My next read, Chinua Achebe‘s Things Fall Apart, fell through the letterbox on Saturday and I spent the morning getting through an alarming number of pages. At this rate I thought, it’ll only last me a day. I’d better ration it – and so I put it away and took out Heresy by S J Parris. This work of historical fiction (the initials perhaps a wish to disguise gender since studies have shown that male or gender-neutral names do better with publishers) was given away by Waterstones with each copy of Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, and I’m not sure it entirely did it a service since it almost looks likehow to do historical fiction alongside how not to do it. I find it inexplicable how writers are often praised who have an unbearably clunky style, who tell instead of showing and who have characters conveniently calling each other by their full names so that we know exactly who they are (‘Ah, Sir Phillip Sidney! How goes the poetry?’ ‘Ah, Giordano Bruno, as I live and breathe! So you have come to speak about Copernicus’ theory that the Earth goes round the sun?’) OK so that’s not an exact quote, but it’s not far off. Still, in spite of all that it’s a reasonably good read – and I may come back to the question of how to and how not to do historical fiction. Not that I’ve attempted it myself; far too much research for my liking.
So what else did I do with my weekend? Saturday involved a lot of sitting in the garden, but by Sunday I could no longer ignore the rampant convolvulus and (gnashes teeth) horsetail and so I did enter the shed, gird myself with gloves and wellies, arm myself with the strimmer and sally forth to do battle with the bastards. I have driven them back but have no doubt they will advance again – are even now preparing an advance – and we shall have to do battle many more times ere the summer is done. Which at this rate will be November.
Weeds aside, there has been a Nigerian theme to this weekend. It is a frequent rallying cry of OH that men cannot be feminists because they cannot truly understand the female experience; OH therefore had a big problem with Chimamanda Ngozie Achidie’s talk ‘We Should All Be Feminists.’ (I had not so long ago read her novel Half of a Yellow Sun about the brief history of Biafra.) The Nigerian author delivered this TED talk to an audience of mostly black women (and some men) and there was a great deal of delighted laughter when she spoke about attitudes in Nigeria which, from what she said, seem to be parallel to attitudes here in the ‘fifties (I don’t say that to be disparaging, it’s just an observation.) Much of what she said was therefore familiar to a Western audience; but her insistence that men should be feminists also and that they have nothing to lose by so doing, was an important one, and something I feel we have yet to learn. It remains a source of regret to me that feminism in the West came of age concurrently with global capitalism and so has become imbued with the spirit of individualism and competition that Thatcher so vividly personified. We need to rediscover cooperation – and perhaps now is the time to do it.
Speaking of which I rounded off the day with this documentary on Dominic Cummings. I haven’t finished it yet but if I ever wondered whether people were caricaturing him unfairly, I wonder no longer. It’s a horror story. More of this anon when I’ve finished watching it but for now, tatty-bye and have a good week.
Urg. Now I’ve gone and reminded myself of Ken Dodd.
How was your weekend? Mine was – well, it made me appreciate the pleasures of doing nothing very much and not trying to fill the time with Meaningful Activity. Apart from an hour spent on a wobbly phone at Quaker Meeting and a Facetime with family I had no scheduled activities at all. Previously this would have filled me with dread but right now it feels great because I don’t have to do anything except eat, sleep and entertain myself. I can watch the clouds go by or take a walk round the park and look at the blossom (it’s good this year but the magnolias got caught by the frost), I can make pizza and eat it while watching Breaking Bad with my family; I can hang out with Daniel and watch him play – not Animal Crossing, some other game where you make like Robinson Crusoe and build civilisation on an island, only sans Man Friday, I can’t remember what it’s called; I can read another hundred pages of Ducks, Newburyport, and I can garden.
I may not have the greenest fingers and after last year I felt that I’d earned a year off and needed to lie fallow for a while. But in light of potential food shortages that didn’t seem to make sense, so I decided I’d sling a few spuds in tyres like last year and run a few beans up poles and see if anyone saluted them. But could I get any seed potatoes? I could not. B&Qappeared to deny the existence of any such thing (seed potatoes? Never ‘eard of ’em) and sent me instead to some hanging baskets, while Wilko’s merely gave me a box to tick underneath each selection saying ’email when in stock.’ OK then…
But some tasks cannot be ignored. The lawn was screaming to be mown, so I got out the Great Green Goddess and chugged up and down the bumpy overgrown surface grunting bastard bastard bastard as I went. Mowing our lawn is a little like pushing a buggy over sand dunes – if you were trying to flatten the sand dunes at the same time and had to empty the basket every twenty seconds. No wonder this is my least favourite job. I don’t even like the lawn; since half the garden is flagged we never sit on it and to be honest, if things got so bad that the nation got into a dig for victory kick, I’d be quite happy to dig the bastard up and grow stuff on it. Provided I could get the seeds…
Anyway, having done that and tidied up the compost after the depredations of some local badgers, I felt I’d earned a rest. Daniel pruned the bush by the back door and then had a rest with me. That’s one great advantage of this lockdown – we’re spending more time together.
