A demographic timebomb

I was once asked at an interview what I thought were the causes of crime.  While I rummaged in my mind for my completely non-existent degree in criminology, another answer popped up.  Buddhism has its own answers away from studies of criminology for the underlying causes of crime which will be one of three things:  greed, anger and foolishness.   Whatever is the latest horror reported in the papers, it will have as its base one of those lifestates.

We live in an increasingly fragmented and complex age but sometimes things are not as complex as we would like to imagine them.  If we believe that everything is too specialist;  every thought requires an ‘expert’ opinion, every action requires a full risk assessment.    That way of thinking  can lead to  a form of lethargy and paralysis which affects the mind, the willingness to engage with problems imbuing everything with a sense of hopelessness.

Hopelessness is becoming pervasive and driven on by a cynical media obsessed with the most shallow issues.  While it is worrying to consider the many and conflicting problems that adults in society face, even more worryingly statistics are that these damaging mindsets are now affecting children.

Buddhist Philosopher Daisaku Ikeda has published a dialogue with Professor of Philosophy Lou Marinoff. (The Inner Philosopher Dialogue Path Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts (2012))

In a discussion about health and in particular the health of children Marinoff states:

Overexposure to visual media coupled with institutionalised inattention to the written tradition have produced a generation of cognitively impaired children, millions of whom are drugged daily with stimulants.

American Psychiatrist Bessel Van der Kolk in his book on trauma The Body Keeps the Score (Penguin 2014) confirms the statistics coming out of the US.

The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma

 

The number of people under the age of 20 receiving Medicaid funded prescriptions for antipsychotic drugs tripled between 1999 and 2008…   Half a million children in the US currently take antipsychotic drugs.   The percentage of children, the author states, receiving antipsychotics increases to 12.4% of children in foster care, compared with 1.4% of Medicaid eligible children generally.  This implies that foster children are being given drugs to make them more manageable.

I do not know what the statistics are for the UK but the word ‘malleable’ seems appropriate to describe what our education system is doing to our kids.  Churning them out to fit the needs of some tech firm somewhere –  a tech firm which may have gone under by the time todays youngster graduates with his/her £40,000 debt.

Some of us use the expression ‘first world problem’ if the washing machine needs fixing or we have mislaid our cinema tickets,  but in fact the first world is facing the most significant and desperate problems – a demographic timebomb –  a whole generation of traumatised children.

Ikeda quotes Arnold Toynbee:  Human dignity cannot be achieved in the field of technology in which human beings are so expert.  It can be achieved only in the field of ethics … and ethical achievement is measured by the degree in which our actions are governed by compassion and love, not by greed and aggressiveness.

Our spiritual development has not kept pace with the dramatic progress of science and technology.  Look no further further for the causes of crime.

 

 

 

 

 

“Our Girl”: addictive nonsense peopled by an army of models

I have to confess to an addiction.  No drug, alcohol or gambling related issues are the root cause of my suffering, but the BBC’s military drama ‘Our Girl’, more particularly Ben Aldridge’s soulful brown eyes which the camera spends hours staring dreamily into –  also completely fine by me.

This is compulsive nonsense peopled by an army of models rather than a model army.  I think the scripts must have been prepared by a cheese grater they are so full of holes.     The basis of the story is a military section (‘2 Section’) having various adventures under the command of Captain James (Ben Aldridge) with a female medic on tour in Afghan, Kenya and other hot spots.   The female medic, Molly Dawes  (Lacey Turner) engages in a somewhat against regulation relationship with Captain James, her CO, by the end of series one.  Captain James gets shot and says he is going to resign his commission. He recovers and doesn’t.

Molly Dawes gets written out of the story in series two and replaced by another female medic called Georgie Lane (Michelle Keegan), who is a bit prettier but nothing like as interesting, and who spends not an inconsiderable amount of time getting jilted or jilting others. I mean how many unused wedding gowns can a girl store away in the average sized wardrobe?

The scriptwriters faced with the problem of what to do with the now no longer extant Molly decide to have Captain James say that she has gone back for another tour in Afghan.   He later implies that they are married.

Fast forward to the current series the writers are desperately trying to extricate Captain James from this off screen ‘marriage’ because they now want the poor exhausted guy to have a relationship with the new medic who actually does exist, Georgie, she of the many redundant wedding gowns.  So why marry him off in the first place?     It’s a wonder he has any energy to spare to actually do his job.

