Tuesday 30 April 2013

'Desiderata' - found by chance

Today, a little piece of me was in danger of dying, as I searched through some of my late parents' stuff for legal documents. I found what I was looking for but also came across this, typewritten on a scrappy bit of paper:


Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others,even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism. Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass. Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

I didn't know it before, but it's by the American writer Max Ehrmann.  It may seem a bit sentimental and rather prejudiced against loud and aggressive persons - who no doubt have their own issues - but I'm guessing it must have been of comfort to my Mum and Dad when they needed it. It feels like their hands reaching across the years - so here's to you, Ted and Jean xx

Thursday 25 April 2013

Was it really The Age of Innocence?

I wonder whether those who inhabited Edith Wharton's social circles felt themselves closely observed, for they surely must have been, judging by the detailed precision with which Wharton dissects 1870s upper class New York in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Age of Innocence.

This is a selective and closed society, made up of only a few old American families whose descendants have inter-married to the point of all being related. So finely nuanced are its subtleties of manners and dress that they're often missed by outsiders like the flashily arriviste Beauforts, who own the most distinguished house in New York, but have questionable connections and are considered
 not exactly common, some people said they were even worse
Newland Archer is at home in this world he was born to, and as the story begins he is about to be engaged to May Welland, the unblemished daughter of another venerable New York family. May is a passive and innocent blank page and Newland is looking forward to educating her in the ways of life and literature - moulding her to his desires -  as soon as they're married. But this settled path is upset by the return to New York of May's cousin, the Countess Olenska, leaving her abusive husband behind in Europe and threatening to bring scandal down around the family Newland is about to marry into.

Ellen Olenska is everything May is not, cultivated in European arts and life and not afraid of living outside the narrow conventions of the New York elite. She may not be as fashionably attractive as May, but Newland is drawn to Ellen from the beginning, while still pushing May to marry him more quickly than her parents will allow. In a moment of insight, May asks about his reasons for the undue haste, hazarding
Is it - is it because you're not certain of continuing to care for me?
Newland is at first angry but then relieved he and May might perhaps talk frankly for once, but his hopes are dashed as he realises she believes the object of his affection is a past love rather than her cousin. The veil is drawn once more over the briefly glimpsed possibility of a future other than the one prescribed for them and a marriage date is set.

At the beginning of this novel, Wharton appears critical of the society she too belonged to, parodying characters like Lawrence Lefferts, the foremost authority on 'form' in New York
on the question of pumps versus patent leather 'Oxfords', his authority had never been disputed
and drawing some delicious character sketches, such as the 'lumbering coquetry' of young Miss Blenker. Wharton satirises the closed attitudes of Newland's mother and sister, of his future in-laws and their adherence to the strict protocols of being in certain places, at certain social engagements at set times of year. Mrs Archer reacts to any change as detrimental and a sure sign of society's disentigration; in an age long before the advent of social media as we know it, Wharton comments
to Mrs Archer it was terrifying and yet fascinating to feel herself part of a community that was trending
As Newland's desire to break away and his attraction to Ellen continue to grow, however, Wharton's implied criticism of society's rules seems to fade; she uses the demise of the Beauforts, who flout one of New Yorks' most implicit rules of honour, as an example to Newland of what his fate might be if he were to do the same. Her tone shifts to one of greater sympathy for the responsibilities of belonging to a rigidly oppressive yet supportive family structure like the Mingotts and an awareness of the damage and hurt so easily wrought by acting out of step.

The Age of Innocence was not written as a contemporary novel, but published in 1921 from the other side of the First World War, describing the long evaporated New York of Edith Wharton's childhood. Often, she seems to be harking back to a simpler, more honourable age before society's structures were blown wide apart and literature deconstructed by streams of consciousness from the likes of Joyce and Woolf. It was directed as a film by Martin Scorcese in 1993, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder.

