Imperfect Allegiance / One Army

It seemed inevitable that when the world changed in 2007 the world would change.

Working as an artist soon after that time, I made a piece in response to what appeared to be the implosion of capitalism and the welcome prospect of change in the structures of global power. The piece was called Refugee: End of Empire. It consisted of mass-produced Regency figurines in their gilded pomp, their faux bucolic innocence and pure whiteness in a refugee camp. I imagined them as both ends of the British and European Empire/capitalist order: the colonisers themselves, and cheaply churned out, whimsical representations of those colonisers populating windowsills and mantlepieces all over the home land, not a bullwhip or manacle in sight. With the financial crash I imagined their time was over and they were going to find themselves homeless, ejected, powerless.

 

But of course, a powerful system has many resources and the death-grips of that system are frightening and harsh.

Yesterday I listened to the last in the Undisclosed series of podcasts on the Freddie Gray killing. It is such a heartbreaking story. It is not a story, it is a reality. It is a heartbreaking reality. A boy was killed by the police. An appalling death, in a long list of such dreadful killings of black men and women, for which no one has been held to account. The podcast has an addendum hosted by D. Watkins in which the wider issues, the circumstances that made this boy’s death possible are pulled apart and investigated. There is invaluable historical insight from Dr Marcia Chatelain, demonstrating that the circumstances of America’s birth and rise to world power cannot be disentangled from its benefitting from slavery and that this context shapes all the arcs in Freddie Gray’s short and terrible story. D. Watkins, with eloquent anger, hones the contemporary context; the perfidious inability of so many white people to accept the current reality and take responsibility, beyond an occasional bit of privilege-checking, for the vastly, disgustingly unfair system that we live in. It isn’t enough to say you are not racist, if you are daily profiting from a system that is.

These are hard words to hear. Hard but fair. I know they are fair because I know I am the inheritor, however inclusive and broad minded and unbiased I may try to be, of empire. I may reject the regency figurine view of my past, may feel ashamed of the colonial history of the country in which I was born. But that is not enough. I know it when as a young traveller, hanging out in Amsterdam for a year, a feckless blow-in, I was considered less of a foreigner where I worked than the Turkish women who had lived there for years, whose children were born there and attended schools in the city. I know it when I read that my application for anything will be treated more favourably because I don’t have a foreign name. I know it when I think with sorrow, then relief, that also in England, my daughters will have to work harder than their black friends to get arrested and criminalised. I know it when I read about Freddie Gray.

A few days ago there was a programme on Radio Four called A Split in the Sisterhood. It was interesting and frustrating. It is easy to bemoan the constant levels of inter-factional warring that goes on within the feminist movement. I am an instinctive feminist. Not an academic or particularly learned one. I have read lots of the books and missed many others. So, often the differences are lost on me. There is one enemy, so why can’t there be one army? That has been the question that rises from my frustration. And yet, in the light of understanding gleaned from people like D. Watkins and in talks such as The Art of Trespass by Kit De Waal, and many others, I must understand that of course, there needs to be a reassessment of internal structures, that if women of colour feel that they have been sidelined, steamrollered by the white hegemony of the feminist movement, that is untenable; it is a huge failure. But many white women will reject this claim. As I said, it is uncomfortable.

And it is, practically, difficult to negotiate. We may find ourselves uncertain of how to operate alongside people who may expect allies to speak out on their behalf because ones own relative freedoms should be used to amplify the plight of those subject to greater restrictions. Others may want us to stop presuming our right to speak for all women in a way that, often historically, has meant only white, usually middle-class women. It is not easy.

But that is ok. Suck it up and learn.

One army is better, against such an entrenched and ruthless enemy as the status quo. One army. So I wonder if we could engage, with differences and faults accepted but subject to further honing, in an imperfect allegiance. Our paths through life may only give us limited ability to understand the complexities of other lives. But our hearts should be big enough, wide enough, to make an imperfect allegiance and learn from each other on the way. We may not get it right, but we can all respectfully act on the assumption that if we accept a view we haven’t experienced, stay open, it will be got right. We can accept the imperfections, make the allegiance and be open enough that in walking side by side, we will learn. Then maybe, we will make a world that has changed.

Black Rocks and Sparkling Seas

Last week we gathered for my father’s funeral. Though sad, still sad, it was a very happy occasion. He had asked that we lay on a party that he would’ve loved to be at. We certainly did that and he was greatly missed. My brother and sister both spoke at the service and I wrote the piece following this introduction, which was printed in the Order of Service.

