I'm a writer and linguist. My short stories have been published in several literary magazines and some of my stage plays have been professionally performed with the support of Arts Council England. One of my essays was shortlisted by Wasafiri Magazine for their Life Writing Competition 2014. As a linguist, I've authored four textbooks, including Digital Textuality (2015, Palgrave Macmillan), and I've had my research published in several books and journals. I am also a regular contributor to the Literary Encyclopedia.
I keep on bumping into the topic of trauma. Our society, literature and art, at least in the West, are dealing with this topic more openly and more creatively than they did in the not too distant past. So far, I just have some disconnected notes.
In the novel American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, a woman and her eight-year-old child escape from the brutal massacre carried out by a Mexican cartel of sixteen members of her family– that’s the opening chapter, no spoilers here. As mother and son flee this tragedy, they carry their trauma with them. The narrator, at this point focalized on the mother notes: ‘Trauma waits for stillness. Lydia feels like a cracked egg, and she doesn’t know if she’s the shell or the yolk or the white. She is scrambled.’
A CfP (that’s ‘call for papers’ in academic speak) came up for an article collection on the theme of extremities, not to be confused with extremism, following on from the work of Catherine Malabou on neuro-literature and the recent wave of ‘extreme’ texts in literature. In brief neuro-literature is something of a template for literary and art criticism that is post-deconstructive (sorry Derrida) and post-sociocultural interpretations, drawing from the sciences, including neurobiology. ‘Extreme’ texts seem to have many definitions, but I divide them simply into structurally experimental and/or radical in theme. On the CfP’s list of potential topics within the idea of extremities is ‘post-trauma, witnessing, silencing and reorientation in literature.’ This makes me wonder if trauma reaches an extreme, an outer edge, of human experience.
Some excellent novels in recent years have dealt with the topic of rape, how it traumatises as it shames and alienates the victim and the victim’s family. A melange of emotions with an undercurrent of misogyny and patriarchy. I mentioned in a recent blog, Girl by Edna O’Brien, which is about the abducted girls in Burkina Faso. To this I add, We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates, which is set in the US and shows how the rape of one family member can over time change the lives of the entire family.
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk has been referred to as the ‘trauma bible.’ Van der Kolk, a trauma specialist, recounts his decades of work with trauma survivors, showing how this is not only a psychological condition and phenomenon, but also a physical one that can alter the body’s health. It was on the New York Times bestseller list. I think says something about the time we are living in.
A zoom talk by Women’s Human Rights Council featured Jeanne Sarson and Linda Macdonald, who were promoting their book Women Unsilenced. The book is about the male torture of women in domestic violence and in slave trafficking. The authors mentioned how they are not referring to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) in the usual way, for them it is PTSR. The R is for response – we respond, we naturally react to stress and trauma. To call it a ‘disorder’ further victimizes the victim. I agree with that.
It’s a humourless topic, which makes it hard to write about. It might take some journal entries and blogs to get to grips with this. But the topic is also ubiquitous, and writing about it is crucial.
I don’t live with poetry the way some writers do. Poetry comes up on me in seasons, lasting a few months, and sometimes in comes along for a couple of weeks before fading away again.
I’m in one of those short spells of poetry, triggered by National Poetry Day producing a list of the nation’s top ten favourite poems as voted for by the British people. To no surprise, something by Shakespeare – the sonnet ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ – was in the number one spot. Of the remaining nine, only two were by women – Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Maya Angelou. That shouldn’t be a surprise either as the list reflected works typically found on the school curriculum, until recent years teaching the predominately white male canon. Other worn favourites included Kipling’s over-simplistic ‘If’ and Lewis Carroll’s children’s classic ‘Jabberwocky.’ This makes me wonder if childhood is so influential that it shapes our tastes for the rest of our lives. Taking a more cynical view, it could be that institutions of formal education are among the few places where we get exposed to poetry, thus making these works more memorable. Having said that, performance poetry, poetry slams and YouTube are doing their bit to take poetry outside of the classroom. I would like to think that future surveys of the nation’s favourite poems will include works to emerge from these newer formats.
