Signs for Lost Children: Respectability is all in this an Untidy World… Mari Howard

Living room at my maternal grandparent’s first home…

**Last month my blog post for Authors Electric partly looked back at couple of interesting facts about my own family ancestry, including two studio photographs showing middle class women smartly dressed in the fashion of the time. In this post I want to talk about Sarah Moss’s follow-up novel, Signs for Lost Children, which continues the story of Alethea, (once ‘poor baby’), begun in Bodies of Light, the book which brought to mind for me the strange fact that the two families who would be later joined by my parents’ marriage both had connections to the Pre-Raphaelites.

One thing which has really struck me reading these novels, and was brought to the fore of all our minds in the past week or so, is that the position of male and female has not changed since Victorian times. What do I mean by this? Surely today’s woman is an independent person, capable of earning her own living in any field she chooses, spending her own money without necessary reference to any male relative?  Of course she has the vote, won by the hard campaigning of the suffragettes, and we hope should she be walking alone at night, she would not be taken for a prostitute, picked up by the police, and subjected to an ignominious,  degrading, painful (and ultimately meaningless) “virginity test”.  (The intrusive tests are considered a violation of human rights by the World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations, which want to see them banned. e.g.https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/newsbeat-55078634)

I say we hope – this lawful abuse of women was a common occurrence at the time Signs for Lost Children is set. The streets were dangerous, made even more dangerous for a woman on her own, (for what decent woman would be out alone in the dark? it was argued). Obviously, only one who is a sex worker, seeking clients. Such was male thinking of the time, at least where the law and the police were concerned.  Does your memory resonate here with events of the past week? Is this not a hideous irony? 

In this sequel to Bodies of Light, Sarah Moss has written how her protagonist of that story, newly qualified as a medical doctor among  the very few women so qualified at the time, and also newly married, begins work in the Truro asylum. I will not spoil the story of Signs for Lost Children for you, but her conclusion, after six months working in the terrible conditions and reflecting on the treatment of the assumed mentally ill, is this: “It is not that some people’s minds are so fragile that they require the permanent protection of an institution but that some people’s homes are crazier than institutions for the mad.” * 

As anyone who has read Bodies of Light will know, Alethea – known as Ally – was raised by a kind and ineffectual father more concerned with his art than his children’s welfare, and a mother fanatically obsessed with the plight of the poor, especially of poor women. This wasn’t bad in itself, but it was carried out as an all-engaging duty, accompanied by contempt for all those who weren’t concerned. She also skimped on any comfort both for herself and for her family, denying warmth (physical and emotional), interesting  food, and more. Whether her motivation came from religion or not, her attitude towards her children and all other middle-class people amounted to hatred for soft and easy lives. Ally, already rejected as an infant due to her mother’s post-natal depression, suffered terribly from her mother’s cruelty. It is surely this which gave her adult self insight and compassion into how asylums were being used, and the (convenient?) medical assumption that all unconventional behaviour must be the result of madness. One example from the inmates whom she had to treat is of a teenage girl who constantly attempts to take her own life: clearly this poor girl had suffered rape, (possibly within her family?).  Totally traumatised, she had been committed to the asylum as mentally ill. After all, this tided life up, didn’t it?

As a professionally qualified woman herself, Ally, at a low point, thinks about public attitudes: she was, in their eyes, ‘An unnatural, undomesticated being, very probably subject to mental instability herself, , for what woman would declare herself unsatisfied by her own family life and seek to usurp the feminine role?’

It is not really the place here to continue with descriptions of the treatments –  to discuss whether the attitude comes from the practice of religion (no doubt we have often seen its misuse across the centuries and across the world). The salient point for us today is that we have been woken up to the continuing existence, hardly camouflaged by talk about equality, of institutionalised misogyny, and this is supported by some of those very women who have benefited from the chance to appear to compete and succeed in what continues to be a man’s world. Signs for Lost Children is certainly a significant book.

* apologies for no page numbers, as reading on an old Kindle

**This piece was first published on Authors Electric March 2021

…This Likewise May…

My blogpost for Authors Electric, January 2021, re-blogged here, and still relevant

‘Happy New Year’ – how many of us stayed up, let off fireworks, made resolutions, or toasted 2021?  Did anyone still think we’d be rid of the Pestilence, which seemed to’ve been celebrating its own capacity for moving into what we call a ‘New Year’? Enthusiastic about its own persistence, and whether human beings would stick to their resolutions?

Tourists, pre-2020…

New Year’s Eve, someone down the road was defying any gloom: fireworks which began at 11.00pm banged and boomed, illuminating the sky until 12.00pm.  Will this be the year we escape into ‘normal’ life, the Year of the Vaccine? I rather think that display was for something else… something a bit divisive… the 21st century looks to continue divisive and conflicted, set with clashing cultures, discontent, instability, and powerful urban myths. In January 2021, looking back on childhood, adolescence, early adult life, there was none of this. Refugees (now officially labelled ‘migrants’) were people we supported by holding ‘Jumble Sales’.  This conveniently denies that nobody would undertake such perilous journeys if peaceful life the home country was possible. Wars took place far away. Conflict in far away Vietnam came through the TV. And protest songs – Dylan, Baez, albums passed around at school – spoke about this to us UK kids and teens. But our dads, brothers, friends, didn’t face a call-up, and we had the comfort of our own homes to cushion us. 

