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Just a few people to love

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The narrator, who has two daughters, tells it like this:

There are so few people given us to love. I want to tell my daughters this, that each time you fall in love, it is important, even at nineteen. Especially at nineteen. And if you can, at nineteen, count the people you love on one hand, you will not, at forty have run out of fingers on the other. There are so few people given us to love and they all stick.

I think the author of this text, Anne Enright, is right. Quite seriously, circumstances are presented to us in such a way that, really, there are not that many people ‘to love.’

And now, for some reason, I can hear the wonderful Gracie Slick of Jefferson Airplane singing ‘Somebody to love’ …

Footnote: The photograph of the lone tree was taken on the west coast of France near to La Rochelle, May 2017.

The quote is from Anne Enright’s brilliant work: ‘The Gathering‘.

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Time – and the Classics – and Juliet

 

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Juliet knew that, to many people, she might seem to be odd and solitary – and so, in a way, she was. But she had also had the experience, for much of her life, of feeling surrounded by people who wanted to drain away her attention and her time and her soul. And she usually let them.

Be available, be friendly (especially if you are not popular) – that is what you learned in a small town …

Perhaps, too, in the big towns; perhaps in the cities, perhaps, even in the deserts …

Who is Juliet?

Well, Juliet first appears in Alice Munro’s powerful short story entitled ‘Chance’. It’s the kind of teaching story that would work in schools at least as well as a three-minute record – a record like ‘Don’t think twice, it’s alright’ or ‘San Diego serenade’ or ‘Comfortably numb’.

Alice Munro introduces her as follows:

Juliet was twenty one years old and already the possessor of a B.A. and an M.A. in Classics. She was working on her Ph.D thesis but had taken time out to teach Latin at a girls’ private school in Vancouver. She had no training as a teacher, but an unexpected vacancy at half-term had made the school willing to hire her. Probably no one else had answered the ad. …

She was a tall girl, fair-skinned and fine-boned, with light brown hair that even when sprayed did not retain a bouffant style. She had the look of an alert schoolgirl. Head held high, a neat rounded chin, wide thin-lipped mouth, snub nose, bright eyes, and a forehead that was often flushed with effort or appreciation.

And now Alice Munro gets a little bit more serious, a little closer to the grain:

Her professors were delighted with her – they were grateful these days for anybody who took up ancient languages, and particularly for someone so gifted – but they were worried as well. The problem was that she was a girl. If she got married – which might happen, as she was not bad-looking for a scholarship girl, she was not bad looking at all – she would waste all her hard work and theirs, and if she did not get married she would probably become bleak and isolated, losing out on promotions to men (who needed them more, as they had to support families).

Then she turns the existential knife even further:

And she would not be able to defend the oddity of her choice of Classics, to accept what people would see as its irrelevance, or dreariness, to slough that off the way a man could. Odd choices were simply easier for men, most of whom would find women glad to marry them, Not so the other way round.

I imagine that she is correct: ‘Odd choices’ are probably easier for men. But, odd as it may seem, I think it’s still a good idea to read at least some of the classics …

Footnotes:

My reference to the idea of learning from a ‘three-minute record’ is a direct quote from Bruce Springsteen’s song, ‘Bobby Jean’.

Alice Munro published her collection of short stories ‘Runaway‘ in 2004

It’s life and life only: Anne Enright and ‘The Green Road’

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It was the darkness of sleep just before the dream.

What makes Anne Enright’s novel ‘The Green Road’ so good? I think it’s to do with the strange and very personal form of companionship that it provides: by getting inside her characters’ minds she touches the ebb and flow of her reader’s mind. (Or at least, my mind.) But it’s also to do with the fact that her brilliant perception exceeds whatever a social scientist might achieve. She brings to life the intimate worlds of people located in space, time and culture. Always strikingly clever, she is often very very funny; she’s a devastating realist. So, for these qualities alone her work is remarkable.

