The Janet and John Bit

I’ve been rereading the Narnia books lately- they help me to sleep (in a good way) and I’ve been thinking that C S Lewis doesn’t get enough credit. He gets a lot of flak for misogyny and rightly so in many ways: there’s often a hag or an evil witch trying to destroy Narnia, the head of Estate and Jill’s dysfunctional school is “by the way, a woman” and don’t even get me started on the problem of Susan, the poor young woman who at the end of the series loses her entire family and is excluded from Narnia just for the crime of being a bit trivial.

And yet. Whereas many, if not most children’s adventure books of that time were written for boys and if they featured girls at all showed them in a very passive role, girls take an active and almost equal part in the Narnia adventures. Not only that, they are often wiser than the boys: in both The Magician’s Nephew and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe he subverts traditional theology by making boys the villain of the piece. In TMN it’s Diggory who brings the witch into Narnia and thereby becomes the agent of original sin, and in LWW it’s Edmund who betrays his siblings to the witch.

Compare and contrast with the Ladybird books I grew up with. ‘Look, Janet, look! I can climb a tree!’ And so on. I happen to have ended up in the home of Ladybird books, and in recent years some ‘book benches’ have been made to commemorate their centenary. These crop up in all sorts of places and are surreptitiously moved during the night.

I think I blogged about these at some point but I can’t find it.

Kirk out

You Don’t Need Jesus When You’ve Got an Airer

If that line doesn’t resonate with you then you’ve never seen or read Oranges are not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterton. This story of a young girl adopted by benign but fanatical Christians and coming out as gay was a seminal work when it came out. It’s also very funny. One of our favourite lines is the mother saying, when asked why they don’t have an airing cupboard, ‘You don’t need an airing cupboard when you’ve got Jesus.’

This is going to make me sound desperately sad but it’s been my dream ever since we moved here to have a proper clothes airer in the utility room. I mean one that raises and lowers, instead of having a gaggle of clothes horses standing about the place that would be better stabled elsewhere or, let’s be honest, just bunging everything in the tumble dryer. I found one online, a lot cheaper than I expected, and yesterday we put it up. Well, Daniel put it up and I held the ladder. Deep joy. It now holds a load of washing which is gently drying without using extra electricity.

Happiness.

http://pulleymaid.com/classic_clothes_airer.htm

Kirk out

Tempus Doth Indeed Fuge…

As both I and Jeff Bezos have been discovering, time is flying and it’s flying fast. I first came across the phrase in The Phoenix and the Carpet by E Nesbit, but the truth of it has hit me only recently as I now realise it’s a whole two weeks since I last posted. I’ve got a note from the doctors to excuse me but I think it’s time I checked in at least. So… I’ve been reading Oliver Burkemans book 4000 Weeks on how to make the most of time. Carpeing the diem is in there of course but he also recommends totally wasting time; staring out of the window, watching clouds, it’s all good. Social media is not good of course as it sucks up your attention and manufactures outrage, but mainly he rails against the ubiquitous time management self-help manuals that give you 1001 joyless habits of successful people. It’s a relief. One of the books most useful ideas for me was that in choosing to do something you are simultaneously and inevitably choosing not to do others: as CS Lewis put it, you’re ‘free as a man is free to drink while he is drinking.’ You can’t drink and not-drink, you have to choose.

Don’t have a bucket list: enjoy what you’re doing now. Pay attention. Don’t fret impatiently at red traffic lights, just enjoy sitting and being.

It has also occurred to Jeff Bezos that time may one day run out for him, and so rather than spread his wealth around and help the undeserving poor he has embarked on what you might call Project Voldemort, ie the quest for eternal life. As Marina Hyde puts it in today’s Guardian, he has ‘decides that death is as inevitable as taxes, which is no say, not at all for the likes of him.’

I guess some people think you can conquer anything if you just throw enough money at it. Pity he didn’t think to throw some at his own staff.

Kirk out

On The Twiddliness of Things

I was just wondering what to write about when my eye lit on a notebook with an Escher drawing on the front. Twiddliness! I thought. So that’s where I’ll begin. OH has a book called ‘Godel, Escher, Bach‘ which is on this very subject. Godel was a mathematician and there are similarities between him, Escher and Bach, all of them being inclined to turn things upside down, inside out and round and round. Bach can take a simple piece of music, play it a few times, turn it upside down and sideways and then chop it up; Escher does the same thing with images, producing optical illusions where fish turn into birds and staircases, like share prices, go up as well as down. I’m not sure what Godel does because I skipped the section on him (shame!) but there you are. Maybe if it wasn’t so hot I’d be able to say something more coherent on the subject…

https://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-image-escher-stairs-image6306396