Nearly all my favourite poems come from twentieth century writers – e.e. cummings (‘love is thicker than forget’), Stevie Smith (‘Not Waving but Drowning’) and Fleur Adcock (‘Against Coupling’) come to mind. Many of these poems can be found in university textbooks and papers in literary stylistics, leading me to think that the study of certain poems makes them our favourites.
This spell of poetry continued along last weekend with a memorial service for Anthony Thwaite, one of my favourite poets and a personal acquaintance. Anthony passed away earlier this year and was given quite a send off by the British press (The Guardian and Times among them). For the writers of these obits, Anthony was a ‘mover and shaker’ of post-war poetry, a literary editor and close friend and literary executor to Philip Larkin. I met Anthony some 15 years ago at his Norfolk home that he shared with his wife, Anne, and which hosted many East Anglia Writers’ summer parties over the years. The Anthony that I knew, while still funny and forthright as in his younger days, displayed an easy-going cleverness – the sagacity of a life well-lived.
Indulge me with closing this blog entry and this poetry mini season with a poem printed in the order of service and one that coincidently puts a twist on my thoughts about the nation’s favourite poems:
Having recently written about Roald Dahl’s Matilda (the Literary Encyclopedia), I’ve become more aware of stories about girls. By ‘girls’, I mean under the age of eighteen. Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train was not about a girl – it was about a young woman.
So many stories about girlhood depict heroines battling against adversaries and situations that often stem from simply not being a boy. Matilda is a gifted child who can read and do maths well beyond her years. Yet, she has to fight the negative gender stereotypes promoted by both of her parents, who blatantly favour Matilda’s little dimwitted brother. When Matilda displays a stronger ability in maths than her father, he calls his daughter a stupid liar. Her mother tries to dissuade her from being smart as it would make it harder for her to get a husband. These characters, referred to by one scholar as ‘.the most thoroughly unpleasant personalities in children’s fiction’ are seen by some as exaggerations for the amusement of children. But I would argue they are not too far off the mark in western societies even today and in some parts of the world, this hyper-sexism is spot on. What makes this a good story about girlhood is that Matilda triumphs using her brain and her telekinetic powers which come from her extraordinary powers of concentration – her brain again.
While working on this Matilda article, my pleasure read for part of that time was Edna O’Brien’s brillant novel Girl, based on the kidnapping of 276 girls by Boko Haram in Nigeria in 2014. Given the subject matter, it might not sound like a ‘pleasure read’ and I had hesitated to read it at all because I thought it might be too distressing. We all knew at the time that these girls were abducted in order to be raped or forced to be soldier’s brides – another form of rape. While, yes, the rapes occur, they happen early in the story and are described from one girl’s perspective with a focus on the emotional experience of confusion and disgust. Once the girl, Maryam, is married off and gives birth – she is barely pubescent – she is able to escape. The story becomes one of survival in terrifying circumstances. Upon Maryam’s return to her family the story shifts to one of coping with trauma and rising above the superstitions and condemnation of her family and community. In its own, strange way, O’Brien’s retelling of this horrible crime against humanity is life-affirming.
I realise that this blog, thankfully not a book review article, makes an unlikely comparison between a children’s book known for its dark humour and a contemporary adult novel replete with uncomfortable naturalism.Both Dahl and O’Brien see the innate oppression in the lives of girls.
As I don’t understand and can only feel rage over the crisis in Afghanistan – Biden’s long game, the shambolic withdrawal of troops and civilians, NATO’s apathy – I’ve escaped this past week to Cyprus. That is, Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, written in 1957. To achieve total escape, I decided to experience this not as a written book, risking my thoughts drifting to Afghanistan, but as an audiobook – my first audiobook ever. This neatly coincided with the task of 18 meters of rickety old fence to paint.
A friend recommended Durrell’s autobiographical account of his three years in Cyprus. Strangely devoid of sex for a L. Durrell book, the narration is straightforward and the descriptions are rich with Mediterranean flora and the spirited people of the island. As I listened to amusing encounters between Durrell and the locals as he tries to buy a home, my paint brush slopped over old twigs stuck between panels of rotten wood. To dislodge the twigs would have caused the panels to pop out.
The book gradually introduces the political context through how it manifested itself in the daily lives of locals and expats. Cyprus was trying to gain independence from the British, who still controlled it as a Crown Colony.
