Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Seven Minutes and Thirty-Two Seconds with Tick Boxes and Peter Porter

Sorry, sorry, dear reader, she says rushing into the room slightly dishevelled with twigs sticking out of her hair ( think white queen with slightly more empathy). I have been remiss at posting this week–end due to the various things that intrude on time.

We have been asked to keep a blow by blow account at work of every minute of our time, which has to fit into various boxes, ten minutes on this, two hours eleven minutes on that, a second on the other. If you suddenly have to audit your time in close-up you suddenly start to wonder where it goes and what it consists of, it has a habit of sliding through the gaps between the words. It is indeed relative. If I were to do a time audit on my personal life I tend to think the boxes would be myriad and strange. Staring into space or out of the window could perhaps be consumed in the catch all tick box, ‘thinking’. I think I spend a lot of time thinking, I think about other things when I drive ( come on confess it dear reader I am sure you have thought about things other than the road ahead and the mechanics of driving at times) so does ‘drive time’ go in two boxes. I think about lots of things when I listen to music, so if I listen to music as I drive does that tick three boxes; listening to music, thinking and driving? I can check my emails, watch Eastenders, think about a poem I am writing and chew gum all at the same time. We can all multi-task or should it be multi think. I have deliberately been trying to think how I think this past week-end and thinking is indeed the multi layered lasagne of activities. Even as I write this, not only am I thinking about what I am writing but there are thoughts about what to have for tea, when is my next dentist appointment, did the man on the TV just mention William Carlos Williams, why has next door’s cat taken to sitting and watching me from the middle of the lawn as I stand at the sink.

Thinking in a totally focused way, concentrating solely on one thing and one thing alone, is difficult. By this I do not mean thinking in a linear way, one thing after another, but thinking in depth about one thing without the intrusion of any other thought. Try it , it’s hard, the brains natural state for me and I suspect for many is maybe one thing in focus and lots of other things cutting in momentarily like a shaky jump shot in an art house movie.

There are few writers who can actually summon up that jump shot way of thinking in their writing. Some good graphic novels can do it as the genre allows the visual dimension to do several things at once along with text. An image can say six things at once and more once text is thrown into the mix; also the placement of panels, images and text can specifically be used to convey simultaneous occurrence whereas text alone, by its very nature, is linear. The movement from beginning to end of a sentence is the basic building block of language that conveys sense or meaning. Narrative can be blown apart and re-assembled in many ways but few writers other than the avant-garde do that same thing with the sentence and still achieve some sense of the whole.

This does fit in with my time and motion experience as it has made me examine the tick boxes into which we place time in order to make sense of how a day has passed. When someone asks you what you’ve done today, they don’t actually want to know in detail, they are expecting a brief summary of the highlights or low lights of the past few hours. If we were to hand them a written summary of how exactly we have spent a day in a linear way it may be either a conversation stopper or a source of interest. ‘So first you spent seven hours five minutes asleep then two minutes cleaning your teeth, thirty seconds coming down stairs, thirteen minutes eating a croissant, two hours thinking whilst staring at the computer. Not exactly riveting stuff, and the linear nature of explaining how time passes in such a precise way paints something of a grey picture but then as the Scotsman said.

"Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time. And all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out, out brief candle. Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Not that gloomy actually, points out that it’s best to get on with it, don’t waste it. Ok the ‘nothing’ kiss-off is a bit of a downer at the end but then the chap was in a bit of a bad place at the time. Of course no one was making him write down how long he spent staring out from the battlements, how much time was involved in seeing ghostly spectres, was the witch thing to be ticked in the meeting box or the future planning one?

