Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Chorlton Arts Festival

The annual Chorlton Arts Festival is in full swing at the moment, and continues until the 24th May. It is one of those local events where you browse the programme and see all sorts of interesting goings-on ... but then never get around to going.
I was skyping with Monkey at the weekend and chatting while looking on the site for something fun to do during my leave this week, and I came across a book binding workshop.
It was organised by The Manchester Craft Mafia at The Beagle, where they apparently hold monthly crafty gatherings. So I decided to take the plunge and leave the house for a couple of hours.
Paper, thread, scissors and needles were all provided for a very modest fee, and armed with some basic instructions we were set loose.
And a good time was had by all. Including me. Many other events of all shapes and sizes happening this week, many for free. Check out the calendar on the website if you happen to be in the vicinity.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Flannery O'Connor incomplete stories

Alongside the book of stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman I have also been reading 'Complete Stories' by Flannery O'Connor. I am not sure how I feel about these stories. I read about half the book and then returned it to the library in favour of other reading. I enjoyed them for the picture they gave of a past time; they felt as if she had managed to bottle the essence of the time and place in which she wrote, but in some ways the picture felt the same in each story. I like to be given an insight into lives that are foreign; she does write like an insider, someone who really knew and understood, rather than someone looking in from the outside and the stories are very non-judgmental. But at the same time their very alien-ness made me struggle to find any connection with the characters and their lives, made me very aware of the vast divides that exist within society, even today. Set in the segregated South the black characters in the stories are marginalised and somewhat clichéd; there is regular use of the N-word and the attitudes expressed by the white characters are what you would expect to have encountered during that time. The poverty she portrays is quite graphic, squalid was often the only word for the atmosphere, and they are populated with a variety of odd and mostly ugly people, 'grotesque' is a word apparently regularly applied to her characters:

"He peered at her coming down the hall. 'Good morning!' he said, bowing the upper part of his body out the door. 'Good morning to you!' He looked like a goat. He had little raisin eyes and a string beard and his jacket was a green that was almost black or a black that was almost green.
'Morning,' she said. 'Hower you?'
'Well!' he screamed. 'Well indeed on this glorious day!' He was seventy-eight years old and his face looked as if it had mildew on it. In the mornings he studied and in the afternoons he walked up and down the sidewalks, stopping children and asking them questions. Whenever he heard anyone in the hall, he opened his door and looked out." (p.99 A Stroke of Good Fortune)

The other quote comes from a story entitled 'The Displaced Person' and sets the scene on a farm where the owner, Mrs McIntyre, has accepted a Polish family to come and live and work for her. They are refugees from the Second World War, speak a strange language and are treated with suspicion by the current 'help', Mrs Shortley. The story is about the insular nature of such people and their way of life, their mistrust of anyone who does not share their view of the world. Compared to the feckless Mr Shortley, Mr Guizac works hard, he knows how to fix machinery and he begins to have a positive impact on the farm. But this will not save him, because under the influence of Mrs Shortley Mrs McIntyre too begins to fear him, for no reason other than his mere 'difference'. She plans to give him notice, but is reluctant to face up to or even acknowledge her own distrust of the man. Eventually a tragic accident saves her from the situation and there is a palpable feeling of relief. The moral of the tale however has her fortunes go into steep decline until she is alone, friendless and isolated.

"The priest came frequently to see the Guizacs and he would always stop in and visit Mrs McIntyre too and they would walk around the place and she would point out her improvements and listen to his rattling talk. It suddenly came to Mrs Shortley that he was trying to persuade her to bring another Polish family onto the place. With two of them here, there would be almost nothing spoken but Polish. The Negroes would be gone and there would be two families against Mr Shortley and herself! She began to imagine a war of words, to see the Polish words and the English words coming at each other, stalking forward, not sentences, just words, gabble gabble gabble, flung out high and shrill and stalking forward and then grappling with each other. She saw the Polish words, dirty and all-knowing and unreformed, flinging mud on the clean English words until everything was equally dirty. She saw them all piled up in a room, all the dead dirty words, theirs and hers too, piled up like the naked bodies in the newsreel. God save me, she cried silently, from the stinking power of Satan! And she started from that day to read her Bible with a new attention." (p.209 The Displaced Person)

So, another book that I borrowed because the writer is respected and admired but which did not appeal as much as I anticipated. Perhaps it would be better to buy a copy and read occasional stories spread out over a longer period than trying to ingest the book in one go. 

