman from so long ago she cyan remember sheself either. We were both lost people. I felt all twist-up in my chest, sitting there in my boat. Was that feeling for she or for us both?" (p.94)

But the rumours about her begin to circulate. The nosy neighbour Priscilla concocts a plan with a local policeman to capture her and the American men are lured back. Miss Rain's quiet existence is disrupted by the return of Life, Reggie's father. The deeper David and Aycayia fall together the more fate seems to conspire to tear them apart. Add in a huge storm threatening and a dramatic climax is in the offing for everyone. 

This was a wonderful book, intense and atmospheric; you feel the ongoing impact of the history of the Caribbean, how people's lives continue to be shaped by it. But it is mostly about a mermaid, learning to be a woman again, about trust, about love and loss, and eating mangoes in the bath.

Stay safe. Be kind. Stay human.

Sunday, 4 April 2021

One year on

One year on and the ducks on the pond are braving another year, maybe a few ducklings and cootlings and goslings will make it this year, but the corvids have to eat too.
The herons are back in their spot, though we never got a glimpse of the heronlets.
If you pop over to the Osprey Cam; it looks slightly sad and deserted, but also expectant... Louis and Aila could be back any time.
At home the grape hyacinth are looking lovely:
and this curious plant started sprouting from what I assumed was a dead stump in a dried out pot; mum couldn't identify it so it will be wait-and-see what happens:
Stay safe. Be kind. Stay human.

Saturday, 3 April 2021



A little something to brighten your Saturday; so beautiful, one of my favourite Beatles songs, sung in the Mi'kmaq language.
Stay safe. Be kind. Stay human.

Thursday, 1 April 2021

Post from across the park

The Paston Treasure: Microcosm of the Known World from Tim Gray on Vimeo.

I am having a restful three day week (I mean four days, having worked Sunday, but it feels like three days) and just loafing at Dunk's (or should I say crumpetting since he is doing some experimental baking for lunch). Browsing the news this morning I went back to The Great British Art Tour feature in the Guardian, and happened across this fascinating video about The Paston Treasure, which caught my attention because it would make a great puzzle.

Spent ages waiting for the blue tit that is nesting in a hole in the wall of Dunk's bathroom but all I got was this:

Stay safe. Be kind. Stay human.

Tuesday, 30 March 2021

Mrs Death


'Mrs Death Misses Death' by Selena Godden is another book that is hard to pin down, but then Death is quite hard to pin down. Wolf meets Mrs Death in the traumatic moment when his mother is killed in a fire, and then again years later he buys an old desk, that turns out to be a link to her. Through their connection Mrs Death shares her life and her experiences. So the book is a hotchpotch of narratives, conversations, poems and dreams. It is quite emotionally intense at times, the whole style reminded me very much of her performance we went to at the literature festival some years ago. 

"Last breaths and last moments smash into my brain, death traffic colliding second by second. Death comes, she is seeping through into my mind. Random deaths and sudden deaths, deliberate deaths and violent deaths, images of the end of life and life endings. These dreadful scenes and horrific feeling crawl like ivy through The Desk and through my fingertips, into my veins, my emotions and into my thoughts. Cannot breathe. I cannot breathe. My father is walking into the sea. He cannot breathe. My mother is trapped in a burning building. She cannot breathe. Oh no. I cannot breathe. I have stopped breathing. Breathe, breathe, damn it, breathe. I jolt and I am back in the room. A million coloured spots before my eyes. I'm exhausted. I am weeping. I am gasping for air. Breathe slowly, slower, slow down. I hold myself steady and place my face flat against the cool wood. I slow down my breathing and stroke the desk top. My heart is slowing down again. Breathe. Just breathe. I have been somewhere else, everywhere else, but I am here again. Oh, I have been travelling. I time travel. I am a death tourist. I am witness. I am permitted. I can see every end. I go everywhere that Mrs Death goes and the places only Mrs Death can go when I am here and when I listen to The Desk." (p.73)

It is however just as much a book about the human condition, about life. It's not a story, but it is many stories. It is the story of Wolf, but only partly. His history keeps recurring, and there is a link through history between the stories that Mrs Death tells him. 

"Her grandchild Wolf grows impatient and yanks on Rose's apron and Wolf asks again: What are the three most important things in life? Grandmother Rose shakes her head slowly, noticing her hands are cold and numb in the dirty potato water. One raindrop spits onto the kitchen window, followed by five more, spit spit spit says the old rain, spit spit. The washing will get wet unless Rose is quick, the sky is a dark violet colour. 

