Saturday, 28 March 2009

In Praise of Auden, tribes and thinking blue sky

Driving through the fens I spotted two mad march hares boxing in a field. I stop the car for a moment to watch. People used to think it was two male hares fighting but in fact it is a female fighting off the attentions of the male. Looking at these two, one isn’t playing hard to get, and both are giving as good as they get. Hares are in short supply these days, so two minutes just watching them is well spent. I was impressed by the way they could twist in mid air, jink and accelerate but they also made me sure that we are now running into spring. The roll call is almost complete; daffs in the traffic island on the way to the office, present and correct, magnolia tree in the garden opposite fatly in bud and teetering on opening, birds starting to watch Grand Designs to get ideas for this years nest, Easter eggs in the shops (although in truth they have been there since January), the sudden realisation that last years summer clothes may be a tad tight. It’s all downhill from here, we’ve broken the back of winter despite the rain, sleet, hail, biting wind, frost and occasional sighting of snow on high ground. All the sap is rising, it’s such an adolescent thing spring I may not be able to jink round the house but there is just a little more bounce in the step.

I am in the process of immersing myself in praise poems at the moment for a commission and thinking about landscape so I have read Auden’s In Praise of Limestone several times. It needs several readings and I still have no idea what it means and I feel gratified that many brighter than I don’t either but the last statement keeps going round in my head

.....but when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.

The other poems I found that just poured over me and left me basking in the joy and sheer mischief of the language were two Shona praise poems from Zimbabwe . Just read them and you may see what I mean. Of course I suppose something may be lost in translation but even so the words soar and sing.

Perhaps we don’t do enough praising, when times are hard perhaps a bit of heavy duty praising of all those things that make our lives richer might release more of those happy endorphins.

I am off to do some blue sky thinking on Monday on a training session, I think it means allowing yourself to think without limit, then again the natural extension of sky is space and we all know that in space no one can hear you scream. There may also be team bonding, if it involves crossing a small stream with only three oil drums, a piece of chewing gum and an elastic band at your disposal, I may get a tad grumpy. I may well implode if I get put in a team with the bloke from admin who has a middle ear problem and doesn’t do bending, the two women from the next floor who have taken moaning to an elevated art form and the man who likes to tell you about every fly he has ever tied (personally I think he doesn’t really fish he is just into a micro level of bondage). But we shall try to praise the fact that the lunch is free, the venue in a rural location where you can stare out of the window past the speaker's head and watch green field and trees and also that many others there will be thinking the same as I am, tribes find themselves where they can. Personally I think managing staff is always open to a few Basil Fawlty moments….I once had a boss when I worked in a bar years ago who had a touch of the Basil about him, he once barred a man for saying he didn’t like Pink Floyd and told a 5’ man he didn’t serve such small men as they effected the ambiance.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Julie Myerson, Jade Goody and other Mothers have their day.

Mother’s day today and the Boo sends me a cartoon (above) she drew and buys me text books for children in Senegal and a birth certificate for a Bolivian child so they can be allowed access to school and health care. A simply thing, a birth certificate, we take it for granted this naming of our parents, this naming of ourselves. I recall the registrar at the hospital when I registered my daughter’s birth having a very nice fountain pen and beautiful copperplate handwriting. Of course as much as I was registering a child I was also registering myself as a mother, an official document that stated I was a mother, something I could wave under the nose should I not be deemed worthy of the title. A long time ago I encountered a foundling, a woman left on the steps of a hospital when only a few hours old. I wondered how strange it must be to have been found. On birth certificates the space for father can be filled with that name that has fathered so many children over the years ‘Unknown’, there are few, if any, certificates that also have a mother‘s name absent. This elderly lady, now long dead, was never adopted and grew up in an orphanage. Her name was given to her by the hospital staff that found her, she never had an official birth certificate but a strange document that gave her an approximate date of birth and her name. All her life she never knew when her birthday was exactly, just a ball park date. She never held any bitterness towards her mother, accepting that in those days ( just prior to the first world war) unmarried mothers or mothers desperately struggling to bring up other children had little alternative other than to abandon their children. On the contrary she always pointed out that her mother at least left her in a hospital as other babies were sometimes left in bins, outside pubs and in other out of the way places where they may not have been found.

