Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. Caroline Criado Perez. A review.

 

This is the second review of my 10 books of Summer.

I have related elsewhere Perez’ story of the loos in the Barbican

But loos are the least of the gender data gap problems, a symptom of a much wider malaise.  Structural male bias is everywhere.  Accurate data is vital for research and appropriate solutions.  Yet accurate data is not available if half the human race is excluded from its gathering simply because no-one has thought to consider whether one size really does fit all.   If you base your research on skewed data, you get a skewed result.   This is obvious, perhaps, when it is baldly stated but not at all obvious in the accepted course of knowledge production which has been going on for millennia.  This term ‘gender data gap’ is something I barely understood before reading Perez;  now I understand it, it is frighteningly omniscient, and it is costing female lives.

Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men

I have chosen to look at two areas that the author discusses, health and the formulation of GDP.

I start with health – the most important thing for a human being before you get to the wealth or happiness bit.  Go into any bookshop (assuming you can still find one) and look at the medical and anatomy sections, Perez suggests,     you will discover that the human figure is male. The author found that:

‘as recently as 2017, the covers of books labelled ‘Human Anatomy’ ‘were still adorned with be-muscled men’

Because it is assumed that the human body is male and that on a one-size fits all model (ie, apart from the reproductive bits there is not much difference)   what works for the guys will work for the gals.   Horrifically this appears to be current medical thinking!  Women are as a result largely being excluded from medical research. Why?  Because the results of clinical trials are being presented as valid for both men and women, even when women have been excluded from the study and even though as a result of this data on whether a particular drug will be efficacious for a woman is unknown.

This despite the fact that researchers have found sex differences in every tissue and organ system in the human body as well as in the ‘prevalence, course and severity’ of the majority of human diseases.

“Sex differences appear even in our cells:  in blood-serum biomarkers for autism; in proteins, in immune cells used to convey pain signals; in how cells die following a stroke.  A recent study also found a significant sex difference in the ‘experssion of a gene found to be important for drug metabolism’.  Sex differences  in the presentation and outcome of Parkinsons disease, stroke and brain ischaemia … have also been tracked all the way to our cells …”

The inclusion of sex specific information in textbooks is dependent on the availability of sex specific data, but because women have largely been excluded from medical research this data is severely lacking.  And because this data is lacking, it is not being taught in medical schools.

photo of green data matrix
Photo by Markus Spiske temporausch.com on Pexels.com

For example:

  • Most early research into cardiovascular disease was conducted on men
  • Women represent 55% of HIV positive adults in the developing world … we also know that women experience different clinical symptoms and complications due to HIV.   Yet a 2016 review of the inclusion of women in HIV research found that women made up only 19.2% of participants in antiretroviral studies, 38% in vaccination studies and 11.1% in studies to find a cure.
  • And because of their routine exclusion from clinical trials we lack solid data on how to treat pregnant women for anything.  Perhaps it is understandable that pregnant women would not want to take part in clinical trials,  but that is no reason Perez states to throw our hands up in despair and do nothing.
  • The absence of female representation in clinical trials also means that drugs are not sex specific and drugs that work for men are finding their way into general use without anyone knowing if they work for women.   Conversely, drugs that do not work for men are discarded during the clinical trial process without anyone finding out whether they would have worked for women.

 

The formulation of a country’s GDP is an inherently subjective process,  states Perez.

She quotes Diane Coyle, Professor of Economics at Manchester University.

‘A lot of people think GDP is a real thing.  But actually it’s a confection, with lots of judgements that have gone into its definition.  And a lot of uncertainty.

Measuring GDP is, she says, not like measuring how high the mountain is.’

In the 1970s – a period which has always been seen as a ‘golden’ window for productivity GDP rose (in the UK).

But what was actually happening during that period is that women were leaving the domestic sphere and starting to do out to work.    Work in the home had never been counted as part of GDP,  as presumably it still is not.

So the things done in the feminised private sphere which were invisible, suddenly got visible and added to the male-dominated public sphere.

Perez writes:

The failure to measure unpaid household services is perhaps the greatest gender gap of all. Estimates suggest that unpaid care work could account for up to 50% of GDP in high-income countries and as much as 80% in low-income countries.  If we factor this work into the equation, the UK’s GDP in 2016 was around $3.9 trillion (official figures $2.6 trillion).  In 2015, unpaid care and domestic work in Mexico was valued at 21% – ‘higher than manufacturing, commerce, real estate, mining, construction and transportation and storage’.

None of this is the result of some dire scheming or deliberate policy, it is because of structuralised, self-perpetuating sex discrimination which has become so natural to us that we no longer see it.   Because women are invisible, it is not deemed to be necessary to collect sex specific data.   Because there is no sex specific data, women are invisible.

“Failing to collect data on women and their lives means that we continue to naturalise sex and gender discrimination – while at the same time somehow not seeing any of this as discrimination.  Or really we don’t see it because we naturalise it – it is too obvious, too commonplace, too much just the way things are to bother commenting on.  It’s the irony of being a woman: at once hyper-visible when it comes to being treated as the subservient sex class, and invisible when it counts – when it comes to being counted.”

“There is an overwhelming need for women to be more involved in research, the author concludes.  “When women are involved in decision making, in research, in knowledge production, women do not get forgotten.”