My parents divorced many years ago and both went on to have very happy and successful relationships with other wonderful people. They remained great friends. That past and beautifully revised relationship was not marked during the service and I wished that there had been a way to acknowledge it. So, whilst this piece is about my Dad, it is also a way of honouring my Mum, their time together and the wonderful childhood they both made for us.

Black Rocks and Sparkling Seas

Since Dad died, my memories of him have all included water: cold and brown, foaming across rock worn into dark hollows by the river; beaches where the lure of the sea meant there wasn’t time to lie in the sun; boats decked with good cheer and uncertain destinations – sailing boats, motor boats, rowing boats. My first time snorkelling, my last time diving. A childhood in which adventure thrived.

The car was packed. Mum and Dad in the front, us three in the back; no seats, the luggage made the seats. Tents and bags sculpted to resemble a place for us to sit rather than a disaster waiting to happen. It was covered with three blue sleeping bags that would make our scant beds once we arrived. I am not sure how long the journey was but we seemed to slide about on top of the luggage for days, getting hotter and hotter as we headed South, finally crossing on the tatty ferry to Porquerolles. Then, it wasn’t the luxurious resort it reportedly is now. It was a beautiful, rough little island with beaches and a campsite, a town with a square where an old man and a monkey vaguely harassed visitors and shops which sold harsh red wine by the plastic litre bottle.

We camped with two other families; ten or so children become a feral tribe, barefoot and brown for what seemed like a whole carefree summer. Dad, then long-haired and medallion-wearing, spent hours in the sea with us, chasing, throwing, racing, pulling rafts, crashing and diving through the surf. He was shoulders to stand on and dive from; an inexhaustible engine towing us across the waves; an accomplice in those long and happy weeks of beach life.

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A few years ago, Dad and I went on a dive at Black Rock in Brighton. It was a fairly grim October day, there was a vicious surge. Visibility was around one metre. Don’t even ask about the temperature of the water. At around ten metres depth we got to see the tracks of the bizarre Victorian railway that for a while cruised above the sea along the Brighton front. It wasn’t quite the same as the snorkelling that Dad had taught us on those French holidays – seeing a bright green octopus fifteen metres below in crystal clear water of Porquerolles, then diving for sea urchins which we ate with a teaspoon on the beach. But it had the same sense of adventure, of things being possible. Dad was the first diver in the family, engaging keenly with laborious BSAC training in Reading pool and off a brownish beach in Swanage. We all caught the bug eventually – though we smartly took up the sport in light-weight tropical waters.

Dad took Joe sailing in Scotland and the Channel Islands, in companionship with his brother Sim and his friend David and their sons. Happy adventures on top of the sea rather than in or under it – though tales leaked after the fact reveal that it was occasionally a fairly close-run thing.

On trips to Wales, we would walk for hours, finding rivers to swim and streams to dam. Damming a stream could become an epic mission of opportunistic engineering, using mud, branches, moss, stones; a library of local materials pressed into experiment and service. I can still feel the bite of cold in the bones of my wrist, the wet cuff of a coat a zinging reminder once the return leg of the walk resumed. There was one river where dad would sit above us, blocking the flow of water that fell from a narrow channel of rock. Once we were in the right spot he’d unplug the flow and it would come whooshing onto us – the daft thrill of anticipating a sudden surge of freezing, sinus-warping unpleasantness; we loved it.

As well as building or being a dam he’d take us to look at them. The three of us squinting into a sun that bleached our vision as if the sight were already a fading polaroid. I do remember being impressed with the various sizes. But I also remember not having a clue as to why we were there. Of course, now I see it. We were there to wonder. And what a gift. Life is an adventure, life is full of wonder. Look at it children, look at it with joy and see what you can make of it.

What a blessing. With all my heart, thank you Dad. For all of it.

 

Golden

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The heat keeps on, pressing my skin, the continuity is a reminder of where I was just a few days ago. Though time stretches strangely in strange times, makes it seem like I am remembering an epochal, ancient past or a current, fleeting dream.

I was revisiting a place I knew well, my childhood home was not three miles away. A landscape that I love: beech woods, fields and lanes, buildings of red brick and flint. Too many cars but enough space. I could walk once more in the woods, sheltering from the heat and collecting my thoughts. The woods have always been a place to think, to re-order myself. I get the same sense of grounded wonder in a cathedral, a similarly cool and elegantly spanned space. The beech woods and the cathedral create a modicum of awe that sets the tone, then leave us alone, content to let private reverie occupy our attention. With hindsight, I have understood that this, in part, in distant childhood years is what my father was offering me, all three of us, on our baffling day trips to see dams and bridges. Look at the grace of this structure, look how it achieves itself so effortlessly. Look.

