Where a goddess might trail her garments

 

 

Non Fiction November

Week 2: (Nov 7 – 11) Sarah’s Book Shelves  is hosting Week 2 of Choosing Nonfiction:

What are you looking for when you pick up a nonfiction book? Do you have a particular topic you’re attracted to? Do you have a particular writing style that works best? When you look at a nonfiction book, does the title or cover influence you? If so, share a title or cover which you find striking.

Tree1Tree2

Right: Extract of cover from Richard Powers The Overstory

 

Thoreau wrote in Walden

“This was an airy and unflustered cabin, fit to entertain a travelling god, and where a goddess might trail her garments.  The winds which passed over my dwelling were such as weep over the ridges of mountains, bearing the broken strains, or celestial parts only, of terrestrial music.”

Writers like Robert Macfarlane and Helen Macdonald combine deep knowledge of natural history with literature and spirit with geology. I want a writer that I know has put in the ten thousand hours of research about their subject and will offer up insights into the way that knowledge works in the world.  Or the way it doesn’t.

In The Old Ways Macfarlane writes:

“By an old stone bridge he dropped down to the riverside to show me where two yews had grown into one another.  Their joint foliage was covered with translucent red berries, life half-sucked cherry drops. ‘These are the oldest living beings of the Guadarrama….”

Trees are often the oldest living beings of anywhere but we choose to forget that.  We think nothing of burning and cutting trees for our furniture, for palm oil and other products.   But the writers are fighting back, along with the activists.  Richard Powers Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Overstory examines how trees affect the lives of a group of people who pass by them everyday – sometimes unknowingly.  A disparate group of characters – an artist, an under-graduate from an actuarial course, a scientist, an air force veteran come together for differing reasons of their own but all with the same aim – a desperate attempt to save a few remaining forests in the US from annihilation.

These places where a goddess might trail her garments I am looking for in non-fiction work.  But such places are tragically few and perhaps soon will exist only between the covers of books.

Thank you also to the hosts for 2019 – Katie of Doing Dewey, Julz of Julz Reads, Rennie of What’s Nonfiction, Sarah of Sarah’s Book Shelves, and Leann of Shelf Aware.This event runs for five weeks, with five weekly discussion topics, giving us a chance to highlight and talk about our non-fiction reads.

The Stray Cats of Homs, Eva Nour (Doubleday)

Partly fiction, but mostly not,  the story charts Sami’s life a young man growing up – or trying to – in modern day Syria.

The protagonist Sami is a child when the story starts, a loved child of a good family.

‘On the surface, nothing was wrong or lacking. There were hospitals, schools, holiday resorts, churches , mosques.   The problem was the arbitrariness, that you could never know when the fabric would rip in two and reveal the other side.’

The fabric starts to tear shortly after Sami leaves University and is a little slow to sign up for his compulsory military service.  He is rounded up and carted off in handcuffs by the militia to endure two years of brutal military training which, though agonising, he survives.   When he is finally and belatedly discharged more than two years later he feels freedom beckons.

On the bus home, a sense of freedom filled Sami’s chest.  His body was no longer owned by anyone he was free to come and go as he pleased.  Outside the landscape rushed by, the air had a new edge of cold and the evening sun dipped the trees in gold.

This sense of freedom is shortlived.  In fact his problems are truly just starting.   By the time Sami receives his longed for discharge from military service,  his country has plunged into Civil War.

The regime would never dare, they said.  As soon as the first missile is fired, the US, France and the international community will react.  They said.

Assad’s regime forces and anti-government protestors battle it out over a red line which goes plum through the middle of Sami’s home town of Homs.  The international community sits on its sofa with a glass of wine and watches  as the bombs start falling.

Sami’s family leave but he chooses to stay.   More and more checkpoints are erected until fourteen city blocks are surrounded and those who have elected to stay are trapped.

