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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles

 

A Gentleman in Moscow by [Towles, Amor]

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

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

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

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

And:

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

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

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

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

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

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

A demographic timebomb

I was once asked at an interview what I thought were the causes of crime.  While I rummaged in my mind for my completely non-existent degree in criminology, another answer popped up.  Buddhism has its own answers away from studies of criminology for the underlying causes of crime which will be one of three things:  greed, anger and foolishness.   Whatever is the latest horror reported in the papers, it will have as its base one of those lifestates.

We live in an increasingly fragmented and complex age but sometimes things are not as complex as we would like to imagine them.  If we believe that everything is too specialist;  every thought requires an ‘expert’ opinion, every action requires a full risk assessment.    That way of thinking  can lead to  a form of lethargy and paralysis which affects the mind, the willingness to engage with problems imbuing everything with a sense of hopelessness.

Hopelessness is becoming pervasive and driven on by a cynical media obsessed with the most shallow issues.  While it is worrying to consider the many and conflicting problems that adults in society face, even more worryingly statistics are that these damaging mindsets are now affecting children.

Buddhist Philosopher Daisaku Ikeda has published a dialogue with Professor of Philosophy Lou Marinoff. (The Inner Philosopher Dialogue Path Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts (2012))

In a discussion about health and in particular the health of children Marinoff states:

Overexposure to visual media coupled with institutionalised inattention to the written tradition have produced a generation of cognitively impaired children, millions of whom are drugged daily with stimulants.

American Psychiatrist Bessel Van der Kolk in his book on trauma The Body Keeps the Score (Penguin 2014) confirms the statistics coming out of the US.

The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma

 

The number of people under the age of 20 receiving Medicaid funded prescriptions for antipsychotic drugs tripled between 1999 and 2008…   Half a million children in the US currently take antipsychotic drugs.   The percentage of children, the author states, receiving antipsychotics increases to 12.4% of children in foster care, compared with 1.4% of Medicaid eligible children generally.  This implies that foster children are being given drugs to make them more manageable.

I do not know what the statistics are for the UK but the word ‘malleable’ seems appropriate to describe what our education system is doing to our kids.  Churning them out to fit the needs of some tech firm somewhere –  a tech firm which may have gone under by the time todays youngster graduates with his/her £40,000 debt.

Some of us use the expression ‘first world problem’ if the washing machine needs fixing or we have mislaid our cinema tickets,  but in fact the first world is facing the most significant and desperate problems – a demographic timebomb –  a whole generation of traumatised children.

Ikeda quotes Arnold Toynbee:  Human dignity cannot be achieved in the field of technology in which human beings are so expert.  It can be achieved only in the field of ethics … and ethical achievement is measured by the degree in which our actions are governed by compassion and love, not by greed and aggressiveness.

Our spiritual development has not kept pace with the dramatic progress of science and technology.  Look no further further for the causes of crime.

 

 

 

 

 

Running backwards, passing the baton to no-one: A Review of Three Men on the Edge

 

Three Men on the Edge, Michael Loveday V. Press

This debut novella of poet Michael Loveday is filled with questions such as  ‘Where are the fragranced pillows, where are the flying horses?’   The answers unsurprisingly, are not always forthcoming.  Temporarily and sadly, the flying horses are not to be found no more the Spitfire key rings or the tiger print purses as protagonist Denholm rummaging through boxes in a old storeroom is an opportunity too good to pass up,  and we are soon drifting back through layers of time to coin box skulls and footballing pigs and remembrance of hated games of blind man’s buff.

This book is an investigation of the mindsets of its three protagonists, threaded through with evocations of the settings of Rickmansworth/Chorleywood/Hertfordshire ‘on the edge’ of London.  Such geographical placements – as is the case with many settings in literature and poetry –  are both physical and metaphorical,   for it is part of the human condition to feel on the edge of things, to experience this acute ‘edgeness’  as being alone.