I read somewhere that the army (the real one) is struggling to deal with a backlog of applications.  I hope these applications are not from viewers expecting the Captains to look like Ben Aldridge and Luke Pasqualino.   I fear they may be sadly disappointed.

 

 

A ring in tissue paper and a thousand broken promises

C.G. Menon. Subjunctive Moods. Dahlia Publishing Limited

Catherine
C.G. Menon

The Oxford Dictionary defines subjunctive as a specific verb form. It usually expresses something that you wish for, or a hypothetical rather than actual situation. Eg.  If only I were ten years younger.

Life is full of ‘if only’ moments.      If only I had a different job, partner, life… .   The Art of Losing isn’t hard to master said Elizabeth Bishop –  a sentiment with which the characters in Menon’s stories would no doubt agree as they lose husbands, wives, partners, youth, memories, identity, life.

Menon, not unlike Loveday reviewed above, skewers the  claustrophobia and anxiety of modern life, its obsession with media constructs of ‘happiness’ and the chasm that exists between those pictures in the red tops and  glossies and what passes for reality in most people’s lives.   In particular the stories offer a cross cultural examination of the lives of women when we learn, unsurprisingly, that white or Asian, pink or yellow or green, the burdens are the same, and of course the joys.

Yet underneath the bare light bulbs and cheap plastic chairs that inhabit these stories more ancient voices call,  of dragons,  seascapes,  jackfruit flowers.   Both Menon and Loveday are part of a new generation of writers who are not settling for the fake news they’ve been sold by decades of cynical neoliberalism.  While these are not new ideas and there is much literature out there dealing with the same topics, it is the writer’s job to create unique characters with believable individual lives, to give us a moment’s insight and empathy into someone else’s reality which is, remarkably, not unlike our own.   These stories achieve that.

Many of the characters are caught at moments of great change or even crisis in their lives; the heartbreak of a single mother who has her child taken away by Social Services (‘Foxgloves’); the intolerable pressures of the modern workplace (‘So long, so long’). The settings of the stories stretch from Kerala to Kuala Lumpur to Northumberland but the ‘who am I?’ and ‘what am I doing here?’  problems remain.

Germaine Greer wrote in The Female Eunuch that the cage door had opened but no-one flew out.  It feels that many of the female characters of Menon’s stories are sitting there with the door open, afraid.

For example,    In ‘For you are Julia’ a telephone call from a long ago lover leads to an interior examination of boredom and inadequacy.

Tom sees nothing but joy as the hymn puts it.  He squints into the sun  and sees another woman, and he never dreams it’s only me; only Julia tricked out with sunbeams and cataracts.

In a moment of pure Angela Carter,   a bride is:

  ‘veiled in lace and trussed up in silk, and her feet are squeezed in blood red shoes. The church is silent in a bright, bitter pause and outside the summer day is ending.’

Or this from one of my favourite stories in the collection:  ‘I see you in triplicate’ Caroline’s husband collecting his belongings from what was the family home, goes off with her Spanish class enrolment form (thinking it was a mortgage document).  He then realises ‘the least of his mistakes’ and pushes the form back through the letterbox.

In the kitchen meanwhile Caroline is gnawing at the shining rind of a granny smith and drinking gin from a jar that once held home-made chutney.

I loved that jar of chutney for it represents the very pinnacle of the earth mother dream, turned to gin soaked nightmare.

In “So long So long” , a junior surgeon faces the failure of his consultant’s examinations for the second time much exacerbated by his wife’s derision.  When he complains that he has a long list of bypasses to perform that day she snaps back:

‘Everything bypasses your heart.’

Densely written in descriptive and imagistic prose these stories are as I imagine might be a visit to Bombay (I’ve never been!)  –  the images tumbling over one another, the sights and sounds and smells.   I could have wished occasionally for a little more breathing space in the sentences around the adjective-laden imagery,  but this is an excellent first collection of stories from this prizewinning author and rising star.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Running backwards, passing the baton to no-one: A Review of Three Men on the Edge

 

Three Men on the Edge, Michael Loveday V. Press

This debut novella of poet Michael Loveday is filled with questions such as  ‘Where are the fragranced pillows, where are the flying horses?’   The answers unsurprisingly, are not always forthcoming.  Temporarily and sadly, the flying horses are not to be found no more the Spitfire key rings or the tiger print purses as protagonist Denholm rummaging through boxes in a old storeroom is an opportunity too good to pass up,  and we are soon drifting back through layers of time to coin box skulls and footballing pigs and remembrance of hated games of blind man’s buff.

