Revisiting Emily Dickinson

Occasionally the screensaver on my Kindle pops up with the dour face of Emily Dickinson. She has become one of the most recognisable faces in American literature. Yet, only recently has her life been transferred to the screen with Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion.  The film d’auteur has its tableau moments, which slows down the pace and might not appeal to some viewers. But I found this fitting with the nature of Dickinson’s poetry – her elliptical language could cause images to freeze in the air. I liked too that the film contained sharp, intelligent dialogue in keeping with the dialogic style of many of Dickinson’s poems.  At the same time, these dialogues – many between Emily and her sister – remind audiences of the social liEmily D 2mitations thrusted upon 19th century New England life, especially for women. Although mostly a contemplative and melancholic film, humour and wit are present in a way that I felt was realistic to the poet’s life (Dickinson scholars are free to differ on this point.)

I’m also grateful to this film for reminding me that Dickinson wrote some poems about the US Civil War. We tend to think of Walt Whitman as the Civil War poet and of war poetry as being a male preserve.  But here is a Dickinson sampling:


Inconceivably solemn!
Things go gay
Pierce — by the very Press
Of Imagery —

Their far Parades — order on the eye
With a mute Pomp —
A pleading Pageantry —

Flags, are a brave sight —
But no true Eye
Ever went by One —
Steadily —

Music’s triumphant —
But the fine Ear
Winces with delight
Are Drums too near —

Since I was a teenager, I’ve liked Dickinson’s work, though I confess that there was a lot I didn’t understand younger. I think her writing and people’s understanding of it has been more helped by cognitive poetics (and other areas of literary stylistics) than by traditional literary criticism with its focus on biography, religion and history. Cognitive stylistics has shown how Dickinson manipulates grammar and word-choice to create different worlds that wrangle with, among other things, ontological questions. Here, I’m thinking mainly of the scholarship of Margaret Freeman, who gives a wonderful analysis of one of my favourite Dickinson poems:

A Spider sewed at Night

Without a Light

Upon an Arc of White

If Ruff it was of Dame

Or Shroud of Gnome

Himself himself inform.

Of Immortality

His Strategy Was Physiognomy.

(J 1138, lines 1-6; ms)

I think it’s time to return to this poet and see how I get on with her language and wisdom in my middle age.

Patriarchy and Harari

In Y.N. Harari’s book Sapiens, the bestselling author addresses the question ‘What’s so good about men?’ That is, why is patriarchy the dominant form of political and social rule across the world and existing in societies that had no previous contact with one another?Sapiens

In answering this, he rightly points to the flaws in the three leading theories on patriarchy.  The most common theory, that men have more physical power than women, is criticised by noting that women are ‘generally more resistant to hunger, disease and fatigue than men,’ and history has shown us that those with more physical power tend to do more of the manual labour and that social and political power don’t require physical strength. The theory that men have come to dominate women because they are biologically more aggressive is also debunked by considering the fact that wars aren’t won by aggression alone. Many of the great world leaders, such as Julius Caesar, have been successful because of their ‘mildness and clemency.’ Here Harari also points out that if stereotypes are anything to go by, women are deemed to be better ‘manipulators and appeasers’ than men which you would think would make them more powerful in society. The other explanation that Harari mentions is the idea that over time male genes have become more ambitious and competitive while female genes have developed to become more submissive and dependent in order for her to raise children. It’s easy to punch holes in this one as certainly women could be dependent on other women, just borrowing men for their seeds. And there’s the fact that many aspects of raising children can be shared with men.

After all of this debating, Harari disappoints by simply saying that ‘we have no good answer.’ He goes on to acknowledge how women’s roles in Western society in particular have changed dramatically over the last century and claims to find it ‘bewildering’ that patriarchy continues.Women vote

This surprised me given his lengthy section on the Industrial Revolution. Certainly that has had an impact on women’s rights and roles. He seems to avoid the obvious, that the physical power theory held sway for some centuries, but that as our lives became less physically demanding, the playing field between men and women has levelled more. Leaving us with ‘why patriarchy still exists at all?’ What Harari fails to consider in this context (though he talks about it elsewhere) is the power of religious and social institutions, well established before the Industrial Revolution, that have put into place the ideas of male supremacy. Conservatism is a powerful tool . We’ve seen this play out over the past year in Britain and America, where people voted in favour of a time gone by. Women’s equality is another victim of this establishmentarian and illiberal thinking. Nothing ‘bewildering’ about these points.