The Green Road’ tells us about five characters (along with a number of others) who emerge from a family home on the west and Atlantic coast of Ireland – and who find themselves grappling with the extraordinary transitions of late twentieth-century Irish society. We begin by learning about Hanna, a young girl living in the family home in County Clare (1980), then her brother, the beautiful Dan – who ends up surprising and surpassing himself in the Gay culture of New York City (1991), next, his sister Constance – now a working mother – in Limerick (1997) and, finally, the fourth of the siblings, Emmet, who is working as an aid worker in Mali (2002). And then we dwell in the company of their semi-impossible mother, the cultured Rosaleen, who continues to wreak psychological havoc – especially upon her daughters. Rosaleen, a widow, continues to live in the memory-laden southern Irish family home.

In its way, ‘The Green Road’ might be read as a distinctly feminist text: the women continue to be bogged down by their responsibilities and the wretched fall-out from the prevailing social norms. Constance, for example, is left not only to cope with the traumas of breast-cancer screening – which her husband blithely ignores – but also with the ghastly task of doing a huge Christmas shopping for a last family re-union. She spends a fortune and yet still forgets the Brussels sprouts; she then realises she’s forgotten a number of other de rigeur yet stupid excesses of the late-modern western Christmas. It’s laced with bitter-sweet humour; it’s all very tragic and desperately typical. (And, of course, the Brussels sprouts get burned, charred, carbonised.)

More generally, modern life, as Anne Enright, shows, has gone slightly round the bend…

One of the reasons this is such a terrific book is that its author successfully identifies the fact that only certain words get said, and that contemporary characters are drenched in contradictions. Their private thoughts, their private truths, are often hidden – and at the same time, these private thoughts turn out to be temporary positions only to be unseated by counter positions. In fact, this is one of the most enjoyable aspects of her expressive portrayal of character: nothing is overly resolved. She also provides great insights into love and whether or not some people can ever achieve ‘love’. There’s a sustained and frank depiction of sexual activity – which lies, mysteriously, somewhere between the loins and the mind. (Or one and then the other.) The descriptions are vividly secretional and always tinged with failure, the failure to find the ideal or to find perfection.

When the family members finally re-convene for a last Christmas in the original family home – the encounters are scarcely bearable as each one of them tries to cope with deep psychogical distresses and the torments of values and beliefs in conflict. Rosaleen, the mother, for example, bates Hanna (who is now an aspiring actress but who has hardly ever been able to get any work) with the insouciant yet needling remark:

You have a heart-shaped face, I always thought. An old-fashioned face. You were born to play Viola.

Yeah, Well.’ said Hanna.

No?’

Sure,’ said Hanna.

Well you are an actress,’ Constance said, trying to keep the inverted commas out of her voice.‘

Yes I am an actress,’ said Hanna. ‘Yes, that is what I am.’

Well then,’ said Rosaleen, in a soothing tone.

I just don’t,’ said Hanna, ‘I don’t.

Work?’ said Emmet …

Jesus Christ,’ said Hanna losing it. ‘I Just Don’t Want To Play Viola.’

I don’t know how you can say that,’ said her mother, Rosaleen, sadly.

And so on – and so on – as the family drives itself nuts.

Later Anne Enright tells us that:

Rosaleen was impossible to please: The world was queuing up to satisfy her, and the world always failed.

The extraordinary anti-psychiatrist R. D. Laing once published a marvellous book entitled ‘Knots’ which was all about the way most of us, particularly in families, get caught up in webs of psychological tension and which cause us terrible pain. And this almost perfect novel provides a beguiling and affectionate example of these awful and excruciating familial ‘knots.’

Farnham, Surrey – with love from Woodstock, Alabama

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Well, I’ve finished listening to the absorbing and egregiously brilliant podcast ‘Shit Town’. I’m told that it’s been an enormous success in the USA; it’s received very good reviews in the UK too. I’m not surprised. It’s one of the most intelligent forms of social-psychological inquiry I’ve heard.