The streets where he lived and attended school are reduced to white dust and rubble.   Food becomes difficult to find, then impossible.   Gradually his friends leave if they are able or some are killed either in the fighting or just because.  Sami starts to photograph the war, still believing that someone will care about these blatant abuses of human rights, this devastation by Assad’s forces of his own people.

This is not a political book.  It is a book about a humanitarian disaster.  If the author  makes judgement at all,  is of one of the tragedy of any civil war – when boys who were at school together, who ate in each other houses and played football round the streets, grow up and kill each other.    These days children play football among the ruins and a little girl wears a necklace made of spent cartridges.

Nour’s book is a book which celebrates small moments of freedom; it bears witness to our attempt to cling to some kind of normal domestic routines in the face of desperate odds.  It bears witness to our inability to rationalise such waste, such senselessness. 

He didn’t think about revenge or justice, only this one simple thing: that there’s a limit to what you can get away with.  That life couldn’t be allowed to continue as if nothing had happened.

May usually smelled of jasmine flowers, now it smelled of dust and fires.   Among all the other concerns, there is the worry about what to do with family pets when there is no-one left to look after them.

The book is levied with moments of humour as when Sami receives a letter from a German lady enquiring after Homs’ population of cats:

 I will try to shoot some more, he tells her.

No! The woman replied.  We must save the cats not shoot them.

I meant photograph them, Sami replied.

Sami is a beautifully realised character and I hope he is real and exists somewhere out there because that means there is hope for the rest of us.

Eva Nour is a pseudonym. A name taken to protect people in the book.   Whoever she may be, this author has penned a book that will do for the suffering of the Syrian people what Khaled Hosseini (an acknowledged influence) did for Afghanistan and Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak for Turkey.  Placing the Syrian people firmly in the centre of Western consciousness Nour’s quiet voice says:  look,  this happened. This is still happening.   What did you do when you knew?

***

 

 

#TheStrayCatsOfHoms #NetGalley  

My thanks to NetGalley and Random House (Doubleday) for this review copy.

 

 

Non-fiction November: Your Year in Non-fiction

I seem to be getting a bit of a challenge addict.  Thank you to She Reads Novels where I found this one.

Thank you also to the hosts for 2019 – Katie of Doing Dewey, Julz of Julz Reads, Rennie of What’s Nonfiction, Sarah of Sarah’s Book Shelves, and Leann of Shelf Aware.This event runs for five weeks, with five weekly discussion topics, giving us a chance to highlight and talk about our non-fiction reads.

Week 1: (Oct. 28 to Nov. 1) – Your Year in Nonfiction (hosted by Julz of Julz Reads):

Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions – What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year? Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

Here are my non-fiction reviews for 2019 – seven so far, including two writerly memoires.  I say ‘so far’ in the falsely optimistic hope that the year doesn’t have much more than two months to run and the pile of books TBR is undiminishing.

Crete: The Battle and the Resistance by Antony Beevor

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong

A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell

Ghost Trees by Bob Gilbert

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

Heida: A Shepherd at the Edge of the World, by Steinunn Sigurdardottir and Heida Asgeirsdottir

The Little Girl on the Ice Floe by Adelaide Bon

And on my Kindle,  Lisa Appignanesi’s minutely researched book on the history of women mental health, and male doctors –

Lisa Appignanesi. Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors From 1800 to the Present. London: Virago P, 2008.

and Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, a tract already passing into the realms of literary orthodoxy – if not mythology –  to which has wrongly been ascribed the coining of the term ‘mansplaining’.

Which is my favourite?  I loved Antony Beevor’s book about Crete – especially as I read it in Crete which is my favourite place on the planet.  But overall, it  has to be Ocean Vuong.  As a poetic and visionary recording of often traumatic memory,  it may be a long time before I read anything quite as beautifully shattering.

IMG_0440

As for topics – courageous women – or rather women who find their power and courage even when they don’t know they have it –  is a dominant theme of the list above. Purnell, Perez, Asgeirsdottir,  Bon, Appignanesi and Solnit all write on this theme.

