Friday, 30 October 2015

Roots and Rootlessness

The kids are playing outside in the mud and traipsing it through the house now and again. The sun is shining and it's a beautiful autumn day. Car is packed for the trip to Cheltenham to visit the parents who recently moved into my great grandmother's house. There are photographs of my mother there as a child, when there were still orchards and possibly a fox. My mother relates a story of being taken to feed the chickens and her grandmother shooing her away because there was a small viper.

As a child we lived in a lot of houses in a lot of towns and cities in Zimbabwe and South Africa. My grandmother's house in Borrowdale, Harare, was a home when we were growing up as we stayed there so often as children. When they left and moved into a townhouse some of my roots were pulled up and maybe some tendrils were left in the soil. When we left my last home in Zimbabwe, it was as if I buried my heart in the garden. It took me at least two years to summon it back as I mourned and mourned for house and land and country.

I moved to London at seventeen and lived in posh houses, squats and flats. My firstborn and I lived for sixteen years in a flat in central London where he still is and I am some of the time. We now have a family home in Wales, a small bungalow stuffed with memories and photographs in the loft: this is my husband's grandmother's house.

Thank you God; for grandmothers, for continuity and for life that goes on. As believers our home is always elsewhere, but tracing history, and memories, and a sense of coming home, will always be.

Monday, 26 October 2015

3 Novels

I thought I would share with you my thoughts on three novels I have recently read. In doing so, I shall share them with me in order to trigger my own recollections since they are so easily forgotten, except in the case of a few, such as Stoner - unforgettable, or now, I think I can safely say, Gilead.

The Fever Tree took a while to get into, I was worried it was too Mills and Boon and almost put it down, muttering as I did about commercial novels and I would have cut the ship narrative at the start considerably, but once it got to South-Africa, some hundred and fifty pages (as I recall) in it became powerfully evocative in terms of prose and the way it captured the SA landscape. It looked at true love as opposed to attraction and choices made/opportunities almost missed and lessons learnt. In the end, it brought to mind some colonial classics: Story of An African Farm, My Brilliant Career, in terms of haunting landscapes that 'speak.'

Fair Play by Tove Jansson looks at the relationship between two women artists and how they make art and life together on a remote island and in Helsinki. Tove's work is like looking through a calm clear sea and discovering more and more exquisite fish the deeper you look. Eccentric characters enter and exit, adding to the appeal of the book, but they become most interesting in terms of Jonna and Mari's comments about them - in their presence. A wonderful book about adventures taken and captured on 8mm film, love, and art; nuances and habits appreciated, picked up on, argued over or not. And of endings. Labora et amare.

Gilead by Marillyne Robinson is a masterpiece. It is flawless in terms of prose, narrative pace and all that it speaks of: life, religion and love. What I particularly liked was the way Robinson portrayed faith in all it's complexity. The generous, yet often conflicted spirit of her protagonist, the dying John Ames, who records for his young son the details of everyday life, often seemingly mundane, but just as often illuminated by a sense of the miraculous, is wondrous. Through the stories of his father and grandfather (preachers as well), a family history unfolds and with it troubling scenes regarding race, poverty and murder. It is a reminder of America's past and perhaps a warning to it's future - a novel with soul and spirit. A classic.

Friday, 23 October 2015

Cleaning Out My Closet

In line with my desire to live more lightly in various ways, I have been cleaning out my closet, literally, though the Eminem song Where's my snare? Is playing in my head. My entire vintage wardrobe, along with several Vivienne Westwood numbers has been snapped up by anonymous bidders. They were very snap happy for Viv. There have been mishaps. I sent my flowery Doctor Martens to someone who was expecting a camel coloured wool coat and vice verse. That took some time and expense to unravel, and unravel I almost did as I messaged back and forth praying that each disgruntled punter would play ball, or boot as the case was. Happily each agreed to send to the other. Thus my past has been passed around the UK, and, in the case of a seventies halter-neck dress, last worn to a music industry party during the rise of Oasis - to the US.

