Tuesday 29 August 2023


'My Friend Anne Frank' by Hannah Pick-Goslar is the story of Hannah, childhood friend of Anne Frank, and the story of her war, a completely different one than Anne experienced. But before that it is the story of their friendship, having met at the age of 5, both German immigrants to Amsterdam, thrown together by circumstances but forming a bond that outlived Anne, and that meant Hannah spent much of her adult life educating children across the world about the Holocaust. It is both harrowing, for she experienced suffering that in some ways Anne was shielded from in hiding, but also heroic. Not only did she survive but she saved her young sister Gabi who was only a toddler when they were incarcerated; one by one the rest of her family died and they were left, and she devoted herself body and soul to caring for her sister. They spent nearly a year at Westerbork in the Netherlands and then over a year in Begen-Belsen, ending up on the lost train as the Germans tried to move prisoners as the allies advanced. She was a child, one of so many millions, forced to grow up too quickly, who experienced things that nobody ever should. This is from 1943, just after her mother has died in childbirth, one of so many losses she barely had time to grieve:

"My mother was my confident, my cheerer-on, she who knew me best. She had loved me and spoiled me in the small ways she could. I would have done almost anything for one more Wednesday afternoon crossing Dam Square to reach De Bijenkorf, our hands gliding over the silks and satins of dresses made in Paris, sipping our cups of warm hot cocoa for me, coffee for her. I missed her devotion to me, the intimacy we built over those years when I was the only child, fortunate in my devoted, doting parents. Where was I in this world that kept getting darker if she was not there to help me find my way? I'd sometimes creep into the bedroom she had shared with my father and open her wardrobe to hold her dresses to my face, eyes closed, imagining I could still feel her here with me. On my fourteenth birthday, one week after she died, I thought of the word 'motherless' and realised that's what I'd be for the rest of my life. People I knew - meaning the best but breaking my heart - said that I was 'quite the little mother' for Gabi. But I didn't want to be her mother. I wanted our mother back.
Papa told me that the lessons Mama had taught me through the way she lived her life were now part of me too, woven into my heart and there to tap, even if I did not understand that now." (p.108)

After liberation she went to Palestine, became a nurse and married, living to the ripe old age of 93. Surviving and thriving seems to me to be the only way to deal with such inhuman treatment and horrifying experiences, and I was very much left with the feeling that her childhood full of family love and friendship fortified her, gave her resources to draw on and she was certainly an amazing woman.

Also this, the moment she and Anne become friends:

"We went into a classroom where there were lots of children looking extremely busy. Some sat at small desks, playing with wooden blocks; others traced letters or sat on mats working on their writing. I spotted a girl with glossy dark hair that was almost black. I couldn't see her face as her back was turned to me. She was playing on a set of silver bells. In that moment, she turned around and looked at me. In a flash, we recognised one another. It was the girl from the corner grocery store? We instantly rushed into each other's arms as if we were long-separated sisters, sentences in German flowing between us like a volcano of connection. My clenched stomach released; my anxiety vanished and I smiled.
'My name is Annelies. You can call me Anne,' said the girl."

Monday 21 August 2023

Butt-faced Miscreant


I have started a new rota and feel discombobulated by having days off.
Algorithms can sometimes be handy and Netflix sent me back to Gilmore Girls the other week. When you are in a funk what you need most is to sit and watch something that is so familiar you barely need to pay attention and definitely not bother to pause when you pop to the loo. So Rory calling Logan a butt-faced miscreant has been the best moment of today.
The cucamelon in the kitchen has died from neglect, and the lovely batch of basil plants that I put on my bedroom windowsill for the best sunshine became completely infested with whitefly and utterly inedible ... I never even got the chance to have a chicken and basil bagel. 

Stay safe. Be kind. Tidy up your dead plants.

Saturday 19 August 2023

Weddings and all that

We should have been at Horton Grange three years ago, but you know ... covid. It was worth the wait. Lewis and Rachel have been a couple for about 15 years now and finally last Saturday they got married. The day was perfect. The food was lovely, the place was lovely, and the threatened thunderstorms did not materialise. 
This moment as the boys stood waiting for Rachel to arrive was what set me off first. 
Hopefully we will get more photos at some point but a few people shared ones they took. I love photos of my children together ... they are so few and far between these days. I wanted to take one with my two daughters-in-law but somehow it didn't happen.
Much fun was had by everyone. Lewis split his trousers on the bouncy castle and Mindy's shoe fell to pieces, and you can call it a success if that's the worst that happened. And I did have the most lovely lunch with Ady.
Stay safe. Be kind. Relish the special time.