This book is an investigation of the mindsets of its three protagonists, threaded through with evocations of the settings of Rickmansworth/Chorleywood/Hertfordshire ‘on the edge’ of London.  Such geographical placements – as is the case with many settings in literature and poetry –  are both physical and metaphorical,   for it is part of the human condition to feel on the edge of things, to experience this acute ‘edgeness’  as being alone.

But beyond the metaphor of the protagonists psyches, the landscape fulfils another role, that of a character in its own right. Second protagonist Gus seeks out the shadows and forms of the natural world which lap at the edges of our space:

‘there’s a veil between him and the world that will not lift and to tear it down seems like a betrayal.  Why is it still not consolation – witnessing these swans, these shadows, this sky?’

Amid the minutiae of everyday life including the afternoon TV show Homes under the Hammer and a visit to Watford’s ‘antiseptic shopping mall’,  Loveday renders this acute (even surgical) inspection of the lonely confusion of being 21st century human.  The landscape functions to remind us what we are losing, that we are the only animal on the planet that destroys its own habitat.

The author mocks the meaningless nonsense which modern culture forces on us in the interests of the safety elves and some insurance company somewhere.  For example,  ‘the small print’  consists of fourteen lines of  horrendous sounding symptoms, obviously taken from some prescription medication,  ending in a pinnacle of silliness:    ‘pins and needles, psoriasis, diarrhoea,  impotence, mental disturbance  … and (rarely) temporary thinning of the hair.

In the section entitled ‘Martyn – chewing glass’ I particularly like the way the author pinpoints the co-dependence of sexual relationships:

In Anja … he’s found the companion men surely crave; a guardian god of his secrets, magnifying mirror to his better self, and match for his lost mother’s perfections,’.

and,  the increasingly extravagant media-fed fantasies upon which we rely for a sense of identity;

To join the London Olympics as proxy hero, Martyn intends to complete two thousand and twelve laps of Bury Lake.  He’s not running for charity – it’s a piece of performance art, and he’ll be running backwards with a paintbrush as a baton that he’ll pass to nobody.

Another fantastic question:  What is a gateway but a history of exits?  How many have passed this way before?  What lives did they lead?

This book is a rummage through the storerooms of the human heart with all its fears, its passions, its yearnings, its failures, its betrayals.   Part of me suspects that  Three Men on the Edge is a series of prose poems with an interlinking narrative structure. But that is merely a quibble of naming.   That the prose is a feast of poesy is no accident, Loveday being a fine poet as well as, now, a fiction writer.

 

 

 

Stone. Bread. Salt: Poems by Norbert Hirschhorn (Holland Park Press)

 

I have owned so many identities – or had them given to me since day 1 on this planet: child, girl, girlchild, schoolgirl,  daughter, Jew,  niece,  adolescent, woman, female,  administrator, wife, mother, writer, poet, storyteller,  sister, oldie, second generation survivor.     What did I survive – I who have never been nearer to a concentration camp than peering at piles of hair and spectacles at Yad Vashem?

To be Jewish was something to be feared, the cause of the perpetration of nameless horrors upon my father and his family members most of whom were not around to explain and the ones that were, didn’t.   I was subscribed automatically upon birth to this club of suffering which could never be left, for to leave it would mean profoundly disrespecting the lives (and more importantly the deaths) of uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents.  A disease of belonging for which there is no cure even beyond the grave.

The poet Norbert Hirschhorn writes in the preface to his latest collection Stone. Bread. Salt. (Holland Park Press, 2018):

“In Judaism, the Hebrew word tshuva is a vital concept.  It means return but also repentance.  It is said that God first created repentance, then the universe.  Over the past decade I have made my own return, a journey to rediscover my Jewishness.”

Thus when I first picked up this volume of poems, when I shared a reading with Hirschorn at the Poetry Café in London, I thought I would have no vocabulary with which to offer a review; reviewing after all requires context. In the end that was only partially true.  The book has made me think about my own  relationship with an impossible status.