I wish I hadn’t put ‘…a Little Bit Rock’n’Roll’ in the title of the last post because every time I read it I think of this song. Anodyne and sickly as the Osmonds were, there’s nothing worse than them also pretending to be rock’n’roll.Which means I have to write another post, and that’s hard because I’m in a fallow phase. You know your brain’s getting stuck when you get a song going round inside it; in the last few days I’ve had the Gentleman Jack theme song followed by this one, which I don’t even like.In my experience when the mind goes round like a record on repeat it’s trying to make sense of something and the best thing is to leave it alone. Get on with something else. So that is what I shall do.
As far as work goes I’ve finished Chapter 34 of the Tapestry novel. Chapter 34 is the ninth chapter and will be followed by the tenth, Chapter 55 which in theory should be 55,000 words long but won’t be (if you’re confused, imagine how I feel.) Not wishing to try the patience of the reader the final chapter will be fragmented just as our world is fragmented, with pieces tailing off, unravelling, lost…
The novel aims to be a portrait of modern Britain centring on Brexit. It’s a book of voices, everyone giving their own account of themselves, their thoughts and experiences. From the Queen to a homeless man, from a refugee to Tommy Robinson and including some famous ghosts, these voices make up the Tapestry of Britain today.
And that’s me up to date. Today I shall be mostly… tinkering with things, going for coffee and catching up with the weeds which are always one step ahead…
I learned yesterday about a saying in German where if something goes wrong someone will say ‘That wouldn’t have happened if you’d put your glasses on.’ I don’t know what it is in German but it’s good to have a phrase like this which smooths away conflict, a joke which everyone recognises as such and which creates common ground where there might have been argument. This happens in families too: like most families I suspect, we have catch-phrases that have to be said in a given set of circumstances. When coffee grounds spill somebody will always say‘that’s grounds for divorce!’ and when things go wrong on a Thursday it is compulsory to comment ‘I never could get the hang of Thursdays.’ And on The Simpsons, Homer comes up with the phrase ‘it’s my first day’ which people start using all over the world to justify the most horrendous cock-ups.
So it is inevitable when I tell OH that I’ve spent the afternoon gathering comfrey that I will hear the phrase ‘it doesn’t come free, you know.’Which is funny but entirely untrue because it is free and it grows all over the place. I now have a bag-full of the stuff which will be melted down – well, left to liquefy anyway – and then added to water to fertilise our plants. Comfrey leaves are high in nitrogen and make an excellent plant food. You can place the leaves round the base of a plant as well if you don’t want to go to the trouble of making the liquid.
And that was Monday. It’s bloody wet here, what’s it like where you are?
My copy of Mslexiamagazine arrived today, another issue in which I have unaccountably failed to appear. I haven’t been entirely unsuccessful with them; a couple of years ago they published a poem of mine and a year before that I was their guest blogger on the theme of gender issues, so I thought I had a good chance with this issue as the theme was ‘Clothes’ and I had a short story and two poems on exactly that theme all raring to go out into the world and seek their fortune. Sadly in their infinite wisdom Mslexia declined to publish.Hey ho.
But it set me thinking about the different stages of writing, particularly writing short stories. These stages are analogous to growing veg: the first, the seed stage, is the idea. It may be a wild one, blown on the winds and self-seeded in rough soil, or it may be deliberately planted from a packet. At this stage you have an image of how it may turn out but whether or not it does what it says on the tin remains to be seen. Out of this idea comes a rough draft like a pair of leaves poking through the soil and at this stage it’s very hard to see what the story will become. But when it grows a little more, when the leaves assume distinctive shapes and the stem grows tall or winds in spirals or becomes short and stout, you begin to discern the shape. Aha! You think, I know just what to do with you! This leads on to the lengthiest stage of all, the editing, the rewriting, the pruning and weeding and feeding, until the plant reaches its full height after which, eventually, it will begin to bear fruit. At this stage the work is sent out into the big wide world with a hanky on a stick to seek its fortune.