Sunday, 10 May 2015

'like sand through our fingers'

I started 'The Last Kings of Sark' by Rosa Rankin-Gee when Monkey and I had our mini read-a-thon last week and this morning it left me feeling melancholy. It tells the story of Jude and Pip and Sofi and one brief summer on Sark. The first half of the book is told by Jude who arrives as tutor to Pip, and finds Sofi in the kitchen making dinner. With the father Eddy away on business and the mother Esmé cloistered in her room they are freed from responsibilities, and the two girls take on the task of nurturing Pip, feeding him up, and helping him to grow up. They are supposed to be studying science, maths and literature but end up discussing the much more important questions about life, the universe and everything. As is the case when you are isolated from the rest of the world the three of them form a close bond, avoiding all questions of the unknowable future and living for each moment. The spell is broken by a hurried and chaotic departure and promises of Paris.
The second half tells all three separate stories, of where they went, and who they loved afterwards, and the lingering longing to find each other again. 

This is Sofi, in the local shop, she is bold and beautiful and who could fail to love her:

"She went from that to the hummus. 'Hummus?' she picked up the pot. 'Last week they didn't even have onions. Eastern bloc, man. Or, whatever wartime. Rationing days. There was about one thing on each shelf...' She broke free from me and trolley-scooted up the aisle. 'Fuck me! Herbs!' She pierced a packet of fresh tarragon with her little fingernail and smelled it through the bag. 'It's for the tourists, isn't it? I love herbs.' She was talking very loudly, which could have been embarrassing, but when you're beautiful, and do what you do with the confidence of the sun, no one seemed to mind." (p.41)

The first half has this very immediate quality to it, you can almost smell the salt in the air. This lovely quote sums up the growing relationship between the three of them:

"Sofi kissed me on my cuts and told me to look at Pip. 'His neck. He's got a man's neck. Aren't we doing well?'
Sofi taught him to sew and made him 'power bowls' of bananas and nuts. He ate without wincing; his ankles were less thin. He had freckles now, messy stars on his cheekbones, dots on his lips. He gave Sofi piggybacks without blushing, and he could look at me straight. He pushed his hair out of his eyes, and got good at looking; good looking.
If it rained, sometimes we would go back to peristalsis, and osmosis, and all those 'ises' I was supposed to teach, but Pip knew it all already. And besides, it never rained.
The grass was warm enough to lie on in cotton and there was sugar in my coffee. We left Esmé her tray and Badoit, and took crisps and cans of sweetcorn for clifftop picnics. We drank Eddy's good wine from the bottle as the sun burnt into the sea. I don't know if the sun tricks you into feeling things, or if it makes you see things more clearly. But that's what I mean when I said it was golden. Our skin got darker and out hair got lighter, and the summer passed like sand through out fingers." (p.94-5)

The second half felt more removed somehow, as if you are watching from a slight distance rather than sitting alongside. Things are more vague, referred to obliquely, so much unsaid. They try, but fail, to reconnect with each other, almost fearing that each had imagined it, and the reality would be a disappointment, or maybe reluctant to face the intensity of it. Here Pip finds Sofi in Le Havre:

"Sofi crunches through her third ice-cube now. She is not listening, particularly, to what he is saying.
'That's nice,' she says.
'Not really.'
When she realises he has stopped talking and his chin is dimpled, she strokes a finger over the bump-bone on his wrist. 'Awww,' she says. The type of noise people make about animals on the internet. 'You'll get through it. Everyone does. You're so handsome.'
The way she is touching him, calling him pet names, flattering him, it feels forced, almost formal. It is not like it used to be. It used to be as un-thought of as breathing." (p.195-6)

Jude, at the very end, goes back to visit Sark, searching maybe. I liked this lovely observation, in it you almost see her realise she has taken the step into being an adult:

"For a while, after I'd finished my coffee, I watched a young couple on a bench - maybe one of the benches we'd sat on - on the stretch of pavement outside the café. They were dressed for different weathers; the girl in a sundress and shoes that might go see-through in the rain, the boy in a children's-book blue beanie and a jumper thick enough to turn a boy's body into a man's. I could not work out whether they were in love, or friends, or brother and sister. The boy smoked, the girl stole drags, how their hands met was like a dance." (p.271)

In this return visit she manages to capture the nature of nostalgia and longing. The idea that once you have a perfect moment in time, and it is suspended in your memory, with an irresistible desire to try and recapture it somehow, fear that you were somehow mistaken and mixed with that, an understanding that it is gone:

"People talk about edges. Being on them, taking them off. I felt at that moment I knew exactly where the edge was, and that it was beside me. Close to my skin. I don't know. Nostalgia is one of the hardest things to write down. Even the word - it tangles. Perhaps the only way it can exist outside the body is in music. New Scientist says that music is the closest thing to time travel. I read it in someone's loo once. Everything that happens in between the first and last time you hear a song concertinas into nothing. In your head it's the first time again, but everywhere else isn't. That's the sad thing: everywhere else isn't." (p.273)

A very intense emotional rollercoaster of a story, beautifully written; the atmosphere of the island and how it mirrors the remoteness of the tiny community the three of them have created, and she manages the conversations between the young people so perfectly, how they talk about nothing, but everything at the same time. I think I fell a little in love with them too.

Friday, 8 May 2015

A whole lotta knitting for Fibre Arts Friday

I haven't joined in with Fibre Arts Friday for months and months. It has been very slow going on the knitting front, though I have done quite a lot of hexipuffs. But here is a roundup of crafty stuff going on recently. 
When I went to London to see Monkey's plays I took with me the last one of the Hesfes Bunnies and planted it on the Piscator sculpture by Eduardo Paolozzi outside Euston station. I am hoping that it has found a new home by now:

Wiki Commons
Monkey has been working on a knitted backpack since last summer. It was supposed to be finished for her leaving home in September ... but better late than never. It is knitted to the Autumn Woods Bag pattern from Yarnspirations.
 Here it is being churned up in the washing machine last week:
 And here is the final effect after drawstring, toggle and straps have been added:
 I have been working on a pair of Jacquard Cushions, very slow going because the pattern is very tiny and very complicated and I am beginning to regret choosing it, but there you go. The second one will be gold with blue design. I may or may not felt them, depending on how large it is when complete:
 And, over a year after I purchased the yarn, my Bute sweater is finally done, and I have been enjoying wearing it pretty much constantly since. It is adapted from a cardigan pattern from the Rowan Magazine 52.  I am glad I tackled something a bit challenging but have sworn off fair isle knitting, it was so slow ... and the sewing in all the ends afterwards was tedious.
Linking back to Wisdom Begins in Wonder for Fibre Arts Friday, visit some of the other fibrous projects.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Untidy Lives

'Cold Comfort Farm' by Stella Gibbons is excellently entertaining. Recently orphaned (but not really destitute) Flora imposes herself on her distant relations at Cold Comfort Farm where Cousin Judith informs her regularly that 'there have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm', Great Aunt Ada Doom just as regularly complains of the 'something nasty in the woodshed' that she encountered in childhood, and everyone seems to have their own brooding resentments about the domestic arrangements. Nobody there is living the life they dream of, and being a young woman of considerable common sense and determination Flora sets about sorting out their untidy and neglected lives; Reuben suspects her of having designs on the farm but it is not, in fact, for any reason other than that she loves a challenge, and she really doesn't want to have to work for a living (how uncivilized):

