Inconvenient truths

monochrome photo of woman sitting on floor
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Caroline Criado Perez. Invisble Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men(Chatto & Windus, 2019

Women are used to queuing when they go out.  Says Caroline Criado Perez in her book “Invisible Women” Exposing Data Bias in a World designed for men”.  She meant for the loo of course.  Any lady who has been to the theatre or opera or ballet or cinema in London or any city is used to queuing round the block in the interval, while the men pop in and out of their unencumbered spaces and have plenty of time to rock up at the bar for a nice cooling drink.   Gender neutral only makes things worse.  Because guess what.  Women need cubicles and can’t use urinals.  Men don’t – and can.    Sorry if that came as a bit of a shock,  Barbican management.

Apparently the Barbican hadn’t thought of that when they casually announced that all their loos – simply by changing to the sign on the door – were now Gender Neutral.  Tada!! Fabulous.  How many politically correct boxes that must have ticked with no effort or cost whatsoever.

But then, shock horror.  It was discovered that the ‘gender neutral’ urinals were only being used by men who were of course also entitled – should they choose – to use the cubicles.  All the Barbican had succeeded in doing is  increase provision for men and exclude women.   Needless to say, no sanitary bins had been provided in the so called ‘gender neutral’ urinals.   The supposedly equal provision of loos had been done with men in mind.  A male dominated management team, you think?

Another anecdote – if it can be called that – related by Perez is when a senior member of Google Sheryl Sandberg became pregnant and her feet swelled up, it came to her notice that she was having to walk miles across the car park because there was no provision for pregnant women to park nearer the main entrance. When she approached Google’s founder Sergei Brin about reserved parking for pregnant women he said he had never thought of it but that arrangements would be made.   No wonder he had never thought of it.  He is a man and will never be pregnant nor have to consider policy for those that will and are unless it is spelled out to him in words of one syllable.   It had never presumably occurred to Sandberg either until it happened that she found herself unable to struggle across the car park.

And no,  this is not a mere inconvenience if you’ll excuse the pun, easily rectified.  It is part of a cultural and economic exclusion which even in the 21stcentury is still rampant across all cultures.  One of the most important things to say about the gender data gap, says the author is that it is not generally malicious, or even deliberate.  Quite the opposite it is a way of thinking that has been around for millennia, and is therefore a kind of not thinking.

 

The Little Girl on the Ice Floe

 

 

The Little Girl on the Ice Floe

Adélaïde Bon, trans. Ruth Diver

This is a tough read but beautifully written and poetic if such a thing is possible on dealing with the subject of child rape.  The author was raped at age 9 by a man who is finally brought to justice on the chance of a random DNA sample – more than two decades later.  By this time the author has married and had a son.  But  she painfully charts her mental and physical collapse – and her efforts to recover, the therapies she undergoes,  the Court case. Traumatic memory is such that the part of the brain that deals with autobiographical memory (the prefontal cortex) cannot access the trauma which has been buried away by the amygdala that can only be treated by those with specialist knowledge of PTSD relating to sexual violence,  all too often poorly recognised or understood.

‘How ugly ignorance is when it is concealed under learned airs,’ says the author.  And she has good reason to know.

One of the most poignant parts of the book is the list of names, not unlike a eulogy,  of those women (all victims of this same man)  who could not bring themselves to attend Court. Who risk criminal penalties for failing to answer a subpoena rather than be forced to recount in public over and over again lurid details of what happened to them when they were six, seven, eight or nine.   They are part of what is described as the ‘black number’ of victims of sexual violence. An estimated 90% of the victims of rape do not report it, and this number is even higher for child victims

Van Gogh obscured by his own mythology: At Eternity’s Gate. Dir Julian Schnabel

Perhaps Jesus made me a painter for people who aren’t born yet.  This line, spoken to a  priest charged with assessing Vincent for possible release from the asylum in Saint Remy where he has been interred after a latest bout of his illness,  seems to me central to the director’s vision.   With more than a century of art market hindsight, it’s an easy enough line,   although I do not know for sure if the artist ever said it.  It feels unrealistically self-confident.

VanGogh

Reading Vincent’s letters to his brother Theo, intellect and erudition shine through, certainly financial worries and an inability to find love, but self confidence? No. I wouldn’t say so.