Some stages from my list of life’s identities were here:  ‘layette, baby clothes, bike, treadmill, bloodpressure cuff, wheelchair, shroud …’ . (Life Course Department Store)

My parents prayed I’d learn what it meant to be Jewish

The Rabbi discerned I lacked the mien to be Jewish

I hated shul, longed for pork

(Self-Portrait)

This I understood.   No Rabbi ever discerned that I lacked the mien to be Jewish because I was a female and so that was the be all and end all of my mien.  I wasn’t required to do much during any service except sit on a balcony and stare down at my patriarchal elders and betters.  I think I was about 8 years old when the Jewish faith and I parted company and the rest is, if not history, a history of guilt.   Whether or not I subscribe to the tenets of the Jewish faith – and I don’t – the essence of Jewishness was scorched into my psyche, so much so, that newly married I recall bursting into floods of tears at the sight of a printed row of numbers on the cork of a winebottle my poor bewildered husband had opened.  Although I realise now that I confused being Jewish with being tormented for being Jewish.  In my own mind, and probably in the minds of many others, the two have become inseparable.

I was in my 50s when a Rabbi refused to shake my hand at my mother’s funeral.  I should have known of course, should never have proffered the offending hand.  But I had forgotten so much during the intervening years, had forgotten my place.

A Rebbe and his young disciple were on pilgrimage … when they came across a stream in spate.  Near them was a young woman in long dress and head scarf afraid to cross. The Rebbe lifted her gently onto his back, strode into the stream and crossed …. The men walked silently for a while on the other side.  Thenthe disciple said Master pardon me but you shouldn’t have touched that woman. The Rebbe thought a moment and replied, I put her down some time ago.  Why are you still carrying her?

Stone, Bread, Salt, p.76

If I am Jewish, have always been Jewish,  what need is there to go looking for the substance of that Jewishness?  And if I am not Jewish,   what would be the point?  The very fact of my existence – I who was never intended to live – and the existence of my children who were never intended to be born –  this is the victory.

In Hirschhorn’s poem ‘Self-Portrait’ the narrator goes to a wise woman to ask what does it mean to be Jewish.  We’re a people with history. We’re your passport to the past.

Where to unlock a people’s history, other than through its cultural soul and where else to find that soul except in language, stories,  poetry, songs, music.  In Hirschorn’s last collection To Sing Away the Darkest Days he returned to Yiddish folksongs, the language of his grandparents and great grandparents.   Ah, the passport to the past.   And yet …

The past is not necessarily any kind of a passport.   Even if we could arrive there- at that other country where they do things differently – what would it avail us?   Being Jewish raises questions that our very history, condition, status, ideology – call it what you will –  renders unanswerable;   being Jewish is a condition impossible to describe without reference to shattered glass and yellow stars,  ergo it is impossible to describe.    I once wrote a poem (or tried to) about the Golem of Old Prague which had holocaust references in it.  I was gently reproved by a learned academic friend who read my piece – the holocaust was neither born nor thought of in 16th century Prague.  Maybe.   The golem was a creation metaphor, another insoluble problem.

Although I believe completely in holocaust education in the interests of it never happening again, I also believe too many of us are still wearing our yellow stars.  It is time to lay them down.  As Hirschorn says:

‘I trace my own ancestors to the earliest time of life on earth, and before that to the stars.  For this I stand in awe.’

That sense of shared humanity is a good starting point.  A good point of return.  So although this has not strictly been a book review, it is a statement of gratitude for making me think.  Perhaps that is the best review of all.

 

 

 

Literary separations – children with vanishing mothers

La Belle Sauvage, Philip Pullman (Penguin, Random House)

Sal, Mick Kitson (Canongate)

The Girl in the Tower, Katherine Arden (DelRey)

How to write for, of and about children and young people in an increasingly dysfunctional world? Finding a balance between an adult sounding narrative voice (and character arc) to make a book of interest to as wide a readership as possible  and yet maintain a sufficiently age appropriate voice is a difficult task. Then too how to write parents? Our world of parenting is becoming savagely complex like some sort of demented computer game with so many traps  one wonders who would ever want to start playing. Many writers with child protagonists in their stories avoid parents altogether by using orphans, or they turn parents or other carers into wicked stepmother style clichés in order to exaggerate a malign influence.  I have just polished off three books which in their different ways grapple with these issues.

The Book of Dust, Volume One. La Belle Sauvage. Philip Pullman

This first volume is intended as a prequel by Pullman to the His Dark Materials trilogy but I found I couldn’t live it or believe in it the same way as the original books.  The plot is based around unprecedented rains which have caused the Thames to burst its banks.    This saga which picks up the story 10 years before the beginning of Northern Lights concerns the trials and tribulations of one Malcolm Polstead as he attempts a journey by boat – through the inundated landscape which was once Oxford towards London – to protect baby Lyra from the forces of the scary sounding Consistory Court of Discipline and other baddies who are chasing them.

