New year, new leaves…

So, here I am. Not, exactly on the side of the Severn anymore (though, in recent weeks the Severn’s been about eight miles wide so we’ve got close) but still wanting to put “stuff” “out there”. Here’s a piece I wrote for the local benefice mag back in dear old Hill, prior to our journey North, and a couple I’ve written for the one here in Herefordshire. All part of a new leaf to write more (or, more accurately, anything).

 

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WHAT MAKES A HOME? 

Several summers ago my friend and (then) housemate Kat Ingle and I ran a summer school at Rockhampton Village Hall with the working title “What Makes a Home?”. The young members of Impatient Vagrant, the community theatre company Kat still runs, explored some of those often fine but very strong threads that tie us to a particular place. As we leave Hill for Herefordshire this summer, I find myself asking the same question, what does make a home?

I have lived longer in Hill than anywhere else and I think it will always feel like home in some sense. When you’ve moved around as much as I have (I think our new house will be my fourteenth) time spent in one place is precious. When I moved to Hill in April 2003 it might well have seemed like a rather bizarre move. I was young(ish), with a good job, why wasn’t I living it up in London – or any other city for that matter? What was I doing moving to a tiny village with no shop and – quel dommage – no pub? Several fairly local friends didn’t even know that Hill existed, what would I find to do in such a speck on the map?

Well, lots. My own sisters, two of whom were city dwellers, had to admit that I seemed to have a pretty good social life for someone living in the back of beyond. I grew things, I wrote things, I walked – sometimes alone and sometimes with borrowed dogs – and I sat in Hill’s beautiful church, St Michael’s. I’ll be doing some more of that this month (after I’ve attempted to arrange flowers and run the hoover round of course). The plain-ness and the peace of that old, old place made an impression on me the very first time I experienced it and it still draws me, whatever the season, to want to sit in its stillness. It’s a good place for thinking and for praying; the ancient walls seem to soak up my worries and give me a reassuring sense of how small most of them are in the context of the prayers and praises that have been said and sung within them. The kindness of the congregation at Hill and the wise words I’ve heard from its splendid pulpit, particularly those of Richard Chidlaw, have grounded me through the eventful decade I’ve spent here and I shall miss them.

Home is, of course, where the heart is. Our new home will, we hope, be a place of love, laughter and welcome. But I’ll be leaving a tiny little bit of my heart in St Michael’s and looking forward to sitting in its stillness again before too long.

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DIARY OF A THOROUGHLY MODERN MOTHER – FEBRUARY

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to do more writing. There were others – mostly to do with the increasing of exercise and the decreasing of the consumption of Sauv Blanc – but these, I suspect, are doomed to failure. This one might stand a chance. The title comes with a hefty dose of irony. Any Thoroughly Modern Mother (to be known, henceforth, as a TMM) will tell you that for “thoroughly” and “modern” read guilt-ridden / exhausted / fractious / bewildered etc etc. Becoming a mother’s been the only thing I’ve ever really known I wanted to do. My “career” has happened largely while I was waiting for the right chap to come along. He did, in 2009, and we made swift work of marrying but I still didn’t embrace motherhood until I was thirty eight. Plenty of time to think about the kind of mother I wanted to be; calm, patient, contented, organised, a natural breastfeeder etc etc. The reality was a little different.

Our son is gorgeous. I would write that, wouldn’t I, but, honestly, he is. He was a wonderfully contented baby and is now turning into a most entertaining toddler. He smiles all the time – especially at ladies. He is, in truth, the most incorrigible flirt. With the great blessing of such a happy boy, how could I find so much of those early months so, so hard?

One factor is expectation management. In my “old” life I would sail through incredibly busy and challenging days. Surely then I could cope with a baby? Well, sometimes, no. Suddenly the benchmark for a successful day had utterly changed; where once it might have been my the calibre of my Year 13 students’ performance capturing the satire of Lysistrata through their modern interpretation, now it was whether or not I’d managed to get both of us dressed by lunch time. Where once I’d had fairly regular pedicures, now brushing my teeth and washing my hair suddenly became luxuries I could only intermittently indulge in. TMM? Lank-haired, sleep-deprived basket-case more like.

I went back to work last month. I’d done some bits of supply in the run-up to Christmas but now I have a proper teaching job with responsibilities – albeit not to the same degree as in the past. How will I juggle the challenges of this new post with the demands of being a TMM? I resolve to write again soon with an update. Wish me luck!