But beyond the metaphor of the protagonists psyches, the landscape fulfils another role, that of a character in its own right. Second protagonist Gus seeks out the shadows and forms of the natural world which lap at the edges of our space:

‘there’s a veil between him and the world that will not lift and to tear it down seems like a betrayal.  Why is it still not consolation – witnessing these swans, these shadows, this sky?’

Amid the minutiae of everyday life including the afternoon TV show Homes under the Hammer and a visit to Watford’s ‘antiseptic shopping mall’,  Loveday renders this acute (even surgical) inspection of the lonely confusion of being 21st century human.  The landscape functions to remind us what we are losing, that we are the only animal on the planet that destroys its own habitat.

The author mocks the meaningless nonsense which modern culture forces on us in the interests of the safety elves and some insurance company somewhere.  For example,  ‘the small print’  consists of fourteen lines of  horrendous sounding symptoms, obviously taken from some prescription medication,  ending in a pinnacle of silliness:    ‘pins and needles, psoriasis, diarrhoea,  impotence, mental disturbance  … and (rarely) temporary thinning of the hair.

In the section entitled ‘Martyn – chewing glass’ I particularly like the way the author pinpoints the co-dependence of sexual relationships:

In Anja … he’s found the companion men surely crave; a guardian god of his secrets, magnifying mirror to his better self, and match for his lost mother’s perfections,’.

and,  the increasingly extravagant media-fed fantasies upon which we rely for a sense of identity;

To join the London Olympics as proxy hero, Martyn intends to complete two thousand and twelve laps of Bury Lake.  He’s not running for charity – it’s a piece of performance art, and he’ll be running backwards with a paintbrush as a baton that he’ll pass to nobody.

Another fantastic question:  What is a gateway but a history of exits?  How many have passed this way before?  What lives did they lead?

This book is a rummage through the storerooms of the human heart with all its fears, its passions, its yearnings, its failures, its betrayals.   Part of me suspects that  Three Men on the Edge is a series of prose poems with an interlinking narrative structure. But that is merely a quibble of naming.   That the prose is a feast of poesy is no accident, Loveday being a fine poet as well as, now, a fiction writer.

 

 

 

Literary separations – children with vanishing mothers

La Belle Sauvage, Philip Pullman (Penguin, Random House)

Sal, Mick Kitson (Canongate)

The Girl in the Tower, Katherine Arden (DelRey)

How to write for, of and about children and young people in an increasingly dysfunctional world? Finding a balance between an adult sounding narrative voice (and character arc) to make a book of interest to as wide a readership as possible  and yet maintain a sufficiently age appropriate voice is a difficult task. Then too how to write parents? Our world of parenting is becoming savagely complex like some sort of demented computer game with so many traps  one wonders who would ever want to start playing. Many writers with child protagonists in their stories avoid parents altogether by using orphans, or they turn parents or other carers into wicked stepmother style clichés in order to exaggerate a malign influence.  I have just polished off three books which in their different ways grapple with these issues.

The Book of Dust, Volume One. La Belle Sauvage. Philip Pullman

This first volume is intended as a prequel by Pullman to the His Dark Materials trilogy but I found I couldn’t live it or believe in it the same way as the original books.  The plot is based around unprecedented rains which have caused the Thames to burst its banks.    This saga which picks up the story 10 years before the beginning of Northern Lights concerns the trials and tribulations of one Malcolm Polstead as he attempts a journey by boat – through the inundated landscape which was once Oxford towards London – to protect baby Lyra from the forces of the scary sounding Consistory Court of Discipline and other baddies who are chasing them.

Against this post-apocalyptic background, sinister forces gather and only poor Malcolm is there to sort it all out. Like some sort of Blyton-esque adventure on steroids, he and his friend Alice get into increasingly surreal scrapes and escapes from witch haunted islands, a graveyard, a masque in a grand house where the intrepid heroes go to beg food but find themselves utterly invisible to the assembled gathering. A good metaphor at least for how young people are treated in 21st century society.

But here was the problem for me.  That Malcolm at the age of 11 (or it may be 12) comes across as an insufferable know it all who never puts a foot wrong.  Fortunately for him, his friend Alice gets taken along on the journey so he doesn’t actually get to change Lyra’s nappies himself.  Heroes don’t change nappies, do they?