I am off to the Kings Lynn Poetry Festival this week-end,
It is an interesting line up, so of that, more next week. Sadly the great Peter Porter has had to pull out due to ill health, so I leave you with this poem of his to savour which seems to fit this post.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Darwin, the American Health Care Bill and Emily Ballou

The sun shone yesterday and I whiled away the day in Cambridge with two friends. We went to see the Darwin exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, which is well worth a look if you are this way. The things on display are many and various, a few examined the premise of the male of the species’ need to have not only a USP ( Unique Selling Point) to entice the female but that they had to be the best at whatever form of plumage, display or behaviour was deemed essential. Any female of the species that didn’t pick him was not only deeply lacking in taste but would produce inferior ofspring that would not add anything of significance to the gene pool of the species and ensure its survival or ability to adapt to the environment. There was a short video display of a display ritual of a particular bird, lots of long tail feathers fanned out, much like a peacock, was involved. The interesting thing was the way the female being displayed to seemed not in the least bit interested and spent time and energy ignoring the male bird. ‘Here’s a nice bit of corn’ she seemed to be saying to herself most of the time whilst the male shook his tail feathers, hopped almost right under her beak and generally thrust himself and his plumes at her. Nothing new there then, I have been to discos.

The celebrations for the 200th anniversary of the birth of Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of ‘On the Origin of Species’ has spawned innumerable things in Cambridge where he attended Christ College; lectures, readings, workshops, mugs, small rag dolls with white hair and long beards, tea towels, postcards, pop up books etc the list is endless. However there has been some good poetry spawned by the anniversary, so it isn’t all cuddly toys and jigsaws. Here is a wonderful reading by the Australian poet Emily Ballou from her new collection The Darwin Poems, which looks at Darwin’s life in poetry. Well worth looking at if you can get hold of a copy.

The whole exhibition really brought home to me that the publication of ‘On the Origins of Species’ was not only a huge shift in thinking away from creationist thinking but it also offered some people a world view that made sense of what they saw happening around them everyday, not just in nature but within society. Survival of the fittest was what had always happened and in Victorian society that was evident in the infant morality rates and the general conditions of the poor that led to an early death. Of course many of the wealthy and middle-class died young but not in the same numbers. ‘This is the way it has to be’, said some at the time. The concept of ‘the rich man in his castle the poor man at his gate’ and that ‘god ordered their estate’, weren’t lines from the famous and much loved hymn of the time, ‘All things bright and beautiful’ for nothing. The great unwashed, the poor, the ignorant, the feckless, the brutish under class would not survive because this was the way life was designed to be. The rich, educated and wise would always prosper and survive at the top of the heap.

I then read this morning, Obama’s address to Congress about the new Health Care Bill and I couldn’t help thinking about the Darwin exhibition in Cambridge. The constant fight to survive and adapt to meet change. None of the adaption Darwin thought of was conscious, species took thousands of years to adapt and some died out because they did not adapt quickly or well enough. Politics and government doesn’t have thousands of years to adapt systems of governance which will best ensure the survival of the people it governs. Man also has a moral element that interacts with all this adaptation. They may refer to an unseen higher power that dictates or limits the nature of change. They may seek to genuinely do what is best for the majority and thus spend years debating what may constitute the best or simply impose it by political and military means. They may decide that the furtherance of the well being and fortunes of a limited few, who would deem themselves more equipped to survive that other is the best answer, so government is dictated by the few, for the welfare of the few (as some have suggested the latest Afghan elections exemplify). Some may seek to limit the level of governance in order to maximise the moral concept of free will and the individual’s right to live their life as they see fit, unfettered by government dictates. All of them seem to tread the boards in the theatre of Darwinian thoughts on survival as, if you accept that whatever your moral beliefs are, and from whatever source you deem them to come, on the whole they are held to be best for man, the species. They are best to ensure society grows stronger, adapts to whatever is thrown at the species.