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DIARY OF A THOROUGHLY MODERN MOTHER – MARCH

Being pregnant is weird. It’s wonderful too, of course, but, at times, really weird. I described it  once like being in a wheelchair pushed by someone who’s had seven double shot espressos; you’re not in control and the person who’s supposed to be in control isn’t either. Another friend said she felt there was an alien inside her, the other girl with us, who doesn’t have children, looked aghast but I could see the similarity. Obviously, one feels a good deal more warmth towards one’s unborn than I’m guessing John Hurt did about the murderous stowaway he was “hosting” in the film Alien but carrying another person around with you for nine months does take some getting used to.

Some elements of pregnancy I loved. I had no morning sickness and my skin actually glowed. My hair looked amazing and I had a fantastic surge of energy late in my 2nd trimester which coincided, handily, with performances of the production I’d written and directed at my previous school. Some were more of a challenge; I went off booze for the 1st trimester and then craved it massively after that – along with fizzy cola bottle sweets. The joy with which I greeted the news, from a midwife, that the best way to get my milk to flow was to have a glass of bubbly was almost unbound!

Needless to say, there’s quite a bit written about being pregnant and about how the prospective TMM  should approach it.. Hynobirthing was a great discovery. Several friends suggested I try it and I found it really useful. Put simply, it’s relaxation and visualisation techniques geared specifically for the experience of childbirth. The ideal is that it will equip you to have as natural a birth as possible. I had opted for a low tech birth at the wonderful Stroud Maternity Hospital but things didn’t quite work out that way – that tale is for another month though.

Why have I been musing on all this? Because I’ve started listening again to one of my “Birthing” CDs, a very chilled-out instrumental album which I listened to while in labour and which we often played when our son was tiny. It’s brought back some powerful and special memories and it turns out it’s great music to mark Year 9 books to!

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Creepypasta

I can’t quite work out why spooky internet stories are called “creepypastas”, except to say that there is a brilliant website of the same name. At http://www.creepypasta.com you can find a selection of horror and ghost stories, written in different forms. Some creepypastas have, according to Wikipedia, become urban legends, presumably given credence through the spread of information across the internet itself.

A particularly striking story is this one, Candle Cove: http://www.creepypasta.com/candle-cove/

Written as a series of posts on a message board, it asks for memories of a scary old children’s Tv show called “Candle Cove”. Various posters write in with different but all terrifying memories, until the originator of the thread posts the killer message about it at the end (I won’t spoil it).

It’s a brilliant story, but also a staggeringly effective one. For a start, fans and perhaps the original author have created designs, pictures, still frames and even sounds from the “tv show” itself. Secondly, the “memories” have a tinge of genuine terror about them. It’s so casually yet well-written, that you sense the fear these imaginary characters have of this ancient tv programme.

It’s also interesting that the date of the original show is given as 1971.

It set me thinking (when I was a bit freaked by the story and couldn’t sleep). Although the story originates across the pond, I’ve noted before how there is a genuine touch of the spooky about children’s television of the 1970s and 80s. The theme tune to geography programme Near and Far, for example; Picture Box, a school’s educational programme; the bizarre Charlie from Words and Pictures; although clearly unintentionally, Noseybonk features here. Doctor Who, although not explicitly a children’s show, was also pretty scary (and later, violent). The worst example of all these is the Natural Born Smoker educational ad (or Public Information Film) shown on British children’s TV in 1985.

What does this say about the time they were produced? Probably nothing. Perhaps that there was something underlying some elements of culture at the time that was frightened of the unknown…but most likely it is chance. The Candle Cove story is plausible because it fits this time perfectly – after the 1960s, when we all “feel” that children’s shows would have been tightly controlled; but before the late 80s and 90s, when everything would have been recorded and subsequently placed on Youtube. It’s a cultural twinge of the uncontrolled, which isn’t misplaced, as any student of cultural movements of the time could tell you. This sense of the uncontrolled is a bit frightening.

Would, could a network have put out such a frightening programme for children? The story works because we fear that yes, they might have done…in those days. It’s long ago, so dark in our minds, but in a time when it seems likely that they might have experimented with such a programme. It shows that we have more understanding of history than we think.