Each item of clothing that has been packaged and sent had a story behind it. The 60's and 70's dresses worn to gigs and parties or on stage during my fleeting singing career in 90's Camden. Or the designer stuff I have from my modelling days prior to that. Before that, I had been collecting vintage clothes since I was a teenager. I used to go to Diagonal Street in Johannesburg and rummage through piles of clothes in basements until I emerged with winkle pickers and sixties suits that I would take in on my mother's sewing machine and later wear to the clubs I was way to young to be at. If those clothes could speak...and they do, imbued as they are with memory. Who will wear them now? I have been surprised at how hard they were to actually give up, even though I had determined to.

Which isn't to say that my glad rags were all bad news. Oh the fun we had! It's just that for me it is important not to dwell on the past but to live fully in the present. We do have photographs after all, though those can sometimes be fraught too. My father passed away nearly two years ago. He was not around when we were growing up. I only met him when I was twenty-one and thereafter on only a few occasions. After he died, my sister and I went to collect his things, including a large box of his photographs many of which were taken in nightclubs and parties in his heyday as a singer and actor and general charmer.  I haven't been through the photographs yet as there was an exhibition that they were needed for and they were only recently returned. I intend to and want to, but the box has a mark of the Pandora about it. I have often found nostalgia a tricky emotion to manage given my peripatetic and sometimes fraught childhood. The clothes that speak of the many lives I have lived, the photographs speak of what was and what might have been. The clothes have travelled on to adorn other lives. The photographs have arrived from Portugal, and what a route they have taken, those potent squares of reminder.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Smiling abreast

September is here and I see I have not blogged for two months. Much has happened. My right breast had a smile cut into it below the right nipple whilst various bits and pieces were extracted and I have been told to recuperate: "You won't feel right for several months, I had to do some restructuring," my consultant told me cheerfully when I went for the follow up - she has been excellent (and frank, Miss Franks even) in all her ways. That would account for the pain - mostly manageable but occasionally stabbing - a fleshly reminder of my composition. I am well and do not need to return, but my heart is with those frightened faces I saw in the waiting room and with my stepmum-in-law who is in the hospice: her breast did not give news to smile about. My own dear mother has not received good news about her health either. And so we pray and consider what we are made of.

If we believe that we are more than bodies, our bodies are temples that house the spirit and the soul: mind, will, emotions, personality. Should we not believe in the spirit, then perhaps the body takes on yet a deeper, perhaps even spiritual (to many) significance. To all, the body is a marvel and a wonder and in my view, a testament to a great and deeply profound creator. Yet the body remains a mystery, and we are slaves to it's mercurial moods and delicate balances. I read that there are as many neurons in the brain as there are stars in the Milky Way and that my intestines are a veritable motorway of (who knew?) functioning neurons, and I am boggled.

I am awestruck by the ability of the body to adapt and compensate for itself. A friend who has had two dreadful car accidents was describing to me how he could no longer use his ankle and so the bones of his foot had adapted as hinges instead. The has a remarkable ability to heal itself. Even if half of the organ is removed, it can grow back. Consider plasticity. Neurons can change their function based on information they receive via the senses from the outside world. In the case of deafness, for instance, neurons normally utilised for hearing can be diverted to the eyes, to helping deaf people to 'see' more.

Oliver Sacks died the day before yesterday and I have been reading some of his writing on the body - unparalleled work, in my limited experience, in that it is so literary and somehow transcendent - his writing on marijuana experimenting is at any rate! I have been as grateful, of late, as a weary Mormon pilgrim happening upon ephedrine containing roadside herb, for my prescribed narcotics. Solpadol has certainly taken the sharp edge off the blade these past few weeks, though I am mindful that this too must end and I shall rely on this amazing thing I dwell in to continue to heal itself - as the current dull ache I now feel reassures me somehow.

Today I am grateful to my body and my health. Oh and it's my eighth wedding anniversary. I am profoundly grateful for my husband and for the three little ones we now have in addition to my first born. We do not have ourselves, or each other, certainly not in these current forms, for long; but what a marvel it is, that we exist, that we, in some ways, like the liver, regenerate; and that we, like our creator, get to create in turn. What a fabulous event life is. And how precious.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Christianity is all about dying - in order to live

July is here, American Independence Day is looming and the American supreme courts ruling on same sex marriages has just been passed. I have been reading some of the pieces in the NY Times in the light of this.