Against this post-apocalyptic background, sinister forces gather and only poor Malcolm is there to sort it all out. Like some sort of Blyton-esque adventure on steroids, he and his friend Alice get into increasingly surreal scrapes and escapes from witch haunted islands, a graveyard, a masque in a grand house where the intrepid heroes go to beg food but find themselves utterly invisible to the assembled gathering. A good metaphor at least for how young people are treated in 21st century society.

But here was the problem for me.  That Malcolm at the age of 11 (or it may be 12) comes across as an insufferable know it all who never puts a foot wrong.  Fortunately for him, his friend Alice gets taken along on the journey so he doesn’t actually get to change Lyra’s nappies himself.  Heroes don’t change nappies, do they?

The second book is Sal – the debut novel of Mick Kitson. Sal (short for Salmarina) is a 13 year child from a highly abusive and dysfunctional family background. She finds herself on the run with her ten year old sister, Peppa, and the two are forced to live wild in a forest in Galloway, at least for as long as it is feasible to do such things in the 21st century where every bus ticket is a digital footprint and every visit to town an occasion for surveillance.

Sal is much influenced by, and no mean interpreter of, the SAS survival handbook, building shelters, fires, trapping rabbits and generally, well, surviving.   Both this novel and Pullman’s use the trope of taking the child/adult heroes and heroines outside of the real world – or at least a recognisable everyday version of it – and casting them into situation where they must survive by their own wits and largely without assistance from outside sources.

This is nothing new in literature, for children who must constantly refer back to some adult for instructions don’t make very interesting protagonists.  But author Jenni Fagan points out in her review of the Kitson book[i] that there is another angle to this separation of children from the adult world and one that does not relate to narrative convenience. That is children or young adults are finding ways to separate themselves from a world that neither understands nor seeks to protect them. Fagan notes too that 4.1 million children live in poverty in the UK.[ii]  That’s 30% or 9 out of every class of 30. Child poverty is a form of abuse is it not? Even if it is a systemic one rather than a familial.

Fictional representations of mothers are not faring well in these particular novels.  Malcolm Polstead’s mother is a homemaker, a bringer of ample puddings and comfort.  Sal’s mother on the other hand is a drunk, a bringer of random men home at odd times of the day and night, one of whom turns out to be an abuser.  Both women exist at either end of the cliché spectrum and neither is a fully developed character.  Women are not stereotypes guys. It really is time for authors to give up reaching for the lazy allusion shelf of puddings and vodka bottles when writing mothers.

The Girl in the Tower, Katherine Arden

has an intrepid young heroine called Vasya who has been cast out of her home and is alone or almost alone. As this is Russian folktale territory, there is no SAS survival handbook.   Instead Vasya has the assistance of a frost demon who can make fires from snow and diamond like ice combs and knives and who brings food when she runs out.  Such a demon we should all have.  She also has a talking horse called Solovey with a weakness for porridge laced with honey, all so exquisitely drawn that it really doesn’t seem like cheating.   In order to survive her chosen life of travel, Vasya has to pretend to be a man.  Plus ça change. But this is a great story with lyrical descriptions of a frozen, semi-mythical Russian forest, perhaps long since eradicated.

[i] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/mar/14/sal-mick-kitson-debut-review-sisters-children-runaways Accessed May 2018

[ii] http://www.cpag.org.uk/content/child-poverty-facts-and-figures

Eleanor Oliphant is completely magic realist

Gail Honeyman. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Harper Collins 2018

This deceptively simple narrative charts the rise and rise of a thirty year old woman from somewhere she didn’t know she was, to somewhere she didn’t know she needed to be. I’m trying not to give the plot away but the book primarily concerns itself with skewering our 21st century culture of not giving a damn.

The Eleanor in question is a thirty year old office worker who appears out of step with the modern world to a startling degree. She doesn’t even own a mobile phone at the beginning (although, phew! she does by the end). The book sections are divided into ‘Good Days’ and ‘Bad Days’ and ‘Better Days’. It is slowly revealed throughout the course of the narrative just how bad the bad days were for our poor heroine and why she behaves somewhat oddly. There is a distressing backstory which slowly reveals itself, but this is not at all a distressing or depressing book. Upbeat rather with its message that even if you are falling apart from loneliness you can still be fixed.

