Monday, February 28, 2011

Short Story - Making Tea

Maureen turned to the back page of the newspaper for the telephone number.  She lifted the handset and listened for the dial tone.   She pressed the numbers into the key pad and held the ear piece a few inches from her head waiting for the ringing to stop and a voice to answer. 
She listened to the automated answering system listing her options:  fines, emergencies, complaints and the last one, enquiries.  She needed to speak to a human and explain.  It was a delicate situation.  Finally, she convinced the duty clerk to send out a car. 
She replaced the handset.  The base wobbled on the table as it always had.  She walked across the kitchen and turned on the stove.  She filled the kettle from the aqua pura bottle and set it on the burner.  She examined the empty bottle.  She hadn’t used aqua pura to wash herself, only the regular desalinated that came through the pipes.  She remembered Lady Macbeth’s interest in washing.
The kettle hummed.
Maureen looked out the window.  The slice of sky she could see was veiled with dust and she could see the wind pushing against the palm trees across the road.  She put the empty bottle back on the bench top.  Odd how she had always favoured that bottle with its squat shape and midnight blue cap, over its fellow, taller and slimmer with a pale cap.  Odd, considering the water in both bottles was from the same demi-john. 
She mopped the bench where she had sloshed water while filling the kettle.  She grinned to herself as she muttered ‘out, out damn spot’ and stopped.  She was not losing her mind.
Maureen lifted the cat-shaped tea cosy from the pot and emptied the remains of the last brew and the old tea bags into the sink.  A thin brown lake, the colour of dried blood, spread across the steel surface, gathered in a ring around the waste hole and slipped away.  The two fat tea bags were cold to the touch and oozed as she squeezed them.  The dark tea went under her fingernails and along the edges of her nails.  She flicked the bags into the bin and washed her hands under the tap.  She scrubbed at the tea stains and dried her hands, paying careful attention to each finger and her palms.
She took down the tea canister and using two fingers like plunging scissors, she pulled put a pair of round tea bags, dragging them slowly against the others in the silver packet, so they did not separate.  It was a bit of a game she played with herself, keeping the bags joined together.  The seam was fragile, a mere remnant of the factory packaging machine.  The seam had always pleased her.  Joined at the hip.  Her friends used to tease her and Tim, always together.
She warmed the pot and watched the kettle.  She could hear the changes in tone as the steam built up.  She glanced at the window and wondered how long they would take to arrive, and whether she would have time to drink a second cup.
The kettle whispered and then shrieked.  She flicked off the burner and poured the water from height into the pot.  She inhaled the rush of tea – of damp hillsides baking in the sun and lush mountains wreathed in mist – and replaced the lid.
She chose a mug from their collection, one that Tim had always liked.  It was red, with street names of Paris on it.  She remembered when they bought the souvenir together, laughing at the rain.   She poured milk into the bottom of the cup and rotated the tea pot to encourage it to brew.
Maureen glanced out the window again to check for cars.  Nothing to be seen.  She looked down at herself, her clean blue shirt, her ironed jeans, her bare feet.  She counted her toes and glanced out the window again.  Nail polish.  She wondered, would she get nail polish?  She shook her head.  She could live without nail polish.
She swivelled the tea pot again and poured a spout’s worth into the sink.  She was determined that this cup of tea would be perfect.  Satisfied with the colour, she filled her cup.  She carried it into the lounge room where she could see the street.
Maureen lowered herself into the chair Tim always used.  At first she perched, then forced herself to sit back in it, pulled the lever for the foot rest and felt her balance go as the chair flung her backwards.  She held the hot mug between her fingers, forming a noose so it wouldn’t spill.  She raised the cup to her mouth and sipped.  Too hot, still.  A car shuffled past.  It was green.  Not the one she was waiting for.
She examined her fingers.  They looked scrubbed white against the red of the mug.  She was very clean.  She had even brushed her teeth, afterwards.  That first sip of tea had assaulted the cleanliness of her mouth and mixed itself with the toothpaste taste.
She sipped again, and then took a full mouth.  It tasted of all the shared cups of tea, all those joined-at-the-hip cups of tea they’d enjoyed together.  She swallowed.  Another mouthful down.  Would she get a second cup?
The lingering toothpaste taste was gone.  She should only taste tea, but this mouthful was heavy and thick and tasted of blood.  She looked down into the brown swirl.  Only tea.  She gulped down the last third of the mug and put it on the table, on the coaster Tim always used, beside his chair.  She worked the lever so that her feet dropped down and her back came up and she was able to stand.
Maureen hadn’t noticed the car glide up.  Now it was dusk and the streetlights had come on.  And the door bell was ringing.
She put the hall light on so that when she opened the door they would see that she was safe, that they were safe to come in.
She undid the deadlock and turned the handle.  In a second it would be finished.  Maureen pressed her lips together and opened the door.  She stood back and tried a social smile.
‘Mrs Armstrong?’
She nodded.  ‘Do come in, please.’
The tall one spoke.  ‘We’ve had a report.’  He paused.
‘Yes.  Upstairs.  Do you mind?  Turn right at the top of the stairs.’  Maureen turned to the woman.  ‘Would you like some tea?  I’ve just made some.’
‘No thank you ma’am.  Let’s sit down in the kitchen while my partner checks.’
‘I don’t have a solicitor.  Is it usual?’
‘If you need one ma’am, there’s a duty solicitor who will advise you.’  She tilted her head up, listening to her partner’s footsteps.  ‘The report was correct then?’
Maureen nodded.
‘Was there something you wanted to say?  Was it self-defence?’
Maureen offered a tight smile.  ‘It’s always self-defence of one sort or another, isn’t it?’