Local Elections

It’s taken me a week, but I think I have recovered from the mini-depression left behind by the local elections here in South East Cambridgeshire. I credit my recovery largely to the power of satire – thank you, Have I Got News for You. And I must acknowledge the Trump administration, although they are not aiming to be satirical, they have certainly achieved it over the past week with the firing of FBI Director James Comey – a tin-pot dictator fires the man who is leading an incriminating investigation against him and claims that it’s because of the way the man treated the dictator’s rival which brought him to power in the first place. (But as I write this Trump has now contradicted his spokespeople by saying that it was the ‘Russian thing.’)

Our local elections this time around proved the stuff of satire by showing us once again how human beings do stupid things at the ballot box. Not so funny – and hence a week of the blues – has been the nastiness and spreading of false information that has marked this particular campaign.  It reminds me of J.K. Rowlings’ The Casual Vacancy, where a parish council seat suddenly becomes vacant and the private wars and backstabbing begin.Labour window
Tory poster

Here in Ely, a group which calls itself ‘Progressives’ advertised itself as an alliance of progressive political parties, made up of Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens. They even sent out social media postings showing a diagram of red, yellow and green stick people coming together to defeat the blue stick people, also known as Conservatives.

I clicked on their link expecting to see them supporting the Liberal Democrat in my ward for County Council. Much to my horror, they were telling people to vote Labour. Then I looked at other wards, and saw that the recommendations were either Labour or the Greens. No sign of the Liberal Democrats. This seemed odd to me as the Lib-Dems either won or came in second to the Conservatives in these local wards as long as I could remember.

I left a comment: What you are saying on your website doesn’t look anything like this diagram. Why can’t the LibDems have a win?

Response: We had been working with all 3 progressive parties for about 18 months but the local LibDem party decided [to] pull out last autumn. We’re hoping they will re-engage with us in the future.

Me: So you are only advising voters to vote Labour or Green? That doesn’t seem right. Especially in Ely where LibDems are more likely to beat Tories.

Other comments came flooding in with arguments and counterarguments. The most telling was when someone said ‘You’d rather attack the Lib Dems than genuinely try to defeat the Tories.’ The response was a ‘Yes.’

A few weeks later, the local elections were held. For Ely North, the Conservatives won with 49.3% of the votes, the Lib-Dems had 35.4% and Labour 15.3%. In Ely South, the Conservatives won with 46.1%, the Lib-Dems had 38.7% and Labour 15.2%. For both wards, these were high results for Labour compared with previous elections. If about 60% of their votes went to the Lib-Dems in the spirit of an alliance, the Conservatives would have lost. Clearly, divided we fall.

On James Baldwin

I read James Baldwin for the first time when I was 13. My English teacher was keen on contemporary writers and issued us a summer’s reading list, which included Notes of a Native Son. It was the first essay collection I had ever read. I was catapulted out of my comfort zone of fiction, poetry and magazine articles from the likes of Time and People and into a world that not only employed metaphors and symbols, but dissected them.  This world had a social conscience and an eloquence that went beyond the dinner-table rumblings of my anti-establishment older siblings.

A few months later I read Giovanni’s Room. That was my first openly gay novel – though there were plenty of suggestively gay works from Wilde, Forster and Mann. Neither of Baldwin’s books were part of the standard curriculum. There were other African-American writers taught in those days, but they tended to be historical slave narratives. Perhaps Baldwin’s books were too raw in their expression to be official reading material for young minds. I am to this day grateful for my English teacher. Together these works formed a literary coming of age.

With the release of the documentary I Am Not Your Negro, I’ve been reminded of Iamnotyour negroBaldwin’s life as a civil rights activist. Director Raoul Peck takes us on a journey through the civil rights protests and public discussions on race during the 60s and 70s, with some unspoken allusions to present-day hate crimes in America. Baldwin is positioned at the centre of this sometimes-loose narrative. We watch him on television talk shows, lecturing at all-white university campuses and demurely in the crowd of some of the most iconic marches of the twentieth century. The real treat and reason for seeing this film are the sonorous tones of actor Samuel L. Jackson reading passages from Baldwin’s much-quoted works while images recapture the horrors. Although some of these quotes have been exploited on posters, coffee mugs and Facebook postings, in the context of this film they have re-found their rightful home.

Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday

I was drawn to this book by its author (loved Swift’s Waterland) and cover, a portion of one of Modigliani’s reclining nudes. I’ll confess that I was also seduced by the compact size of the novel of some 150 pages after having just finished a 400+ pager and having another literary brick waiting for me.

