Scorched Earth

Every once in a while you suddenly discover in your search through secondhand books an absolute gem, a book that stands out from the rest with its sparkling prose and hidden depths. Scorched Earth by David L Robins (Orion 2002) is one such gem.

The basic storyline is of a white woman, Clare, and her black husband, Elijah, whose mixed race baby, Nora Carol, dies shortly after birth. The white woman’s grandmother, Rosy Epps,  arranges with Pastor Thomas Derby for the child to be buried in her family plot in the graveyard of Victory Baptist Church where Epps is a deacon. The burial takes place, but when the other deacons find out they hold a meeting and refuse permission for the burial on the grounds of the child being mixed race. The child is then disinterred the following morning and transferred to the black cemetery up the road. That night the white church is burnt down and the man arrested for the arson is the baby’s father, Elijah, who declares his innocence.  What follows  is an intricately plotted, insightful and moving story, a legal case that reveals hosts of hidden prejudices and secrets that ignite rage and hatred.

What I love about the novel is that it spoke to me about identity and classification, about where and to whom people belong. I am a white grandmother of a blended family with a mixed race grandson so the issue is quite close to my heart, particularly in these troubling times. The novel raises issues about what it is to be ‘family’ or ‘community’, what part history, tradition and inheritance play in our psyche, and gets us to question, who are ‘our people’? And all this it does  in exquisite prose that delights me, captivating me right from  the opening chapter:

The place where they lie making the child is beautiful. They lie on a bed of ferns, which like a cushion of feathers, tickles them. Only a few strides off the old dirt road, they are beneath a tall red oak, thick as a chimney, bearded with gray bark: the tree is a gentle old presence.

If they were to stand on that spot they could see the fields. South lie forty acres of beans, leafy and ripe for harvest machinery resting now after church this Sunday afternoon. High pines and turning sugar maples make this field a green leafy loch where every breeze riffles. North of the road, beyond barbed wire and honeysuckle, is a cleared pasture for the cows, which are out of sight behind hills that rise and roll down, suggesting by their smooth undulation the couple lying under the oak.

He is a black man, blacker than everything, blacker than the soil of the road, everything but the crows. His name is Elijah, named by his mother for the loudest of the Hebrew prophets, though he has not grown into a loud man. He is silent as his skin, as the dark of a well.

Beneath him, wrapping him like roots seeking water, is his wife, Clare. Her green eyes closed behind white, blue-veined lids. Waist-length blond hair spreads over ferns and under her back. She kisses him and their tongues twine.

A band of starlings crisscrosses the field. The ebon birds strike something invisible at the center of the field and disperse, to clot again and circle some more, somewhat aimlessly. Clare and Elijah, tangled together, white and black, are absolutes, the presence and absence of all colors at once, sharing a smooth, perfect motion.

When Clare falls for Elijah, colour is no longer an issue:

She will remember this moment when Elijah’s blackness became not something missing from what she was but a remarkable presence not bound or described by color. She opens her mouth in a moment of shame, fleeting like a pinprick, fast and sharp, for ever having felt whatever ugliness it was she had just said goodbye to.

The couple are asked to sit on a Diversity committee at the paper mill where they both work but as Elijah says ‘This is y’all’s problem’ and Clare refuses to be used – ‘I’m sorry, but we’re not your damn role models’. However, in the aftermath of the tragedy of Nora Carol tensions escalate and soon both Clare and Elijah feel the effects of the problems others have with their relationship.

At the meeting of church deacons the Pastor is urging them to exercise compassion and leave the dead child where she is, but the response he gets is:

I like Elijah, by God I do, and I feel awful for what’s happened to him. But that don’t mean I want to buried with him or his kin. That poor baby ought to be laid to rest in a place surrounded by her own people, and that place isn’t here, it’s up the road.

And so begins a course of actions that divide a community, entrench latent prejudices where nothing and no-one will ever be the same, not even the reader.

As it says in the epigram for the novel:

The line separating good and evil 

passes not through states,

nor between classes,

nor between parties either,

But right through the human heart.

Aleksander Solzhenitsyn

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Perfection

It’s been a busy (and fraught) couple of weeks so apologies this blog comes a little late. My personal disposition has not been helped by world events unfolding in the media but I have to say, it does provide rich material for novels. The Trump administration trying to deflect attention from their involvement with Russia by accusing Obama of wire taps and, not content that Michael Flynn fell on his sword for them, they’re now labelling him a ‘foreign agent’. The new travel ban, the erosion of human rights, the lies…in the past a publisher might have said that it’s too much for one novel, that all those things happening more or less simultaneously is completely unbelievable. Not now.

We here in the UK fare no better: Brexit, the deportation of non-nationals who’ve lived here for years, the new rules regarding asylum seekers brought in (and effective immediately) when attention was on the Budget. We also have a new re-introduction of selective schools and schools who don’t enter some students for exams for fear of lowering the school’s overall ratings in the league tables. The world as I know it is going mad. So it got me thinking about a perfect world, what that would look like and who it is perfect for.

I can’t remember ever being called perfect before by anyone – family, partners, friends, colleagues – until Monday. I was having my monthly foot MOT (a luxury, I know) when  from nowhere my practitioner said, ‘I love working on your feet – your toes are still very flexible, the skin nice and soft, and there’s no damage from shoes. They’re perfect.’ I suppose at my age after standing for most of my working life, dancing away a good part of it and the rest spent hiking or running half marathons, that’s quite an achievement. But are my feet really where I want the perfection to be in my life?