A couple of days of rain meant I had to leave the fence about one-third painted. I watched Afghanis crowding into Kabul Airport, a few men jumping onto the underbelly of a US military plane as it taxis towards a runway. Feminist Current’s blog relayed a story about Taliban troops going door to door in search of ‘wives’ (translation – slaves). I followed the links to find that the story originated with Bloomberg, but I haven’t heard anything since.
The weather improved, and I returned to the garden with my bucket of cedar red. Durrell started his journey as a writer looking for a change of scenery, but ended up working as a press officer for the British foreign office. One of Durrell’s neighbours talks about the need to fight for independence if independence is supposed to have any meaning at all. Does the Taliban feel the need to fight even though they’re being handed their independence on a platter? Durrell observes the British officials’ sense of entitlement to have a British Empire. One officer bemoans Britain leaving as ‘Cyprus is the backbone of the Empire.’ I’m living through the crumbling of the American Empire. Given the US government’s failures at nation-building through military means, this isn’t a bad thing. Perhaps it’s time for America to exercise more soft power through its technology and medical science in parts of the world in need (for me, this includes America itself). By the time Durrell left the island, he had witnessed death and destruction, his lyrical travelogue turned into a treatise on human failings.
Unfortunately, Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, beautifully read by actor Andrew Sachs, is only three hours long. My escape from the news in Afghanistan and my painting job had to be supplemented by a radio podcast about Nina Simone and the start of my second audiobook, Michael J. Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit (more on that another time).
With my work completed, the old wobbly fence is still an old wobbly fence, but now at least it’s of one colour. I have performed a cedar-red wash over chipped paint, rusty nails, decaying wood, empires, soldiers and refugees.
With the news of Governor Cuomo resigning after nearly a dozen women accused him of sexual harassment, I’ve been thinking about my Woody Allen boycott. For just a few moments this week I felt that same ache I felt back in the 90s when Allen fell off the pedestal I had made for him.
By the 90s, Woody Allen movies had long since become one of my annual traditions as Allen makes a film every year. I know what you’re thinking – they have not all been great works – some have been real stinkers. But in my childhood and early teens films like Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask, Sleepers and Love and Death were formative in teaching me about life – the societal hypocrisies and the need for psychotherapy.
As Allen films became more sophisticated with Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Zelig, I began to appreciate a well-written script, and that lead to my discovering Woody Allen the writer of short stories and essays (mostly in The New Yorker). Allen’s world was funny and cerebral, self-effacing and philosophical. I don’t know what this says about my younger self, but I relished in his misanthropic humour. Among my favourite Allen quotables are: ‘Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering – and it’s all over much too soon.’ And ‘If my films make one more person miserable, I have done my job.’
Then there was the downfall. Soon-Yi Previn, Allen’s adopted daughter became his romantic partner in 1991 when she was 22. At first it was just weird. For the love of Woody, I shrugged it off, convincing myself that it was okay since Soon-Yi was an adult and of the legal age of consent. Moreover, Woody Allen was more like a step-adoptive father to Soon-Yi (the first adoptive father being Andre Previn). Downfall part two – in 1992, Allen was accused of sexually abusing his other adopted daughter, Dylan, when she was seven-years old. It was easy at the time to place this accusation in the category ‘ex-partner gets her revenge,’ the ex-partner being actress Mia Farrow. While Allen falling in love with his other adopted daughter gave him an air of guilt, he was never convicted. To this day, I’m still on the fence about his culpability.
When Woody and Soon-Yi married some five years later, I felt more justified in my acceptance of this relationship. Between the announcement of their being in love and the marriage, Bullets Over Broadway and Mighty Aphrodite came out – two of the best films of the 90s. But as the years passed, I came to realise that issues of consent are not so straight forward. With Woody Allen, the complication arises from his changing roles from father to lover to husband, where the first role was one of familial power followed by roles that by definition involve sexual relationships. For me, the age of consent laws and marriage certificate no longer legitimise this creepy coupledom.
On top of that, I was growing uneasy with his films – he might give actresses some strong parts, but Allen has also made otherwise intelligent women characters weak in the face of compliments about their looks. I mean weak to the point of falling for the bespectacled, maladroit played by Allen himself. It’s in several Allen films, including Annie Hall.
