If it’s Wednesday it must be social and political comment, and the topic for today is ‘Equal rights and after – where are we and where do we go next?’
In the last 30 years things have changed from a position where able-bodied white males were in power virtually everywhere, to a society which is relatively far more equal. There may not be many black or Asian MP’s, but there are some: there may not yet be 50% of women in Parliament but there is a significant slice.
Thirty years ago women were generally in ancillary posts – secretaries, nurses, teachers, cooks and cleaners – or else in the most menial of factory jobs: unskilled and low paid. Many women worked only in the home, a place of long hours, scant recognition and no pay at all. All that has changed: it is now out of proportion easier for a mother with small children to work outside the home: to establish a career before marriage and continue it after giving birth.
But there’s a problem. Since women did nearly all of the caring – not only for young children but also for old people – there is a crisis in caring. Barely a day goes by without some story in the media about neglect or abuse of the elderly. Not only that, but we have travelled so far down the line that it is now difficult for women NOT to go back to work after having children, even if they want to stay at home a bit longer. Hence the Facebook group Mothers at Home Matter Too: Home Educating parents are particularly concerned in this debate.
What is the solution? We’re not going back to how things were, but how do we move forward? And what is to blame? Is it the equality agenda or the relentless push for everyone to make money?
Yes, here’s one of my published short stories – a short-short fiction, published earlier this year in ‘What the Dickens?’ magazine:
Take note my pen-name is Sarada Gray.
They also took one of my poems. It’s a story about the perennial British habit of Complaining About the Weather, no matter what it happens to be:
Too Hot Too Soon
It’s early: I take the watering can out front to beat the sun. ‘Eyebrows,’ I think, ‘protection.’ The sun climbs the roof, as if eager for the view.
A woman stands at the bus stop, frowning, scanning the empty road. She sees me and turns her head slightly.
“Sun’s not got to these yet,” I say, starting on the begonias.
Her face contracts – ‘in one brow of whew!’ I think.
“It’s too hot too soon,” she complains.
“I used to live in Spain,” I say, smiling. “I like it.”
Her eyebrows, Gromit-like, demur – ‘we live in England, thank you.’ She shifts her bag, turns back to looking at the road.
“It’s too hot too soon,” she repeats. Her brows settle into a frown.
‘The sun will come up,’ I think, ‘and you’ll be stuck like that all day.’
I go indoors: passing the mirror, I turn and smile. Sunnily.
Looks like being hot today, too. Enjoy!
Blast! I’ve just realised that wasn’t the one they published. So you get two for the price of one today: here’s the one from the magazine:
A Nice Cup of Tea with Dickens
So here you are: you’ve waited, you’ve sweated and now you’ve arrived; you’re at the book launch – and first in line is a sweaty, pony-tailed man, a glass of what looks like pee in his fist. You’ve avoided the Chardonnay, thankfully. ‘Hi, I’m Gary,’ he says, and holds out a damp paw.
‘There’s the 99% perspiration,’ you think as you give it a shake, afterwards surreptitiously wiping your hand on your trousers. (Those are for the wash: you make a mental note as you prepare to introduce yourself.) But he’s not finished: ‘Gary Baldy!’ he goes on, saying the name like a drum-roll and waiting for the response. You look blank: he’s not in the least bald, though the front is receding, perhaps to compensate for the length of that ridiculous pony-tail.
He’s still waiting for you to get it: you don’t. Eventually he gives in. ‘Like the biscuit!’ he says, with the air of an actor doing an encore.
You still look blank – but no matter: he’s done the prologue and now he’s off. ‘I’m doing a thesis,’ he announces happily.
‘Oh?’ The sound could not be less encouraging.
‘ – on the favourite biscuits of Dickens’ characters.’
And before you can stop him, he’s thundering into his soliloque. The connections are obvious: there’s David Copperfield and the ginger nut (ginger equalling moral vigour); the childhood Pip and jammy dodgers, the adult Pip and Bourbons; Oliver Twist and Bath Olivers (just for the name, you assume); Bill Sikes and the pink wafer (you look startled so he explains that Sikes is clearly a closet homosexual) – in fact, whether you want to or not (and you don’t) you learn that there are at least six hundred and forty-two references to biscuits in Dickens; ‘not all of them obvious.’
You don’t say.
You close your eyes and then open them again. ‘Would you like me to sign your book now?’ you ask.