The second book is Sal – the debut novel of Mick Kitson. Sal (short for Salmarina) is a 13 year child from a highly abusive and dysfunctional family background. She finds herself on the run with her ten year old sister, Peppa, and the two are forced to live wild in a forest in Galloway, at least for as long as it is feasible to do such things in the 21st century where every bus ticket is a digital footprint and every visit to town an occasion for surveillance.

Sal is much influenced by, and no mean interpreter of, the SAS survival handbook, building shelters, fires, trapping rabbits and generally, well, surviving.   Both this novel and Pullman’s use the trope of taking the child/adult heroes and heroines outside of the real world – or at least a recognisable everyday version of it – and casting them into situation where they must survive by their own wits and largely without assistance from outside sources.

This is nothing new in literature, for children who must constantly refer back to some adult for instructions don’t make very interesting protagonists.  But author Jenni Fagan points out in her review of the Kitson book[i] that there is another angle to this separation of children from the adult world and one that does not relate to narrative convenience. That is children or young adults are finding ways to separate themselves from a world that neither understands nor seeks to protect them. Fagan notes too that 4.1 million children live in poverty in the UK.[ii]  That’s 30% or 9 out of every class of 30. Child poverty is a form of abuse is it not? Even if it is a systemic one rather than a familial.

Fictional representations of mothers are not faring well in these particular novels.  Malcolm Polstead’s mother is a homemaker, a bringer of ample puddings and comfort.  Sal’s mother on the other hand is a drunk, a bringer of random men home at odd times of the day and night, one of whom turns out to be an abuser.  Both women exist at either end of the cliché spectrum and neither is a fully developed character.  Women are not stereotypes guys. It really is time for authors to give up reaching for the lazy allusion shelf of puddings and vodka bottles when writing mothers.

The Girl in the Tower, Katherine Arden

has an intrepid young heroine called Vasya who has been cast out of her home and is alone or almost alone. As this is Russian folktale territory, there is no SAS survival handbook.   Instead Vasya has the assistance of a frost demon who can make fires from snow and diamond like ice combs and knives and who brings food when she runs out.  Such a demon we should all have.  She also has a talking horse called Solovey with a weakness for porridge laced with honey, all so exquisitely drawn that it really doesn’t seem like cheating.   In order to survive her chosen life of travel, Vasya has to pretend to be a man.  Plus ça change. But this is a great story with lyrical descriptions of a frozen, semi-mythical Russian forest, perhaps long since eradicated.

[i] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/mar/14/sal-mick-kitson-debut-review-sisters-children-runaways Accessed May 2018

[ii] http://www.cpag.org.uk/content/child-poverty-facts-and-figures

Eleanor Oliphant is completely magic realist

Gail Honeyman. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Harper Collins 2018

This deceptively simple narrative charts the rise and rise of a thirty year old woman from somewhere she didn’t know she was, to somewhere she didn’t know she needed to be. I’m trying not to give the plot away but the book primarily concerns itself with skewering our 21st century culture of not giving a damn.

The Eleanor in question is a thirty year old office worker who appears out of step with the modern world to a startling degree. She doesn’t even own a mobile phone at the beginning (although, phew! she does by the end). The book sections are divided into ‘Good Days’ and ‘Bad Days’ and ‘Better Days’. It is slowly revealed throughout the course of the narrative just how bad the bad days were for our poor heroine and why she behaves somewhat oddly. There is a distressing backstory which slowly reveals itself, but this is not at all a distressing or depressing book. Upbeat rather with its message that even if you are falling apart from loneliness you can still be fixed.

Within the pages of this fixing there is a degree of magic realism. Eleanor makes a friend along the way who appears well cut out for Sainthood. Influenced and quoting from Olivia Laing’s fast-becoming-iconic study of loneliness The Lonely City

‘…the lonelier a person gets, the less adept they become at navigating social currents.

