On momentum, mayhem and revolting minions

… some moments are nice, some are
nicer, some are even worth writing about.

– Charles Bukowski

I didn’t intend to blog about politics so frequently, but the changes in the political climate in Britain at the moment are monumental and too elusive not to savour on a blog post.

We’re in a unique time where change is happening as we speak. Yesterday, shortly after the Observer reported that Hilary Benn might challenge Jeremy Corbyn after a vote of no confidence in the Labour leader, he was sacked. Since then one moment’s change has led to another; co-ordinated resignations of shadow cabinet members throughout the day yesterday, and spilling over into today – with Angela Eagle, Lisa Nandy and Owen Smith amongst the latest – hack away at what remains of the crumbling edifice of Corbyn’s authority.

Since Sunday 26th June more Labour shadow ministerial team has resigned than there are Liberal Democrats MPs – several times over. Confidence in Corbyn is so low, and despite his victory last year,  it isn’t a surprise as he has lurched from one disappointing move to another, culminating in his inability to offer any whole-hearted support for the Remain In campaign last Thursday. This scoop from Paul Waugh exposes just some of the ways in which Corbyn and his team failed in their duty to back a Remain vote.

It’s  sad but not surprising  to see the vote of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn; he’s always struck me as the sort of man who might be interesting to share a chat and a kale and avocado smoothie with, but he’s not ever going to inspire a win for Labour the next general election. That is clearer than ever now.

Some people think Corbyn is wonderful and they will be sorry to see him go. However, since last Friday, the door has been opened to negative behaviour between people on social media and on the streets, legitimising xenophobia, racism and expressions of blind, uninformed prejudice. Pandora’s box is open.

At the same time, figures in the Leave campaign are slowly rowing back on their promises. Iain Duncan Smith and Nigel Farage have poured cold water over the idea that there will be £350 million pounds a week to spend on the NHS. Michael Gove and Dan Hannan seem to have already admitted that net migration is unlikely to fall. People will realise they have been sold a lie by the Leave campaign and the Tory right. And that’s before we even consider Johnson’s (I’m not indulging ‘Boris’ anymore) bizarre Telegraph article.

We now need an inspirational leader to counteract the Johnson and the Farage impetus. It needs to be someone who can gain voters’ trust and loyalty against a backdrop of blatant Brexit lies – the shameless betrayal of the voting public over the next few months. I’m not sure who it is but I do know who it isn’t. Jeremy Corbyn was never properly committed to a Remain vote and his efforts to back the party line have been interpreted by many as dishonesty. He is the party’s most Eurosceptic leader in over 30 years and many Labour party members blame him for failing to inspire a Remain vote last Thursday.

Corbyn won the leadership vote hands down in September, many fans believing him to be a principled man whose policies and ideas were an antidote to right wing hegemony. He certainly seems to adhere to his personal code of ethics but the legacy of his appointment is the leadership of  a man who treats the Labour party  as a rest home for his intransigent speeches and stubborn personal ideals.

It certainly hasn’t worked. Ben Bradshaw, MP for Exeter, called Corbyn’s leadership ‘abysmal’ on television yesterday. Corbyn is now believed to have put his party’s future in jeopardy. Alex Massie of The Spectator says ‘Jeremy Corbyn has killed Labour’.

We are in interesting times. Nicola Sturgeon says that the Scottish Parliament could try and block the UK leaving the EU. I won’t pretend to know the legal or the constitutional ramifications of such an issue, but the political consequences could be seismic. We were assured by the Leave campaign that the spectre of a second Independence referendum was simply ‘Project Fear,’ but Nicola Sturgeon has cannily waited for her moment, and many English and Welsh voters have given the SNP exactly what they wanted.

Our politics are in turmoil – and Jeremy Corbyn’s weak leadership of the Labour Party is part of the malaise. I don’t know exactly who I want to fill the gap – Hilary Benn and Lisa Nandy, both touted as potential contenders – have ruled themselves out in recent days. I know the new leader will need to be able to unite a fragile and disparate party. I know he or she will need the courage and the nous to take the fight to the Tories and hold them to account for the post-Brexit deal they plan. I know they will need the charisma and the nerve to fight a tough snap general election this Autumn, if the eventuality arises. I know Jeremy Corbyn can’t do any of this, and that’s why he has to go.

We face mounting political and constitutional crises. The government is in paralysis. The opposition is dysfunctional. Scotland may be on the verge of a second referendum. The pound has fallen to its lowest level in 30 years. Britain is nervous. Someone has to step into the vacuum – either that, or we allow it to be filled by the toxic smoke of Nigel Farage and the fug of our own fear.

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On Stronger In, the Brexit victory and what happens next…

The days have gone when the Labour Party were the party of the working people. I think this is the case now, given the huge numbers who voted for Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage’s Leave campaign and who contributed towards their majority. I’ve read a variety of slogans and opinions on Facebook and articles in newspapers, and followed TV and newspaper debates, and the one factor which seems to epitomise the Brexit Campaign is the validation of emotion over logic and fear over fact.