The health care bill in the USA raises huge issues about what you deem best for you and your fellow man. Whatever the moral, political or economic viewpoint you have, the task of convincing people about the need for change must boil down to, what do you believe your fellow man is worth to you and to your society? I put that not as a rhetorical question but a real one, how much is the health of Mrs Florence Peabody three doors up worth to you and society, enough to make your tax bill how much higher? In the UK we are lucky in so far as we have not had to debate this question recently, the NHS staggers on and there seems some basic underpinning agreement that the NHS is a good thing. Perhaps further down the road, if the financial burden of the elderly becomes too much to bear, we may be faced with the same question in stark terms. If someone has contributed x to the NHS system through national insurance and taxation are they entitled to x plus 1000% or a greater amount back, should they be unlucky enough to have some chronic or massive medical need. How much of another’s financial burden are you willing to carry? The survival of the fittest may at some point down the road be a very practical guideline to apply when limiting health care.

I will continue to watch the American debate with interest as it may be our debate soon if we have to continue getting a quart of health care out of a pint pot of money. I think the NHS is one of the defining things that makes me relieved and proud to live in the UK. It is, on the whole and for the time being, an example of how our society is at least striving to allow all some shot at survival and not just the fittest. It may have faults , it may not do it superbly well in all instances but at least there seems to be some will still left to help everyone in need.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Stephen Dobyns, Happy Birthdays, In-coming Season and The Yardbirds

I have just received a copy of a collection of poetry I ordered from the States by the poet Stephen Dobyns. I came across him by accident when a friend Facebooked a link to one of his poems (see Facebook does have uses over and beyond knowing that someone you don't know that well, if at all, is eating biscuits, running in a half marathon or generally mooching). I sat down and read the collection, ‘Mystery, so Long’, this morning after I got back from the farmer’s market in town, where I chatted about the joy of fat marbled beef with the farmer who lives three miles away who breeds beef cattle, commented on the delights of a cheddar mustard and ale cheese made by a cheese-maker four miles distant and bought fresh baked wholemeal bread from a local farmer who grows his own organic wheat and mills his own flour that his wife bakes into glorious loaves the smell of which wafts from the stall and sits on your shoulder whispering, ’ buy me, you know you want to’ . I wandered home probably repellently smug in the knowledge that I had purchased food with such a low carbon footprint. I sat down to the indulgence of lime and elderflower cake (cake making lady just up the road) with a cup of sweet Colombian blend ( I managed to block out the thought of its carbon footprint and mutter the mantra of ‘it’s fair-trade coffee, it’s fair-trade coffee’ to hold on to the smug mode for just a while longer). All this and a good poetry collection to read was a small corner of heaven on a dull fen Saturday.

I had not heard of Dobyns before and it is always a pleasure to explore a poet I wouldn’t normally come across. Dobyns manages to make that conversational style of some American poetry look easy and yet it is a skilled craft which requires more than prose chopped into lines. He tends, in the poems I have read so far, to stroll through life as if it is a huge stage set for the theatre of the absurd and the wry asides seem totally at home with concepts of orang-utans shitting on stage at concerts to liven up the proceedings for those not already into classical music, talking dogs, a parrot attached to a man’s shoulder as he hurries to the city day after day. Dobyns seems not so much part of any surreal school of poetry but grounded in how people really live yet within their lives such things are happening which only the absurd can perhaps depict, such things are happening which makes them unique even in the seeming hum-drumness of their days. Here are a few of his poems, Yellow Beak, It's Like This and Over a Cup of Coffee, see what you think.

I can feel autumn coming in fast now, autumn is a season I love. It is not so much an end of summer but a beginning of things winding into themselves. Dark nights in front of fires. I am not a hot weather woman I like bright cold days, piles of leaves, thick bacon sarnies in front of old black and white films on the TV whilst the wind and rain busy themselves outside. Today is the Boos birthday, I am sure I hung on into September so I could push her out into a world that smelt of autumn, no summer baby for me. A September baby is always one of the oldest in the class in the English educational system, an August birthday consigns you to being one of the youngest. There are always perks to be had in being just that bit older, well that is what I tell myself when my young dentist who I had a conversation with this week whilst my mouth was full of iron mongery and sucking devices, revealed that she can’t even remember Take That first time around let alone that Jimmy Page was in The Yardbirds.