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Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3: Parts 35, 36, & 37.

Visitation

One morning in late May that year I called at the farm and, to my astonishment, Lizzy was up and eating breakfast. She seemed completely changed. I blurted out something like: ‘was she feeling better?’ She told me she’d had a vivid dream. Peter had come into the bedroom and, standing at the end of their bed, told her how much he loved her and that she must stop grieving for him now, get herself better, and look after little Sarah. She sat up in bed and begged him to kiss her, but he’d insisted he had to go. She heard his footsteps on the stairs and the click of the back door shutting, exactly as she had done when he’d go out early. Then she woke up to hear the cock crowing. I told her how delighted I was to see her up, grabbed whatever I’d gone to collect, and went out to find Arthur.

That’s the official account of how Lizzy started to mend. It’s not, however, quite the whole story.

As we were finishing moving the sheep I noticed a police car parked outside Arthur and Nessa’s cottage and said something to him. We finished up and then went down just as Nessa came out with the young copper who’d just transferred from Hawick. Arthur asked if everything was alright and the young man explained he’d just taken a statement from Maggie, who’d seen a man looking around the farm in the night.. There’d been a series of recent thefts from farms, so the two men went to check the yard. I then noticed Nessa looked very pale. She hurried me into the kitchen.

Nessa and Arthur’s daughter Ruth had recently returned from Canada with her six-year-old daughter Maggie. The daughter, a nurse, had an interview so had left Maggie with her grandmother. In the night the little girl had got up to go to the bathroom and, on her way back to bed, opened the curtain to see if it was getting light. This gave her a good view up towards the farm. As she looked out she’d seen a man come out from the back porch and walk through the yard, looking left and right, then down to and past the cottage. She’d seen his face very clearly and in the morning she’d told her grandmother what she’d seen. Nessa remembered the spate of recent thefts and rang the old police sargent, but warned him it might be nothing. He’d been concerned enough to send the young constable to take a statement.

‘He was very good with the lass and she told him exactly what she’d told me, near enough word for word. But Miss Flora, he asked her to describe the man she’d seen and it was Master Peter. But Maggie’s never seen him, nor any photograph either. Of course the young man just wrote it all down and praised her for her memory. I didn’t know what to say so I said nothing. I sent her to play and was taking him out when yourselves arrived. Whatever am I to say to the sergeant, I’m afraid he’ll think it’s some terrible bad joke’.

I told Nessa about Lizzy’s dream. She looked at me wide-eyed, shook her head, and walked out of the room. I rang the sergeant myself. He’s a traditional singer I know quite well. I don’t remember now just how our conversation went, but I started by asking if he remembered ‘The Wife of Usher’s Well.’[2]

Whatever you make of all this, and I swear it’s true, Lizzy’s depression eased off, at least to the point where eventually we were able to return to something like our old lives. But after that I had a real sense that I didn’t know the half of it when it came to Lizzy. That, of course, turned out to be entirely true.

I suppose I should also add this.

You may possibly remember sending me a little booklet,A. R. Wright’s ‘English Foklore’(1928), number twenty-three in a series called ‘Benn’s Sixpenny Library’, that you’d found in a second hand bookshop. You almost certainly won’t remember writing that you were disconcerted by what seemed to you my excessive gratitude for such a small gift. My reason, which I didn’t feel able to share with you then, can be found on page twenty-three.

The dead seem to have been carried feet foremost from ancient times, in order to prevent their seeing their home and door and so being able to find their way back as revenants.

This brought to mind something that happened when the undertakers came to remove Peter’s body. There was an altercation between an old neighbour who’d come to help Nessa with the laying out and the undertaker’s men. I only caught the low, insistent, tone of the old woman’s voice, not her words, and then an incredulous refusal from the undertaker; then the old woman again, now openly angry, before I had to attend to something else. When I looked out of the window moments later I saw Peter’s coffin carried out of the house head first. After I’d read that passage in Wright’s book, I asked Nessa if she remembered that day. She looked away and tried to change the subject. When I pressed her she admitted that old Miss Kerr had had words with the men, but insisted she couldn’t remember what the old lady had said. This was the same Miss Kerr who, when I asked about her brother one day, told me he was all upset about a tweed suit bequeathed to him by a former emplyer because it had inexplicably rotted. She’d added: ‘what did he expect, silly man, it fretted for old Mr …, who’d worn it on and off thirty years’.

