Raise Me with Sunrise: A Review of ‘My Name is Why’ by Lemn Sissay

Raise me with sunrise

Bathe me in light

Wash all the shadows

That fell from the night.


Imagine having to piece together your life and your identity from a series of index cards and minuted committee meetings! Imagine finding out age 16 that even your name is a lie. This is the experience that poet Lemn Sissay relates.

Even if you don’t know who you are from an emotional point of view, at least you have a name.  Perhaps it is the right name.  It is the one written on your birth certificate which someone will have stored in a shoebox in the bottom of a wardrobe.  Whether you like this name or not it was the name given to you at birth and it cannot be changed without legal process.   

But what happens when the name you have lived with, and the family you have lived with turn out to be a lie?  A chimera?  What happens when someone hides your birth certificate from you and presents you with other official looking documents which contain a different name?   Who are you then?

Lemn Sissay grew up as Norman Greenwood.  Born in 1967 it was not until 1982 that Sissay was shown papers which proved that his mother had been an Ethiopian student who had been forced to give him up but had tried to get him back.  In the intervening years, he was placed with an incapable foster family who rejected him when he was 12, and an increasingly pentitential series of children’s homes, including in 1984, Wood End, which has since been connected with abuse scandals in the press. Wood End was an experience which Sissay writes gave him nightmares ‘until my forties’.

“ This really was George Orwell’s 1984.  I was right. I was right about the entire dysfunctional system which pretended it could care for me while knowing in its heart that it couldn’t.  This horrific place was where the system stopped pretending.”

How many other children have similar stories?  When Sissay blogged about his experiences in Wood End a number of people came forward to say that they had been ‘dumped’ there too.

Sissay fought the Local Authority for 30 years to get access to his records.  This book is the result of him finally being sent – in 2015 –  four folders of notes of meetings and decisions, in none of which he was involved or consulted, that constituted the first 18 years of his life.  Yet although this book is inevitably a quest for identity, it is also a story of a man who recognised his inner poetic light very early on.

Although Sissay now has success and recognition and could rest on his laurels, this is not his style. I get the impression this is not a man that does laurels – except for poetic ones. He is still achieving, still working in the vanguard of the fight for justice for children in care. He is still fighting against the possibility that any other child will have to endure what he did. My Name is Why is a manifesto against systemic ignorance and hypocrisy, and on the side of the human rights of the child.


Lemn Sissay is a BAFTA nominated, award-winning international writer and broadcaster.  He has authored collections of poetry and plays.  His Landmark poems are visible in London, Manchester, Huddersfield and Addis Ababa.  He has been made an Honorary Doctor by the Universities of Manchester, Huddersfield and Brunel. Sissay was awarded an MBE for services to literature and in 2019 received the Pen Pinter Prize.  He is Chancellor of the University of Manchester. He is British and Ethopian.

4 Books on the Power of Transcendence and Vision in a Divided World

I shall be leaving fiction for a while and returning to non-fiction, specifically philosophy and biography.    Here is a list of four books that I shall be reading and reviewing over the coming weeks. 


Wild Silence

Raynor Winn (author)

Hardback (03 Sep 2020) | English

I am beyond excited to be awaiting my copy of Raynor Winn’s The Wild Silence.  Her previous – and debut – book The Salt Path tells the story of how after being made suddenly and shockingly homeless after a saga of a lawsuit that sets your teeth grinding on edge and makes you want to run into the court room and start shouting.  The couple have nowhere else to go other than the home they are now forced to sell and no money either. 

As if that is not enough, Moth, Winn’s beloved husband has received a terminal diagnosis. What to do under such circumstances?  The answer may not be obvious to everyone but it was to Winn  and Moth as they set out to walk the 600 odd miles of the South West Coast Path. 

The Salt Path is a book about walking of course but so much more it is a journal of struggle and discovery, of the natural world but also of self-discovery – which many of us perhaps will never make because we are not forced into the position of having to make it.   The book is also a love letter to the natural landscape through which they pass aching mile by aching mile, the creatures human and otherwise that inhabit those coastal swathes, and to the man with whom Winn has spent her whole life. 

This author could turn a shopping list into a poetic endeavour and I am agog to read her new book which charts the couple’s return home and attempt to go back to ‘normal’ living. 

The publisher’s synopsis states:

After walking 630 miles homeless along The Salt Path, the windswept and wild English coastline now feels like their home.

And despite Moth’s terminal diagnosis, against all medical odds, he seems revitalized in nature – outside, they discover that anything is possible.

Now, life beyond The Salt Path awaits. As they return to four walls, the sense of home is illusive and returning to normality is proving difficult – until an incredible gesture by someone who reads their story changes everything.”


Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times

Jonathan Sacks (author)

Hardback (05 Mar 2020) | English

Former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks discusses the many extreme pressures under which we are currently living and how it is possible to find a way forward through a common moral foundation.