It also shows the way we turn scary things into outright existential terror as small children. The importance of such terror to early childhood cannot be overstated. We created and in some senses revelled in terror when we were little. It was a natural reaction to entering a dark, mysterious and dangerous room – which is what the world is, when you are tiny and know you are somewhere, but know almost nothing about it. It’s a psychic defence mechanism, but also something and a time that places fear into our selves. It becomes neuroses, anxieties, distant memories. Candle Cove is a brilliant little story because it is true.

 

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The Club Einstein a Go Go

Years ago – I forget when, but I’m sure I’ve written about it since – I used to go to a club. It was a peculiar place, called the Einstein A Go Go. I think it finally closed down around 1997? Thereabouts? About the time everything dissolved into tears, anyway. Goodness me, I remember that. One day we held our failures like hot water bottles, the next we exploded into a stream of irrelevance and nothingness. We still do. And golly, that’s it – we are just so nothingistic now.

Forgive me. I write this nostalgic stuff and I see celery, SS-20s, clouds of desperate men, knitted patterns and ballistic trajectories. I forget that I am a person.

Where was I?

Someone told me it was much earlier – 1990, in fact, but I don’t think that sounds right. I remember dancing in its grim shadows as late as the blitzing summer of 1995. We were thinking about all the unemployed and the final end of the mines, and yet were joking about Major as if he were a failed circus clown.

It was explosive – wow, the noise and the light! Although it always seemed quite dark. Maybe it was the fear the light and the noise that they made you think was coming. Noise, light, heat.

There was a lot of light though, and drugs – I remember the drugs.They made everyone except me very happy. Lots of smiling faces and people used to say, ” why do you drink that rubbish? It just makes you violent.” But I never felt violent, only sad – much like today. I don’t know what it was everyone else was taking but they seemed happy for a bit. They weren’t that happy at school, in fact they were extremely aggressive and hated my guts, but that was because I was taking the michael out of them, all the time, from a position of ignorant arrogance. I was right, but that was chance, and they look a lot better than me, twenty years on, so they must have done something right.

The Einstein A Go Go – that wasn’t even the right place for a  drug. They were in the wrong club, really. But they were sort of trapped, as there was nowhere else to go until 1998. Some of them had said there were other clubs as early as 1987, but I never believed them.

I remember there was a guy on the door – he looked like Richard Nixon  – or was it Charlie from Words and Pictures – and he used to say – “Them shoes are communist” and not let you in. Or something. The music was pretty good – that was the thing about the Einstein A Go Go. The music just had this feel of ending – this sense that we were all panicked. It used to make you panic. That’s why the Ebenezer-Heads were in the wrong club. We flew on panic, anxiety and fear. Sometimes the DJ would play this crappy synth thing, this cover of some soul classic, like Ain’t That Peculiar – and we would all start completely still, then we would shuffle, then we would move like pulses of electricity, out of time and without space. We’d bounce off each other, sometimes fighting, sometimes never even knowing there was another person there. There’d be silence, of some kind, between pulses, notes or bars. There would be gaps. We never intended violence, but it did happen. We just wanted to be separate.

If I remember it rightly, there were pictures of fields and stuff on the walls. The club cultivated this pastoral atmosphere, but there was nothing farmly about it. It was strictly houses only. Houses, quiet roads, alleyways and sodium street lights only. I think that was because the club was started up by people who lived in the soulless deep streets of Moscow, New York – and Sutton. Sutton was really important: London Corporation brickwork for mile after mile after north after south after east after west. St Helier Hospital and its morals blasting at you all the damn time.

Somehow the long, same empty streets made you feel like the end was quite close, maybe even behind you. It’s not the same now because the houses, flats, prisons are winking and joking with you. Some of them are blue – that sort of says it all. But if you look at any serious show or Play for Today recorded in the 70s or 80s, you can see the streets I mean. They are not washed out by the film, they are washed out.

Most of the time, there’d be something that combined the anxiety with love and lust or desire or ambition or something like that. The songs would sound small, and fast, like intelligent rats, and you’d try to follow them and if you caught them you’d feel a bit sad – like Love Plus One by Haircut 100, for example, or The Lion’s Mouth by Kajagoogoo. Eventually delicate fear was superseded and hiphop overtook it, turning the Coward-esque  tossy ironies, the stupid b-movie sound effects, into raw fear and anger – it got the anger, but the club Einstein A Go Go was never comfortable with anger or with hiphop.

So it really fitted into its surroundings. You had to be careful, mind. There were fights everywhere. There were no bogs and the dancefloor was split into several parts, all fenced off from each other. It used to really get some peoples’ goats. They didn’t like it if you looked at them. But that’s not really an Einstein problem.