The elephant in everyone’s room at the moment is climate crisis which I am studiously avoiding because it’s too painful.  I suppose Bob Gilbert’s book is the closest I have come to that.  Macfarlane is still to be read as is global blogger and polymath, Maria Popova.

Finally, what am I hoping to get out of participating in non-fiction November?  I’ve already got a lot out of it because its made me look back again at all the fabulous books I’ve read, rather than just clock watching and worrying about the next one.  Also hoping to meet more wonderful book addicted bloggers.

 

 

 

 

 

Review of The Topeka School by Ben Lerner. (Granta Books)

The Topeka School by [Lerner, Ben]

Born from a Cambridge University publication in 1989,  Granta Books is a prestigious independent literary publisher which publishes about 25 titles a year.  From their website I note that an original launch list included works by Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Martha Gellhorn and Salman Rushdie.   The website lists prizewinning works they have since published,  including Booker winner Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries.

To be published by Granta is to be part of an important literary conversation.

The Topeka School  is a book with a number of literary conversations and they are not always easy to follow.  At the centre of the narrative is a family: Dr. Jane Gordon,  second wife to her psychologist husband Jonathan (“a Jewish long-haired hippie from New york”) and her son Adam a brilliant debater and migraine sufferer.  The book charts the years as Adam heads through school in a patchily brilliant way to college.  The Gordon family comes to Topeka where the parents work for ‘The Foundation”, a mental health facility.   At school Adam becomes  a questionable friend  to Darren, a traumatized teenager completely ill equipped for life in modern America.

Darren is jeered at, laughed at, punched and beaten for no seeming purpose other than he is what he represents and what he represents is

“ … the bad surplus.  The man-child, descendant of the jester and village idiot and John Clare, the poet roaming the countryside after enclosure. “

A group of Darren’s ‘friends’ including Adam drive him to a lakeside spot then abandon him, drunk, drive off and leave him asleep.  Darren wakes confused the next morning and has to walk home as best he can.

The key that unlocks this otherwise rather confusing narrative I believe is a response given by the narrator to Darren’s mother –  a nurse at The Foundation (and therefore a colleague of Adam’s parents) – when she questions the ‘dumping Darren’ episode: surely these children of professional families knew better?

“Of course they knew better, but knowing is a weak state; you cannot assume your son will opt out of the dominant libidinal economy, develop the right desires from within the wrong life; the travesty of inclusion they were playing out with Darren-their intern- was also a citation and critique of the Foundation’s methods…”

It’s hard for people to behave outside the norm.  We cannot behave any old how and yet somehow  expect our children to perceive what their parents are doing wrong – all the cock ups they’ve made –  and distance themselves accordingly.    Sometimes that happens.  Most of the time it doesn’t.  Nature or nurture.

The account of Darren trying to find his way home on foot from this unfortunate escapade is interesting less for his state of mind than for the reactions he encounters or rather doesn’t encounter.  No-one stops.  No-one asks if he’s OK.  When he is spied limping and  dishevelled  and walking into (the wrong) town by a woman  she pulls her own children closer towards her, while completely ignoring the distress of someone else’s child.

The book seems to highlight the callous and sometimes appalling treatment of these young people by each other,  but it also asks where are these exalted and professional parents while their senior school kids are beating each other up?

The answer:

“Watching Friends or Frasier… doing desk work… reading Adrienne Rich or “Non Interpretive Mechanisms in Psychoanalytic Therapy”.   Some were eating or opening a window or just walking dully along on a treadmill.  Some were drinking gin and tonics in Taipei…”

Lerner’s book manifests the US as a country in some sort of hypnotic slide to the road crash that will become the Trump era; it is almost as if they can see it coming but are unable or unwilling to do anything to stop it.  Or maybe they think that the power of psychoanalytic theory or linguistic pyrotechnics will save them, as some rather naively now think that technology will save us.