Hey, Wolf tries, one more time, what are the three most important things in life? The potatoes are peeled and bald in a bowl of salt water. Rose wipes her hands and darts out of the kitchen door to gather the washing from the line. The rain falls sudden, in sloops, rainwater runs and slurps from the gutter; the clean sheets are soaked through.

Wolf stands by the door for a time, watching the rain batter the laundry, old Rose standing in the old roses growing in the garden. Wolf takes it all in: the apple tree, the long green grass, the purplish sky. Mrs Rose Willeford all white-haired. The white bedsheets, her mouth full of clothes pegs, her apron pocket bulging with more wooden clothes pegs. Wet apples, wet grass and the wet old lady. Wolf leaves the empty jam jar on the step to fill with raindrops." (p,195-6)

In the last part of the book Wolf goes to Ireland to a remote tower to write and a series of poems completes the book, I particularly liked this one:

The weather
is mad 
blue sky rain
grey sky sunshine
the sea is
razors and

Stay safe. Be kind. Stay human. Enjoy the sunshine.

Monday, 29 March 2021

Talking to Strangers


This books starts with the story of Sandra Bland. A young Black woman is stopped by a policeman, an altercation ensues and she is arrested. Three days later she killed herself in the police cell. This book goes beyond the endemic racism of the police to look more widely at the way human beings fail to understand each other in all sorts of important ways.

The book takes us through some historical examples, Chamberlain's 'getting to know' Hitler, and the CIA's work in East Germany, to show that human beings, despite their best efforts, fail to understand others or see the truth. There is a long section on intelligence work against Castro's Cuba and how the CIA's top Cuban advisor was a Cuban agent for decades. Then he moves on to the rapes and the child abuse cases. It makes your blood boil and I found it quite a hard read, the descriptions of how people (men) got away for decades with systematic abuse, all because of the way that people 'default to truth', assume that whoever they are talking to is truthful. He describes at length the Amanda Knox case; a young woman who didn't act the way people thought she should and ended up in prison because of it. The examples are interspersed with descriptions of psychological experiments that examined the situations being described.

"But the harder we work at getting strangers to reveal themselves, the more elusive they become. Chamberlain would have been better off never meeting Hitler at all. He should have stayed home and read Mein Kampf. The police in the Sandusky case searched high and low for his victims for two years. What did their efforts yield? Not clarity, but confusion: stories that changed; allegations that surfaced and then disappeared; victims who were bringing their own children to meet Sandusky one minute, then accusing him of terrible crimes the next.

James Mitchell was in the same position. The CIA had reason to believe that Al Qaeda was planning a second round of attacks after 9/11, possibly involving nuclear weapons. He had to get KSM to talk. But the harder he worked to get KSM to talk, the more he compromised the quality of their communication. He could deprive KSM for sleep for a week, at the end of which KSM was confessing to every crime under the sun. But did KSM really want to blow up the Panama Canal?

Whatever it is we are trying to find out about the strangers in our midst is not robust. The 'truth' about Amanda Knox or Jerry Sandusky or KSM is not some hard shiny object that can be extracted if only we dig deep enough and look hard enough. The thing we want to learn about a stranger is fragile. If we tread carelessly, it will crumple under our feet. And from that follows a secondary cautionary note: we need to accept that the search to understand a stranger has real limits. We will never know the whole truth. We have to be satisfied with something short of that. The right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility. How many of the crises and controversies I have described would have been prevented had we taken those lessons to heart?" (p.261)

The second part of the book looks at the Kansas City experiment, an experiment in policing style to prevent crime by visible police presence. This led to a policing practice that allowed police to stop people on the mere suspicion that they were doing something wrong, and then search the person or the vehicle for weapons. When confined to specific areas of high crime the practice appeared to have a dramatic impact, but what ended up happening was that it was taken up and applied across the board, and this brings the book back around to Sandra Bland. She was stopped precisely because of an over-enthusiastic application this policy. It was the opposite of the 'default to truth' problem in the first half of the book, a 'default to guilt', a policy that assumed everyone you might encounter was up to no good. This was a fascinating book that gives much pause for thought and reflection on how humans communicate and understand each other.

