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

But What Does God Think?

I spent much of yesterday reading Millicent Fawcett’s ‘Short History of Women’s Suffrage.’ It’s a fascinating read with some interesting (and depressing) parallels with our own time. It is astonishing to discover just how many times the issue of women’s suffrage was up before Parliament and how many times, in spite of having widespread support, it failed to pass into law. Gladstone stands out as a particular weasel; having indicated he would support the issue when in government, he then proceeded to campaign against it as Prime Minister. Remind you of anyone? Fawcett was in the thick of this debate and knew major players such as John Stuart Mill and Harriet Martineau as well as the female opponents of women’s suffrage, whose position she neatly eviscerates. It’s exactly like Phyllis Schlafly who opposed the Equal Rights Amendment in the US: it’s a case of ‘do as I say, not as I do.’

But for all its obvious frustration and anger, the book is not a rant. It’s a very measured account whilst also being well-argued and forceful. The most striking thing about her opponents is that they nearly all relied on some inside knowledge of what God thought about it all. Women were divinely ordained to stay at home and raise children; we were not formed for cogent thought, etc etc etc and this was the way God wanted it. As Mary Wollstonecraft observed a century and a half earlier, ‘I have not found among the disbelievers in organised religion a single opponent of the principle of equal rights for men and women.’

There were a lot of surprising things in this book; such as that the Isle of Man was the first place in the UK to give women the vote and that in many places until the mid-19th century women were allowed to vote by default – simply because there was no law that said they couldn’t. The book is sad because it was written in 1912 when Fawcett thought we were on the eve of obtaining the vote, not realising it would take four years of senseless slaughter to change people’s minds; she did, however, live to see it enacted into law and the first women MP’s take their place in Parliament.

Warning – next section contains spoilers.

In other news, we finished watching Jimmy McGovern’s excellent series Time, starring Sean Bean as a deeply remorseful alcoholic serving four years for killing a cyclist while driving drunk. Four years is not long but the courts took into account that he handed himself into police, accepted responsibility for what he’d done and pleaded guilty in court. The drama begins with him being transported in a prison van alongside two maniacs who are banging the walls and screaming at each other, and in the beginning I thought it was going to be a violent drama which ended with him being killed or else somehow sucked into the system. Not a bit of it. It’s a steep learning curve but he learns how to stand up to bullies and spends a lot of time talking to young offenders about what he’s done. He teaches a fellow-inmate to read and after two years has so impressed the staff that he’s allowed out for a day to speak at a conference – unsupervised. But now it’s payback time: the guy who helped him defeat the bully wants the favour returned, and it’s a big one. After the conference he’s to stop off, pick up some drugs and deliver them to the prison. This is the turning-point of the drama – after delivering his speech to the conference on the need to live a good life, he can’t do it. He gets back in the taxi, goes back to the prison and tells the guy it’s no go. Ten minutes later they come for him, bearing snooker balls wrapped inside socks, but they guy he taught to read and write saves him, though not before he gets one eye socket bashed in.

The prison is often brutal, an environment where the best recourse to getting beaten up is to shut up because if you get a name as a grass life will only get worse. But there are beacons of light in the darkness, and in the end he finds redemption because he is willing to face up to what he has done. The drama ends with him meeting the mother of the man he killed, both of them trying to find a way forward.

There’s a sub-plot too, featuring prison officer Eric McNally, a ‘firm-but-fair’ bloke who actually does get sucked into the system because his son, in another prison, is being threatened. In order to save him he resorts to smuggling drugs into the prison and in the end he’s caught. He and Mark swap over; as Mark is waiting to get out, Eric is waiting to be transported to another prison to serve his time there.

It’s cathartic – and there aren’t many dramas you can say that about nowadays.

Kirk out

I Demand to Have a Fluffy Thing

It’s interesting to compare the vocabularies of different languages. Spanish, for example, has two words for ‘to be’, one permanent and one temporary, though Inuit does not, contrary to popular opinion, have ten words for snow. But what is true is that the English have lots of words for rain: drizzle, mizzle, downpour, stair rods, cats and dogs, shower, light shower, scattered shower, torrent. pelting, tempestuous… I could go on and on like the rain itself has done this past month, and the reason is obvious; we get a lot of rain. Not only that, the rain is unpredictable and very variable, hence we have a large rain-soaked vocabulary. One of my favourite quotes about rain was heard at a bus stop somewhere in Yorkshire after someone remarked that the rain had come earlier than forecast: ‘Course, this in’t the proper rain. This is just condensation.’