It all depended on who you were and where you’re from. My Palestinian friend’s family had fled, via Lebanon, and were now scattered around, some in the USA, others in England. In Ireland, growing up in Belfast was vastly different from in the outer London suburbs. Though I remember being scared of terrorist attacks – was it safe, through the 1970s and into the 1990s, to take the District Line into London to look at an art exhibition?  Meet a friend? Go shopping?  See a play? Scrolling through the list of bombings, I recall the relief the Good Friday Agreement brought everyone. And there’s an example: peace took a long time coming…And was short lived: 2005, a London bus and a train bombed… different cause, same events. 

So, what am I saying? Something about the irony of an entire world war – not against injustice, or empire-building,  waged indiscriminately against the human population a whole, by an entity we  can’t see.  We can’t splat it like a mosquito, we can’t take up the latest nuclear or conventional weapons and bomb it to bits. We can’t (even!) make peace with it. We’re inside one of our own disaster moves, and we don’t like it. And we, at least we European and American Westerners, are outraged, terrified, taken aback. Some try to deny it. We cannot cope. We didn’t see this coming?

Without ‘banging on’ about climate change, actually we were warned . The world is an organism, each plant, or creature, or indeed each bacteria, virus, mould, even features of landscape or weather, shares in the make up of the world. Though many are pests, many others, seen or unseen, contribute to the well being of others, all up and down the food chain. Steadily removing some, (trees? rain forests? insects?), increasing others (carbon, concrete, petroleum fumes) radically changes things, bit by bit. Maybe science is boring? Maybe scientists who study the natural world are of less worth than financiers, politicians, and movie directors? Maybe. 

The scientific community had been saying, the next big threat to planet Earth isn’t necessarily world war three.  It could be, it is going to be, pandemics. When a tiny report, lurking quietly to one side of the BBC News webpage, with an illustration (photo from an electron microscope?) was headed ‘New virus identified in China’, some governments already had been told. They knew. They were warned. They didn’t prepare. 

The world is a scary place, yet depending on who were are, how un-scary it appeared post World War two.  Looking at the childhood of my grandchildren, and my friends’ grandchildren, I’ve wondered about how they feel – some teenagers, some already University – but others, in primary or secondary school, nursery, or even still inside, waiting to be born.   Anxiety, disruption, an unexpected situation, requires them to grow up fast, cope with the changes, cope with being unable to imagine their own future. They if any will be the generation who could justifiably ‘blame’ their parents. For a range of problems, not just raging wildfires and plastic in the seas.

 What are we doing? At the first lockdown, some us wondered whether, or believed that, this crisis would ‘bring back community’. It’s certainly pointed up individualism, dependence on appliances (they break…), on others providing for us (meals out, cleaners, even teachers, hairdressers, and of course dentists, doctors, vets), socialising (parties, Events, festivals, theatres, concerts, gathering for worship), on freedom movement (trips out to the countryside, driving from home to see friends/family/holidays). The list is endless.  Seems without these things, we get sad and lonely. All, or maybe most, of these are good things. No criticism. But prejudice, intolerance, rejection, and and hatred are all there, between countries and individuals. Even arguments about Who should be prioritised for the vaccine?

What we need most might be to simply learn or remember about thoughtfulness, compassion, give and take? Maybe we could forget tribalism, and cultivate accepting diversity, seeing ‘the other’ as a valid being, be they useful to us or not? Possibly when it’s over, the next step is acceptance, inclusiveness, and peace? Wouldn’t that be healing?

Christmas: how was it for you?

25th December, after tea, has a certain ambiance…

Was it ‘cancelled?’ 

Last year–2019 –it seemed like the world or at least larger part of it than before had begun to take the problem of climate change more seriously.

But, maybe not?  Maybe the publicity given to Greta Thunberg was mere publicity? Journalistic hype based around the appeal of a story? Helped along, even, by a PR company?  The story of a neurodivergent teenager and her solo mission to bring her message to the eyes and ears of the wider world: has great appeal. Whether that is the sad truth, a lot of people believed in her message. It chimed with a growing awareness by younger people that all is not perfect in this world of natural disasters, war, and terrorism.

And another sign of the times, Extinction Rebellion, disrupted town centres with lively demonstrations. They dressed up in scary costumes. They glued themselves to things. They were like a 21st century version of the Suffragettes. Several retired ladies from my art class travelled to London to take part, hoping that they might get arrested for the cause. 

We even wondered if the uncertain future of our planet could be moving up the agenda of world leaders?

But significantly and sadly, (and remember, we’re thinking about whether Christmas was cancelled), scientists in relevant areas had already warned about a worldwide pestilence – indeed pandemics, not one but many. These would become very likely unless the world’s lifestyle changed. Back in January this year I noticed a very small article to one side of the BBC News website: a new virus had emerged in China. Immediately my mind presented me a memory: those warnings. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that world leaders and politicians had chosen to ignore the warnings rather than prepare for such a worldwide natural disaster? Even as crazy Australian wildfires, beginning in June 2019, were still raging – and continued until May 2020 – demonstrating again that something isn’t quite right on the planet?