On reading the novel, I was pleasantly surprised to find Wharton amusing and began by loving her precisely drawn style, as nuanced as the society she was describing. The more I read, though, the more oppressive became the ties keeping Newland and Ellen apart and I longed for some decisive action. Their prevarication and deceit became frustrating through the prism of today's individualism and as the story concluded, I was left with the feeling this was a lost age of suffocation, subterfuge and regret rather than one of innocence.

Do you agree? Have you read the Age of Innocence or any other Edith Wharton books?

Image from the film courtesy of GoneMovie.com

Saturday 20 April 2013


Ablutions by Patrick deWitt is the tale of an unnamed Hollywood barman who writes in the second person about his unraveling life, although when he might be sober enough to put pen to paper isn't really clear. He's writing 'notes for a novel', wonderfully descriptive character sketches of his customers, fellow bar staff and the resident ghost, as well as the downward spiral of his disintegrating relationship with his wife.

This is a dark tale of alcohol and drug addiction; of a clientele of drifters down on their luck who quickly lose any slight veneer of respectability they might once have had as they become regulars. Despite its grim subject matter it's often very funny and although he's the sort of person, with his rotten teeth and stale breath, in real life you'd walk a mile out of your way to avoid, our barman just about holds it together every night and emerges as some sort of likeable rogue hero of the mess. Perhaps it's because he displays an admirable amount of self-knowledge - but perhaps that's the reason why he drinks. Eventually though, he realizes he has to get away to survive and sets off on a road trip to the Grand Canyon, which he hopes will be his chance to clean up.

Now Fellswoop Theatre  have taken these 'notes for a novel' and transformed them into a play, developed as part of Bristol Old Vic's Ferment initiative that supports artistic development. Fellswoop are a young theatre company who won the NSDF Edinburgh Emerging Artists Award in 2011 for their show Belleville Rendez-Vous. With Ablutions they are devising in much darker territory; how will they fare in adapting a tale so lacking in any conventionally linear story line?

Well, by using passages of the book as narrative to link different episodes from the barman's notes, Fellswoop have been able to capture the tone of the book exactly. Original music, directed by Ben Osborn, threads through the production and brings the different scenes together effortlessly, so that you only really notice its impact when there's a pause for dramatic effect. Their repetition at intervals of key parts of this music and the text also brings a cyclical coherence to what could so easily be chaos; I particularly liked the barman's beseeching of his wife
 Let me take you to the movies...you say, and think again of the rippling, rising curtain in the cold dark room of the theatre, and of your wife's soft hand in yours and of her face, not angry and tight as it has been so often lately, but soft and pretty, as when you were courting, and she loved you...

 The tiny cast do a remarkable job on a stage bereft of any scenery, with Eoin Slattery convincing as the booze and pill-wrecked barman, Fiona Mikel like a young Olivia Colman dazzling her way through all the female parts and Harry Humberstone providing much of the grotesque comedy as the assorted customers and bar-staff with a particular tour de force as the health food store assistant. I particularly liked it when the empty space was given a sense of place by using a specific point on the stage, say to represent the barman's regular gas station stops, and thought this could have been incorporated more widely to represent other locations, such as the shape of the bar. I also found I didn't always totally believe some of the imaginary props were there, such as the glasses and bottles in the reaching for and pouring of drinks, which at times could have been more exact.

But I am being very picky here, because overall this is an absorbing new production from an energetic, intelligent and seriously talented young company which I'm excited to have seen. Although Ablutions has now finished its run at Bristol Old Vic, there is a tour scheduled for this June and July and I would urge you to catch it if you can.

Pictures courtesy of Bristol Old Vic

Saturday 13 April 2013

First They Killed My Father

When you pick up a book with a title as unequivocal as First They Killed My Father, you know it's not going to be a bundle of laughs. It might usually have put me off reading the contents, but my friend Liz (undoubtedly a person of impeccable taste) lent it to me a few months ago. She bought it when she was planning to visit Cambodia, to find out more about the history of the civil war that decimated so much of the country during the 1970s.

Picture courtesy of HarperCollins

First They Killed My Father is the memoir of Loung Ung, a daughter of Cambodia who is five years old and living in Phnom Penh with her family at the beginning of the book. Her story opens with happy memories of an affluent life-style; Loung lives with her parents, three brothers and three sisters in a large comfortable apartment in the city with maids on hand, school to attend and swimming and the cinema her favourite leisure activities.

