Song of the Rolling Earth

In October, during this year’s Wigtown Book Festival,  I volunteered to look after the Open Book bookshop for a morning. The sun was shining and the town was busy with visitors attending the literary events, but it was still quite early for them to venture out into the bookshops. I  busied myself at first, familiarising myself with the stock and finding where things were kept, in case I was asked by a customer. It was then I came across a little gem of a book called Song of the Rolling Earth: A Highland Odyssey by John Lister Kaye, naturalist and conservationist, published in 2004 by Abacus.

The book is an autobiographical account of the setting up of the first field studies centre in Scotland, the world-famous Aigas Field Centre, but it is so much more than this. It draws on the turbulent human events that historically took place in the Highlands and evokes the land and her people, her diversity and wildlife. And it is couched in the most beautifully poetic language that made me never want the book to  end.

It opens on a summer’s day with the author “slumped in a small green boat on a Highland loch.”… I am supposed to be fishing, but it’s too warm. Anyway, I’m a lousy fisherman. The rod lies idly across my knees. My dry fly is out on the frowning water, miming.”

He has gone to the loch to think but has taken the rod as an excuse so that he will be left alone. He watches the wildlife teeming around him and reflects on times when he was younger, exploring nature’s treasures, where he discovers for himself the complexity of life and death. Then, content he has been able to marshal his thoughts, he moves on.

” The fishing has served its purpose. It’s going to rain. I may as well pack in. I begin to reel in. The eared willows rimming the loch come alive. A troop of long-tailed tits weaves a tapestry into each thicket. Their thin cries are barely audible as a simpering wind flutters into the silver-green weft. I watch them shuttling from bough to brush, seeming to lead each other forward so they progress in a jerky, undulating stream as though pulled on threads. I take up the oars and follow them. Rain spots stipple the water and ricochet from the waxen lily leaves. Clouds are thronging now, dark nimbostatuses bowed with mood, stumbling forward as if forced by a snowplough. Darkness spreads over the water like a plague.”

Thus begins a journey of self-discovery, deeply personal and perceptive, that celebrates the sheer joy of nature in lyrical prose. As soon as I’d finished the book I started again because I can’t get enough of his intimate descriptions of the wondrous wildlife and landscapes we are privileged to have here in Scotland. Whether you’re a writer or not you can’t fail to be impressed with his storytelling and the power of his words.

A song of the rolling earth, and of words according,

Were you thinking that those were the words, those

                upright lines? those curves, angles, dots?

No, those are not the words, the substantial words are

                in the ground and sea,

They are in the air, they are in you.

Walt Whitman 1819 -92

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Who Knows Where The Time Goes

It’s the last day of the month. It snowed yesterday, large, fat flakes covering dying snowdrops and new shoots of crocuses and daffodils, death and birth co-existing just as we sit on the cusp of a new month, the old one falling away from us. In six weeks I will celebrate my sixty-seventh birthday.

Last week I looked after my grandson here during the school holidays as I have done since he was small. He’ll be twelve soon and old enough to stay at home on his own, so my time with him is so precious. I doubt I’ll be able to compete with the pull of spending time with his friends, with him wanting to be on his own, independent, able to do what he wants in his own time. But a new generation are growing up and hopefully my twin grandsons will be comfortable enough to spend the school holidays with me. For a while at least. Until they, too, grow up.

Life is an ever-constant state of forward motion and sometimes as we get older we want to hang onto things the way they are, not give in to changes, keep things exactly the same. So when changes do occur we are filled with nostalgia, howl at the moon and want the old ways back. Our bodies age, we’re less able to bend physically (and also metaphorically) to the different circumstances in our lives. And if we’re not careful, if we don’t learn how to accommodate the changes in our bodies, to sit and breathe quietly, to accept that we’re just small pieces in Nature’s jigsaw, then our last days will be filled with anger and not lived to the full.

I have been so angry for a long time. At my weakening body , at politics and the world I knew that seems to be disintegrating around me, at world leaders who cause immeasurable suffering to people and the planet, at my own ineffectiveness. But looking at the snow this morning as it melts, revealing the new growth of spring flowers and the remains of the snowdrops, I feel more at peace, more reflective. That’s not to say I don’t still feel concerned or intend to stop campaigning against those things that are happening. It just means that I’m seeing it in a wider perspective and know that this too will pass.