Surprisingly this is a page turner – with a twist at the end which I half saw coming. I finished it over two days of rain and snow in a half–empty hotel near Caernarvon, waiting to attend the harp festival.

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.

Whether or not Androids dream of electric sheep has become completely irrelevant: A review of Blade Runner 2049. Dir. Denis Villeneuve

In 1982 Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner (based on Philip K. Dick’s novel, ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’) was unlike anything that had been seen before. The sets of a post-apocalyptic world with its flying cars and worries about replicants was visionary; yet despite the fact that the world had only a few decades previously engaged in two major wars followed by Hiroshima and Nagasaki, such scenes of our planet where the natural world had been entirely destroyed still seemed part of some impossible future. Didn’t it?

So the original film operated as a warning yes, but one which centralized its concerns around artificial intelligence and, oh dear, what if the robots (replicants) got cleverer than us? That would never do, we’d better try and kill them all off.  About the environment, the images spoke for themselves. There was nothing more that needed to be said other than ‘this will happen if we take no steps to prevent it.’

The same day that I saw Blade Runner 2049 in October 2017, the Guardian newspaper published a shocking report that flying insects numbers – once thought so numerous – have undergone a dramatic reduction as much as 75% in the last 25 years.   This is an ecological catastrophe. One scientist is quoted as saying: “We appear to be making vast tracts of land inhospitable to most forms of life and are currently on course for ecological armageddon.”[1]

Sound familiar?

North Korea is sending missiles over Japan on an almost monthly basis; we have climate change, poisoned air, melting ice caps, species extinctions on a scale never before known.   Suddenly the post-apocalyptic world so beloved of film-makers is not some incredibly far off thing it is here with us now, breathing hellfire, brimstone, CO2 and diesel particulate matter down our necks. Yet the response of the film makers is same old, same old.   What if the replicants could give birth. They might be more successful than humans. We’d better kill them all off.  Aaarrggh! Hello!!

What if the replicants cared more about the planet than humans? Well, we don’t know the answer to that one because no-one asks. By the time we get here to the time of the new film, there isn’t much planet left to care about. But things are not all bad – there are still plenty of women around, although they are mostly prostitutes, holograms or psychopaths.

There is a Bond style baddy who seems to have no eyes (considering he bought up the bankrupt Tyrell Corporation with all its robotics and cybernetics and considering they can make good looking robots like Ryan Gosling) you would think someone would take pity on the baddie and find a set of eyes somewhere.

Not that Blade Runner 2049 isn’t a ‘good’ film. In some respects, it is.  My point is that this film is looking in the wrong place. Worrying about who is human and who is not and whether this test or that test will identify ‘true’ humanity. It is too late for that.  True humanity concerns itself with wisdom, courage and compassion. Considerations of what it means to be human and who dreams about what are no longer relevant unless someone develops androids that can breathe poison and live underwater. And that still will not save the flying insects. Or the rest of us.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/oct/18/warning-of-ecological-armageddon-after-dramatic-plunge-in-insect-numbers

Poetry in a time of data

Brains are amazing things. Far more so than we can yet fathom or understand. In Buddhist theory, the sixth layer of consciousness assimilates all the ‘data’ we receive from the five senses.   Thus, for example, in order to differentiate a strawberry from the white, china bowl on which it sits, or the table that supports the bowl etc we can access this realm of the mind which ‘understands’ the difference. But when we wish to describe what we see – to make textual art out of an emotional response – we have only language available to us. Language, words, pictures, images.

dsc_0075

Language vast and generous, all encompassing. Is it not the soil out of which civilisation grows? Perhaps. But like the soil, language is subject to erosion, both natural and unnatural. Words fall out of use or morph into new words all the time and in itself this is normal and not particularly sinister. However, it becomes sinister when this form of ‘language creep’ is extreme in sidelining an entire and vital aspect of human existence – in this case I am talking of the natural world.

