Wednesday 26 January 2022

Daughters and Mothers

Back in 2013 I enjoyed 'Sick Notes' by Manchester author Gwendoline Riley and so pounced when I read a review of 'My Phantoms'. In it a young woman negotiates a somewhat fraught and distant relationship with her mother. Bridget can manage with their annual birthday dinner but as her mother gets older and unwell she seems to want them to be closer. It's not even that she dislikes her, it's more ambivalent; that the mother, Hen, is just needy, has unspoken expectations of her daughter and seems to look in all the wrong places for companionship. It is a portrait of two people just not getting on, with Bridget caught between what she ought to feel and do as a dutiful daughter and what she does feel and want to do. And then there's the father in the background, and you begin to wonder how the two girls are functioning adults. It's funny (funny weird, not funny ha ha) how often I read books that just make me and my family seem so normal, and make me feel grateful. Sorry, it had to go back to the library last week so no further thoughts, but very much worth the read. Quote, as the two girls are getting ready for a weekend visit with their dad:

 "'There's no point in provoking him, is there?' she used to say - to repeat - chivvying Michelle and me to find our coats and shoes; to be ready ten minutes before our father was due. Even back then I knew that she was talking to herself, really; whisking herself through the task in hand. My mother had her sayings, but she did not give real advice, ever, about anything.

Here, 'there's no point in provoking him, is there?' seemed to mean, 'There's no reason for me to behave in a sane and civilised way when he doesn't (is there?), not when there's a golden opportunity here for me to join in and be mad too.' And she didn't even mean 'provoking', did she? She meant an omission, not an action. She meant: You mustn't fail to anticipate something he could plausibly decide to be affronted by. Which rather left one with nowhere to go. Michelle and I had never been cheeky or disruptive. We'd been mild and quiet from the start when he was around, and it made no difference. Anything could set him off, or not set him off. All depending on how he wanted to feel; on what kind of satisfaction he wanted to extract. Not provoking him could provoke him. It often did provoke him. She knew that. Why did she like to pretend otherwise? For excitement's sake, perhaps? Or because she didn't want to feel left out? I've an image of a dog trying to join in with a football match, but that's possibly too wretched. I think her mental sleight was more akin to the way Michelle and I, after our swimming lessons, used to hit the buttons of the arcade games in the snack bar: we hadn't put any money in, but nonetheless persuaded ourselves that we were affecting the progress of the yellow lights, which flashed in steps, then slowly cascaded. In fact, there were a lot of children who liked to do that, as I remember. It must be a thing children like to pretend. If someone else had got there first, I used to wait my turn, not too close to the machines, but not too far away either." (p.26-7)

'A cupboard full of coats' by Yvvette Edwards is the story of Jinx, and her mother. But her mother is dead, and the how and the why form that basis for a long weekend of soul searching by Jinx and Lemon. Neither of them killed her but they have both felt responsible. I find it hard to get my head around volatile, abusive relationships, and why people stay in them, but it does make for emotionally fraught story telling. So we watch Jinx, watching her mother, falling for this charming man, this man who invades their lives and then their space, who gets his feet under the table and has no intention of moving. Jinx sees, and she knows, but there is no one to tell, and as her mother lurches from joy to misery and back again she can only watch from the sidelines, powerless to stop it. 

But her guilt and sense of responsibility has over the years translated itself into feeling unable to bond with her own child, a son who now lives with his father, and conversely to the situation in My Phantoms, comes over to visit her. And unlike Bridget's father who ignores or lords it over his daughters, Jinx's feelings of inadequacy drown her every interaction with her son. Here she watches, jealously, as Ben chats animatedly with Lemon:

"I listened as he told Lemon about Max in his class whose tooth came out when he bit an apple in his packed lunch. There were anecdotes about his Power Ranger toys, Thomas the Tank Engine, and Shaggy's exploits in Scooby-Doo. He talked about his new teacher, Mrs Smith, and how impressed she was with his reading. Lemon gave him piece of paper and a pen and Ben proved once and for all that he could write his name himself without any help from anyone.
I was in shock. I had never heard my son like this before. I had simply thought he was a morose child, because morose was how he always was when he was with me. I had never seen this side of him, this laughing chattiness, the non-stop outpouring of everything going on in his life, the pleasure he took in his accomplishments, such as they were. And I felt hurt. Really hurt. Wounded to the core just listening to how natural and happy he could be with a virtual stranger, when I had been trying for nearly five years to have a relationship with him and had come up against brick after brick after brick.
He made me feel how he had made me feel when he was a baby. Like no matter what I did or how much time I put in or how hard i tried, anyone could walk into his life and they were immediately more important than I was. Like I did not matter. My existence meant nothing. And all the while, as I sat on the periphery of their conversation, I could feel myself getting angrier and angrier, and though I tried to rationalize my way out of it, I just couldn't stop myself." (p.38-9)