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Politics of Cutlery

Cutlery.  Do all middle class Western households, those stable enough and affluent enough to own cutlery, that is, do they all have rules?  It is a subject that has always hovered beneath comment or active consideration, but lately staying in my parents’ house, and reading Alan Bennett’s Untold Stories, I started to think – no – write about it. 

In the Diary section, for 8 January 2001, Mr Bennett muses about domestic accoutrements in a way that reminded me of the unspoken force-fields in my own life:
Note how personalised and peopled the material world is at a level almost beneath scrutiny.  I’m thinking of the cutlery in the drawer or the crockery I every morning empty from the dishwasher.  Some wooden spoons, for instance, I like, think of as friendly; others are impersonal or without character.  Some bowls are favourites, others I have no feeling for at all.  There is a friendly fork, a bad knife and a blue and white plate that is thicker than all the others which I think of as taking the kick if I discriminate against it by using it less often.
Set down this seems close to insanity but it goes back to childhood when the entire household was populated with friends and non-friends and few objects were altogether inanimate, particularly knives and forks.  ... Sixty years later more traces of this animistic world persist than I would like, making a mockery of reason and sense.
Alan Bennett, Untold Stories, Faber and Faber, 2005, p 284

When I first copied that passage into my notebook, I amused myself by drinking tea from my favourite and friendly Winnie the Pooh mug, the one that reads ‘Eeyore, a friend of mine, has lost his tail.’ and which depicts Pooh sitting by Owl’s fireside in a cosy, pink-upholstered armchair.  Owl is perched severely on a wooden chair which is very similar to the Windsor one my father uses in his dining room.  The mantle carries a clock, a candlestick and a green plate.  Beneath the edge of the mantle is a fabric border (surely at risk of sparks?) in the same pink fabric with hints of cabbage roses that is on the arm chair where Pooh sits rather dejectedly.  (I am getting carried away.)  It might be the stiffness of a stuffed bear pose, but I feel that Pooh should look more animated and hopeful: his quest may be daunting but we know he was successful (or will have been successful) because beneath the text on the reverse of the mug is a drawing of Eeyore cavorting in his restored tail.

This mug is the subject of silent, discrete bickering because I think ‘him indoors’ favours it too.  There is always a bit of a rush to see who will get to use it.  The least favoured ones in the series are the one where Pooh is packing for a picnic – I think the overtones of house-moving are to blame – and the one where Pooh is stuck in Rabbit’s front door and he piteously asks ‘How long does getting thin take?’  The answer, Mr Pooh, is forever, I’m afraid.  Of course none of this may be true at all, and I may be projecting my childish pre-occupations on the innocent, pace Mr Bennett.

Perhaps it was being back at home with my parents and not very well and thus rather dependent and child-like that brought out the politics of cutlery to me.  There is an array of styles and qualities of knives and forks and spoons that has divisions and complex, unstated but closely observed regulations. 

There is a many place-settings, extensive ‘good’ set with scalloped edges to the handles which nobody particularly likes.  The handles are quite slim and I find they cut into the palms when eating;  that may be the reason the set is not in favour.  My place at the dining table (does every family have fixed seating?) is always set with them, exclusively.  There are also four place settings of ‘Haddon Hall’ stainless in a modernist-deco austere pattern.  These are quite heavy and robust.  I think they were given to the family by an old friend at least 40 years ago, and probably date from the 1930s.  There are four knives and dinner forks, three dessert spoons, three or four coffee spoons and a couple of cake forks.  My parents’ places are always set with these.  It is not chance or randomness, I never get the Haddon Hall cutlery.  Father uses the dessert spoon for his porridge every morning, but he spurns the coffee spoons as too small and short-handled.  The cake forks are less subject to the rules unless we are having salad.

The rest of the cutlery consists of various ages and qualities of stainless steel.  Some I recognise from my earliest childhood – the ones with a double line around the perimeters.  And there is an older ‘best set’ with a scroll at the end of the handles, from years before Haddon Hall entered our lives.  These are now jumbled in with an assortment of orphans and strays.  Even now, after hundreds of years of marriage, there are spoons still identified as ‘my mother’s’ and ones from ‘my father’s student days’.  There is a definite hierarchy of choice, use and favour.