After reading Wright it’s not hard to guess the cause of the altercation, but I do wonder about her motive.

I know neither of us, as intelligent, rational people, believe in such things. But, as we each know, our intelligent, rational selves are hardly in the majority.

The Reed Estate

 Of course it’s hard for me not to admire Lizzy as the localsee her; that is as Peter’s widow and ‘mistress of the Reed Estate’, since she’s genuinely had to overcome very real difficulties in order to keep the farm going and bring up Sarah. Although there’s something ironic about that view of Lizzy, since the Reed Estate as was realy only exists in memory now.

Originally it consisted of the home farm and a cluster of five smaller tenant farms, all a world away from the intensive agriculture of the lowlands. A parcel of haughs (meadows) along the river and patches of dense woodland in its steep valleys, hill pasture and moorland that’smixture of bog, heather and cotton-grass. In the old days, all this grazing land was treated by its owners, at least in terms of public rhetoric, as ‘for sport’, that is as primarily for grouse and pheasant shooting. As ‘gentry’ the Reeds preferred to see the estate as a recreational site and the income it brought in from farming as a secondary matter. From this point of view once the shooting was rented out ‘the estate’ became, in the eyes of the more hidebound of Peter’s peers, a farming business and Peter a farmer rather than a gentleman who owned land. Of course, nobody would be so vulgar as to put any of this into words, least of all say anything to Peter or Lizzy themselves. But that didn’t make the judgement any less real in the minds of some in the region. It’s difficult to explain the nuances of all this to outsiders. Particularly now when the presuppositions involved, which are essential to preserving an identity predicated on archaic distinctions, would be bitterly defended if ever made explicit. They are, of course, all but invisible to those that hold.

When I first came north I thought the Cheviot uplands were just an endless, undifferentiated succession of dull and very empty hills. Initially it was Lizzy’s schoolgirl pride in both the natural and human history of the region that carried me beyond that first impression. I learned that the upland landscape was differentiated into fields and rough pasture; that the second consisted of bog, patches of dull green sedge, occasional dwarf shrubs and massive hummocks of sphagnum moss and, higher up in the dryer areas, white headed cotton-grass and drifts of heather. In a good year, these drifts turned a wonderful purple in early to mid-August and were often interspersed with cloudberry and ling. She pointed out to me the notable inhabitants of this highland, the hares, lapwings, curlew, assorted raptors, and both black and red grouse. She insisted I understand other, more esoteric, differentiations too. I learned that the Reed Estate did not host relic communities of arctic alpine flora, the dwarf cornel, chick-weed, willow grass, alpine willow herb, rose root, hairy stonecrop, and alpine scurvy grass, that survive in some of the deep rocky ravines of estates further north. A relic flora that brings with it various environmental restrictions to vex its owners.

Even in its heyday the Estate’s farming side never made the Reeds much money beyound the tenants’ rents, but it enabled them to maintain a certain view of themselves. Lizzy’s public persona is now a strange afterglow of that former identity, a sense of self that’s genuinely invested in the farm as a livelihood for Sarah and herself. But it’s all muddled up with a ghost: the former social role of mistress of an estate as it once was; a roll that her mother-in-law wore like a glove.

Lizzy and I have never seen eye to eye on the role of shooting in the whole business of estates here. I dislike the various, largely bogus, claims that this somehow contributes ‘to the conservation and maintenance of the countryside’. Claims made by an industryonly interested in protecting its own interests, including the social status of landowners, and heavily subsidised by the tax-payer.

At the risk of boring you half to death, I’ll give you an indication (albeit a bit dated) of what’s involved, based on notes I made back in 2009. At that time 80 percent of estates were involved in grouse shooting, although grouse numbers had declined by nearly 50 percent compared to 2001. However, the fee levied per brace had increased by over 30 percent in real terms over the same period.Grouse shooting was estimated to account for 46 percent of permanent employment across the estates surveyed, but only 43 percent of reporting estates made a profit on their grouse. I think this confirms my view that maintaining the status of ‘gentleman landowners’ is a significant motive in all this.