According to one article, Christianity is dying in America Apparently, American Christians feel estranged from mainstream culture, and one commentator is quoted as stating Christianity needs to go back underground. In the UK, Christians often shy away from mainstream culture and from entering the political debate. Strong opinions often make Christians (certainly in the independent churches I frequent) panic like frightened sheep and they shy away from robust debate regarding church or state. State-wise, this is understandable, given their views, sandal and sock like, are not fashionable, (though I have noticed a lurch to the left, amongst Christians lately). Christianity dying culturally, will not deter Christians from practising their faith, nor drive it to ground, though it may drive them underground - a place where Christianity has historically flourished. Christianity proliferates in countries such as China where just such a state exists. From what I understand, Christians are dying noble and heroic deaths for their faith in its ancient lands.

Image problem aside, I have often wondered why Christianity in the UK is so unattractive to many, given who Jesus is. The teachings on sex are a real problem, but is mankind not so much more than this? It is sad that Christianity has been reduced to its sex laws and all the other, far greater, dare I say eternal teaching has been subsumed by this. Christians need to bring deeper Christian values, and their finer Christian acts (sowing financially and ministering to the lost and broken) into mainstream culture in order to help transform communities for the common good; as they bring these acts of love into the wider arena, they will be seen and heard for who they are rather than what they variously believe, and social engagement via social justice will become easier. Personally, I am looking at ways of doing this myself, rather than keeping my two sides: Writer and Christian, separate, and for a while now my writing has been moving in this direction. Plug alert: To this end, come and see my play The Call, on the 18 July, at Unveiling.

Representationally, Christians often come across as gullible, clueless (perhaps because so many don't actually read, much less put the bible into practice, they listen to interpretations of it via sermons that are often flawed opinion pieces. As for the patriarchal structure of the church, don't even get me started. Suffice to say I am a Jesus feminist. In the charismatic/pentecostal/non-orthodox churches there are a lot of personal ministries, often run by people who have narcissistic personalities, many of whom are dodgy; and from what I can tell, this sort of thing is rife in the US too. There are very few actual followers (as in doing the things Jesus did) in the UK Christian world that I have encountered and apologies to all of you out there who are better Christians than myself, I am an active member of the church, and I don't exclude myself in all that I say. Dying to oneself (such a challenge for the selfie generation!), in the selfish sense and suffering and sacrifice: two states that usher in the power of God are often missed out in the Christianity of the west, which isn't to say Christians don't suffer in life as everyone else does, I speak of making intentional sacrifices for other people in the light of ones faith and often suffering as a result.

Christianity has a real image problem. Comfortable Christianity does not wash with the public as it is not authentic, in terms of what Christianity is, it lacks power and frankly just comes across as embarrassing right-wing guff. If more of us in the west, lived as authentic Christians, in solidarity with the many, (often abroad) in suffering countries who do, we might improve our image through action. It needs to get back to basics: back to Jesus, because Jesus was really cool, really revolutionary, and authentic. He was who he said he was: God the son. He was not defensive, he knew his bible (the Jewish scriptures) and he knew his God and acted accordingly (God the father). He did not make it up as he went along, and as Christians, neither should we; we need to continue to stand on the scriptures, while reaching out through dialogue, not by retreating in the light of recent laws here in the UK and the US. Christianity is bigger than this! Christian democracy paved the way for these laws for God's sake (and I mean for God's sake!).

We would do well to remember the words of Jesus in summing up the greatest commandment: 37And He said to him, “ ‘YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’ 38“This is the great and foremost commandment. 39“The second is like it, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ 40“On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”

We really must love our neighbour, with all her (and his) differences as ourself. We have to be able to disagree on personal beliefs and still 'remain in love,' as the bible teaches. Whether we are to be driven underground or to remain above ground, Christians need to be brave enough to interact with the culture and not huddle in Sunday clubs. People need to get to know authentic Christians who love everyone despite oppositional beliefs. Love flourishes in difficult spaces. Jesus's primary message was one of love - and he didn't just love the like-minded: He dug the dodgy, the outcast - and women.