"Besides, there is sure to be a lot of material I can collect for my novel; and perhaps one or two of the relations will have messes or miseries in their domestic circle which I can clear up.'
'You have the most revolting Florence Nightingale complex,' said Mrs Smiling.
'It is not that at all, and well you know it. On the whole I dislike my fellow-beings; I find them so difficult to understand. But I have a tidy mind, and untidy lives irritate me. Also, they are uncivilized.'" (p.21)

Aunt Ada has lived her life as a dictatorial matriarch, keeping the whole family in her thrall, and keeping an even tighter rein on the purse strings. This quote gives a nice impression of the gloomy, brooding atmosphere: here the young people return from Richard Hawk-Monitor's birthday ball:

"Perhaps 'ablaze' is too strong a word. There was a distinct suggestion of corpse-lights and railway-station waiting-rooms about the lights which shone forth from the windows of Cold Comfort. But compared to the heavy, muffling darkness of the night in which the countryside was sunk, the lights looks positively rorty.
'Oh, my goodness!' said Flora.
'It's Grandmamma!' whispered Elfine, who had gone very white." (p.168)

And this one shows a lovely contrast between the inside and the outside worlds (Rennet is a neglected and much maligned spinster sister):

"The dawn widened into an exquisite spring day. Soft, wood-like puffs of sound came from the thrushes' throats in the trees. The uneasy year, tortured by its spring of adolescence, broke into bud-spots in hedge, copse, spinner, and byre.
Judith sat in the kitchen, looking out with leaden eyes across the disturbed expanse of teeming country-side. Her face was grey. Rennet huddled by the fire, stirring some rather nasty jam she had suddenly thought she would make. She had decided to stay behind when the other female Starkadders had gone off with Adam; her flayed soul shrank, obliquely, from their unspoken pity." (p.180)

Over the course of the tale Flora gradually introduces many revolutionary ideas to the household, such as afternoon tea, washing curtains and contraception. She contrives a very fortuitous marriage for the wayward Elfine, sets several family members off on the path to new lives, and tops it off by coaxing Aunt Ada out of her room and into the real world. Even the poor unfortunate cows get a new home. She doesn't come in and tell them how they should be living, she just sets the wheels in motion and encourages them to take the chance:

"Anyway, Flora was beginning to feel that things were happening a little too quickly at Cold Comfort Farm. She had not yet recovered from the Counting last night (was it only last night? - it seemed a month ago) and the departure of Amos; and already Seth had gone, and Mr Mybug was falling in love with Rennet, and doubtless planning to carry her off.
If things went on t this rate there would soon be nobody left at the farm at all." (p.190)

The story was written as a parody of the romantic rural novels that were popular at the time, of which Stella had been writing scathing reviews in The Lady. Her writing career covered forty years of novels, short stories and poetry but she came to feel that the lasting impact and reputation of Cold Comfort Farm had a detrimental effect on the impact of her later writing. In the spirit of support I have ordered 'Here Be Dragons' from the library. 

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Poems and all that - an A to Z Reflections post

I made it through my fourth year of the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, mainly this year by a lot of forward planning. Monkey came home for a visit and demanded my attention so it was a good thing I had written some of my posts well in advance. Over the first couple of weeks I did a lot of visiting but slowed down after that; I don't see the point of content-less comments so I would only comment if I found a blog interesting or amusing. Here are a few people who I have visited regularly over the month and will be continuing to follow:
Lisa @ Slow and Steady who's A to Z was 26 remarkable women.
Anabel @ Adventures of a Retired Librarian who did an A to Z of great things about libraries.
Nilanjana @ Madly-in -Verse who wrote an A to Z of poems responding to other poems
Zalka Csenge Virág @ MopDog who did A to Z Hungarian Horrible Histories, a fabulous journey through the gory side of medieval Hungary.
and Jules Smith who interviewed 26 people to learn the meaning of life ... and seemed to find it.

