New Books and Rediscovered Old Ones

So, I have fallen off the wagon, and spectacularly too. You may recall that I was not meant to be buying books this year. Up until a couple of days ago, that was going pretty well. I had only bought three books in seven months. If you look at the pile on the left below, you’ll see Orient by Christopher Bollen, Vivien Gornick’s essays The End of the Novel of Love (which were excellent) and Suzanne O’Sullivan’s controversial book on psychosomatic illness, It’s All In Your Head. This last has really split the reviewers on amazon, half finding it a compassionate book, the other half decrying its lack of scientific testing. But I thought science hadn’t found ways of measuring emotions, their strength, and the damage they can do to the human body? If science has no measuring tools, then isn’t science failing here rather than the book? Ah well, I’ll let you know what I think about it when I’ve read it.

I’m not quite sure why I weakened, but a trip into town on Thursday found me seduced by the three-for-twos in Heffers. And before I knew what I’d done, I’d bought Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, Peter Lovesey’s Down Among the Dead Men (I adore his crime fiction) and William Nicholson’s The Lovers of Amherst. I put them in a pile and got Mr Litlove to take a photo, vowing no more. And then somehow, looking at the cheap marketplace seller books on amazon, I ordered Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, one of the new Angela Thirkells rereleased by Virago, and one of the Ava Lee novels by Ian Hamilton because I’m interested in art theft at the moment (in theory, not in practice) and that’s central to the plot. And THEN, when I was in town today (I was going to have a haircut but there’d been a mix-up at the salon so I went shopping instead – honestly, they made me do it), I bought a book for Mr Litlove and, given it was buy-one-get-one-half-price, another novel for me. It would have been rude not to.  When I gave Mr Litlove his book, he said, ‘You think it makes it any better if you buy one for me?’ and I said, ‘Yes,’ confidently. Because you have to brazen these things out. He doesn’t know about the amazon order yet. Let’s not tell him.

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So now I really must get back on the straight and narrow. Not least because I really do have a lot of unread books on my shelves. Earlier in the year, when I wasn’t reading much, I took to poking around on my bookcases, seeing what I had there, and I found all sorts of things, good and bad.

The pile on the right in the above photo is just a selection of books by authors I have been meaning to read for so long it’s almost embarrassing. On the top is Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (I could have added John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids to the pile, too), E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (how can I have never read Calvino?), J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello and Joan Didion’s essays.

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I love non-fiction, and there have been several books over the past six or seven years that I just had to have as soon as I heard about them, that of course remain unread still. The above is a selection again: Stacy Schiff’s prize-winning biography of Cleopatra; O My America by Sara Wheeler (which tells the stories of six 19th century women who escaped trouble of one sort or another by travelling to America, including Trollope’s mother, Fanny Trollope and travel writer Isabella Bird); The Fish Ladder by Katharine Norbury (a mix of nature writing and memoir); Divided Lives by Lyndall Gordon (recounting her relationship to her emotionally troubled mother); Never Any End To Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas (which I’ve seen recommended so many times in the blogworld) and The Beautiful Unseen by Kyle Boelte which mixes meteorology, notably fog in San Francisco, with memories of his brother who committed suicide.

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Now this pile might be termed books where I have bitten off more than I can chew. I’m not very good with chunksters, on the grounds that there is no good reason, ever, for a book to be longer than 500 pages. So you’d think I wouldn’t buy them, wouldn’t you? I even started a blog several years ago on the William Gaddis, as I thought it might encourage me through it. Several of us bloggers were going to read it together, though I think only one did in the end, that one not being me. I read the first twenty pages or so and it wasn’t that I didn’t like it, just that I didn’t have the necessary concentration over an extended period of time. I have a good friend who is a huge fan of this novel and I’d like to read it for his sake. I will get to it again one day.

Similarly, Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, which I began for Caroline’s German Literature Month, did the twenty pages thing, never picked it up again. Forever Amber I am sure is a favourite novel of blogging friends (though I can’t recall who loves it, and I’m not sure William Gaddis is too thrilled about having it sat next to him).