The stone heap

That said, more estates were making more profit in 2009 than previously. It wasestimated that they spent almost £11 million on wages, operating, and maintenance expenditures. However, it’s not clear how much of this was offset by other benefits. (An ecologist friend thinks the offset is very considerable, not least because estates are able to collect substantive Government subsidies.)Much ‘everyday’ estate expenditure is on routine countryside management, including predator control (some of it highly suspect, if not illegal), pest control, and heather and bracken management, which to a degree may also benefit agricultural activity. But this is, as you’ll know, environmentally problematic. There was of course no mention in the report I’m quoting from of such environmental issues, nor of the relationship between all this activity and watershed management, or of the social and economic cost to the nation of having to deal with flooding. Nor was there mention of the very substantial subsidies paid to the owners of grouse moors by the State.All of which needs to be understood in the context of other facts, for example that over half of Scotland is owned by just 432 people, the most concentrated pattern of land ownership anywhere in the developed world.

Change

Everything here began to change when the day-to-day management of the estate was passed over to Peter, who by then had graduated from agricultural college. He immediately began worked closely with Arthur Bell to pull the farming side of the estate business around. Some three months after he moved back north he and Lizzy got engaged and she became privy to the financial and other implications of his mother’s battle with the trustees. She would only tell me

so much but, reading between the lines, I think when the lawyers investigated the trust they discovered various irregularities. Whatever the case, the trust agreed to amend its own terms of reference and real managerial authority was largely devolved to Peter. The whole business was probably as costly as it was unpleasant and, at least initially, Peter ran into endless problems created, directly or indirectly, by his father. Not the least of which was that people on the estate he’d grown up with had been ‘let go’, which had naturally generated a lot of bad feeling locally.

 Peter began at once to set in motion a plan that, to many people locally, was simply unthinkable. He put the Big House on the market and then sold it to a business syndicate, part of a package that also gave them exclusive rights to the shooting. The syndicate then turned the house and outbuildings into a small exclusive hotel that, by providing some much-needed local employment, helped to mollify local feeling. In parallel, Peter moved Arthur and his wife Nessa into a renovated estate cottage, taking over the factor’s[1]house at the farm for Lizzy and himself. All this allowed him to pay off virtually the entire estate overdraft. He then established a management company, with his mother and Lizzy as partners to sideline the trust. He and Lizzy then married quietly at a civil ceremony at the Jedburgh registry office. There were only about a dozen of us there, but Kate had come home especially. That was, to my knowledge, her last visit to the UK.

 

‘Picking up’ dead grouse after a drive.

That was in July. Early in the morning on the first Tuesday in December the following year, Peter took the old estate Landrover out onto the hill to liaise with a contractor assessing the value of a plantation with a view to felling it. The plan was that Peter would then meet Arthur and Graham Watson, the cattle man, by nine. At half past nine Arthur called in at the farm to ask for Peter.

It took a long afternoon to get Peter’s body out of the remains of the Landrover and bring it up from the river, which was high from several days of intermittent snow and sun. The police concluded that Peter had braked going into the second of the hairpin bends, that the brakes had failed, and that the vehicle had then skidded and the front hit a low boulder. At that point, the Landrover had turned over onto its side, slide down the rest of the steep, snow-covered bank, and dropped the ten odd meters into the freezing river below. The local mechanic who maintained the farm’s vehicles told the inquest the Landrover had only just scraped through its M.O.T. back in March and he’d suggested it be replaced. Peter told him he hadn’t the funds. The coroner recorded death by drowning. Lizzy, six months pregnant with Sarah, started having the most terrible nightmares and, after a very difficult birth, developed what began as post-natal depression.

Mrs. Oliver and I organized a wake for family and close friends at the farmhouse.

Arthur, normally an abstemious man, drank steadily. Knowing him as well as I do I sensed something was brewing and went to find Nessa, who was holding court among the local women in the kitchen. I told her my suspicions and suggested she get him home.  She was in the process of bustling him into his coat when he turned and said to Lizzy, across the room and loud enough for all to heard: “He might as well ha’ killed him his self”. Nessa, blushing furiously, pushed him out of the door before he could say another word. Everyone knew exactly what he meant. Coming from Arthur, normally the mildest and most discreet of men, that outburst was taken as a judgement. Nessa might tell everybody she met how mortified she’d been that he should say such a thing in front of Lizzy and ‘herself’ (Lady Armitage) but, as I told her, he had only put into words what we’d all thought.