At least one politician even tried, as the virus struck our island nation (we hadn’t been ready, so we hadn’t made sure to close borders) tried to suggest that the plague would be gone “by Christmas”. Possibly he was experimenting with the idea that if you say something won’t interfere with something else, it won’t?  After all, nobody wants their traditional Christmas cancelled…  

But can Christmas be cancelled? Applying logic, family visits, roast turkey, Christmas Specials, Christmas trees, carols (from King’s /the school/the parish church), jumpers, puddings, Christingles, cribs, cards, and presents – these can be cancelled. We’d miss them – or many of them – at least one or two of them… We might be glad to miss the jumpers, or the puddings or the Specials. We wouldn’t miss spending an evening writing the cards. We might or mightn’t miss seeing family members (some seem less see-able than others…)  We’d miss the dream. We need it. We play it over in our minds. It’s perfect. It’s reassuring. It breaks up the dark, cold, winter. We’d even miss stress, frantic shopping, checking everything’s perfect, and the let-down when it’s not… Christmas, the annual family get-together,  has become a must-have.

As expected pleasures were potentially ‘snatched away’, not doing things exactly as usual threw many of us into disappointment and confusion. The idea that it mightn’t, this year, be wise to do all the traditional things, including crowded travelling from one place to another, getting squashed together at the todders’ Crib Service, and all that shopping, wasn’t just anathema, it was devastation.

So, if family meet-up can’t happen as usual, is our investment only in acting out the traditions?  What necessity have we bought into?  We’ve learned to expect predictability, but for many species life is fragile and unpredictable, and for many people survival is fragile and unpredictable. Evolution suggests a solution: adaptation to surrounding circumstances. Survival, the emotional survival of Christmas as we know it, may mean giving up ‘as we know it’, and defying ‘cancelled’ by embracing our own creative solutions… This can prove tremendously positive, once accepted, since untied from the traditional must-haves we’re free to do something with December 25th which suits us far better. 

What suits you? Given the weather, your circumstances, your tastes, chose something relaxing and restorative to do, to eat, to achieve… ‘Christmas’ is based on celebrating the birth of Christ, ‘the light (that) shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.’  That is, the darkness of the present time. Neither will it be altered by not being celebrated in the traditional way, on the traditional day. Christmas itself can’t be ‘cancelled’ any more than our birth-days can be (even though 25/12 isn’t a known date, only a church tradition)!

We could say the devastation this year wasn’t about losing Christmas: it was fear about losing the traditions of celebrating on 25/12. Maybe we need to loosen their hold on us? We don’t need to abandon them: the fun and the family stuff – just to know that whenever and wherever, we can gather and celebrate, the day and the specific traditions are moveable or adaptable when necessary.

Maybe we need to make sure we don’t allow another pandemic to overtake us? Maybe we need to make more effort  not to lose the planet? Because that would cancel everything…

Just a thought.

Traditional Crib

For a little Christmas story, go to the Hodge (Mari Howard) website, where you can read about Alice’s first carol service at https://hodgepublishing.co.uk/extract/the-labyrinth-year-christmas-carols-with-alice/

To read more about Alice and her family, try the books: Baby, Baby and The Labyrinth Year – find them at https://hodgepublishing.co.uk/books/

Who’s left holding the Baby? – Class & Contraception in the 1920s

By Fiona Veitch Smith, author of The Art Fiasco and other books, (see bottom of this page for more details)

In The Art Fiasco, the fifth in my 1920s murder mysteries, Poppy Denby encounters a number of women who have varying experiences of motherhood, sexual exploitation and sexual freedom. If readers look beyond the fun, fashion and mystery they will find an exploration of how access to contraception and dealing with the consequences of conception outside (and inside) marriage, impacted upon career opportunities for working and middle class women in the early 20th Century.

For thousands of years women have inserted fruit acids, jellies, pastes and various mixtures into their vagina in an attempt to prevent conception. Environments that are either sharply acidic or alkaline are hostile to sperm and therefore these methods may have had some effect.

In 1885 the first commercial vaginal suppository using cocoa butter and quinine sulphate was developed by Walter Rendell, an English pharmacist. This was later replaced by hydroquinine, a more potent spermicide, and sponges soaked in quinine sulphate. In 1906 Friedrich Merz developed the first known commercially produced spermicidal jelly, called Patentex. Female barrier methods became from the 1880s with the diaphragm and later the Dutch cap coming onto the market, and later in the early 1900s, female condoms became available. The male condom, in its various forms, had been around for millenia, but for the first time contraceptive choice was given to the female partner, leading, in no small way, to the increased emancipation of women by allowing them to control their own fertility.

So, who were the women using contraception in the 1910s and 20s, and where did they obtain it? Well, as they could only be purchased from certain pharmacies or prescribed at private clinics, they were primarily available to the middle and upper class. Free sexual health services were still a thing of the future. In The Cairo Brief,Poppy notes that her sexually free friend Delilah Marconi might very well have ended up at the home for unwed mothers that they visit in the course of their investigation, if it hadn’t have been for her contraceptive know-how and wealth. Of course, the barrier method still sometimes failed, but even then women with more wealth were able to make arrangements to travel away out of public view to disguise their pregnancy. Assuming they did not have an abortion. That was an option, with varying degrees of safety, illegally available to both middle-class and working-class women. But the more an abortionist could be paid, the better the chance of survival.