Just one more point:

Sexual preferences and beliefs thereof aside, it seems only right that people should be able to share mortgages, and assets with the partner of their choosing, and everyone should be equal in the eyes of the law. Getting married in a church when you do not adhere to what the bible says is another matter. I would not want to get married in a mosque, given their teachings on same sex marriage and women, so I have no idea why a gay couple should want to marry in church, given the bible's teaching on same sex marriage. Here is a balanced and elegantly written opinion piece on the dignity of singleness and having other people take the role of marriage partner.

Disclaimer: I do love the church and my brothers and sisters in Christ.
Motto: We need more public debate and less hate.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Excess Baggage

I have been pondering the excesses of modern life, partly triggered by this article: Yes, I still read the Guardian despite their fascist views regarding anyone who is vaguely right handed. I maintain that it is always best to read left to right in order to achieve balance. If you start on the left and have any sense, you will arrive at a full stop after arriving at the right (wink). But I swore I would no longer allude to the elections, so I won't. Actually, I think I am currently a Conservative Socialist and should start my own party, without the champagne. I am currently conservative as I blued it this election, based on policies and track record, but socialist in that I care very much about issues that affect us all and believe in a democratic society committed to equality in terms of education (bring back proper grammar schools now!), healthcare, childcare and healthy food. I am not kidding myself that there will ever be equal opportunities for all, but we need government with a long term commitment to enfranchisement. I also believe very much in entrepreneurship at and across all levels of society - I believe in individual progress and that people should be properly remunerated for being in the workforce that aids us all. I have now put my soapbox under my feet. Back to the excess baggage. I think unsold food should be given to charity, though I am sure this requires a legal minefield, but how can we, as individuals, stop being so wasteful? I have decided to put my money where my mouth is.

There are a number of areas I will be tackling, and like the French, I am starting with food. Hubster and I identified a key area of wastage last night when we made a new household budget. We seem to be spending far too much on food. I thought I was a canny shopper, a bargain hunter, a vintage vixen, a frugal fox. But apparently I am not. Hubster waved the bank statement evidence at me like Charlie with his golden ticket.

Suitably shamed, this is my aim for this week: I am not buying any more food (apart from milk and veg when we run out) until all the cupboards are bare. I have also been stripping my wardrobe (even my prized vintage collection is going!) and aiming to give away at least one bag of 'excess baggage' a week. This week, I have several large bags of clothes and toys (the kids are getting in on this - we are discussing these issues in homeschool). In weeks to come there will be food donations - and ouch, owie, einar painar...books.
Here's a scarf I knitted earlier in the spirit of this blog - and grannies.
I'll let you know how I get on.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

School Daze

It's been a while since I have visited Blogland, although Fogland (lack of sleep) and Frogland (hallucinations - see the latter) have been familiar terrain. Thank you nippers.

It is 'A' Level season and our eldest is currently being squeezed through the last of his square-shaped holes - he has never quite fitted into the square-shaped mould of school. And neither have I, frankly. Primary School promised to be a breeze, though we had to find a school outside our area as the one on our doorstep was full. His first teacher assured me son was gifted and he would ‘sail through, given he was light years ahead of everyone else.’ Those light years came to an abrupt end a few years later when bored, he began staring out the window and doodling all over his work. There were still flashes of brilliance: his drawings, the music he played by ear, the poems; but there was no way I could get him to play the game. His heavily tutored peers (offspring of Hampstead Socialists bent on getting their kids into the best schools in the land - I could elaborate on 'bent' but I won't; suffice to say, I don't blame them for wanting the best for their kids, it was the methods many of them employed and the hypocrisy and pretence that I hated) steamed ahead.