Much attention is given within the story to the skill of debate – a subject in which Adam excels.  Yet the ‘linguistic overkill’ of the cleverness of debates, does nothing to address human understanding and particularly nothing to address relationships.  Debate is adversarial.  Someone wins and someone loses.  Debate is not dialogue.

“We thought that if we had a language for our feelings we might transcend them.”  Adam’s father says, pointing up the limits of psychology, as a science, as a medical approach. And the limits of language.

No-one in The Topeka School does transcend their feelings, nor surmount them, nor transform them.  They just dose their feelings up with alcohol and drugs,  both of the prescription and non-prescription variety.   –  Unsurprisingly this does little to halt the underlying tension and violence in which the story finally erupts.    The building in which The Foundation is housed, itself ends up empty and comprehensively trashed and no one could claim to be sorry.

The Topeka School is work which is concerned with the legacy of toxic masculinity – a legacy of which we are all in some way survivors.

Dr. Jane Gordon says:

“Once I asked another senior analyst why he referred to male postdocs as “Doctor” and female postdocs by their first names, and there I was, on the couch again, getting the penis envy lecture.”

Her response is “…the Foundation’s unexamined Freudian tradition, which pathologized women’s experience when it didn’t fit the great man’s theory.”

The book incorporates dizzying time switches and changes of narrative viewpoint often within the same chapter.    There are disintegrations everywhere, hidden, revealed.  Marital collapse. The mess of politically correct parenting, the inception of abusive parenting.  The sexual fantasies of those who write books on how to control the mind.  It is a book about about the human cost of trying to survive within an arid monoculture.

Thank you to #Net Galley and #Granta for this review copy.

 

Judy (2019) Dir. Rupert Goold

Judy Poster

The film opens with the young Judy (Darci Shaw) being given a fatherly talking to by Louis B. Meyer (as of Metro Goldwyn Meyer or MGM).  I am not sure which actor took that role as IMDB doesn’t list him.   They are in the middle of filming The Wizard of Oz.

I would just like some time, Judy says.

Time to do what?  he asks.

To do whatever other 15 year old girls do.   She is not sure what that is but not working 18 hour days at the studio and being starved in the process to avoid Dorothy putting on weight.

She is, Meyer tells her,  welcome to go and rejoin the ranks of ‘ordinary’ 15 years olds out there – as he points dramatically beyond the studio gate –  like “a drop of rain falling into the Pacific Ocean” never to be heard of again.   We know she does not take him up on that offer.  Follow this with shots of Judy being denied food by the studio, being given anti-hunger pills, pills to help her sleep when she can’t, being told she can’t swim in a pool (disarranges the hair) or eat her own birthday cake.  It is also implied that she was sexually assaulted by Meyer.

The camera pans out to show a fake yellow brick road surrounded by banks of garish and plastic red roses – if you seek a monument to Hollywood look around you.

Cut to thirty years later.  Adult Judy (Renée Zellweger) sees her career in freefall owing largely to her unreliability caused by alcohol dependency.   And yes it’s a good performance from Zellweger if you enjoy watching people disintegrate, she does it well.

Judy is now a survivor of three marriages and has three children.   Two of them ride in the car with her – it is nearly 1 o’clock in the morning and they have school next day.  At the  usual hotel she is told “Miss Garland we regret your suite has been released”.

Released where? Bring it back, she says.

But the suite is not recalled or recovered because it has not been paid for.

To cut a very, very long story short, Judy is forced to go to London to do a tour.  Why London?  Because they still want her and will pay good money to see her.  Quite reasonably she doesn’t want to go and leave her children but go she does.

One of the greatest mysteries of this film was the role given to Jessie Buckley who starred in Wild Rose (the story of a young working class girl with a yen to be a famous country singer) and was rather fantastic in that I seem to remember,  with a lovely voice of her own.    She has the  unenviable  role here of Rosalyn Wilder –  a minion assigned to Garland while she is on tour in the UK.  Her job is to get Judy onto the stage, on time,  and not in a state of disarray.  There are various agonising scenes of Rosalyn looking agonised.

