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.

 

A Few Words on Brexit

As we were doing the supermarket shop this morning, we kept coming back to the subject, couldn’t quite leave it alone. I will admit that I am not dealing with it especially well at the moment – a little clue to which was my desire to snarl at a perfectly ordinary white-haired couple heading back to their car with the Daily Mail tucked under the man’s arm. But fortunately I am married to Mr Litlove, whose sensible perspective today has been: we have to understand this, and recognise the discontent and disenfranchisement expressed by half the voters on Thursday, and think about what we can do.

So here’s where I think the rot set in: I think the banking crisis of 2007 was one of the most mismanaged and shameful episodes in recent history. Not only did it show how corrupt and mindlessly greedy the financial sector had become, the subsequent disaster and double-dip recession it caused was never truly, definitively laid at its feet. There were no public reprimands, and none of the shake-up the sector obviously needed. It was a declaration that the super-rich were in charge.

And then I think that politicians have been heading down a slippery slope for decades now, out of touch with so many parts of the country, slick and superficial and performative, rather than genuinely concerned to find workable answers. All those spin-doctors, all those sex scandals and expense account fiddles, oh I can’t even be bothered to write about it. Who amongst us thinks that politicians are anything to admire? It breaks my heart that Jeremy Corbyn, who appears to be a genuinely principled and decent man, is unreadable in our current culture. We’ve lost the ability to pay attention to anyone who speaks quietly and sensibly and compassionately. Unfortunately, he’s the wrong man at the wrong time.

Globalisation has taken a heavy toll – we hear about all the problems in the world and we can’t solve them. And we hear about people like the Kardashians as if they were a family to whom we might compare our own. We’re told about all the money out there and all the trouble out there, and we’re encouraged to look all the time at this enormous picture of extremes that makes no sense but which we’re supposed to be a part of and which clearly is intended to threaten us. If people are pushing this hard for isolationism, then it must in some degree be due to a backlash against the idea of the global community.

And the biggest responsibility for all this has to go to the media, who work their little socks off to spread an atmosphere of fear and discontent. If people are afraid of immigration, whose fault is it? The media acts like an enormous lizard brain, screaming and yelling at the least hint of trouble, pushing us towards extreme reactions. And when it isn’t depressing us with the promises of disaster, it’s pedalling narcissistic envy of celebrities and the rich, putting them on pedestals, pulling them down. It sets an example which we cannot help but follow – look, this is how we treat other people, we point the finger of blame, we say others don’t deserve what they have, they make us feel not good enough, not rich enough, not safe enough and it’s always someone else’s fault. The media never takes responsibility for itself, and this is highly contagious.

So there’s a huge protest vote. But why did anyone think that leaving the EU would make any of our problems go away?

Notting Hill Editions sent me a book a few months back that was an argument for leaving the EU. Mr Litlove read it. Its suggestion was that, if we were to leave the EU, we could set up better economic deals for ourselves in the long term. But it would take about ten years to do so. If we were able to bear the difficulties of those ten years, and deal with them effectively, we might end up in a stronger position.

Now, I myself would not have chosen these next ten years as the ones to undergo further hardships, not just at the point where our economy is stabilising again. Nor would I have chosen to undertake a difficult and complex renegotiation of our trading positions at a time when we have no faith in our political leadership. If we had a united country, if we had leaders with strong, clear visions of the country’s future, if we had a buoyant economy, if we had anything in this tiny little island that was unique to us and valuable to the rest of the world, maybe then we could step forth into a brave unknown with some confidence. Instead, we’ve sawn off the branch that we’re sitting on, and we’re just falling.

And what to do about it?

Well, you will not be surprised (if you visit this site with any regularity) to learn that my solution at this point is for every British person to take a long, hard look at their attitudes. A long, challenging look. In the Daily Mail, which this morning proclaimed that Britain should ‘take a bow’, the editorial pointed out that holidays abroad would be more expensive, pensions would lose value and we have lost the right to work, travel and study abroad with any ease. There followed a string of comments from outraged people who apparently ‘did not know this would happen’. I read that Cornwall, which voted to leave the EU, has now registered a protest, demanding reassurance that it will continue to receive the same levels of funding as if we were still a member state. The Leave voters have complained a lot about being called ‘stupid’, but I am struggling to find an alternative adjective for these reactions. Perhaps, though, the people who are annoying me the most are those who are acting as if nothing is happening, as if the economy isn’t going to head into recession, as we know it will, as if the EU isn’t about to make us an example to discourage other referendums, as if Scotland isn’t about to leave the union. I will say this as politely as I know how: if you voted Leave, you are going to have to step up and take some responsibility for the crisis that is now going to overwhelm us.