In his superb book _Landmarks_(Penguin, 2016)  (p3) naturalist Robert Macfarlane relates the following story:

“A sharp eyed reader of the new edition to the Oxford Junior Dictionary noted that a considerable number of words used to describe the natural world had been deleted. The deletions included: _acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter pasture and willow. The words introduced to the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, mp3 player and voice-mail.

> When Vineeta Gupta, then head of children’s dictionaries at OUP was asked why the decision had been taken to delete those words, she explained that the dictionary needed to reflect the consensus experience of modern-day childhood.”

How tragic this is. That contemporary children have no experience of acorns and buttercups so no point in using the words. This seems to be extraordinary back to front thinking. It is most likely that children will learn the substituted computer-style words by the daily dose of internet to which life is now exposed but if acorn, adder and ash are rarer commodities and not to be found so much in inner cities, it seems to me that is not a reason to delete the words but rather twice the reason to incorporate the words in the dictionary.

Chatrooms and cut-and-paste are now in our DNA. Sadly the OJD Editor was confusing the information function of language with the emotional engagement function of language, with its qualities of poetic inheritance, its assimilation of history.

Certainly there are aspects of human experience that defy articulation whether the vision of a sunrise across wheat fields language is not the be all and end all of communication but a poet will certainly struggle without it! If children are being deprived of language to describe the natural world they will in turn have no terms of reference to become nature poets.

Photo0025

 

This decision was apparently not taken on the basis that such phenomena have physically disappeared from the environments – which thankfully they have not (yet) – but based on the fact that many children today live in urban environments which means they are no longer likely to come into contact with cygnet, beech or kingfisher and so don’t need to know about them!

How will tomorrow’s poets describe the natural environment if they have no language to do so? Tomorrow’s environmentalists are todays children – those very ones who the OUP editors don’t feel need to recognize beech, alder and adder. The question of how those concerned with loss of species and habitat destruction will recognise such losses without terminology for the natural world.     We need language for the existence of things, in order to recognise loss. It is not possible to save a buttercup if, linguistically, the little yellow meadow flower no longer exists.

Joni Mitchell famously sang ‘they took all the trees, put ‘em in a tree museum’… . Museum pieces can be overlooked, irrelevant things – perhaps less so post Neil McGregor – but still many are just things until they have a narrative attached to them. For this we need language, history, cultural references, comparative functions, analytical resources.

We hope neither the natural world nor the language we use to describe it will be relegated to the status of museum piece. No-one will knowingly pass a law putting trees in a museum, but the sidelining of the natural world is coming anyway; by urbanisation, by obsession with economic models of society, by addictions to technology, and by ‘language creep’. Or perhaps ‘language loss’ creep.   Did you notice how many hours of airtime, rhetoric, baby-bouncing-on-knee time were given over to discussion of climate change during the recent election campaign?

I believe the problem is not one of political will. Does any well meaning politician actually want the planet to disintegrate? Most will work out that they will naturally vanish along with the rest of us. But politicians are just human beings and the pressures of office must be huge. It is always tempting to think that someone else will deal with it, or somehow the problem will go away.

Young people feel alienated from the existing systems of representation and who can blame them since those systems of representation seem bent on excluding whole groups of our society, especially the young. It is these younger generations that are those most at risk of ‘language loss creep’. In a time of mass ‘data’ and ‘communications’, in a time of NSA surveillance and Edward Snowden when we all suffer from information overload, we actually seem to understand less and less.

The point is that writers are needed more than ever to keep the natural world in focus for potential readers. Prose writers yes, but I believe it will fall to the poets to guard the language of the natural world that is needed to give voice to the history of and need for continued work on preservation, and to fight, if necessary short-termism and vested interests. This is not just complaint about red, blue, yellow or green! It is about a universal spirit. If none of the parties are voting for the planet, the planet will not vote for the parties. It is left to poets to do so.

What other language is being or already has been lost through this form of abandonment? This is not a simple question when the term ‘language’ has many meanings? Even computer code is a magical language. It makes things happen.

But computers  cannot save the human habitat. Only humans can do that and in this poets have a vital role.