I so enjoyed the excuse to indulge in a lot of poetry reading, but am glad to put the heap of books back on the shelf as they were getting in the way in the bedroom chair. It did surprise me quite how many poetry books I own. Normal service will now resume, and I have a few posts to catch up on ... and a fortnight's holiday coming up so I hope to do a lot of reading. 
So thanks to all the hosts and assistants for a great challenge. Click the badge below to visit other participants in the A to Z reflections.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Department of Speculation

'Dept. of Speculation' by Jenny Offill is one of those books that you drift through in some quiet reverie. It leads you to random musings about your own experiences and feelings, and when you get to the end you simply wander back into your own life.

"I liked my apartment because all of the windows were at street level. In the summer, I could see people's shoes, and in the winter, snow. Once, as I lay in bed, a bright red sun appeared in the window. it bounced from side to side, then became a ball." (p.6)

It tells a vague story about a couple, from their initial romance to the breakdown of their marriage. Love is made up of the little snippets of life that you have shared, memories you have in common. The story is composed of snippets. It jumps, without apology from thought to thought, image to image. The whole is chopped up into physical snippets too, each thought getting a little paragraph to itself, some a line long, some covering half a page or so. It is a kind of literary jigsaw puzzle that you put together as you read.

"My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn't even fold his own umbrella. Vera used to lick his stamps for him." (p.8)

The narrator has a philosopher friend who appears throughout, as confidante and advisor. The couple conceive and lose a baby. Then their daughter arrives, and takes over their lives. They are as overwhelmed by her as she is by them:

"The baby's eyes were dark, almost black, and when I nursed her in the middle of the night, she'd stare at me with a stunned, shipwrecked look as if my body were the island she'd washed up on." (p.23)

The daughter's infancy is raced through but our narrator continues to feel incompetent as a parent, unable to keep up with the organisational demands of kindergarten. 

"There is a story about a prisoner at Alcatraz who spent his nights in solitary confinement dropping a button on the floor and then trying to find it again in the dark. Each night, in this manner, he passed the hours until dawn. I do not have  button. In all other respects, my nights are the same." (p.43)

Intense tiny moments are what create the bond between them:

"Hard to believe I used to think love was such a fragile business. Once when he was still young, i saw a bit of his scalp showing through his hair and I was afraid. But it was just a cowlick. Now sometimes it shows through for real, but I feel only tenderness." (p.79)

Abruptly, without warning, in the middle of the book, and I had not registered it until the second reading, the book changes from first to third person. 

"The wife goes to yoga now. Just to shut everyone up. She goes to it in a neighbourhood where she does not live and has never lived. She takes the class meant for old and sick people but can still hardly do any of it. Sometimes she just stands and looks out of the window where the people whose lives are intact enough not to take yoga live."

After this they have a lot of "vicious whisper-fights", out of hearing of their daughter. The wife has an ex-boyfriend who reappears and tries to insinuate himself. We follow her thoughts as she try to work out what to do next, and what she wants. 

"The wife has never not wanted to be married to him. This sounds false but it is true.

She wanted to sleep with other people, of course. One or two in particular. But the truth is she has good impulse control. That is why she isn't dead. Also why she became a writer instead of a heroin addict. She thinks before she acts. Or more properly, she thinks instead of acts. A character flaw, not a virtue." (p.140)

Eventually they move away, to the sister's house in the country, get a dog. 

"Sometimes the husband says he is going to look for kindling. But later the wife sees him chain-smoking at the edge of the far field.

Sometimes she still thinks about the ex-boyfriend, but she does not hunt for him in the ether."  (p.168)

On the final page the story returns to first person.


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