The Brexit campaign has gathered voters with slogans like ‘take back control’. Of course, those words don’t really mean anything, but it is meant to suggest that Britain has little control over its future prospects while it remains a member of the European Union and, by leaving the EU, we somehow have the capacity to maximise the future potential of the country we live in and move towards equal opportunity and prosperity while, at the same time, improving education, housing and the NHS.

The Labour party has failed to do what it should do – inspire, support and represent the (wo)man in the street. This has left space for Farage and Johnson to gain popularity, to appeal to ‘the ordinary person, the decent person’, despite having no clear plan and despite having propelled their campaign forward on the back of lies and bigotry.

So where does that leave us today? The people have made their choice, a marginal victory for Brexit,  based on a response to debates and discussions presented on television and through the media.

Today, the day after the vote, the pound has fallen to its lowest level in over three decades, David Cameron has resigned. Although Cameron is a Tory, I came to admire his comparative integrity and liberalism, and I believe his perspective throughout the campaign was led by honesty and  fairness. On the other hand, Nigel Farage has stated on TV that the early promise to divert an extra £350 million a week to the NHS, a promise emblazoned on his battle bus, was ‘a big mistake’. Showing an insensitivity which borders on indecency, he said in his winning speech that he won the revolution:

“without having to fight, without a single bullet being fired”.

So here we are on what he’s calling Independence Day, and the people of our country are bitter, divided and in shock. Holland and France have rightwing, populist politicians calling for a similar referendum. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted overwhelmingly to stay in and strongly wish to remain. We are now at the brink of an isolationist period where peace and prosperity are under threat.

England may once have been a beacon for tolerance and compassion – we were inclusive and democratic, but we are now promoting  isolationism and it highlights the widespread political disaffection across the country. Johnson and his cronies know this, and their campaign of shallow truths and brittle policies, based on populist language and impossible promises,exploited ordinary people’s insecurities.

Since the campaign began, there has been a change in the tone of our debate about immigration which now legitimises xenophobia: this cannot simply have been caused by nihilistic press reports and the overt racist language and semiotics used by some Leave campaigners. It appears acceptable now to give voice to narrow minded bigotry and, so long as it is prefaced by ‘I’m not racist, but…’ it is often accepted as a valid perspective. Before the campaign began, it might have been challenged and rejected as dangerous.

I am concerned for the people who are perceived as ‘outsiders’ who live and work here, and I wonder what their experience will be now in this climate of fear and hatred. The country has been divided into so many ‘us’ and ‘them’ groups who will possibly blame each other for what happens next. It was seldom mentioned in the campaign that it is government policies, not immigrants, which have caused the problems in the NHS, housing and education. So many of the wrongly scapegoated immigrants make a really positive and vital contribution to our economy and to institutions like the NHS. Now the young are blaming  older people for the Brexit vote, despite pensioners being told they will ‘rue the day’ and despite the example of Sheila Hancock’s passionate speech about the European alliance having kept peace for seventy years.

Brendan Cox and his children are bereaved now. Yvette Cooper was threatened on social media. The New Statesman tells us that even Boris Johnson has had his share of voters’  dissatisfaction, so high are emotions running:

“You’re an idiot,” one tearful passerby can be heard screaming. “Fucking arsehole!” yells another. “Fuck off Boris!” screams a third.

I have admired several politicians’ contribution to this campaign, whatever their political party allegiance. Nicola Sturgeon, Sadiq Khan and Ruth Davidson led the Stronger In campaign with the conviction, candour  and rationality which was markedly absent in many other politicians’ delivery. (Jeremy Corbyn himself was markedly absent for most of the campaign.)

The best thing to come from the referendum debacle was the opportunity to observe inter-party politicians’ positive  and collaborative contribution. So one of the worst things was to witness the weakness and apathy of the Labour leader who failed to offer any valid leadership on the issue. Another down side of the campaign was the  transparent lies and shallow truths of other politicians who had a vested interest in Brexit and a clear personal agenda.

It will be interesting to see what happens next. The choice of new Prime Minister will be pivotal. Boris Johnson was accused of self interest, thought by many to be seeking the post for himself: his ambition may have propelled his actions throughout the campaign. Nigel Farage has called for a ‘Brexit Prime Minister’ today.

We now have a divided country where unrest and insecurity prevail. Yesterday, we were part of a European community. Today we look down into an abyss from the brink and have no idea whether a path will miraculously appear or whether we will plummet. Many voters have been persuaded  to listen to empty Brexit rhetoric rather than to heed the experts who gave valid warnings of what would happen financially. And there is now a strong sense of divide which is not just about race, class or party politics, but there is a gulf separating so many people throughout the UK into different groups of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Sadiq Khan touched on this when he named the Brexit campaign ‘Project Hate’.

England is in a state of turmoil. It is likely there may be another Scottish referendum. Many jobs may be lost. The environment, the economy, so much is in limbo and under threat. Whatever happens next must not be based on fear and hatred, but on a sense of fairness and community spirit.