In the year and a half that followed, Mrs. Oliver and I looked after Lizzy and Sarah and did what we could to help Arthur, Mike, and Graham keep the farm going. My father had died of cancer two springs previous and Lizzy’s father of complications following a stroke that same summer, so we were all of us already feeling bereft. Kate was largely out of touch, living a hand-to-mouth existence in Australia, loving it, but poor as a church mouse.

My childhood world, the foundation of so much in my life, was in real danger of becoming something so distant, so prelapsarian,as to be wholly unreal; my oldest friends were distressed or scattered, and Cat was dead. My musing on that childhood began, perhaps, simply as an attempt to reconstruct, to rewrite perhaps, a substantial part of my identity. Historically, disaster of one kind or another has almost been the norm, so we’re used to having to telling things again, but differently, just to keep ourselves going.

 

[1]In Scotland, a factor is an estate manager. 

[2]This is perhaps the most explicit and detailed of all the various ‘supernatural’ Border ballads that provide an account of a revenant,a ‘living ghost’, who returns from the grave to warn or instruct the living.

 

Liz Crow’s ‘Bedding Out’

I was alerted to Bedding Out, by  Liz Crow, by a good friend who, rightly, thought l might be interested in her work around a particular kind of disability and the way it has been demonised for political reasons interesting. I know from our own family experience just how frightening and difficult the situation she evokes is, and wish more people could see this piece. They might them empathise a little more, and even challenge the ideology that has created the PIP (Personal  Independence Payment) system which, as Liz points out, is actually a form of State-sponsored terrorisation that is having, literally, lethal consequences.

I find it extraordinary that there is almost universal condemnation of President Trump’s treatment of the children of migrants going into the USA illegally and yet, thanks largely to the tabloid media, the UK Government gets away with supporting policies and practices that are every bit as inhumane, including the forceable removal of children with ME/CFS from their parents on the basis of the same kinds of demonisation Liz Crow describes. There is a tendency among a certain group of people to describe this kind of thing as ‘fascistic’ but, in fact, a much closer analogy would be with the chronic abuse of psychiatry in the USSR, given that the treatment of these children has been supported by a group of UK psychiatrists, among whom is one who holds the highest role in that profession.

I absolutely understand why people wish to protest against Trump and his policies, but can’t help feeling that they might use their energies more effectively by addressing some of the abuses taking place in a ‘democratic’ State of which they are citizens by protesting against policies enacted in their name.

Thank you, Anne Enright

I have just finished reading a piece written by Anne Enright for today’s Guardian Journal (Monday, 28 May, 2018), called Thank you, Britain. You were there for Irish Women

Having seen something of the anti-abortion lobby’s tactics when in Ireland at the beginning of May – they claimed, for example, that “1 in 5 babies in England is aborted” –  it was a joy to read this piece. How often do we read a long newspaper article that focuses, not on praising the winners of some conflict, but on thanking people – in this case in Britain – for their basic humanity and decency in dealing with Irish women seeking abortions over many years. Or that identifies and praises a positive aspect of the British psyche, albeit one largely embodied by people working in the NHS?

Perhaps it’s because  Enright is not a journalist, not someone whose job is framed by the economics of selling newspapers, but an Irish novelist. As such, she will have had to engage with the extraordinary sprawl of tensions that runs through everyday life in contemporary Ireland. A country navigating the ambiguous historical legacies of colonialism, Catholicism and, more recently, the boom and bust associated with the Celtic Tiger years. As a novelist, she will have had to sift, weigh and balance the effects of all the paradoxes, the contradictory character traits, that these legacies throw up. Without doing so she could not write as she does. A patient skill that I can only wish was more in evidence in our public media.

So,  thank you Anne Enright.

 

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3: Parts 17, 18, 19 & 20

London

I was excited about being called for interview, but nervous about what would happen if I actually got a place and had to live in London. I wanted to believe my Foundation tutors, who had told me my work, ‘the broken necklace of a teenage troll girl’ as Dad once affectionately described one piece, would get me a place. I knew I had always worked really hard and, much to my own astonishment, also managed to overcome the innumerable logistic problems of attending a Foundation Course. At home I felt I’d earned my cofidence and was prepared for anything. But my old nervousness returned with a vengence when I was faced by the jostling crowds on the Tube and the sophisticated second-year students who directing us to wait to be called to interview and ticking me off on a list. I felt like a heffer in a holding pen.