Nope. Yesterday being full of post-birthday flahargh! I did not get around to posting: what with a shared lunch and a talk in the evening on Borges and memory (of which more anon) I had no time to write one. So: today being Monday, we are back to poetry and since no poems have flooded in from readers, I am forced to post one of my own. And it is the ever-popular local one – one which is also featured in my new pamphlet (produced in association with Leicestershire Calligraphers, £2.50 each, not available on-line) which has the same title:
The Ballad of the Bowstring Bridge
Before you were born, you were drawn with care
and they wove you of iron up in the air
to span the road
with your railway load
sing ho! for the Bowstring Bridge
The Victorians cared about the look of things
and they wove you in a pattern of crossing strings
where the railway cuts
Sing ho! for the Bowstring Bridge
Oh, the Bowstring Bridge, the Bowstring Bridge!
If the council had just given way a smidge
you would still be spanning
you’d have foiled their planning
Alas! for the Bowstring Bridge
Alas! for the Bowstring Bridge.
There’s more, but you’ll have to buy the pamphlet.
We have arrived at Saturday in our first week of the new-look blog; and on Saturdays the theme is Friends and Family. The second week in June has for the last twenty years contained both my birthday and our wedding anniversary: and for our 20th, our china anniversary, Mark bought me a vase. As I unwrapped it he said, ‘I’m not sure what I think about the design.’
I held it up. It was urn-shaped, with handles, turquoise on the inside and with pink flowers on the outside. Reader, it was hideous.
‘It’s only symbolic,’ he said.
‘Oh, thank god,’ I though. As a symbol it does very well and I guess I could try to get hold of some trailing flowers which should cover up most of the pattern.
In the evening, having received some money from a relative, we visited Pizza Express and had a really special meal; not grand or exuberant but special in that the place has a history for us and, though not lavish, it’s somewhere you can linger for a while and enjoy your food and drink. Which we did – so that was our anniversary and today, on my birthday, we shall go to Tomatoes and have strawberries later (strawberries are traditional on my birthday) and if we have sufficient funds we may go out for another meal.
Yes, on Friday’s it’s book reviews, and today I am going to compare two very different and yet oddly similar writers I’ve been reading. They are – CP Snow
and Kathy Reichs:
On the face of it they could hardly be more different: Snow died in the 1980′s and is now only remembered for two phrases: corridors of power, which is now in common parlance, and the two cultures, a phrase which expresses the gulf between the arts and sciences. On the latter, he said with some justification that, whilst many scientists have read some works of fiction, on the arts side most people would be unable to tell you the second law of thermodynamics – and that this is basically the equivalent of asking ‘have you read a book?’
I myself have only the haziest idea about the laws of thermodynamics, but I think the second one is the phrase about heat not itself being able to move from a colder body to a hotter body. Or ‘the entropy of a closed system tends towards the maximum’. Is that right? Hang on, let’s check:
OK I’ve read that and I’m none the wiser…
But I digress. Although Snow and Reichs are about as different as two writers in English can be, they do have things in common. They both write in the first person, and both write series of books based more or less on their own professional experiences (Snow was a barrister and civil servant, Reichs is a forensic anthropologist who helps to solve murders) but there is much more to divide them than to unite them. Reichs is the perfect antidote to too much Snow and a typical sentence of his might he:
‘It was a tough compromise in one sense, but in the end it was more than we could reasonably have expected.’
A typical sentence of Reichs’ would be:
‘I goosed my speed – I wasn’t going to put up with any of Ryan’s crap.’
They are divided by a continent (Reichs sets her novels in Montreal and Alabama, Snow is firmly English) and by a couple of generations. On the other hand, both excel at depicting character and in description – and in narration – they both draw you in. With Reichs you are, as it were, sucked into the updraught by the sheer velocity of her plots; with Snow the process is one of slow hypnotism: I came across ‘The Masters’ when I was eighteen and though normally I wouldn’t give a toss about who wins an election to the Mastership of a Cambridge college in the 1930′s; bit by bit, he draws you in until you care terribly about who wins.]
He is a persuasive writer where Reichs is a thrilling one.
In his day Snow was occasionally compared to Proust, which seems absurd nowadays. It’s not altogether unfair – he has the cast of characters and the insight into social mores – but he doesn’t have Proust’s depth, nor his gift for philosophy. So that, although this prophet of the (white male) meritocracy is able to see deeply into the society he depicts, he’s not able to see beyond it – and that is why he hasn’t survived the passing of that society.