I posted this yesterday and this morning awoke to a review of a new book by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris called The Lost Words on this very topic.  It seems the author agrees with me on the poetry aspect, as this is a book for young readers with poems and beautiful illustrations.  Although Mr. Macfarlane says they are not poems, they are spells:

 

When wren whirrs from stone to furze the air around her

slows,

 

Mmm! Sounds like poetry to me.  Ok, spells then.

The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris is published by Hamish Hamilton on Thursday, 5th October 2017.

 

 

My Cousin Rachel (2017) Dir. Roger Michell

In appearance the settings for the film – Florence and Cornwall – the interiors of the house etc all seem pitch perfect as do the script and the finely judged acting from Sam Claflin and Rachel Weisz.  We do not know what Rachel looked like but she could have looked exactly like this other Rachel. In short, it is beautifully shot with elegant Cornish panoramas, lonely rainswept beaches, impeccably clad gentleman on highly groomed horses, all laced with a liberal quantity of servants and picturesque stable lads.

So far so good. But Daphne du Maurier’s book is a complex work to bring to the screen; much of the ‘plot’ is internalized and much of it hinges on paranoia or suspected paranoia. It would be an achievement to pull off a film version without resorting to one or two little dramatic ‘interventions’ and those can easily upset the delicate ecological balance of the work.

While Rachel certainly has her own voice (unlike du Maurier’s other famous creation Rebecca de Winter) we do not hear much of it. The book is weighed down with the male narrative gaze, with male desire both sexual and for financial control. In so many ways Rachel appears not to have an opportunity to respond; or maybe she has opportunities but deliberately chooses not to take them. Or her responses appear ambiguous. It depends who you believe. Most of what we know about her we know from something a man has said. This is the master craft of the novelist.

This to me is where the film – despite strong central performances – errs. It tries to explain things which the book leaves open to the reader’s conjecture. What is the cause of Ambrose’s death? Brain tumour say the Florentine lot (of which Rachel is one). Poisoning, writes Ambrose in letters found after his death. So where are the instruments of poison? Laburnum seeds? Where is all the money going? Why does Philip mysteriously become ill after Rachel’s arrival. What the heck is she putting in those tissanes? All mysteries aimed at making us think Rachel is potentially wicked (fantastic cover of Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’ by sorry not sure who  played over the film trailer on the internet sadly doesn’t seem to have been used in the film).

But if Rachel is potentially wicked she is also a woman alone in the world who found herself ‘married to a stranger’ when Ambrose became ill and had to find her own way. As Sally Beauman points out in her introduction (Virago, 2003) laburnum seeds are a red herring. The real poison being examined by Daphne du Maurier in this novel are how whole lives, whole societies have been and continue to be defined by male authority. Perhaps the temptation to shout this from the rooftops overcame the film Director. Is it not 2017? Are there not thirty years solid of feminist literary interpretation coursing through the bloodstream of the land?

In the film although Philip hunts for Laburnum seeds in Rachel’s bedroom he does not appear to find any. In the book he does. There is no suggestion in the book that Rainaldi (Rachel’s lawyer, adviser and ‘friend’) is homosexual.   The fact that the film insists on this point makes us less inclined to suspect Rachel of an affair.  Was I being asked to consider Rachel a victim of a patriarchal gig? That is not I feel how the author would have seen her.

 

Poetry makes everything happen

A review of Larchfield

by Polly Clark

Not only do we have Terence Davies film of Emily Dickinson as well as a film about Neruda, the excitement of new letters by Plath making headline news and now a young W.H. Auden is brought compassionately to life in the pages of Polly Clark’s novel Larchfield.

The name is taken from a boy’s public school in Helensburgh on the West Coast of Scotland where the young W.H. Auden taught for two years in his twenties, after leaving Oxford. It is not a posting the young poet much relishes.

“It’s not his choice exactly. His trust money is about to run out, and he needs a job. His friend Cecil Day-Lewis has nominated him for this post of schoolmaster at Larchfield, though he has no experience of teaching and a severe mistrust of the school environment.”