Even amongst the teaspoons – which are segregated into proper ‘teaspoon size’ and smaller ‘coffee spoon size’ compartments in the cutlery drawer – there is one lone spoon that is slightly bigger and a different pattern, than the rest.  It has a bigger bowl and a longer handle than your average teaspoon.  Whenever there is ice cream or yogurt or fruit salad, this spoon is designated as my father’s.  He doesn’t like it if someone else has used it when he is looking for it, and harrumphs in displeasure.

Do other families have these hierarchies and restrictions?  We have mugs that never get used and ones that are chipped or cracked that always get used, and plates from the 1940s and 1950s, some no doubt antediluvian, that are faded, crazed, chipped and stained.  Nothing matches but they are all treasured as if resurrected from some otherwise catastrophic shipwreck.

Reading this piece today it seems the ultimate luxury and somehow unfeeling to be writing of domestic treasures that have survived decades of hard service and quite a few international moves themselves, when so many people have recently lost their homes and in some cases their lives, due to real disasters, whether natural or man-made.

And remember, not everything you read is true ...

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Barbie Cycle 4

When I wrote this poem, I didn’t know about the tattoo, the relationship dramas with darling Ken or even all the details of the 126 (and counting) careers Barbie has applied for with her ‘can do’ attitude.  Except, maybe it is a ‘can be’ attitude which somehow suggests to me more of  acting the role of, rather than rolling up her sleeves and doing the hard slog.   Sells more outfits I suppose.

Once again, apologies to any (any?) reader who may be inadvertently offended by the following lines.  I am aiming to poke fun at the doll and the marketing, not any earnest folk undertaking these roles in er, real life.

Barbie,  Icon of our Dreams

if you were a feminist, in suit and tie
or a plumber in overalls,
would you wear pink?

can a plaything be a feminist person?

all our hate and frustration is
focussed on you, small plastic

if you can’t have it all –
hairy armpits, purple stubble,
the tattoo,
the lesbian lover
the broken-hearted Ken
and the PhD in gender implications at the Quantum Point

what hope do we have?

the pink Cadillac

If I were cyber-savvy, I would have Bruce Springsteen playing while you read and a nice photo shoot of appropriate cars, but I don’t know the copyright protocols of ‘borrowing’ images or sound clips on the cyber-sea, so can only ask that you imagine these accompaniments.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

JKR & Boarding School

That JK Rowling has a lot to answer for.  For one thing, that wonderful school she conjured up, accessed from platform 7 ⅜ or whatever it was, fired imaginations all over the world.  When we started reading about Harry and Hermione and Hagrid and the wands, there were only two books published:  The Philosopher’s Stone and the one with the flying car on the cover.  We read these in the afternoon on the sofa, listening to the wind, or all snuggled up together in bed.  Our son was Harry’s age, 11 or so, and our daughter only a little younger.

Before we moved overseas (third or fourth international move, depending on where you start counting), we needed to find schooling for our babies – they were babies then – so unplanned and relatively unprepared, we sent them to boarding school at 9 and 11 years of age.  It was not an easy decision.  There were no suitable schools where we were going and at the brink of high school, it did not seem feasible or fair to attempt ‘home-schooling’.  Believe me, they would have turned out bizarre delinquents if we’d gone down that path.  The choice of establishment was limited as many are not co-educational, and even fewer take such young children.

When the prospectus for the school arrived, that JK Rowling was responsible for a huge amount of excitement.  The school looked like Hogwarts sans turrets.  The students wore elaborate uniforms, no cloaks or wands but there were houses which could stand in for Hufflepuff or Gryffindor, with colours and insignia;  there was a clock tower and a gothic dining hall, playing fields:  everything a young muggle-would-be-wizard could wish for.  Imagination and near-hysteria turned to pleading and finally anticipation.  JK Rowling had cast a spell that made my children forget about homesickness, strangers, distant parents and abandoned friends.  ‘When can we start?’ echoed through the house.

None of us were prepared for how gut-wrenchingly hard it would be to say goodbye.  On the drive to school, gloom descended on the front seat of the car.  Quiet discussions could be heard behind us, with the odd giggle and quickly suppressed squeal.

After we left them, dragging ourselves off to face the long drive home, packing up the house and shipping ourselves halfway across the globe, again, we tried not to think about what we had done or to look over our shoulders at the empty back seat.  We didn’t talk about anything connected to the matter at hand, only map directions, the price of petrol and similar inconsequentials.  

About 20 kilometres into the journey something made me glance over the back seat to where the children had been strapped in a few hours earlier.  Perhaps the silence or wanting to prove to myself they really weren’t there prompted me to look.  That is when I spied Mersey, our daughter’s chief bear, and Nod, our son’s bear, and Reggie and Telford and PC Plod and all the other furry toys that had been forgotten.

