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.

Disobedience: the film. As relevant to Jewish orthodoxy as a bacon sandwich

This story started life in 2006 as a book by Naomi Alderman. It was according to the author the first time a book had been set among the orthodox (frum) Jewish community since Daniel Deronda in 1876.  It was a book born out of the author’s own experience and crisis in faith (if crisis it can be called) and not least her experiences of being in the vicinity when the twin towers fell,  which precipitated a drastic change in lifestyle and a writing career.

So.  to the plot,  in which Ronit the daughter of the Rav (Rabbi) has left her orthodox roots behind to live and work in New York but returns to Hendon upon hearing of her father’s death.

Given Ronit’s somewhat flexible sexual arrangments and perceived lack of faith, her  presence is not welcomed by the community who are much taken up with organising a memorial service for the Rav and see Ronit’s return as an unwelcome distraction that needs to be dealt with at what for them is the worst possible time.  One rather rascally gentleman of the synagogue tries to pay her to go back to New York early and leave them all in peace!

But peace is not to be had so easily it seems, for any of the characters.  Esti, the wife of Dovid (likely to be appointed the new Rabbi)  was once involved in a teenage affair with Ronit.  Upon Ronit’s return from New York, this affair looks likely to reignite and to take half of Hendon with it.

The book wasn’t perfect (what book is) – some of the scenes were borderline silly – but it had some good ideas and something to say at the end that was life enhancing.

Books don’t have to be the same as their films nor films the same as their books.    But it seemed to me this film is as relevant to Jewish orthodoxy as a bacon sandwich.

I admire Naomi Alderman for managing to sit through it. It was almost more than I could manage – apart from a few moments of beautiful singing in the synagogue.    The author wrote recently for an article in the Guardian that they had changed the end of the film.  She didn’t add – presumably out of delicacy – that they also butchered the middle and the beginning, without benefit of kosher.   The author said that she thought she had written a book about a frum community in Hendon but it turned out that she had written a book about lesbians.  She was being ironic, I think.

I don’t understand why everyone is raving about a film which assumes that all its viewers are stupid and won’t ‘get’ that Ronit is no longer part of this community unless she makes daft comments about selling her father’s house on shabbat (the comments,  not the sale), or tries on a wig for laughs when visiting her uncle; nor apparently is the viewer capable of understanding that there was once a passion between Ronit and Esti  (played respectively by Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdam)  unless there is a 20 minute scene watching them making out in a hotel bedroom.  If this scene was meant to convince me that the two were passionately in love it failed; rather it looked like just another version of the male gaze objectification of women for which the film seeks to criticise its fictional protagonists.

It is the nature of film that none of the characters has an internal monologue.   Yet this played such an important part in the book, giving us Dovid’s migraines, his innate gentleness and liberal tendencies and Esti’s confusion. The important resolution at the book’s ending revolves around wanting to make things better rather than baling out.

The film however having spent two hours obsessing over sex,  back pedals furiously at the end with a tacked on speech from Dovid about ‘freedom’ as he decides he is not qualified to be Rabbi (nonsense, of course he was) and Esti (now pregnant) deciding freedom means bringing  up a child on your own in London without the support of the community that she is pleased to complain about having grown up in, thus in one fell swoop depriving a father of his child and a child of his father, and all for no discernible reason.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peterloo. Director Mike Leigh Rebellion theme park style

Unlike Mike Leigh, I was taught about the Peterloo massacre in school. This doubtless shows how old I am or how young he is.  Leigh is on record as saying that Peterloo is a story that needs to be told because it is no longer taught in schools.  It is true that all dark episodes in British history – of which there are many –  need to have lights shone on them, but this film feels more like the school lesson Mike Leigh feels he missed out on, rather than a serious piece of dramatic art.

Set in the year 1819 only twenty years (we hesitate to remind you, dear reader) after the execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette across the channel.  In France Robespierre rose and fell; there were executions, the terror.  It was to be understood the ruling classes in Britain were much on edge.  We constantly see them being very much on edge! No-one (depending where you were in the pecking order)  wanted the same thing to happen in Britain.