The book on top of the pile, Celestial Harmonies by Peter Esterhazy was one of those impulse buys on amazon that sounded interesting, only I never looked at the page count. Imagine my surprise when it arrived! It’s larded with quotes from reviewers who call it ‘ambitious’ and ‘unusual’, which if  you translate those phrases like estate agent speak, you get ‘over-blown’ or ‘pretentious’ and ‘strange’. I do wonder what I was thinking. Then the Rumi… well, I thought I’d like to know a bit more about Rumi. I am not at all sure I have the brain capacity to know that much about him.

So that’s just a few of the books I rediscovered. Any there you think I should hasten to read? Any I should send to the charity shop?

 

In Which My Mother Helps Me Consider What’s Important

By what guidelines do you think we are judging good and bad, right and wrong, at this moment in Western society? I found I was asking the question in the wake of Andrea Leadsom’s comments about motherhood, and the furore over Black Lives Matter in America. And I am wondering whether the answer lies in the odd pickle we seem to be getting ourselves into over the difference between morality and ethics. Let me explain, and to do so, I’m going to talk about my mother.

My mother was born into an age of morality. Back in the 40s, behaviour was judged by an absolute system of black and white rules. There were no excuses, no mitigating circumstances, and very little in the way of compassion. Couples could not live together without getting married, babies could only be born into marriages, homosexuality was a sin, foreigners were not to be trusted, you kept your house tidy and turned up to church on a Sunday, and respectability was all. Of course what went on in private was entirely unregulated. What mattered was to show yourself to be on the right side of the rules in the public space.

Now, my mother was a war baby. My grandmother never told her who her father was, and my mother had to grow up with the stigma this conferred. My mother, who has a mind like a steel trap, let me assure you, grew up with far less education than she should have had because school was an uncomfortable place for her, and she was wounded in her self-esteem. She has never had the confidence to which her looks, abilities and character should entitle her. And yet could anyone be more innocent in the situation in which she found herself? Nothing my mother did warranted the stigma that attached to her in her early years. I can only hope her life spent as the essential heart of a close-knit, loving family has managed to make up in some way for this rank injustice.

Over the 60s and 70s people began to wake up to the unnecessarily stringent harshness of their morality. They began to understand that people should not be condemned for the rest of their lives because they made a mistake, or because they were different to the rigid standard of ‘normal’. And this was because morality was gradually giving way to ethics. Morals are the rules imposed on a group, whereas ethics are the guiding principles we choose for ourselves. Morals are specific to historical time and place, whereas ethics are eternal, and transcend the society we live in. The way I understand this is that ethics are often primarily concerned with how we treat the other person, based on the understanding that what unites us is much more profound than what separates us; we must all suffer the difficulties of the human condition.

Two of the great forces in this shift into ethics were feminism and civil rights. In both cases the premise of the argument is that men and women and people of all skin colours are fundamentally the same. But society has made some of those groups second-class citizens in the eyes of others, thanks to longterm, systematic discrimination. Much as those people who had been discriminated against were angry, and with every right to be so, their intention – explicit in feminist circles – was to ‘raise consciousness’. In other words, to remind others of basic human similarity, to help others understand what it was like to walk in their shoes, and to promote the ethical necessity to ensure fairness, justice and equality for all.

The psychologist Alfred Adler argued that one of the great motivating forces in each individual is to make up for the painful feelings of inferiority we harbour by finding ways to feel superior. He felt that childhood would pretty much wound everyone, one way or another. We’d all emerge from it feeling awkwardly, shamefully inferior in some respect or other, and the counterpart of that unpleasant condition would be to search ruthlessly for reassurances of our superiority. Now, morality is a fabulous way to do this, because it has simple rules and no excuses. If we catch someone trangressing a moral boundary we have every right to look down on them. They have done wrong. They are inexcusable and must be punished.

But ethics has a very different perspective. The ethical position suggests we consider how we ALL struggle with these feelings of inferiority, and that the way to move forward isn’t to seek this fallacious sense of being superior to others, but to have compassion for ALL our wounds and weaknesses, in our broader collective.