Liverpool, a city which understands the effects of social poverty and personal hardship, voted to remain in the EU at the referendum by 58.1%. In total 118,453 people voted to stay in the European Union, with 85,101 wanting to leave. However, Councillor Paul Brand warned:

‘Whatever the national result, all of us elected to office need to listen to people who feel left behind. Many believed (wrongly) they had nothing to lose by voting for Brexit. They are often the hardest hit as the Government cuts bite in the City.’

His comments should  be foremost in our minds as we move forward to the future. I still haven’t forgotten the words of an audience member of one of the televised debates, when a man referred to the Brexit politicians as World War I generals sending their men blindly over the top towards the unknown.

I hope he was wrong but he may well have been exactly right. I’ll leave you with a song which sums up the result for me.

Winchester Writers’ Weekend: more than just words.

I was excited to be travelling to the Winchester Writers’ Festival with two talented  writer friends. It was the first time I’d been to this festival and I was really looking forward to the workshops, the talks and meeting the agents.
Given the horror stories I’d  heard beforehand of writers rushing out of their sessions with an agent, reduced to tears, straight into the arms of an  agony aunt specially employed to pick up the pieces, I was fascinated by what the whole experience would really be like.
The one-to-ones with literary agents are an exceptional opportunity to meet professionals who work in the industry at the cutting edge of the vocation we writers are trying to access. They are mostly young women, but with a number of older agents of both genders, all having been doing their job for a long time and on the lookout for a writer whose work is saleable, the agents were an active group of people who were clearly focused on business.
I met four agents and, in every case, they were complimentary and positive. The point is, though, that while praise is nice, all agents offered me ways I could make my novel and the package that goes with it more accessible and potentially successful. As writers, we aren’t in search of fans among our agents , we are looking for real ways to improve and to go forward.That is really the whole point of the festival. We know we’re good but how can we make our product better and how can it be moulded to fit the gap it will inevitably fill?
One agent suggested I change my novel title; another loved my title. This is  excellent: it enables us as writers to be flexible and to learn quickly that the industry is subjective and that each agent has his or her own set of requirements which are simply different from those of another agent. As writers, we need to be resilient and able to change our work while holding on to and resolving what is essentially important to us in our own writing.
I had a great experience from four positive and clever agents, women who knew their stuff. They could not have been more helpful and they all managed to squeeze an incredible amount of information into a tight fifteen minutes slot. Given how many writers with different packages they must have met over two days, they must have been exhausted, yet I still came away from each one-to-one having been helped uniquely with my novel and I felt important.
I’m now clear about what I need to do to make my novel leap from the page and surge forward. I believe the one-to-ones are a key opportunity for all writers to achieve success more quickly and effectively. Also, the agents weren’t afraid to tel it like it is: other writers told me of positive experiences and of meetings where they were clearly told what needed to change. What can be more useful to an aspiring writer than that?
On the Saturday morning, we had a keynote speaker for the festival. As  a creative person, I have a low boredom threshold. I have seen so many keynote speakers who haven’t done it for me. Recently I was at a university keynote speech, where the speaker chatted blandly to a beaming front row of friends while the rest of us yawned and stretched and looked at the ceiling.
However the keynote speaker, writer Meg Rosoff,  was inspirational. She was able to put her finger exactly on the essence of good writing, striking a strong chord with most if not all writers in the room. I’ll now buy her books, even though she doesn’t write in my genre. I can learn from good writers like Meg- we all can.
I went to an interactive workshop on writing with author, Judy Waite. It was the last slot in the afternoon, when everyone was tired and thinking about going to the pub. Her session  blew me away. I have been in education for  years, on both sides of the desk, and I can recognise talent, dedication and passion. Her input was exceptional and I really benefited from the work she did. We read our stuff back and there was no doubt that her methods had made everyone think hard  in terms of writing visual detail.
One interesting observation, though, is that the men in the group volunteered to read their ideas back first, and then a few hesitant women followed. Why do we do that? It is something I need to resolve personally. Do we fear criticism, are we too modest  or, as women, do we simply let the men go first? Without doubt, the last reader, a woman, had the most interesting and clever writing style I’d heard that day. Why do we hang back? I will give that one some serious thought.
The weekend’s talks and workshops and meetings were great. As if that wasn’t enough, Winchester University is a fabulous place, both in terms of setting and for food and relaxation. I’m a vegan and therefore used to being given slug-filled lettuce and bland tomatoes at mealtimes when I go on such events, but the food was the best I’ve had in any higher education establishment and the service was so good. I was astonished by all the shiny happy people I met. Winchester is such a positive place
I spoke to an interesting and kind lady who talked to me about PhD opportunities at Winchester and I came away really excited. I met lovely people-new writers from Rome and Paris and Stoke-on-Trent. I ate out in the picturesque town and even sat in a pub which served superfood quinoa salad. Heaven!
We three travelling writers came away having been improved and delighted and inspired.
I couldn’t have had a better weekend.Thanks to all involved!