File:Peterloo Massacre.png

Thus in the film we see that the words ‘parliamentary reform’ or ‘one person, one vote’ are enough to send the already apopleptic constables and magistrates into full hanging mode, liberally encouraged by an irate home secretary and the fat and indolent Prince Regent.

It is fertile ground for rebellion.    But many and varied are the gatherings and lectures that the poor working folk have to attend in order to have these things explained to them in laborious detail; in order that the viewer may also have them explained in equally laborious detail.   At one women’s meeting, one of the characters, a lady at the back of the room who can’t afford to feed her children and who has been forced to listen to what feels like twenty minutes of inflamed rhetoric, stands up to complain that she hasn’t understood a word.  I sympathise.

To add to the difficulties, the corn laws  prohibited the imports of cheap grain from Europe in order to protect prices for British land owners (who were also  self-elected parliamentarians ) and these restrictions operated to push up the price of bread beyond affordability for the northern mill workers.  Thus by the time orator Henry Hunt made his way from London to address a meeting on parliamentary reform – the meeting to be held on St. Peter’s fields just outside Manchester  –  there were a lot of angry people due to attend.    Nevertheless this was to be a peaceful demonstration – a gathering merely, complete with women and children carrying branches of peace, ‘like a day out’ one of the characters says.

Rather as Tiananmen Square was a day out.

Mark Kermode liked this film a lot better than I did.  Every scene I felt was weighed down with exposition.      You may know nothing whatsoever of British history but still get to the mid point of Peterloo and wave a white flag, saying its ok, I get it.  Bring on the cavalry, I understand. Honest.

There is simply too much ‘speechifying’ and shouting about appalling conditions and liberty for the people.  Too many stereotypes.  The worthy young rebel with the light of freedom in his eyes; the evil magistrate who sentences a man to hang for stealing a coat or a woman to be whipped and then imprisoned for drinking a bottle of her employer’s wine.  Yes these things happened,  but as a viewer I didn’t need to spend two and a half hours being beaten round the head with them in order to understand the final scene when the  protesters are run down by militia.

No doubt the costumes were accurate down to the last ripped jerkin but instead of making the characters look authentic they looked like they had just stepped out of a museum.  And the backdrops?  Far too neat, too clean.  This was rebellion theme park style.    As for the northern accents – don’t even get me started.

If Peterloo was intended to be a history lesson in aspic, then so be it.  If it was intended to have contemporary relevance it would have been better to do the thing in modern dress. It’s  worked for Shakespeare.   Why not set it on some deprived northern estate?  In May’s Britain surely there are no lack of them too choose from.

 

 

 

A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles

 

A Gentleman in Moscow by [Towles, Amor]

Set in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and during the Stalin era, Count Rostov is an aristocrat who more by luck than judgement has managed to survive the revolution, being saved from execution but ordered by a tribunal to permanent house arrest inside the Hotel Metropol.

  “And who knew,” says Rostov’s friend Mishka, a poet who would later be claimed along with millions others by the terror, “that the day you were sentenced to life inside a hotel was the day you became the luckiest man in Russia.”

His daughter is a pianist but inexplicably is reluctant to take up an offer to travel to Paris with the Moscow Youth orchestra.  The Count who has not left the Hotel Metropole (except once for a medical emergency) in over twenty years is at dinner trying to persuade Sofia to take up this wonderful opportunity.  How can she not wish to go?

“I fear I have done you a great disservice, “ he tells his daughter.   “From the time you were a child, I have lured you into a life that is principally circumscribed by the  four walls of this building…. .   But your mother was perfectly right.  One does not fulfil one’s potential by listening to Sheherezade in a gilded hall, or by reading the Odyssey in one’s den.”

And:

…” what matters in life is not whether we receive a round of applause; what matters is whether we have the courage to venture forth despite the uncertainty of acclaim.”