There is more than one reference to Christ in the film, including pictorial ones.  Jesus himself, Van Gogh tells the priest, wasn’t famous until forty years after his death. Well maybe but that’s not a line guaranteed to get you out of the asylum in France in 1890.

The artist himself wrote:

‘’…on no account would I choose the life of a martyr.  For I have always striven for something other than heroism, which I do not have in me…’

(Letter Vincent Van Gogh to Theo Van Gogh, 3rdFebruary 1889)

Has Van Gogh become obscured by his own mythology? And does it matter?    This clearly is a concern to Ronald de Leeuw in his 1990 introduction to the Penguin edition of Vincent’s letters to his brother, Theo.   It is worth pointing out here that the Editor of the letters was at the time of the book’s appearance Director of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam – so hardly a slouch in terms of authority.    Both de Leeuw and the translator of the edition are clear that Vincent took his own life.

Yet film makers beg to differ.  He was shot they claim, by a local thug.    In this respect At Eternity’s Gatefollows on from the excellent and exquisitely rendered artists film,  Loving Vincent(2017) which also pushed the shot-by-a-local called René Secrétan angle.  Whereas scholarly thinking is that he committed suicide.

 

VanGogh2

It’s hard not to be fascinated …

by the life stories of artists and this one in particular.  After all,  Van Gogh painted his way from unknown son of a preacher man to incipient global icon in a period of roughly 11 years,  making the decision to become an artist (a late start for a  painter with no particular formal training in 1879) and dying aged 37 from gunshot wounds in 1891.

Possibly no other artist’s life  – or death – seems quite so intriguing to us or quite so surrounded with mysteries. And film loves a mystery.   But there is scholarly theory that these mysteries are not mysteries at all but are add ons to our popular image of the ultimate tortured and impoverished artist.  I do not claim that there is no substance in these ideas – the ear chopping episode (mercifully done off screen in Schnabel’s film) is sufficient evidence of a mind and body in torment.   But to make a shortcut between that and genius, and to claim little else for the man?  That I don’t accept.  Also the fact that the artist had self- harmed so spectacularly makes a greater case for his subsequent suicide, rather than a lesser one.

Van Gogh rarely discusses his illness in his letters to his brother perhaps not wishing to make him anxious but occasionally he does make reference to his illness.

When I came out of hospital with good old Roulin, I fancied there had been nothing wrong with me, it was only afterwards I felt I’d been ill.  Well, that’s only to be expected.  I have moments when I am twisted with enthusiasm or madness or prophecy, like a Greek oracle on his tripod. 

But when I am in a delirium and everything I love so much is in turmoil, then I don’t mistake that for reality and I don’t play the false prophet.

(Letter Vincent Van Gogh to Theo Van Gogh, 3rdFebruary 1889)

One aspect of Schnabel’s film which seems on the surface intriguing, but which is in fact inaccurate,  is the matter of the missing ledger book.  An empty ledger book was given by Madame Ginoux to Van Gogh for him to use as a drawing book and which the film claims was returned to her (although without her knowledge) complete with more than 60 of his drawings.  Heavens!  What would that be worth now?   The ledger, the film says, mysteriously disappeared and was only rediscovered in 2016.

The first thing that occurred to me when I saw this was  why? If the artist was reviled in his lifetime certainly by the local populace of Arles, and if so few of his paintings sold, why would someone go to the trouble of stealing a ledger book to all intents and purposes considered worthless at the time? And where was it all those years? How exciting!  The answer however – as answers often are – is more prosaic.

Martin Bailey, in an article dated 29thMarch 2018 for The Art Newspaper, writes that the book was not authentic.

Schnabel told The Times that it is “irrelevant” whether the drawings are genuine or not. He has seen them and says “they were pretty damn good”. This comes as a surprise from an artist, since the sketches are weakly drawn, derivative works. The Arles Sketchbook is not authentic, as the Van Gogh Museum determined after an exhaustive examination. (And the sketches were not discovered “in 2016”, since I had been shown some of them in 2010.)

Our need for the tortured artist as sacrificial victim should not overtake historical accuracy in biography. For the film maker it seems, it is not enough that Vincent should have taken his own life but that someone needed to do it for him.  Perhaps so that we may be yet more convinced of the rightness of his vision. Perhaps genius can only exist against a backdrop of ignorance, so that it may shine ever more brightly? I don’t know.      But here is the artist’s own voice on the subject:

“… I for one would blame myself if I didn’t try to make pictures that give rise to serious reflection in those who think seriously about art and life.”