Synopsis:  Delivering a devastatingly insightful critique of our modern condition, and assessing its roots and causes from the ancient Greeks through the Reformation and Enlightenment to the present day, Sacks argues that there is no liberty without morality, and no freedom without responsibility.

If we care about the future of western civilisation, all of us must play our part in rebuilding our common moral foundation. Then we will discover afresh the life-transforming and counterintuitive truths that a nation is strong when it cares for the weak, and rich when it cares for the poor.

Here is an inspiring vision of a world in which we can all find our place, and face the future without fear.

(My thanks to SLZ who told me about this book).

It is a short step from a philosophy of inclusiveness to buddhism which leads me to my next book.

From a Mountain in Tibet A Monk’s Journey

Yeshe Losal (author)

Hardback (27 Aug 2020) | English

Synopsis

Lama Yeshe didn’t see a car until he was fifteen years old. In his quiet village, he and other children ran through fields with yaks and mastiffs. The rhythm of life was anchored by the pastoral cycles.

The arrival of Chinese army cars in 1959 changed everything. In the wake of the deadly Tibetan Uprising, he escaped to India through the Himalayas as a refugee. One of only 13 survivors out of 300 travellers, he spent the next few years in America, experiencing the excesses of the Woodstock generation before reforming in Europe.

Now in his seventies and a leading monk at the Samye Ling monastery in Scotland – the first Buddhist centre in the West – Lama Yeshe casts a hopeful look back at his momentous life. From his learnings on self-compassion and discipline to his trials and tribulations with loss and failure, his poignant story mirrors our own struggles.

Written with erudition and humour, From a Mountain in Tibet shines a light on how the most desperate of situations can help us to uncover vital life lessons and attain lasting peace and contentment.


My Name Is Why

Lemn Sissay (author)

Paperback (02 Jul 2020) | English

I am a great fan of biographies of poets particularly Elaine Feinstein’s biographies of Anna Akhmatova and Ted Hughes.

(I am struggling to get hold of a copy of Elaine Feinstein’s biography of Marina Tsvetaeva if anyone knows of one please let me know?)

I have never read a contemporary autobiography of a living poet before so I am fascinated to find this one from Lemn Sissay.

I cannot imagine what it must be like to be in foster and care homes all your life and then suddenly discover that your name is not the name someone gave you and your mother has been pleading to have you back since your birth.  I do not have to imagine it as  Sissay’s the book will tell me what this was like because this happened to him: 

Synopsis


At the age of seventeen, after a childhood in a foster family followed by six years in care homes, Norman Greenwood was given his birth certificate. He learned that his real name was not Norman. It was Lemn Sissay. He was British and Ethiopian. And he learned that his mother had been pleading for his safe return to her since his birth.

This is Lemn’s story: a story of neglect and determination, misfortune and hope, cruelty and triumph.

Sissay reflects on his childhood, self-expression and Britishness, and in doing so explores the institutional care system, race, family and the meaning of home. Written with all the lyricism and power you would expect from one of the nation’s best-loved poets, this moving, frank and timely memoir is the result of a life spent asking questions, and a celebration of the redemptive power of creativity.


20 Books of What on Earth Happened to Summer

Well it happened as we knew it would.  We worried and dreaded our way through Spring in a mute silence broken only by newly enfranchised birds and emergency sirens.   We looked forward to a potentially sickness free Summer, hoped for warmth and  a chance to escape from the same view of the same four walls.  

In June, the Greek Government asked citizens from the UK to kindly not visit this year which was apparently a signal for the Prime Minister’s father to leap onto a plane and go anyway,  while the rest of us dreamed of bougainvillea on sunny white walls, with accompanying lizards, and wept silently.

This summer became the time that taking a train required the same courage – and roughly the same amount of kit – as climbing Mt. Everest, neither activity being advisable or even possible.   Those who didn’t have to go to offices were grateful, while those who did worried.

Normal isn’t normal and nearly all escape routes are closed down by quarantine restrictions. July and August hurtled by with unprecedented temperatures (in the UK), forest fires, floods, hurricanes.   It seems like the four horsemen of the apocalypse are having a bit of a laugh.

And here we are September 1st.   

Mmm. Well on the book front I have made 16 out of 20 books of summer which given the rest of the above isn’t bad and five out of four books for Women in Translation month which has also ended. I can only manage six images as the new block editor makes me want to scream.

But now Summer is fleeing with its remaining unread titles and we are approaching the short and leaf strewn days of Autumn. A season of new books to read. Next up my review of Marilynne Robinson’s Jack the fourth book in her Iowan based series which began with Gilead and Lila about the Ames/Boughton families.

King Kong Theory – If Only it Was All Just History

If it had not been for Women in Translation month I might never have got to these books, so it’s been a valuable lesson for me. I’m still waiting for my copy of Kiki’s Delivery Service. Meanwhile, here are two more books from Indie presses: a translation from the French of Virginie Despentes’ book, King Kong Theory and a translation from the Spanish by Selva Almada’s The Wind that Lays Waste.

