Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Who's under the bed now?

Oh, I shall miss The Hour. Quite apart from plunging me into a frenzy of 50s nostalgia, it's had me on the edge of my seat as it developed; last night's final episode had me wide awake absurdly late as I watched my recording well after choir practice and the difficulties brought on by the dead battery in a car key, the intransigent nature of the tiny manual lock, the fact that the spare key was at home and the pouring rain. But I digress.

I don't want to review the series - I'm feeling idle and there is ironing to do. But I was contemplating the tense finale, as The Hour (the fictional programme in the drama) went out live as the Suez Crisis deepened and the denouement approached. And it came to me how much we've changed from the days when the media were the props of government - or have we? Is it merely the ease and efficiency with which secrecy is broached that has changed? Do we simply have different terrors under the metaphorical bed? Is it just our expectation that has altered?

I don't know. But out of it all came one thought. Spies, subversives and whoever it is that inhabits the underbed space of the day don't actually bring about the downfall of governments. The governments do that for themselves. All that the subversives do is bring the dirty tricks out into the open.

Is it ironic that I shall now look forward to the next run of Spooks?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Helped by The Help

Belting through fiction as I am this summer, I feel that at least this one merited the (relatively brief) time I spent on it. I rattled through Kathryn Stockett's The Help in the way I recall from my childhood holidays, when friends would come calling at the door and I would be hidden upstairs reading something I couldn't bear to put down. And yet, as someone says on the Amazon page linked to above, it was also a book I was sorry to leave.

Set in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1962, the story is told in three different voices as Aibileen, Minny and Miss Skeeter tell their part in it. My heart sank a little at the beginning when I realised that at least one of the voices replicated the Southern speech of the narrator, for that was one of the things that stopped me from reading The Color Purple, but it's so cleverly accomplished that it soon became an integral part of my enjoyment. I think it may have to do with the complete lack of self-consciousness in the writing - there are no apostrophes underlining missing consonants, for example. It was no time at all before I was hearing these voices in my head, and relating them to my own contact with the Deep South a few years ago.

As with all novels set against a historical background, there is an inevitability about the grand sweep of events, but the individual experiences of the extremes of racial prejudice in Mississippi are gripping in their awfulness, their humour and their variety. The two maids and the lone white woman who takes their part against the prevailing mood are resourceful and brave - and cast a bright light not only on racial attitudes but also the assumption that 'help' is a necessity for a middle-class white woman and that white gloves and polished silverware are the norm in polite society.

I loved this book. At times I was horrified, at others I thought I knew what was coming and was proved wrong. Sometimes I had to put the book aside so that I could sleep. I loved the descriptions of the ... food, actually. I have eaten that food - the fried squash, the cornmeal, the grits - and it all came back in a flood. And over all I have a new respect for my dear friends Ruth and Ed, who lived through this time and fought for the rights of the black people of Alabama. The Help added another layer to the understanding that grew when I visited the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, and for that I am grateful.

But aside from all that, it's a great read.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Scraps of memory

Does the pic above stir a flood of memories, dear reader? If it does, I fear you may be approaching the sere, the yellow leaf, as I am ... but let's have another wee wallow in the 50s, huh? For some reason I cannot fathom, I bethought me the other evening (what has happened to me? Shakepeareitis?) of the days when I used to collect scraps and, in the appointed season, to exchange them with other small girls in a highly ritualised form and always in the same place.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, I have to explain that Googling "scraps" tends to take you to strange places; "die-cut scraps" provides more information. And that's what they were - coloured pictures, of all manner of people/animals/flowers, die-cut either into squares (boring) or round the outline of the picture, as in the illustration above. These were sold in sheets, linked as shown, often but not always of the same picture. You carefully took them apart, trimmed the paper tags, and put them into your collection. Strangely, it was more fun to acquire sets of scraps by barter than be simply buying them. You would look out for pictures that you already had an example of - these blooming angels came in many sizes and cloud-colours - and traded your own less precious scraps to acquire them. The most precious of all were "pre-wars" - though now I look at example of Victorian scraps online I wonder which war we were referring to. They were identified by the muted quality of the printing - fewer dpi, I think - and the quaintly old-fashioned subjects, and they were worth any number of scraps bought just last week.