George Orwell’s theory of language posits that without a word for something we are unable to have a concept of it. As Blackadder says, the Germans are evil and heartless because they have no word for ‘fluffy’. But I would dispute that – not the fluffy thing, the other thing* – because there are plenty of things we go around noticing but cannot yet name.

*although possibly also the fluffy thing

Douglas Adams’ Meaning of Liff gives words to things that have no name as yet. It’s an interesting linguistic exercise but it’s mainly comic; the comedy arising from the fact that we recognise the things but just haven’t named them yet. Such as the ‘garden sprinkler’ thing your mouth does when you open it at a certain angle (‘Skoonsprout’) or the way cars all slow down and drive in formation when a police car is among them ‘Grimbister.’

But once we start to properly think about these things we immediately invent words for them. As a child I felt that the broaching of a new jar of jam or Marmite required some sort of ceremony; the surface was so smooth and perfect, I wanted to say something as I dipped my knife in for the first time. So I invented the word ‘pervise’ and solemnly intoned ‘I pervise this jar of Marmite.’ Later I discovered something in my eye which only half seemed to be there, something I couldn’t explain and so christened it ‘boodies and frooths’ which summed up the uncanny feeling they gave me. I told my mother they were monsters but it wasn’t until I grew up that I discovered they were floaters in the eye.

In his book Mezzanine, Nicholson Baker shows us all the minutiae of life that we are only subliminally aware of. I thought I was the only person obsessed by the handrail on the Tube escalator but Baker is too; he describes in great detail how the handrail moves slightly faster than the stairs so that you have to keep adjusting where your hand is. It’s such a relief to read a book by someone as obsessed with minutiae as I am; who notices the tiny gap between lift and floor or the bit of the handrail where it seems to be stitched together like a rough wound, which if you watch for long enough comes round again and again. Here is a book detailing all the things I ever wanted to think about but was told weren’t important and in the end didn’t have time for. It is a joy.

I’m sort of groping towards a point here but I can’t yet pinpoint exactly what it is. In other news we’ve been watching the Netflix series Unorthodox, based on a true story of a woman’s escape from an ultra-orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn. It’s very gripping. And before that we were enthralled by Little Fires Everywhere on Amazon Prime (yes, I know I hate Amazon but it wasn’t my account) the story of the unravelling of a supposedly inclusive community in small-town America.

Kirk out

Cassocks, Hassocks or Tussocks?

Or mattocks? This morning OH got confused between cassocks and hassocks (as we all do from time to time) and I found it very funny. But why? It’s not always amusing to confuse words so why are some funnier than others? Every comic writer knows there are some words which are intrinsically funny and some which just fall flat. Victoria Wood was a prime example of someone who knew the comic power of language and amplified the argot she grew up with in a way we immediately recognise. But what makes a word funny? Why are hassocks and cassocks funny? Is it because they sound a bit rude? Is it the juxtaposition of the ecclesiastical and the naughty that amuses? I think we should be told.

But I don’t know if comic writers are the best people to tell us. Victoria Wood is sadly no longer around but in any case the process of writing, the choosing of words, is instinctive. You don’t consult a thesaurus and make a shortlist of the best words; you juggle a few in your mind and pick the one that suggests itself. You might say the words choose you – which is in fact what a lot of writers do say, not least Winnie-the-Pooh:

‘They (the shillings) wanted to come in after the pounds, so I let them. It’s the way to write poetry, letting things come.’

Of course lots of authors, mainly of the egoistical, entitled kind, pretend to be in charge of everything they write. I say bollocks. Hassocks to you, I say; that is totally not true. No writer is consciously in charge of everything they write, or if they are, what they write will be total cassocks. Things come to you. Yes, you choose what to write and what to leave out; yes, you are in charge of editing and organising the work. But you cannot and never will be able to control what comes to you and what does not come. That is the great mystery of art.

At this point I am reminded irresistibly of Will Self. I haven’t heard him say this but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that he believes himself to be totally in control of his work. He packs his sentences with so many clever ideas that it’s rather like eating one of those disgusting Victorian roasts with one bird stuffed inside another. You just get a flavour of turkey when you realise there’s pheasant inside that and snipe to follow with just a hint of skylark to finish. It’s completely indigestible. There’s no joy in his work and very little instinct; it’s all ideas – clever, yes, but in my mind devoid of creative flow.