I have succumbed, as so many women do, to notions of imperfection because my body was not the right shape, tone, strength. Even though I know it has nothing to do with my identity and it doesn’t define me, I still catch myself checking my image in the mirror and eat less when my waistbands start getting tight. One weekend, during a bout of depression, I decided to treat myself to a beauty therapy. I chose an organic mud wrap. I was first measured then slathered from chin to toes in mud before being wrapped in clingfilm and left in a darkened room for about an hour to relax.

The treatment was ‘guaranteed’ to help you lose 3 inches or your money back, but the 3 inches were accumulative from different parts of the body. When my treatment was finished I was measured again. I hadn’t lost the 3 inches, only 2, and the area where I’d lost most was 1 inch from my neck, which could least do with losing anything. Not quite the result I expected (or wanted). I didn’t get my money back, despite their ‘guarantee’, but it did make me laugh. Eventually.

In my perfect world everyone would be nice to each other, there would be no poverty, wars, abuse, discrimination, huge corporations owning half the planet and no-one would do anything to damage the climate, over-fish the seas, pollute the earth and her water, abandon children or mistreat animals. But if the world really was like that I’d soon become bored. There’d be no drama, nothing to write about, nothing to fight about or defend, nothing to strive for, no need to do inner work to self-improve. Life would be monochrome and what feels perfect to me wouldn’t necessarily be perfect for anyone else. Yet the perfection I seek is not found in the world behaving in a way I want it to, but in the small random moments that may not go according to plan but teach me something.

There would be no need for love if perfection were possible. Love arises from our imperfection, from our being different and always in need of the forgiveness, encouragement and that missing half of ourselves that we are searching for, as the Greek myth tells us, in order to complete ourselves. Eugene Kennedy
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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?

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

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

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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

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“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.

 

Fifty Shades of Power – the responsibility of the writer.

I read 50 Shades of Grey a while ago to see what all the hype was about. As a writer I was disappointed, finding it very poorly written, but what I did find interesting was how popular the subject matter was. Listening to all the debates about it on television and radio, reading about it in newspapers and magazines, what they seemed to be saying was that the book was most popular with financially successful, upwardly mobile, unmarried 30-somethings. Apparently, being successful and having complete control of your life seems to generate fantasies of relinquishing control of your body over to a man who then has carte-blanche to abuse you. Nothing wrong in that, we all have fantasies. The problem starts to occur when we put them into reality.

I’m old enough to have grown up during a time when women had no power or at best it was limited. When women had to give up work when they got married, when marital- and date-rapes weren’t offences, when all boys were given extra marks before they started the 11+ so that more of them were ensured a place at grammar school, when wives couldn’t buy anything on HP without their husband’s signature, or borrow money from the bank, or sometimes even have their own bank accounts. The freedoms that women enjoy today were hard-won and over a long period of time. So how can young people really understand the value of what they have and take for granted, because they’ve had it so relatively easy?

It is hard work being responsible for yourself, for every decision you make, for every aspect of your life. I know, I’ve done for the last 40+ years and being a single parent I also had the responsibility of three other lives as well. But the last thing I would fantasize about is giving away my power to anyone because I’ve had to fight every step of the way to get it and keep it. Even now, when I thought all the battles had been fought and won. Because the pendulum swings back and apathy and fantasies today let power slip out the door tomorrow when no-one’s looking. Already we have a judge blaming young girls for their own rapes because they drank too much. Sound familiar to anyone over 30?

So what do writers have to do with all this? Do they have the responsibility of being the mouthpiece of society? Of a generation? I suppose that depends on what kind of writer you are/want to be, but then that kind of responsibility is assumed by the individual; it’s not God-given. I believe that as writers our responsibility is to the truth of what we’re writing, however uncomfortable that might be for some readers. After all, they still have the power to close the book if they don’t like it. It’s not our job to police society’s morals, it’s our job to hold a mirror up to them and present their truth even when writing about how much we dislike them. Despite all my personal views and fears about women today, as a writer I have to put them aside if I am to portray contemporary society because I believe the only responsibility the writer has beyond her/himself is to the reader.

E L James has tapped into a lucrative market and the publicity machine is doing the rest. The fact so many people want to ban the film, or persuade people not to go to see it, is only fuelling the hype. However, I don’t believe in censorship unless it involves unwilling and/or illegal participation, like child pornography, and looking back through history I see that it only does society ill when you start banning ideas.

Writers are by nature and inclination creative creatures so by definition anything and everything is possible. I may not like 50 Shades of Grey, I may be envious of its success and deplore standards readers are willing to accept, I may despair of young women dreaming that being abused is erotic, but I defend everyone’s right to think, read, watch and believe what they want as long as they don’t interfere with anyone else’s rights to do the same and all actions undertaken are within the law and between consenting adults.

With all the wonders of social media writers can reach millions more people than they ever envisaged possible twenty or thirty years ago. Never have we had so much power but with all power comes responsibility and I mourn the fact that today that seems to be eroding, that subject matter and celebrity seems to over-ride good writing and it is as much an indictment of our society as the popularity of 50 Shades of Grey.