 

Last season’s dust sheets or Jimmy Choos

When you’re dead you don’t need to worry about image.  Groaning away in last season’s dust sheets or Jimmy Choos is one and the same thing.  And it doesn’t matter how many likes you get because you don’t have a FB page.  There has not yet been a generation of computer literate ghosts to worry about their image on social media.

common female blue butterfly
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

How will manifestations of ghostliness be dealt with in literary fashion as we move further into the 21st century and is there anyone left to care?

I am fascinated by how and when spirits will modernize. What will happen to the ghost in the machine, given that self development is unlikely in the beyond. Not for these modern ghosts the task of operating as Dickensian warning signs;  no dreary chain rattling or informing the living of their error of their ways.  The new ghosts will surely want to trend on twitter.      Maybe they will copy humanity and become abusive, distributing fake news. Who knows.  Maybe they will just go because humanity will no longer have the element of any spiritual belief that sustains the realm of the other.

I have experienced apparitions of a sort the film industry became bored with decades ago; you know the  watch out, ghost! sort of ghost  with misty bits and drifty bits and stormy bits.    In short, a coughing, banging about, whispering cliché.  Hark!  Is that the sound of paying customers yawning!   We are bored ghost.  Away with thee and thy foleying nonsense.   There are more lethal darknesses upon us.

What is the mystery that brings prose writers and poets back to the hinterlands of dream and being? The hope of standing on the pinafores of giants and creating some Brontë-esque masterpiece for without the realm of the psychological many of our great works could not exist. Jane Eyre to quote the most obvious example.

Yet increasingly the realm of the unknown is being beaten around its metaphorical head by tub thumping 21st century bureaucracies and an educational system that penalises young people; that teaches them not to dream of anything other than being fed into the maw of a capitalist system they increasingly see as irrelevant to their future.   Because the future of our young people is inextricably linked to climate change and its potential disasters.  As usual, politicians are light years behind on this thinking. The children are way ahead as we have seen in the last couple of weeks.

The literary ghost is still a manifestation of spirit rather than a collection of undeleted files left lying around in the ether.   Let us celebrate this.   Despite the cliché of knocking and whispering and sounds of the audience yawning,  I kind of hope he stays that way.     But maybe he or she doesn’t want our hope. Like Greta Thunberg – the young Swedish climate activist –  the ghosts want us to panic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The planet has 50 years left to live – but hey! It’s Awards season again

In this week when we are told that the planet has about 50 more years to live, a self-congratulatory industry beanfeast doesn’t really seem relevant or appropriate. That said, it’s hard not to get swept along in the tidal miasma that represents awards season at this time of year.

I usually try to see as many of the usual suspects as I can in order to nod sagely or expostulate that yes I agree or no, it was the wrong decision, when an actor glides,  stalks, staggers or stumbles up onto the stage at the BAFTAS or Oscars.  Of course if a decision goes my way, it is the correct decision.  If it doesn’t it was undoubtedly wrong. However all is irrelevant because this year my best intentions have gone awry and I missed most of them.

portugal

 

Despite my existential angst, I was able to nod sagely at a win for best actor Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury.   When we came out of seeing the film we got into conversation with a gentleman who had been involved in the music industry and said he had been at Freddie Mercury’s 21st birthday party.  Now that is impressive.   I think Malek is too young to have done anything but watch Freddie on youtube which makes him impressive too.

I saw Roma which I loved although feminist interpretation of this film is not exactly positive, one critic claiming that it ‘glorified servitude’; the implication I suppose being female servitude since there are not really any significant male roles in the film.   Mmm! Not sure about that one.  I think it was just Alfonso Cuaron making a film about his home and childhood in Mexico and the two women who raised him which I imagine he is entitled to do.  Also I regret watching  Roma on Netflix even though they paid for it because this is a film that needs to be watched on a cinema screen.

Staggering on to Mary Queen of Scots.  So much blood and gore.  Yes  I know that it was how they behaved.  And yes Saoirse Ronan is great and woman in a man’s world and the whole nine yards.   And yes I know David Rizzio was stabbed 57 times and yes you can still go to Holyroodhouse and see the plaque in the chamber where it happened.  In fact it claims on the Palace website that you can still see bloodstains on the floor.  But do I really need to?