All because JK Rowling failed to give that Harry Potter a bear to take to school.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Censorship and Literature

I live in a country where censorship is the norm:  the internet, newspapers, films, books.  Some of the censorship is overt, such as when searching for (always boringly innocent in my case) information one inadvertently triggers the ‘block everything’ signal and a big notice comes up saying what one is looking for is prohibited, and some much more subtle, like the secret list of banned books which is only revealed if one breaches it.  I can understand it, no, on second thoughts, I can’t.  The aim to control ideas fills me with rage.  I am not a closet revolutionary, not particularly interested in politics and I do appreciate that in policy choices there are trade-offs, incompatibilities, ideals and pragmatism, but I also believe that discussion, thought experiments, and honesty are critical to a civil and engaged society.

The censorship of literature is a tricky question.  I am not thinking so much of my case where books are simply unavailable, but rather the fashion for tampering with existing texts.  The Bible has a long history of ‘translation’, selection and suppression; our old friend Shakespeare has been subject to various ‘improvements’ over the centuries, sometimes to help him be intelligible, sometimes to protect delicate ears and sensibilities from salacious language and behaviour.

Recently the autobiography of Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens has been released, along with a natty new version of his masterful Huckleberry Finn, made safe for 21st century students with the exclusion of ‘nigger’ and ‘injun’ as unacceptably derogatory and racist.  These words are unattractive and objectionable; there is no debate about that.  The arguments for replacing them with the words ‘slave’ and ‘Indian’ focus around the greatness of the work, the need to make it accessible to modern classrooms and the desire to protect potential readers from offense.  Very noble aims. 

There are compelling arguments against the replacements too:  not to white-wash history, not to miss the intended anti-racism of the author, not to tamper with a cultural artefact, to name a few.

Educators in America are concerned that Huckleberry Finn is disappearing from the cultural consciousness because of these difficult words and some welcome the introduction of a sanitised text.  It is hard to imagine that students will have the same experiences and opportunities for personal growth and understanding if those discussions about word choice and racism are skipped. 

Tastes in books change.  Some books erupt like volcanoes onto the reading public’s awareness, making both publishers and authors very rich in the process, but like volcanoes, they cool down and in many cases are quietly forgotten.  They slip off backlists, out of libraries (because nobody borrows them) and then can only be found in second-hand bookshops or in attics.  The once mighty fall (can’t wait for some popular authors to get there myself).  Perhaps this process is a kind of censorship too, a democratic one where the public truly decides a book is of no interest.

Consider Kingsley Amis’ One Fat Englishman.  This novel is not comparable to Huckleberry Finn, except it too carries some pretty scandalous ideas and words in it, albeit wrapped in a comic, self-deprecating voice.  It is so extreme it is impossible to take seriously and once over the surprise, to take offense at.  It has numerous instances of sexism, jingoism, racism, and misopedia (a morbid hatred of children, and yes I had to look it up) amongst others.   The worst abuse is directed at the main character Roger Micheldene  (‘Of the seven deadly sins, Roger considered himself qualified in gluttony, sloth, and lust but distinguished in anger.’ p 9) and the limited third person narration is full of both overt and discrete instances of criticism of his failings.  The almost universal antagonism does not excuse sentiments that make us squirm with appalled laughter.   I wonder if it would be publishable today.
Consider this passage and then tell me if the use of the word ‘nigger’ is so impossible as to be banned:

...  A girl of Oriental appearance, who would have been quite acceptable if she had had eye-sockets as well as eyes came forward and said:   ‘Good-afternoon, sir, and what can I show you this afternoon?’
Although relieved at not having to start on the wantee-speakee-missee drill he had been contemplating, Roger would have preferred something less impeccably American.  However, he replied at once in what he thought of as a cool brisk tone:  ‘Oh, good-afternoon to you.  I wonder if I could possibly have a word with Mrs Atkins.  Would you kindly let her know that Mr.Micheldene is here, please?’
The girl looked him up and down for about a second and a half before saying:  ‘Sure, I’ll kindly let her know.  One moment, please.’  Her earlier friendliness had largely abated.  She looked again and went away.
Roger recognised this treatment.  They thought that because you spoke like an Englishman you must be homosexual, which only testified to their deep doubts of their own masculinity.  It was true that this girl was a girl, not a man, but the principle held.
A middle-aged Negro woman, six feet tall and pretty near as close to jet black as the human skin can get, pushed her way through a bead curtain and came towards him.  His mouth opened a short distance.  Surely ... No, rubbish, of course not.  Actually this sort of thing was proving a great help:  race and colour as an unexpected extra variable to eke out the small stock of Mollie Atkins recognition-aids.  Given a few Red Indians and Indians and a Bushman or two as the others present in the shop, he was sure of being easily able to pick out Mollie Atkins, about whom all he knew for certain at the moment was that she stood between 4 ft. 6 ins and 6 ft. 6 ins. and was in the 25-55 age-group.
Kingsley Amis, One Fat Englishman. Gollancz, 1963, pp 84-85 

One Fat Englishman was not Kingsley Amis’ finest piece of writing and it is out of print.  The chances of anyone but an Amis scholar being interested in it are remote and I would not argue that it should be re-issued, not on literary merit nor on the grounds of the wide-spread potential offense it would certainly cause.   The book buying public has made its decision. 