To some extent I sympathise. It’s not the easiest thing to admit to not being in control of your work; to some people it makes you sound weak or lazy – as if you’re waiting in a deckchair leafing through a magazine and waiting for inspiration to strike – though nothing could be further from the truth; the clear and focussed attention needed to allow creativity is anything but idleness. And it takes some humility to acknowledge that your best ideas come from the beyond: as JK Rowling said, ‘Harry Potter strolled fully-formed into my mind on a train.’ She was on her way from Manchester and by the time she got to London many of the characters had taken shape.

Now that’s my kind of inspiration. Some days all I get are tussocks. Or do I mean mattocks?


Kirk out

Shuggie Bain

Shuggie Bain was the surprise Booker Prize winner last year. I was intending to read it so when I was lent a copy at the weekend I got stuck in. I’ve finished it now and I think I need therapy.

This has to be the most depressing book ever. Shuggie is the youngest child of a large family in post-industrial Glasgow. His mother is a drunk and his father is a serial adulterer and abuser who moves his family to Pithead, a hopeless dead town outside a closed-down pit, before shogging off to live with his new woman. This story starts miserably, carries on hopelessly and ends in a slough of despond. Shuggie is gay and everyone knows it; he gets it in the neck from everyone at school and all the neighbours. The family are poor enough without the drink but if his mother gets hold of the benefits book it all goes on booze and Shuggie goes hungry. Even so, the hopelessness might be bearable if there was some sort of community but the neighbours are awful to each other; the women stand around gossiping maliciously and slagging each other off and the men only come by when they want something – usually sex. Even the one or two decent men in this seem doomed to impotence. The two older children get out as soon as they can – the daughter marries and moves to South Africa and the other son decamps to a bedsit in Glasgow, leaving Shuggie alone to try and save his mother from herself. He fails of course; she dies, and Shuggie ends up hanging out with a lesbian girl who is his only friend as they both try to save her mother who is now on the game.

I couldn’t find one thing to like about this book. It was a story of unrelieved grimness, of dirt and grime, of skidmarks on pants and snot on armchairs; a story of mouldy bread and damp carpets; in short, an endless litany of disgust. It reminded me a little of We Need to Talk About Kevin, though without the murders; it also put me in mind of Orwell’s description of the shifts that poverty puts you to and how hard it is to look decent when you live in a shithole. I’m not saying it was a bad book but it depressed me so much I really do think I’m going to need therapy.

Kirk out

Getting Hold of Proust

It’s surprisingly hard to get hold of Proust in the UK. I expect in France he’s everywhere; in station bookstalls and top of every Amazon search – but over here he’s seen as very – ahem! – recherche.

A little in-joke there for those of you who already know that Proust wrote ‘A la Recherche du Temps Perdu.’ This translates as In Search of Lost Time, though for some reason the first translator chose to go all Shakespeare on him and call it Remembrance of Things Past. I think that counts as cultural appropriation, quite frankly because it’s nowhere near accurate. Anyway, I first read Proust in the 1990’s and it took nearly all of that decade because Proust is not an easy read. His sentences are as long as most paragraphs and his thoughts complex and intertwining. It takes a long time to get into but once you’re there you can’t live without him and you come to realise that in fact Proust is God: there is nothing he doesn’t know.

So I have now successfully ordered Volume 1, ‘Swann’s Way’ (I’ve got all the books but they’re in storage and I can’t wait any longer.) I’ll go into this in greater depth when my book arrives.

Kirk out

Shout-out to New Followers No. 2

As promised, today we salute the second cohort of followers who have joined us since January:

and of course the ever-prolific and immediately responsive

I wonder what the Anglo-Saxon for shout-out might be? I guess I’ll find out as I plough through Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Primer. I’m starting with the alphabet which is quite easy because most of it is like ours, although they have some different letters such as thorn and ‘eth’ (I think that’s what it’s called, though OH will correct me if not) both of which represent the voiced and unvoiced ‘th’ in English – ie ‘th’ in ‘thing’ and ‘th’ in ‘seethe’. Anglo-Saxon is a delight to listen to, such a mouthful of juicy consonants accompanied by goblets full of ringing vowels, you can practically taste the mead and feel the table under your hand. It’s interesting also to put this together with Sutton Hoo – though 500 years separate the dig from Beowulf – to create a picture in the imagination. Beowulf – I’ve read it now – is essentially a tale of shield-bashing men from the time when men were men, wrestling monsters from the deep (and their mothers) and fiery dragons. But what interests me is what it says about the society; the life of the barn where people sat in the mead-hall while wardens were placed outside; how status was dependent on prowess on the battle-field, and above all the importance of exchanging gifts. At the end of Beowulf the eponymous hero, having died destroying a dragon, is buried with much of the haul they recovered from the dragon’s den and placed inside a huge barrow on the cliff-top. Having finished the poem I have an enduring vision of ships crossing ‘whale-roads’, great halls, flowing mead and long speeches – one or two of which are given by women. Though undoubtedly second-class citizens and traded as freely as gold or silver, women are not as silent in Beowulf as I had expected and one, the wife of the lord, makes a lengthy speech of welcome to the Geats (people from southern Sweden) who have come to Denmark to free the people from the monster. It’s interesting to imagine the great mead-hall of Beowulf strewn with the found objects from Sutton Hoo; the shoulder-clasps of gold inlaid with garnet, the helmets laid aside while the heroes eat and the great cauldron hanging from the roof of the barn with perhaps a meaty stew inside. These were already sophisticated people with customs, trade, religion, seafaring routes and a social hierarchy. It’s just a pity that all they seemed to think about was war. Hey, ho – it’s tough studying Anglo-Saxon as a Quaker…

Fascism for Dessert

I’ve been watching bits of the impeachment trial on youtube. It’s deeply shocking when you put together Trump’s inflammatory speeches, tweets and statements with the actions of the crowd rampaging through the Capitol carrying nooses and guns and threatening to kill Senators for merely carrying out their duties. But what’s worse is the fact that as things stand the Senate is unlikely to convict. Republican Senators are scared, not so much of Trump as of their constituents (or whatever they call them over there). It really is mob rule, and you have to salute those brave enough to stand up for the rule of law. They are the human barricades in this situation.

I grew up believing fascism was dead, that it had been defeated in my parents’ generation and could not come back. That was a delusion; fascism is back, it’s loud and Proud, it waves flags and totes guns and will stop at nothing to achieve its ends. Fascism has no arguments and no creed; it doesn’t bother to debate, just says get out of my way, I’m going to win here because I’m right. And why am I right? Because this gun, this fist, this flag says I’m right. This President says I’m right. Fascism takes no account of reason or law except as obstacles that stand in its way. Of course, when they get into power they will enact their own laws which they will enforce with draconian severity, but for now laws are there to be broken. Your laws have no legitimacy. Why not? Because I say so. It’s this climate which encourages far-right Senators to insist they can bring guns into the Capitol and go without a mask: because I say so. Because it’s my right. Because I have the freedom. They are quick enough to invoke the second amendment for their own freedom of speech but would deny others the right to go about their lawful business or to cast their vote.


Trump will go down in infamy, sure. But the chaos he caused will carry on. Year on year there may be fewer people believing the election was ‘stolen’ but there will still be some – and in four years time a cleverer person can come along and manipulate these people and in the guise of rescuing America do what Trump failed to do and finish the job. In the end Trump was a useful idiot; he was like the Ape in The Last Battle who only wants more nuts and oranges and is made use of by cleverer, more manipulative power-brokers. To gain power in a democracy you need at least a measure of self-control and Trump had none; in the end his downfall was that he couldn’t accept losing. Losing was against his code, against his creed (if you can call it that) against his whole raison d’etre. He is simply incapable of accepting defeat; he has not conceded the election and probably never will. This is a terrible weakness. A more sensible person would have conceded, albeit between gritted teeth, and bided their time for a comeback. But Trump has never been sensible.

Whatever possessed a population to vote him in in the first place is a question we’ll probably never fully be able to answer. He was a disgrace to his office and his country. He roused up the worst elements in the population, incited an insurrection and should never be allowed anywhere near office again. Will the Senate have the guts to convict? We live in hope.

In other news, my copy of The Dig has arrived. Yay! I look forward to reading it and I’ll let you know my thoughts. In reference to Wednesday’s discussion on books vs ebooks, I get most of my reading via Alibris, a site which links second-hand bookshops throughout the UK (there’s also a US site.) Typically prices are much lower than in the shops, though not so low as Amazon. But you know why I don’t use Amazon: at least you ought to know, for I have often told you so… You can also find obscure or out of print books, usually for a reasonable price; I’m still awaiting my copy of Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Primer. Greek is not enough: I must learn Anglo-Saxon! I must read the tales of Hroth and Hgoth and their glorious swords and try to detach my feminist consciousness from this chest-beating epic. I’ll let you know how I get on…

Kirk out

Book, Book, Book. Can You Kindle My Interest?