 

Reading is like life – a work in progress

Many are the books that I have read and many are the books that I have joyfully completed during my life.   But then there are always those that I couldn’t quite get through and that’s fine.   No-one can like everything and life isn’t long enough so, next please.     img_0168

Having a week’s holiday recently I took  a copy of Orhan Pamuk’s  My Name is Red.  This is a considerable and beautifully crafted tome coming in at 666 pages  just perfect for hours spent in a hotel room when I should have been enjoying the aprés ski if only (a) I drank alcohol and (b)I wasn’t so shattered from falling over on the slopes.

I spent my week and two plane journeys happily engrossed in it.  But lo and behold at page 425 (the number is significant) with less than a quarter of the book to go I couldn’t read it any more. For some reason the magic had gone.  When I got home I replaced the semi-finished copy on my bookshelf,  but found to my amazement a second copy of – guess what – Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red that I had forgotten I owned bookmarked at the last read page  415!

What led me to read over 400 pages of this excellent book and then give up on it in almost exactly the same place, twice?   This required in literary terms a surgical examination.    It almost felt like there was a point in the writing when the whole style of the book changed.   Did I entirely understand the arguments about erroneous religious teachings or the disquisition on the philosophy of art?  Probably not but up until that point I had been enjoying them – but they were not what caused me to stop reading.

I think the reasons I stopped reading were far more pragmatic and plot related.

I decided I couldn’t take Shekure’s two whining children another minute, thought Black somewhat feeble for giving in to her conditions regarding their marriage (he had to find her father’s murderer before she would sleep with him but the poor guy is an artist not a detective) nor regrettably did I any longer care who pushed Elegant Effendi down the well .

Ding dong bell.

Two other books I am struggling with: the Booker shortlisted Everything Under by Daisy Johnson an examination of a relationship between mother and daughter which can only be described as savage it’s words seeming to jump off the page and scrape at the bones; and the Booker prize winning The Milkman.   Although I love what Anna Burns has done with the narrative voice,  even a Booker judge admitted it was a bit of an uphill struggle to keep reading.

I‘m nervous about books from the Booker shortlist but every year I forget my nervousness and pile in.  I’ve had failures before including Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Ben Okri’s The Famished Road.   Although I adored (and definitely finished) The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas – the book that didn’t win the year it was nominated but should have.

But then no reading is every wasted.  And reading is like life.   A work in progress. I certainly don’t intend to spend precious time feeling guilty.  Next please.

 

 

 

 

The ground is shaking as the giant stirs

Are we the unreliable narrators of our own lives with our porous memories, shaky realities, versions of our own truth?  If so, where does this leave history or perhaps the question is where does history leave us. These are matters which have concerned Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro since his first novel A Pale View of Hills was published in 1982.

It is fascinating listening to Ishiguro’s Nobel Lecture which I highly recommend.

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZW_5Y6ekUEw&feature=youtu.be

The author speaks of how he pieced together what he termed his fragile ideas of Japan (a country he left with his parents at the age of 5) from his own childhood memory, from books and comics sent by his grandparents, from ancecdotes and stories told to him by his own parents who for years talked of ‘returning to Japan next year’ and who therefore saw themselves as visitors to these shores, rather than immigrants.

It was never a given that Ishiguro would set a book in Japan, a country which had been Britain’s bitter enemy during the second world war. Now, in a time when writers leap to tell their stories of ethnic or linguistical differences to set themselves apart in a crowded field, it is hard to remember how in the 70s and 80s that was not at all the case. Race was a linear thing and in terms of English Lit it was preferably white and British.

Thankfully, as a student of Malcolm Bradbury and Angela Carter on the far-sighted and, back then, completely innovative University of East Anglia Creative Writing course, Ishiguro was encouraged to write a story about Japan, set in Nagasaki. That story became his first book.

After A Pale View of Hills he went on to write a second ‘Japan’ book An Artist of the Floating World

“Shintaro, I said, why don’t you simply face up to the past?”

A pertinent question which runs through much of the writer’s oeuvre. Answer: because its too difficult and we often don’t either individually or as a nation.

The Booker prize winning The Remains of the Day later made into a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thomson, is a story which concerns itself with that acme of Englishness, the butler in a grand house. There is a moment in the book when the main character Stevens, realizes not only that he has lived his professional life to the exclusion of any possibility of a personal one but, shatteringly, that he has faithfully served a master who serves a false, nay evil, ideology.

