5 Jun 2017

The Life and Loves of a She-Devil.

Coincidence or a timely message from overlighting angels (characters from the new mythology), or my Muse (a visitor from the old mythology?) I ask you - whichever mythology you espouse - do you honestly believe in coincidences any more? 

I was starting to work on a piece about Ruth, the Biblical Ruth who Keats so memorably saw ‘standing alone in the alien corn,’ when I was given a DVD to watch. I found the juxtaposition of these two exhilarating, there’s no other word. As we all do who find myths touching us in unexpected places, I picked out my own lessons from these two tales. 

‘The Life and Loves of a She Devil’ by Fay Weldon
adapted for BBC TV, screen play Ted Whitehead.

‘How DO women survive? How do ugly women survive? Those whom the world pities?.....’ ‘We wait for old age to equalise all things. We make good old women, us dogs.’

In 1986 when the BBC dramatisation of Fay Weldon’s novel was broadcast I was in a time of turmoil, fighting for my own survival. Almost, but not quite, resigned to losing my marriage. That happened wily-nilly and caused me great pain. It was also the best thing that could have happened, but a decade or more passed before I could see that.

In 1986 I wouldn’t have been open to the thoughts, feelings, beliefs that Fay Weldon put into this novel. I read it, can’t remember when, but most of the meaning - all of the meaning - spun over my head. I found it unpleasantly bizarre. Now I can see the wisdom in it. 30 years ago I was still clinging to that which the ugly wife Ruth at first blames as the cause of most of women’s suffering: the pursuit of love.

Mary Fisher, Ruth’s hated adversary, the woman her husband is seduced by, is a writer of romantic fiction. Her belief is that, ‘Romance is reality at its most radiant.’ In the throws of his own infatuation for Mary, Bobbo, Ruth’s husband, is only too happy to agree.

Bobbo is determined to have his affair with Mary, expecting Ruth to willingly allow him to indulge in the thrill of being ‘in love.’ Even to be happy for him. He claims he loves Ruth and always will, that they are friends and that he will never leave her. It’s simply that he is not ‘in love’ with her. In the way of men (and women) who find it easy to make love alliances, casting off one and taking on another, seeking mainly the buzz, he cannot see why Ruth should be jealous or even disturbed by his needs. All she has to do is keep the home going and wait. Ruth does not see it his way, though she tries. She tries to be a ‘good wife’ and thus earn her husband’s love. It doesn’t work of course. A good wife is not what Bobbo, or millions of men (and women) like him want; what they want is the excitement of new affaires. The druggy high of first love. Especially with a woman like Mary Fisher who is very, very wealthy. 

Ruth’s painful jealousy gets in the way of his happiness and he resents that. The fury in Ruth begins to build so that the first layers of Good Wife start to burn off. She disgraces ‘herself’ in front of his parents, revealing to them the loveless state of the marriage. In fact his mother realises it reveals more about her son than it disgraces Ruth. Bobbo, outraged by such behaviour, leaves calling Ruth a ‘she-devil,’ a description she learns to relish. 

Meanwhile Mary is becoming progressively more ‘in love’ with Bobbo and wanting him for herself. She is starting to be clingy. This isn’t immediately a problem. He wants to be clung to. He makes up his mind to move in with Mary. 

Ruth is devastated by her loss, even though she recognises that she has lost something she hardly had at all.

‘I have lost my chair at the edge of the ballroom,’ is how she puts it to herself. 

Fortunately for the ugly woman, alongside self-pity rises fury. The white heat of wrath finally cauterizes any remaining resolutions to prove herself a good wife, and brings in its wake the urgent need for revenge. 

‘Peel away the wife, the mother, and there the woman is. There the she-devil is.’

Ruth is a very clever woman. For the first time in her life she uses her intelligence to improve her own situation, to avenge herself.  

There is plenty written about this novel and the truths, or perceived truths, it illustrates, plenty that give away the ending so I won’t write more, only to emphasise what so many of these diatribes or essays miss, (IMO) Ruth’s final revelation. Her conclusion hit me hard:

‘I thought it was a matter of male and female but it isn’t, it never was. It is merely a matter of power. Power. I have all and you have none. As I was so you are.....’