Crediton Food Fair: a festival with great taste.

I went to the Crediton Food Festival this weekend because one of my stories had been shortlisted in the Crediton Writers’ competition. It was pouring with rain, I’d eaten nothing for breakfast and I had to get up at five o’clock to make it on time. But it was certainly worth it- what a great way to spend an afternoon!

I’d never been to Crediton before- it’s a beautiful friendly town marred only by one shop dedicated to the EU leave campaign, full of predictable snarling Sun newspaper clippings. Fair play to free speech though!  I went in a coffee shop and had an almond milk latte- perfect!

The Festival, when I arrived, was in full swing and it was brilliant, despite the downpour, and everything was so well organised. There were lots of stalls dedicated to cakes, which I don’t eat, but which looked incredible for cake lovers, so I bought some for them.

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With lots of tastings on offer, I sampled some Porter Stout, which looked like
the stuff my Grandma used to drink, bottle in one hand and clay pipe in the other. It
was thick and chewy and sweet -you could taste the nutrients.

I bought some Fasole bătută which is Romanian hummus, with the most delicious seed
bread, to take home for tea, and some Latvian cake for friends.

Then I bought freshly cooked vegetable noodles with chilli and garlic, which was sublime smothered with sweet chilli sauce. Lunch was excellent.

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A local wine winemaker had some good wine on offer and I sampled a white and a red before buying bottles of them. It never occurred to me that English wine could be superb, and inexpensive too. I will definitely buy it again.

Recipe idea below – new potatoes, steamed and cooked in butter.(I make my own vegan butter and that will work well) – and cider. What a treat.

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Apples baked in cider

There were sausages and roast wild boar and scotch eggs, burgers and falafels and paella and crêpes and cakes and cakes and cakes and the nicest, most happy people enjoying the festival, rain or no rain.People were scoffing all sorts of fine food beneath dripping tarpaulins to the sound of a swing band and there were charity fundraisers,  In -campaigners and face painters, adding to the positive flavour of the festival.

I received second prize too for my story, The Hotchiwitchi Cake, the first prize going to someone who couldn’t collect it because they lived in New Zealand,and there were lots of international entries, which added to the flavour of the festival. There was a real atmosphere of collective fun. It was a celebration of food and wine and words, a small Devon town showing that you don’t have to be big to be beautiful and that community spirit, good taste and a sense of fun is alive and well and living in Crediton. I will certainly go next year. Wouldn’t miss it, rain or no rain!

11 pictures of Pushkin the cat that tell us why we should vote ‘Remiaown’ in the referendum

Introducing Pushkin. Alexandra Pushkin or Alexandra Pushkin-Boots. Or sometimes Pyuuuuuuuuuushkin or Little Pushkin or Ditta Puuuushkin or Puskh. Or Puuuussshhhy. Or Ditta. As T. S. Eliot says in ‘The Naming of Cats’: ‘a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES…’

Eliot says that a cat’s

… mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name

So, let’s settle for Pushkin. Her background is a mystery. She was found by some friends among the dustbins in Anfield; she was scrawny and begging for food and a home. She was so hungry she’d become desperately affectionate, she’d have made friends with anyone and that put her at risk so we checked with a vet that she had no local owner or identity chip and then I brought her home.

The local vet said she was about eighteen months old-in a poor state: underweight, weak, all sorts of health problems hovering on the horizon but, almost a year later, Pushkin is strong, happy and full of fun. She does all the cute catty things: head butts, bleps, kisses, hugs, face licks, rolling over for tummy rubs; she’ll gently  bite a cheek or a nose and then purr and stick her butt in your face. She’s a totally different cat now, full of energy and well-fed. She’ll beat the other two cats, Colin and Magick, to the food bowls and she can be quite assertive if there is a treat or a biscuit on offer.

Has the cat got your tongue? The answers are on the tip of hers!

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And she can be highly purr-litical…Here are some of her mew-sings and hy-purr-theses on the current EU referendum. You’ve heard of Buzzfeed? This is Pushkinfeed. This is her EU Fel-IN-e campaign.

Why we should vote to stay in the EU

1. Paws for thought! If we leave, who can predict what is a whisker away? No-one!

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2. Thoughts to chew on. Get your teeth into the facts not the fear!

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3. Hold on to this thought a minute – when you have a good thing, why let it go?

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4. Free trade means a lower price for your weekly shop, and more money in your pocket.

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5. A strong and stable economy is good for job creation, and the EU protects workers’ rights.

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6. Pensioners can retire and live abroad and their state pensions will be more valuable.

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7. Brits can holiday, travel and work throughout the EU without difficulty.

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8. Better security: the European Arrest Warrant will make it easier to deport criminals across the EU.

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9. Money for jobs and small businesses. 8.7 billion has been allocated to create new jobs and start up small businesses.

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10. Studying abroad for young people will be easier.