Huckleberry Finn has numerous supporters who would like to prevent it going the same way as the Fat Englishman, and it has a long history of affection and importance in the American literary canon.  Re-imagining it as an uncontroversial storybook does not do Mark Twain nor the anti-racism cause he supported, any favours.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Grand Days Out - Highgate

Our family is famous amongst our acquaintance for taking 'lame', or perhaps tame, holidays.  I think there are a number of reasons for this, er ... failing.   One is a chronic lack of planning where we typically finally decide on a destination, book flights and accommodation as much as 24 hours before we are due to leave.  Another is a deep love of ordinariness, of residential neighbourhoods, quiet strolls holding hands, small tea shops and old fashioned hardware emporia.  We are not grand outdoors enthusiasts - no rugged foothills and primitive conditions, miles from a decent butcher or bookshop - but that is not to say we don't want to 'get away from it all'.  It is simply that what most of the Western world takes for granted is remote and rare for us.  I have been know to enter a commonplace supermarket in London and struggle to resist the urge to fall to my knees and sob at the exquisite variety of tins of soup, of spices from all over the world, of breakfast cereal selections, of - well choices.

We don't do whirlwind tours of the 'it is Tuesday so this must be Prague' variety.  Once we spent eight days in deep December, in Florence.  Apart from the lack of crowds and the time to drool over pastry shop windows, we could justify a whole morning at the Boboli Gardens, watching the ice melt off the grass and sharing our frosty breath with only a few ducks.  We stayed at a small family hotel where we encountered another family who were seeing Italy in six days, and were anxious to know what they had missed in Florence that was taking us so long.  What to say?  They had covered all the 'attractions'; it must have been a frantic pace of 15 minutes to David and then a whole two hours to whizz through the Uffizi. 

I do not mean to sneer.  The pace of our travel would be tedious and excruciating to many, I am sure.  I suspect we are great fantasists, always pretending for a day or two that we live where ever it is.  It does make for unexpected memories that I cling to on our return.

One of my favourites, which comes flashing back to me when I least expect, is the day we spent one November (not a fashionable time of year either) wandering around the streets of Highgate in north London.  I had a hankering to see the house I had stayed in on a visit 40 years ago and being an historic village, with many famous (deceased) residents, we found a guide book with a map and a suggested walk.  We'd come up on the tube and immediately took the wrong exit.  The area is very hilly and I am exceptionally lazy.  It was too cold to stop and study the incomplete map at every corner, so we fortified ourselves with hot chocolate at a cafe-art gallery-gift shop and decided we would simply wing it.

Mid morning, deserted streets.  There was a rubbish-collecting lorry somewhere grinding up a hill and a few whispering saloon cars.  Some of the hills are so steep they are equipped with half-way seats and chairlifts, or they should be.  We followed a cat for a block or so, but on one of the hair-pin intersections we took the wrong leg and missed the street we needed to follow to find my friends' old house.  As we wandered, we speculated on house prices and discussed which of the Edwardian delights would best suit our grandiose dreams.  We abandoned the map (too many roads with the same name, or no discernible name at all) clambered down a connecting set of steps, followed a graffiti-free walled lane, and somehow, ended back on the main road, only a block from where we had set off.  We could see the painted sign for the cafe we'd visited an hour previously, swinging in the breeze up the hill.

We missed Byron's Cottage (apparently only a name, no connection to the poet) and the former home of both Coleridge and Priestly (presumably at different times); we didn't find Betjeman's childhood home, Highgate High School where TS Eliot had taught, nor the Highgate Literary and Scientific Institute.  I would have liked to have seen the family home of Evelyn Waugh but we were about 50 years too late. 

We decided to try to find the park, where, the guide book told us, there would be a nice house open for lunch.  We walked down the hill to Archway, under a vertiginous Victorian viaduct and then across to Highgate Hill Road.  We toiled back up the hill to Waterlow Park which was full of bare trees, nicely hoed black-soiled flower beds (borders in gardener-speak), sparrows and pigeons.  We watched a grey squirrel wrestling with a wizened apple and tried, unsuccessfully, to photograph it.  I always find photographs disappointing, not because of technical failings or composition errors, but because they are never quite the same as one's imaginatively enhanced memories.

We had lunch at Lauderdale House, which had the atmosphere of a neighbourhood club, with community notices, art classes, a hall full of prams and pushchairs, a comfortable feeling of negligence and lovely big windows overlooking the lawns. We ate fishcakes made with salmon and cod - the day's special - which were a cross between British traditional fare and Thai influence.  We shared a half-carafe of wine over lunch and followed with apple crumble.  It would be nice to think the apples came from remnant orchards on site, but I think they came from the local Sainsbury's or Waitrose instead.