As a philosophy this can’t be beaten.  Nor, as a literary character,

can the handsome, educated and aristocratic Count Rostov – with a talent for formal seating plans and a worthy but unfulfilled desire to read the essays of Montaigne – be beaten.   In the days when it would be taken for granted that barbers were artists and conversationalists; in the days when the Chassagne Montrachet could not be served at other than the exact temperature, we know that somewhere there would always be a Rostov.

Life in the Metropole – even under its oleaginous party functionary new manager – continues to have pre-revolutionary echoes because its principal character has pre-revolutionary echoes, as to his lifelong friends the maitre d’ of the famous Boyarsky restaurant and Emile the chef, wielding his chopper in order to enforce a particular point in the conversation.

Nevertheless,  a prison is a prison whether gilded or not.   There is a poignant reference to feeling Spring in the air on the one occasion he has to leave to take his daughter to hospital.  What must it be like to spend so many years of your life indoors?   Does a compelling narrative require the characters to be allowed to range far and wide?  Apparently not.      The Count is only able to traverse from bar to dining room to hall to rooms and back again (he does on one occasion make it to the roof)   yet his story  is highly readable.  He becomes resigned but not accepting of his situation – what else is available to him?   To be sure adventures seem to come to him, sometimes in a way that a less forgiving reader might question as likely.

This book is a complete joy.  I hear that Sir Kenneth Branagh is to play the part.   A more perfect piece of casting is hard to imagine.

Ring of Bright Water, An epitaph

It has taken me a long time to read Gavin Maxwell’s  Ring of Bright Water.  I remember the book coming out.  I even remember the film with Virginia McKenna and the infernal song! Now that I’ve read it the thing that fascinates me most – more than the story about otters more even than its Walden-esque attempt to hold back the tide of modernity –  is the poetry of the writing.  I have read a lot of poetry and a lot of the new nature writing but Maxwell’s writing feels different.   As if he writes from the inside out, rather than from outside looking in as most do.

I didn’t even know that the title of the work is from one of Kathleen Raine’s poems.  Ignorant? Probably.  I thought I could dispel my ignorance by reading a biography.    There is only one that I could find -that by Douglas Botting – read that I told myself and all will be revealed.    Well, no.  What is revealed is that Maxwell was an aristocrat – a scion of the House of Northumberland; a wartime instructor in the  Special Operations Executive, Guards Officer, adventurer, traveller and fully paid up member of the hero club (albeit of confused sexual identity so perhaps not the model for Bond) there is no shortage of material here. The  authorised biography  is by Douglas Botting who explains that other would-be biographers of Maxwell came up against the twin obstacles of family and literary estate,  but that his own application was granted because he had known Maxwell personally during the last years of the author’s life. 20060630-Hampton Court -DSC_0337

It is clear both from Maxwell’s own work and from Botting’s biography,  that this fully paid up member of the hero club was essentially lonely and could be a difficult person to be around, often suffering from ill health and never happier than when alone and freezing on some moorland somewhere with his beloved plants and animals.  These aspects of his life being more acutely realised in the work than human relationships at which he generally appears to have been unsuccessful.  At least that is what the biography leads us to believe. And yet Maxwell seems never short of a friend to stay with when a bed in a castle is required or a companion for a trip or adventure – there usually seems to be the odd old Stoic, pal from Oxford, or Guards Officer around.

What is not revealed because of course no-one knows is where the writing comes from.    Ironic also that the overwhelming success of Maxwell’s book and its two sequels, The Rocks Remain, and Raven Seek Thy Brother contributed to the mass tourism which has placed so much stress on the once lonely Scottish landscapes he so loved.

It is almost as if the difficulties of the life he chose in remote Camusfeàrna – with no made up road no electricity one mile from the nearest house and five from the nearest shop – were a metaphor for his own life struggles.  These books were an elegy for a way of life which was vanishing even mid-20th century during the author’s lifetime; but in view of the disastrous habitat destruction which has taken place,  they now feel like an epitaph for a failed conservation movement.

 

 

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.