She is a very unhappy young woman, with so much hurt and grief bottled up, thrust into premature adulthood by the loss of her mother, and so good at covering it all up. So Lemon stays, and cooks for her, and in caring for her and making her vulnerable they each share their story of what happened, and the unfolding of the story, the build up of the violence, and the silence, is very skilfully handled. Here Jinx watches Lemon bring Berris and try to make peace after the first beating:

"I'd hated that man so bad for weeks, wanted nothing else in that time but that he pack up and get out of our home, yet he looked more wretched than any man, woman or child I'd ever seen in my life. Like he knew he'd done the worst thing a person could ever do and was truly, to the heart, sick and remorseful and sorry. He couldn't lookout her and he couldn't stop himself from bawling like a baby. It was the most pathetic thing I'd ever seen.
In that moment, because I knew what he'd done, how he'd smashed in my mother's face in temper, because the memory of him polishing off his dinner and the look of pure satisfaction in his eyes was still fresh and vivid in my mind, my feelings shocked me. I looked at the man who had caused our family so much hurt, so much upset, and there was no denying it; I felt sorry for him.
I felt sorry for him." (p116)

And much of the book I liked Lemon, he cared about music and food, and loved Jinx's mother from the sidelines. But then he tells his side of the events, and I rethink. And then he meets up with Berris after he is released from prison and he says this:

"'You know, after what he done, I thought for a long time he was the hardest-hearted man alive, the coldest, the evilest. But after I spoke to him last time, watching him, listening, not how I done most of my life but kind of fair-like, not squeezing him into the way I wanted to think of him, but looking hard to see who he really was, what he was, after all that I come to the conclusion he was just sensitive. Oversensitive. Even small things that wasn't meant to be no slight hurt him. I tried to imagine how it felt to be in his shoes, and they was small and tight and uncomfortable ...' " (p.247)

and reading it made me feel sick, because she captures here so succinctly how men justify violence against women, as if it was all ok, and he was forgiven, because he was sensitive and her going out dancing and having a nice time without him is behaviour deserving of death.

Sometimes it feels hard to take stuff in, because stories like this repeat down the years, in real life as well as fiction. But Tish and I enjoyed this article about Grace Tame who steadfastly refused to politely smile on camera with the Australian prime minister, and people go ape-shit about it. Women don't owe the world a smile.

Stay safe. Be kind. Don't smile if you don't want to.

Friday 14 January 2022

January colour

While most of the garden is looking brown and wizened it was lovely to look out this morning and notice that some little plant in a wall pot had put forth a bright orange flower:
When I went out to take a photo I found that the wallflowers were still blooming, having done so continuously since mum sent them:
 And the Sarcococca confusa that I planted back in July has not grown much but it is doing what it promised and blooming with tiny white flowers:

Stay safe. Be kind. Enjoy the winter blooms.

Tuesday 11 January 2022


'Summerwater' by Sarah Moss was sent to me by the library. When I just searched her name I found the review of 'The Fell' that I read in the Guardian, and I am pretty sure that that was the book I reserved, and that the library just sent me another random book by her instead (another random book by her also reviewed here). It is not a novel as such, they are more like vignettes of family life, of a group of families staying in loch-side cabins during a dreary, rainy summer. They live both, claustrophobically, inside their little huts, but also watch each other's comings and goings, while pretending not to, making crass judgements and feeling irritated by the rain. Some 'foreigners' occupy one of the cabins, and there is a growing resentment at their loud intrusive nighttime music. I felt disappointed that there was limited story development or relationships between the characters, each of the chapters focussed on one person, then moved to someone else, with the human beings in the story only coming together for the denouement. It made me feel lonely, because all the people were quite lonely, self-contained, living inside their own heads even alongside their families. 

I liked the first chapter best, an intense description of a woman running:

"It's more than a wingbeat this time, as she splashes through the brown puddle that now covers the whole width of the path. More, she thinks, grinning at the menagerie now imagined in her ribcage, at the entire damn food chain gathered in the chambers of her heart, more like a small mammal, something with hurrying feet. Smaller than a hare. A vole, doctor there's a vole in my upper ventricle. One of these days, she thinks, one of these days, girl, and she pulls off her wet vest, balls it in her hand, picks up the pace, races bare-bellied in the rain past the tent and through the trees and around the barriers at the top of the holiday park, part the bicycles and the blue gas cylinders and the limp laundry and the old man sitting again at his open French windows with a cup of tea. Safety first, the consultant said, there in an overheated pink room with the machines resting between patients, we must think of your kids, they need their mum, don't they, I'm afraid I must say there's to be no more running. And if you really won't take my advice at the very least don't go far, don't push yourself, don't ever run alone.

But what's another person supposed to do, if her heart stops? How would it help, to have a witness?" (p.22-23)

We are finally back at the gym this week, after a month away. I was too tired during Christmas pressure and then we had to isolate, so we are all feeling a but sluggish after a fortnight on the sofa. I did not make new year resolutions, though will continue to not beat myself up about stuff. I joked to the girls about doing a Tough Mudder as a way of giving us something to work towards ... but who am I kidding.

