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.
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.
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…
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)
I’ve been posting about people who have changed or are changing the way we see the world as part of my inspiration for Spring series. Last week was the turn of the guys . Here are my four inspirational women writers.
In Hermione Lee’s 800 page biography of Virginia Woolf (Chatto & Windus, 1996) there is a photograph of Virginia wearing her mother’s dress, taken for Vogue in 1926. The dress appears to be of taffeta silk, has voluminous puffed sleeves and a lace collar, a fitted waist barely visible in the picture. It is a lovely photograph, taken at an age when Virginia was in her forties – no longer to be strictly defined as young, yet she looks it, young, very thin and fragile.
This was the year she wrote ‘To the Lighthouse’. In the same year there was a general strike and the first ‘talkie’ films would shortly be produced. In two years time women over 21 would receive the vote.
Perhaps we think of Virginia as fragile in some respects, her illnesses and need to be secreted away from her London life. But what enormous strength she must have required as a writer and founder of a new way of seeing, as minute examiner of the internal life of her characters (no one reads a Woolf novel for the plot). Few would argue that Woolf was one the great writers of the 20th century. Her work created, witnessed and recorded the extraordinary from the ordinary, the epiphanic moment in going to buy the flowers oneself.
Virginia was also a survivor of sexual abuse and incest. A sufferer from mental illness – for which she became outcast to Richmond from her accustomed London circles, and scion of the famous Bloomsbury group. She was wife to Leonard and lover to Vita Sackville-West.
I am fascinated as to why she would choose to be photographed in Vogue. Perhaps it was just an appealing idea; who doesn’t love to dress up and have a professional quality photo taken? But perhaps also she was aware of being watched, as a woman, as an artist, aware of being visible in ways that women were not meant to be visible.
In the novel Orlando, Virginia’s love letter to Vita Sackville-West, the hero Orlando starts life as a man but along the way goes into a trance like state and emerges as a woman. As Lee points out Orlando’s biographer keeps disassembling then re-assembling Orlando’s selves: a reflection of Virginia Woolf’s sense of her own great variety of selves….
“Her life can be seen as a complicated range of performances.’
Maybe. But I believe Virginia’s life can also be seen as having been lived to its best and fullest range and as inviting us to a different way of seeing.
This leading light of the feminist movement and author of the famed essay ‘Men Explain Things to Me’ which eventually gave rise to the use of the term ‘mansplaining’, is also a climate activist and documentarian of the changes that urgently need to be made before ‘we see the world in full colour’.
I have reviewed her autobiography Recollections of my Non Existence here.
For decades Solnit has been writing about unconscious bias against women in society and picking apart the ‘normality’ of ways in which women have every aspect of their lives dictated to them – not just women but persons of colour and non-straight people.
“One of the rights that the powerful often assume is the power to dictate reality.”
If marginalised and repressed groups are now reclaiming their own realities and ownership of their stories – including herstories – it is because writers like Solnit are helping to highlight the operation of (mainly, white male) power structures and the many ways such people have previously been silenced.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Someone who understood those power structures, and spent her life fighting them especially within the US legal system, is Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
This lady has quite a CV and I will briefly reiterate a few elements of it because if this was my CV I would definitely want someone to briefly reiterate a few elements!
- Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1933. RBG was one of nine women at Harvard (class of ‘56) – in a class of approximately 500. She went on to Columbia Law School and to teach and practise law, becoming Professor at Rutgers School of law in 1963.
- Only the second woman in history to be appointed to the US Supreme Court as a Judge (the first was Sandra Day O’Connor) Ginsburg is the recipient of numerous awards, was listed as an Icon in Time 100 (2015) and by Fortune as one of the World’s Greatest Leaders.
- Dedicating her life to equality for women, Ginsburg was co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project.
In the preface to her book My Own Words (Simon & Schuster, 2016) she writes:
“[in the 1970’s] … we were engaged in moving the law in the direction of recognizing women’s equal citizenship stature.”