We're all related to Charlemagne

Yet another book that has to go back to the library ... why are there people out there wanting to read the same books I am reading. I mean it's not new out or anything, look at it, it's really battered. 'A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived' by Adam Rutherford is utterly fascinating and I am just going to have to re-reserve it to read the other half. This is just going to be a quickie as I have other more important things to write about than the history of the entire human race. While he tries very hard to make it accessible to the lay reader I did flounder a bit in places with the vocabulary but I liked him because he is brutally honest about the fact that the subject is so complex that we are barely scraping the surface of genetics:

"Even when we know the genome intimately, and the pattern of inheritance, and the history of the DNA, and the migration patterns of the people who carried it, and the evolutionary pressures that led to the perpetuation of the genes and phenotypes - even when we know all that, how it manifests can still be mysterious and surprising. Anyone who says differently is selling something." (p.104)

And then it got even more brutal about the random people who make grandiose claims about their ancestors ... because when it comes down to it, you don't have to go back very far before everyone is related to everyone else:

"You are of royal descent, because everyone is. You are of Viking descent, because everyone is. You are of Saracen, Roman, Goth, Hun, Jewish descent, because, well you get the idea. All Europeans are descended from exactly the same people, and not that long ago. Everyone alive in the tenth century who left descendants is the ancestor of every living European today, including Charlemagne, and his children, Drago, Pippin and, of course, not forgetting Hugh. If you're broadly eastern Asian, you're almost certain to have Genghis Kahn sitting atop your tree somewhere in the same manner, as if often claimed. If you're a human being on Earth, you almost certainly have Nefertiti, Confucious or anyone we can actually name from ancient history in your tree, if they left children. The further back you go, the more the certainty of ancestry increases, though the knowledge of our ancestors decreases. It is simultaneously wonderful, trivial, meaningless and fun." (p.152)

Because the study of DNA is mostly interesting and useful on a grand scale, because it is teaching us about the history of the human species rather than the history of any particular person. Because genes are not deterministic, they indicate that something might be the case, or is likely over a population holding a particular gene, not that you will definitely have blue eyes, or die of cancer.

Stay safe. Be kind. Respect your genome.

Tuesday 8 August 2023

Much poetry


Poetry all from the library ... it's been a delight to find so many there when I search someone's name, mostly from reviews in the Grauniad. 'So Many Rooms' by Laura Scott is one I would buy. They are interesting, pithy poems, never wishy-washy. I liked all the first few with references to Russian literature. I like poets unafraid to be clever. A smattering of memories and observations, the little things you mostly pass over. Some are 'descriptive' but mostly they ask you to pause a moment and consider something. It is ok to use the word profound? 

The soft thud of it
as it hit the car,

feathers floating 
up like smoke

rising into the blue
on a packet of gitanes.

I've always thought
too much of death,

let it hang around
my ankles like a child

you drag across the floor.
I never found

the right broom
to shoo it away.

'All the Men I Never Married' by Kim Moore is a fabulous feminist rant of a book, venting the poet's frustration at the state of the world and the complexity of human relationships. They cover uncomfortable moments in taxis, and on trains, unsolicited opinions, ex boyfriends, deepfake porn and rape. Sometimes harrowing, but I don't mind being harrowed by poetry, it doesn't feel manipulative because it is honest.

The night I left home, walked away even though
he told me to come back, I caught the night bus
into the city. Around me were young women
wearing the clothes I used to wear,
bra-straps showing, bare-legged, lounging like cats.
Their laughter washed over me as the bus
staggered and leaved itself around corners.
I didn't move as they swayed and fell into each other.
Through the window I watched a man
skirt a puddle, his briefcase against his chest,
a strange and solitary dancer.
He looked at me, then looked away.
I wish I could say I stayed out all night,
had a life-changing encounter with someone
homeless and lonely and worse off than me,
or even that I'd sat in McDonald's,
drank cup after cup of lukewarm tea,
vowed never to go back home again.
The truth: I was too afraid to stay out all night
because everything wild within me had gone.
I went to my sister's, though I knew
he would find me. The path in darkness
the crunching of snails underfoot.
The many small deaths of that night.
His fist on the door, again and again.
Realising he would not leave, pretending to her
that it would be ok, that this was an ordinary row.
Making myself go downstairs and get into his car.
And what happened next, and what came after,
I do not remember. I see the same things you do now.
Him walking down the path in his leather jacket.
Me following after. The back of my head. His smile
as he opens the car and mock bows me in.
My sister standing in the light of the porch,
her arms crossed, angry and silent.