Once my thoughts had been reordered on the short walks of this recent visit, I went back to the newer, harder to navigate terrain – smaller and infinitely more vast. A hot room, my dad so thin, the rugged, narrow mountains of his knees rising sharply from his shallow body. The sheer, spare cliffs of his beautiful face. The heat, the heat. The creaking of wooden floors and the electric fan rumbling like thunder edging the unfamiliar horizons. Space stretched too so that the horizons, for some time, were met in this narrow view.

The heavy victorian gothic of the hospice building did not do as a good job as the beech trees of keeping the unusual heat at bay, at least on the sunny side of the building. But it held us all gently, kindly, kept us together and cared for us as we said goodbye to my father over a rapidly changing week this June. Over days that included his birthday, which was also the day he accepted that death was coming, then ordered a gin and tonic for himself, his partner and for me. And only a few days later, Father’s day. The day he died.

After he died, when it was time to leave, I found it hard. I wanted to stay in that dark wooden interior, the gentle embrace of ancient luxury repurposed into a kind of universal love for those suffering at the end of their lives and those suffering at the end of another’s. The care that enclosed me and my siblings, and dad’s partner, had also enclosed him, keeping us all together. It was hard to leave him there, though he had gone.

My dad was an architect, a rock climber, a diver, a sailor, a lover of songs sung with heart. In these later years, for the ever-present joy of sport, he played croquet, one of the most entertainingly vicious games there is – schadenfreude is almost written into the croquet rule book.

He loved with a big and generous heart, if not always with the quickest sense of another’s needs. But he cared deeply and with great, throat-catching emotion about those he loved. He believed in his family. He believed with atheist conviction in the true importance of fairness, liberty and equality. He was a great thrower of parties and a marvellous host.

Sometimes in his time at the hospice he asked us to leave him. It was hard for one of the gifted hosts of the world to be unable to attend to and join his guests. I knew he wanted us with him but it was difficult to rest when his thoughts were on us. So we spent time in the beautiful grounds, in the woods, and in the rooms provided for us – the people visiting a loved one. In that time, my daughter sent me a link to a film she has made as a choreographer and dancer. It is a beautiful piece called Kintsukuroi/Golden Repair. The piece is dedicated at the end to my father, Philip Allison.

That is in itself, a form of golden repair. A way of making the cracks and scars beautiful. To know, from his actions and from evidence of photos and papers on his work table, how much pride he had in his grandchildren, how he looked for ways to support them in their reaching for value, how he sought ways that he could nourish them in their claims to a life of beautiful meaning. And to see that love and respect come back to him. To watch my daughters becoming magnificently themselves with his love and support even as I watch him slide quietly away.

This is a common time, a universal time. We have all said goodbye to someone we love. And we all stumble through helping each other to navigate the sad days and long nights of goodbye. And so many people, in our sadness are pouring their own gold to help make the repairs. Letters and memories, messages from people who loved dad or who care about us. They offer such kindness. I am thankful for all of it.

I would also like to particularly offer my deep gratitude to the Sue Ryder hospice in Nettlebed for their beautiful humanity. I will be trying to think of a way to fundraise and support their work.

dedicated to

I send my love to my brother Joe and my sister Thea. I am so glad we were there together with dad.

And Lilian and Phoebe. Beloved

And Pierre

Kintsukuroi/Golden Repair
Sue Ryder

Fell by Jenn Ashworth – review

Published by Sceptre
I was prompted to read Fell by a book group on Twitter. I will write more about the group, and the theme of New Folk Lit that was its starting point in another post, including contributions from author Jenn, who was kind enough to make herself available for a Twitter Q and A, but first I wanted to write a review of Fell.

Fell is quiet and compelling. Atmospheric. I want to say damp if it weren’t for that having negative or unpleasant connotations. The word is a testament to the real presence of the atmosphere that the book creates. It seeps in and settles on you, with a gentle persistence. The themes are absorbed into your consciousness and around and through each other – predominantly for me, the idea of a kind of shifting hinderance that is halfway between invasion and restraint. 

“The illness is itself a creeping illness and its main symptom has been to make Mum’s skin stop working. Everything that’s belongs inside: blood and sick and wee and number two and spit and some strange green-yellow stuff Mum leaves on the bed and on the back of her nightdress sometimes, is coming out through her skin to the world outside where it should not be.”