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11. And if we do vote Remain, then we can all sleep safely at night… sweet dreams!

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Positive Mental Attitude is a winner every time

When I was doing my previous job, the one I loved doing before I gave it all up to become a full time writer and have the very best time of my life, I was still the happy soul I am today. I used to sing while I was working. I’d smile, joke, hug people and generally enjoy myself. Once I played the track James Brown’s I Feel Good and incited people to get on tables and dance. I am like that, spontaneous and cheerful.

Then, out of the blue, one day  a colleague passed me and threw me a dagger-look of pure anger and hissed ‘Why are you always so bloody positive?’

I laughed, then stopped laughing and wondered why she was feeling so negative. Perhaps she was unwell or someone she cared about was unwell. Perhaps she had anxieties or problems which caused her to be grumpy. So I became even nicer to her. She shortly left her job and went to live in a place where the sun shone every day.

I saw her a week ago and she looked great. The worries of the job were behind her, she had a really good view of the world.It was nice to see her feeling so happy about life.

Positive Mental Attitude is not always easy to achieve but it really helps if we can try to use it in our everyday lives.

My Dad was a glass-half-empty person and I completely understand why. His life was the dregs at the bottom of the bottle most of the time and he did really well to make the glass even half full. He was at his best when he was laughing, dancing on neighbour’s walls and making mischief, or finishing off the contents of a glass. I really admire him for making the most of nothing and I feel privileged that we’re so much luckier nowadays.

Having a PMA is something we can all work towards and I can think of some strategies to keep positive even when the excrement hits the cooling device.

 

  • First of all, you might choose to have a sankalpa, a positive message or affirmation you repeat to yourself, a promise from the heart which is repeated daily or even more frequently with a determination to succeed. It may be in two parts: firstly, a statement about something already in place, such as ‘I accept and love who I am.’ The second is a resolution or a goal you would like to become a way of life, such as ‘I am open to the opportunities life will offer me.’ Perhaps it is wise to spend a few days thinking about and choosing the right sankalpa so that it is meaningful to you and will become part of your daily routine. Say your sankalpa three times, when you are relaxed or meditating,  and it will impress itself onto the subconscious and become a mantra to help you move forward. Say it three times before going to sleep. You might like to research this further: I recommend swami Satyananada Saraswati’s book  Yoga Nidra.
  • Don’t dwell on  what others say to you or about you. Their opinions are theirs, not yours. Whether what they are saying is positive or negative, it cannot affect you unless you let it. Of course, if you want to accept a kindness or a compliment from someone else, then thank them and return the positivity, but remember it is only ever their opinion and that neither embodies them nor you. We are more than just what we say and think. We are not simply defined by our feelings or our words.
  • Move forward from difficult situations. Again, those situations which make us feel stuck and uncomfortable do not define us. Give yourself a time limit. Say ‘I will allow this to bother me for an hour, then I will stop.’ Write whatever is difficult on a piece of paper and throw it away or burn it. Allow yourself to move forward and…
  • Forgive yourself. You will get things wrong, mess up, make mistakes, need to start again. Try not to blame yourself or others as that is just a way of stopping yourself moving forward. We fall down, we get up, we walk a bit straighter. It’s ok to get it wrong, smile, say sorry and move on. Life is full of all sorts of lessons but self punishment isn’t one of them.
  • You control what you feel and how you react. Nobody else does. You are master of yourself.Or mistress.Nobody knows you better than you do so, finally, what you decide is always down to you. Enjoy that privileged position and own it.
  • Embrace life, enjoy what is happening now in the knowledge that we are here to experience every moment whether things change or stay the same. Learn from any challenges and move forward without feeling guilty, just educated instead.
  • Love yourself and reflect it on other people. Cream called it ‘Sunshine of your love.’ Radiate happiness, and positivity will come back to you.
  • Play good positive music to lift your spirits. Happy music, music you love, which makes you smile, sing, dance. Start wearing purple. .Avoid Bobby Goldsboro’s Honey like the plague at all times.

PMA comes with a warning though. The Pollyanna- head-in-the-clouds attitude, belief  that the world’s all lovely and nice and honey will fall from the skies and positive thinking will transform all things bad is simply not real, it’s what comes out of the back end of a male cow.

Be realistic, grounded, rooted and aware of the negativity which is around us.There are curmudgeons and misanthropes and grumps, people who are genuinely unhappy and some of the time things may not always go well for people so they have good reason to be sad. So people who beam relentlessly in the face of adversity and greet every negative situation with a cheesy ‘Peace and love and wait for the karma to come around ‘ can be quite annoying to the average person, and a bit of empathy is a very useful attribute when faced with someone who isn’t seeing the world from the highest vantage point.

Think of my poor work colleague. My positive attitude really annoyed her and spoiled her day.That was far from my intention but she was clearly seeking the solace of those people she felt an affinity with: people she could complain with and then empathise with.