After lunch we decided to try to resurrect at least the tail end of our walk and visit Highgate Cemetery and Karl Marx's grave.  We navigated past park benches and crusty leaves, across a bridge over a small pond with ducks looking for handouts, and amongst dogs chasing an exuberance of fresh air.  We admired the views half way across London and the expansive scurrying skies.   We found the gates to the Cemetery: £3 entry per person.  I have never heard of a charge for a graveyard.  We decided we would skip Karl's last resting place.  We could see a bobcat through the fence, at work repairing footpaths and dispelling the peace and any wandering spirits, which made the decision to be thrifty easy.

At the time, I felt we'd spent an enjoyable day and could not predict that the memories would stand out as particularly special.  It was not a day marked by tragedy, public events or emotional upheaval, nor one of great personal discovery.  We were not edified or enhanced in any tangible way, not by labels or glass cases or intellectual improvement; only the space, the air, the unplanned freedom of the day: the fish cakes, the squirrel and the bewildered lady who asked for directions, remain.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Barbie Cycle 3

An antidote to Ovid and exile.

Rant alert!

A few months ago there was much in the news about Barbie.  Parent groups were up in arms about the latest electronically enhanced doll.  Barbie was fitted with a video necklace (where else are these micro cameras fitted?) and a backpack screen.  It did strike me as an odd collision of desires, but then others were saying your finger in the dike of progress will not stop the flood - electronic gadgets are ubiquitous and persistent.  What I want to know is why would you buy a spy-Barbie if you didn't agree with the morals? Why not ban them from your house, like I gather a certain couple does in their M Mansion - no apples allowed inside:  no -tunes, no -phones, no -pods or -anything else. 

Why do people want to stop everyone else?  Why not simply stop themselves? Like petrol prices and the 'greedy oil giants' - nobody makes you buy a car and fill it with 'their' petrol.  Catch a bus, ride your bike, walk.  You don't have to buy the dream they're selling.  Make your own dream, but please don't try to ram it down the throats of everybody else.  Sorry. 

Barbie the Mole?

have you swapped sides, you invidious chameleon? 
now equipped with a video camera
 on your chest – of course 
and play-back screen, cunningly inserted in your
electronic back
if becoming Barbie is what girls dream of,
are we now bionic spies of ourselves?
is Barbie the paedophile’s ideal toy
and how long before we are all wired
and monitored
and down-loadable

chipped           coded              digitised 
the perfect tracking toy

Exile I

As I have called this experiment Written in Exile, I do feel I should write about the subject.  I am not going to write about the miserable lives of current refugees, or the great tides of humanity who have been displaced over the millenia by war, famine, natural disasters, political pressure or even economic desire.  There are far better qualified people to do that.  I am a writer and naturally, if apologetically, I am interested primarily in exiled writers and what they have had to say about the experience. 

It is possible that in fact, I am obsessed with homesickness and the idea of 'home' rather than strictly exile, but indulge my fantasy please and allow me to focus on exile.  Who knows, one day I may be brave enough to look into the murky chasm of home/homesickness and parochial joy, but not yet.

During the early Roman Imperial era, roughly 30 BCE to 150 CE (this is the time frame I know a little about, I haven't done much reading about the post Hadrian period), public life carried a number of hazards.  The most severe was the death sentence: public or private execution  or instructions to suicide, with or without the confiscation of all a man's wealth and estates.  ( I use 'man' and 'he' because apart from a few Imperial Princesses, the majority of exiles were men, as women had very restricted public lives and could be controlled by the paterfamilias and were rarely of concern to the State.)  The second most severe punishment for failing to please on one level or another, was the sentence of exile.  Sometimes exile was code for secret assassination.  Exile could be for a fixed term, say two years or ten years, more usually it was for life.  In some cases estates and riches were appropriated by the State, in others fines, penalties and 'taxes' were extracted and the exile was allowed to keep a portion of his wealth.

It is difficult for us to imagine the impact of exile on a civilised Roman.  To be cut off from home and family, the social life of friends and religious rites, business interests and politics (often very intertwined) would be hard enough, but some exiles were sent to barbarous regions which were unstable, unsafe, with miserable weather, no familiar culture; where the locals didn't speak Latin and the food was scarce and inedible.  Some exiles were kept under the scrutiny of the garrison, virtual prisoners, while others enjoyed more comfort as guests of a client king or a military governor.  Exiles were usually not allowed to travel from their place of exile without permission from Rome.  The isolation would be extreme.

Depending on the nature of the offence, after a number of years the exile might petition the Emperor for clemency and leave to return to Rome. 

The most famous petitioner must be Publius Ovidius Naso, whose works Tristia (Sorrows) and Epistulae Ex Pontus (Letters from the Black Sea) are full of the miseries of exile and pleadings for forgiveness for his unnamed 'error'.  Ovid wrote of the wretched weather and the frozen alien Danube in winter, the terrors of attacks from beyond the Imperial frontier, of the primitive food, of the lack of libraries and culture, of his loneliness.