These books were followed by: The Unconsoled a story about a pianist which I have attempted and failed to read three times, and in which nothing is what it seems to the extent that it drove me mad; Never Let me Go, a dystopian science fiction story also made into a film; When we were Orphans and The Buried Giant, another study of memory and loss set in the deeps of anglo saxon history where giants still lie. The problem of national memory, is examined in this book.

Are national memories related to individual memories and if not how do they differ? What is the relationship between national memory and national identity – the latter subject now being acutely foregrounded by political events since 2016 both in Europe and in the US. And yet if warnings of the dangers of nationalism are never far from the surface of Ishiguro’s work, the past two years have shown us that those warnings are not being heeded. The ground beneath us is shaking as the giant stirs.

During the lecture the author talks about a visit that he made to Auschwitz/Birkenau; how his guide showed him the gas chambers which Ishiguro describes in his lecture as ‘neglected’, a choice of word which initially shocked me. Why would you choose to preserve the gas chambers? Let them rot away into the ground. But that which we allow to rot away is not by definition going to be around to inform the future. If we erase the gas chambers – or rather neglect their preservation to the point where they self-erase – don’t we also erase the murderous ideology which produced them?

This is the great dichotomy and it is one which museums of the 21st century will increasingly face. How to remember and what to remember.  Not only Museums but writers too have a responsibility to address the major issues of their time. It is a responsibility that Ishiguro has not failed to shoulder. (https://wordpress.com/post/volatilerune.blog/354).

Since 2016 both Europe and the US are finding out that the tide of liberal humanism which washed over our western democratic societies in the second half of the twentieth century – and which we thought was forever – wasn’t. How will writers of the future address the history that is being made now.

 

 

 

 

Writing through the fear: A review of My Thoughts Exactly, Lily Allen

Lily Allen. My Thoughts Exactly Blink Publishing (London, 2018)

I admit it, my last post  (All Those Toppling Piles of Certainty)  contained the tiniest bit of a rant against what I uncharitably termed ‘sleb’ memoires.  Where did that term come from?  It is a nasty catch all term which denies people’s individuality and I promise not to use it again.    Anyway, at risk of a charge of hypocrisy I have just read and been enthralled by Lily Allen’s My Thoughts Exactly

The writing style is engaging even if for those of us that have led somewhat more ..er.. traditional  lives,  some of the antics are a bit eye watering.  I started off thinking poor Lily, what a family,  and ended by thinking poor family, what a Lily.   The truth no doubt lies somewhere in between and as Allen’s mother is reported to have said ‘this is your truth darling’.  Of course it is, because our truth is the only one we know.

Far too young, like Amy Winehouse, for all the stuff in the bucket a life of fame pours over your head, Allen avoided joining the 27 club by the skin of her teeth.    Her life has ricocheted through family discord, music industry success,  music industry abuse, sex drugs rock n roll, a stillborn son and two healthy daughters; more sex,  more drugs, life lived in the media glare to the extent that her phone rang when she was still in the delivery room and it was  the Daily Mail or some such odious rag;   a psychotic episode, a broken marriage,  and then, at last,  a modicum of hard-earned peace.

Where does that modicum of hard earned peace come from?    It comes from inside.  One of the hardest things human beings face is to accept themselves  and not to allow the judgement of others to infringe on our own ideas about who we are.  That’s a great soundbyte and easy to say especially when I can’t sing a note and don’t have to read acres of rubbish printed in the media about my life.     What I love about Allen’s book is that she has written through her fear and come out the other side fighting.

“I’ve begun by reclaiming my voice, ”  she writes.  You can’t express opinions, the fear said Get back in your fucking box, it said, we’ll decide who you are

Well not any more, she says (actually she puts it a little stronger but you’ll have to read the book).  And I thought, you go girl.

All Those Toppling Piles of Certainty

When I can’t bear the blood, gore and apologist position on sexual violence of modern TV crime dramas – I resort to re-watching endless episodes of Poirot.      There is one episode that comes to mind where a ballet dancer who suffers from her nerves becomes stranded in an avalanche bound Alpine hotel.  For some plot reason that now entirely escapes me, this poor girl  is kept medicated up to her eyeballs by an evil doctor with things to hide and axes to grind.  One evening, she wanders dazedly into the hotel dining room and demands “ a bottle of wine – and food of some description”.