It’s worse now, even on the streets. People don’t like you anymore.

But their problem is different. It’s the problem of eternity. They have immortality to worry about and they are scared that it is a very long time in which to do nothing. In which to be nothing. And they turn back to fear. So maybe it isn’t that different. This time their fear is a bit more…extended. They are very keen that everyone have the same fear. That we all share their own worries. They really don’t like it if we don’t – they get cross. They curl up in a ball and scream.

The generations have so little to teach each other, don’t you think? The problems are the same as they have always been, but we give them new clothes.

 

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The Confession and Absolution

The end of Nineteen Eighty-Four has Winston thinking to himself:

He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.

The rhetoric is almost ironically overblown, the repetition of structure perfect for the blasted and self-rocking mind trying to reassure itself that it loves and is loved. But Orwell cannot resist mocking his character by including the faintly comic description of the gin-scented tears: they trickled, not down his cheeks, or face, but his nose. For some reason it makes me imagine Winston as being somewhat snotty too. This sinister and comic ending to the story, with its hyperbole and quasi-Dickensian energy, does not fit the style of the novel at all well. It simply isn’t told as if it were a masquerade of grotesques – though, of course, it is exactly that. Winston and Julia are no more characters than many of the cartoons who populate Dickens (this isn’t meant to be an insult to Dickens by the way, but a way of stating that he writes about the energies of life, love, hate and death by giving them human-ish form).

So what is the point of this final paragraph?

Firstly, it is a direct and deliberate counterpoint to the Appendix. This is an example of florid Oldspeak, whose passion and invention (“self-willed exile”, “gin-scented tears”) are to be eliminated by Newspeak. It is by way of introducing the reader to the description of Newspeak that is to follow, and, perhaps, to plant the idea in the reader’s mind that self-expression, even in the depths of nothingness, will never be defeated. At this point Winston is filled with Big Brother and nothing else (fear, rage, triumph and self-abasement maybe). Yet the thoughts of Winston here are anything but the rigid concepts of Newspeak. You could argue that this is merely the narrator’s interpretation of Winston’s thoughts, which are not expressed in words, but the implication given by the second O antiphon here is that it is Winston himself experiencing these words in his mind. It is he regretting the “self” created exile, he feeling the “loving” of Ingsoc – these are his experiences, as O Brien told him he would have.

Beyond this, there is another interpretation of Winston’s feelings, that would have been instantly and controversially recognisable to a politically literate reader of 1949. In Animal Farm (1944) no character is allowed to escape confession long enough to begin the path of self-rebuilding that Winston experiences here. In that sense, it looks upon the issue of totalitarianism from the outside. Nineteen Eighty-Four looks far more from the inside, as revealed by the Soviet Show Trials of the late 1930s.

Look at Winston’s statement of love, regret and delight in his own self-annihilation above again. Then look at this:

But I am preparing myself mentally to depart from this vale of tears, and there is nothing in me toward all of you, toward the party and the cause, but a great and boundless love.

That’s from Bukharin’s last letter to Stalin, some months before his execution in March 1938.

Or this (quoted from his Wikipedia entry):

At a time when my soul is filled with nothing but love for the party and its leadership, when, having lived through hesitations and doubts, I can boldly say that I learned to highly trust the Central Committee’s every step and every decision you, Comrade Stalin, make,” Kamenev wrote. “I have been arrested for my ties to people that are strange and disgusting to me.

As O’Brien said to Winston during the torture, “our commandment is thou art“. Somehow the tough old Bolshevik street fighters Bukharin and Kamenev, through their genuine commitment to their ideology and their fear of having maybe actually done something to damage it, combined with their torture in the Lubyanka, fall about themselves to protest love of the dictator, even though they know they are to die.

Orwell is here reminding his readers of the show trials, particularly his leftist friends and the leftwing publishers who had turned Animal Farm down (such as Victor Gollancz). He is explicitly commenting that their confessions and “love” were the products of terror and torture, and, after all, the overblown rhetoric of this final paragraph is indeed a satire – and a controversial one at that, implicating as it does, the government of the USSR in the destruction of minds as well as bodies. He is making the same point he has made before: that our allies were not so much better than our enemies. A less controversial point in 1949, after the Berlin Airlift, than 1944, when Soviet armies were pounding their way through Eastern Europe, but one that was worth making to all those people who thought that Soviet Communism really was A New Civilisation.