Yesterday turned out to be not such a bad day in the end; after a depressing morning I went for a walk (always a good plan) and sat in my easy chair for the afternoon. I use my easy chair – in reality a garden chair because an armchair won’t fit in my study – for periods of reflective writing, or perhaps no writing at all, just staring at clouds and daydreaming. I don’t actually do enough of this – I suspect most of us don’t – and it’s very valuable. Just to sit and allow thoughts to emerge as they will – or not – is one of the best ways a writer can spend her/his time, provided that the rest of the time you actually get some work done. And lo! while I was sitting in reflection I decided to check my phone for emails and there sat my weekly update on freelance writing jobs. I subscribe to this just on the offchance even though most of the jobs are not suitable for me, and there I found a novel-writing competition. I sort of have a novel – well, I have one in development, and since they only required the first 5000 words I sent them off. If they’re interested they want another 5000 in September – which I have – and after that I’ll have to work pretty damn fast if they want the whole thing. But that’s how I rock.

So you see, twiddling your thumbs can be highly productive. The joys of twiddliness!

Kirk out

Utopiary

Utopiary is a word I coined a few years back to describe the kind of leaf-perfect tree-moulding that goes on in some gardens. In fact you can usually measure the wealth of a household by the amount of topiary because most of us are too busy just trying to get the hedge trimmed and the lawn cut (while also respecting no-mow May) to be remotely interested in sculpting our trees. Anyway, I don’t like topiary very much; I think trees and bushes should find their own shape rather than having one imposed on them.

None of which is what I was going to write about today. I’m in a real short story phase right now and I’ve started another one which tells the story of a stoning from the point of view of a man waiting to take part in one. I was shocked to discover that this barbaric practice is still legal in fifteen countries of the world, even if it doesn’t always take place. Sometimes there is no legal process whatsoever; the poor woman (it’s usually a woman) is simply sentenced to death for some alleged crime and in Pakistan since adultery is hard to prove the courts are able to ‘use their instincts’. In a deeply misogynistic society you can just imagine how that’s going to play out.

The story was inspired by an article in the latest Granta magazine which plopped onto my doormat this morning and was eagerly snatched up. Wimbledon being over, we’re back to doing the digital detox thing from Friday night to Saturday dinnertime, so I really needed something new to read. The theme of the issue is Interiors and it begins with A Series of Rooms Occupied by Ghislaine Maxwell who, in the absence of Jeffrey Epstein, is waiting in a detention centre to be tried for the crime of supplying young women to be raped by him and other men. I’m not saying we should go easy on Ghislaine if she’s guilty of these crimes, but growing up with a father like Maxwell can’t have been a picnic, and according to this article the place where she’s detained, the Metropolitan Detention Centre in Brooklyn, is ‘the largest and most dysfunctional’ in the US. I’m not saying our prisons are exemplary but they seem so much worse in the States.

Anyway, I’ve sent off a couple more stories this week, keeping the momentum going, and another one or two will be ready in the next couple of weeks. I’m finding that the momentum is more important than the results, in a way. I’m going to sit in the sun now – for once we have a hot sunny day here. Yay!

Kirk out

Milkman by Anna Burns

I bought this Booker Prize-winning novel a couple of years ago and read it in the space of a few days. Nothing I’ve ever read has given me a clearer idea of what it was like – particularly for a young woman – to live through the Troubles in 1970’s Northern Ireland. Not that Ireland is named, for in this book nothing and no-one is named. The central character associates with many people in the community; Third Brother in law, Oldest Sister, Wee Sisters, Somebody McSomebody, Longest Friend and Real Milkman, so-called to differentiate him from the Milkman of the title, who as it turns out is no milkman at all.

Nor are neighbourhoods named. There are the ‘people over the street’ (Unionists), the Nation over the Water (mainland Britain) and dangerous spots like the Ten Minute Area, so-called because it takes ten minutes to cross. The main character – whose name we do not know – is stalked by an IRA fighter who without saying anything at all definite, appropriates her as his girlfriend. This is a very gossippy neighbourhood where you have only to be seen talking to a man to be practically engaged to him; before long she is supposed to be this guy’s girlfriend and is approached by a gaggle of other such girlfriends in the toilets and given lessons on how to dress (always skirts, never trousers. It’s your duty to look nice for him, etc – but again, nothing is really said, only hinted.) There is no help from the authorities in this society; if you are injured you don’t go to hospital because the police hang around hospitals, and if you are in trouble the last people you go to are the police.

Milkman shows us how an innocent person with no interest in the Troubles can nevertheless be sucked in to assisting one side or the other. The will of the community – and by extension, the paramilitaries – is paramount, and in the end she is only released from the appalling grip of the so-called ‘Milkman’ by his death.

Here’s a good review in the Guardian.

What have you been reading lately? If you’ve come across something good I’d like to hear about it.