My boycott of Allen films started in 2011 and has continued to this day, with an exception made in 2014 for Colin Firth in Magic in the Moonlight – Firth and the French Riviera was too much to pass up. The boycott is my way of saying that I object Allen’s use of power, and I am not going to continue to support it by contributing to the offender’s income, however small my contribution may be.
In the case of Cuomo, again I’m looking at a man in a position of power changing that role to one of sexual intimate, regardless of the other person wanting that relationship. But in this case, there’s nothing to boycott. The Democratic party, to their credit, have done that for voters by pushing him to resign. Of course, they’re doing this for political reasons, but I’m glad that our post #metoo society has helped to create that political environment. That just leaves me being miffed that someone I had admired for his support for women’s issues – calling himself a ‘feminist’ – and his anti-Trump handling of the pandemic could plunge so disgracefully.
Unlike the 2020 Covid travel stories of people escaping before lockdowns, the talk now is about vaccinations and tests, the lifting of restrictions and scientific advice versus political will.
Getting to Nice was easier, if not more surreal, than we thought it would be. Armed with our lateral-flow tests certificates (at £50 each), we arrived at a half-closed Gatwick with the ambiance of an airport in the off-season. On our way to the gate we were stopped by an official asking to see our vaccination certificates. When he saw mine, he said ‘Sorry, we can’t let you through. You have to have had your second dose at least four weeks ago.’ For a few seconds I was in panic mode, imagining David going to France without me. I caught my breath and in near unison David and I said, ‘No, it’s two weeks, not four.’ I offered him my lateral-flow test certificate, but he wasn’t interested. This person whose job it was to check documents did not know the rules that he was supposed to ensure we were following. Luckily another Gatwick worker came to our rescue, agreeing that my second vaccination needed to be only two-weeks old. With that we were off to the Cote d’Azur, where we waved our vaccination certificates in the air as we whizzed through passport control.
When we saw French neighbours for the first time in ten months, they asked straight away if we had been vaccinated. One asked which vaccines we had, followed by raised eyebrows when we mentioned AstraZeneca – apparently, not the right answer. Whatever we did, Covid was not far away. It was the backdrop of all social interaction, screening who’s hugging, who’s elbowing, who’s pecking each cheek, for which I have mastered the air kiss. In France, masks are still obligatory in public transport and indoor public spaces like shops, museums and cinemas. Some people don’t know how to wear masks and use them to cover their chin, or if you’re young, male and really cool you wear them on your wrists. As we needed to take trams everyday, we soon realised that we were testing the efficacy of our unpopular AstraZeneca jabs.
By the end of the second week, we heard the good news that we had expected – people coming from France, which is on the UK’s amber list, will not have to self-isolate for ten days and will only need to take one PCR test on their return to the UK. Relief all around. We continued to fill our days with the Nicoise sunshine, morning walks, coffees and croissants at terraced cafes often followed by a swim.
This joy was broken a week before our departure when Johnson’s government announced that a new traffic light had been created – the amber-plus. The country on this list-of-one was France. This meant that upon returning to the UK from France, even though we are double-vaccinated, we would have to self-isolate for ten days and have to take PCR tests on days 2 and 8. The first government explanation was that France had a worrying rate of Beta variants of the virus and that these cases might not be protected by vaccines. It was soon pointed out in the press that France’s higher Beta rate is in the French islands of Reunion and Mayotte, thousands of miles away. Mainland France has a lower Beta variant rate than Sweden, Germany and Spain – all of those countries are on the normal amber list of this Alice-in-Wonderland trafficlight, and people returning from those countries would not have to quarantine.
Just before we left France, Johnson responded to the criticism by saying that actually it is the Delta variant that is the problem. What? The UK had at that point about 6 times the number of cases of people with the Delta variant than France. Some 97% of those cases were of people who were not vaccinated. So, why quarantine vaccinated people coming back from a country with a lower rate of cases than the UK? The French authorities were quick to point out the lack of logic and scientific evidence behind these new rules. Former PM Tony Blair also put the case forward in favour of double vaccinated people not needing to quarantine. But still, nothing changed.