Within the pages of this fixing there is a degree of magic realism. Eleanor makes a friend along the way who appears well cut out for Sainthood. Influenced and quoting from Olivia Laing’s fast-becoming-iconic study of loneliness The Lonely City

‘…the lonelier a person gets, the less adept they become at navigating social currents.

Surprisingly this is a page turner – with a twist at the end which I half saw coming. I finished it over two days of rain and snow in a half–empty hotel near Caernarvon, waiting to attend the harp festival.

This is a book to curl up with and if you are feeling a tiny bit sorry for yourself it will magic you better. Indeed you cannot help but compare yourself with Eleanor and feel better – unless your backstory is even worse than hers. In which case dear reader you are much to be pitied.

Teaching the unimaginable: the role of poetry in remembrance of the Holocaust

Recently attending a Remembrance Day service I was struck by the speech given by the local vicar who asked the gathering whether we thought we took our freedom for granted? Of course we take our freedom for granted if we are lucky enough to be free.   If we have never known what it is not to be free. Can we imagine soldiers coming to our homes, dragging members of our family away, looting and burning? No-one who has not directly experienced such things can really imagine it.

How then do we teach the unimaginable? For teach it we must.

An item which appeared in the Museums Journal (November 2017) refers to Holocaust remembrance and discusses the Museums of 21st century will interpret this subject. The article starts with a description of two televisions screens in the V&A in London relaying testimonies from Holocaust survivors:

“We always say never again, but it happens all the time. Not for nothing does one say that history repeats itself.”

Education is a vital part of breaking the chain of history repeating itself yet a report by the 2015 Holocaust Commission apparently concluded that teachers are confused about how to teach the holocaust with many schools avoiding the topic.

With the voices of the remaining holocaust survivors being stilled by time it is vital that we continue to find ways to educate and warn new generations of the horrors of genocide. Not only the Jews but Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, history’s whole list of Chamber of Horrors murderers that gained power in the 20th century and held on to it long enough to cause the deaths of millions of innocent people of whatever race or creed, all this has to continue to be taught.

One of the usual ways ‘into’ studying the history of genocide is to look at the political, economic and cultural factors that were in play at the time. In many ways these are incidental factors, not reasons at all. There are never any reasons, or rather there is only one reason, that such horrors can occur – it is the same reason that nuclear weapons continue to exist despite that many people alive today witnessed reporting of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is almost not enough to stop people killing each other although that would be a great start. The challenge is to stop them wanting to. We have not yet achieved that.

Yet we continue to try. Music art and poetry find a way into places that don’t seem accessible through purely intellectual means.

Holocaust poet Paul Celan (1920-1970) wrote probably the most famous poem to come out of the Holocaust – ‘Todesfugue’ – death and music combined. There were indeed orchestras in the death camps. Celan’s poem was apparently so shattering when read in his own voice (according to his biographer John Felstiner[1]) that even those with no German understood – not ‘the gist’ that oh so useless word – but the agonizing heart of it.

sdr
Paul Celan (1920-1970)

 

In 21st century Britain do we think of poetry as decorative? Therapeutic? Inessential? Difficult? Perhaps all of those things to some extent. In Stalin’s Russia there were no such doubts. Reading Hope against Hope and Hope Abandoned by Nadezhda Mandelstam wife of the murdered poet Osip Mandelstam it is clear that poetry was a game played for the highest stakes.

The freedom of artists is the first thing to go in a dictatorship. In Russia, during Stalin’s era, the role of the poet was to tow the party line. Failure to do so was a deadly business. Russian poet Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) effectively signed his own death warrant with a poem about Stalin. Twelve lines was all it took.

dav

Mandelstam was arrested, but was not executed immediately. He was sent into exile for years, accompanied by his wife Nadezhda; much of this time was spent in Voronezh. He continued to the end to be hounded for his failure to take ‘an official line’ in his poetry and eventually was rearrested, dying years later in a transit camp waiting to be shipped to the Siberian camp at Kolyma or some such hell on earth.

While Paul Celan survived the holocaust in terms of years he drowned himself in the Seine in 1970, a victim of ungovernable trauma in a mind which had witnessed too much that could never be unwitnessed. Poetry, Celan said, could retrieve the German language from the abuses of the Nazis:

Reachable, near and not lost, there remained amid the losses this one thing: language. It, the language remained, not lost yes in spite of everything. But it had to pass through its own answerlessness, pass through frightful muting, pass through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech.[2]

The poems of the holocaust are not just survivor or victim stories written in poetic form.