Ovid was exiled in 8 CE and is presumed to have died in exile about ten years later.  He continued to write poetry, perhaps to maintain his sanity, perhaps to remind his friends and Emperor of the wit they were denied, but having no audience - in Ovid's day poetry was recited in performance rather than read silently, alone - was, he said, like dancing in the dark.

Some of his petitions for recall read as grovelling from our comfortable armchairs in air conditioned comfort.  Some are quite squirm-making, piteous and undignified.  We are less subject to arbitrary power and usually have means of appeal for wrongful treatment.  We are not accustomed to pleading our cases on our metaphorical knees.  For Ovid, there was only one man who condemned him and only one man who could release him:  Augustus.

Ovid outlived Augustus by three or four years but he was never granted his wish and did not return to Rome.

I hope you are not disappointed by this small introduction to Roman exiles and the diversion through Ovid, because  I really want to write about Seneca, another exiled poet.  Believe me, exile has not changed that much.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Barbie Cycle 2

I feel I need to make some confessions before I sacrifice another doll.  I do not own any of these mannequins, and never have.  Perhaps my fascination is rooted in deprivation as a child, when I was forbidden such a "vulgar" toy.  Instead I played with the dolls of my friends and secretly lusted for my own.

I gave my daughter one when she was old enough not to be in danger of choking.  She preferred bears and promptly decapitated poor Barbie, thus ending the experiment.  Someone gave her the accompanying house.  Children are famous for discarding the toy and engaging with the packaging:  my sweetie took a fancy to the detachable lamp post complete with battery and working light.  This implement became her wand, her walking stick, her bear's reading light, her torch, her ultimate defence.

My more recent encounters with the star of the toy world are all mediated through the internet, almost exclusively inspired by news reports in otherwise respectable papers.  I am continuously amazed by her publicity department:  I am sure many of the flesh-and-blood world would give their (bendy, detachable) right arms for her global profile.  Ethically I worry that I may be pandering to this commercial giant, which I think is clear, is never my intention.  Nor is it my intention to infringe her copyright, trademark or damage her in anyway.

Barbie, O Barbie, now we are fifty

they are writing about you in the paper
I get to age in private
poor you

they say you would have back pain
yup, me too

they say you would have osteoporosis
girl, let’s keep the blinkers on and drink more milkshakes

they say you would wear glasses
I’ve worn them for years, very sexy ones

they say you would have grey hair
a girl like you, no problems with the dye
me, I’m relishing every strand of earned silver

they say you might be shorter
darling, I’ve spent my life down here

they say you would have trouble standing up
what with your impressive breasts and waist
they just don’t know do they?

my tits have shrunk and sunk into my waist
fast-growing to support them

but, Barbie
you’re still kicking ass, right?
still in love with lust?
still no fulfilment – the eternal virgin?

poor you

March 2009


I always try to be friendly to strangers, like taxi drivers and bell boys, especially seat companions on long haul flights, not because I am a naturally effervescent person, but rather due to a belief that if I reach out and try to make some human contact - before the stranger reveals themselves as a psychotic murderer - maybe the tenuous relationship thus established will subvert any violent intentions and, let's face it, save my life.  I realise this may be viewed as an unattractive character trait on my part, and I apologise if you find this offensive.  Put it down to a glitch in my trust circuits.

I was squashed into the window seat in the last row of the plane.   I chose the seat so I would not be clambered over.  If I need to get up, I would rather do the climbing myself.   My neighbour - James, let us call him - was tall and thin with angular features and dark straight hair.  I noticed his hands were elongated , with long thin fingers and the hint of webbing between them.  James was grateful for the aisle seat so he could unfold his legs and rotate his ankles.

When I spoke to him, he revealed he hadn't actually spoken to anyone since he'd boarded his first plane.  He took his first flight earlier that morning from a regional city to an international hub, and when I joined him, he was beginning the third leg of his trip.  It was the first time he had left his homeland, his province even his region.   He was unfamiliar with the flying procedures, listening intently to the safety announcements, afraid to undo his seat belt, or to get up to use the toilet.

He told me later that he hadn't eaten during the three hour transit time:  he had no money in the local currency and did not understand how to get some.  He  had no idea what the local prices would be when translated into his still unknown sterling.

I gave him my lunch and introduce him to cheese, while pointing out the plastic-wrapped cube on the tray was not representative of the breed.

We spoke about bicycles and the availability of rice, artery walls and of love.  Eighteen hours previously, he had said a tearful farewell - he was still crying - to his pretty wife, for three years.  His grant covered one flight to the University and one flight back home.  He had an allowance for books and accommodation and living expenses, but not for frivolous things like love or phone calls.