Issues of childcare were also class dependent. In the 1920s, career opportunities were opening for women, but many of them – even if they were educated well enough to qualify – were unable to pursue these paths due to childcare constraints. Who was going to look after the baby? Wealthier women could afford nannies. In The Cairo Brief we see a miner’s wife worrying how she is going to look after yet another baby. And then we see Yasmin Reece-Lansdale, a wealthy barrister (now married to Poppy’s editor Rollo), blithely managing to have twins and return to work.

The law, too, was also a barrier to career advancement with The Marriage Bar in place in certain professions, such as teaching, that legally required women to resign if they were to get married.

Societal convention, religious belief, social and domestic conservatism, unequal educational opportunities, male opposition and political legislation all had a role to play in limiting women’s career advancement, but access to contraception was pivotally important. The 1920s saw a rise in demands for better access to birth control and the first free clinics were opened by Marie Stopes. Stopes is more usually remembered as a provider of safe abortion (and her eugenicist views) but her main thrust at the beginning of her career was the provision of contraception to married women. In the next book in the series, as Poppy is contemplating the possibility of marriage and what it might mean to her career, these issues become vitally important. But that’s another story…

Fiona Veitch Smith is the author of the Poppy Denby Investigates novels, Golden Age-style murder mysteries set in the 1920s (Lion Fiction). The first book, The Jazz Files, was shortlisted for the CWA Historical Dagger, while subsequent books have been shortlisted for the Foreword Review Mystery Novel of the Year and the People’s Book Prize. Book 5, The Art Fiasco, is out now. www.poppydenby.com

In Today’s World, is there a place for ‘Happy Endings’?

Note: this first appeared on the Authors Electric blog (April 2020), time has brought us to another place, Ed & Emma’s story has resolved, Normal People has shown & been discussed – but the question remains – soaps, dramas, novels and happy endings? 

I am a fan of The ArchersThe Archers potters along, but I find myself these days hoping that something might have a successful outcome – why must The Archers mirror society, and more relevantly, does it?  The Rob and Helen storyline was exciting, moving, and telling, a warning about coercive control… now the Emma and Ed one informs about the desperate plight of a rural population struggling to make a home and living… but, if that crash lands in total failure, doesn’t it, somehow, also teach that there can be no escape, none at all, and leave listeners only depressed and hopeless?

I don’t know. I don’t believe in total ‘happy endings’ but I hunt for a bit of balance. I watch Call the Midwife for relaxation, fully realising that the  happiness achieved is not, of course, always an outcome in real life, but at least I am relaxed and entertained. (Some friends can’t watch – they recall labour and birth and don’t want to watch it on screen…)

Back in the day (of the 1950s & 60s) the kids in CTM’s East End could really have no shoes, rats in their homes, desperate mothers did die of back street abortions. And it was the late 1950s. And, I was a middle class small child who as yet didn’t know, except about the shoes.

So, with domestic violence, child poverty, and failing relationships, can we and should we accept “happy” endings now in our secular 21st-century world? What is a “happy ending”? Fairy stories often and with a rather empty, cliched stock phrase “and they lived happily ever after”.

Is compromise a “happy ending”?  Why might we now prefer an ending which is open or even tragic? Why are these endings considered “more realistic” and why do we desire “Realism”? Was Fleabag’s ending what we want: open, but unresolved?

More specifically, is the realism in soaps and TV dramas truly real? Are the characters real? Is it consistent? The “realism” may inhabit the dialogue, but breaks down when characters supposed to be professionals (as in the drama Dr Foster, particularly inept and depressingly focussed on negativism, sex and rows) or running a successful business, behave like street kids at home with their partners. Do so many of us do this that it is realism?  It cuts talk, yes, but what else? Violence isn’t ‘acceptable’ but it’s what we do? Meanwhile total lack of realism reigns in the boring bits such as when medicine or business is being practised. Of course we’d not expect long boring “being at work” scenes, but we do need, if insisting on accuracy and realism, to be shown whether this character or that are competent people or already living a chaotic life of emotional stress, mistakes, snapping at colleagues, on the edge… will it result in mental breakdown and inability to function in a professional capacity? Realism? Rather, these stories require suspension of disbelief! What do they say about relationships but selfishness, misery, and middle class domestic violence?

Is there maybe a “message” contained in these dramas: if so, why? Are they the descendants of the “kitchen sink” plays written by “angry young men” of the 1950s –  Kingsley Amis, Arnold Wesker, Stan Barstow… John Osborne’s Look back in Anger being an iconic example. As Hobbs said, human life is ‘nasty, brutish and short’. And is unlikely to be anything else?

Perhaps writers feed the public what it wants? Or are we writing out of our frustrations and regrets, sadnesses, disappointments and rage?  The recent memoir phase has covered topics from the life of minorities, whether of ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, and other groups who find themselves in what feels like an unfairly negative position in a culture which seems to suggest that everyone can and should “have it all”. Helpful or unhelpful to read, these memoirs aren’t written to entertain, or “lose yourself in a book” but to expose life’s unfairness, or highlight disappointments, tragedies or frustrations. Occasionally there’s a “happy ending”, as with Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love or  Alice Jolly’s Dead Babies and Seaside Towns,  where the protagonist ‘obtains their goal’, and thus solves the problem.

And so memoir might deliver the hope, while fiction highlights the grim reality…?