Why France? Has it got to do with Brexit renegotiations? A bit of jealousy over France catching up with the UK on its vaccination rollout? Or is it a personality clash between Boris the buffoon and the humourless but statesmanlike Macron?
All of this seems so ridiculous. I knew that I wasn’t likely to be a medical threat to anyone, especially after the negative results of my lateral-flow test in France a couple of days before our departure. This test incidentally cost half of what it did in the UK and this time, I had to show the certificate at the EasyJet gate, along with proof that I had arranged for two PRC tests in the UK – the cheapest option we could find was the do-it-yourself at home variety for £82 per person for the set of two.
During my first quarantine in 2020, before vaccines, I understood the importance of staying in for two weeks and tracked the days on Facebook with pictures of my garden jogging path, my various projects, etc. This time, bitter and feeling every bit the political pawn… well, here’s my summary journal:
Day 1: We receive our first of many phone calls from the NHS checking up on us, asking that we understand the rules and that we understand if we break the rules we get fined. I resist using sarcasm.
Day 2: We take our PRC tests at home and put them in the pre-labelled packages. David leaves the house, breaking the law, in order to post the tests. We both receive NHS phone calls with the same texts read to us as in the previous day.
Day 3: I find myself reading a short story by Tessa Hadley inThe New Yorker set during a Covid lockdown. Another set of NHS phone calls comes in.
Day 4: David misses his NHS call. I take mine, noticing that all of the callers sound young – twenties, maybe thirties. I hear about a colleague who has returned from France and is receiving three phone calls per day.
Day 5: David receives his daily phone call, but I don’t. The UK government announces that from 2 August, people who are double vaccinated coming from the US, amber countries in the EU (that is, not France) and cruise ships – those petri dishes of disease – can enter the UK without having to self-isolate. I consider rereading Kafka.
Day 6: David receives a call, but again, I don’t. I start to hope that I’m off the radar. I read in The Times that anyone associated with London Fashion Week can fly to London without having to self-isolate. I feel I’m living in a joke that isn’t funny.
Day 7: UK Foreign Secretary Dominique Rabb explains that the issue over the island of Reunion having a high rate of Beta and not mainland France where people are travelling from is immaterial. It’s not the distance between the little island and the mainland, it’s the accessibility the island has to mainland France. Clearly, Rabb hasn’t noticed all the times that Reunion has had lockdowns with no one travelling anywhere. Nor has Rabb considered the fact that rules for going to the Canary islands, which are owned by Spain, are different from the rules applied to mainland Spain. When I get my NHS call – I’m back on the radar – I request the short version of the script, explaining that the long version will just make me angry. The caller replies to my bitterness with a perky ‘Okay’ and jumps to the part about being fined.
Day 8: We take PCR test 2, David breaks the law again to post them, and we both receive phone calls from our young friends at the NHS. Simon Calder of The Independent confirms a rumour we have heard that turns out to be true – the island of Reunion with its high Beta rate is on the amber list, while mainland France with its miniscule Beta rate remains on the amber-plus list.
Day 9: David receives his daily call, but I don’t. The papers are full of stories about vaccine passes. In France, these passes are proving a success, before they even become law, millions more are queuing up for their vaccines. Those who refuse could still get into venues with a negative covid test, or they could simply take to the streets and protest – it’s what the French do. I’m missing France already.
Day 10: I start looking into a winter holiday in Reunion, and I finish this blog.
In brief, East Anglia Bylines is part of the Byline network of news sources generated by citizens’ journalism – that is, anyone can write for them. The editors have professional experience as do quite a few of the writers. All have been working laboriously for months now to get this polished up and off the ground. What makes this publication different from other online news sources is that it represents the region of East Anglia in England, its writers, its perspectives. These perspectives include national and world news, recognising that international is local.
This publication has emerged in response to the times we live in, where democracies are being threatened by populist leaders while the earth faces a catastrophic climate emergency. As people feel that they are not being heard on these issues, local news outlets, which used to give citizens a voice, are also dwindling. These presses have been subsumed or destroyed by larger corporate advertiser-led publishing houses.
The Byline network is non profit and independent. I’ll close with the words of its editors: …’we seek to demonstrate democracy in action by giving a voice to local people and holding our elected representatives to account. This is made possible by our independence – both from government control and from the influence of corporate interests. Our political stance is progressive and internationalist. Our objective is to be part of the debate at a regional and national level.’