I came across Nina Simone’s recording of Who Knows Where The Time Goes on YouTube yesterday. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OXeh742_jak. Her introduction and the song has resonated with me since then.

Sometime in your life, you will have occasion to say, “What is this thing called time?” What is that, the clock? You go to work by the clock, you get your martini in the afternoon by the clock and your coffee by the clock, and you have to get on the plane at a certain time, and arrive at a certain time. It goes on and on and on and on.

And time is a dictator, as we know it. Where does it go? What does it do? Most of all, is it alive? Is it a thing that we cannot touch and is it alive? And then, one day, you look in the mirror — you’re old — and you say, “Where does the time go?”

I’ll leave you with the lyrics but please check the recording out and enjoy the beauty of Nina Simone, 21 February  1933–21 April  2003.

Across the morning sky, all the birds are leaving
How can they know that it’s time to go?
Before the winter fire, I’ll still be dreaming
I do not count the time

Who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

Sad, deserted shore, your fickle friends are leaving
Ah, but then you know that it’s time for them to go
But I will still be here, I have no thought of leaving
For I do not count the time

Who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

But I am not alone as long as my love is near me
And I know it will be so till it’s time to go
All through the winter, until the birds return in spring again
I do not fear the time

Who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

All The Light We Cannot See

I’m getting overwhelm from all the political news and my disappointment in the human race. So coming across a book that transports and delights me enough to block all that out is a rare, and fortuitous, find indeed. It sat on my bookcase for a while, borrowed from a friend, until I picked it up last weekend. Usually I can devour a book in a few days but I haven’t got very far with this one, about a quarter of the way through the story, because I’m savouring the words so much. I want to spend time with them, read them aloud, then read them again.

Written by Anthony Doerr the novel is set in France and Germany during the 1930s and 1940s. Its main characters are a blind French girl who learns to navigate her town with the help of a miniature replica made by her father, and a German orphan who is destined for work in the mines until it’s discovered he can mend broken radios. As the novel, and the war, progress, their paths draw ever closer together. But it is the radiancy of  prose that grips me as much as the plot.

It opens on 7 August 1944 with:

At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into ravines between houses. Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles. Urgent message to to the inhabitants of this town, they say. Depart immediately to open country.

The tide climbs. The moon hangs small and yellow and gibbous. On the rooftops of beachfront hotels to the east, and in the gardens behind them, a half-dozen American artillery units drop incendiary rounds into the mouths of mortars.”

Then:

“They cross the Channel at midnight. There are twelve and they are named for songs: Stardust and Stormy Weather and In the Mood and Pistol-Packin’ Mama. The sea glides far below, spattered by the countless chevrons of whitecaps. Soon enough, the navigators can discern the low moonlit lumps of islands ranged along the horizon.

France.

Intercoms crackle. Deliberately, almost lazily, the bombers shed altitude. Threads of light ascend from anti-air emplacements up and down the coast. Dark, ruined ships appear, scuttled or destroyed, one with its bow shorn away, a second flickering as it burns. On an outermost island, panicked sheep run zig-zagging between rocks.

Inside each airplane, a bombardier peers through an aiming window and counts to twenty. Four five six seven. To the bombardiers, the walled city on its granite headland, drawing ever closer, looks like an unholy tooth, something black and dangerous, a final abscess to be lanced away.”

Each short chapter alternates between French  and German perspectives and sections alternate between the past and the present of the tale. Neither the girl nor the boy fit in with their people or surroundings, and the war, as beautifully written as it is,  is still war and its stark realities don’t escape us.

If you love exquisite writing that transforms the ephemera of daily existence in a story much more than a conventional war tale, you’ll love this novel. It was the Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2015 and is well deserved of that title.

“This jewel of a story is put together like a vintage timepiece…Doerr’s writing and imagery are stunning. It’s been a while since a novel had me under its spell in this fashion” Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone.

I second that.

 

 

 

Silent Spring

It’s spring. Snowdrops have been out for a while, their pristine white heads bobbing in the winds, the green of their stalks rising up out of the crustiness of frost and snow. Spring is the time for hope, the start of a new cycle of re-birth, yet it has been another depressing week.

