Sunday, 28 September 2008

Saying au revoir

It's a week since I saw my daughter off to university and I still haven't got used to her absence.

She, of course, is having a lovely time. The first week is full of socialising and she seems to have settled in straight away. But here the house seems a bit empty at times.

These days, children grow up late. My mum started full-time work in a glove factory (five and a half days a week, cutting thumb-pieces) when she was still thirteen. In the 1930s most children left school at the end of the term before their fourteenth birthdays. This began to change with the war, when children were evacuated from the towns and cities. Later, the 1944 Education Act came into force, and 15 became the school leaving age.

My scholarship to boarding school took me away from home at 9 so at 19 I was eager for the freedom of university. I had a grant (my parents paid a little towards it - as much as they could afford) and knew that my fees were paid by the state. I felt independent but of course there were college rules. There were college servants too - an alarming concept but the people who worked as porters, scouts and kitchen staff were comfortingly familiar in many ways. My mother and many of her friends had been cleaners at the local college. In Oxford people doing the same sort of job called me "Miss" which disturbed me.

I had no problem that people served me meals in the college dining hall. I found it very helpful indeed that someone cleaned my room. But when cooks and cleaners called me "Miss", I found it hard to thank them as equals. I was relieved to notice that "Miss" or "Sir" could, on occasion, be said with a sneer. The college servants were not servile. Their thoughts and opinions of us weren't far below their surface deference.

These days students need lifts to university to transport all their luggage. These days most accommodation is self-catering and lists of "items required" include saucepans and crockery. Students are expected to provide duvets as well as sheets - plus books, stationery, computer, clothes - while the boot and shoe collection seems to require a whole suitcase to itself. The car was crammed but somehow my daughter fitted herself into the passenger seat. I stood on the pavement and waved goodbye.

That is, I suppose, what being a parent is all about. Years ago a terrific English teacher called Kathleen Betterton brought a poem by C. Day Lewis into our class. It was called "Walking Away" and, at the time, it wasn't the poem that made an impact on me but Mrs Betterton's feelings for the poem. She talked particularly about the final lines and I realise now that it talked of something she - and all our parents - had experienced. I was too young to get it.

C. Day Lewis wrote the poem about his son Sean's first day at school. It details the child's hesitancy from the point of view of the watching adult and ends with the lines:

"... selfhood begins with a walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go."

Friday, 19 September 2008

Box 45

There wasn't a crisp in sight.

There wasn't a football player either.

I'd hoped I'd get to watch the team practise but there were just two men with lawn mowers moving up and down, trimming the grass of the pitch into neat, broad stripes.

It was a meeting for work - an all-day meeting - and we were booked into Box 45 at the nearby football stadium. I don't know whose idea it was but it was the first time I've ever visited this ground. Football used to be cheap, I believe, but these days it's more expensive than opera.

I've only been to two proper matches and both were at the City Ground where, confusingly, Notts County plays. I went with my son because there were newspaper vouchers for cheap tickets for primary-age children and their parents. I loved it all - the occasional skill of the players (these days County isn't a great team), the sudden switches between mild boredom and intense excitement, the partisan cheers and witty comments when the ref's decision caused surprise.

Our seats were in the family stand, which is supposed to be the safe area, but neither match seemed dangerous. At one, County fans were rather depressed because the team was in immediate danger of relegation. Fortunately they weren't relegated that week though they did go down at the end of the season. The other was, I suspect, rather routine. But I wanted to join in the shouts and chants. I even wanted to express my disapproval of the ref after one bemussing decision, but my son found that too embarrassing. I couldn't follow the match as clearly as I could on television but it had a quality of rough immediacy. I felt I almost belonged.

After my son lost interest in football, I haven't been back. I don't think I want to see a Premiership match - there's not much opportunity of that, so it's just as well. But the less perfect playing of a lower division suits me well.