This book must have entailed a huge amount of work.  It is thorough researched and detailed.  Thank you Perez for showing us the male bias by which our still achingly patriarchal society is structured.  Sisters, there remains a long road ahead of us.


 

Caroline Criado Perez is a writer, broadcaster and award-winning feminist and human rights campaigner.  She is best known for getting a woman put on the Bank of England banknotes and for campaigning for a statue of suffragist Millicent Fawcett to be erected in Parliament Square.

 

 

 

Sheep are having a moment

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Heida: A Shepherd at the Edge of the World

Steinunn Sigurdardóttir.

Heida Asgeirsdóttir

(John Murray, 2019)

Or rather, the people who look after sheep are having a moment.

There was James Rebanks A Shepherd’s life: A Tale of the Lake District about his struggles to take over the family farm in Cumbria which led him from rebellious teenager hanging out at the local chippie,  to adult education to, ultimately, a double first from Cambridge.

Then Amanda Owens A Year in the Life  of the Yorkshire Shepherdess flabbergasted Hay Festival audiences with tales of farming in the remote Yorkshire area of Ravenseat, including how – becoming disgruntled with local midwifery services  who wanted her to give birth in hospital – she gave birth to her 9th child (not a typo) on the kitchen  floor, waking her husband only after the event to tell him she’d had the baby!

There are not quite the same dramas but different ones in Heida the story of our eponymous heroine who farms 500 sheep in the Icelandic highlands. Although Heidais written in the first person, it is in fact a biography translated  from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton.   There is much haymaking, herding, sorting,  pregnancy scanning (of ewes – a big business for those with the appropriate knowledge and equipment apparently) and a great deal of extremely hard work done carried out mainly alone – although Heida admits that her Mum does the cooking!  Here the ground is so unforgiving that when the old dog Glámur dies in winter his body has to be put in a cardboard box and kept in the freezer to await the ground thaw in Spring for burial.

This is a story of shepherding in and on  land beset by fierce icelandic elements; of failing machinery; of battling (sometimes) angry family members and even volcanic eruptions.    Bloggers she says have been known to write of her land that the only thing that can survive there are ravens and foxes.  Strange then she says, that I have had to fight so hard to stay here.   The narrative voice is of a fiercely independent, and yes sometimes fierce woman as I imagine you would need to be to live this life; an ardent feminist who could never understand why you needed to have a husband in order to farm, and a despiser of racial and other inequalities.

Ironically as she lives in such an isolated and barely habitable place Heida’s greatest struggle has been against corporate capitalism.  She has been locked in a battle to stop part of her land being flooded to create the Búland Power Plant.   She describes in detail how developers try to set one community off against another;  how they offer money which someone, somewhere, will invariably accept, leaving others to struggle on in the fight.  How all the so called ‘expert’ opinions, the environmental impact assessments are bought and paid for by the people who want to do the developing;  whereas those in opposition are not allowed to present their own scientific evidence.   Also how can it be right or fair, she asks that it is the developer who finances the research and selects the engineering firms?  Holy guacamole do I recognise THAT scenario!! from a recent battle undertaken against a giant corporate air poisoner.

“We humans are mortal;  the land outlives us.  New people come and go, new sheep, new birds and so on, but the land, with its rivers and lakes, vegetation and resources, remains.  It undergoes changes over the years, but it remains.”

Yes it remains.  Or in the past it could be said that the land has always remained but is that any longer true?  Now there are impredations from which the land cannot recover.  A power plant is one.  Climate science tells us it is no longer enough for us to rely on the courage of people like Heida.  This battle belongs to us all.

A Volatile Summer of Reading

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This Summer I will be taking part in 20 Books of Summer.  A great idea from Cathy@746 Books to review twenty books over the summer period except my 20 will be more like 10.  I realise there are not quite ten books in the photo above!   My other three titles are not yet available to be photographed but will be within the next two days.   A Big Thank You to Sister Rune for trekking to the Hay Festival to make these purchases for me.  The remaining three titles are:

Heida: A Shepherd at the Edge of the World by Steinunn Siguroardottir

Coleridge, The Wordsworths and Their Year of Marvels. Adam Nicholson

River Voices: Extraordinary Stories from the Wye by Marsha O’Mahony

 

 

The truth is he was probably looking for a partner…

Mary Oliver Upstream: Selected Essays Penguin Press, (New York 2016)

 

So begins one of Mary Oliver’s short essays from this collection ‘Who cometh here?’about a black bear.    This poor bear having struggled long and hard to reach Provincetown (‘crossing Massachusetts, swimming the channel, striding the length of the Cape’) got tranquilised and put in a van and returned to,  as far as the rangers knew, the point where he had begun.

In any case, he didn’t come to stir up the Government, or open another café, or- heaven forbid – a fast food restaurant, or mouth off opinions about gay, antigay, or what he thought of the artists, or write endless complaining letters to the town paper.

‘Dear Bear,’ Oliver writes. ‘It’s no use the world is like that.  So stay where you are and live long.  Someday maybe we’ll wise up and remember what you were: hopeless ambassador of a world that returns now only in a poets’ dreams.’

 

Inconvenient truths

monochrome photo of woman sitting on floor
Photo by Emre Kuzu on Pexels.com

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.

 

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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.

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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.