Virginie Despentes, King Kong Theory. Fitzcarraldo Editions. Translated by Frank Wynne.

This book is a guided tour around the cultural realities which underlie society’s attitude to rape, prostitution, pornography and violence to women.  These are subjects on which Despentes is more than qualified to write, having worked as a prostitute, made porn films and been raped herself.  She is also a highly articulate writer whose book Vernon Subutex 1 was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2018.

While men use the services of prostitutes with impunity, Despentes writes,  the girls who undertake the work are castigated and criminalised.  Even if they voluntary do this work for good money, the girls will still be subject a wall of do-goodery telling them to turn back while yet they may, to undertake something more valuable and worthwhile (like working in a supermarket for the minimum wage). 

Motherhood is still touted as ‘the quintessential female experience’.  Why?  This seems archaic if not ridiculous given climate change and global economic collapse.   You may not have a job, or a job that pays very well, even if you do have those things there is no guarantee that you will keep it – especially not if you are a woman with a child to care for – but hey have a baby! Preferably two or three.  Never mind that in 2020,  30% of all children in the UK are living below the poverty line.

“It’s not about pitting the miserable gains of women against the miserable gains of men. It’s about blowing the whole fucking thing sky high.”

Quite.  But what whole thing?  According to the author,  what women have internalised over the centuries is less about our own inferiority – although that is of course a given – but that our burgeoning independence is dangerous in and of itself.  Women are the threat.

Since we women managed to unshackle ourselves from the kitchen sink (although most of us haven’t, we just do everything) we are always off somewhere frightening men, making them behave in ways they never would have done if we had simply stepped out of the way a bit quicker, been less provocative, shut up a bit more, dressed more modestly, been prettier, uglier, more silent, fatter, thinner. 

Feminism takes many guises.  Some campaign for more girls of school age to take science and maths courses, some to close the gender pay gap, some like to analyse the glass ceiling.  But  the fact that girls are less like to join science courses, less likely to earn a decent wage or even the same as a man in the same job, less likely to break that glass ceiling,  are symptoms of a deeper malaise around attitudes to women that should have been consigned to the dustbin of history, but somehow haven’t. 

This book was originally published in 2006. The fight it seems goes on. Written in a ferocious style and with an abundance of sexual swear words, this is not a book for the squeamish.  It would be wonderful if we could read King Kong Theory as a history book and say, what a struggle that all was but it’s over now. 

Sadly it isn’t and we can’t.

Photo by Taryn Elliott on Pexels.com

Selva Almada, The Wind that Lays Waste. Translated by Chris Andrews, Charco Press.

Originally published in Spanish, the story concerns an itinerant preacher, Reverend Pearson and his daughter Leni as they travel to visit a friend of her father’s, Pastor Zack, in Northern Argentina. We learn that this is the only life Leni knows, travelling and staying in run down hotels ‘near the old bus terminal – overlooking the red light district’ with her evangelist father. The only memory she has of her mother is one of the mother being left on a road somewhere with a suitcase and the Reverend driving away with young Leni in the back watching.

“The boss comes and speaks to you with strong dependable words, making promises for the future. He speaks like a father. After hearing him you say to each other: How well he spoke; his words are simple and true; he speaks to us as if we were his children… But I say to you, beware of strong words, beautiful words…”

This extract is from one of Reverend Pearson’s sermons, ironically those who are persuaded by him might equally beware in his strong words… beautiful words.

Leni is now 16 years old. On this particular journey, their car breaks down and so begins a powerful story of belief, guilt, sacrifice and manipulation worthy of the best work of Carson McCullers and Alice Munro. You think you are reading a book in which nothing happens except a car breaks down on a boiling hot day, but then you realise the car’s engine is the the least of what needs fixing among the lives of the characters.

4 out of 4 WIT month

14/20 Books of Summer

“I Had Been at Camusfeàrna Eight Years Before I Piped Water to the House ….” A Review of Gavin Maxwell’s trilogy ‘Ring of Bright Water’

Prior to that, the water was brought up from the burn in a bucket.

It is almost as if the difficulties of the life Gavin Maxwell chose in remote Camusfeàrna   where he lived 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.  Gavin wrote a trilogy of books about his life in this isolated place,  in a rented cottage overlooking the Sound of Sleat on Scotland’s west coast between the years of 1948 and 1968.

Here he lived with his various otters,  Mijbil, Edal, Mossy and Monday.    The books Ring of Bright Water, The Rocks Remain and Raven Seek Thy Brother became bestsellers and made Gavin Maxwell famous but now inevitably feel elegiac representing as they do things permanently lost.  And like all fame, his did not come without a price.

ryan-grewell-zLEazXBrEPA-unsplash

 

More than this,  many of the deep and true country ways of life were vanishing under an onslaught of new roads and telegraph poles even at the time Gavin was writing,  but in view of the disastrous habitat destruction which has since taken place on so many levels and in so many parts of the country,   Ring of Bright Water (which was made into a film with Virginia McKenna) is less of an elegy and more of an epitaph.