My Own Words is a collection of Ginsburg’s articles, reviews, essays and speeches including a moving remembrance speech for a colleague and friend – Justice Scalia – who had died unexpectedly.
“I will miss the challenges and the laughter Justice Scalia provoked., his pungent, eminently quotable opinions, so clearly stated that his words never slipped from the reader’s grasp, the roses be brought me on my birthday, the chance to appear with him once more as supernumeraries at the opera.”
Her book can be a challenging read at times but it is incredibly generous, with constant references to others that have paved the way for women in the legal profession.
Born in Dublin in 1944, Boland published her first volume of poetry New Territory in 1967 when she was 22.
That early realisation about the complex relationship between power, politics and poetry came to Boland when as a young mother living in Dublin in the early seventies she came to see that her life experience was not included in the male and bardic traditions of Irish poetry that she had grown up reading.
How then to write, if what you wrote was based on someone else’s history?
Eavan Boland said in an interview in 1989:
“As an Irish woman poet I have very little precedent. There were none in the nineteenth century or early part of the twentieth. You didn’t have thriving sense of the witness of the lived life of women poets and what you did have was a very compelling and at times oppressive relationship between Irish poetry and the national tradition.”
Through ten books of poetry and numerous essays Boland wrote herself into numerous awards and Honorary Doctorates but more importantly, she wrote herself and all women into being in a new lyrical and feminist writing, and in so doing altered the course of Irish poetry as well as opening up its history to include untold stories.
The late Irish poet Seán Dunne wrote: “She has widened the landscape to include things that were always a part of it, but were ignored.”
“You can see nothing of her but her head
Bent over the page, her hand moving
Moving again, and her hair.
I wrote like that once.
But this is different.
This time, when she looks up, I will be there.
From: Is it Still the Same?
(References and poem in Eavan Boland : A Sourcebook (Carcanet) 2007
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.
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 (Penguin Classics, 1997), Vincent wrote:
“I don’t know myself how I paint it.”
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.
“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.
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.
Leann from Shelf Aware is our host this week where we are exploring our nonfiction favorites.
Week 5 is upon us and I’m just getting to Week 4. Story of my life. Apologies for the brief post.
Week 4 is:
We’ve talked about how you pick nonfiction books in previous years, but this week I’m excited to talk about what makes a book you’ve read one of your favorites. Is the topic pretty much all that matters? Are there particular ways a story can be told or particular writing styles that you love? Do you look for a light, humorous approach or do you prefer a more serious tone? Let us know what qualities make you add a nonfiction book to your list of favorites
I definitely don’t do light and humorous in my reading. Maybe I should. I’m not sure if I’ve ever laughed enough, or if any of us laugh much at the moment.
I Iook for inspirational lives, with the substance of that inspiration made real in some way. The style of writing is very important– it doesn’t matter how amazing someone is its still difficult to read long, rambling and off focus thoughts. Nor is it enough to make a lot of money and get famous although that’s great and wouldn’t we all love it. Some who achieve are wonders, those are the stories that interest me. Some who achieve this got lucky and someone ghost wrote them into a shallow form of importance. Not interested in those. I don’t like hype or the next big thing.
I’m partial to a bit of lyricism. I’m also interested to know what drives us to read about other people’s lives: sometimes I think I’m looking for a key, the hermeneutic secret. If such exists, it is not to be found within the pages of a book. But knowledge, yes. Wisdom even? Maybe. Right from wrong? Hopefully.
One of my all time favourite books is by Katherine Swift – The Morville Hours (Bloomsbury, 2009). I’ve probably talked about this book before and will talk about it again because it’s sublime. A beautiful combination of history, topography, philosophy, religion and life writing. The author was a rare-book librarian at Oxford and then Trinity College, Dublin before moving to Shropshire turning to full time gardening and writing.
The book is structured around chapters named after the Hours of the Divine Office: Vigils, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, which were an essential part of her mother’s Catholic faith.