17 May 2017

The poet's obligation to his audience, followed by sublime and mundane thoughts

The days are long now in these northern parts and that makes trips out in the evening much more inviting. Once darkness falls at 4.30pm I find it difficult to rouse myself to go to any of the local poetry readings. I can rarely fight a stubborn reluctance to leave the warmth of home, or to face the unpleasantness of the journey. Going anywhere hereabouts involves a drive along a too-narrow main trunk road where, at night, on-coming lights fox and befrazzle my elderly eyes. There are promises of a dual carriageway one day, so if I live that long it might make a difference. As things are I miss a lot. Anyway, last Wednesday, at the independent bookshop in the next small town along, there was to be a reading and no reason not to turn out. Driving into the glories of a watercolour artists’ dream of an evening sky would almost have been reason enough. 

Two poets, both recently published, were reading their new pamphlets. They were an interesting juxtaposition. One went to the same place on a local loch every day for a year and wrote what came to him. The other travels a lot and writes about the places she visits. The woman-who-travels was an irritating reader with a soft voice and a tendency to read to her manuscript. I couldn’t hear her although she was asked to speak up. This, in my opinion, is a grave sin. If people have turned out to listen to your poetry the least you can do is deliver it clearly with a judicious amount of emphasis. No need for actual dramatics unless you are a performance poet, but certainly please put some personality into your work. Behave as if you care what your audience hears and understands. They have made an effort, you should too.

The loch man’s delivery was altogether better. He gave us short, amusing, and pertinent comments before each poem. In other words he gave something of himself and didn’t expect us to be grateful for his pearly words alone. His voice was strong and clear. I bought his book. 

Thinking about it afterwards I decided I also bought his book because I preferred his poems. They went deeper. It’s easy to write about a place one is visiting for the first (or second or third time even) especially places audiences back home aren’t so likely to have been in, easy to paint a word picture. But occasionally someone in the audience will have once stood in the same spot forming and absorbing their own impressions of the place. 

She-who-travelled wrote a poem about Missolonghi, the place where Byron lived and died. I was there about forty years ago and was interested to hear how it seems to have changed in the intervening years but I missed, in her poems, any reaction or feeling toward the town. It was just another tourist call-off spot with a plaque on a wall somewhere. I wasn’t writing poetry when I was there and it’s maybe too late now, but I hope I can dredge up enough of the emotions it evoked in me being in the last place on earth seen by that wild, passionate and driven young genius who espoused the cause of Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire. 

I can certainly remember the 70 mosquito bites I got during the night. Fortunately for me the mosquitos no longer carry malaria but Byron’s death, probably from malarial fever (followed by a violent cold and persistent blood-letting that may have led to sepsis,) felt very personal as my legs swelled up and itched for days afterwards. From the sublime to the personally ridiculous I know, but of such sensations are our lives made up.

William Blake on the imagination.

"The imagination is not a state: it is the human existence itself"
~ William Blake (1757-1827)

14 May 2017

Parents doing their best.

My daughter Sophia is presently in Athens with her father. It’s her birthday treat, but I suspect it was also a good excuse for her dad to revisit the part of his genetic inheritance that he values more the older he gets. We take so much for granted when we are young. Recently he has been collating family histories (much more exciting than my own family) and it has caused him to reminisce about the years of his childhood spent, until he was eight or nine, in the bright sunshine and freedom of Athens. He remembers running around without shoes. I find that hard to imagine. He became a man who would never be seen without his shoes. The bright sunlight and warmth were taken away from him, ‘as if a dark curtain fell,’ (his own words), when he was sent to a prep school in England. There he learned to get dressed in bed to avoid the biting cold of the dormitory, to focus on learning and chess in an attempt to block out the pangs of homesickness and loss.   

The things our parents do to us whilst giving us what they think is best.

12 May 2017

Morning rituals and the ritualistic item of importance.