“The landscape and seascape that lay spread below me was of such beauty that I had no room for it all at once; my eye flickered from the house to the islands, from the white sands to the flat green pasture round the croft, from the wheeling gulls to the pale satin sea and on to the snow-topped Cuillins of Skye in the distance.”

What I loved about these books – more even than their feel of a 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 what is called the new nature writing.   But Maxwell’s writing feels different. He was pioneer of the ‘new nature writing’ before the term was born or thought of and the empathy that he truly had with his otters and with the natural landscape of Camusfeàrna – and how those elements reflected back at him his own sense of unbelonging –  is made manifest on the page through his lyrical writing.

It  is as if Maxwell writes from the inside out.

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After reading the trilogy, I looked for a biography of the author as I felt generally ignorant of all matters concerning his life.   For example, I didn’t even know that the title of the book Ring of Bright Water is from one of Kathleen Raine’s poems:

“He has married me with a ring, a ring of bright water

Whose ripples travel from the heart of the sea…

‘The Ring’

a poet with whom Maxwell had a tempestuous affair and who is said to have laid a curse on a Rowan tree at Camusfearna, after he threw her out  quite literally in the middle of the night.   The book I found was Gavin Maxwell: A Life by Douglas Botting (Eland) apparently the only authorised biography, other attempts at biography according to Botting having come up against ‘the twin obstacles of family and estate’.

Maxwell was an aristocrat – a scion of the House of Northumberland and at one time date of Princess Margaret.  His CV included wartime instructor in the SOE,  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).  Hero club that is if you discount throwing ladies out of isolated habitions in the middle of nowhere at midnight, which I personally do not discount.

It is clear both from Maxwell’s own writing and from Douglas Botting’s biography,  that Maxwell 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 are more acutely realised in the work than any enduring 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 the many trips and adventures he undertook –  there was always an old Stoic, pal from Oxford, or Guards Officer around.

Sadly though it seems Kathleen Raine’s curse may have taken effect.  The final book in the trilogy charts Gavin’s series of financial and personal misfortunes which would lead to his death in 1969.

Perhaps the final irony of Maxwell’s life was that the overwhelming success of Ring of Bright Water  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 and to which these books are in memoriam.

***

Review of The Ring of Bright Water Trilogy, Gavin Maxwell (Viking, 2000)

 

 

Inspirations for Spring: Travel in a Time of Quarantine

Although we are all locked down  in our homes, our apartments, our lofts and rooms, travel books are a way to free ourselves without getting stopped by the police! Here are three of my all time top traveller/writers whose lives inspire me as well as their writing.

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Patrick Leigh Fermor  (1915-2011)

Not many travel writers can claim that Dirk Bogarde played them in the film of their own life.  Paddy could.     On 8th December 1933, aged 18, he left home to walk the length of Europe from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (Istanbul) taking only  a few items of clothing, a copy of the Oxford Book of English Verse and a volume of Horace’s Odes.

This journey he would later record in two books, A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986).  Both of which I  loved.   Joyful and exuberant every page of the writing seems to bounce with possibility, with hope .  These are truly books to get lost in.  Yet they are set in times and in places which – even as Paddy walked – were already vanishing as war clouds gathered.   A third volume in this trilogy  The Broken Road, was authored by Artemis Cooper after Leigh Fermor’s death using his handwritten notes.    Many decades had elapsed between the young Patrick’s journey and this last book,   which to me didn’t have quite the same feel about it as the earlier works.

Once described by a BBC journalist as a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene,  Patrick Leigh Fermor was a not only a linguist,  traveller and gifted author, he was a decorated soldier who took a prominent part in the Battle for Crete during the second world war.

When I reviewed Crete: the Battle and the Resistance by Anthony Beevor I said:

One of the great romantic heroes of the resistance in Crete was Patrick Leigh Fermor, an aristocratic young Englishman,  who enlisted in the army at the start of WW2 and – being a fluent Greek speaker –  was sent to Crete as part of the newly formed Special Operations Executive to train and organise rebels.  Beevor recounts how Leigh Fermor was also sent to Cairo to be in charge of weapons training at the SOE base there, despite having experienced only one type of gun.    He later took part in the kidnap of a German General on Crete,  the story of which is recounted on Leigh-Fermor’s own books A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water as well as in Stanley Moss’ ‘Ill Met by Moonlight’ which became a film with Dirk Bogarde as Leigh-Fermor.

Paddy Leigh Fermor’s   received a Distinguished Service Order and was Knighted in 2004.

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Less than a year after 18 year old Paddy Leigh-Fermor set out to walk the length of Europe, another young man (aged 19) left his home in the village of Slad in  Gloucestershire early on a June morning and waved goodbye to his mother as she stood “waist deep in the grass and caught there like a piece of sheep’s wool.”