"This book is about a conundrum. We have no choice but to talk to strangers, especially in our modern, borderless world. We aren't living in villages any more. Police officers have to stop people they don't know. Intelligence officers have to deal with deception and uncertainty. Young people want to go to parties explicitly to meet strangers: that's part of the thrill of romantic discovery. Yet at this most necessary of tasks we are inept. We think we can transform the stranger, without cost or sacrifice, into the familiar and the known, and we can't." (p.342)

I know that I have a strong tendency to trust people and take them at face value, then a little incident happened a few weeks ago at work. A young man came in to collect his parcel. He had come on his bike and his P739 card had dropped from his pocket. I am usually most helpful in these circumstances (other of my colleagues are more sticklers for the rules) and I found the packet and checked his ID. Later in the day a man came in with a card, and when I asked him for ID he said he had lost it all in a house fire. I said I could send the packet back out to his house for him, but when I searched the packet I found it was the one that the young man has collected that morning. The man mumbled something and exited very promptly and as he left I realised he had probably found the card on the road and decided to try and steal it. It disrupts my sense of humans as mostly good people, and I then try and be more strict, and then will feel mean for not being helpful, and then I remind myself not to beat myself up about stuff and go back to trusting.

Stay safe. Be kind. Stay human.

Friday, 26 March 2021

Old ladies and all that

(Repeat under breath: I will not beat myself up about pile of unreviewed books). I finished Leonora Carrington's book 'The Hearing Trumpet back in January, and what a fabulous surreal experience it was. Back before crimbo Monkey and I had watched this video attached to a Guardian article (that you find when you randomly browse the book pages) and she sounded such an amazing person her name was immediately added to the 'must read' list. I naturally mostly forgot about it, and then Monkey bought me The Hearing Trumpet. 
There is an elderly lady called Marion Leatherby, and she has a friend called Carmella, and some cats. Carmella buys her an antique hearing trumpet, because she suffers from declining hearing, and, using it, she discovers that her son is planning on putting her in a home. The home however, when she gets there, is not all she anticipated. Lots of weird shit happens, someone dies (kind of by accident), management are in denial, Carmella arrives with a plan that involves a hunger strike by residents:

" 'This is a kind of mutiny, and if you are discovered by the authorities they might turn machine guns on you. An armoured car would be most adequate, or even a small tank, although there may be some difficulties in getting these. You would be obliged to ask the collaboration of the army. I am not sure if they lend out tanks, although they might have an old one. In any case the meeting should take place with the greatest secrecy. If you can get people to come hooded it would be better, because then they would not be recognised unless captured and tortured.'
Carmella went through this advice several times, then took her leave with a few final instructions, such as putting snipers in the trees around the bee pond, installing secret radio stations and a series of outposts with tom-toms which would relay coded messages.
After Carmella's stimulating visit I was feeling quite excited and happy. It was not long before I met Georgina, to whom I immediately communicated our plans, omitting some of the less practical ones such as the tanks, the snake oil, the secret radio stations and the snipers. I emphasised the hunger strike as not only desirable but urgently necessary." (p.114)

I think this gives you an accurate view of the style of the book. I was enjoying it and anticipating some kind of fairly straightforward but essentially cathartic denouement, however it went down an even more utterly surreal track that involved some strange rituals and the end of the world as we know it. I am not sure even how to classify this book, but who doesn't enjoy a story of a bunch of elderly ladies coming into their rightful power and place in the world. 

In other news I have reached the end of the hiragana chapters in Human Japanese, and sat this morning, while Monkey was making kanji cards, and made hiragana cards so I can practice and get more confident.

We find that the little flies we have in the kitchen are not fruit flies but fungus gnats. Tish bought some drosera capensis (that will eat the little buggers), while I ordered some sticky fly traps and some diatomaceous earth powder, which is a natural means of killing all sorts of nasties. We are definitely going to have a fly free kitchen this summer.

Stay safe. Be kind. See you tomorrow (or later, I might try and review another one).

Friday, 19 March 2021

Seeds and all that

So, we have a covid outbreak in the office so I have not been home much recently, but I did have one day off for what should have been my long weekend and planted some seeds. Some of them came free with my Gardener's World magazine, some that Julie gave me, some that I bought, and some sweet peas left over from last year.
Within three days I had some tiny shoots, and now the sunflowers have shot up and are already two inches tall.
And, even though the mail system is completely stretched to breaking point at the moment I made a couple of impulse purchases; this adorable yellow watering can (from Haws) for sprinkling gently on tiny seedlings:
and some lovely yarn from Totnes Yarns on Etsy after I had a crisis with my project and had to unpick the entire of the pattern I had started and decided the yarn I had chosen was not quite right. Oh well.
Stay safe. Be kind. See you tomorrow.


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