The book covers his life during these two years partly on a fictional and partly factual basis, showing how Auden fares in the run up to the second world including visiting his University friend Christopher Isherwood in Berlin where the two have a frightening encounter with blackshirts.

 Christopher Isherwood and Wystan Auden
photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 6 February 1939

Alongside this historical narrative, is a modern story in which the protagonist is a young woman called Dora, whose life so far has consisted of a PhD, a job offer at a University publishing house as a lexicographer and the beginnings of a career in poetry, finds herself married, pregnant and moving to Helensburgh very near the school where Auden taught. As she unpacks her belongings in her new home, a divided house ironically entitled ‘Paradise’, she places her small volume of published poetry on the shelf and prepares to adjust to a very different life.

But that adjustment is hard

Things quickly fall to pieces as they can do when a new baby arrives. To add to her problems the neighbours in the flat upstairs start acting up horribly and Dora becomes isolated, stressed and depressed. Finding solace in Auden’s poems and in tracing details of his life she decides to pay a visit to the site of the old school at Larchfield and so the mystery begins.

The gate was tall and wrought iron, with the name Larchfield looped in gold. Ivy crept along the front of the building, and the tall windows looked out over a Helensburgh that was essentially unchanged in appearance since his time. She could imagine the poet emerging from the stone porch, the sounds of children.

The book is based on the author’s real experience. Indeed it is hard to see how this book could have been written without that experience so genuinely is the suffering of the young female protagonist felt.

The novel treads a high wire act between the real, the  possible and the imaginary; what is imaginary in the mind of an unhappy and isolated young woman with no visible means of support other than a well-meaning but absentee husband may be real.  As real as the feelings of loneliness and otherness which everyone can experience to some degree.  The book also – dare I say it – deals with the redemptive power of poetry.  That one can run and run.  But the only person who is qualified to say if poetry redeems is one who feels him/herself redeemed by it.

The author says:

“Some years ago I moved to Scotland. I seemed to ignite anti-English feeling wherever I went, I couldn’t drive and became very isolated.

“When I had a baby, my ruin was complete. That’s when I first read ‘The Orators’ by Auden — and this poem changed my life.

“It’s a thrilling meditation on paranoia and repression, set in Helensburgh.

“I set about recreating Wystan Auden, from his notebooks, biographies and artistic details in ‘The Orators’, and paired him with Dora, my modern-day woman losing her mind in the suburbs.

“Finding human connection to Auden in our shared place of Helensburgh saved me.

The theme of isolation continues in Auden’s part of the narrative.

“And the future? What of it? He cannot imagine a future where he fits.”

Auden finds himself alone, both as an Englishman and as a new school teacher. When he tries to protect one of the youngsters at the school form the routine and institutionalised abuse that was part of the public school system at that time, he finds that his compassion is easily and wilfully misunderstood.

Auden was a homosexual at a time when to be so was a criminal offence. He was also just another lonely young man. Lonely enough to cast a message into a bottle and toss it into the sea in the hope someone would find it. In the book someone does, but perhaps it is not the someone any of us expect.

As Dora is friendless, most of her story is internalised and the author occasionally makes us doubt her as a reliable narrator.  This acutely reflects how other characters around Dora are doubting of her. If enough people doubt us, then do we not begin to doubt ourselves? Is this kind of mistreatment an all too common form of abuse of women? And is it often perpetrated by other women in positions of power over new mothers?   One of the ideas lying behind the novel is to point up a general failure of society to even recognise let alone deal with the fact that the shock and trauma of childbirth – even a medically ‘normal’ childbirth which Dora’s is not – can last for years. Decades even.

Larchfield is at its most disturbing as a picture of the pressure placed on vulnerable young mothers to conform to some hypocritical health visitor’s idea of happy families, pointing up that the borderland between protection of the child and abuse of the parent is a line which is disastrously ill defined in modern day Britain.

However this is not at all a depressing book – quite the opposite it is a hopeful book – by a writer who thoroughly understands that life can be lonely and difficult, but it can also come liberally laced with snatches of sublime poetry.