The podcast tells an extended story about people and personality in the small town of Woodstock (i.e. Shit Town), Alabama. Except it does much more than that: it presents a meditation on time, meaning, sexuality and values. We learn something about the power of a particular social milieu. We hear the deeply personal stories that people come to disclose – if ever they have the chance so to do. (Most of us don’t get that chance.) The characters are fascinating – and they have wonderful names – like Boozer and Shyler and Olin. It’s also an insight into local Alabamian culture as well as suggesting major themes in the national culture of the USA. Central to Shit Town is the art of horology – and the account makes use of the horologist’s understanding and craft in two ways: first, just as a clock can be marked, over time, for good or ill, so might a person be left scarred or might flourish over the course of their lives; one moral of the story is simply to highlight the damage that we can do to people through carelessness or downright abuse. A second reading takes the broken clock as a symbol of America. The once great achievement of the USA is now, in a sense, broken. And the question is how to fix it rather than ruin it completely.

Shit Town is a delight to hear: often the dialogues are just plain hilarious. Sometimes the accounts are poignant or tragic or heart-rending. Many of the people who are interviewed in the podcast speak eloquently and with charming clarity. I have the feeling that American english is beginning to outstrip all other forms of english …

However, It got me thinking about the town in which I live. That town is Farnham in Surrey, England. It’s supposed to be one of the better towns in the south of England.

BUT I came to the conclusion that Farnham is a ‘Semi-shit town’.

Why is that? Well, it’s something to do with the old hop fields at the back of where I live. They’re adjacent to me – and run up against my garden. (The original hops still grow on the margins and even creep into and over my hedge. I like to collect the ripening hops at the end of the summer. The hops want to keep on growing. They are important moments of history.) The town could have decided to do something worthwhile with these ancient fields. But no. The fields are going to be built on; there will be a high-density housing development. On paper it all looks very nice. BUT they certainly do not need to stuff more houses into a town that is already well on the way to becoming a well-heeled version of Shit Town, Alabama. The demise of the hop fields is perfectly emblematic of everything that is going wrong with Farnham, Surrey.

This is just one example. There are many many more. But one will do.

Farnham is becoming visibly degraded despite it’s image of being a ‘craft town’ or an ‘historic market town.’ It’s becoming over-developed, clogged with traffic, polluted and crude. It’s shabby and incoherent. What a pitiful piece of town management it represents. What a complete lack of imagination …

Farnham, Surrey nicely sums up the prevailing south-of-England culture: It’s a culture dominated by ROI – by return on investment – of setting upon things as if they were mines or resources ready to yield something – anything – that is profitable. (Just as Heidegger foresaw.) It’s a culture dominated by the pleasure principle. Consume or die.

There are practical models of sustainable development – but it’s hard to see any evidence of their realisation in Farnham, Surrey. There must be ways of developing towns that are fit to house the human spirit; I wish Farnham could be one of them.

P.S. John B. McLemore, the central figure in Shit Town Alabama, around which the whole series constellated, was despairing because he saw that the world was going to hell-in-a-hand-basket and that very few people were ready to do anything about it. Impossible as he may have been, he remains an inspirational figure.

At the conclusion of Shit Town its producers publish some of the details contained in a final text left by John B. McLemore. He writes:

I’ve spent time in idle palaver, with violets, lyer leaf sage, heliopsis, and monkshood, and marveled at the mystery of monotropa uniflora. I have audited the discourse of the hickories, oaks, and pines, even when no wind was present. I have peregrinated the woods in winter under the watchful guard of vigilant dogs, and spent hours entranced by the exquisiteness and delicacy of tiny mosses and molds, entire forests, within a few square inches. I have also run thrashing and flailing from yellow jackets.

Before I could commence this discourse [i.e. the final note], I spent a few hours out under the night sky, re-acquainting myself with the constellations like old friends. Sometimes I just spent hours playing my records. Sometimes I took my record players and CD players apart just to peek inside and admire the engineering of their incongruous entrails. Sometimes I watched Laverne & Shirley or old movies or Star Trek. Sometimes I sat in the dark and listened to the creaking of the old house.

I have lived on this blue orb now for about 17,600 days, and when I look around me and see the leaden dispiritedness that envelops so many persons, both young and old, I know that if I die tonight, my life has been inestimably better than that of most of my compatriots. Additionally, my absence makes room and leaves some resources for others who deserve no less than I have enjoyed.

Footnote: The reason that I think American english is beginning to outstrip the forms of english spoken in the UK is because of the richness of its new metaphors and similes – as well as its sheer inventiveness and evocative power.