I love Mary Oliver, I mean what kind of self respecting poetry reader doesn't love Mary Oliver, but I was underwhelmed by 'Why I Wake Early'. They are very descriptive, unprovocative, almost sentimental. Maybe I just wasn't in the mood for it. Several religious references put me off. I give you, unseasonably:

The snow
began slowly,
a soft and easy

of flakes, then clouds of flakes
in the baskets of the wind
and the branches
of the trees - 

oh, so pretty.
We walked
through the growing stillness,
as the flakes

pricked the path,
then covered it,
then deepened
as it curds and drifts,

as the wind grew stronger,
shaping its work
less delicately,
taking greater steps

over the hills
and through the trees
until, finally,
we were cold,

and far from home.
We turned
and followed our long shadows back
to the house,

stamping our feet,
went inside, and shut the door.
Through the window
we could see

how far away it was to the gates of April.
Let the fire now
put on its red hat
and sing to us.

Stay safe. Be kind. Take a moment.

Fox and Goose

Obsession has been the subject of both these books, but rather different ones. 'How to be Human' by Paula Cocozza (who should get herself a website) was the one the library had after I read a review of 'Speak to me' in the Guardian. In it Mary, recovering badly from a recent breakup, becomes obsessed with a fox who visits her garden. She is jealous of the neighbour couple's 'perfect' life and tiny baby and is plagued by inadequacy and insecurity. Her imagination runs wild, along with the fox, and she thinks she has formed a bond with it. Does the fox really deliver the neighbour's baby to her doorstep ... it seems unlikely? It felt more like a story about an emotional breakdown, and she uses the fox, like a force field, to defend herself from the controlling boyfriend when he tries to inveigle himself back into her life. It was surreal but utterly engaging, magical realism allowing the reader to enter into the world she finds herself in and just go along for the ride. 
"Mary had spoken quietly. But the trees were listening, and all the half-awake things in the woods were listening, and in her ears her voice boomed. She scrambled to a stand, tugging down the ankles of her jogging bottoms against another assault on the nettles. Her ears buzzed with a distant drone. She strained in the direction of the scent, trying to glean some reliable outline from the darkness. 'Are you there?' she called again. She felt herself to be in the eye of an intense, unlocatable gaze. Not a shadow flinched. She stared at the place where she thought she smelt him. 
'It's me,' she said again.
She pictured his ears pricked into two pointed portals opening up their dark, Gothic chapels, snuffing out all the night sounds like wicks till the only flickering was her breath. She inhaled with a flutey whistle, which winged its way towards him. Soft and sad." (p.181)
'The Book of Goose' by Yiyun Li is about Agnes and her childhood obsessional friendship with Fabienne. Fabienne makes her life more exciting, is the leader in all their adventures, but you sense as they have gotten older she is wanting to grow up, where Agnes wants things to continue the same forever. They live a dull rural life in a nowhere small town, and knowing their lives will unfold in a predicable and unavoidable path Fabienne instigates their writing of a book of disturbing stories that the local postmaster takes to a publisher. The ensuing media interest is avoided by Fabienne who refuses to put her name to the book, encouraging Agnes to take the limelight. It results in Agnes being taken to England to a finishing school, which she hates. Poor Agnes, I felt like everyone was using her. Fabienne just seems to enjoy having a pawn to control. The publisher and the school headmistress are just exploiting her celebrity for their own gain. But maybe Fabienne has done her a favour by forcing her out into the big wide world? This one quote I noted down seems to sum up everything:
"Nothing is more inexplicable than friendship in childhood. It is not companionship, thought the two are often confused. Childhood companionship is forced upon the children: two playmates whose parents like to share a drink on the weekend, a boy and a girl assigned to sit next to each other at school, families renting the neighbouring holiday cabins every summer. Childhood friendship, though it has to meet the same geographical and temporal prerequisites, is something rarer: a child does not seek to bond with another child. The bond, defying knowledge and understanding, either is there, or is not; once a bond comes into existence, no child knows how to break from it until the setting is changed. It baffles me at often songs and poems are written about love at first sight: those who claim to experience the phenomena have preened themselves, ready for love. There is nothing extraordinary about that. Childhood friendship, much more fatal, simply happens." (p.107-8)

Much reading happening ... very little blog posting. Many library books need returning. Trying not to beat myself up about it.
Stay safe. Be kind.