A long time ago I put up a photo of my favourite mug - only it really should have a more elegant name. 'Mug' is a blunt and prosaic word, almost ugly. Difficult to find another though. Goblet? Chalice? Neither is quite right.

Whatever it is called this is the perfect vessel from which to drink to drink hot beverages. I wrote to some length about it thus:-

It's a long time since I wrote in praise of the beverage that makes the waking up moment glorious, keeps me alert through the day and creates the centre-piece for many a good discussion. To fully enjoy this alchemical elixir the ritual is important and the vessel from which it is to be enjoyed is vital to the fulfillment of the moment. This morning I wavered downstairs to begin the revivification process only to find there was no mug. At the very heart of the ceremony is its special shape, discovered after years of seeking; the perfect form. There they lay in the dish washer, all unwashed. Not so serious some might think, but it is essential to observe all form and intent to arrive at the necessary magic needed to co-ordinate my limbs and focus my brain after a heavy night. Part of that form is the opening of the cupboard door onto a phalanx of pure green china. To have to remove one from the sullied ranks is - just not the same. It won't do. There are other mugs, of course there are. The nice orange Penguin mugs with novel titles on them. I could have started the day with 'Brave New World.' Quite suitable. There is the recent addition created to promote the PBFA with mice on it (?) and the words 'The Book Fair Mug' (which I feel is rather a double entendre but there we are.)

They have one major fault in common. Straight sides. Look at the photograph. Observe the curvaceous shape. This is more than mere decoration. It is ergonometric, pleasing to fold ones fingers around on a chilly day, sensual, easy to clutch on a shaky morning or during one of life's troubling moments. It also keeps the coffee at exactly the right temperature. Note the wider mouth from which one can take the first sips; then the restriction in diameter which ensures that the lower bulb of liquid stays hot for later quaffing. Robust and serviceable without being crassly earthern (I have been given coffee in hand-thrown pots with a surface like rough sandpaper, so heavy I could hardly lift it to my lips and so thick the mouth had to open uncomfortably wide with a diameter so large that all heat is lost immediately.. a travesty of an experience.)

Some daily routines are pure ritual and my first coffee of the day is of huge importance. The movements could, and possibly should, be written in a Grimoire. Kettle half-filled with fresh water (OK OK tap sn't exactly fresh but let's not get silly here) and put to boil. Cafetière prepared, fresh grounds added. Cupboard door opened and one gleaming green shape selected to be placed ready on the tray. Boiling water onto grounds, a short moment for settling and infusing (not too long or it loses heat) then the rich dark brew poured into the mug until 2 cm of whiteness remains around the dark inner circle. Back upstairs in bed, settle pillows, open book, reach for mug, hold under nose for the full aroma, inhale deeply, cradle briefly. Sip.

Tea is best taken from fine bone china. Cocoa - well this versatile vessel is wonderful for cocoa too, the dark cocoa (must be strong) contrasting with the gleaming white of the inner glaze.

Not to get too Proustian about it, my most memorable coffee ever was in 1967 taken from a huge French breakfast bowl at 4.30am in Dieppe after a terrible crossing endured without Qwells (because I had no idea I might suffer that way!) It had left me empty and virgin for my first real French coffee with croissant and someone to teach me the pleasure of dunking.

Ella - a poem

Ella Louise.

Warm, soft-scented, fragile,

A new sound vibrates through our family rooms.
New shape and colour to our lives.
A necessary shuffling of labels, 
an adjustment of status to accommodate her.
Child to parent,
parent to grandparent.
Grand-parents spun further 
to the outer rim of the Wheel.
The greatest transition.
The most meaningful rite.


First published in by Indigo Dreams Publication Reach, 2017.

Ella is growing up.

I don't get many action shots of  Ella because I'm not with her on excursions, but she loves the beach, loves the sand (not on her hands) loves slides and swings already. She is intrepid.

She also loves her family. Here she is with dad and granny on a day when the teeth were playing up. She did manage a smile later.

Intrigued by shadows. She wants to go in the water but this is April in the north of Scotland. Bit early yet.