Of course, this idyllic existence is destined to change and already there's trouble in the surrounding countryside. The Cambodian government, supported by the United States and South Vietnam, is pitted against the Khmer Rouge (the Communist party) and their North Vietnamese allies. Civil war is raging, bombs dropping and and many rural families are moving to the city in search of refuge.

Then, one Thursday in April 1975, Loung hears the thunder of engines in the distance. Khmer Rouge soldiers, dressed in black with red sashes, roll into Phnom Penh, forcing citizens to evacuate at gunpoint. They yell that the city will be bombed by the United States, but that people will be allowed back home after three days. Loung and her family pack their bags hurriedly and make their escape  - they are lucky that at least they have a truck, whereas most people leaving are on foot.

Khmer Rouge Soldiers (courtesy of  World Without Genocide)
Of course, as the family realise, they won't be allowed to return to their home. Instead they head to the village of Krang Truop where Loung's uncles live, a journey of several days which, having run out of fuel, they have to complete on foot. Conditions in the village are rudimentary and they have to ask permission of the Khmer Rouge-imposed village chief to stay. But even here, the family are not safe; because of Loung's father's position as an official of the deposed government they keep moving from village to village, never able to confide in any of their neighbours for fear of being discovered by the Angkar, the Khmer Rouge governing body headed by Pol Pot.

Loung and her family settle into their lowly position as new migrants to the countryside, inferior to the 'base people' who, having lived in villages all their lives, are now considered 'uncontaminated'. There is supposed to be no hierarchy in communist Kampuchea, yet former city dwellers are seen as corrupt and the lowest of the low; their food rations reduced to almost nothing as the Khmer Rouge sells their harvest in exchange for guns. Loung and her family fall ill as a result of hard labour and malnutrition; all of them struggle to survive and they come to the painful decision they will only do so by splitting up. If they are together when Loung's father's position is discovered, they will surely all be killed alongside him. Loung's siblings are sent to labour camps and, her family torn asunder, she herself is trained as a child soldier before the regime is eventually overthrown.

As you might expect, this is not the easiest of books to read, although its harrowing pages embody one child's determination to survive and end with hopes of a better life. One question which kept occurring to me was how much of the detail of events and conversations Loung would really have been able to recall as a five year old child and how much has necessarily been re-imagined with the help of her older siblings and other survivors. But having said this, Loung tells her story well and, from reading the notes at the back, this was undoubtedly an act of catharsis for her, a painful reliving of those early years through her deliberate choice to write in the present tense. I was struck by the general lack of compassion of those years, not only on the part of the regime as you would expect, but also between those who suffered under it; neighbours didn't look after or confide in each other because they were afraid of being betrayed to the Angkar. In the labour camps children didn't trust each other or strike up friendships for the same reason and through all of the deprivations, Loung was only ever able rely on her immediate family members.

Loung Ung (picture courtesy of The Women's Conference)
Loung Ung's experiences demonstrate once again the brutality of misdirected ideology, the all corrupting nature of power and the callousness to which a regime will sink in order to cling on to it. Some two million people out of a population of seven million died at the hands of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.  Loung now lives in America and is a spokesperson for the Campaign for a Landmine Free World; it's vital for the people of Cambodia today that the voices of those like Loung and her family who suffered and lost so much are listened to and understood.

Friday 5 April 2013

Nella Last's War

Nella Last's War has been on my TBR list for absolutely agesever since I saw Victoria Wood's dramatisation Housewife, 49 on television some years ago. So, I was delighted when it was suggested as one of our book club choices; its themes look like great discussion material and finally I'd have no excuse not to read it.

Nella wrote her diaries as a contribution to the Mass Observation Project, set up in the 1930s after the abdication of Edward VIII; a time of momentous social and political change. The project's aim was to push aside the official line, record the feelings of the populace and capture the public mood by documenting the everyday lives of a self-selecting panel of untrained volunteers. Participants not only wrote about their own circumstances, they often commented on those of their friends and neighbours as well - as you might imagine, the quality and range of information recorded varies widely.