The sacred place for the Scrap Season (remember how there used to be a time for skipping, a time for ball games and a time for scrap swapping?) was the shed of the girls' playground in Hillhead Primary School. Along the wall on the right in this photo, there used to be a bench, and it was there that we sat, usually on wet days, with our scraps in convenient books, one scrap (or set, if you had different sizes of the same scrap) to a page. I had two such books, which I think were old school text books, with cloth covers and plenty of pages. When a potential customer came along, you handed over your own books and took hers; you then leafed through the pages looking at the scraps lying inside and when you found one you wanted, you put it up in the manner of a bookmark. The books were returned, and you then went through the marked scraps, either putting them back inside the book as not being available, or offering them for one you wanted yourself.

I feel sure my books are still lurking somewhere in the midden I call home, but I can picture them now. The top right corner of each page is dark grey with years of spitty fingers, and the books are entirely dog-eared. The Season came and went, and the scraps returned to obscurity until the next year. I don't know what made me think of it, but I have already spent over an hour looking for the collection. I can't see my grandchildren being at all interested, but I can't help wondering if the only people who might collect scraps nowadays will be my age. Take a look here if you're interested.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Jubilate fails to grip

I thoroughly enjoyed Michael Arditti's Easter - so much so that I laughed aloud at the first page and exclaimed with horrified delight at another. I recommended it and lent it to people. So when a friend recommended Jubilate by the same author I bought it with a click (I know - one-click ordering is very dangerous for me) and looked forward to reading it on holiday.

Sadly, the experience didn't repeat itself. I found myself quite readily putting it aside for a chat, or dozing in the sun with it on my lap. I found that by the end of the book I still had no feel for the main characters, and the other pilgrims were characterless. I didn't even feel the need to flip back to check which was which, as I had at the beginning of Easter (and a list of dramatis personae would have perhaps helped in Jubilate).

The religious experiences described didn't really do it for me either. Gillian's faith was a pale shadow in the background, and Vincent's glimpses of the divine lacked, I felt, any conviction. I wondered if the two points of view and the sequence of chapters somehow diluted the effect of the narration - Gillian's story begins at the end of a pilgrimage to Lourdes and Vincent's at the beginning - because the two stories were too similar. There wasn't enough revelation when each narrator came to key events, so that the technique that worked so well in Easter seemed to fall short in Jubilate.

All that said, I've learned enough about a pilgrimage to Lourdes to ensure that I never think of going on one - in a way it comes across as a festering blight on the face of the country - and I did finish the book. But I can't agree with Peter Stanford writing in The Guardian  when he talks about the urgency of a great romance, and the metaphysical debate didn't exercise the grey cells much, I'm afraid. Maybe it was all a bit too close to reality, maybe it lacked the exaggeration that made Easter such a show-stealer. In fact, what I recall now is a sense that this is a dutiful record of a love story on a pilgrimage, but one that lacks passion of any kind. It might almost have been real - and sometimes that's not enough.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Very naughty indeed

When I was very small, I used to lie awake in the light summer evenings and dread the arrival overhead of the 8pm flight from Paris into Renfrew airport. As it roared above our top flat, I imagined the horror of a bomb falling from it onto my little bedroom (originally the maid's room in the early days of the building) and visualise the heavy sandstone block between the windows tilting and toppling into the back green. The war was a recent memory and stories of the bombing were still sufficiently commonplace for small children with big ears to pick up enough detail to terrify.

Now, living in the peace of Argyll, I visualise bits of London I know - like Croydon - ravaged by fire and anger. I think of the daytime activity of clearing up, in defiance of the possibility that night will bring more destruction. Last night I read the tweeted commentary of people in London and elsewhere, and realised from the responses of some of my contacts that there was a great tide of immoderate comment that was passing me by. Suggestions about dealing with the riots ranged from the sensible to the homicidal; reactions to these from the shocked to the angry.