Listening to the news, watching the Trump machine bulldozing its way over human rights and decency and Theresa May toadying up to him hasn’t helped my mood. Nor has the recognition that 27 Jan was International Holocaust Remembrance Day and today is the 70th anniversary of Ghandi’s assassination. Life is always moving, is in a state of perpetual change, but some of these changes I can do without. They indicate that we have learnt nothing despite the murder of millions of people who happened to believe or worship differently to others, and we seem to be turning full circle to those times again.

It’s easy to get depressed and give up watching the news, of getting media overload and want to withdraw into a cave somewhere. But as Toni Morrison wrote in her essay entitled ‘No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear,’ included in the 150th anniversary issue of The Nation “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” And so I blog.

For the last 3 days there has been ‘The Big Bang Weekend’ in Wigtown, (near where I live) a series of lectures and readings celebrating women in science. Then coincidentally this morning  I read about Rachel Carson, a scientist/writer whose book Silent Spring was responsible for persuading the JFK administration to introduce federal laws to regulate the use of pesticides. As a woman she was up against tremendous prejudice and her critics in big business were keen to have her discredited. Yet nothing, not even dying of cancer, prevented her from doing what she believed to be right.

“She had been diagnosed with cancer in 1960, which had metastasized due to her doctor’s negligence. In 1963, when Silent Spring stirred President Kennedy’s attention and he summoned a Congressional hearing to investigate and regulate the use of pesticides, Carson didn’t hesitate to testify even as her body was giving out from the debilitating pain of the disease and the wearying radiation treatments. With her testimony as a pillar, JFK and his Science Advisory Committee invalidated her critics’ arguments, heeded Carson’s cautionary call to reason, and created the first federal policies designed to protect the planet. “(The Writing of “Silent Spring”: Rachel Carson and the Culture-Shifting Courage to Speak Inconvenient Truth to Power by Maria Popova, Brain Pickings Weekly Newsletter 30 Jan 2017)

What she achieved is amazing in itself, but that she did so during a period of extreme pain in the knowledge that she was dying, is astonishing. If only other people followed through with the same commitment. I find this quote from James Comey, Head of FBI, particularly ironic.

“The need for reflection and restraint of power is what led Louis Freeh to order that all new agent classes visit the Holocaust Museum here in Washington so they could see and feel and hear in a palpable way the consequences of abuse of power on a massive, almost unimaginable scale.”

I wonder if he’s mentioned this to his new Commander-in-Chief? Hmmmm.

However, it is spring, so let’s end on a positive note with this quote from Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

The happiness of life is made up of little charities of a kiss or a smile, a kind look, a heartfelt compliment.”

The big picture can look bleak at the moment, but let’s not forget the little things that can make a difference to someone, and remember the strength, determination and sacrifice of those who have gone before.

 

 

 

 

 

The Holocaust illustrates the consequences of prejudice, racism and stereotyping on a society. It forces us to examine the responsibilities of citizenship and confront the powerful ramifications of indifference and inaction. Tim Holden

Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/holocaust.html

 

I certainly think that another Holocaust can happen again. It did already occur; think of Cambodia, Rwanda, and Bosnia. Miep Gies

Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/holocaust.html

 

We in the United States should be all the more thankful for the freedom and religious tolerance we enjoy. And we should always remember the lessons learned from the Holocaust, in hopes we stay vigilant against such inhumanity now and in the future. Charlie Dent

Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/holocaust.html

 

 

Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/holocaust.html

 

“Ain’t Nobody’s Fault But Mine….”

This traditional song was recorded by Blind Willie Johnson in 1927. My first encounter with it was back in 1967, sung by John Renbourne, but in 1969 it was recorded by Nina Simone and her version became the definitive one for me. The song tells of a spiritual struggle, with reading the Bible as the path to salvation, or, rather, the failure to read it leading to damnation.

“Blind Willie Johnson recorded the song in a time when illiteracy was common in the rural South. Blinded as a young child, Johnson was singing this song as a warning to those who had learned to read, but concerned themselves too much with earthly matters, but Johnson tries to point the way to salvation. He admits to having fault, and he blames himself for not taking advantage of the skill he has, reading, and saving himself. The context of this song is strictly religious. It is a melancholy expression of his spirit, as the blues style echoes the depths of his guilt and his struggle.” Wikipedia

The context of this song may be strictly religious, but my interpretation is: ‘Appreciate your gifts and take responsibility for your actions’. Something that seems to get blurred in today’s blame culture. Being a lover of words I know the difference between ‘blame’ and ‘responsibility’ but recently had to examine those differences in the context of domestic abuse when reading ‘A Suitable Lie’ by Michael Malone.