Just as with gardening, the goal is to have pieces of work at each stage; ideas, drafts, stories in progress and work ready to send off. Writing’s just gardening really, when you think about it. Makes me feel like Peter Sellers inBeing There.
I’m really not happy with WordPress at the moment. I just this minute wrote a couple of paragraphs on gardening and clicked on something (I don’t know what) which took me off the page. When I came back it’d lost the entire post. It used to have a little bar up the top to continue editing but that seems to have gone – in fact all in all I’m having so many problems I’m thinking of switching to something else. Like Blogger, for instance. Those of you who use Blogger, how do you find it? Is it easy to use? Would it be suitable for a blog like mine? And if I switched, how would I redirect users? I don’t want my readers and followers to lose me.
Anyway, where was I? That’s right, I was in the garden, taking a jaundiced view of things. And why? Because the soil is clearly lacking in nitrogen, causing some plants – particularly basil and chilli peppers – to become yellow. So off I popped to the garden centre (well, Wilko’s anyway) and bought some plant food high in nitrogen and showered the plants with the good stuff. It was interesting to watch the basil change, the green filtering through the central vein and then the peripheral veins and finally to the outer lobes. I think we’re getting there anyway, things are looking healthier. Wish I could say the same for WordPress – they seem determined to push me into paying for a site but I’m digging my heels in.
But my favourite thing in the garden right now is a single California poppy, a splash of orange in a sea of green (and yellow.)
Thanks to climate change it’s been summer, on and off, since the middle of February when we had unseasonable warmth. Unfortunately we then skipped back to autumn with a touch of wintry chill and a storm or two when the greenhouse I had so optimistically put up blew down again, then back to spring, a bit more summer before settling on what used to be ‘normal’ temperatures. I guess what we have at the moment is typical for May, so I’ve been dithering about putting my basil plants out but now I’ve decided. The instructions (presumably seed packets haven’t yet caught up with global warming) say put them out at the end of May and the end of May it is, so out they go.
I said I’d get to Summer of Rocketsand so I shall, but first I gotta tell you! Last night! Oh, my god. I’d read about the National Theatre’s production of All My Sonsand it sounded so good I wished I could get down to see it. But that’s never going to happen so when I saw it was coming to the Phoenix (in a ‘stage on screen’) I knew I had to go. I tried to assemble a small group but in the end it was just one friend accompanying me. And wow. That’s all I can say, just wow. I was so gripped, I felt emotionally drained at the end of it. It’s such a harrowing play – not in an Auschwitz kind of way but in a ‘small close-knit families betraying each other’ way. I’m not going to tell you the plot because if you don’t know it, the denouement should come as a shock to you as it did to me. But if you get a chance to see this production, go. And if you’re in London, for god’s sake go to the Queen Vic – I mean the Old Vic – and see it. It was one of those plays that stays with you long after the curtain goes down.
The oddly-titled TV drama Summer of Rockets begins oddly and has odd dialogue – so odd that I nearly turned it off. But enter the divine Keeley Hawes and I was hooked. I’m glad I persevered because it’s an intriguing drama centring on a Russian emigre and his unlikely friendship with Hawes’s character, the aristocratic wife of an MP.Timothy Spall features as a rather crocodile-like brother and when the Cold War moves from being a backdrop to a central feature of their lives, the drama hots up. The sub-plots – the mysterious disappearance of the MP’s son which his wife investigates tirelessly, and the Russian’s daughter who is being groomed as a deb against her will – are fascinating in their own right even before they somehow join up. I’m only on episode 3 so I’ll keep you posted.
I always thought The Inklings was rather a twee name for Tolkein and Lewis’s little club of authors but this hasn’t stopped me subscribing to the Daily Inkling. Neither a newspaper of Narnia nor a broadsheet of Middle Earth, this is a series of daily blog prompts which, as I mentioned the other day, are a useful back-up for when my brain is running on empty.
Yesterday was unusual: I dropped in to vote in the European elections (please God don’t let Farage win, he’ll be unbearable. I mean more unbearable…) and stopped off at the library to return The Horse and His Boy. I’ve decided that reading fantasy, particularly children’s fantasy since the adult kind seems to be focussed on clashings of swords and bucklings of swashes (ooh, now at my back I hear a gathering army of protestors, speaking of Pratchett and others I haven’t read. So be it) where was I? Yes, reading children’s fantasy books in bed is a great way to get to sleep. Paul McKenna advises not reading anything before sleep besides his book, but the habit is too deeply ingrained for me to give it up. However, I recognise that a Rebus or a Nicci French is probably not the best thing for inducing a peaceful drowsiness, so I hit on the idea of fantasy. I began with Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner and then went on to the Narnia novels. I’m now beginning His Dark Materials. What’s important about these books is that they transport you to other worlds, meaning that you are already in an almost trance-like state by the time you slot in your book-mark and turn off the light.