If women and ethnic minorities hadn’t believed that the people around them could be enlightened and changed, there wouldn’t have been much point in them fighting for the right to equality. The ethical position acknowledges that the world is often a badly misguided place, full of damaging and dangerous misunderstandings, but it is fundamentally optimistic. From that shared place of humanity, we might all choose to deal with our fears and our insecurities in better ways, in the fullness of justice and compassion. And it is a choice. Morals are imposed, but ethics are the principles we choose for ourselves, and so the path towards them is always an education.

We are supposed to live now in an age of ethics, where we understand that each individual is the same but different, and that’s okay. But of course it isn’t okay, because there’s a tendency for people to want to turn ethics into a morality, to have absolute rules that brook no excuses. So if someone makes a sexist comment, we want to invoke a moral rule. There’s a tendency to want vengeance, to shout that this is wholly unacceptable, the person has fallen on the wrong side of the law and must be punished; they must be humiliated and ashamed. I can understand a warrior stance against backsliding, but I wonder if some people believe that only anger, shame and humiliation will educate (though schools gave up with that approach a while back, because it causes as many problems as it solves). In any case, all this is a moral perspective on the problem, a case of people being wrong or right, good or bad, without nuance.

An ethical perspective would be to educate or enlighten the person who made the sexist comment; to challenge them for sure, but not to aggress them. In ethics, the question is fundamentally how you treat the other person. Sure, it’s wrong to insult someone in a sexist way. But to scream for the blood of that person on social media, to humiliate them in public, to ensure that they lose their livelihood for their mistake, well, that’s every bit as unethical as the insult was in the first place.

And why should we not turn our ethics into a morality? Well, because of people like my mother, that’s why. Because morality can be so harsh and unbending, so restricted in its ruling, and yet so specific to its time that innocent people do get caught in the crossfire of something that’s ridiculous 50 years later. That’s why we let the law deal with the timeless rules of morality, with the extreme cases of murder, grievous harm, theft, slander, and so on. Because morality can ruin people’s lives if they end up on the wrong side of it. And, with rare exceptions, that’s too harsh for the everyday problems of getting along together in a mixed society.

So we’ve had a couple of big ethical issues happen in the Western world lately. Andrea Leadsom’s foolish remarks about motherhood, and the Black People Matter argument over in the States. In both of these cases the debate has moved almost instantaneously into a punitive, vengeful, moral realm. I place the blame on the media, which is the punitive, vengeful, moral realm par excellence. The media are totally unethical – they will ruin anyone’s lives without a second thought if they can make moral mileage out of it.

I seriously think that we should not let the media have our conversations for us. Ethics rise naturally to the surface when we become real to one another. When we speak openly, not defensively, from our vulnerabilities. When we actually listen because we want to understand the problem. Forget the media – sisters, let’s talk about how irrelevant it is to our friendships whether we have kids or not. Black, white, East, West, we all need to keep talking to people who are different to us, to be reminded time and again how much we share. Then these screaming headlines in the papers – Having Children Makes You A Better Person! – Black Lives Matter Is A Racist Comment! – can be met with the words ‘don’t be so ridiculous’, and a turning towards positive things. What unites us is far more powerful than what separates us.

I think we have to keep asking ourselves: what is truly important in a life of limited time and energy? Is it more important to express anger and hatred, or love and kindness? Is it more important to catch people out, or to explain to them why they made a mistake? Is it more important to reassure ourselves we’re right, or to recognise the insecurities that make us all crazy sometimes?

Here’s what I think is important: try to understand the other person, and be kind. Understanding and compassion neutralise far more powerfully than any violence can.

 

p.s. In case you were wondering, I told my mother what I was writing and gained her permission to tell some of her story. Thank you, Mum!

Want To See What Mr Litlove’s Been Doing?

I have been longing to show you the new desk that Mr Litlove has been making me, and for several weeks it’s been almost there but not quite. Now he has finished it and I hope you’ll agree with me that it is a most beautiful beast. It’s his own design, using maple and burr oak veneer panels. You might also be able to see the fine black inlay that surrounds each of the top panels.

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This shot from a slightly different angle shows you the curved supports on the side. Mr Litlove had a lot of trouble photographing it because we lack a big enough, plain space against which to display it. The glossy sheen finish also has a tendency to reflect things! But I wanted a good solid varnish so that I wouldn’t be afraid of marking it every time I use it. As it is, I fear I may just end up on my knees before it saying ‘I am not worthy!’