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (Penguin Modern Classics) by [Laurie Lee, Robert MacFarlane]

Taking no volume of Horace’s odes – at least none that is recorded –  but “a rolled up tent, a violin in a blanket, a change of clothes, a tin of treacle, biscuits and some cheeses” he started a journey mostly on foot,  that would end in Spain at the time of the Civil War.

He was of course Laurie Lee (1914-1997) who would later become famous for his memoir Cider with Rosie – beloved prop of many an exam syllabus – and As I Walked out One Midsummer Morning.   This is the second in a trilogy of books which describes how he walked to London from his home in Gloucestershire,  sleeping rough in fields, journeying on through Wiltshire from Salisbury to Southampton where he plied his trade as fiddler to earn himself some cash.  Thence along the coast to Gosport, Chichester, Worthing  and finally North to London.

Lee obtains work on a building site in Putney pushing wheelbarrows.   He remembers the buildings – a block of flats –  as being ugly:

  “we raised three unbeautiful blocks of flats – squat, complacent, with mean leaded windows, bogus balconies and imitation baronials.”

When the building of the flats draws to a close Laurie knows he will soon be out of a job but it doesn’t worry him.  He is young, free and the world is full of possibility.

He buys himself a ticket on a ship bound for Spain.  A poet as well as prose writer, Lee’s books are full of poetry.

“I’d known nothing till then but the smoother surfaces of England, and Vigo struck me like an apparition.  It seemed to rise from the sea like some rust-corroded wreck, as old and bleached as the rocks around it.”

The third book in the trilogy “A Moment of War” is an account of his experiences during the Spanish Civil War.

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Dervla Murphy (1931)

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/9/91/Full_Tilt.jpg

Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle. Dervla Murphy.  The beautiful cover of the original book published by John Murray in 1965.

Travelling is many things to many people but it is rarely – at least if you do it properly – easy or comfortable.  Especially not if you are a woman alone and travel long distances by bike.

People travel to change their outlook, their mindset, their lives, their relationships, their careers, their writing,  as well as their location.  People travel for work, for history, for information, for vision, for education: they travel to lose themselves or to find themselves.   But I do not think it unfair to say that travel is harder for a woman alone, than for a man alone.  I think this is true even today.  It was certainly true in 1960.

Paddy Leigh-Fermor and Laurie Lee both sometimes had prickly relationships with their families – who does not – but their lives were never subsumed by caring duties. They exploited the education and sense of adventure that culturally they had absorbed as their birthright and they did it brilliantly well.   Neither would ever find themselves having to write what cyclist, traveller and author Dervla Murphy (born 1931) wrote in her autobiography Wheels within Wheels : The Making of a Traveller (Eland,  2010):

“For more than sixteen years every day had been lived in the shadow of my mother’s need.  Even on holidays my movements had had to be exactly regulated so that I would unfailingly arrive home on a  certain date.”

Not an ideal resume for an inveterate traveller in the making.  Yet in her thirtieth year, as her caring responsibilities come to an end after her mother’s death,  Murphy admits to a sense of freedom without guilt,

… feeling currents of an appreciation of liberty running through my body…

She visits friends in County Wicklow and sets in motion her plans to visit India.  By bike! taking with her only her bicycle Roz (named after Rozinante, Don Quixote’s steed).

“Having for the past twenty years intended to make this journey, it did not strike me as in any way an odd idea.  I thought then as I still do that if someone enjoys cycling and wishes to go to India, the obvious thing is to cycle there.  Soon, however, I realised that most people were regarding me as either a lunatic or an embryonic heroine…”

The latter I think.  Definitely the latter.  As well as writing books on her experiences in India, Dervla went on to write The Waiting Land about volunteering with refugees in Nepal, and of her further adventures in  Ethopia, Cuba,  Gaza, Israel and Palestine.  She has also written A Place Apart about  Northern Ireland in the 1970s.  All Dervla’s books are available from Eland.

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Do you have any writers who particularly inspire you in this difficult Spring?  I am looking for suggestions for my next reads so please leave me a comment below.

 

 

 

 

 

Non-Existence is a Skill Learned Early: Review of ‘Recollections of My Non-Existence’ by Rebecca Solnit

Recollections of my Non-Existence, Rebecca Solnit

Recollections of My Non-Existence by [Rebecca Solnit]

“Most urban women, you know, live as though in a war zone …”

When I started Recollections I expected that I might feel some passages were exaggerated or unpalatable.   What is unpalatable of course is not the book – but the gruesome stories Solnit recounts of abuse, rape, murder of female victims – a virulent flow largely unstaunched even today by law making institutions.

What I found instead was a picture of my own life as a young woman only without Solnit’s awareness.  I have lived my own life in fear but considered it normal.   I lived unaware of the compromises I routinely had to make, so normalised were they, adapting what I ‘should’ wear, the things I ‘should’ talk about – especially any needs or wishes of my own. I have left unvisited places I could not safely visit alone or at night.