Kirk out

6 Miles

It may not seem much, but I was inordinately pleased with myself for cycling six miles yesterday. It was a lovely ride out of Loughborough to the North-East along mainly country roads, though coming back into town on the A60 was less fun as it’s a single-carriageway road with lots of traffic. I’ve never been a competitive person; if I ever try to compete I always lose, not necessarily because I’m bad at whatever it is, but because my heart isn’t in it. I don’t see the point of winning for its own sake because in the end, what does it really mean? It means you were better at that particular activity on that particular day against those particular competitors and in those prevailing conditions. I don’t wish to dismiss the achievements of anyone (and if by any chance Andy Murray should win Wimbledon I’ll have a completely different take on this) but winning per se has never appealed to me. Overcoming odds, surmounting obstacles, beating your own shortcomings – yes, I can see the point of that, but competing with others seems largely meaningless. Suppose I’d been in a competition yesterday with someone to see who could cycle the furthest; what would it mean if I beat them or if they beat me? Would it mean one of us was ‘better’ than the other? No. Yesterday I was feeling very tired; hence the six miles was for me a great achievement – but someone else might not be so tired, so they’d do it easily and go on to do double that distance. Comparisons, in short, are odious, and whilst sport is undoubtedly good for the soul, too much emphasis on winning emphatically is not.

Lecture over. I was going to write about something else entirely today, and now I’ve forgotten what it was. Oh yes, books. Under the radar there’s a significant ‘trade’ in swapping books for free. Shops have shelves of them outdoors; villages have old phone boxes full of them, churches and town halls have them and friends have them. Lately I’ve been swapping books with a friend, who has lent me Shuggie Bain (which I hated) and The Shadow King (which I mostly enjoyed); and recently, Amsterdam, another Booker Prize winner (from 1998) by Ian McEwan. I have no strong opinions about Ian McEwan so I approached this with an open mind and found it – well, not bad but somewhat underwhelming. The title refers to the practice of legal euthanasia available in that city (for a price) and a feud between two friends, one a newspaper editor and another a composer, who make an agreement following the painful death of a mutual friend to each take the other to Amsterdam to end their life, should they be terminally ill. None of the characters are particularly agreeable; the newspaper editor is trying, Murdoch-style, to make a respectable broadsheet profitable by publishing the ‘scandal’ – already outdated – of a cabinet minister’s crossdressing. But the tide of opinion is against him and he loses his job. Meanwhile the composer, trying desperately to finish his symphony before a concert in Amsterdam, goes away to the Lakes to clear his head. He’s just getting an amazing idea when he sees a woman in an altercation with a man, but instead of intervening he carries on composing in his head and rushes back to get it down on paper. He is justly punished for this act of selfishness; not only does the man turn out to be the Lakeland Rapist but the crowning theme of his concerto turns out to be a cheap rip-off of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. Both friends meet in Amsterdam, their careers over, each with the intention of bumping the other off. I’ll let you guess the outcome.

I found Amsterdam entertaining but for 1998 quite dated. It was a very male world – all the women referred to as ‘girls’ and defined by their appearance – in fact it could just as well have been written in the ’60’s. It’s also quite a slight book – only 150 pages – and lacks either depth or breadth. Still, it’s a load more fun than Shuggie Bain – but then again, so are most things. Including Dostoevsky.

Happy Tuesday. We’ve got some better weather here – hurray!

Kirk out

Mainly Mania

I’ve been a bit manic the last few days; not so much physically as mentally. I think it’s the sun; when I taught yoga for mental health a lot of bipolar people tended to become manic in the summer. It’s understandable because everything else is manic; the insects and the plants, the weeds – oh, the weeds! – everything’s up and doing and it’s hard not to join in. I wish I were physically manic though; I’d be able to lose a bit of weight, but as it is the mind is buzzing but the body slumps: I have the brain of a bee and the body of a slug.

It’s hard to concentrate on days like these. You want to do everything at once; it seems that if you don’t do it now, it won’t get done; so this morning I activated my birthday Google Play voucher and started downloading audio books like there’s no tomorrow. I want to learn modern Greek so I can put it side by side with Ancient Greek, and Italian and Anglo-Saxon (though I don’t think there’s an audio book for that) and ‘read’ the rest of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet and – and – everything. I’m just getting used to audio books; in general I prefer the physical page and as I’ve said I can’t deal with ebooks at all (though I did read Edwin Drood, what there is of it, on Project Gutenberg.) The result of all this activity is, predictably, burnout and depression; it’s a cycle I know well. Therefore I started the day with meditation, which has slowed me down a bit, and if it comes back I shall maybe play some slow music or do some breathing exercises.

Aaaaand breathe!