Netty and Jack are trapped by Netty’s illness. The house they leave to their daughter Annette is fatally undermined by the roots of the sycamore trees that give the crumbling house its name. The bay, the sands and mudflats seem to open up to wide skies and freedom but they are dangerous with absences, sink holes and drowning spots. After death, Netty and Jack themselves leach through the barrier between life and death and hover, like smoke on a still night, in the heavy air, observing their grown daughter with impotent, anguished love. Their unworldly voice, an amorphous ‘we’ is handled beautifully by the writer, eerie but somehow earthy and believable. 

“It’s still strange to see ourselves like this. Unpleasant to have this time returned to us. It’s not what we would have wished for, if anyone had asked. With Annette gone, we’d rather sleep now – go back to the blankness of the no-time before she arrived, when we were aware of nothing.”

Charismatic chancer Tim has a gift that makes him the unwilling bridge between states of being but this is a skill that is uncertain in his hands as though to emphasise that otherness intrudes of its own volition. All the characters are in some way held by something, restrained by forces that intrude to shape and change their lives. This untrustworthiness is reflected in the landscape, a beach that becomes a salt marsh, a river that re-works, as if on a whim, the land. 

“It was a hazy day, and all Eve saw was the misty, no-colour Sky, the grey shapes of the fells and the dark shadows of the people walking with her reflected in the wet sand. They were barefooted and muddy-legged, all of them, and spread out in an uneven, straggling phalanx so as not to churn up the ground and turn it into quicksand. But it was there – he showed it to them, standing on the wobbling skin of the earth, until the dun-coloured surface began to bend and buckle, so saturated with water it showed signs of cracking wide open, falling into crumbling fissures that would set and ooze without warning.”

Fell describes the way that we are agents in the landscape but we are subject to it. The deft handling makes a case for life lived in layers, layers that might unwittingly invade or restrain each other, or, against the laws of being, over-lap and blend. All of it is done quietly, with perhaps a hint of menace at the ultimate unpredictability of states that we would be foolish to take as absolutes; being, time and place. It is love that remains constant, a kind of care taking, a web that is subtle and agile enough to resists and save. It is a fascinating and beautifully written book. 

Paint

My manuscript is due back tomorrow. I am going to be a little late. It is difficult, when time divides into mosaic shards to pull a book into focus. I have decided that I need to re-write a chunk of pages. Not too many. A series of clarifications have jumbled up against one another and now the section seems scrambled rather than clearer.

How I would love to give up the other work that breaks up my time. Develop an expertise in sustained concentration. In New Author Top Trumps, that would be my losing score, every time. But at least, if it were only my own habits that caused the fragmentation, not the need to do a scuffling number of other jobs, I would have greater impetus to marshal my magpie mind. More of the black and white, a bit less of the ‘oooh, shiny!’

The image shows a quote from Twice the Speed of Dark. There is a large part of the book written in the voice of Caitlin, trying to unravel both the confusing darkness of death and the story that lead her there. I loved writing these sections, letting an image, a sense of material, almost a painterly sensibility take over, less closely focused on the plot and psyche of the characters. I have decided that I will make a separate, illustrated book of this section, called Gravity. After the scritchy scratch of untangling words, it feels particularly tempting just now, to drift into the broad strokes of black and light, of shape and texture. Back to the gestural, sweeping easiness of visual art. I wonder if all writers feel these different systems at play, if I just describe the kinship to visual art because it is something I understand.

I have mild tinnitus, coffee makes my skin go white noise, none of my glasses are just right and words seem very small and tangled. How liberating a fat brush dripping with paint would feel. And yet, I would still chose these days, the writing equivalent of that fat brush. If, that is, I had the time.

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What a thrill it would be to have a body curved and compact as a swallow, a bird black all over, build with the same gigantic majesty as the darkness that holds the stars. To master these migrations and head for the burning heart of a star. Perhaps I would fly a little first.  

Suite Brexite

nigelNigel

Unnatural lines stretch a manmade smile
awkward geometry
in a face that hangs like a crumpled sheet of beef

A smile engineered
to deflect and damn
the hate
that pools

rheumy spoil collecting in the folds

 

 

Davedave

he thought
he thought
he thought
he thoughntleroy

I thought……

A whiff of talc
and knickerbocker nursey
an oink oink
soothes once more
untroubled brows

 

If you would like to support my novel ( published later this year by Unbound) and have your name listed inside as a backer, you can do so by following this link: Twice the Speed of Dark