To embed reality into drama or fiction needs care and insight. Diana Evans puts the problems of the black middle-class into novel form, (Ordinary People) and it ends up just that – ordinary… (Evans is great at writing about boredom so that you feel it!)  Tayari Jones does far better in An American Marriage, going deeper into character, developing (and demonstrating through interaction and dialogue) motivations and ambiguities, which demonstrate an empathy with her creations, and creates a page turning story rather than flat complaint. The young African-American author Angie Thomas does superbly with her page-turning THUG (The Hate you Give), chronicling the struggles of escape from the inevitable place class and skin colour has assigned her and her fellow African Americans.

If novels can entertain, inform, and open our minds to the lives of others while supplying at the same time as satisfying read, is this impossible for drama, especially soaps and TV drama?  Conclusions with ambivalent, open endings, even happy ones, usually involve growth and change. Soaps and TV dramas are the sources of quickfire entertainment. Characterisation can slip in order to pace or literally “sex up” a story. They’re a preferred relaxation for most people. Novels may speak more constructively, memoirs less so. But memoirs, possibly, are informing the lack of if not happy then satisfying endings in the threads of soaps and the themes of dramas. People are made aware of the sufferings of others, maybe even find pleasure in the satisfaction or schadenfreude which appeals, and maybe also reassures them, that the lives of others are not necessarily better than their own: the grass is not greener, and happily ever after can be dismissed as a myth.

Of course, I would still like Ed and Emma Grundy to reconcile, but I suspect a Thomas Hardy influence at work on the ending…

 

 

A Future World?

I now have my first Moleskine sketch and notebooks: I have never indulged in Moleskine, but last month, buying a new sketchbook, notebook, tube of basic white paint and some medium at our local art shop, I learned that that craft materials of all kinds had been flying off the shelves. And as the basic sketchbooks and notebooks were all gone, they charged me the basic price for superior goods, their suggestion.

So, “lockdown” is not a holiday. But faced with having their offices or other business closed, a considerable number of people saw the chance for creativity would reign in their lives, whether  embroidery, knitting, papercraft or any other activity they’d “always meant to try”. Others rushed to buy jigsaws to relieve the boredom  they feared would attack due to acres of free time. Or piles of books to escape into. Or vegetable plants, and packets of seeds to dig for victory.  All nostalgic occupations of a bygone age, which we’d abandoned as not exciting enough for today.

And while all the creativity, combating boredom, and escaping happens in one place, in another, possibly quite close by, others are overworked, helping yet others to combat infectious illness, in danger of their own lives. Or harnessing their creativity to produce a test, or a vaccine. Tied firmly to daily toil, exhausting and dangerous. No escape.

It’s not just odd, it has actually divided us. It’s a bit like – if the world survives, children will ask parents or grandparents, ‘What did you do in the great pandemic?’ And some of us will have lurked at home, and some will have been on the frontline, and if we aren’t careful the two sides could clash horribly… Maybe nobody says it yet, but the “middle-class” workers-from-home,  and the people doing jigsaws and crafts, are having a relatively comfortable time,

The slow-worm has a secret life, we seldom see them…

while “key workers” – everyone who keeps all the basics going – those employed in supermarkets,  lorry drivers, binmen and railway workers, bus drivers, firefighters, police – as well as doctors, nurses, cleaners, hospital administrators – remain at work and at risk. Maybe nobody’s saying it yet, but should the key workers be better rewarded, in the future, when the utter necessity of their work is acknowledged?

Bluetits quarrel on telegraph wire

I wonder if, as another blogger hoped and suggested, we’ll continue to be kind, generous, thoughtful and neighbourly. The world would change, the needs of the poor be met, the wealthy countries distribute their wealth more equally. The emphasis would be on a decent life for all. Temptation being what it is, this is definitely a dream. Could it become a reality? Could the world admit that we have a climate crisis, that we have been exploiting and destroying nature long enough, and could we unite to care about this and accept a “lower standard of living” so all may live?  Remember the continuous rain and floods of the past winter. The Australian wildfires. The suffering and death of human beings (and animals). Would governments and companies change their priorities?

I wrote this in Holy Week, the lead up to Easter. I have spent very peculiar Lents in the past three years, in 2018 being seriously ill in the ICU for a week and then five weeks on the ward. And the time was exactly, almost to the day, Lent, Holy week, and Easter. I escaped the hospital on the evening of Easter Monday, thrown out with at least nine others, making room for a new intake.

Lent is a peculiar time, supposedly for fasting. This year I decided to “give up” political involvement for Lent. Enough signing petitions and ranting along with others of similar views who thought “Brexit” would be a disaster for our country. The reality of this Lent is that I’ve spent most of the time “isolating” in “lockdown”. And as the various measures and lack of measures to contain and defeat the march of the virus are or are not put in place, it’s been impossible to “give up politics”, and it’s been back to sharing our views, responding to the sufferings of others, whether from working without proper protective equipment or from loss of jobs or earnings.

Frogs party in the pond

 Lent has been very peculiar. Meanwhile nature struggles on – frogs mate in the ditch at the nature reserve, the garden is bright with spring flowers, bees are buzzing about, birds are busy and filled with song. The weather has brought sunshine.

Along with others, I have felt we shall all be changed by this present situation. Many experts hope, and see positive change. Whether the world will move into greater awareness and more generosity is a big question. It’s unlikely we’ll learn to be content with holidays at home with jigsaws or embroidery. But will we have become aware of the necessity to combat climate change together, will we have accepted that “key workers”, previously given low pay, should be honoured with the recognition of decent wages? Is a bin man’s contribution going to now be seen as worth as much as a banker’s? Or shall we continue to live as divided nations, hostile to one another, competitive in our pursuit of personal and national wealth? That is the question.