The answer then is to spend time with those you love and enjoy the company of good people. Enjoy your own company too- after all, you are good company.And if you can shed off any burdens which weigh life down, then it can’t do any harm.

It’s fine to go for your dreams but give people respect while you are doing it. Believe you can do it, whatever it is, and then you will, but also be aware that if you don’t, it’s no big deal. Next time you’ll nail it.

 

Beasts of no Nation: a novel about a boy and a gun

Uzodinma Iweala’s novel Beasts of no Nation is a brutal story about a boy who is forced to become a soldier. I read it in an hour and it has real impact. It’s written in the present continuous tense, which  gives it a sense of immediacy and the voice of the character is omnipresent, youthful and naive,. His language is idiosyncratic and optimistic, despite being faced with a horrific and life-changing experience.

Agu, the narrator, is a bright boy and a promising scholar with an ambition to become a ‘big man,’ a doctor or an engineer; then civil war breaks out and his family is dissipated and he is taken to become a soldier.We are never told in which country the story takes place: the fact that it is in an unnamed part of West Africa hints at the ubiquitous prevalence of child soldiers.

The author Uzodinma Iweala is a Harvard graduate who has worked with the rehabilitation of  Nigerian child soldiers, and his story is expertly written from the boy’s viewpoint, a simple story which focuses on each moment Agu experiences, using language which graphically but simply describes incidents, emotions and reactions.

At times there is an almost comic- book style to Agu’s speech, emphasising his lost childhood, in phrases like ‘War is coming and you are seeing airplane and hearing GBWEM GBWEM’  and ‘I am liking sound of knife chopping KPWUDA KPWUDA on her head.’

The novel bursts with realistic characters: the tragic Strika who first finds Agu and becomes his friend; the ‘Leftenant’ who comes to a bad end in a brothel, the wild Rambo and the callous Commandant who abuses Agu and terrifies him.

‘Agu, I am not bad man, he is saying softly and putting hand on my back.’

Agu is offered  the simple choice of death or life as a soldier: he joins the rebel troops and he is given a knife. We are with him as he marches, as he is given ‘gun juice’ which takes away the terror of killing. We experience his wretchedness, his efforts to survive, his omnipresent fear, loneliness, hunger and the contrasting pride and degradation of being a guerilla soldier.Throughout, Agu provides us with his own philosophy as he is forced to murder, rape and question his own humanity, and we see the pointless repetition of sacrifice, starvation and slaughter through his eyes.

Using flashbacks, Agu contrasts his life as a soldier with the happiness of his former life, remembering his hopes for a future to become a man of importance, and recalling the tragic loss of his natural  lifestyle where feasting and warrior dancing was a part of his family experience.  He tells of how he often played with makeshift guns with friends, a sharply ironic image against his premature coming of age as a soldier.

The story ends with Agu and the rest of his dishevelled soldier band walking home. Agu is found by missionaries where he is supported towards recovery, and helped to become physically  stronger. He is encouraged to talk about his feelings and his experiences as a soldier but he is a changed boy, still  ambitious to become a respected professional and to regain self esteem but he is damaged, haunted by nightmare scenes of war, and he is changed, with a bitter lack of faith in the Bible which had once been  his comfort.

Last year, a feature film adaptation of Beasts of no Nation was released, starring  Abraham Attah and Idris Elba.The book is a story of survival and hope but,.mostly, it is a horror story of fractured childhood and a travesty of human rights. It screams out to be read.

 

Last chance to see Krapp…

It’s not often Beckett comes to Devon.

I have seen brilliant Becketts in our big cities but the Cygnet’s version of Krapp’s Last Tape in Exeter, starring James Elston, is definitely worth catching. It runs until June 11th.

I am a real Beckett fan and I have been fortunate to see master actors on stage performing   Beckett’s superb works: Thewlis, McBurney, Margolyes, Rylance, Stewart and the sublime McKellen. I have seen Krapp’s Last Tape, starring John Hurt.

So, when a new, young actor tries to step into the shoes of giants, it appears audacious, risky and a bit mad, to say the least. The Cygnet is a little theatre and, when I went last night, the auditorium was just half full. The sound quality was poor and the synchronised sound-timing wasn’t always great. That would have put off a novice, but James Elston is made of tougher stuff.

He began the play by being seated on stage as the audience came in, deep in thought and surrounded by a spider’s web of spools and tapes and junk, signifying his personal confusion. He sustained this focus for several minutes when the lights dimmed and the performance began, taking an age to create a physical and idiosyncratic Krapp. This was not indulgent, however – it was about creating detail in the character and setting the scene.

Krapp is a ‘wearish old man’ in his late sixties, listening to a tape he made aged 39, and reminiscing about lost love and time, which have slipped away from him, leaving him indulgent, alone and morose. James Elston is covered in dust and, with grey hair and eyebrows, creaking across the stage, he looks not unlike Beckett himself. He is an old man, his tongue poking through dry lips, his voice cracked and not used to speech. Elston is utterly credible, despite only being in his early twenties.