Many years ago my father, a policeman was involved in a crime where the body of a baby was found in a suitcase in a left luggage office. A woman driven to do such a thing must have been driven by terrible circumstances. Did she kill the baby and put it in the suitcase, did it die at birth and this was the only way she could think of disposing of the body and her social guilt, did she put it in the suitcase whilst it was still alive? Was the baby taken from her and killed by someone else, no-one ever discovered what had happened as no one could recall who had left the suitcase? My dad,the undertaker and the man from the left luggage office were the only people to attend the baby’s funeral on a grim wet day just before the outbreak of the Second World War. I often wonder if some woman went through the rest of her life living with the guilt of putting her own child in a suitcase and what drove her to do that rather than get rid of the body in some out of the way place. What do such women do on Mother’s day, do they simply block the abandonment of their child out of their heads, do they pretend so hard the pretence becomes the reality? Mother’s day is not only a chance for children to remember their mother’s but for mother’s to remember their children, to celebrate the fact that they are mothers. Over 50 babies a year are still abandoned in the UK , in about 90% of the cases the mother’s are traced and often reunited with their child so for about 10%, their birth always remains a mystery. So equally there are 5 women who for the rest of their lives can’t admit to having given birth to a child. Poets and writers get so much mileage out of their relationships with their mothers, Sharon Olds’ latest collection One Secret Thing shifts her gaze to that relationship having picked over the bones of her relationship with her father in minute detail.

We are always in need of someone to blame, someone to kick against; if nature had not given us parents I think we would have had to create them in order to feel justified and authenticated as human beings. Parents or substitute parental figures serve to meet our basic needs when young; food, heat, shelter etc but their main role is to love us and our role is to ensure we get that love and if the contract between us somehow gets skewed or torn up both parent and child are allowed to harbour resentment, anger, grief and general sucked a lemon faces with impunity because one or other or both didn’t live up to their side of the bargain. The recent Julie Myerson furor about her son’s addiction to skunk and the damage this caused the family is a case in point. A writer will inevitably want to write, a son who is unhappy will inevitable want to think they have been hard done by; both will attempt to convince others of their pain, justifiable motives and general reasons for sucking the lemon. To write about your family and publish that writing permits public access into an otherwise private area. Your motives for doing so can be laudable but to be mystified and overwhelmed that people are taking such a close interest in your family after doing so, albeit in a tabloid sort of way, is odd to say the least unless you are very dim. I hesitate to use the word naïve because it smacks of wide-eyed innocence and any decent writer worth their salt is always guilty of a certain knowingness.

It is sad for any family when they are raked over in the tabloids and not so tabloid newspapers. Jade Goody, was a girl that knew she was selling her death to the newspapers in order to give her sons a secure financial future. For all of her so called lack of talent and notoriety, she is the mother, who for me stands out as being truly innocent because she never sort or purported to be anything else other than purely mercenary. She did into the bargain gain a huge amount of publicity for cervical cancer which might save the lives of some women, but this was not her primary motive, she needed to take care of her sons. I am sure Julie Myserson, as she has been quoted as saying, wished to alert other parents to the terrible danger of skunk and this was her primary motive for writing the story of her son’s addiction anything else, money and publicity was purely secondary. Personally I prefer Jade’s approach…poor Jade has died today, her boys will undoubtedly never forget that their mother died on Mother’s day and if she went down fighting yelling ‘Show me the money’ well good for her, she earned every penny of it and her boys can be proud of her. Maybe Julie Myerson’s son might be proud of his mother for some things now or he may be at some later date, who knows, but making your life public property is always a deal with the devil and Jade Goody deserves to be applauded as having taken him on and beaten him hands down, may she rest in peace knowing that.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Hotel, Festivals, Fact and Fiction.