The Walkers Stadium, where Leicester play, is big, clean and glossy. There's even a restaurant called "Fusions". We moved along carpeted corridors, decorated with big, shiny photographs of teams and audiences in years past. Some of the recent photos seems style without content. "Look, he can do photoshop," one colleague commented. But the photos of teams of the 1930s and '40s looked like real football with serious, grown-up football players instead of the glamour stars of today. (I know that's a superficial judgment. I like the players in the older photos because they remind me of my dad.)

We were in Box 45 - the one box, so far as I could see, that give access to the outside. We watched the pitch and the mowers through huge picture windows. We weren't discussing football but something else entirely.

All day the mowers moved up and down, working, making sure the bright green pitch was clean and neat.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

The watchers and the watched

It began as a lecture - about psychology. Against the backdrop of a clinic the doctor and his assistant introduced themselves and then, with smug authority, brought on their patient, pyjama-clad and shambling.

Of course, we knew it was a play. This was Nottingham Playhouse. We had tickets for Vertigo - not the Hitchcock film but the French novel on which it was based, adapted for the stage by Jonathan Holloway. Butfrom the start our role as audience was uneasy - we were spectators of a disturbed man who seemed unaware of our presence.

Gradually we were absorbed into the story ... then, from time to time, jolted out of it. Ben Keaton, as Roger the patient, moved from semi-consciousness into apparent alertness as he enacted his past. But in all this he was under hypnosis - paraded before us by the doctor treating him. For most of the first act he remained in pyjamas while appearing suave and confident; the doctor and nurse moved in and out of other roles - to show us how things were. At times the doctor would return his patient to sleep so that he could underline a point for us, the viewers.

It's a tale of fear and obsession that begins in Paris in 1940. German troops threaten inavsion. Roger's outward confidence masks guilt and uncertainty; he's an ex-policeman whose fear of heights led to the death of a colleague. He takes on the job of following Medeleine, the delicate young wife of a rich older man. First he just watches and begins to idealise her. Then he finds himself forced into an action which makes her acknowledge his presence. As he spends more time with Madeleine, Roger's obsession deepens. Who is exerting power, the doctor asks us, the watcher or the watched?

The story twists unexpectedly, leaps past the Occupation and introduces an uneasy post-war France. Sympathies switch. We remain uneasy as watchers but we remain transfixed because there is so much we need to know.

I don't want to give away the plot. We went to the first preview. The press night is next Tuesday. But it's gripping theatre - and as sinister and shocking as any film noir. From my second-row seat I felt like a voyeur - failing to intervene because I wanted to know how the story would end.

I saw the play with my teenage children - a last family outing before my daughter departs for university. I'm glad to see that Nottingham Playhouse still has the cheap tickets and special offers that make a family outing possible. The Playhouse wasn't quite full but the audience was rapt and thrilled. And I'm glad to report that my daughter - an enthusiastic theatre-goer - reckons it one of the best productions she's ever seen.

Note: The play is a reworking of a touring production by Red Shift. I note that the smaller production reached the Wyeside in Builth Wells earlier this year, giving audiences in Powys a chance to see outstanding theatre. It's a shame that the long-term future of the Wyeside - an outstanding small arts centre - remains uncertain. I hope the campaign to save the Wyeside secures its long-term future.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

A tour of the blogosphere

Yvonne from Nemeton has nominated me for this I Love Your Blog award. I gather that I should link back to her and also nominate some blogs that I enjoy.

The idea seems to be that I should nominate further blogs and link to them, and let the authors know I have done so. I think I'm supposed to nominate at least seven.

I've decided not to nominate Nemeton back, simply because it was the source of this nomination. However, I recommend readers to read the blog and learn more about all sorts of things, including science, literature,. peace and paganism.

When I started blogging, on the assumption that no-one would read what I wrote, I took fencing as my subject. After a while, I found other fencing blogs.

The first of these was Elizabeth McClung's Screw Bronze! - I loved her determination and humour. She was doing much better at fencing than I was and, as I read, she published her novel, Zed. Beth wrote about all sorts of other subjects too. I learnt about her spouse, Linda, about her childhood in a strict fundamentalist sect, and a great deal about manga, anime and Japan. Since I started reading, Beth fenced in the Canadian nationals and was improving at a startling rate. Then she became seriously ill. Now in a wheelchair she takes on the routine abuse of people with disabilities and faces her own death with even greater courage and determination thnt she once showed as a fencer. Her honesty about her pain and her emotions is startling. She also shows great generosity in her concern for others.