I’d been waiting about twenty minutes when the only other girl in the room came over and whispered that, since obviously we weren’t going to get interviewed before the coffee break, maybe we should retreat to the loo and take stock? Suzie, who looked vaguely Chinese to me but spoke with an Irish accent, was clearly working as hard to hide her nerves as I was. We reassured each other and then shared her bright red ‘lippy’ to boost our morale. (Later my aunt told me I looked like ‘a tart’, much to my secret delight). With that simple act of sharing Suzie and I became two young women against the male art world. We agree to meet after our interviews and compare notes. Mine went by in an anxious blur and afterwards I found myself laughing about it with my new friend. I’d never met anyone remotely like Suzie. My wry account of the interview made her laugh so much that, as she proceeded to tell half the canteen, she ‘nearly pee-ed herself’. I quickly realised I must be as much a pleasing novelty to her as she was to me. Before she went for her train we promised to stay in touch whatever happened.

To tackle my fear of London I stayed an extra night with Aunt Claire. Armed with an ‘A to Z’ I set out to explore and discovered Foyles and the second-hand bookshops off the Tottenham Court Road. There I found a copy of Hamish Fulton’s‘Pilgrims’ Way’, which I took as an omen that, if I was granted a life here, it would not just be possible but might even be enjoyable, despite all I would have to give up.

Top Road, January (sketch)

Under snow the quality of sound changes up in the high hills. This has less to do with changes to the acoustics of the physical landscape than with the practical conditions regarding clothing imposed on anybody who ventures out in these conditions.

Walking the top road today all the usual early spring sounds are muffled, truncated, by the clothing necessary to function at over three hundred meters above sea level. Today a violent north wind intermittently blew snow horizontally across the land. All the usual taken-for-granted differentiations and qualities by which I navigate were subject to a single overwhelming distinction: in or out of the wind.

I needed two layers of headgear for warmth and dryness and that produced a new soundscape, one dominated by the scratchings and rustlings of woolen cap moving against waterproof hood, the rhythmical thump of boots on wet road that seems to travel up through the body itself; and the squeak and scrunch of wet snow, occasional bird cries, distant vehicles.

All these present themselves as filtered and limited by the degree to which I turn to face, as a satellite dish might, the source of the sound. This baffling or muting of all sound serves to synchronize hearing and line of sight, so that to be able to stand bareheaded out of the wind is to be returned to a three-dimensional world, to once again become the center of a circle of sound.

 Mario

Mario, an Italian student at the art college who was some years older than me, befriended me almost as soon as I arrived. By the end of the autumn term I’d rather fallen for him. It wasn’t reciprocated, but it took me months to fully accept that fact. Mario was kind, funny, and knowledgable. He introduced me to his beautiful cousin Desideria, a design student, who in turn introduced me to their wide circle of European friends, most of whom were students studying Social Science subjects. Mario was warm-hearted and tactile in what I came to see was the usual Italian way, something I chose to misintrerpret for desire held in check. When, in due course, it dawned on me that he really wasn’t going to make any attempt to move things on between us, I felt lost and confused. I had long since worked out that my attempt to seduce Hamish had simply scared him off and wasn’t about to make the same mistake again. I became increasingly miserable.

Then, just before start of the the summer term, Mario sent me a rather sweetly-worded invitation to his twenty-fifth birthday party. We met as agreed. He complemented me on my dress as we walked into the club that his friends had hired for the evening and seemed genuinely pleased to have me on his arm. I tried to believe that, after all, this was the night I’d been waiting for. He danced with me to start with, but then increasingly left me at our table while he chatted to old friends or greeted acquaintrances; all with the clear expection that I’d follow his progress and smile when he pointed me out. Suddenly I felt beside myself with anger, fetched my coat, and left.