Teaching poetry fulfills the double function of filtering the unimaginable through language and the language of experience. Experiences evolve – we cannot showcase human experience only through artefacts in museums however horrific those artefacts may be.

It is difficult to freeze events in time. There is always a before and an after. A possibility of prevention and a possibility of re-enactment.  Of history repeating itself.  The best art drills down through time and concentrates intensity of lived experience, getting to its humanist core. The best poetry holds up a mirror and shows us ourselves stripped of political expedience and economic relativism.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] J. Felstiner. Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew. Yale University Press (New Haven and London: 2001)

[2] Introduction by J. Felstiner. Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs: Correspondence. Trans. Christopher Clark. Ed. Barbara Weidemann. The Sheep Meadow Press (New York, 1995)

Whether or not Androids dream of electric sheep has become completely irrelevant: A review of Blade Runner 2049. Dir. Denis Villeneuve

In 1982 Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner (based on Philip K. Dick’s novel, ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’) was unlike anything that had been seen before. The sets of a post-apocalyptic world with its flying cars and worries about replicants was visionary; yet despite the fact that the world had only a few decades previously engaged in two major wars followed by Hiroshima and Nagasaki, such scenes of our planet where the natural world had been entirely destroyed still seemed part of some impossible future. Didn’t it?

So the original film operated as a warning yes, but one which centralized its concerns around artificial intelligence and, oh dear, what if the robots (replicants) got cleverer than us? That would never do, we’d better try and kill them all off.  About the environment, the images spoke for themselves. There was nothing more that needed to be said other than ‘this will happen if we take no steps to prevent it.’

The same day that I saw Blade Runner 2049 in October 2017, the Guardian newspaper published a shocking report that flying insects numbers – once thought so numerous – have undergone a dramatic reduction as much as 75% in the last 25 years.   This is an ecological catastrophe. One scientist is quoted as saying: “We appear to be making vast tracts of land inhospitable to most forms of life and are currently on course for ecological armageddon.”[1]

Sound familiar?

North Korea is sending missiles over Japan on an almost monthly basis; we have climate change, poisoned air, melting ice caps, species extinctions on a scale never before known.   Suddenly the post-apocalyptic world so beloved of film-makers is not some incredibly far off thing it is here with us now, breathing hellfire, brimstone, CO2 and diesel particulate matter down our necks. Yet the response of the film makers is same old, same old.   What if the replicants could give birth. They might be more successful than humans. We’d better kill them all off.  Aaarrggh! Hello!!

What if the replicants cared more about the planet than humans? Well, we don’t know the answer to that one because no-one asks. By the time we get here to the time of the new film, there isn’t much planet left to care about. But things are not all bad – there are still plenty of women around, although they are mostly prostitutes, holograms or psychopaths.

There is a Bond style baddy who seems to have no eyes (considering he bought up the bankrupt Tyrell Corporation with all its robotics and cybernetics and considering they can make good looking robots like Ryan Gosling) you would think someone would take pity on the baddie and find a set of eyes somewhere.

Not that Blade Runner 2049 isn’t a ‘good’ film. In some respects, it is.  My point is that this film is looking in the wrong place. Worrying about who is human and who is not and whether this test or that test will identify ‘true’ humanity. It is too late for that.  True humanity concerns itself with wisdom, courage and compassion. Considerations of what it means to be human and who dreams about what are no longer relevant unless someone develops androids that can breathe poison and live underwater. And that still will not save the flying insects. Or the rest of us.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/oct/18/warning-of-ecological-armageddon-after-dramatic-plunge-in-insect-numbers

Poetry in a time of data

Brains are amazing things. Far more so than we can yet fathom or understand. In Buddhist theory, the sixth layer of consciousness assimilates all the ‘data’ we receive from the five senses.   Thus, for example, in order to differentiate a strawberry from the white, china bowl on which it sits, or the table that supports the bowl etc we can access this realm of the mind which ‘understands’ the difference. But when we wish to describe what we see – to make textual art out of an emotional response – we have only language available to us. Language, words, pictures, images.

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Language vast and generous, all encompassing. Is it not the soil out of which civilisation grows? Perhaps. But like the soil, language is subject to erosion, both natural and unnatural. Words fall out of use or morph into new words all the time and in itself this is normal and not particularly sinister. However, it becomes sinister when this form of ‘language creep’ is extreme in sidelining an entire and vital aspect of human existence – in this case I am talking of the natural world.