The passing of time – how it has perplexed us, fascinated us, and terrified us every since man walked upon the earth. Few are better than Swift at evoking a response to what it means to be a part of the history of something, a house, a faith, a love.
Of carvings of Mathew, Mark, Luke & John in her local church she says they have presided over four hundred years of the village:
“What secret glances, what lovers’ trysts, what hopes and fears, faded now into dust! What spring mornings, what early frosts, what mothers’ tears – writing it all down, their pens scratching away into the night.”
It’s taking Swift forever to write her next book (those time consuming gardens!)and some of us are waiting impatiently.
Continuing the theme of philosophy and mysticism:
Rumi’s Secret: The Life of the Sufi Poet of Love by Brad Gooch (HarperCollins, 2017) describes the life of Rumi, poet and Sufi mystic and his complex relationship with Shams of Tabriz who was reputed to be Rumi’s teacher and the source of much of his poetry. Gooch is interesting on the tensions that inevitably arose between these two men from their interdependency and ultimately the sense of betrayal felt by Rumi when Shams left.
1000 years after he lived we are still comforted by this man’s words.
There’s a wonderful story that Gooch tells about Rumi.
“When his daughter Maleke complained of the stinginess of her husband, Rumi told her a story of a rich man so miserly he wouldn’t open his door for fear the hinges would wear out.”
Only a few words yet It perfectly highlights how we imprison and make ourselves miserable with our obsession with the material.
The connection between poetry and spirituality is a massive interest of mine. It was going to be the subject of my Ph.D before it wasn’t.
Summer has come and gone. The expiry date for my ten books of summer has passed. I only made it to No. 6. I apologise.
Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous outshines anything else on my reading list. In fact, I would go so far as to say it outshines anything else on anyone else’s reading list. In whatever genre. Forget genres. Here is something new.
Vietnamese and from a refugee family which immigrated to the US when he was two years old, the poet burst out of his allotted lowly refugee status and on to the literary scene with a T.S. Eliot prize winning poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Cape Poetry, 2017) On Earth we’re Briefly Gorgeous is his first novel.
I do not know what there is to say about this book. Next to Vuong’s poetry and prose any routine use of language that I might come up with would instantly collapse under the weight of its own inadequacy.
On Earth takes the form of a letter to Vuong’s mother who was violent towards him and who married a man who was imprisoned for violence towards her. In short Vuong grew up surrounded by violence, whether or the domestic or other kind, in Hartford,
…where we made a kind of life digging in and out of one brutal winter after another, where nor’easters swallowed our cars overnight. The two a.m. gunshots, the two p.m. gunshots, the wives and girlfriends at the C-Town checkout with black eyes and cut lips who return your gaze with lifted chins, as if to say mind your business
… where entire white families, the ones some call trailer trash, crammed themselves on half broken porches in mobile parks and HUD housing, their faces Oxy-Contin gaunt
Thank goodness the author does not mind his business. Thank goodness for his genius to humanise modern America, to bring the worlds of Saigon, Dunkin donuts, food stamps and nail bars crashing together as the voice of his lived experience. How Vuong skewers the appalling opioid scandal which has decimated the US and is making its way to the UK
“OxyContin, first mass-produced by Purdue Pharma in 1996 is an opioid, essentially making it heroin in pill form”.
If you find this a totally inadequate review, so do I. “Brilliant “shattering” “luminous” “a masterpiece” are some of the epithets I took from the publisher’s back cover. But I would say this. Ocean Vuong is a writer whose work will appear on exam syllabi into the future. This is a writer whose work will be studied, written about, lectured on, whose work will be the subject of dissertations and doctoral theses.
And still no-one will know how he did this.