A reminder that my thoughts on this novel, Thoughtcrimes on Nineteen Eighty Four, is available from Amazon’s Kindle Store, priced very reasonably at tuppence ha’penny.

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Father Smiley

An interesting connection – made many times, I’m sure – is that between John Le Carre’s spymaster George Smiley, and GK Chesterton’s priest detective, Father Brown.

Both are, essentially, detectives (and in Smiley’s first two novels, Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality, he is a detective, being a retired or about to retire spy). Both are short, plump, physically unassuming men. Both are routinely underestimated by those around them.

Most importantly though, both men rely on their understanding of human nature to crack their cases. In Smiley’s case, this goes alongside serious, logical detective work; but it is his sympathy for and empathy towards the people he tries to bring to justice or unmask, that is the key to his work. He uncovers Haydon with sleuthing, but his understanding of Haydon’s motivations, which he slightly shares himself, gives him the confessing nature of the priest. People don’t always like to talk to Smiley, but he likes to listen to them. He likes to understand them. Nowhere is this clearer than whenever Ann Smiley appears or is referred to: he doesn’t understand her at all. Her motivations are so much harder to unearth than those of traitors. In this way, Smiley is almost the celibate priest.

Father Brown’s cases are sometimes solved with a confession, and he makes no apologies for understanding people’s motivations, casting a wry glance at the ideologies of his day as he does so.  But justice – in the sense of punishment, or desert – these are sometimes elided by both Brown and Smiley. As is sometimes said in Christian texts – notably St Luke – But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.

For both detectives, the key is thought and humanity. For both are a counterblast to ideology in their emphasis on the human stories of those they encounter. While both are attached to and serve ideologies (or theologies), both have too much sympathy for the vulnerable humanity caught up in the sway of violent or chaotic mass movements and in the sweep of history.

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Farewell Norm

As anyone can tell by the long silence on this blog, we’re not committed or prolific bloggers. Norman Geras (http://normblog.typepad.com) however, was: he wrote his blog for 10 years, posting on politics, ideology, philosophy, literature, music and cricket among other subjects.

Norm died last week and his passing has been greatly mourned in the blogosphere, with Harry’s Place alone carrying two tribute posts (here’s one: http://hurryupharry.org/2013/10/19/it%E2%80%99s-still-out-there-norman-geras-1943-2013/). He is greatly missed by his family and friends and by those of us who enjoy reading blogs.

Why was Norm so beloved? It is all down to his style. Norm was a Marxist, and argued his views powerfully and cogently. He always had respect for those who did not agree, which is precisely why he argued so forcefully – he thought his views, and the objections of others, were worth addressing fully and that other people could be persuaded to agree – or if not, that everyone could be clear on why they did not agree.

There was never any hint in Norm’s views that his opponents acted purely out of bad faith, malice or stupidity, which is a standard position among the blogosphere and now increasingly in the political sphere as well. That respect – which is not to be confused with respect for the actual view being contested – is what gave his blog its uniquely challenging but friendly atmosphere.

When you visited Norm’s blog, you knew you were there to think. You knew were respected as a reader and as a thinker.

He didn’t always set out to challenge: he posted some more relaxing stuff too. But Norm’s writings on music and cricket were also interesting and always thought-through: without being essays, but like articles for serious newspapers, they allowed the reader to feel comfortable while providing perspectives and ideas worth thinking about.

Norm invited others onto his blog, to share their views through questionnaires and through detailed discussions of favourite literature. The latter were more like essays and would examine a theme or a storyline or the influence of a text.

Norm never allowed comments onto his blog, believing that the blog was about the posts. In many blogs, comments generate far more heat than light anyway.  But he would always engage bloggers directly on his own blog or privately via email. He would be prepared to stand by his views but was always unfailingly polite with it.

As a result, Norm’s blog would begin or take part in debates that didn’t degenerate into the Mitchell and Webb sketch where the two protagonists are reduced to shouting “Stalin!” and “Hitler!” at each other.

Many of Norm’s obituaries have made this point. I wanted to add my £0.02, simply because I experienced Norm’s intelligence and decency first-hand on a couple of occasions and it it left me optimistic for the potential of the blogosphere. If we have largely failed to realise this potential, it is our fault for assuming our opponents to be enemies.

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The Spandau Ballet Dancer

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