I’m hopeful that this isn’t yet another one and that this publication will encourage others to follow its lead in locally-based citizens’ journalism.
Pardon the pun, but the English language makes it hard to talk about these apoidean insects without falling into word play (to bee or not…).
When it comes to bees, I have my own character arch. I grew up fearing them even though I didn’t see them often in my Chicago childhood. Some of this fear, like many fears, overlapped with hatred and ignorance. My mother was an insect hater, shooing away flies and ants, crushing the odd centipede and spider who dared to crawl around our apartment. My grandmother, who also raised me, was once stung by a bee in the supermarket, giving her a rounded bump on her otherwise flat bum. She was sure it was a bee. Reflecting back, I’m not so sure. Bee stings on humans are in fact rare. Sure, beekeepers wear jumpsuits and netted hats, but they are after all trespassing and disrupting the bees’ homes.
If a bee were responsible for the bump on Grandma’s bum, it was because the old woman was asking for it. During summer months, she would wear white trousers and tops that were either all white, or white with some yellow print. She certainly dressed the part to attract pollinators. I suspect too that the allegedly aggressive bee sensed that Grandma lived on a diet of chocolate bars, coffee cake and Danish pastry, washed down many evenings with a vodka martini. The sweetness must have oozed from her skin.
Believing much of what I was told as a child, bees were to be feared and not swatted at as you would invariably miss, and the bee would come back around and sting you. You could end up in hospital! While there are people who have allergies to bee stings, they can be treated at home – but this rational couldn’t be accepted when I was growing up or even into early adulthood, where I would step nervously away from any bee I encountered.
I overcame my fear of bees in a single afternoon some dozen years after my grandmother’s purported incident. I was back in Edinburgh and took a day trip to the west coast of Scotland with my former landlady Erica, one of my surrogate mothers. We were in the gardens of some stately home having a picnic when a small bee came drifting over our food. Just when I was about to give Erica a warning, she noticed it and smiled, while luring the creature closer to her with a strawberry and directing it to a patch of heather. She made some comment about how ‘marvellous’ the creatures were.
In the time between my picnic with Erica and the bee and the present day, like any self-respecting environmental activist, I have learned about the value of bees. I’m thinking of the quote attributed to Albert Einstein, even if not completely accurate, it makes the point: ‘If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.’ In the popular press, I have also encountered some myths about bees. Not to detract from the dangers of pesticides and pollution, but the leading destroyers of bees are not manmade chemicals, but other insects, such as hornets and mites.
This brings me to one of the best books I’ve read recently, The Ardent Swarm, a novel by Tunisian writer Yamen Manai. A beekeeper in a village in Iraq loses thousands of his bees to an invasion of hornets. This is against the backdrop of Isis-like ‘holy men’ descending upon the village bringing gifts to influence the villagers to vote for them and join their militant cause. The allegorical link between the destruction of the beehives and the lives of the villagers becomes apparent with the discovery that the hornets came over from East Asia in packages brought to the village by the ‘holy men.’
I’ve only just started to scratch the surface of books, fiction and non-fiction, about bees. This appears to be a topic full of aficionados and maybe even fetishists. While I do adore these creatures and worry about their survival, I don’t think I belong to either category. Having said that, I’ve recently purchased a Save the Bee packet from Friends of the Earth to do my bit. If Erica were around, I know she’d be proud of me.
A childish chalk scribble of a swastika on a path behind Ely Cathedral has stirred up my emotions at a few levels.
First of all, I detest seeing graffiti in the town of Ely. It makes the place, population 20,000, seem too urban in a gang-ridden way. Ely is not that. But it does have bored youth hanging around convenience stores and school playgrounds late at night. The spate of graffiti in Ely started before the pandemic and is not limited to swastikas. In fact, most of the graffiti has been the tag ‘Ray’ spray-painted in large bubbly letters, often pink, sometimes blue. (Gender identity issues?) Using #findray on social media, residents have assumed that this is the work of a teenage boy. Police have been searching for him for two years now, visiting schools with photos of the tag. The parish and district councils are also on the trail of this elusive vandal, bent on defiling our beautiful town. Parochial annoyance, I know, and I have sucked into it.