On Tuesday morning the following week someone told me they’d seen Maro put all his work into a van and leave. On Thursday Desideria met me as I arrived at college. She said Mario had gone to New York, that his uncle had asked to see me to explain, and that I simply must go. Bemused I agreed and taxi was duely sent for me. The meeting was, to say the least, bewildering. The moment I walked into his office Mario’s uncle, a diplomate of some sort, started talking, fast and in rather stilted English. He told me about the standing of Mario’s family; that he thought Mario a talented artist and a fine young man, despite his politics. (Which puzzled me since, unlike most of our circle, Mario showed scant interest in politics.) I was told Mario’s circumstances had changed, that he had moved to New York. I was assured his family were as upset by this as I must be; that they had been very much looking forward to meeting me in the summer. (I grew increasingly astonished. Mario had never talked about his parents to me, let alone about us all meeting.) Then Mario’s uncle got up, thanked me for ‘our conversation’, gave me a little nod, and showed me firmly out. I had had no chance to say much more that ‘hello’.

Desideria was waiting for me when I got back. When I told her how the meeting had gone, she was furious.

‘Basta, they said he’d tell you.’

‘Tell me what?’

Desideria was on the edge of tears but insisted she had promised Mario’s parents to say nothing. It was not her place. Eventually she relented a little, telling me Mario had inherited a lot of money when he turned twenty-five and had used it to go to New York. Pressed, she then admitted he’d apparently told his parents he wanted to get engaged to a beautiful Catholic girl called Flora. They had been to come to London in July to meet me. Later she discovered he’d also told some of his male friends we were sleeping together. I was speechless. The only other response I got to all my other questions was a derisive snort when I asked her about Mario’s politics. About ten days later she came to find me at lunch-time and handed me an envelope. It contained a letter of from Mario’s parents and a cheque for five hundred pounds.

The letter acknowledged that Mario’s behaviour must have been very hurtful to me and my family and asked that I accept the family’s profound apologies. The enclosed cheque was a testament to their regret and distress over what had happened. It was all very formal and felt vaguely threatening. Desideria asking me to sign a receipt to acknowledge that I’d received both letter and cheque. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I said I couldn’t take money from the family of a man who I fancied but didn’t fancy me, who’d told his parents he wanted to marry me and his friends we were sleeping together. It was just crazy.

Untitled image [1]

Desideria managed a nervous laugh, but insisted I sign the receipt. I didn’t understand. It was a question of honour. They were genuinely worried about how my family might react. In Italy to talk about getting engaged was a very serious business. She assured me they were good people who, by their own lights, where trying to do the right thing, and so on.

In the end, I signed.

I swore I’d avoid entanglements with men until I’d graduated. Not knowing to which, or how many, people Mario had spoken about us before vanishing, I saw less of our mutual friends. Then, towards the end of my final year, I started going out with Quentin, a painting tutor, and became part of a crowd of postgraduates and younger staff. This included a beautiful young Irishman who, Suzie told me, was her head of department’s lover. After a while I noticed that he had ‘adopted’ one girl in the group in much the way that Mario had me. It finally dawned on me how naïve I’d been. When I next saw Desideria I asked her straight out if Mario was a homosexual. There was a long pause before she answered ‘yes’. She insisted that she’d not been able to tell me before because, when his family discovered he’d gone to New York with a boyfriend, they had made her solemnly promise to say nothing to anyone about it, particularly not to me. I felt foolish, angry and relieved in equal parts.

Later the money they’d insisted I take would enable me to set up my workshop.

Years later Desideria and I met up again and, over a long morning drinking coffee in the William Morris room of the V&A café, she told me what happened to Mario in New York. (Also about her own complicated personal situation during our student days. But that’s her story). Mario, it seems, had become a rising star of the New York art world before he died of AIDS, abandoned by his former lover and the group of artists he’d been associated with. They had discovered that after he’d left London, a student on the edge of our group had been arrested and deported back to Italy. Press articles had suggested this man had been involved with left-wing extremist groups and had been blackmailing various people to raise money. His friends believed Mario had been implicated in this man’s arrest and broke off all contact.

I simply didn’t know what to say.

 In the park (sketch)

I walk between the trees and up the hill early, through green dappled sunlight and shadow and out into the open parkland. The cool air and sun both bath my face. There is a moment of intense closeness to him, but not as something separate from my walking up and out into this space where the grass has started to brown in the summer heat. I breath him in with the cool air and, with it, a sudden understanding that, whatever happens, it will always unite us. And then an overwhelming sense of tenderness followed by desire so sudden I stop and lean my back against a tree.