I thought of this scene when just before Christmas I walked into a book store (remember those?) to be faced by mountains of the latest offerings penned by the great and the good, spread across thousands of square feet of floor space.

pile of covered books
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Trying to avoid the latest slush pile of sleb memoires in my face at every turn and all the stuff laid out on tables  –  a format I despise – I wandered lonely as a cloud looking for … something.

“Bring me a bottle of wine – and food of some description” I shouted.  No.  I didn’t.  Not really.  Had I done so I would have been carted away and be writing this from a locked room.

But as I stood there with no prospect of being rescued by any fictional detective, another most unlikely hero turned up instead in the form of  Allen Ginsburg whose poetic words addressed to Walt Whitman march purposefully across the  dust jacket  of a new volume of prose poems

The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem (2018).

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“I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.

I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?”

The idea of the prose poem is not one that is immediately comfortable to me. I tend not to try and write them because while I vaguely understand what a poem might look like, although in my case very rarely seems to,  a prose poem is an oxymoron.    Neither fish nor fowl, I used to think it was just poetry without line breaks or overly mannered prose.   Well, that was where I was back then, all of two weeks ago.  Now I have had my damascene moment.  My mind has been utterly changed forever by the toenails of a squirrel.

Hear the words of Anne Carson describing how she spent Christmas Day alone reading Hegel:

The function of a sentence like “Reason is Spirit’ was not to assert a fact (he said) but to lay reason side by side with Spirit and allow their meanings to tenderly mingle in speculation.  I was overjoyed by this notion of a philosophic space where words drift in gentle mutual redefinition of one another but, at the same time, wretchedly lonely with all my family dead and here it was Christmas Day, so I put on big boots and coat and went out to do some snow standing.  Not since childhood! I had forgotten how astounding it is.  I went to the middle of a woods.  Fir trees, the teachers of this, all around.  Minus twenty degrees in the wind but inside the trees is no wind.  The world subtracts itself in layers.  Outer sounds like traffic and shoveling vanish.  Inner sounds become audible, cracks, sighs, caresses, twigs, birdbreath, toenails of squirrel.

(Merry Christmas from Hegel)

I love that ‘Not since childhood!’

“‘All good poetry’ wrote William Wordsworth in the ‘Preface’ to Lyrical Ballads (1802) ‘is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.’  Verse serves as a mould to a moment of emotion, shaping it to a rhythmic pattern.  Without line breaks, the prose poem is free like this paragraph to extend across and down the page … and it is in this freedom that we can locate the distinctive feeling to which the prose poem gives form: expansiveness.”

I like this idea of expansiveness as part of the definition of prose poetry. And there it is – the very essence of expansiveness –  in the Anne Carson extract I have used above.  In the middle of this lonely Christmas that the narrator spends reading the work of dead philosopher, there appears a snowy scene of woodland complete with breathing birds and scrabbling squirrels and it is made manifest for us in one short paragraph.

But most of all the difference between Carson and all the toppling piles of ‘expert’ stuff on the bookshop tables is that  poetry is  sufficiently humble not to have all the answers or even some or any of the answers or even the questions.  All those topping piles of certainty.   I am sick of everyone pretending to know bloody everything when the reality is that if anyone knew even 20% of the stuff they claim to the world would be in less of a mess.

Other Things

To light a lamp is to hide darkness in the same closet as sleep, along with silence, desire and yesterday’s obsessions.  To read a book is to marry two solitudes, the way a conversation erases and erects, words prepare for wordlessness, a cloud for its own absence, and snow undresses for Spring.

 

(Alvin Pang, 2012)

2019

 

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Be like the mountain, stand strong before the eight winds.

I wish for a less volatile 2019 for all humankind.

The poets light but Lamps –

The Poets light but Lamps –

Themselves – go out –

The Wicks they stimulate

If vital Light

 

Inhere as do the Suns –

Each Age a Lens

Disseminating their

Cicumference –

(Emily Dickinson 883)

In Extremis  The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin. Lindsey Hilsum (Chatto & Windus, 2018)

Becoming Michelle Obama (Viking, 2018)

 The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Faber and Faber 2016)

I recently heard poet and academic Ruth Padel interviewed on the radio, saying how she was clambering down some steep escarpment somewhere remote and scrabbling for a handhold,  when she had an epiphany about the dashes in Emily Dickinson’s work – as one does.  They are, she said, handholds, breathing points,  between scrambles for meaning.