Secondly, swastikas offend people. On some walls and fences spray-painted swastikas have been found in close proximity to ‘Ray.’ The District Council clean-up crew removed the swastikas – on the basis of their power to offend – and left Ray’s other self-absorbed scrawls behind for property owners to contend with. For most adults these are symbols of Nazism and anti-Semitism, but I do wonder if that’s what Ray had in mind. Ely is not known for its Jewish population, and in the ward where Ray operates, Jewish people make up 0.2% of the residents.
This reminds me of an incident that happened in Fountainebleau, France a few months ago. A cemetery was peppered with swastika graffiti, headstones desecrated with bright spray-painted signs. Problem – this was a Catholic cemetery. The Jewish cemetery was up the road. Either these vandals had a faulty GPS or they didn’t understand the meaning of the swastika since the 1920’s (it had been used before then by various groups in history, such as being the symbol for Surya the Hindu son god). I suspect that Ray and his French counterparts were cut from the same idiot’s cloth, possessing a miniscule amount of knowledge, enough to know that swastikas offend and little else.
Finally (for now), upon seeing the chalky swastika on the Ely path, the other emotion that came to the fore was strangely one of nostalgia. Stay with me. When I was around five years old I found some broken plasterboard in the alley behind our apartment. Any city child will tell you that a shard of plasterboard makes for a great piece of chalk. At this age, I probably had limited writing abilities coupled with a limited vocabulary. I guess I had the wherewithal to understand the importance of context and copied the words that I had seen in other public spaces – ‘screw,’ ‘fuck’ and ‘hell’ – on to the pavements of Ashland Avenue, Chicago. I don’t know how she found out, but she did, and my mother sent me outside with a bucket and scrub brush to remove my first ever attempts at graffiti. If only Ray was answerable to my mother.
Loads can and has been said about narratives, with books and academic journals devoted exclusively to the topic. I’ve been thinking about the utilitarian side of narratives. In Gaia Vince’s Transcendence: How Humans Evolved through Fire, Language, Beauty, and Time, the power of stories is seen as the creator of languages and communities. This is familiar territory in anthropology and linguistics (I’m thinking Labov (1969), Prince (1988), Hardy (2005) and the writings of Margaret Mead and Mary Douglas). What I found more illuminating was this anecdote:
“In a 1944 study in the United States, 34 college students were shown a short animation in which two triangles and a circle moved across the screen and a rectangle remained stationary at the side. When asked what they saw, 33 of the 34 students anthropomorphized the shapes and created a narrative: The circle was ‘worried’, the ‘little triangle’ was an ‘innocent young thing’, the big triangle was ‘blinded by rage and frustration’. Only one student recorded that all he saw were geometric shapes on a screen.”
Vince explains this as the brain devising narratives with actors and story patterns where none exist in order to make sense of things. I do wonder to what extent this is cognitive and innate or behavioural and learned given that so much of our learning in early childhood involves anthropomorphizing animals and objects.
On the flipside of this, researchers across a range of disciplines have used storytelling to encourage subjects to talk about their experiences. One of my former students researched the attitudes of Saudi women in higher education by asking them to fill in a narrative for which my student researcher provided the frame. This proved far more fruitful than interviews, where these women gave brief answers and appeared reluctant to speak about their workplace and culture.
Arguably, some of the appeal of Twitter (excluding the years when it was hijacked by a US president) and other social media is the way that they provide a stage for people to tell the stories of their lives. Sociolinguist Ruth Page covers this in her book Stories in Social Media: Identity and Interaction. Having studied these online communications as a linguist myself, I find interesting the use of common knowledge and public discourse in these often highly elliptical narratives, especially those limited by the number of characters allowed. That is, what isn’t said is as important as what is. Since understanding and communicating with stories appears to be human, perhaps too is the need use ellipsis, creating gaps in stories that we know our audience can fill.
Given the ubiquity and usefulness of storytelling, it’s a shame the word ‘narrative’ has recently taken on a negative connotation as an arm of propaganda. This politician or that group creating its own narratives which the media – mainstream and social – start to follow and build upon. Do I need to give examples? Nope, I’ll let you fill in the gaps.