 While he slept, his hair rumpled and his body sprawled across the chaos of the bed, I remembered climbing the orange-red sandstone that dominating everything on that distant childhood day, its colour so much stronger even than the miraculous blues of sky and sea. I remembered its heat on my sides and stomach, chest, neck and face as I twisted and turned, slippery with sweat from the effort of my climbing. The texture of the coarse-grained sandstone under my fingers, its weathered little ridges and shelves, the harder bands sometimes stained with traces of iron. All this texture hospitably available to my fingers and toes. And I had found my way up, much as I had just found my way with his body the previous night, our shared heat filling the feral darkness of his tiny basement flat.

My body held me completely and at no point did I start to think during that whole long climb; a self-contained organism that happily edging its way up until it found a place where heat and cooling breeze met in perfect balance, the summit its own natural climax.

 

[1]The young woman at the top of this image is Flora and I would guess it was probably taken when she was living in London.

 

 

Please listen to and watch this.

This video has been put together by the community of ME sufferers of which my daughter is a part. It is a collective articulation of a situation that is in every sense as desperate as that of the Windrush generation.

RIP Ursula LeGuin

I have always had the greatest respect for the work of Ursula LeGuin, above all because of her astonishing Always Coming Home, which I regard as a classic example of textual deep mapping. News of her death at 88 is all the sadder for the fact that her son reports that her intelligence was, even in the last days of her life, “as sharp as a tack”, suggesting that she might well have had more wonderful narratives to offer had she lived longer.

Listening to David Tuller talking with Vincent Raccianello

In 2014, I contributed a chapter and a half to a book called ‘Art, Science and Cultural Understanding’. One of my core concerns in these chapters is with our cultures inability to recognise the increasingly toxic social role of scientism and aestheticism as secular belief systems. This problem, and particularly the issue of scientism, is linked to the fact that the whole academic institutional complex (which includes the academic research and publishing industries), are increasingly becoming unfit for purpose, something that the vice-chancellor of Aberdeen University, Ferdinand von Prondzynski, started to publically acknowledge back in 2008.  (Interestingly, von Prondzynski later suggested that the disciplinary basis of the academy make it increasingly unable to address the ‘wicked’ problems that we most need to address.

All this is on my mind because I spent some time last night listening to the academic and journalist David Tuller talking to Vincent Raccianello on ‘This Week in Virology’. 

Tuller’s work demonstrates how, in practice, the popular belief in scientism is exploited for their own ends by by lobby groups like the Science Media Centre, by government policy makers, and by academics like Prof. Crawley of Bristol University, whose rather questionable and unethical research activities he discusses and suggests may be fraudulent. Although he touches briefly on the fact that both universities and prominent journals within the academic publishing industry have repeatedly failed to address such unethical and, in some cases, potentially fraudulent research activity, this seems to me one of the most striking and distressing consequences of the convergence between the academic culture, the culture of scientism, and a business ethos in which the only values are those of the financial bottom line.

The complex and unfolding situation Tuller has identified and discussed in his Trial by Error blog since 2015 not only shows, for example, how very senior members of the psychiatric and research professions, aided and abetted by the supposedly neutral Science Media Centre, have benefitted from portraying themselves as ‘victims’ of violent and dangerous patients. (A claim they were wholly unable to substantiate in court). It has also demonstrated the quite extraordinary lengths to which universities will go to protect their investment in academic researchers who are hell bent on defending their own discredited activity. An unethical and highly dubious practice that continues despite the ‘scientific’ work produced by such researchers being identified, as Tuller makes very clear, both as ‘bad science’ and as heavily tainted by vested interests of various kinds.

As Tuller’s blog of 15th May 2017 – ‘Trial By Error, Continued: The CMRC Affirms Full Support for Libelous Esther’ – indicates, one thing both the researchers and universities clearly fear is that their unethical practices will become more generally known and discussed among the communities on whom their reputations and research income depend. Namely, other scientists and academics. It is one thing to discredit patients who are critical of what they know to be dangerous and discredited practices by getting support from the Science Media Centre to brand them as violent; it is quite another to maintain the kind of very serious deceptions Tuller has worked so hard to uncover once they become common knowledge in the academic and scientific community.