Toe curlingly embarrassing scene follows upon toe curlingly embarrassing scene   of drunkenness interspersed with the odd successful song and cheering audience and all liberally soaked in pathos and awash with sentimentality – the faithful gay fan in the audience who bursts into song with Judy at the end because she can’t get through Over the Rainbow.  At this point I felt like throwing up.

I have no idea what point this film was trying to make.  That it’s a bad idea to appear in The Wizard of Oz at 15?  That it’s a bad idea to be Judy Garland. That she was a victim and we should all feel sorry?  Why, as Mr. Rune quite rightly asked, would you make a film exclusively focusing on the nadir of someone’s life?

Liza Minnelli apparently wanted nothing whatever to do with this film, and that at last is something I completely understand.

Notes from under the lemon tree

 

2014-05-19 08.44.11

They were olive trees really but I only have a lemon tree picture.   Sometimes you can’t have everything.

Books I read were:

The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes (Vintage, 2016)

We are not Ourselves, Matthew Thomas (Fourth Estate, 2014)

In the Light of What we Know, Zia Haider Rahman (Picador, 2014)

Crete: The Battle and the Resistance , Antony Beevor (John Murray, 1991)

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan (Vintage, 2013)

An all guys list but those were the books that were there.   A lady up next.

***

  1. The Noise of Time   Julian Barnes,

This is a book about the life of Dmitri Shostakovich, the Russian composer, crafted into life by this most able of authors.  The composer’s music was loved round the world but he had an unhappy relationship with Stalin’s regime (was there any other kind?), was feted and honoured at one moment, hounded and threatened the next.

At a  performance of ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk’ Shostakovich watched white faced and horrified as Stalin shuddered everytime the brass section played too loudly.  This debacle was quickly followed by a tirade in Pravda–thought to be written by Stalin himself –  calling the opera dissonant and muddled.

Stephen Johnson’s excellent little book How Shostakovich Changed my Mind(Notting Hill Editions, 2018) states:

Many composers have experienced key premieres as ‘a matter of life and death’ but in the case of Shostakovich Fifth Symphony that was nothing less than the truth.   Life in Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Communist utopia could be very cheap indeed.

As Osip Mandelstam (whose memoir gave rise to Barnes title), Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva and  numerous poets, writers and musicians could ably testify.

Shostakovich received a telephone call from Stalin himself asking the composer to attend a prestigious event in America representing the Soviet state.  Shostakovich refused (brave man) firstly because he had no suit to wear and secondly because he didn’t know how to explain in the US why his music was so popular there but banned in his home country.   A suit was found and his music unbanned.  Shostakovich went to the USA, but didn’t give in to the temptation to ‘jump out of the window’ (a euphemism for seeking asylum) and returned to the Soviet Union.

  1. We are not Ourselves, by Matthew Thomas

Eileen an Irish American born of hard drinking parents finds herself, aged 10,  becoming a carer for her mother after the latter’s slide into alcoholism.  Eileen – like many young people –  wants to avoid the fate of relative poverty and underachievement that has blighted the lives of her parents.  She is bright enough to train as a Doctor – but this being the ‘60s when women were not expected to train much for anything –  she follows instead a nursing career.

She marries Ed,  a scientist,  who appears at first devoted to her and she gives birth to a son.   But, hey, this is life.  And it’s a novel.  Worse, its an epic novel so nothing can go smoothly.  And sure enough it doesn’t.  Eileen’s quietly desperate attempts to move to a ‘better’ neighbourhood, to somehow raise herself and her family up from where they are (Jackson Heights) to where she feels they ought to be (not Jackson Heights) encompass the American Dream writ large, and like all dreams, doomed to fray at the edges.

A tragic illness turns everything Eileen thinks she knows and wants upside down, but this is a credible and empathetic lead character and a highly enjoyable read.