It is a study of solipsism, showing exactly how loneliness and being distanced from your own life can render a person both self-indulgent and separate. Krapp listens like a bystander to the tape of his younger voice which tells of a love affair which he let slip through his fingers. Krapp’s story is a sad one, and Elston recreates the selfish old man without animosity; he physicalises the character’s grotesqueness without excessive humour or cruelty.

Krapp’s current existence is pointless: he drinks too much alcohol, he eats bananas and slips on the skin, he is lonely,  but he is never a figure of fun, nor do we wallow in his predicament. James Elston creates Krapp as he is, a man for whom time and memory are both painful and inescapable.

Image result for Krapp's last tape recording machine

Beckett’s absurdist play is intelligently interpreted by Elston: with strong physicality and striking facial expressions,  Krapp struggles with his lost eloquence and wasted youth. His dilemma is that he has missed the  opportunity to live his life fully, but he says  of the frittered years ‘I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn’t want them back.’

Elston is a striking and magnetic figure on stage; Krapp, while not being quite empathic enough to be endearing, is also not a tragic figure, although he has no options remaining to him in terms of life choices. As he plays his last tape, Krapp is centre stage, suffocated by his own lost time and wasted love.

Time is the central theme of this absurdist play: Krapp reflects on his past and struggles to understand a time beyond the present. The stage set embodies his isolation and the pointlessness of his life: his small room is a circle of lights and heaps of detritus, used and unravelled tape spools, empty bottles, skinned bananas.

Krapp’s Last Tape isn’t an easy play to perform: beyond it being a one-man-show, which demands great concentration from the actor, it is a Beckett, sometimes impenetrable for some audience members, frustrating for others but, as a whole piece, it is both meaningful and moving.

James Elston manages to capture the character and the moment and he creates an impactful and memorable Krapp. He is an actor who will benefit from playing such demanding roles: if he can create a credible Krapp in his early twenties, he has the potential to take on any role in the future with the promise of certain success.

Don’t miss the opportunity to see Krapp’s Last Tape in the Cygnet, Exeter, this week. The theatre should be full. It’s a great play, and it’s performed with sensitivity, panache and understanding.

Image result for Krapp's last tape recording machine

On the E.U. vote: wars, words and perceptions of truth.

The referendum vote on June 23rd is one of the most important political decisions in our lifetime and, I have to admit, at the beginning I didn’t think the Leave campaign was likely to win.

I spent some time in Europe last month and I had lunch with some French and Belgian people who told me they were genuinely worried. If Britain left Europe, they said, it would start a precedent for other countries to consider leaving. One Belgian man, in his seventies, was concerned that European peace, a stability we have all taken for granted for seventy years, might suffer as a consequence.

Last week I watched the debate programmes EU: In or Out on TV. I’m not David Cameron’s biggest fan, but I remember the slick job he did on TV during the General Election of 2015, and how he spoke competently  and won the battle of words which finally saw Ed off, and I will concede he can be both dignified and articulate, and capable of demonstrating integrity.

He did well in the televised debate, despite being heckled by some aggressive people. There was a woman who scoffed ‘I’m an English Literature student so I know waffle when I see it.’ I gave her comments little credence: as a Literature graduate and postgraduate, I’ve read lengthy works, such as Joyce and Proust, Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ and most of Dickens’ novels. But I don’t recollect being offered the Waffle Recognition module, and perhaps one person’s waffle is another’s epic poem. However, her comments were received by Brexit campaigners as an insightful put-down. And then that great philosopher and orator, Nigel Farage, judged Cameron’s part in the debate  as ‘poor.’  I didn’t understand how he could have possibly seen the performance as anything less than very competent: David Cameron stood firm and articulate in the wake of some nasty snipers.

The following day, Michael Gove, for whom I have little time, having worked in education, took the stand. Faisal Islam made a good job of questioning him and Gove responded by becoming angry, supercilious or by evading the questions. On the Sunday Politics show, Gove was heralded as the winner of the week’s televised debate. I don’t get how rudeness trumps integrity and how distorted statistics trump careful, logical answers founded in fact and research.

So, now it appears that the margin between the In and Out campaigners is becoming closer than I thought possible.

Again, I’ve never been a John Major fan, but he spoke out well this weekend against the Brexit campaign. He said the NHS would be at risk from Gove and Johnson. On the BBC1 Andrew Marr show, Major said:

“The NHS is about as safe with them as a pet hamster would be with a hungry python.”

He added Johnson was a ‘court jester’ although Andrew Neil on  Sunday Politics referred to him with the familiar Boris: he was the only politician not to be called by a full name or just a surname.

Boris Johnson  has been photographed doing what he does best, ingratiating himself in front of the media with the British people. I saw him pretending to auction a cow at a Farmers’ Market, surrounded by a bunch of jocund clapping chaps. I was surprised that any farmers thought it wise to consort with Johnson: the National Farmers’ Union passed a resolution to back the Remain campaign,  following an overwhelming vote in favour of staying in the EU, which it said was based on the ‘balance of existing evidence’.