What makes me despair is this: the years since the Second World War have been some of the most peaceful and prosperous in UK history. And what have we done with them? We have worsened climate change and destroyed the environment, we have put house buying out of reach of our children, who are now leaving university with massive debts (when we had our education for free!), and we have voted to shut them out of Europe, out of 27 countries where they could have lived and worked. And we have just voted to set back scientific research for the foreseeable future – there’s a reason why 105 university Vice-Chancellors wrote jointly in favour of Remain, pointing out how dependent their research was on European collaboration and funding. We have not made a better world for our children. We haven’t even preserved the one we had. And now we’re reducing their opportunities to find solutions and improvements. We are what we do (being complicit is an act) and we have been selfish, profligate and greedy.

There’s been a lot of talk about wanting Britain ‘back’, in a loose, unspecified kind of way. Essentially it’s been a euphemism for xenophobia. But if there’s a Britain I’d like to see back, it’s the one I’ve read about in novels – which makes me think it must once have existed – where people didn’t have much, but what they had they were ready to share with anyone who was suffering. They seemed to pride themselves on being able to help others in need, on forming strong communities, on recognising the bonds of humanity that draw us all together, regardless of all other circumstances. I am not a Christian myself, but I feel at the moment the loss of Christian ethics, which were deeply woven into the social attitude in a way that made people feel they knew what they ought to do, even if they couldn’t always do it. There was a time when, if you had a standing in the community, if you had status or wealth, then you had a responsibility to care for others less fortunate. There was definitely a time when being civil and polite showed you to be a decent person, and it made the wheels of life turn more smoothly. There was a time when humility was a real virtue, before it was replaced by self-righteousness and entitlement. If we are forced now to return to a pre-WW2 state, then it will only work in any way if we can adopt some of these pre-war values. Returning to the 1930s with the attitudes of 2016 is going to be a complete disaster.

Here’s a few more things: we’re going to have to get over this ridiculous resentment of people who actually know things in favour of our personal, uninformed opinion. If we’re to move forward into this uncertain future with any hope, we have to listen to those with good ideas and experience and insight. We’re going to have to figure out how to build bridges again with all those Europeans we’ve just offended, putting their own countries at risk of further economic instability, because we can’t just work in isolation, not any more, not in this world. We are going to have to find ways to ask a great deal more of our politicians and our media – and to understand what that ‘more’ might sensibly and usefully look like. We are going to have to give up being fearful all the time of things that have a tiny statistical risk, and learn to fear the real dangers that stalk us: self-absorption in our own self-pity, for instance, the pleasure taken in being stubborn for the sake of it, the refusal to take responsibility for our own situations.

Because finally, ultimately: we have all lived through good times and bad times, and so we must surely know by now that happiness and contentment are not dependent on external circumstances, but on our own attitudes. If things are wrong in our lives, it is usually because we are standing in our own way.

We must surely know by now that feeling good about ourselves lies in our ability to do good things, to act well towards other people, to take responsibility for our fates. Great networks of self-justification, great conspiracy theories of blame pointed at people we scarcely know, living in a bubble of self-reassurance, these only provide artificial happiness, manufactured out of artificial ingredients. No, if we have any hope for what lies ahead it has to be grounded in the understanding that working hard and taking pleasure in doing a good job, whilst caring for others in our community are the valuable skills and attitudes that are available to us all. Goodness knows in the coming years, we’ll need them.

Two Apologies

I have been a terrible book blogger this year and whilst I owe apologies all round for visiting so infrequently and not replying to comments (I do hope for better things in the second half of 2016), I’ve also got two book reviews particularly on my conscience. Steven Mayoff’s Our Lady of Steerage and Britta Böhler’s The Decision were novels I read in December of 2015 and faithfully promised to review either on this site or Shiny. Six months late they may be, but the following accounts do seem oddly pertinent to the political moment, one way or another.

lady of steerageSteven Mayoff’s Our Lady of Steerage is a novel about emigration, the story of ‘Everyone who ever crossed an ocean to escape the inescapable.’ Its central focus is Mariasse Knyszinski who runs away from an overbearing father and a downtrodden mother in Poland to follow her beloved cousin, Piotr, to the promised land of Canada. The year is 1923 and she boards the S. S. Montmartre in Cherbourg for the week-long trip across the Atlantic, a voyage that will indelibly alter the lives of several of the travellers. Mariasse meets a young Jewish couple, Shulim and Betye who have suffered a tragedy during the train journey from Bucharest to Paris: their five-year-old son fell ill and died en route. Betye is so prostrated by grief that she is unable to care for her baby, Dvorah, (known as Dora for most of the novel), and Mariasse willingly takes on this task. The week of devotion creates a life-long bond between Mariasse and Dora, and also links Mariasse with the Krager family, whose son, Aaron, will come to benefit from the innate goodness in Mariasse that his parents so admire.