On the Thingness of Things

This comes to you — but might well not have done – since we have these several past weeks been beset by the rebellious nature of our Internet connection.  Was this a curse from beyond or within the house? Was it some malfunctioning of the line, the router, or some other source?

Whatever it was, came the day when the whole thing packed up, and we found ourselves without connection to the outside – the online grocery shop, the Bank to pay for services purchased, the connection to my husband’s office (he works from home), and our various family and friends. Never mind Facebook, Twitter, and the BBC iPlayer… Or that vital thing, the weather forecast.

Never mind vital background research when writing!

It is in such circumstances that the Thingness of Things raises the question – How sentient are the non-sentient Beings which (or who) surround and control our lives? Makes you stop and think – What if this whole system were to collapse – to be collapsed? Well, how often have you tried to book a ticket, an appointment with the doctor or dentist, hairdresser or vet, and been told “We can’t do anything at present, the system’s down”?

So – this Thingness – it isn’t, don’t imagine it is – new. Things have always tried to demonstrate their Thingness, which is determined, assertive, and contrary. Far from being dumb articles of usefulness to Human Beings, Things are above all that hierarchical thinking.

  For example, Christmas. Who hasn’t had their oven, fridge, freezer or dishwasher decide that 24th December is a great day to pack up, or at least to temporarily break down? Immediately they hear of one’s plight, friends and neighbours share their own experiences. We, for example, have had (severally) oven, fridge, and tumble dryer all take unpaid leave over Christmas. The oven spectacularly dared to totally conk out one year. And the replacement proved itself cleverer than the two John Lewis employees who were supposed to install it…

Then there was the boiler, thankfully a different year.  And, the electric cable the road – that left a whole group of us in cold and darkness…

And there are the small things. My kitchen food mixer suddenly began, with no warning, an unheard-till-then loud grating noise, in the midst of mixing biscuits… it was kaput… If towels are hung on a hook on the bathroom door, they will often drop (or jump) to the floor with a particular satisfying (to them) thud as you leave… Futon sofa beds  prefer to stolidly cling to the couch pose than to change to the bed pose when an unexpected guest arrives late. Very small things (take the elastic which holds my rolled-up Yoga mat together when not in use) delight in hiding in plain sight – this thing disguised itself within the pattern of an Oriental-style rug. Hairpins, rubber bands, even pens and pencils also play this kind of hide-and-seek.

Just an innocent sofa-bed?

And a friendly oriental-style rug?

Doorhandles stick or fall off. Drawers stick or fall out, throwing their contents to the floor. Talking of drawers, I had a friend at Uni who was so fearful her knicker elastic would snap that she always wore two pairs, one on top of the other… (I know, pretty extreme but… it had apparently once happened… never would it catch her out again…!) Leaves co-operate with the railway line in autumn, as snow does in winter, to make sure trains don’t run.

And, for us writers, our computers or printers find many ways to thwart and hold back our Work in Progress. There is, very definitely, a Thingness of Things. Whether I have thwarted such ambitions will be seen when I attempt to post this on the Authors Electric site… (dictated from  my draft, and entitled, by the dictation programme, “Playing gnarls”: now how did that translate from The Thingness of Things? What are ‘gnarls”?)

Then, the internet connection failed…again…

Further reading… Paul Jennings, ‘Report on Resistentialism’ in The Jenguin Pennings, pp. 196–206. The French philosophy of Resistentialism has as its basic concept Les choses sont contre nous.

(This piece first appeared on Authors Electric on 22 Febraury this year)

Searching for a Place of Safety?

Gathering to march – People of all ages & generations, expressing their feelings summer 2019

Apparently, large numbers of people attended church this Christmas, not only “the Midnight” (Mass celebrated as Christmas Eve becomes Christmas Day) but carol services, and special services around the Crib for children and families, were super well attended. It was said that people had become fed up with the instability and the arguments, so having had the election, everyone (well many anyway) elected to celebrate by doing Christmas in all its fullness, and church was included. The number of “Well we can’t change it, but we must all be kind to each other” Facebook posts suggests that this was, indeed, the motivation.

Have the English become, once again, the peace-loving, C of E attending, English?

Now, post election, and post-Christmas, are we all festivaled-out, and have we all forgotten our differences?

Of course, no sooner than Back to Work Day was about to follow New Year’s, we heard that America had acted on “taking out” the most powerful of military Iranian leaders. Not a good sign for 2020. I for one was already appalled by the election results, and by those of us who had hoped that things will settle down to something like they were before the referendum being described as “a small bubble who live in Islington”. (We do not live in Islington but, sadly, we do live in an urban cosmopolitan setting…).

What I’m thinking about is that Why? Just how and why has the peaceful, polite, apparently sensible country, with its mixed economy, its wonderful and fair health service, and its relative lack of unpredictable violence on the streets, in which I grew up, and raised my children, got to how it now is?

I shall leave you with two ideas to think about, and you can say I am wrong, of course.