Johnson was seen waving a pasty at the public in Truro from his Brexit battle bus, and he now faces the embarrassing fact that the pasty itself is protected by Europe. The ubiquitous Cornish pasty was given protected status by the European Commission in 2011 to prevent cheap imitations being produced elsewhere in the country.

I am mystified, given the huge amount of logical and factual evidence which overwhelmingly backs remaining in the EU, how the Brexit bunch are doing so well.

However, there is now a most worrying tide of overt hysteria, based on fear and scaremongering, which is rushing in with the Brexit campaign. Brexit has given people an opportunity to scream disturbing anti-immigration propaganda on live TV and in public forums. Recently I was handing out Stronger In information leaflets in a town centre, and a man shouted abuse from the other side of the street, saying something about allowing the ‘bloody Turks’ to come into our country in droves.

I don’t like to contemplate where such xenophobia might lead.

So, at the time of blogging, there are just over two weeks until the referendum. I cannot imagine how opinion will change or how the ‘undecided’ will decide. It seems to me a straightforward battle between logic and common sense, and blindman’s buff scaremongering.

One audience member in the ‘In or Out’ TV debate put it perfectly  last week: he told Gove that he was like a World War 1 General, waving the ordinary soldiers over the top and into battle with no idea of what is out there in no man’s land and without any clue about what will happen to them. It’s a case of the ordinary person propelled blindly forwards and taking all the risks.

I hope all those people who haven’t yet registered to vote do so quickly and use their votes wisely. I am extremely worried about the next Big Push.

Laddish literature? Not in Germaine Greer’s book.

I have just finished reading ‘Shakespeare’s Wife’ by Germaine Greer. It is the most superb read. I love the way Greer becomes a voice in your head when you’re reading this book: you can hear her firmness, the way she is sure of her facts and how she isn’t afraid to proffer an opinion. And this is a book which demands that the writer has an opinion and shares it with conviction.

Shakespeare’s wife is, of course, Ann or Agnes (pronounced Annis) Hathaway, much maligned by the people Greer calls ‘bardolaters’. Ann could not, according to critics, ever have been good enough to be the wife of the great Will. Eight years his senior and pregnant when they married, she must surely have trapped him into an unhappy marriage, been ugly, illiterate, then she was doubtlessly dumped by him when he went off to London to become the greatest English writer ever. As Greer puts it, ‘Shakespeare could not have been great if he had not jettisoned his wife.’ She goes on to demonstrate exactly what she means, suggesting former critics’ opinions have been biased against wives: ‘Literature was a particularly laddish enterprise…’ The rest of Greer’s book cleverly takes each myth about Hathaway’s shortcomings and blasts them apart.

Greer is a researcher, an academic and a sleuth. She cites historical records and Shakespeare’s own works, finding evidence that Ann Hathaway was no ball and chain who held back her brilliant spouse. Greer’s book is lively, erudite and mischievous, a stimulating read full of evidence. It inspired me to want to return to an academic life and study Shakespeare further.

Germaine Greer knows so much about sixteenth century England, the  social conventions, the dates and records, and she strongly puts aside prior assumptions and fantasies about Ann Hathaway and deals with new supposition, hypotheses and likelihood in a way which makes her case absolutely viable.

The treatment of Ann Hathaway by earlier critics is inherently misogynistic or superficial; Greer shows us another Ann, who was independent, strong and an influential partner in Shakespeare’s work.

Greer creates an interesting picture of the courtship between Ann and Will,. citing one of his sonnets, number 145, which she claims was written for Ann. She calls it syntactically  ‘baggy… almost dropsical’ which made me laugh aloud, but she’s right.

‘I hate’ from hate away she threw

And saved my life, saying ‘not you’

Greer throws in a mischievous ‘Hurrah’ in at the end of this poem; of course, ‘hate away‘ refers to Hathaway and she suggests that Will courted Ann with his sonnets as it was possibly the only way he could solicit her affections, his family being impoverished at that point.

Greer goes on, citing plays such as Twelfth Night, Merry Wives of Windsor, Cymbeline, As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream  to demonstrate Shakespeare’s attitude to women, exploding myth after myth, using and reinterpreting historical evidence to create a balanced and complex picture of Ann. She covers Hathaway’s  looks, the marriage, Ann’s pregnancy before marriage, and she even suggests that it was Ann who sent Will to London to seek his fortune. Greer tells us how Ann  handled Shakespeare’s last illness and she also mentions his will, the infamous second-best bed and then she boldly suggests that ‘Ann Shakespeare could have been involved in the First Folio project.’

This is beautifully paced and informative book. It is well written: it is always stimulating, entertaining and provocative, as Greer  challenges the current thinking, mostly skewed, outmoded male perspectives, so engagingly. Her writing is confident and persuasive and I read this book in days, enjoying every page and every detail. Brilliant and highly recommended. ‘Shakespeare’s Wife.’ The exposé!