Beth recommended I read a blog by another older fencer who calls himself The Gray Epee. Jim, the author, is based in North Carolina, and his blog is probably only of interest to fencers. But fencers will find his account of club fencing and tournaments in his part of the United States fascinating. There are also occasional insights into his tastes in music and references to his wife and children, whom he plainly loves.

Two of the blogs I'm nominating are what I think of as "public blogs". Of course, all blogs are public but these two have a profile beyond the blogosphere.

The first is Craig Murray's blog, to which I've already linked in the past. For those of you who don't know who he is, Craig Murray is the former ambassador to Uzbekistan who lost his job because he spoke out against torture. I don't share all his perspectives - I like experimental literature which I suspect he detests and am probably to the left of him on economics. However, at its best (and his blog is frequently at its best) he manages to combine information on a range of subjects with anger and humour. (I recommend Craig Murray's book, Murder in Samarkand, as well.)

I'm also an avid reader of Mary Beard's blog for The Times. Mary Beard is a classics don at Cambridge who writes excellently and clearly on all sorts of subjects, but I'm happiest when she writes on Roman life and Latin literature. Sometimes she almost persuades me to prefer Romans to Greeks but she'll never quite manage it - I love the Greek language, especially the prose of Plato and the poetry of Sappho and Callimachus. I was forced to study Latin, though I grew to enjoy it at A-level, but the two 6th-form years in which I studied Greek - from scratch to A-level - were filled with intellectual excitement and I value the D I gained for Greek more than the A for Latin.

Sheenagh Pugh's blog, Good God! There's writing on both sides of that paper! is one that deserves to be better known. It takes in nmumerous areas, most of which I enjoy. Recently I've seen her pictures of the Shetlands (a recurring theme), read her thoughts on poetry in translation and discovered a Georges Brassens song I hadn't known before. Sheenagh Pugh is also a fine poet - and I recommend her novels too.

Another poet's blog is written by David Morley and hosted by Warwick University where he's Professor of Creative Writing. The blog includes lots of poetry, by David and others, and thoughts about poetry. I'd also like to mention his recent posts on the treatment of the Roma in Italy. If you visit his blog, please read these and consider signing the petition on the subject.

I also read Alan Baker's occasional blog, Litterbug, for its thoughts on poetry and literature. I wish I had time to follow up all the writers recommended there. It has particularly good comments.

The blog kllrichrd is also one with occasional posts. I first found it when there was a post about W.H. Auden, and realised that it was written from the perspective of someone who knew the Northern landscapes Auden loved. I particularly like the posts about gardening (which is a mystery to me), about working-class life and culture, about learning Chinese and world music. And there are also posts - sometimes with photos - about Northumberland. I hear Morpeth was badly flooded and the library seriously damaged. I can't fully express my concern for the people and their books.

Sometimes there are long gaps between posts on calm, almost too calm but the posts are always worth reading. The author had the terrifying experience of being arrested in the underground shortly after the Menenez shooting. He'd made the mistake of travelling equipped with a back-pack and mobile phone. Fortunately he lived to blog about it and to challenge the police's actions. His blog on civil liberties issues is well worth reading. The blog's marvellous title comes from the police notes on his behaviour on the day of his arrest.

Finally, I can't resist commending my brother's newish blog, Risky Thinking. It's related to his work on risk analysis and business continuity but don't let that put you off. It's clearly written and well thought through and makes me think about the ways in which I probably should organise my life better, particularly were I to set up in business on my own. I wish Mike would turn one or more of the scenarios into a thriller - he ought to be a writer - but I fear he hasn't the time, what with work and family. So I make do with his blog.

I would have liked to recommend Kate's Blog, but Kate has, sadly, stopped blogging. You can find occasional cached posts through google, but nowhere near enough. I regret Kate's departure from the blogosphere.