The aftermath of wars

One is where we came from to arrive here. Two (or more) generations grew up, and began adult life, experiencing not one but two “World Wars”. My grandparents raised their families through World War I, and then as their children were attaining adulthood  and leaving school, going to university, or beginning a career, watched as these were thrust into World War 2. In other words, then, when my generation were growing up, in the 1950s to 1970s, we inherited a country run by people who had possibly experienced quite enough war, disruption, and destruction. The general feeling was for peace. No surprise we joined Europe in 1974, and no surprise people tried to negotiate (yes, there were strikes but there will also negotiations) rather than to clash and to commit “hate crime”. I’m not saying that there wasn’t any racism (there was), poverty (yes there was), discrimination (yes) or despair. But, there was also politeness and an attempt at fairness, and where there wasn’t, people expected that there should be. They expected, and respected, honesty in dealings, and did not publicly admire dishonesty, lies, and cheating on your partner. This kind of set a pattern – even though we knew, of course we knew – that people did these things. Privately of course people broke the rules, that has always been part of human nature.

I am not a Conservative. I am not at all saying that it is being ruled by the Conservatives which we need. The point rather is that after those wars, people were exhausted by division, and willing to do enough give and take, to put up with an “ordinary” life. The gap between rich and poor had been narrowed by various political processes, such as the NHS, and free access to University for all who gained the entry qualifications, with a means tested grant for living expenses.

Our changing social outlook

The second thing is social change. Social change since the 1960s sixties has been pretty fast. We have, in the majority, accepted that legal abortion is better than backstreet, that gay people can formalise their relationships with a faithful partner, and that women are, actually, equal to men in all areas of employment (although pay is still not). There are other areas, freely talked about, I could add. Although we are also well behind in the area of equality, nonetheless many subjects which were in former times kept private and unmentionable can be discussed publicly. The results of these changes, positive to the groups involved, understood by many of us, have however disturbed and worried a large enough section of the population that they feel themselves threatened. The acceptance of workers from not only Europe but other areas of the world worries at their feeling of being “invaded”  by other cultures. The change in attitudes, due to liberalised thinking and knowledge, towards what was once declared “illegal” is hard for them to comprehend. They feel these changes are what has destroyed the old more peaceful society. I have heard people blame the EU for “human rights” and say that there are no rights humans should have…

These changes are not an intended cause of destabilisation. Liberalisation means inclusion and acceptance for alienated groups, but unsettled people who believe in tradition as a powerful social container for what had been seen as aberrant instincts and behaviours. For them, liberalising laws  have changed the “landscape” of Britain. Both groups are easy targets. Fear of the other has become tribal enough for some to indulge in “hate crime”. At the same time, a different kind of change has taken place: impersonal technology-based ways of replacing human interaction. So, if you are doing okay, if you are happy to go with the changes, well and good. Especially if you’re happy to deal with technology rather than a helpful human being behind the counter at the bank, or any doctor over the phone rather than your friendly well-known GP face-to-face.

In the present chaos, and with a background of rapid social change, those who haven’t already put up with the experience of living through two world wars, are desperate, despairing, and ready to act out. We have an angry population who wants what others have got (the wealth to buy luxury goods, or goods at all, or maybe simply a peaceful existence with a social mores reflecting what might be called old-fashioned values) but who want, above all, to feel safe again.

Does this possibly explain the increased enthusiasm for attending church at Christmas 2019?

A reassuring symbol of Englishness? Warmth, peace, and togetherness celebrating the birth of a baby into an ‘ordinary family’? Or the story of a refugee and social reformer born in poverty?  Getting together, whichever way we see it…

A most inconvenient lying…?

Beautiful day for a picnic, lovely sunny cove…?

When the Brexit vote result was announced, 24 June 2016 became a deeply depressing day. It wasn’t just a shock. My feeling has continued, a sense of foreboding. The central government figures had disappeared – then almost immediately we heard reports of “hate crime” (a phrase I don’t recall from before – though I won’t claim that both the phrase and the actions didn’t exist, of course).  But after that, racism, anti-Semitism, hatred of Trans and Gay or Lesbian people, or people with easily discernible disabilities, really anyone considered “other” by the perpetrator could be targeted. And suddenly they were.

How did this happen?

Was something, some lurching, ugly thing, released and given permission to act out and speak its mind?

A disturbing idea has been around for a while, something fewer people than those who are aware of “hate crime” have probably heard of. After the idea of a “post-modern” phase of culture, some thinkers came up with the concept of a “post-truth” era.

Once our children grew and the “nest” was “emptying”, we began to take lodgers, mostly young people who had arrived in our city to work and needed a home base while they settled down and found friends and a place to live. I recall having a conversation at that time with one of them, a young woman studying for a further degree at the University here, who, in response to something I said, declared with confidence “There is no such thing as a truth. Truth does not exist.”

So who decided this?

Disturbing though it may seem, there is a certain “truth” in her comment: the idea of an era when the truth becomes no longer a category is both philosophical and political, and can be traced back to the philosopher Nietzsche (writing in 1873)* and to Max Weber in 1917**. But these are scholarly essays by teachers of philosophy and it has taken  a while for the ideas to fully escape from their ivory towers.

Using academic arguments in real situations

These academic musings would have been best left in the university departments where they began. Having escaped in the form of “post-truth” however, they’ve been grasped by politicians, and we now find ourselves forced into a strange and extremely worrying world. Lying is naccepted as “done by most people more often than you think” apparently. “Fake news” is a well known problem.