Even if it is ‘only’ a constant stream of wolf whistles and inappropriate comments that are faced when a woman walks down the street, the message is the same.  They are entitled.  She puts up with it.  Or faces ridicule – no,  hostile disbelief – or blame  and inaction. So she remains silent.

Non existence is a skill learned early.

I have made these adjustments to my life the perfectly valid reason of wishing to remain unmolested, unraped.  But until I read Solnit’s work I never questioned why my universe had to be this way.

A war zone indeed, and one from which the only escape is to grow old.

The adjustments that women have to make in their lives are so normalised and unquestioned that the assumptions upon which our lives are built – any man can treat any woman as he wishes without condemnation or fear of the law – go equally unquestioned.  This may not be the case in the letter of the law.  But the letter of the law is not available to most, and the law is useless where unenforced.

Recollections is Solnit’s own story.  Growing up in San Francisco, her first apartment, friends she made and lost, the choices she made as an artist and a writer, as a reader.   Years of finding a lyrical way of writing away from mere journalism.  Yet much of this book feels elegiac.  As if it has been written for the thousands – probably millions of women – who have been abused and even died at the hands of violent men. Who have been silenced.

What is changing is not – despite Weinstein –  the fact of the matter, but the dialogue. The conversation. The awareness.  And that this is changing is due to some very courageous women.  As Solnit has written sexual assault thrives on the silence of its victims, but not all women are prepared to stay silent any longer.

“I understood that not everyone would welcome my information, and I was prepared for a variety of outcomes, including being dismissed.”

said Dr Christine Blasey Ford who questioned Brett Kavanaugh’s suitability to be appointed as a Justice to the Supreme Court of the US alleging that he had sexually assaulted her in 1982.

Yes, we have had the #MeToo movement which claimed Weinstein as a high profile victim and yes we have had the TimesUp movement.  Yet many thousands of attackers and rapists walk the streets without any of the fear of condemnation or blame that their victims must daily suffer.

Solnit is not anti-man.  It is a barb easily thrown at any feminist, a cheap shot offered up by people of both sexes to avoid any questioning of the status quo.  She does not assume that every man is violent –  of course not every man is violent.  Most are not.  But in cultures all over the world the dice are loaded against women in all sorts of ways.

Society is even now reluctant to hear the stories of abused women.  Last autumn I found myself sitting with a friend in the waiting room of a police station (waiting for someone else!) when a young woman came in and started talking to us. She had she said been assaulted at the local college that she attended but had been unable to get the college authorities to intervene or to take any action to support her.   In short, she was not believed.  But at least she had found the courage to bring herself to the police station.

I believe this is due in part to writers like Rebecca Solnit.

 

Thanks to #NetGalley and #Granta Publications for this review copy.

 

 

 

 

 

Inspiration for Spring: People Who Changed the Way we See The World

There are many who would qualify as having changed the way we see the world,  but I could only pick four, both for my sanity and yours.  Before anyone gets in touch and says they’re all guys, next week I shall be writing about four ladies that changed the way we see the world.

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Is there any more inspiring artist than Van Gogh  both in the intense suffering of his personal life and the transformative and (still) stunningly original nature of his art?.

In letters to his brother Theo (The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, Penguin Classics, 1997), Vincent wrote:

“I don’t know myself how I paint it.”

VanGogh

Although Vincent was unable to describe his working methods,  from his substantial body of letters it is possible to follow the workings of his mind and stand in awe of his  powers of observation.   For example this description of a wood.

Behind those saplings, behind that brownish-red ground, is a sky of a very delicate blue-grey, warm, hardly blue at all sparkling.  And against it there is a hazy border of greenness and a network of saplings and yellowish leaves.  A few figures of wood gatherers are foraging about, dark masses of mysterious shadows.

In 1884 Van Gogh wrote to Theo after the latter had complained about the quality of some drawings Vincent had sent and told him his work needed to improve a great deal!

Vincent’s reply was:

“As far as saleability or unsaleability  is concerned, that’s a dead horse I don’t intend to go on flogging.”

One of the prime lessons  Van Gogh’s  life offers us is how to believe in yourself as an artist, when the rest of the world doesn’t.  I often wonder what would he and Theo make of the crowd control measures now necessary outside the Van Gogh Museum in Amerstdam?

***

Including poems inspired by the work of Vincent Van Gogh –  No Enemies,  No Hatred  is the title of  a collection of writings by  dissident and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo (1955-2017).

For the role he played in drafting and advocating the human rights manifesto called Charter 08 which called for democratic reform in China,   Liu Xiaobo was arrested and in December 2009 sentenced to 11 years in Jinzhou prison.

In 2010 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize much to the chagrin of the authorities in China who tried to prevent any celebration of this award.  Unable even to send a family member to Oslo,   Liu’s Nobel lecture speech was given in absentia and read by the actress Liv Ullman.   He died in July 2017.  Here is an extract from his speech:

“But I still want to say to this regime, which is depriving me of my freedom, that I stand by the convictions I expressed … twenty years ago – I have no enemies and no hatred.  None of the police who monitored, arrested and interrogated me, none of the prosecutors who indicted me and none of the judges who judged me are my enemies.  Although there is no way I can accept your monitoring, arrests, indictments and verdicts, I respect your professions and your integrity ….”