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A little run-through of some of the other pieces he’s made so far. He’s made this music case for our dear friend, Dark Puss. Same materials as my desk.

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And this is how it looks on the inside – though since this photo was taken, he’s added supports for flute and sheet music.

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He’s nearly finished this coffee table for my hairdresser’s salon. The salon has a very attractive logo: a circle of scissors that looks like a flower. He decided he would inscribe it on top of the table and went to a friend who has a factory with the capacity to cut with either lasers or CNC.

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He took a variety of wood samples with him and then tried out a variety of finishes. The results were so cute that he thought he’d make a set of coasters to accompany the table.

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You may remember a couple of months back Mr Litlove went to Devon on a chair-making course in the workshop of David Savage (who is well-known in furniture-making circles). This is the chair he made, a much more contemporary design than he’d attempted before (a design from the workshop, not Mr Litlove’s), and using his new upholstery skills he added a slip seat in bright green faux-leather. He called it the Kermit Chair, and when he sent photos back to the workshop, they liked the idea so much that they said they’d try to persuade the other guy who made a chair alongside Mr L. to use bright pink faux-leather and call it a Miss Piggy. Given the guy was ex-forces and living in a two-man tent for a year while on his course, Mr Litlove didn’t fancy their chances.

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And this is one of the first chairs that he made after leaving his old job. This is a Sheraton chair in mahogany and he has also upholstered it himself.  We really love its classic lines.

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He’s now moving on to making ergonomic chairs. This is something he’s been thinking about for a while: how to make a comfortable, bespoke chair that’s positively good for your posture and helps those with sore backs. He’ll try it out with ordinary chairs and a desk chair, but first of all, he says he’s going to make me an ergonomic rocking chair. Yay!!

In case you’re wondering, we agreed that he would take a year to practice his skills and design pieces that he would be happy to make professionally. When we get to October he’ll have to decide how he wants to move forward – and I guess we’ll have to see what Brexit Britain looks like by that time.

 

 

Where Do We Go From Here?

After the chaos comes the entrenchment. It’s the natural swing of the pendulum. There were a few days when the earthquake of the vote threw up some of those real but inconvenient emotions like regret, shame, horror at what had happened, and then the desire for stability reasserts itself with its concomitant stubbornness. Whilst stability is desirable, it’s only under the pressure of chaos that change can happen (the status quo being so seductive). We really need change, but it’s an unruly beast; we need to think extremely hard about what good change might look like.

George Sand declared that an ideal state was like an ideal marriage – it should be founded on the principles of equality and mutual respect – and she was onto something, I think. Especially now that the UK has served divorce papers on the EU and any number of dependent unions have spiralled into confusion, including the union of the political parties, the union of the United Kingdom, and the union of the voting people. The result has not made those in either Inner or Outer camp more understandable to each other. There’s been a painfully fascinating programme on BBC2 this week about divorce, focusing on the work of mediators. I’ve got a theory that any ugly human behaviour arises essentially out of defensiveness, and the couples on this documentary are the most amazing examples of angry and bitter defensiveness. They are so entrenched in their sense of resentment, so wrapped up in their own feelings that they are completely blind to each other. I think it’s a risk we all run in this country at the moment – understandably, given what’s happened – and nothing good comes of it. The mediators’ first job is to try to get the warring parties to listen to one another, actually and genuinely hear what the other is saying. As I’ve been watching the news unfold (obsessively) over the past week, there have been several things that have struck me as worth hearing.