If you have any interest in the probity and integrity of either science or Higher Education, please read David Tuller’s blog. It represents a resounding condemnation of a growing tendency within the academic institutional complex to put income generation and reputational gain before ethics and social responsibility. We can only combat this tendency by sharing knowledge and asking questions.

Friends

For the last five years I have been working on a text called ‘Convergences’, the last iteration of my ‘Debatable Land’ project. It is an attempt to address what the phrase ‘kith and kin’ might mean to us now.  As I start to bring it to a conclusion, then, the notion of friendship and memory is very much on my mind.  On Saturday I met up with a group of people, including some old friends, to mark one of our number’s departure to China for a year. Perhaps as a result, that sense of being preoccupied with notions of friendship was further reinforced.

To find a poet whose work is new to you and speaks to your heart is to make a new friend. Naturally, having discovered them, you want to get to know their work, to spend time with them. So, having recently come across the poetry of Naomi Shihab Nye and been very moved by it, I wanted to read more. I always feel guilty about buying too many books but, despite that, have now bought several of Nye’s, second-hand, on line. Today the first one, ‘Tender Spot: Selected Poems’, arrived in the post. (My wife then opened it by mistake, thinking it was junk.)

As it happens, my new book has a hand-written dedication on the flyleaf, as follows:

For Pinar and Memet, new friends – with all my heart of respect and pleasure!

You shine!!

Love, Naomi Shihab Nye

While I was making dinner, peeling the carrots and preparing the spices for the cauliflower dish my daughter particularly likes, I wonder about Pinar and Memet. At first, I was just puzzled, wondering what, after such an effusive declaration of friendship on Nye’s behalf, prompted them to sell or give away this book that is now mine. Did the friendship simply fail to blossom? Where they just indifferent to her poems? Did they all have a falling out? And just who are Pinar and Memet anyway, and what was it they did that made them shine?

Then, as I prepare to soak the cauliflower, I remember Naomi Shihab Nye’s wonderful prose poem ‘My Perfect Stranger’. (It makes me laugh out loud and then cry each time I read it.) Her perfect stranger is a five-year old who ends up in the seat in front of her. already a poet and artist. She wears a lacy white party dress, has a little tuft of pink hair, and her fluting voice. The clear, unselfconscious voice that Nye fears might announce their shared identity as Arabs, sitting on an American flight to San Francisco, to all and sundry. So, she doesn’t share the knowledge of their common identity with the child. And, at that point in my wondering about Pinar and Memet, my speculations suddenly become edged with fear for them.

How easy it is for me to idly imagine the disposal of a book in terms familiar to me. A friendship that faltered and withered. or perhaps simply failed to blossom in the first place; an indifferent to someone’s work, or a falling out. But, of course, there are many other, externally imposed, reasons why Pinar and Memet might have had to let the book go. After all, I know quite enough about the difficulties of simply moving one’s family to a new house. (Last time we did that I felt obliged to cull my library by about a third.) How much worse, then, to be faced by exile then, to be forced to ‘travel light’, to leave valued friends and possessions behind simply because you have no other option?

Of course, I still know nothing about Pinar and Memet, beyond the simple fact that Nye saw them as new friends, as people she respected and whose company gave her pleasure, who shined. Yet at this point it seems hard not to care about, even fear for, these two strangers who mattered to a poet whose work I admire.

On keeping quiet

I’ve been neglecting this blog again, and for all the usual reasons. Family complications, the daily round of cooking, shopping and cleaning, working in the studio. But also other activities, like  a visit to Hestercombe  to work with a small group of artists, curators and others interested in art and landscape through an invitation from a friend. A slow and thoughtful process of conversation and response that will conclude with the core group having an exhibition there early next year.

And perhaps because I wonder how valuable it is always to be writing an opinion on this or that. This last though is reinforced by reading the wonderful Naomi Shihab Nye, and in particular her poem: ‘I Feel Sorry for Jesus’ (from ‘You and Yours’; 2005, Rochester N.Y., Boa Editions.) Her wanting to be silent, to have:

… A secret pouch

of listening…’

seems such an appropriate response to the twitter storm world. This won’t last, since I’m perfectly sure I can’t keep off my hobby-horses for long.