3          In the Light of What We Knowby Zia Haider Rahman

‘All novels are autobiographical’ says the lead character and this one certainly feels as though it is. This is Zia Haider Rahman’s debut novel written in 2014 which earned its author the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

The book concerns Bangladeshi born Zafar a mathematics prodigy and polymath, graduate of  Oxford, linguist,  who may or may not be part of the British Secret Services.  Part philosophy, part adventure story, part scientific enquiry, part meditation on class –   ranging over the Afghan war and the financial meltdown of 2008,   the story is narrated sometimes by Zafar himself in the first person,  and sometimes in the third person by a Charles-Ryder-of-Brideshead style narrator who is a friend from Oxford.

Interestingly, the full title of Evelyn Waugh’s novel is Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryderwhich is something I didn’t know until I read Rahman’s book.  In memory, what is sacred, what is profane?  There are no disquisitions on Catholicism here – the world has moved on from Sebastian Flyte and his teddy.  But there are some parallels, particularly in the character of  Zafar’s ‘best friend’ from Oxford, whose own career in investment banking at Morgan Stanley (or some such) has fallen victim to the American sub-prime mortgage debacle,  therefore affording him plenty of time to reflect on the emptiness at the heart of his own life.

The book is too complex to attempt a resume of the narrative but I found it compelling and probably will re-read it at some point, as well as look out for other work by this author.

  • Crete: The Battle and the Resistance, Anthony Beevor

Fascinating and extremely readable account of how Hitler’s forces advanced through mainland Greece beating both the Brits and the Greek forces,  and how Crete originally considered to be a bit of a side story in the WW2, became horribly strategic.  Although there were British forces present on Crete during the German occupation, it seems that many advances against the enemy were facilitated by the Cretan resistance, a group  largely composed of shepherds and farmers armed with whatever lay to hand.

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 Giftsand Between the Woods and the Wateras well as in Stanley Moss’ ‘Ill Met by Moonlight’ which became a film with Dirk Bogarde as Leigh-Fermor.

One of the things that struck me in Beevor’s account of the early years of the war is how all the officers were either from Eton or Winchester (or Harrow) and all seemed to know each other from school and had conversations about who wore what at the Coronation, even while fleeing German bombs and bullets.     It all felt very Boys Own.

The Narrow Road to the Deep NorthRichard Flanagan

Richard Flanagan’s Booker prizewinning novel about the Japanese use of POW  slave labour to build the ‘death’ railway in Burma. Narrated by Dorrigo Evans, a young man from a rural and forgotten part of Tasmania who rises through invisible societal ranks to become a surgeon in the Aussie armed forces and who is captured and sent to work on the railway. The story follows him through this hellish horror into a kind of post war survival and fame, married to a woman whose name he can barely remember after he is freed from ‘the line’.   His whole life, he says,  has become a duty.

Interestingly the narrative follows Namakura, the Japanese commander of the Thai railway camp, as he tries to evade capture for war crimes in post holocaust Japan.   Namakura too is a victim of a lethal philosophy too deeply ingrained to question.

The author’s father was a survivor of the death railway, who died the day the book was finished.

 

 

Nature has not given up, nor should we

This is the third book of my 10 books of Summer

A Review of Ghost Trees: Nature and People in a London Parish. Bob Gilbert (Saraband)

I am as ambivalent as many Londoners about my city, loving it but longing, much of the time, to be out of it; living somewhere overhung with trees or with a sight of the sea or with the shape of hills to look at.  And this is my compromise; this untidy patch of garden with its chickens and its struggling vegetables, this defiant gash in the city’s concrete skin.  It is a wound that I tend with broccoli and potatoes…

Not exactly on a mission to re-wild London, but certainly to examine more closely what is beside, behind, beneath and above us as we all rush about, what has survived and adapted, the author has traced ghost outlines of the wild that once covered the area of East London known as Poplar.

 Ralph Waldo Emerson said:  “The ground is all memoranda and signatures; and every object covered over with hints.”