When I can’t bear the blood, gore and apologist position on sexual violence of modern TV crime dramas – I resort to re-watching endless episodes of Poirot. There is one episode that comes to mind where a ballet dancer who suffers from her nerves becomes stranded in an avalanche bound Alpine hotel. For some plot reason that now entirely escapes me, this poor girl is kept medicated up to her eyeballs by an evil doctor with things to hide and axes to grind. One evening, she wanders dazedly into the hotel dining room and demands “ a bottle of wine – and food of some description”.
I thought of this scene when just before Christmas I walked into a book store (remember those?) to be faced by mountains of the latest offerings penned by the great and the good, spread across thousands of square feet of floor space.
Trying to avoid the latest slush pile of sleb memoires in my face at every turn and all the stuff laid out on tables – a format I despise – I wandered lonely as a cloud looking for … something.
“Bring me a bottle of wine – and food of some description” I shouted. No. I didn’t. Not really. Had I done so I would have been carted away and be writing this from a locked room.
But as I stood there with no prospect of being rescued by any fictional detective, another most unlikely hero turned up instead in the form of Allen Ginsburg whose poetic words addressed to Walt Whitman march purposefully across the dust jacket of a new volume of prose poems
The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem (2018).
“I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?”
The idea of the prose poem is not one that is immediately comfortable to me. I tend not to try and write them because while I vaguely understand what a poem might look like, although in my case very rarely seems to, a prose poem is an oxymoron. Neither fish nor fowl, I used to think it was just poetry without line breaks or overly mannered prose. Well, that was where I was back then, all of two weeks ago. Now I have had my damascene moment. My mind has been utterly changed forever by the toenails of a squirrel.
Hear the words of Anne Carson describing how she spent Christmas Day alone reading Hegel:
The function of a sentence like “Reason is Spirit’ was not to assert a fact (he said) but to lay reason side by side with Spirit and allow their meanings to tenderly mingle in speculation. I was overjoyed by this notion of a philosophic space where words drift in gentle mutual redefinition of one another but, at the same time, wretchedly lonely with all my family dead and here it was Christmas Day, so I put on big boots and coat and went out to do some snow standing. Not since childhood! I had forgotten how astounding it is. I went to the middle of a woods. Fir trees, the teachers of this, all around. Minus twenty degrees in the wind but inside the trees is no wind. The world subtracts itself in layers. Outer sounds like traffic and shoveling vanish. Inner sounds become audible, cracks, sighs, caresses, twigs, birdbreath, toenails of squirrel.
(Merry Christmas from Hegel)
I love that ‘Not since childhood!’
“‘All good poetry’ wrote William Wordsworth in the ‘Preface’ to Lyrical Ballads (1802) ‘is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.’ Verse serves as a mould to a moment of emotion, shaping it to a rhythmic pattern. Without line breaks, the prose poem is free like this paragraph to extend across and down the page … and it is in this freedom that we can locate the distinctive feeling to which the prose poem gives form: expansiveness.”
I like this idea of expansiveness as part of the definition of prose poetry. And there it is – the very essence of expansiveness – in the Anne Carson extract I have used above. In the middle of this lonely Christmas that the narrator spends reading the work of dead philosopher, there appears a snowy scene of woodland complete with breathing birds and scrabbling squirrels and it is made manifest for us in one short paragraph.
But most of all the difference between Carson and all the toppling piles of ‘expert’ stuff on the bookshop tables is that poetry is sufficiently humble not to have all the answers or even some or any of the answers or even the questions. All those topping piles of certainty. I am sick of everyone pretending to know bloody everything when the reality is that if anyone knew even 20% of the stuff they claim to the world would be in less of a mess.
To light a lamp is to hide darkness in the same closet as sleep, along with silence, desire and yesterday’s obsessions. To read a book is to marry two solitudes, the way a conversation erases and erects, words prepare for wordlessness, a cloud for its own absence, and snow undresses for Spring.
(Alvin Pang, 2012)
The Poets light but Lamps –
Themselves – go out –
The Wicks they stimulate
If vital Light
Inhere as do the Suns –
Each Age a Lens
(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 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.
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.
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.
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
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.