In his superb book _Landmarks_(Penguin, 2016)  (p3) naturalist Robert Macfarlane relates the following story:

“A sharp eyed reader of the new edition to the Oxford Junior Dictionary noted that a considerable number of words used to describe the natural world had been deleted. The deletions included: _acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter pasture and willow. The words introduced to the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, mp3 player and voice-mail.

> When Vineeta Gupta, then head of children’s dictionaries at OUP was asked why the decision had been taken to delete those words, she explained that the dictionary needed to reflect the consensus experience of modern-day childhood.”

How tragic this is. That contemporary children have no experience of acorns and buttercups so no point in using the words. This seems to be extraordinary back to front thinking. It is most likely that children will learn the substituted computer-style words by the daily dose of internet to which life is now exposed but if acorn, adder and ash are rarer commodities and not to be found so much in inner cities, it seems to me that is not a reason to delete the words but rather twice the reason to incorporate the words in the dictionary.

Chatrooms and cut-and-paste are now in our DNA. Sadly the OJD Editor was confusing the information function of language with the emotional engagement function of language, with its qualities of poetic inheritance, its assimilation of history.

Certainly there are aspects of human experience that defy articulation whether the vision of a sunrise across wheat fields language is not the be all and end all of communication but a poet will certainly struggle without it! If children are being deprived of language to describe the natural world they will in turn have no terms of reference to become nature poets.

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This decision was apparently not taken on the basis that such phenomena have physically disappeared from the environments – which thankfully they have not (yet) – but based on the fact that many children today live in urban environments which means they are no longer likely to come into contact with cygnet, beech or kingfisher and so don’t need to know about them!

How will tomorrow’s poets describe the natural environment if they have no language to do so? Tomorrow’s environmentalists are todays children – those very ones who the OUP editors don’t feel need to recognize beech, alder and adder. The question of how those concerned with loss of species and habitat destruction will recognise such losses without terminology for the natural world.     We need language for the existence of things, in order to recognise loss. It is not possible to save a buttercup if, linguistically, the little yellow meadow flower no longer exists.

Joni Mitchell famously sang ‘they took all the trees, put ‘em in a tree museum’… . Museum pieces can be overlooked, irrelevant things – perhaps less so post Neil McGregor – but still many are just things until they have a narrative attached to them. For this we need language, history, cultural references, comparative functions, analytical resources.

We hope neither the natural world nor the language we use to describe it will be relegated to the status of museum piece. No-one will knowingly pass a law putting trees in a museum, but the sidelining of the natural world is coming anyway; by urbanisation, by obsession with economic models of society, by addictions to technology, and by ‘language creep’. Or perhaps ‘language loss’ creep.   Did you notice how many hours of airtime, rhetoric, baby-bouncing-on-knee time were given over to discussion of climate change during the recent election campaign?

I believe the problem is not one of political will. Does any well meaning politician actually want the planet to disintegrate? Most will work out that they will naturally vanish along with the rest of us. But politicians are just human beings and the pressures of office must be huge. It is always tempting to think that someone else will deal with it, or somehow the problem will go away.

Young people feel alienated from the existing systems of representation and who can blame them since those systems of representation seem bent on excluding whole groups of our society, especially the young. It is these younger generations that are those most at risk of ‘language loss creep’. In a time of mass ‘data’ and ‘communications’, in a time of NSA surveillance and Edward Snowden when we all suffer from information overload, we actually seem to understand less and less.

The point is that writers are needed more than ever to keep the natural world in focus for potential readers. Prose writers yes, but I believe it will fall to the poets to guard the language of the natural world that is needed to give voice to the history of and need for continued work on preservation, and to fight, if necessary short-termism and vested interests. This is not just complaint about red, blue, yellow or green! It is about a universal spirit. If none of the parties are voting for the planet, the planet will not vote for the parties. It is left to poets to do so.

What other language is being or already has been lost through this form of abandonment? This is not a simple question when the term ‘language’ has many meanings? Even computer code is a magical language. It makes things happen.

But computers  cannot save the human habitat. Only humans can do that and in this poets have a vital role.

I posted this yesterday and this morning awoke to a review of a new book by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris called The Lost Words on this very topic.  It seems the author agrees with me on the poetry aspect, as this is a book for young readers with poems and beautiful illustrations.  Although Mr. Macfarlane says they are not poems, they are spells:

 

When wren whirrs from stone to furze the air around her

slows,

 

Mmm! Sounds like poetry to me.  Ok, spells then.

The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris is published by Hamish Hamilton on Thursday, 5th October 2017.