Gilbert’s book seeks out those memoranda and signatures.  But to focus purely on history, on the lonely open landscape that once existed – a landscape of ‘wide and windswept estuarine marshes’ where now there are tower blocks and urbanisation. That would be a book only about loss.

‘It was possible, on a day of shifting, watery grey cloud to still feel the imprint of the reed beds and the osiers, of lonely cattle grazing on the open marshes, of the cry of a passing curlew…’

I doubt if many curlews cry over East London now.  But this book is not a eulogy. Far from it.   There is much wildlife here to celebrate.    Gilbert charts  new habitats in surprising places, gives us new causes for appreciation of the here and now.  He seeks at the edges of shopping centres, at the side of rail tracks,  the base of lamposts in the  cracks between paving stones, in Churchyards and parks and in allotments for the new urban ecology  As well as a biographer of the ghost outlines of estuarine marshes which once covered Poplar,   Gilbert is a chronicler of our contemporary urban adaptees of the natural world.

Thus in an imaginary conversation the writer has with Richard Adams, (he of Watership Down fame) who apparently was rather grumpy about London and claimed to see nothing inspiring other than a few crocuses in a hotel garden, the author writes:

“I wanted to tell him of the black redstart I had seen feeding in front of the building’s bulldozer, of the pheasant I had found foraging on an urban allotment and of the skylarks I heard singing in a landscape of chemical works and pylons.”

Ghost Trees is the result of what must have been thousands of hours of painstaking research not to say hundreds of miles of walking and hours of looking and note taking.  It traces the outlines of the rural places that have been.   It also charts the history of the mulberry tree, plane tree and other arborial inhabitants cultivated by humans in this our great city of London for one reason or another.  It is a book of plant histories but especially of plant stories

I found the account of the Mulberry’s arrival in the UK  particularly fascinating.  In order to facilitate a supply of raw silk without having to buy the stuff from abroad somewhere because that is (a) too expensive and (b) vulnerable to political interference,  England in the l6th century  needed its own Mulberry trees.   Mulberry leaves are bread and meat and wine to silkworms; they require many of them to sustain their arduous workload.  Under the patronage of King James,  10,000 mulberry plants were ordered, Gilbert tells us, including a plantation at Westminster.  All this is now subsumed beneath concrete, with the poetically termed Mulberry Gardens the sole surviving relic of the project, along with  Mulberry Street; Mulberry House; Mulberry Tree pubs etc etc. Sadly and for various reasons this is a project which failed and England never was able to support its own silk industry.  But next time you go for a pint at the Mulberry Tree pub spare a thought for the little silkworms.

***

Gilbert also gives us an image of the post-human forest, and perhaps given current events that is not such a fantastical idea.  These are the trees and plants that will colonise the land when humans no longer do. The goat willow, buddleia, plants that are happy to colonise neglected areas, abandoned  urban corners, thickets of broom, cherry, aspen and birch, taking their place in the empty streets, decaying buildings, fractured windows and disused doorways of a post apocalyptic world.  I rather like the idea that nature will go on, rather like Celine Dion’s heart, regardless of the worst man can do.

“But there was wildness too, in those individual trees that sprang up outside the confines of cultivation; the seedlings and the saplings that appeared without permission on lawns, in flowerbeds, along pavement edges and in pots in my back garden…. This would be the wilderness returning, and these would be the post human trees.”

Where there are trees can the shades and the Forest of Arden and the magic be far behind?   I found this book awe inspiring in its wisdom and abundant historical and horticultural knowledge,  although perhaps a little impersonal at times.  No doubt the author, like the rest of us, has been inspired by the work of Robert Macfarlane and although not quite in the same poetic bracket, this book is an inspiration and a wake up call.  Nature has not given up, nor should we.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For example:

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perez writes:

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

 

 

 

Sheep are having a moment

IMG_1508

Heida: A Shepherd at the Edge of the World

Steinunn Sigurdardóttir.

Heida Asgeirsdóttir

(John Murray, 2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Volatile Summer of Reading

IMG_0227

 

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

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

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

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