James was an only child, as was his wife.  In time, they would be allowed to have two children if they chose to.  His father was dying and was not expected to live until James returned.  He was expected to die in the next few months but there was no provision in the grant for a delay for sentimental reasons.

His English was surprising. He had never had a conversation with a native speaker before - everything he knew was from non-native-speaking teachers, books, recordings and films.  He told me he was worried about learning technical terms, new academic standards, conventions in presenting information and bizarre prescriptive formatting rules. The laboratory equipment would be unfamiliar, his bed cold and empty, the food unrecognisable, his supervisor unavailable, the weather alien, the rain relentless.

No one would meet him.  He had to make his way from the airport by bus to a train station, and then by train to the University town where some one might meet him, if he wasn't too late.

James did not murder me with his plastic fork and knife.  In fact, a few months ago I had an email from him with photos of his new baby boy, and it is not three years since that flight. 

Monday, February 14, 2011

A Kiss is just a kiss

Ever wondered what this kissing thing is all about?  Why is it so compelling and ineffable?  Ever read a truly moving, original description of a kiss which was neither banal nor pornographic? Most passages seem to revolve around the thoughts and emotions of the kissee, manufactured in retrospect rather than recalled, as opposed to the physical dimensions of the kiss. 

O cyber-swimmer, I would like to hear your favourite kiss description.

Have you tried to remember a momentous kiss?  Do you recall much beyond the approach? You know there was a kiss, but rather like a leap, time seems to be displaced taking memory and rational thought with it, until you land.  Perhaps this amnesia, this kiss-madness, is induced by some hormone cocktail, like the one that seems to mimic a cocaine rush when you first fall in lust.  Perhaps, paradoxically, a kiss suspends self-awareness?

Greek vase in the Louvre Museum, photographed July 2009

Da mi basia mille, as Catullus said.  If indescribable they are irresistible and too many is also not enough.     Even when a kiss is just a kiss, sometimes followed by a whisper in the ear:

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Have we been introduced?

Phew ...  that was a bit scary.  First toe immersion in the cyber sea.

Not too many of my poems use words you wouldn't want to say to your mother, but Barbie brings out the primal predator in me.   There will be more Barbie poems in time.

I have a filing cabinet full  (metric equivalent suggestions?) of more or less finished and definitely abandoned poems a few continents away, unseen for a decade and more.  As the blog title suggests, I am in exile.

Once I introduced myself (in person) and was misheard and my interlocutor thought I said 'I'm an alien', which sums me up fairly accurately.  But isn't it tiresome when you read the biographies of writers who always seem to say they were the outsider, always watching the group, the last to be invited to join the rounders team, and never invited to birthday parties?  I am not going to tell you any of that rubbish ...

I like ruins.  I like quiet stones that whisper and sigh, the ones never photographed unless inadvertently as a back drop to a tour group snap, not crawled over by archaeologists nor scrawled over by good old Kilroy and his chums.  I like the sort of stones that might have been way-markers, the kind sheep scratch their backs against and birds swoop past.  I like stones that are worn from centuries of feet heading to prayer, or slapped by soldiers' sandals en route to patrol, or worried by a door post into a threshold.

In many parts of Asia it is considered both bad luck and bad manners to step on a threshold.  A guest is expected to step over the door frame.  Stones at Angkor are worn by bare feet in spite of this prohibition and they can't all have been ignorant recent visitors.

And feet are so honest.  If you look at hands they are often disguised by gloves or painted nails and jewellery, but feet carve their own stories in leather.  One of the most intimate museum displays I have ever seen was at Portsmouth not long after the Mary Rose emerged from the sea.  Along with the swords and barrels of food, the spears and the spoons were pairs of leather shoes, not touched nor seen since their owners last put them on around the 19th of July, in 1545.  Shoes carrying the shape of feet, of years of wear, of broken toes, limps and arthritis.  There are sandals amongst the rubbish found at Vindolanda, nearly 2000 years old, also imprinted with the personal, the individual, the particulars of a life.   An even older leather boot, about 5,000 -6,000 years old was found last year in Armenia. 

I have forgotten about you on the other side of the cyber sea:  you may not exist, but these tangible memories, moulded, loved, depended on, tell me somewhere, a man had a foot that was shaped just so.

The Barbie Cycle 1

Isn't Barbie an amazing phenomenon?  How those plastic idols infiltrate and mimic our lives?

Over the years I've written a few paeans about this little goddess.  Enjoy.


we were launched in the same year, you and me:

my legs are not madly elongated: like yours
nor do my breasts proclaim the pyramids
I hope my stare is thoughtful not vapid
and bless me, my hair is more manageable.
I can grasp objects and work
my arms bend too and
I can wear flat shoes

but Barbie O Barbie
how I envy your crutch:
smooth crack- and hair- less
with only the suggestion of a declivity

are you not racked by lust or guilt
eternal virgin
priestess of the impossible fuck?

Revisited in honour of Marilyn for Magpie Tales.  More dolls here