And what business have I to comment? Here we have cool, fresh evenings in beautiful surroundings, and I live a comfortable, cushioned life in which the noise from the pubs coming out irritates rather than threatens. As someone who has taken part in demos and sung at police lines and learned how to remain safe during NVDA* I know how it is possible to demonise the forces of the law - but there's where the comparison ends. Last night I watched a report on YouTube by an incredibly brave guy in Clapham who was asking looters if they were proud of what they were doing as they looted the shops of electrical appliances (they left the bookshop alone, natch). "What's that about?" he asked. And on Twitter people demanded draconian clamp-downs that others said would make things worse; some offered to pray for London and others felt patronised by the offer;  some seemed intent on appearing cool whatever happened.

Do I have a take on it? I don't know. I suspect that if I were living in the middle of it all I would be forgetting all my liberal instincts as fear took over - fear for my safety, for my property, for my livelihood. As it is, I worry about family and friends and am glad to hear they're ok. I look at angry youths being bestial and defensive women nicking tellies and I'm not surprised to see police wielding batons with a will. Fear and rage are powerful emotions and once things get going reason goes out of the window. So no, I don't know what I think, other than that it's hellish and I'm sorry for anyone who has to live with it. I'll stick right now with the wisdom of a two year old boy who saw the TV news this morning: "People are being very naughty."

Quite the most balanced response I've heard so far.

*NVDA: non-violent direct action

Monday, August 08, 2011

Reflecting on a link

I've been thinking about the most recent of the Letters from the Past, in which my father introduces the subject of the bomb dropped two days previously on Hiroshima. Two things struck me simultaneously: the fact that the bomb took fifth place, coming after my mother's health (she was only seven weeks off having me), the weather, the imminent demobilisation of a teacher colleague and the possible timing of his own; and the statement that he finds the news of this bomb "extremely depressing" - even though it will shorten the war and his own incarceration in the RAF.

It also interests me that he should be so ready to link the invention and use of such a weapon with the tenets of conventional religious belief - and saddens me that I never thought of discussing such matters with him. I was, of course, too young, too selfishly caught up in my own life, too ignorant of politics, religion or indeed practically anything at all serious - too much of a child, even at the age of 32, to talk to him about anything that mattered. (He died when I was 32.) I now like to think that he would have approved of my activities in the '80s, marching with CND, making speeches, appearing on radio and several TV programmes, and that his assertion that I had "thrown reason out of the window" when I told him that I intended to be confirmed in the Episcopal Church after rejecting religion for the previous ten years would have been tempered by the struggles I had with that same church over my political activities.

Putting these letters online has been a fascinating experience, and the letters of August 1945 are the ones that inspired me to do it in the first place. Often I catch myself thinking they have been written to me - and then I see a speculative reference to my as yet unborn self and smile. But primarily their interest to others will lie in the authentic voice of a highly articulate and educated man of the time, expressing casually but succinctly what must have been in the minds of many like him. They come to an end in just over a month's time. I shall miss him...

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Grey day transfigured

Holy Trinity church
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
It's a grey morning. I'm already damp because my umbrella was in the car and I had to fight my way down the drooping garden so my legs are uncomfortable and I'm already chilled. As we swish up the back streets of Dunoon to church, I wonder what I'm doing. My mood matches the day; most of my summer activities are over; the sun has gone. I'd have been better staying in bed with a book. The organist seems in no better fettle, and I forgot to tell him we are supposed to be keeping the Transfiguration, so we don't really speak. Besides, we're a bit late.

There is no heating in church - it is, after all, summer - as I sort out hymnbook and liturgy (thank God - not the Grey Book). There are also no children, as the Rector is on holiday and has taken Mrs Rector who does the Godly play at the back of the church. Apart from some scraping and banging from the rear, later revealed as "sorting the electrics for the coffee", it is relatively quiet as the organ music begins. I recognise the music after the opening, drifting notes: the organist is improvising on a modern/traditional scottish folk tune. It is absolutely, heart-rendingly beautiful.