Somewhat hypocritically, I also found myself a part of the social conditioning that's rife in state schools in 'good' areas. When Camden Council told me son wasn't able to get a place in any of the state schools, my choices were this: try for the private exams that were coming up in a matter of weeks, despite the fact that he was untutored, or teach him myself. I panicked and went for the exams. Son said there was no way he was going to a private school, he complained about the elitism, and the fact that it went against everything that he was, but when I said that the only other option was to be taught by me, he relented. I paid the gobsmackingly high entrance fee for two of the schools and he sat the two exams. He didn't have a chance, given one of the key aspects of the training for the exams is time spent on each question. I thought his natural intelligence would be enough - but it's not, these schools want kids who can jump through hoops, they don't look for kids who are creative or simply naturally intelligent - though obviously the kids who are getting in are not daft. Put it this way, there were boys in our son's year that were not as bright as him who passed the exams - and their parents were able to pay for the full spectrum of exams at the various grammar (grammar, my foot - don't even get me started on the grammar issue!) and private schools. There were a couple of others, who were, one in particular who was very bright. But it broke my heart that I did that to him - like throwing him to the sharks without the cage that the others had had years to fashion. The gloating from a few of the more competitive mothers (there were lovely mother's too) was hard to take, they really rubbed it in in various ways: "Oliver was offered all the schools he went for..." Well given 'Oliver' had been tutored since year dot, it would have been pathetic had he not, didn't come into it. I comforted myself that their offspring were not as not as good at the arts, or sport - or nice looking [!] or nice frankly - yuck, I know, but this is what that whole system does to you! I’m not proud of any of that.

Anyway, our kid hated going through that but he was just relieved not to be going private, and took the mick out of me for going down that road in the first place - making me laugh over the social conditioning of the whole thing, I wish I'd just trusted that something was going to come up, as it did, straight after the dreaded exams, when he was offered a place at a brand new academy that many parents would not touch as it was untested. Son wanted to enjoy life and have a laugh as well as go to school - and if he hadn't been able to make me laugh as much as he does, I possibly wouldn't have laughed it all off as quickly as I did, given that the whole period was horrid. And isn't laughter the best medicine? Just last week I was doubled over in Sainsbury's, holding on to the freezer handle with a bag of peas in my hand, because son was singing "Here comes your man," perfectly by the Pixies, except he was singing: "Here comes your nan." Okay, perhaps I can't grow up either, but therein lies our connection.

I took our eldest out of primary school for several months to take him to the Thai-Burma border where he played football with Burmese orphans who had seen unspeakable things. He sat in on the classes I taught and widened his horizons in so many ways. I’m glad we did that. Over the years, we spent hours playing music, drawing and discussing books and all manner of things, including faith. I’m glad we did that too. These are the things that made him who he is and who he will be.

Some kids are just not suited to school. I'm still battling to get our eldest to "just give them what they want (art criteria) not what you want to do!" I keep saying: "You can do what you want in three weeks time!" My three youngest are home-schooled. Two of them would be fine in 'regular' school, though, in my view, it would not be the best option for them; the other, well he'd be crushed, and I'd sooner lie in front of a steam-roller than send him. There are some wonderful teachers in the state, and I am told, in the private system, but the system does not work for everyone, home-schooling allows the parent to tailor education to fit the child and their abilities. 

Looking back at my school career, I was just like my eldest. Only worse! But I have still painted my pictures, sung my songs and written my books - eventually. Thanks to my parents, I was fortunate enough to have gone to The National School of the Arts, in Johannesburg, where my creativity was encouraged - as it was at home. My eldest has had some incredible people along the way - his wonderful piano teacher, who refused to force him to sight read because she said it was crushing his natural ability, and who taught him for free for a time because of his 'amazing musical mem-o-ry,' as she put it in her wonderful German accent, when I, a skint single mother, was going to have to take him out of lessons for while - and some wonderful teachers at his state academy - his Geography teacher who said how sad he was that our son had stopped asking "the questions that turned the tide in the classroom." (He was in the middle years in a state school and had to rap his responses at the time.) At the parents meeting when he said this, we both turned to our eldest and said (me tearfully, he with emotion, like we were all suddenly in an Alan Bennett play) "Why don't you ask the questions any more?" Or his art teacher who told me that she has only taught two students with our kid's level of ability - our son and another boy who is now a renowned artist. 

I am convinced that if our son does ‘go the distance,’ it will be along his own path and in his own way, so for all of you parents out there who are freaked out about these finals, fear not, I'm not anymore; it's the beautiful oddballs that 'make the music that makes us dance.' And we want our kids to be happy, well rounded, caring individuals, regardless of what they choose to do, or whose yardstick they are supposed to measure up to. And they will learn to be those kids in our own back yards.