I returned last night from Kings Lynn Fiction Festival, the sun shone, daffodils bounced and the room next to me in the hotel was raided by police in stab vests. This was a large hotel in the centre of the town whose façade looks/is old but like a Hollywood film set behind the façade lurks seventies MDF and concrete. The whole place seemed extremely quiet, the sort of hotel and dining room where elderly nervous aunts would feel comfortable. At breakfast on the first day a lady, who had joined me in the lift on my floor, ordered porridge, for which she produced her own small jar of honey from a voluminous handbag. She then ordered kippers, they arrived and I watched, fascinated, as she proceeded to eat one half and then carefully wrap the other half in a a paper napkin and place it in a small plastic bag she seemed to have about her person. How many people keep a plastic bag up their sleeve? The kipper then went into the handbag. I wondered when she was going to eat this other half, did she have a cat in her handbag, did she have a blender in there which would allow her to make kipper pate for lunch? Did the placement of the kipper in her handbag and leaving the dining room warrant the appearance of policemen in stab vests along my corridor later in the day; had a passing police sniffer dog mistaken the scent of kipper for hard drugs?

I returned on the Saturday afternoon from a reading by three writers, clutching a Marks and Spencer’ prawn sandwich (there seems to be a fishy motif occurring here) and a bottle of orange juice. The police men were blocking the corridor just before my door. There is part of me that twitches at the sight of policemen in a small interior space, they seem to have gadgetry which takes up more cubic footage than the old fashioned truncheon and handcuffs. They were adorned with radios and as I mentioned earlier, stab vests, which only added to their bulk in a narrow corridor. Of course they all appeared to be nineteen which is a result of that rare eye condition atempusfugitism, a bit like astigmatism but it is only triggered by persons in any form of authority, it can trouble you in hospitals and I had a nasty onset in a courtroom once. So the police look at me and I try and walk towards them with some semblance of innocence, what had I done wrong? Part of my brain also tried to suppress the thought that policemen are harbingers of bad news; accidents, the sudden demise of nearest and dearest in traumatic circumstances is part of their remit. I am allowed past, with a brief nod and I resist the temptation not to immediately leap on a glass and put it to the adjoining wall to see if I can hear what is happening in the next room. The only available ‘glass’ is the plastic cup in the bathroom which don’t seem to work as well as glass, if at all.

There is a small flurry of activity, not the sort of activity that would occur if someone had died, that would be slower more measured. How do I know that, because twice I happen to have been in a hotel where someone in the next room has died suddenly. One hotel death was when I was at a conference; it was a middle aged salesman with a heart attack in the middle of the night. The other time was when I was a child in a hotel in Skegness, an elderly lady just succumbed to something that left her dead, it involved quiet neatly suited men with a trolley and a black plastic bag. This didn’t sound like death, it was far too noisy. Having spent the Friday night listening to two crime fiction writers talk I was full of possibilities, something only heard through a door is often far more tantalising than the actual event especially if you have a super heated imagination. What did happen? The hotel receptionist filled me in the next day; three foreign women (her words) offering ‘massages’ (imagine the raising of very well plucked eyebrows) on the hotel premises. Of course in this context ‘foreign’ might mean from Ipswich or Lincoln. It didn’t seem to warrant stab vests but then being aware of some of the darker sides of prostitution and the sort of men that are often involved perhaps stab vests were a wise precaution.