Living in the real world

Feet on the ground, not heads in the sand…

It is all very well for theorists to thrive on theoretical argument, but the business of good government doesn’t, I think, consist in the following of intriguing debate but in facing the day-to-day problems of running a country in such a way that it benefits the inhabitants, providing for their needs and staying financially afloat. Needs are many, varied, and interdependent. Needs, unhappily for the practitioners of post-truth politics, are factual, and there is still no more obvious truth than a fact (regardless of those people who use engaging the emotions to drive their appeal to the public) – the fact of earthquakes, floods and fires for example. Destructive of homes, businesses, and infrastructure. National disasters demand factual, or in another word, real, responses. Responses cost time, compassion, money, and workers to implement. Climate change will bring more of these. Yet most of our leaders pay scant attention to these self evident facts, preferring to make empty promises, talk about “doing deals”, and allowing this proliferating “fake news”.

Why “Brexit” can’t stop the real crisis

It is a sad situation indeed when a selection of wealthy countries are led by people who apparently lack a moral compass, and regard politics as playing an exciting power game in which no holds are barred and lying is accepted as a normal everyday escape from dealing with facts.  And with the reality of basic survival, not only of the human beings in their care and charge but of the environment as a whole, plants, insects, birds and animals, in other words the necessary food chain and atmosphere which supports life. No “deals”, and no millions or billions of pounds, given to the NHS, education, or crime fighting, will made a scrap of difference. Leaving the European Union isn’t what we should be doing. Some of the answer lies in noticing what really needs fixing, and in disallowing lies, spin, and power games.

* Essay on Truth and Lying in an extra-moral sense

** Essay on Science as Vocation, considering the difference between Facts and Values

For something lighter, set in the late 20th century world, at least twenty years  before 2016, why not try the Mullins Family Saga books 1 and 2?

 

 

 

 

 

Grandparents – value-added relatives?

(My blog on The enduring importance of Grandparents from 2015, re-visited and edited now I’m hoping to move into the third of my ‘Mullins Family Saga’ which will see the three generations all growing older. And now that ‘Grandparent Duty’ has come to us!) 

We’ve just (again) been on a writing weekend at Scargill in the Yorkshire Dales, where we  re-met many friends. Our hosts and leaders,  Adrian and Bridget, are brilliant, full of fun, and steeped in wisdom. In fact, they seem like  everyone’s favourite wise, funny, positive, uncle and auntie – or, … like grandparents. Listening. Encouraging. Moving in the group sessions through the laughs to the sadnesses and back – giving out warm feelings.

An experience which, if we are blessed, we get from grandparents – who are there to care and who, when we have tired them out with caring, ‘give us back’ to our sterner, always more harassed, parents.

This got me thinking: Grandparents have homes are full of  ‘old fashioned’ objects:  the year we lived with my paternal grandparents, Grandma was still using a flat-iron, heating it on the coal-fired boiler. (Okay, it was still the 1950s!) They have time, skills, and interesting stories of ‘long ago’.  Ideas to stimulate an interest in social history. Their childhoods, in another age, are intriguing. Milk coming round in a churn, on a cart? (Goes back a long way, that one: to my ‘other Granny’!)  One of my grandfathers kept prisms on the windowsill in his study: I remember  him showing me how the prisms divided light into rainbow colours.  An introduction to science.

From Grandma’s photo album: long ago grandparents with granddaughter

RAISED BY GRANDPARENTS

I can count many friends who’ve been almost or totally raised by grandparents: some whose Mum has been unable to mother for some reason, and Grandma has lived in and been the main carer. Others whose grandparents have lived until the grandchildren are grown and gone from home: the grief of these adult friends when the grandparents die is a poignant reminder of the enormous emotional importance of the grandparent/grandchild bond.

Worldwide, grandparents, especially grandmothers, are carers. Tradition seems to dictate that those who can no longer bear babies care for babies … and for older children. In many places,  grandmothers care full-time, while mothers work.

And since HIV/AIDS has orphaned thousands of children, grandparents in many countries must care full-time, often for the children of more than one family.

Here in Britain,  many grandparents are daily carers of children, often chosen in preference to child-minders, or nurseries. An Age UK report gives figures: Two-fifths (40%) of the nation’s grandparents over the age of 50 – five million – have provided regular childcare for their grandchildren… The survey revealed that the vast majority (89%) of the five million grandparents who provided regular care do so at least once a week…*

If  families break up, or parents can’t cope, grandparents may find themselves starting over again as full-time, possibly legal, parents.

‘PENSIONERS’ OR VITAL RESOURCES?

In our area, all houses were delivered booklets on resources for the elderly: from ‘Over-50’s Yoga’ to (a particularly unpleasant thought) a ‘Dementia Cafe’ for Alzheimers sufferers and their carers …These leaflets though useful to some residents were a little scary …

Clearly the concept of ‘pensioners’ needs updating: some are making a contribution as worthwhile and lively (and vital to the ‘economy’) than any other workers.

A FINAL THOUGHT

Grandparents may belong to a ‘bygone age’ – but strangely, their ideas, attitudes and behaviour seems to appeal and endear them to kids! They  are not mere spent grey-heads …Perhaps we should begin to take their views on society more seriously? Fun, and wisdom, garnered as a harvest from many years’ experience.

*Source: Age UK (2017)