This novel reverses the traditional view and places the man on the receiving end of an abusive relationship. It charts the escalation of abuse and explores the emotions involved, the attitudes of the victim, police, family and friends of the victim, questioning what it is to be a man and what it means to stay.

Domestic abuse will affect 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men in their lifetime. It leads to, on average, two women being murdered each week and 30 men per year. It accounts for 16% of all violent crime, but it is still the violent crime least likely to be reported to the police,  has more repeat victims than any other and leaving the relationship does not automatically mean that the abuse will stop and the victims will then be safe. People experiencing abuse don’t accept what is happening to them but they may try to cope with it, avoid it, understand it or try to fix it. They may minimise what is happening, blame themselves, feeling ashamed, embarrassed and alone. (Source: http://www.lwa.org)

I found reading the novel very disturbing. I have stayed in relationships far longer than was healthy and whilst I’ve never experienced the level of violence portrayed in the novel, I’ve experienced the same gamut of feelings the victim does. In no way did I ‘blame’ the victim, thinking he brought it on himself, but like an ex-smoker who has an evangelical purge on smokers, I wanted to shout at him.

Emotional entanglements are difficult to cope with, especially if we use love as an excuse for fear. Fear of retaliations, of being alone, seeming a failure, letting people down, abandoning someone with mental health problems etc. We are not to blame for the first act of violence perpetrated upon us but we do have to take some responsibility for staying, for our fears, for seeking help.

Staying is a choice, just as leaving is. What informs those choices has so much to do with life experience, levels of self-worth, support available and awareness. There is much needed to be done with societal attitudes, law enforcement, funding for refuges (the novel raises the issue – where do male victims go?), availability of counselling etc. But if the purpose of art is to reflect Truth, then this novel goes a long way to raise questions about the truth of domestic violence in today’s society.

 

Men

I need a man. Well, several actually. It’s not what you think, although sex every now and again would be nice if I could remember what to do. No, I need a man because I’m running out of males to draw upon for characters in my novels. Not that I take someone and immortalize them in print; I like to take traits, gestures, habits, speech etc and shape them into a character and I’ve used up all the ones I’m familiar with.

I started my first novel 12 years ago and had a bank of male friends and work colleagues to draw upon. My second novel, started 4 years ago was set in Nepal at the time I was working there for VSO so I had a lot of characters from work and the community to draw upon. This new novel is set in Scotland today and I’ve realized as I try to create my characters that since moving to Scotland 10 years ago I’ve met very few men. And if you take away the alcoholics and drug users I used to work with, the number is even less. I’m experiencing a retirement in splendid isolation when it comes to males. The clubs and groups I joined are predominantly female and of those who are married or in relationships I’ve never met their men apart from casual introductions. So why is this now a problem?

I suppose it’s because my interactions and understandings are going stale; I’m lacking contact with flesh and blood and don’t really know what to do about it. I can hardly ask friends if I can ‘borrow’ their blokes, or ask the workmen who do various jobs for me what their emotional weaknesses are. Most of the guys I used to know, apart from the gay ones, took a long time before they opened up and discussed their feelings and I if don’t have the contact, I can hardly have the time to cultivate relationships.

I guess I’ll just have to live a virtual life through books and the internet.

Pride

They say it comes before a fall and in biblical terms that’s right. Pride, the Original Sin, (not sex as a lot of people believe), came before the Fall, which was the loss of God’s grace and ultimately the casting out of heaven for Lucifer and his rogue angels, and casting out of paradise for the humans. There are lessons in there for everyone, and yet I’ve always been drawn to the heroic in people; those who stand up against all the odds and fail.

When studying for my first degree I fell in love with Macbeth and Milton’s Satan. There’s just something about Macbeth at the end, when he realizes he’s been had by the witches and that all his efforts to avoid the prophesies have just made it come true. Birnham Wood is coming to Dunsinane. He knows he’s going to lose but he doesn’t run away or try to hide. He buckles himself up in his armour and proclaims “I’ll die with harness on my back.” Then, when he finally faces Malcolm, he tells Malcolm he doesn’t want to fight because he’s “too steeped in the blood of thine already”. Believing he can’t be killed by anyone born of a woman, he doesn’t want to kill Malcolm. And we all know what happens then. But it’s the ‘hero’ of the battlefield, the one who the men and Duncan adored, that seems to shine again in his last moments. Not the fatally flawed over-reacher whose ambition leads him down the path to his own destruction.