 

And on free speech:

“Free expression is the base of human rights, the root of human nature and the mother of truth. To kill free speech is to insult human rights, to stifle human nature and to suppress truth.” ~ Liu Xiaobo

***

Daisaku Ikeda is one of the world’s foremost living Buddhist philosophers, spiritual leader to millions across the globe who practise Nichiren Buddhism.  He is the recipient of numerous peace and humanitarian awards and author of more than sixty books.

Here he is on the power of reading.

Ikeda

“Reading is dialogue with oneself, it is self-reflection which cultivates profound humanity. Reading is therefore essential to our development.  It expands and enriches the personality like a seed that germinates after a long time and sends forth many blossom laden branches.

People who can say of a book “this changed my life” truly understand the meaning of happiness.  Reading that sparks inner revolution is desperately needed to escape drowning in the rapidly advancing information society,  Reading is more than intellectual  ornamentation, it is a battle for the establishment of the self, a ceaseless challenge that keeps us young and vigorous.”

(Middleway Press, 2006)

***

No post on inspiration can be complete without a poet.  But which poet to choose?  I have decided on Rainer Maria Rilke not because I can read him in the original which I can’t sadly, but because the soul tearing profundity of his ‘Letters to a Young Poet’ is the same in any language.

On Solitude:

And to speak again of solitude, it becomes increasingly clear that this is fundamentally not something we can choose or reject.  We are solitary.  We can delude ourselves about it, and pretend that it is not so.  That is all.  But how much better it is to realise that we are thus, to start directly from that very point.  Then to be sure, it will come about that we grow dizzy; for all the points upon which our eyes have been accustomed to rest will be taken away from us, there is no longer any nearness, and all distance is infinitely far.

Next week I shall be posting about four inspirational ladies who changed (or are changing)  the way we see the world.

 

 

 

5 Books of Solitude and Isolation

There is a difference between choosing solitude and being forced into isolation.   From the writer’s point of view at least.  But I think for the reader too.  I have struggled in the last week or so to turn to the books on my TBR pile.  My mind is searching for solace.

Before all the chaos started I had finally got into reading Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy.  But with the greatest respect to her genius, who the hell wants to read about 16th century plagues and beheadings at the moment!

History has left us littered with determined literary isolationists from Thoreau to Yeats, they perhaps were more easily able to arrange their lives to be free of any domestic responsibilities and never once had to go to Lidl or worry about standing six feet apart.

Now in our forced isolation we no longer have the luxury of popping home for Sunday lunch or nipping into town to get a packet of seeds for our nine bean rows.

Here are  five books that find solace in isolation.

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Journal of a Solitude, May Sarton

I first came across this journal of American poet May Sarton about a decade ago and I still return to passages.  She could turn the simplest observation into a wonder.

solitude

“The autumn crocus is marvellous and the lavendar asters, blue flames among the fallen leaves. I picked crocus for the Venetian glass on the mantel in the cozy room, and a few late roses. Then I cooked supper. The puffball was a terrifying mustardy green and tasted rather bitter.”

Sarton said: The most valuable thing we can do for the psyche occasionally, is to let it rest, wander, live in the light of a changing room…

Of Virginia Woolf – inventor of A Room of One’s Own, the work that more than any forged an indelible link between peace and quiet and the writer’s art – Sarton says:

“Fragile she may have been, living on the edge of psychic disturbance, but think what she managed to do nonetheless – not only the novels (every one a breakthrough form) but all those essays and reviews, all the work of the Hogarth Press, the social life…two houses…”

***

My second choice is the wonderful Olivia Laing’s meditation on the art of being alone which I reviewed some time back.

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, Olivia Laing (Canongate)

lonely

“You can be lonely anywhere , but there is a particular flavor that comes from being lonely in a city”

The author writes:

“What does it feel like to be lonely?  It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast.”

Now here is something interesting.  At the moment no-one is feasting.  No matter where you might go on the planet (in your imagination of course) would it be possible to envisage any feast.   Misfortune is a great leveller in that respect.

Maybe it is harder to feel lonely and isolated indoors when everyone else is in the same boat.

***

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman

This story about a young woman trying to transform her life against all the odds is definitely an isolationist’s dream read.

When I originally reviewed this In April 2018 I wrote : ….

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

Many people loved this book and I was one of them with its message that even the loneliest of us can be fixed if we can just find the will to get up and out the door and address our problems, preferably leaving the vodka bottle in the bin where it belongs.

***

For me one of the most perfectly formed literary ‘outsider’ characters is the protagonist of An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine.