Friday, 5 September 2008

A communist barbeque

The first vote I cast was for a communist. It was in the Greater London Council elections of 1973.

Back in those days, I had great hopes of elections. I attended the public meetings - there were several and they were packed. I interrogated canvassers about their beliefs. I met the candidates as they campaigned in shopping centres and asked my questions. In that first election, I didn't make up my mind till just before polling day. I never agonised so much about a vote till 1997, when an encounter with Tony Blair finally persuaded me that I couldn't vote New Labour.

Back in 1973, there were four candidates. I can't remember who the Tory was. Records name a Mrs Williams. The Labour candidate was Marie Jenkins, wife of the MP standing in what was then a safe Labour seat. I didn't consider voting Liberal as I'd never met the candidate, Walter Hain. (Later I came to know, like and respect him and his wife, especially for their opposition to apartheid which cost them so much.) The communist candidate was called Dave Welsh.

I must have wanted to vote Labour because I sought out Marie Jenkins and asked her about her policies. Perhaps she thought I was younger than I was or perhaps I took her manner the wrong way. I can't remember what she said but I burned with shame at what I read as her condescension. In my memory, which may be false, she is wearing a fur coat - not necessarily real fur - and was visiting the council estate in a large car. I am certain she didn't take my earnestness seriously. I was eighteen and very intense. And I'd come across several people who assumed council tenants were stupid and criminal. I saw no reason to vote for someone who saw me, on the evidence of my address, as an inferior.

Dave Welsh was different from the other candidates. He lived in a council flat and, like my dad, worked for London Transport. When he spoke, he spoke with knowledge and experience about council housing and public transport. He also spoke approvingly of the Soviet Union, suggesting things were much better there. I wasn't convinced about Russia - films of tanks on the streets of Prague in 1968 suggested a grey oppression far from the optimism of the Communist Manifesto. But the Greater London Council wasn't concerned with foreign policy. I cared about council housing and public transport. I wanted a councillor who would speak with knowledge on behalf of other working people. I voted for Dave Welsh and, for a few hours, hoped that enough other people would vote as I did. He didn't win.

Communist councillors and councils are pretty rare in Britain. It's different in France. My friends in France have communist councillors and, when I last visited, I saw their announcements of a forthcoming communist barbeque in the public square.

As a non-tenant and non-voter, I was a little hesitant about turning up. I also realised that, in France, there wouldn't be anything for me to eat. But I could at least see what a communist barbeque looked like.

I arrived too early, just as they were setting up, but the communists didn't look intimidating. They were busy cooking sausages and dispensing cans of drink. I'd hoped there would be a sale of badges or stickers so that I could find a gift for my son but there was nothing like that. Instead there were leaflets advertising the latest communist initiatives: sales of fruit and vegetables at fair prices.

The French communist party has formed an alliance with some French farmers who, like British farmers, complain that they are forced to sell their produce at low prices so that it can be sold on at a high price in the shops. Communist leaflets suggest that, as a result, fruit and vegetables are becoming a luxury. The Communist response was simple and practical: they were transporting 60 tonnes of fruit and vegetables from the countryside and selling them at 100 stalls in the Paris area. The aim was fairer pay for the farmers and cheaper produce for hard-up Parisiens. Apparently they do this regularly.

I was impressed. My local councillors may hold surgeries, but they don't hold public barbecues in the High Road. Instead of helping small farmers make a living, they agree planning permission for yet another large supermarket and tell their angry electors that it's all for their good.

My French still isn't great but I managed a conversation with some of the communists. Mostly we compared rising prices in France and Britain. I remember that I characterised New Labour as "Les Pseudo-Travaillistes", speaking of the government's current fondness for big business. A communist ventured the opinion that Sarkozy and Thatcher were the same. I think I can detect differences but I saw his point. Anyway, my French wasn't up to a more detailed discussion.

I looked at the prices on the list of fruit and vegetables for sale. They were definitely cheaper than the supermarket. And they seemed to have a lot of nectarines. I'm allergic to nectarines. In any case, the sales were meant for the local people and I was getting ready to go home.