At least this is what I understood her Emily Dickinson: Complete Poems (Book Center) by [Dickinson, Emily, Center, Book]to be saying, but I loved the idea of it.  This is the idea I’m sticking with now when I read Dickinson.   This inspiring writer of genius whose whole life was a struggle with God, with illness,  with the servitude of domestic life.  She kept struggling.  Although unrecognised during her lifetime – she knew her own worth.

If there is any common thread linking these three volumes (other than that they are all sitting on my bedside table)  it is about women knowing their own worth.  It is about lighting lamps – shining a light for future generations.  In very different ways, this idea epitomises the achievements of three very different female writers.

There is so much about Emily Dickinson that is beyond my comprehension.  I love that I could read her forever and still not understand her;   she who scrabbled for handholds among the ghosts and maelstroms of the soul, who rummaged amongst eternities and  in our concepts of divinity.  Dickinson the writer of genius who, in the later stages of her life, barely left her room.

A woman who conversely rarely stayed home was war correspondant Marie Colvin.  Colvin  was born into a conservative family in small town America in 1956,  there was nothing especially poor or deprived about her upbringing, but being a woman in the l950s was more usually a guarantee of becoming a housewife or a typist,  rather than a famous war correspondent.Marie Colvin.jpg

In 1974  Colvin was among the first few intakes of female to go to Yale and whilst there discovered a passion for both travel and journalism.  But she didn’t travel the way most of us travel, any more than Dickinson wrote poems like most of us write poems.

As a student at Yale, Colvin wrote for a travel piece for a journal based on ‘the real Mexico’ a country she had visited with another female student.

 “Arriving in Chihuahua, our first night in Mexico, we strolled jauntily out for a Mexican meal and a look at the nightlife.  Nervous glances began to get panicky after two blocks; men who passed turned to follow, catcalls came from corners and open doors, cars honked suggestively … there wasn’t another woman on the street … friends who had travelled to Mexico had returned with glowing stories about how warm and open the local people were.  They neglected to tell us all their friends had been male; we’d neglected to notice all the storytellers were male.”

Hilsum notes:  That was typical of Marie it never occurred to her not to do something that it might be unwise or dangerous, nor because as a woman she might face particular dangers.   Such adventures, she realised when she began to write, were rich seams like the silver ore in the rocks of Durango. An eye for detail, the ability to conjure a scene and scant regard for her own safety were to become trademarks of her journalism.

Colvin was killed in 2012 after she had herself smuggled into Homs, Syria, when everyone else was trying to get out.    All her life she had tried to shine a light on people’s suffering.

In her much lauded memoire Becoming Michelle Obama writes of her childhood in the East side of Chicago during the ‘tail end’ of the 1960s; she writes of teenage years spent returning home from outings with her doorkey pointing outward between clenched knuckles.  Growing up in a time and a place when the colour of your skin was enough to make you feel unsafe and certainly second rate.  In many places that is still the case.  In her book she shows a woman who has tried to strike a balance between retaining her own sense of identity and her life in the public sphere which at times has threatened to be overwhelming.

“I’ve been”  she writes  “a working class black student at a fancy mostly white college.  I’ve been the only woman, the only African American in all sorts of rooms.”

She has also been, it will come as no surprise to most people, a lawyer, a Chief Executive of a hospital trust, and First Lady of the United States of America.  This latter was not a position gifted solely as a result of being married to Barack.  She ran a stressful and exhausting, ultimately successful, campaign of her own to support him.

In the book Michelle writes movingly about a visit to the UK that she paid – shortly after becoming First Lady – to Elizabeth Garrett Anderson school in Islington,  a visit that she has recently repeated on being in London to promote her book. So why this school in particular?

More than 90% of the school’s 900 pupils were black or from an ethnic minority, a fifth of them were the children of immigrants of asylum seekers.  I was drawn to it because it was a diverse school with limited financial resources and yet had been deemed academically outstanding.

Watching them she said was like falling back into her own past.  She knew:

“These girls would need to work hard to be seen.  All the ways they’d be defined before they had a chance to define themselves.  They’d need to fight the invisibility that comes with being poor, female and of colour.”

Grace is a word that occurs quite often in Becoming.  The search for a precious commodity that can never be bought or acquired other than by pure hearted struggle.

The author writes:   ‘If there was a presumed grace assigned to my white predecessors I knew it wouldn’t be the same for me.  My grace would need to be earned.’

And so it has been.