I’ll include a link at the bottom of this post to the brilliant video by Michael Dougan, a law professor at Liverpool University, whose argument is that the Leave campaign was one of systematic deception at an industrial level. If you listen to him factually dismantle every last one of their weasel claims, I’m not sure how you could argue against him. Which begs the question: how can politicians be allowed to get away with public lying? There was a very good letter to one of the broadsheet papers from a doctor, who said that if a surgeon had knowingly misled a patient about the treatment of his condition, and made the first incision with no idea what to do next, he would be struck off the medical register. So why on earth don’t we have a political register, which details those who are eligible to stand as decent representatives of the UK. And why don’t we legislate against public lying in the service of winning votes? If politicians had to face legal consequences for misleading the public, maybe they would do so less often? Here’s a thought: why don’t all those doctors who voted Leave in the hope of getting money for the NHS take out a class action for their money, from the personal pockets of Gove, Johnson and Farage? If there is one thing to come out of the political mess we find ourselves in, it must be some kind of regulation of political practice. We reached the absolute zenith with Boris Johnson – a man sacked twice for lying – standing as a candidate for PM. He may not still be a candidate but there is nothing to stop him from returning to public life in the future – and there should be.

As for this question of a second referendum, Switzerland is the country we might care to take a look at. Back in 2014 Switzerland voted against the imposition of immigration quotas by the EU. The Swiss are not full EU members but they have bilateral agreements so they can trade in the single market. Since that time, the EU has steadfastly refused to negotiate on the immigrant question and the Swiss have no desire for the economic suicide we are contemplating. So it looks inevitable that a second referendum will have to be called in the (possibly vain) hope of breaking the deadlock. In fact, there are several small countries who are agitating against the EU’s quotas (Hungary has started up this week) and it might have been sensible to consider some sort of alliance among all these countries in the hope that a block protest could shift EU thinking. There is much that is wrong in the EU and many who’d like to change it, but evidently the EU will be determined to show entrenchment at the moment in order to discourage other countries from staging referendums. And of course we can no longer be involved in any alliances because we’ve already voted out and have nothing to bargain with. If you leave book club because you don’t like the book choices, you don’t get to choose books for book club. We can only sit on the sidelines now and hope that something happens to make the EU rethink its stance.

The current downturn in the economy is nothing compared to the disaster that will hit us if and when we invoke article 50. Because the EU has undertaken all our trade negotiations for the past 40 years, we have no trained international trade negotiators. A fact China underlined this week by saying (I quote Dougan) that it didn’t realise the UK had the 500 people and 10 years at its disposal to broker a deal with them. Well hang on in there, China, because we may soon have more than enough unemployed who need to retrain. And maybe fill the offices of Whitehall with the staff required to undertake the unimaginable mass of paperwork that will constitute divorce from the EU. But what will we do in the UK if we lose the bulk of European trade? Well, I guess we could become a tax haven, given the London banks have been close enough to singleminded money laundering for the past few years. And I guess we could trade with the countries in the world no one else will have anything to do with. We’ll have to be a lot less picky about where we get our money from in the future.

My last point is a cultural one, in a week that has seen the rather frightening rise of the Far Right. It’s been coming for a while now, this creeping endorsement of hatred. I say hatred rather than racism, because race is just an excuse. In my mind, it began with the internet, and all those open comment forums where people were free to leave whatever bile was in their mind unreproached by moderators. The comment section of the online Guardian newspaper is evidence enough of the kind of thing that goes on. Hatred isn’t something  you can persuade or educate away. If people are open to that kind of angry hatred then it just lives in them, waiting for the spark to light it. You can only restrain it, let it be known that that kind of emotion is not acceptable in a civilised world. Because if you let the energy of hatred loose, it’s one hell of a genie to put back in the bottle. I can only urge all internet users to act firmly against this sort of hatred – do not accept it or allow it permission in the interests of showing all sides of a debate. Do not let it have any kind of voice.

Finally, a point made by Mr Litlove in response to this week’s commemoration of the Battle of the Somme. While the bravery of those who went into battle is unquestionable, Mr Litlove pointed out that no one got to do anything heroic. The soldiers were told to walk towards Berlin without stopping, and they were simply mown down in their thousands within minutes. It is one of the most strategically senseless battles of modern history, in which tens of thousands of young men made the ultimate sacrifice because of the stupidity of their leaders. If it stands for anything this week, let the Battle of the Somme stand for the unimaginable extent of human folly, in the toxic combination of panic, pressure, the need to ‘show’ other countries what we’re made of, the underlying viciousness of humans to one another and the objectification of individual life in the service of some greater cause. Let’s think carefully about the potential extent of human folly, and do what we can to stay sensible.