The only problem I have with Reichs, though, is one I find with a lot of modern writers, ie the sheer complexity of plot. With any Ian Rankin novel, for example, I have to read it two or three times to get all the ins and outs of the storyline, and it’ s almost as complex with Reichs. The sheer welter of information that’s coming at me is overwhelming. I don’t know if that’s just me – I’m not a particularly narrative-based person – or if it’s common to a lot of people, but I find it quite troublesome; whereas Snow’s plots don’t cause me any trouble at all.
So there you are – two writers divided by a common language. I recommend anything by Kathy Reichs but if you don’t like teen stories then avoid the ‘virals’ range and just go for the others. As for Snow, ‘Corridors of Power’ is an interesting read, as is ‘The Masters’, and ‘The Light and the Dark’ is an intense and insightful analysis of what we would now call bipolar syndrome.
Yes, on Thursdays we look at life on the i-player and there’s an awful lot of history around lately: what with a rash of programmes covering every conceivable angle of the Coronation’s 60th anniversary, a slew of documentaries on women in history and a resurgence of interest in the Tudors especially Henry VIII, you can hardly avoid looking into the past. Going back the furthest and coinciding with the re-broadcasting of the ground-breaking ‘I Claudius’ is a new look at powerful women in Rome and how they got there. ’Mothers, Murderers and Mistresses’ covers women who influenced Roman politics starting with Livia and going on to Messalina and Agrippina, mother of Nero – and if you can get past the incredibly irritating presenter, it’s an interesting watch.
Unfortunately the presenter takes a lot of getting past: combining a somewhat flirtatious manner to camera with a voice reminiscent of a slightly softened Thatcher, she seems to thrust every syllable at the viewer like a mother pushing food into the mouth of a reluctant toddler. Still, at least she doesn’t succumb to the terrible habit of modern history presenters – that of describing everything in the present tense!!! (‘Messalina is unfaithful to Claudius: Agrippina tells Nero…’) There’s far too much of this sort of thing around and it ought to be a capital offence. Still, it’s an interesting watch, not least for the wiles these women had to resort to in order to gain some kind of power.
Elsewhere Henry VIII is practically omnipresent: a fascinating look at Anne Boleyn now seems to have disappeared from the i-player but the series ‘Patron or Plunderer?’ continues to assess the architectural legacy of the last Henry; and I highly recommend Melvyn Bragg’s documentary on Tyndale, the first translator of the Bible into English and the precursor of the King James version which relies heavily on it.
Returning to women and power, elsewhere in the drama category is the highly enjoyable series ‘Frankie’. It features a district nurse whose compassionate and humane approach is contrasted with the colder and more analytical style of her GP colleague: it might be designed to contrast ‘difference feminism’ and ‘sameness feminism’. Are women really softer and fluffier – or, to put it another way, are women better at caring and co-operating, as the philosopher Gilligan claims?
But let’s not worry too much about it: ‘Frankie’ is basically a feel-good programme and not nearly as preposterous as ‘Casualty’.
Seen anything good lately? Drop me a line…
Well! Wednesdays are for political and social comment and the most political thing that’s happening in my life right now is Left Unity. If you haven’t been following this, it’s a new movement of the left which aims to cover the ground which the Labour Party has abandoned. You can read more here:
(Incidentally if you google ‘leftunity.org.uk’ you will get a Trades-union group, which perhaps illustrates one of the things I’m going to talk about below).
So, the next meeting of Leicester LU is tonight, and it will almost certainly be interesting, though perhaps in the Chinese sense (‘may you live in interesting times’). Between far-left and Trades Union groups trying to take it in one direction and members of far-right groups like the EDL trying to infiltrate it, it will be hard to find a way through, but we have to try. There is a spiralling level of discussion on Facebook about a seemingly endless number of topics, the most mainstream of which are: how to smash the fascist bastards (not my words), what to do about the Bedroom Tax, and whether Ed Milliband should strap on a pair. But clearly one of the most significant issues we face is what to do about organisations such as the EDL and BNP. Quite apart from the problem of infiltration there is the issue of how to oppose them. The voices in LU which shout the loudest often conflate the two organisations (which is not quite fair) and label them as either Nazis or fascists or both. This is not helpful. What LU needs to be doing is what Labour has signally failed to do: to listen and take on board the concerns of the white working class. These were the very people who voted Labour into power; the people Labour used to represent before Blair got hold of them. So in my view LU needs to engage with these people and start listening to them – because if we don’t get hold of them the EDL will.
They already have.
Next week: a review of the meeting plus ‘how do we respond to global capitalism?’