This festival, itself was less dramatic but nonetheless full of things to think about regarding the process of writing novels. The discussion about the ability to side step the self when writing set me thinking and the discussion about the historical novel in which Beryl Bainbridge featured, made me think about the relationship that exists between readers and the author of historical fiction. With such authors we enter into a contract in which we know we are buying their ability to combine history and imagination and offer this synthesis to us in the best way they can, with the best writing they can muster given their talents. The historian examines facts and explores how these meticulously researched facts, from primary sources where possible, fit together to form a cogent and plausible explanation of a flow of events which to all intents and purposes amounts to ‘real’ history. As authors at the debate pointed out, history is always interpretive, we attempt to create a narrative from some fact but these facts in themselves may be partial, biased, or just plain wrong. Subjective history versus objective history is a bit of a fruitless debate and also an old chestnut, people researching in the future could construct a strange view of our times if only the odd DVD, Youtube extracts and tabloid newspaper were the only things to survive and as someone pointed out, will the contemporary novel be used to explain out present in the future much as we could use Dickens or Austen to caste light on their times? Novels set in the here and now are history, not only because there can never be set in the true present (even the gap between writing the novel and publishing the novel can see banks fall, towers topple and wars erupt) but because they are a source for any future historian to see how we lived, how we may have thought. Of course perhaps the memoir, the autobiography would be the most useful to the historian but this again only presents a personal viewpoint and can it only assume cultural importance if verified by fact? During the debate I began to think about the Swiss writer Wilkomirski who wrote a memoir of his time spent as a jewish child in a concentration camp during the Second World War, the book was called Fragments. He wrote from a child’s point of view, the book received many accolades and the writing was highly praised, it was a brilliantly written book many said and then it was discovered that he was not Jewish, had never been in the camps during the holocaust and was writing a total fiction. The man became a pyriah; he had made a contract with his reader that he was telling you a true story and he had broken that contract. No one likes a liar, least of all one who has the timerity to lie about being involved in the Holocaust. Yet the writing had not changed, surely the ability to impress people with the authenticity of his experience still existed. If he had written this book as a novel, would he have received accolades, would the writing have been praised as much. I don’t know, I simply don’t know. The pull of the autobiography is that we can experience something we believe to be real, no matter how skilled the novelist they can never offer the reader that real tear, real drop of blood, real fear. There is always a tension between memory and imagination they shift and blur but people are usually drawn to memory. if you have the time read this article about the Wilkomirski case, it has some interesting thoughts about why we look to memoir as a means of identifying ourselves. However I think that we also look to fiction as a means of finding ourselves but perhaps we believe memoir is the royal road to the mind of another.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Network, Neverland and Nineteen Eighty-Four

Peter Finch’s famous scene in that great film Network popped into my head today as a middle-aged man in the local high street was obviously at some point in his life when a good scream was the only answer. He was talking on his mobile and suddenly he let the phone drop from his ear and started to bang his forehead rhythmically against the window of New Look, yelling, “No, no, no no no!” in time to the slight vibration of the glass as his head hit it. Most of us hurried on, another man stopped and in one of those blokey acts of tenderness asked him in that time honoured way, “You alright, mate?” He stopped and looked at this man as if he had only just realized he was in a public place, “Not really, but what else can you do, the buyer of my house just pulled out .” The other man nodded,
“Some things just do your head in don’t they, bad times mate, it’s bad times, could be worse though” and with that he walks off and the head banger wanders on his way.
Watch this and you’ll know why I was reminded of that scene, it still resonates in this time of credit crunch.

Twenty-five years since the miner’s strike, my uncle was a miner, I used to sit in the Miner’s welfare and listen to the brass band practicing, sounds a bit of a cliché image but that and his old convertible Morris Minor with a crinkled yellow celluloid back window are two pictures that I can still smell and touch let alone see. My uncle was a miner and my dad was a policeman, not a good family combination but luckily my dad was retired by the time of the miner’s strike and my uncle was dead, coughing up years of coal dust. That scene in Billy Elliot where he walks in between the two opposing lines of striking miners and policemen is a total travesty, it was nastier than that, really nasty there might have been a few moments of humour to alleviate the confrontations but for the most part it was bitter and the memory of it amongst people who lived through it remains so even to this day. This great montage gives you a real feel for those times. It did feel significant that it was 1984, big brother was watching, only it was big sister at the time.

Twenty-five years ago Thriller was the best selling album, Michael Jackson was strutting his stuff and still had much of his own face although it was starting to be someone else’s. He announces today a series of farewell concerts ( yeh right and my name is Frank Sinatra) . He has lost Neverland and needs to get it back, don’t we all now and then?