What follows is the account of these intertwined lives from the early 1920s to the early 1960s, but the recounting of the events is in no way linear. Instead, we skip around in time, visiting moments in  the 1940s or 30s before heading into the past to understand what provoked them. From very early on in the novel, we realise that Mariasse and Dora are destined for terrible emotional hardships that will break them both, and only gradually do we piece together the chain of events that befall them. I thought that the disjointed chronological structure was the most impressive part of this novel. It is clever and well-orchestrated and adds depth and tension to the narrative. Mayoff teases the reader who wants to know what happens when Mariasse and Piotr finally meet (he doesn’t know she is coming), what drives Dora to a suicide attempt and electric shock therapy, what happens to the angry, bitter Betye, why Mariasse abandons Catholicism and embraces Judaism – and then why she converts back again. For me, the constant switchbacks really made the reading experience.

What’s perhaps more problematic is the bleakness of the story. It didn’t feel like a political point was being made here – it’s not the treatment the immigrants receive at the hands of the Canadians, for instance, that gives the characters pain. A more likely cause seems to be the displacement a person feels when they leave their native land behind, when family trouble or political unrest or poverty forces them into an exile that they will never really come to terms with, even when it has been undertaken with determined hope. And then again, there seems to be a deep vein of mental instability in the characters, combined with the hardship of just living, that cannot be assuaged. The bleakness is inevitable, however, when we consider the characterisation of Mariasse, who is supposed to be the light and hope of the novel, but who never really feels convincing on the page. Had she been a stronger force for good, rather than a nice person who is continually put-upon until she cracks, a more balanced novel might have resulted. Betye, on the other hand, leaps off the page at you and electrifies her scenes, and Dora never seems to overcome the legacy of being her daughter, or of her early neglect.

A very interesting part of Canadian history under the microscope and some fine storytelling to be had, then, but a dark, dark story.

the decisionBritta Böhler’s novel The Decision, focuses on three momentous days in the life of the German Nobel prize-winning author, Thomas Mann. Between the 31st January and the 2nd of February 1936, Mann frets over a terrible choice he must make. Does he or does he not denounce the Nazi party in the Swiss press? On the one hand, he feels morally compelled to do so, horrified by all that is happening in his beloved homeland and urged on by his politically-minded daughter. But on the other, any such denunciation comes at the cost of permanent exile, the loss of his German readership, the probable burning of his books.

This is only a short novella, but it achieves a masterful portrait of Thomas Mann. Sitting comfortably in the close third person, the voice is a brilliant evocation of a committed artist – the hypersensitivity, the hypochondria, the euphoria and the passion of creation, along with the lengthy stretches of insufficient work done, the anxieties over creative sterility. Thomas Mann loved Germany, and he needed his routine, clung to it and all the other beloved familiarities that allowed him to venture into the realm of his imagination. The occasion for his exile is an ironic one, a long essay he wrote about his hero, Wagner that became the basis for a lecture tour, and which was used by the authorities to denounce him, claiming he had ‘besmirched the memory of the great composer’. Mann is hurt, bewildered, and aware of the danger he is in. The denunciation is used as an excuse for the Nazis to search his house and he fears for the safety of his notebooks, in which he has written everything he could never say elsewhere, not least his romantic feelings for beautiful young men.

And so a holiday in Switzerland turns into a permanent exile, and from this most uncomfortable of positions, Mann must negotiate not only his personal effects, but his critical reputation. What sustains him during this time is, naturally, his creativity. He is writing the first novel in his tetralogy, Joseph and his Brothers, in what would become an epic work demanding 16 years of his life.

The great novel is set in the distant past, and yet it’s so near. Joseph, too, is an outcast, driven against his will from his own land by his jealous brothers, he has to find a new home in a strange country. A stranger in a world that he doesn’t understand. And Joseph, too, takes satisfaction in order and wants everything to be consistent; he takes a stand against chaos and disorder. Against the emergence of destructive forces that threaten a peace that is only apparently safe. It’s as if when he started the book he had an inkling that the same fate would befall him one day.’

I just loved this; I have a weakness for novels about writers in any case, and this is so exquisitely done. The whole of Mann’s life is here, combined with a neat but powerful account of what was happening in the German republic. Mann is a public figure and he takes pride in his prominence; he feels a duty to speak out, at a time when ‘anyone who does nothing, participates’. But he knows to do so might be the end of his life as a published writer. The decision he comes to, and how he makes it, feel exactly right.