Beirut is a city which has survived numerous attacks and invasions, sometimes from within, sometimes from without.  As with most wars, to those trying to save their ordinary lives from damage and destruction, it hardly matters who the aggressor is.

Aaliya is an elderly woman living alone in an apartment in Beirut. She has lived there alone since her husband left, fighting off the impredations of various half-brothers, in-laws and her despised mother –  who would like to take the apartment away from her.

Aaliya’s life has been books.  She spent her working life in a bookshop and read her way through most of the stock and then some.   All the learning she has acquired has been by reading.  She has an intellectual life which manifests in translating great works of literature into Arabic, including Anna Karenina, and then carefully storing the results away from prying eyes.

Looking back over her war torn city and her life,  Aaliya often feels small and worthless.  She says:

“In order to live,  I have to blind myself to my infinitesimal dimensions in this infinite universe.”

From the reader’s perspective this lady is no more or less infinitesimal anybody else.  It does have an upbeat ending though.  The narrator thinks she is friendless and alone but finds in her hour of most need that people pop out of the woodwork.

Alameddine’s book is one of my top ten books on the planet about which I am hoping to post.

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Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens (Corsair)

crawdads

 

“The Marsh was guarded by a torn shoreline, labelled by early explorers as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” because riptides, furious winds and shallow shoals wrecked ships like paper hats along what would become the North Carolina Coast.”

From a shack in this environment in the early 1950s, a young mother walks away from her life with a violent husband and from her children.  The youngest child, Kya, is just 7 years old.  For a couple of years she still has the remnants of her family but later Kya’s older brothers and sisters are driven out too.  Eventually the father walks out, leaving Kya alone aged 10 years old, in a shack in the middle of a swamp.

Within the context of the story,  Kya’s survival as the ‘Marsh girl’ as she comes to be known by the locals, is credible although from a modern sensibility it seems unlikely.  Living on the ragged edge of a forgotten and derided community, at a time when there was no social services and certainly no surveillance.   No one noticed much if a child was not in school.

But the scientist author is obviously extremely knowledgeable about the ecology of the marshlands and there are many passages of lyrical description which make up for any slightly suspect plot points of which there are many.  There is a plot twist at the end relating to a murder which I found unlikely in the extreme.

 

 

If you do not like the way we tell our story then you are an enemy of the state…

Who shall have control over the story? The grand narratives.  Who allows or disallows them? Who decides what punishments shall follow on from perceived breaches?

Salman Rushdie’s  posed this question in his autobiographical work Joseph Anton (2012) which I have recently re-read.   It is a question that is more urgent than ever.    For the ‘crime’ of having written The Satanic Verses – a novel claimed to be anti-Islam – Rushdie was sentenced to death, by a citizen he had never met of a country he had never visited.



 

Attempts to control ‘the story’ are only increasing as the world turns back to nationalistic governments and the word ‘security’ is regularly  used as carte blanche for  breaches of human rights.

Famed whistleblowers, journalists, artist and writers await their fate either in prison or exile, it is a question more urgent than ever.   Do we know how much fear stalks the world of writing and publishing ?   For those who peddle it, fear is its own reward.

Right now, there are countries in the world where journalists and writers live under constant threat of imprisonment or worse. Bloggers too.  Pen International, an organization that works to protect freedom of thought and expression, regularly updates its website and hosts a Day of the Imprisoned Writer which reminds us:

Without literature, there can be no meaningful freedom of expression. Without freedom of expression, there can be no meaningful literature…

With a murderous team of jihadists after his blood Rushdie entered  a tunnel of fear, surveillance and protection, for himself and his family as well (at the time he had a young son), a scenario mostly terrifying, sometimes bleakly comic,   trailing from borrowed property to borrowed property with a team of protection officers with varying degrees of patience.

He was fortunate (if that’s the right term) that these events just predated the internet age.  At least someone had to look you in the eye to kill you back then.  In fact the author admits that is probably the only reason he survived.

The Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses was murdered; there were savage attacks on the Italian and Norwegian translators of the book although the latter two thankfully survived. These were people stood up with courage for their beliefs that somewhere, there has to be a bottom line.  But what was the bottom line? Rushdie describes it as:

  “the freedom of the imagination and the overwhelming, overarching issue of freedom of speech, and the right of human beings to walk down the streets of their own countries without fear.”

We think that (within the laws of libel) we are free to think and write as we wish but it isn’t true.   Whose story is this and who has the right to tell it?  Who owns our history, our mythology, our religions? As Rushdie states:

In a free society the argument over the grand narratives never ceased.  It was the argument itself that mattered.  The argument was freedom.  But in a closed society those who possessed  political or ideological power tried to shut down these debates.  We will tell you the story, they said, and we will tell you what it means.  We will tell you how the story is to be told and we forbid you to tell it any other way.  If you do not like the way we tell the story then you are an enemy of the state…

In the age of Julian Assange, the questions posed by this book are as relevant as ever.  Perhaps not for people who like to believe everything they’re told by the newspapers, but for the rest of us, I recommend it.