I was thinking this morning as OH perused yet another volume on Kindle, about why it is that I so dislike reading a book from a screen. I know it’s cheap, I know it’s easy and I know you can get hundreds of books on one tablet, but I just can’t get along with Kindle. Why not?

First, when reading from a screen I have a tendency to scroll; this comes from a habit of scrolling through stuff on Facebook or email and it’s a bad habit but a necessary one: I simply don’t have time to read closely every communication that comes my way so I scan to see if it merits closer reading and if it doesn’t, I’ll move on. There’s so much information out there and you can look something up on Google and get sucked into a rabbit hole before you know it. It’s not so much that we take in more information than our forebears, but that what we do take in is more scattered; rather than reading the paper over breakfast or sitting in the evening with a book, we check the news online, switch to Facebook, scan our emails, begin the crossword and then maybe dive back into to a news story, perhaps with the radio or TV on in the background – all of which can be randomly interrupted by texts or phone calls and don’t even get me started on adverts. You could say our attention is being stolen moment by moment, but we are also giving it away: we are butterflies fluttering from flower to flower picking up a little bit here, a little bit there and never fully digesting what we read.

A book is something I hold in my hand, and there’s something about the relationship between brain and hand that makes the holding of a book into something more serious than scrolling with a mouse. There’s an intention; you take down the book from the shelf and open it, you settle in your chair and hold the book in your hand, all of which sends a signal to the brain saying ‘this is what we’re doing now’. Result: the brain sits up and pays attention like a class of children when a teacher walks into the room. When I’m reading a book I don’t do anything else but read: I might sip a cup of tea or glance out of the window but I don’t flip back and forth between emails and Facebook because they are not accessible to me. Then when I’ve finished I mark my place and put the book back on the shelf; another signal to the brain saying we’ve stopped reading now.

This is what I’m doing now has become a sort of mantra for me. If my mind becomes scattered or impatient I stop and say, This is what I’m doing now. Sometimes I’ll even narrate: Now I am going into the bathroom. Now I am sitting down... yeah, OK – I’ll spare you the rest.

The most important thing I learned from yoga is to be present in the here and now: I’m also a great believer in seizing not just the day, but the moment. To pay attention to one’s desires and impulses is the key to not being dominated by them. If Trump had learned this when he was younger the world would have been spared a painful four years. More on that story tomorrow… gosh, I’m organised this week.

That’s all for now folks.

Kirk out

The Song and Dance of the Spheres

As I lay awake in the early hours abandoning all hope of sleep (abandon sleep all ye who enter here) I was thinking about the music of the spheres. In ancient times they had an idea that the spheres – ie the planets and the sun – made a kind of music inaudible to our ears, but real to those tuned in to it. It was not literal music but an idea of harmony and it was also linked with dance. Just as you cannot have dance without music, so to the ancient mind the planets could not move without their own kind of music. Everything was in harmony and everything knew its place.

Nowadays we’ve thrown out all such ideas. Any harmony is in the human mind, not ‘out there’; the universe is random and movements are governed by forces we partly know and partly have yet to discover. Yet if we set aside the notion of hierarchy there is something very appealing in the notion that everything in the universe works in harmony in a fusion of music and dance. C S Lewis picks up this idea in the Narnia books: in Prince Caspian the young prince is taken to see the conjunction of two stars, Tarva and Alambil: they are so close together that he asks whether the stars will collide. ‘Nay,’ says his tutor, ‘they know their dance too well for that.’ And in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader Caspian actually meets a retired star living on a remote island. Every day he is brought a live coal from the mountains of the sun and every day he grows a little younger: soon he will take his place once more at the Eastern rim of the world and begin the dance.

There’s something hypnotic and deeply spiritual about dance; and perhaps this accounts for why I dislike Strictly so much. I know it’s tantamount to heresy to say this, particularly since Bill Bailey won it, but I just can’t stand it. I can’t quite put my finger on why but I think it may be this; that in all the competition, the spangly-twirliness, the light-flashin’, lip-smackin’, costume-wearin’, the relentless cheering and the acrobatics, something of the soul is missing. Popular it may be; dance of the spheres it ain’t.

I’m going to leave you with a couple of my favourite dances on film. The first is from A Knight’s Tale where a stately dance to medieval music morphs seamlessly, almost imperceptibly into Bowie’s Golden Years:

video removed on request.

And this. Almost any dance scene from La La Land would do, it’s a totally magical film but I’m going to leave you with this. It was filmed almost in one take early in the morning just outside L A and it’s stunning.

video removed on request

Enjoy! Have a little twirl yourself – but do it with soul.

Kirk out