And who can read Satan’s blank verse and not swoon at his beauty and sensuous majesty? As the poem progresses he becomes more and more tarnished and corrupted, less attractive, more in keeping with an accepted view of him. But in the beginning he’s ‘the brightest star in heaven’ and even God is in love with him. It is obviously Milton’s vision and portrayal of him we fall in love with, and his jealous sense of betrayal, like that of Macbeth, is one I understand only too well. Of course, these are literary constructs, but the fact that I can identify so closely with the characters and have soft spots for them show how powerful good literature is. Like Stephen King said:

            ‘Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie’

But there’s a subtle difference between having pride and being proud, which I associate with arrogance. I don’t like arrogant people who have turned their pride into narcissism, believing themselves better than others, but I do admire someone who takes pride in achievements, theirs as well as others’. I’m proud of my children and have no problem with someone else being a proud parent, unless pride in their offspring creates problems where the children are reared like demi-gods and believe they are owed something by the universe and treat others at best with indifference, at worst, badly.

Self-confidence cannot thrive without some kind of self-belief and pride in oneself, but over-confidence and a belief that you are able to do things you can’t can also have devastating effects. I once had to employ a youth worker who conned people at his interview into believing he was the perfect person for the job. I disagreed with their choice but was a lone voice. What we didn’t find out till later was that his girlfriend, who was a careers officer, had filled in all his forms and created his portfolio. He was dyslexic, disorganized, unable to work to deadlines or manage his workload, but when his mistakes were pointed out he played the disability/bullying card. The problem than became mine and it took a year to get rid of him.

I know the problem is basically one about honesty, but it’s also about him believing he could do the job when clearly he couldn’t and his arrogance when discrepancies were pointed out to him. Had he owned his disability right from the start I could have put support systems in place to help him adjust to the demands of the job. Instead, not only did he neglect to do the job for which he was being paid, he also mucked up all the admin systems that took an age to sort out after he’d gone. And he still believed he’d done a good job and had done us all a big favour by deigning to work for us in the first place.

So where am I going with this? Well, I’ve been ill again for the last couple of days. Nothing serious, but enough to stop me being able to do anything other than sleep or lie on the settee watching TV. One of the things that happens when I stop ‘doing’ is that the other ‘stuff’ surfaces. All that unresolved muck that lies in the bottom of the barrel and never really gets a good clean out. I’ve been quite emotional, so my tear ducts have had a good sluicing, but I’ve also had to look at the issue of my aloneness.

I pride myself in being resourceful and resilient, that I live alone through choice and that I’ve done such a good job with raising my children that they don’t need me anymore. Now all that may be true, but it’s quite an arrogant stance to take, which denies my need for others. Because there is no-one there I have to deal with my illnesses alone and I do, most of the time. Because my romantic relationships have failed I’ve chosen to live alone and I’m still alone because I’ve not met anyone who’s made me want to change my mind. Being ill in a foreign country where you don’t know anyone and can’t speak the language isn’t a pleasant experience. But because it’s happened to me on numerous occasions I know what to do and get on with it. Which I think is how I live my life – I just get on with it. There’s no point in regretting anything or wanting what I don’t have, so I make the most of what I do have, resolve not to make the same mistakes and move on. And take a perverse sense of pride in being able to so.

Sometimes, in my dark times, when it’s all too hard and I feel I’ve nothing else to fight with to get out of the blackness, pride is what has got me through. I remember all the people I love who will be affected by my demise and who I feel I will have let down. That’s when I pull myself up by my bootlaces and seek help. I used to think that asking for help was being weak but I’ve learnt

‘If you can’t change your situation, change your attitude’

Pride can still be a stumbling block for me, but I do believe that if life deals you a dodgy hand you have three choices – carry on with the game even though you risk losing everything, stick, or fold. Pride has always made me carry on with the game because sticking and playing safe is not an achievement, nor is folding and throwing in the cards. Life may not be all about achievement, but at those times you feel worthless, it’s something to hang on to and be proud of. And sometimes pride is all I’ve got to keep me breathing, to get me through to the next day.

And save me from that long fall.