This was leading on to something… oh yes, today’s blog post prompt. What was it again? ‘How important is physical fitness in your life?’
Well, yoga is very important. I guess you get more attuned to your body the more you do it, but it beats me how people can survive without a good daily stretch. If I miss it even for one day I feel stiff and listless because yoga not only stretches the muscles and joints, it raises the kundalini, the vital energy that keeps us all going and without which we are running on empty. This is why so many people drink coffee whereas in yoga stimulants are strongly discouraged (I have tea in the mornings and herbal infusions after that.)
But the missing dimension to yoga is a good cardio-vascular workout. Unless you do a number of rounds of surya namaskar (about which I have mental blocks as I’ve mentioned before) you don’t get many aerobic benefits. So whilst I go for a brisk walk sometimes and dig the garden most days, it probably isn’t enough. But I can’t bring myself to jog or go to the gym so the occasional zumba session to youtube videos is as far as it gets.
There. That’s today ticked off. Have a good Bank Holiday weekend.Oh, and the book I borrowed from the library? The Silence of the Girls.Was it any good? I couldn’t stop reading it. And that was yesterday.
I’ve been thinking some more about this idea of continual innovation. It’s not, ironically, new: I think it was Trotsky who came up with the idea of perpetual revolution, and although communism as he and Marx intended was never actually practised (what do I think of Soviet communism? It would have been a good idea) I can’t help feeling it would be terribly wearing. Because what we have now is perpetual innovation; perpetual change, perpetual upgrading. Goalposts are moved daily. Targets are shifted weekly. Marriages break up or break down, people redefine themselves, those who deplored tattoos now have them all over their bodies – and so it goes on. When I look at the news I see names I don’t recognise, and it’s not only ‘celebrities’ (when I watch Celebrity Mastermind I rarely know any of the contestants) but also politicians. I had really no idea who Gavin Williamson was until he was sacked and half of the cabinet are strangers to me.
But could it be that I’m just getting old? Possibly. It’s very hard to know, though – I mean, how do you measure the changes you grew up with against the changes my children are experiencing? Douglas Adams had a very pertinent comment to make on this, and he’s right – but how do you tell if today’s innovations are speedier than yesterday’s?
I guess we have to go to history for an overview: in any case there does seem to be a consensus that change is speeding up. In all probability this won’t continue: history teaches us that periods of rapid change often give way to slower times with an absorption of what has gone before. Or we could look at nature: consider a river, say, running quickly as it starts, forging down the hillside and then gathering itself together, slowing down as it reaches the plains and then winding leisurely towards the ocean. Nothing that grows fast carries on fast, except for one or two plants and they’re generally parasitical.
I had a whole day planned today, what with it being a Bank Holiday; I was going to plant out all my tomatoes and butter beans. But it’s so cold I haven’t got the heart to put them out yet, so instead I’ve just bunged the poor things in the greenhouse to toughen them up a bit. And now I’ve gone all floppy and listless, without the will to do anything. Ah well.
I did make it to B&Q this morning, as did the rest of the East Midlands: it is of course a typical thing to do on a Bank Holiday since in B&Q you can get everything for the garden, including fences, decking, hot tubs and pond liners. But everyone in these places is so miserable you’d think they were in Dismaland. No-one makes eye contact, nobody smiles; it’s as bad as being in Sainsbury’s. A propos of which, on Saturday I avoided the great orange monolith and went instead to the outdoor market. I bought half a dozen local free-range eggs, some excellent grapes, some apples and a few books, all with cheery smiles and genuine banter, not the compulsory ‘how-are-you-today?’ the poor sod at the till has to give.
So at B&Q I managed to manhandle the garden canes, rosemary plants and growbags but was defeated by the compost. So I asked a nice young man to help, which he did. When I got to the till I asked again if someone could help but the young woman didn’t seem to know what to do and in the meantime inexplicably stopped serving. I could feel the impatience of the people behind and began to feel uncomfortable. Eventually the bloke behind offered to help not out of friendliness but from impatience. I had to manoeuvre the trolley down to the bottom of the car park, sensing his impatience growing all the time and feeling more ill-at-ease by the moment. Finally he wrestled my compost bags into the car and left.
So – back home I planted the rosemary and put some of the tomatoes into bigger pots. And now I’m off to Hathern to pick up a roller-blind.