I would never claim to have full-blown manic depression or bipolar syndrome – or depression or psychosis or any of the problems I experience from time to time – but that doesn’t mean they aren’t real. They’re just a taste, really, of what other people have to deal with on a daily basis, and I can only imagine what that’s like. Fortunately I have techniques to manage these experiences so I can usually bring myself back to a state of balance. In any case it’s quite damp here this morning, so perhaps that’ll settle me too. And now if you’ll excuse me I’ll get back to my audio books and Greek and Italian and Anglo-Saxon…

Kirk out

ReJoyce! It’s Bloomsday!

Today, the day after my birthday, is a special celebration in Ireland; June 16th is Bloomsday, or the day when all the action in Ulysses is set, so-called after the main character Leopold Bloom. I have to fess up: I’ve never been a great fan of Joyce. Undoubted genius though he was (and I say this as one who appreciates that, not as one who’s been told it) I find the longer novels completely unreadable. I struggled through Ulysses, only because I had to, and foundered on the impenetrable rocks of Finnegan’s Wake. It’s a noble experiment to try to write a novel that stands outside time but in the end it’s unreadable. I do like the shorter works though and I especially appreciate his puns, my favourite of which is ‘funferal’, his word for a traditional wake.

But I like the fact that all Ireland celebrates Bloomsday. It’s not just some hook-up for the chattering classes but something which engages the whole community because Joyce was himself working class. More than that; there’s something in Celtic cultures which means that the arts run across classes and engage everyone, rather than being a mainly middle-class thing; I guess it’s a bit like the Rebus events in Edinburgh.

Here’s what’s on offer this year in Dublin.

Why can’t we do the same here in England? If you tell most ‘ordinary’ people about celebrations for Shakespeare’s birthday they will groan; because the Shakespeare they’ve been subjected to is like this scene in Dead Poets Society. This makes me roar and gnash my teeth, because it SO doesn’t have to be like that. Shakespeare is – and always was – universal. He’s for everyone. He’s like a pantomime; he’s got the cross-dressing and the knob gags as well as the sublime love interest and the yearning; he’s got everything. And the idea that we should all dress up and pay a fortune and sit still and quiet and listen earnestly is Just Not Right. It should be more like a pantomime with shouting and wailing and ‘oh yes he is! – Oh no he isn’t’ and crying and laughing. It should be joyous. To paraphrase Leonard Cohen, ‘Shakespeare taken serious by many; Shakespeare taken joyous by a few.’ The Celtic cultures do this so much better than we do because they don’t have any truck with pretension.

*sigh*

Ah well. I may log onto some of the Bloomsday events since they’re all online. In the meantime, I had a good birthday yesterday; no cake (I’m not a fan of cake and it would be a serious candle challenge) but some sitting in the garden, an excellent bike ride and pizza in the evening followed by strawberries and lemon sorbet. I love sorbet.

And that’s today. Happy Bloomsday. Happy Bloomsday to us, Happy Bloomsday to us, Happy Bloomsday dear Dublin…

Kirk out

Gegrunden Zu Einem Halt

It has been said that 99% of success is just showing up; if so I ought to be mega-successful by now because half my days are spent just showing up at my desk and hoping that something will happen. I’ve done a bit of work this week on some short stories I’m writing but after that I just ground to a halt. I really hope there’s something amiss with my thyroxine levels because otherwise I’m facing a deep, persistent and unexplained tiredness that just won’t quit. I manage all right in the mornings but in the afternoons I struggle to keep awake.

In the meantime I’ve been reading. I’ve finished the Millicent Fawcett book and I’m onto Ian Rankin’s latest, A Song for the Dark Times. (SPOILERS AHEAD) This is very enjoyable so far, though you can’t help wondering how much more life is left in poor old Rebus; he’s coping right now but he’s had to move to a ground-floor flat because of his COPD and his car is hardly healthier than its owner. In this story his daughter is accused of murdering her partner and Rebus heads up to Tongue, on the North-East coast of Scotland, to get up everyone’s nose in his inimitable way. Meanwhile in Edinburgh, Siobhan Clarke and Malcolm Fox are embroiled in the unexplained murder of a wealthy Saudi student, a tangled story in which Cafferty has also become embroiled and which seems somehow to connect to the events in Tongue.

I was wondering whether Rankin still had it – not that there’s any reason to suspect his powers as a writer have diminished, but because Rebus is so much a part of what he does. The characters of Clarke and Fox are interesting, the dynamic between them is engaging and the storylines as good as ever, but there’s no-one like Rebus – and Rebus surely can’t live much longer. Mind you, we thought that about Leonard Cohen – and then he went and released an album after his death, so we can’t give up on Rebus just yet. Anyway, it’s recommended for any fans and whatever doubts I may have had about it are thoroughly dispelled.

Today I’m going to take another stab at my short stories, then I’m going out for lunch and this afternoon I shall probably grind to a ….

Kirk out