Stay safe. Be kind. Push yourself.

Saturday 8 January 2022



I love coincidences. They are a kind of magic. I encounter them regularly at work in a low key way that amuses me. Someone will come in to collect a parcel, and then the next person comes in, and their parcel is the one right next to the previous one (out of about 1500 in stock). Or a person comes in, and the next person has the same surname. Or a person comes in, from a little road with a dozen houses, and the next person who comes in is one of their neighbours. Ok, so yesterday I had the freakiest coincidence. A lady comes in with a message to say her parcel is available to collect. When I search the tracking number we do not have it. I put the number in the tracking system and strangely, even though it has an M14 postcode, it is booked in at Hastings delivery office (see above image). I apologise and explain to the lady that they probably have an Ealing Avenue and it has been missorted. I suggest (apologising again) that she phone customer services. Anyway, she collects another parcel that we did have and leaves. The next person at the counter ... their surname is Hastings.
A while later I remember the DOBI, and find an email address for Hastings delivery office and send them a message about the package. They email right back and say they will send it on. Job done. Then this morning, just out of curiosity I look to see if there is an Ealing Avenue in Hastings, and strangely there is not, which leaves me wondering how it came to be booked in on their SPS. But curiously ... there is a Hastings Road in Ealing.

Stay safe. Be kind. Enjoy the magic.

Wednesday 5 January 2022


'Bewilderment' by Richard Powers is definitely a book worthy of inclusion on the Booker shortlist. In it Theo and Robin struggle with life without Aly, but that is not their only struggle. As Robin decides to continue his mother's fight to save the planet's wildlife Theo must battle the authorities for the soul of his son; Robin's increasingly erratic behaviour is causing concern that may lead to 'medication'. Theo's job involves the search for life on other planets, and he creates a game with his son where they imagine that they are exploring alternate realities, possible lifeforms across the galaxy that manage to exist in the most unlikely of circumstances. Robin continues to have problems controlling his anger and frustration so Theo turns to Martin Currier, a former colleague (and lover) of Aly who does brain research, and the boy takes part in a study involving mapping brain patterns of emotional states. The technique helps him enormously, and he in return contributes to the research. In attempting to balance protecting Robin from the pressures of a system that does not wish to accommodate him with the need to be a professor they discover the joys of home schooling; they jump through the curriculum hoops that the state requires and leave Robin free to pursue his passion for endangered animals.  When Martin asks to use Robin's experience in his research to help with his funding Theo reluctantly agrees, and that's when things get a bit out of control, with consequences that might have been anticipated. 

A beautiful book, intense and emotionally fraught. Lots of obscure science stuff, that may or may not have any basis in reality, but you can imagine that it does. It feels like the fate of the planet is in the hands of this boy, he takes the weight of the world on himself, and it squashes him. I liked that he was bright and precocious, but also a child, with the way that children can experience things so intensely, and feel so intensely their smallness and weakness in the face of the powers that control. And his father supported him in what he was trying to do, in spite of his smallness and weakness, he made him believe it was worth trying. And then hopes are crushed all round and the reality of the world come crashing in and I cried.

The trials of being a parent loom large in the book, and that is what really sucked me in:
"But it turns out children have a tolerance for mistakes that I never imagined. Who's have believed a four-year-old could pull a grill full of hot charcoal down onto himself and walk away with no lasting harm beyond a brand like a shiny pink oyster on his lower back.
On the other hand, the ways of going wrong never fail to stun me. I once read my six-year-old The Velveteen Rabbit and only learned from my eight-year-old about the months of nightmares it had given him. Two years of night terrors he's been too ashamed to tell me about: that was Robin. God only knows what the eleven-year-old might confess to me about the things I was right now doing wrong. But he'd survived his mother's death. I figured he'd survive my best intentions.
I lay in our tent that night, thinking how Robbie had spent two days worrying over the silence of the galaxy that ought to be crawling with civilizations. How could anyone protect a boy like that from his own imagination, let alone from a few carnivorous third-graders flinging shit at him? Alyssa would've propelled the three of us forward on her own bottomless forgiveness and bulldozer will. Without her, I was flailing.
I twitched in my sleeping bag, trying not to wake Robin. A chorus of invertebrates swelled and ebbed. Two barred owls traded their call-and-response: Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all? Who would ever cook for this boy, aside from me? I couldn't imagine Robin toughening up enough to survive this Ponzi scheme of a planet. Maybe I didn't want him to. I liked him otherworldly. I liked having a son so ingenuous that it rattled his smug classmates. I enjoyed being the father of a kid whose favourite animal for three straight years had been a nudibranch. Nudibranchs are deeply underappreciated.
Late-night anxieties of an astrobiologist. I smelled the trees respiring and heard the river where Alyssa and I first swam together, polishing its boulders even in darkness. A noise came from the bag next to me. Robin was pleading in his sleep. Stop! Please stop! Please!" (p29-30)

Stay safe. Be kind. Get tested. (We finally had covid here last week, it can strike even the fully vaccinated.)