Mothering Sunday is a beautifully written meditation on events that take place in one day in Edwardian England in the life of a maid, Jane Fairchild. Although it says ‘a romance’ on the cover, I thought it more erotic than romantic. Jane has been having an affair with Paul Sheringham, a wealthy neighbour of high social standing who is already engaged to someone of a similar background. More than anything else this novel is a study of character, class and the way our lives can be altered by one incident.

Worth reading for the writing alone, this is a masterclass in controlled narrative, navigating a disrupted storyline with descriptive mood and motifs.

Below is another of Modigliani’s nudes, one which I personally prefer for its boldness – this is from 1916.mothering sunday 3

‘The Will of the People’?

Since the Brexit vote, the phrase ‘the will of the people’ has been used not only by Brexiters, but more alarmingly by some of those who voted to remain in the EU. These people clearly have problems with basic maths. Only 37% of the electorate voted for the UK to leave the EU. Hardly the will of the people. If we looked to those who bothered to vote on 23rd June, then we can say that 54% of those voters were in favour of leaving the EU. A majority, yes, but still, not deserving of the nomenclature ‘the people.’ Moreover, this vote was on a simple in/out referendum. There are people who voted to leave the EU on the promise that the UK would remain in the single market. Others voted to leave on the promise of increased funding for our beleaguered National Health Service. Given the government’s insistence on a hard Brexit and the admissions that the NHS will not benefit from this process, the strength of the 54% vote is diminishing. It is less and less about ‘the people.’

So, why would anyone who voted to remain start using the phrase ‘the will of the people’? Those who immediately come to mind are Conservative politicians. At the parliamentary level, they’re standing behind their leaders, afraid perhaps to break ranks or just nurturing their own careers. But when this ‘will of the people’ phrase came up last night at a Mayoral Hustings in Ely, that was a more perplexing matter. The mayoral position covers Cambridgeshire, including Peterborough. Both Cambridge and Ely voted to remain, while Peterborough and the surrounding areas (Fenland) voted to leave. Yet, a few of the participants, including James Palmer, a Conservative Councillor, and the moderator, used the phrase ‘the will of the people’ as if it was the reason to support Brexit. No one else on stage objected to it or felt that it needed to be qualified.  Part of this could have been due to the limited time allocated to speakers. But I’m concerned that part of this shyness or perhaps compliance with such phrasing had to do with fear.ELy Cathedral hustings

Many of those who voted Brexit haven’t stopped campaigning. They’re all over the internet. Some are bullying. Their lapdogs are the tabloid press, whose barks persist and protect this angry mob. They can be scary. The normalising of the phrase ‘the will of the people’ by those who supported remaining in Europe for me is just another sign that the bullies have won. I remind myself and have perhaps said too often for those around me that Brexiters won the vote on the day, they haven’t won the argument.

The Essex Serpent

Some are describing it as gothic because it’s set in late Victoriana and features the fears and alleged sightings of a winged leviathan. But for me, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent is mostly a novel of ideas. It cleverly employs characters to represent the burgeoning sciences placed in opposition to traditional Christianity and superstition. It brought to mind Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon, which also mixed history with legend and speculation during the Age of Enlightenment. But unlike Pynchon, at times the opposition performed by characters in The Essex Serpent is perhaps a bit too blatant – the novel works best in its more nuanced and subtle moments.

The story is also more a feminist narrative than it is a gothic one. The main character Cora has lost her husband, but finds it hard to play the role of the grieving widow with her joy and sense of freedom getting in the way. An amateur palaeontologist, Cora is quite happy to tromp around the marshes in men’s tweed jackets, her hair dishevelled. Her companion and maid of sorts, Martha, is an active socialist in what the reader knows is the naissance of the suffragette movement.

The Essex Serpent is nevertheless a compulsive read, with an understated love story competing with other plotlines and always an incident cropping up to change the direction altogether.essex serpent 2

Ever the stylistician, I must comment on the writing. The descriptions are exquisite in a pictorial way, though lacking in the psychological detail and intensity one might find in other literary fiction. There isn’t the inventive turn of phrase found in Mantel or McEwan. But the writing contributes to making the work engaging all the same and another reason for reading this book.

Grey Wednesday

Some people are calling today ‘Black Wednesday’ as it’s the day Britain officially notifies Brussels of its intent to leave the EU. I was one of those people. But then, at an Ely for Europe meeting last week, when I suggested marking the day by wearing black, I was met with opposition. Nearly everyone else at our long pub table wanted to be positive about this. For them it was the start of the battle, a sense that at last things are happening. A valid point, but I still don’t see it as a cause for celebration. Nor am I convinced that there aren’t black days and months ahead.
After considering the matter, I’m settling for a grey Wednesday. I’m not saying that I feel neuLondon March 2017.jpgtral about this – somewhere between joyful white and mournful black. I’m using grey in the sense of unclear and murky. The extent to which we can retain useful ties to the EU are unknown and untested. Likewise, Britain’s relationship to the rest of the world, especially in the age of Trump and Putin, are beyond speculation. Most important of all, grey represents the storm cloud over Britain, a country left divided and angry over this referendum.