I am plainly not alone in thinking this. I hear a whisper from somewhere behind me: Ohhh - that's lovely. And a stillness falls on the people, even those who are still arriving. Prayer is suddenly possible, distraction and restlessness quietened by the lilting line, and I am glad I have come. Even when the music enters a dark, sombre place it seems entirely appropriate (I subsequently learn that the organist was distracted by the thundering down the aisle of Someone on A Mission and had to go where a wrong note took him) and the melody emerges, intact and serene, just in time for the final quiet cadence.

I am now in a place where anything can happen; the gloom has been dispelled and the transfiguration is possible. And reflecting on the experience, and the prayers and farewells and greeting of long-missed friends that took place when the Mass was over, I note that we need this variety. We need joy and noise and exuberance, and we need silence and mystery.

And somehow, in the profound silence, there is music at the very heart of things.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

An hour in the past

I spent a joyfully sinful hour this morning catching up, appropriately enough, on The Hour, on iPlayer. I don't know why it should have felt so wicked - Presbyterian upbringing to the fore again, I think - but the combination of wonderful sound (on my iMac) and increasing involvement with this new drama was indeed a joy. But after I'd put it all to sleep and headed downstairs, I found myself somehow still immersed in the sounds and sights of my childhood - for when men wore braces and waistcoats and hats as a matter of course and everyone smoked, I was becoming sentient and this was the world that left the lasting impression.

So what was so different? I can't describe it all, but what about a list? So ...
dingy wallpaper, tending to dark colours; green paint to shoulder-height on office/school corridors; stockings and suspenders (on women, I mean - and hideously uncomfortable this skinny 15 year old found them, before the advent of the truly stretchy nylon whose generic name I forget); dim lights; fog; Humbers and Rovers for the better-off drivers, with the rear door handle at the front of the door; tiny- screened TVs in huge wooden cases (and only one of these in our close in Hyndland for the Coronation); dubious paste in white sandwiches; dark tea with milk (ok - this is a personal shudder not shared by all) ...

I could probably go on. So could you, if you're old enough - feel free to add more in the comments. But over all, and this is a memory reinforced by listening to Stephen Fry on the radio yesterday and to someone telling us how to bake scones as we hurtled up the M6 on Friday - over all these lie the accents of the near past, the cut-glass vowels of Received Pronunciation/BBC English. Even the Queen doesn't speak quite like that these days, though I'll bet there are still plenty of people around ready to judge you by the sounds that come out of your mouth. (Tip for today: try speaking with your molars firmly clenched together. Articulate as clearly as you can. You'll be amused by the instant resemblance to at least one member of the Windsor family).

The scones, by the way, were accompanied by a discussion on how to pronounce them. Skoanes, or skonns?  I always understood it was the truly posh who used the former, but the programme suggested otherwise. When it comes to forehead, however, I seem to be ... well, posh. Forred. And we used to talk about the drawing room, which I used to wonder about: did people draw there? (I was told - it's a withdrawing room). Again, I'd be fascinated by any contributions that you, gentle readers, might care to make to this conversation. It all seemed to matter, back then.

I wouldn't go back to the '50s. There is too much around now that I'd miss - for heaven's sake, I'd have to write letters to people. I don't even know that I'd want to be 12 again. But just today, as I imagine the men I know adorned by trilby hats and the odd fairisle pullover, I shall reminisce. And I realise I can recall, quite clearly, the Suez Crisis - though it all happened on the radio, natch. Smoke, anyone?

Monday, August 01, 2011

The conversation

Under a pale sun - not cool,just
grey and calm - the words
flowed. Dissonance and history,
patronage and eternal things,
maths and music and the links or
not links were tossed about,
resolved and questioned,
worried and smoothed against the demons
that might darken a day.
And all around the earnest talk
the birdsong fluttered in the unthinking light,
the peerless technique of the singers
rising and falling among the flowers,
its challenge merely territorial
its  beauty only in our minds.

©C.M.M 07/11