Nella Last's War (helpfully edited and annotated by Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming) begins at the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 and so provides a remarkable insight into the often-overlooked day-to-day domestic lives of civilians as events unfold. Nella lives in Barrow-in-Furness, a northern industrial town with a shipyard not far from Liverpool. She has a husband running his own carpentry business and two grown up sons; Arthur, training to be a tax inspector in Manchester and Cliff who is waiting to leave for military service.

One of the first effects of the war is the blackout; all street lights are extinguished, no car headlights permitted and windows curtained with heavy black material. Evacuees are sent from the cities into the surrounding countryside, rationing begins and Nella becomes a very active member of her local W.V.S (Women's Voluntary Service), making up blankets from oddments and supervising supplies. All this before any action has been seen; this is the period of the 'phoney war', when the only significant fighting for Britain was at sea.
This apparent calm doesn't last though, and during the Battle of Britain, Barrow with its shipyard is targeted by German bombers night after night. Nella comes to dread the full moon which lights the bombers' way as the nights are interrupted by air-raid sirens and bombing runs and she numbers her friends and acquaintances among the casualties.

Barrow in the Blitz

Even this nightly terror becomes another routine hardship of the war on some occasions - in one 1940 diary entry Nella writes
We were wakened by guns and the noise of planes and we wondered if it was best to get up and dressed, but while I was considering the point I fell fast asleep, so the question solved itself.
This is a story of a make do and mend; of how Nella and her generation, who remember all too clearly the fighting of 1914-18 trumpeted as the war to end all wars, endure rationing and shortage, loss and despair.

Yet underneath the hardship is a personal story too; a woman struggling to endure the emotional wasteland that is her marriage, during a time when a wife's duty was to have her husband's meal on the table and his slippers warming by the fireside. Nella is lively and gregarious by nature but her husband prefers to stay in and be quiet at the end of a day's work, which means she must do so too. Before 1939 she seems to have undergone a nervous breakdown and so, in some ways, horrendous as war is, it brings Nella a degree of liberation with the loosening of social norms. She is able to go out, despite the blackout, to the W.V.S and later a mobile canteen and the Red Cross shop, to enjoy the feeling of community and the realisation that her contribution is making some difference to the lives of 'our boys'.

Nella and Cliff

The past really is another country, and although today she would most likely ditch the intractable partner for someone more compatible, in her diaries Nella doesn't consider any option other than enduring her marriage. She invests her love instead in the strong mutual relationship with her sons Arthur and Cliff; fretting about their well-being and worrying when their letters don't arrive but drawing comfort from their correspondence and sporadic visits home.

In some ways, I found this book to be an unexpected roller-coaster. Just as I was tucking myself in for another night under the indoor air raid shelter with Nella's blankets and cloth dolls, casseroles and steamed puddings, there would be a diary entry I found truly unsettling. The arrival on Nella's doorstep of a baby in a paper bag was a shock, as was her early support for Hitler's 'painless' gassing of lunatics. Cliff's homosexuality is apparent to the modern reader and yet Nella herself seems oblivious to it. But in other ways her writing is extremely empathetic to soldiers and civilians of both sides enduring the privations of war; the Jews in the gas chambers, mothers losing their sons.

In the end, though, my feeling for Nella is one of overwhelming admiration. Writing pours out of her; Nella's greatest luxury is a new supply of notebooks for her letters and diaries. She documents everyday life candidly and well, often with an acute awareness of the social changes happening about her. She's always longed to travel but instead relies on her writing and war-time activities to bring her some release from the strictures of her life and a marriage of convenience. When the war ends, she feels surprisingly little; it's odd, she notes, to hear the weather forecast on the radio again but, amidst the celebrations, she decides to take two aspirins and read herself to sleep.

I'm looking forward to discussing Nella Last's War in my book club soon. Have you read it yet? What did you think of it?