Writing ‘The Scent of Oranges’

Since the publication of my short story ‘The Scent of Oranges,’ some people have asked me why I chose to write on such a subject. And they’re speaking through gritted teeth, unable to hide their discomfort. The story is about a woman paedophile.

The topic surfaced in part because Mslexia announced that their showcase theme for issue 73 was ‘guilt.’ Of course, like any good self-absorbed writer, I first looked to my own life. We all have our residue of guilt. The guilt leftover from actions in my childhood, some of which I’ve written about, are at their strongest when viewed from a child’s perspective. In keeping with the audience and purpose of Mslexia, I wanted this to be an adult woman’s story. Most of my guilty feelings from adult years are rather undramatic and feeble – not so much guilt, as feeling regretful for not keeping in touch with friends or not taking on more responsibilities or not acting in a more sympathetic way – those sorts of things.  Then I considered the actions of others I’ve known over the years. While I’ve known some dodgy characters, I was never directly involved in their white-collar crimes. Even those adventures seemed too soft for a short story about guilt.

I needed something with force.

Paedophilia is a topic with force. As a child, it terrified me; as an adult, it sickens me. Unlike other crimes, it’s also something I can’t imagine myself doing.  Anytime I see a good heist film, I envision myself with the toolbelt and all the technological know-how to break into the safe, take the rolls of money and get away with it. As an antihero, I’ve even imagined myself committing murder – there are some people I think the world would be better without. But I cannot conjure up a scene involving paedophilia with me in it.

Of course, it’s possible to write about characters unlike ourselves or people we know. I find that easier when I write male characters, and I did in fact write about a male paedophile some years ago in my play A Special Boy. There, I kept myself at a safe distance from the awfulness of the topic. The play was more about a misguided community of vigilantes than a pederast – and that character was an emotional abuser and manipulator, leaving the existence of physical abuse for the audience to decide.mslexia-march2017

For ‘The Scent of Oranges,’ once again I’ve positioned myself and the reader at a slight distance.  I placed the physical act in the past. The paedophile has served her time and has to deal with life on the outside. I drew some ideas from the newspapers. Occasionally one reads about a woman being arrested for having a relationship with a teenage boy – in other words, the boy had to be old enough to get it up, but not old enough for legal sex. But I didn’t want to make it appear that the paedophile was a victim of strict laws about the age of consent – that would have been a copout. So, in the end [SPOILER ALERT] it’s a battle between guilt and temptation to do it again.

The Improbability of Love

Note to self – don’t judge a book by its title. Hannah Rothschild’s The Improbability of Love is not genre romance at all. I’d say it’s middle-brow literary fiction. The only love story in it is a small subplot. The rest is a delightful satirical romp through the world of masterpiece art collecting, complete with the avarice, pretence and money-laundering one would expect. ‘The Improbability of Love’ is the title of a painting by Antoine Watteau, a real-life French painter of the rococo period. At some point in its 300-year past the painting went missing and in this story it turns up in a junk shop in London and eventually into the hands of our clueless heroine.Improbability of Love 1

The story integrates elements within the painting, the artist’s emotionally-wrought life and the painting’s history of ownership with a modern-day story depicting many of the same themes. While other novels have fused a painting into a storyline (e.g., Frayn’s Headlong, about a long-lost Bruegel), this is unique in giving voice to the painting – literally. In keeping with the painting’s provenance, the narrative voice of this masterpiece has traces of French and snobbery from years of living in grand homes, including a stint at Buckingham Palace. Rothschild wisely uses the painting to tell only part of the story, allowing for a more tradition third-person omniscient narrator for the bulk of the novel.

But the painting does get some of the best lines, such as this gem:

Like other successful religions, art has evolved and offers glorious temples and learned high priests as well as covenants and creeds. The new churches are known as museums, in which the contemplation of art has become a kind of prayer and communal activity. The very wealthy can create private chapels stuffed with the unimaginable rarities and guarantee a front row seat. It was ever thus.

Although The Improbability of Love is on the whole clever and imaginative, it does falter by bringing into the plot the Nazis and their notorious looting of art works. That plotline is getting worn out.

That aside, it’s an excellent book, deserving of its position on the Bailey Prize shortlist 2016.