Saturday, 29 May 2010

Property and private lives

I never wanted to be someone's property. Human beings shouldn't own one another. . For women in Britain, the Married Woman's Property Act of 1882 was the first step in a vital succession of laws freeing women from forced dependency on - and subjection to - their husbands.

Laws and regulations have never been good at dealing with the complicated intimacies of human lives. It seems wrong to me that a man or woman claiming benefits who embarks on a sexual relationship is often expected to demand money from his or her sexual partner. It looks like charging for sexual favours. It turns the relationship from one of potential equality into something close to prostitution.

Many relationships aren't easy to define or regulate. They can be fragile and new. They can be an extension of friendship. They can be more casual than the law would like - and, unless we want the state to be the guardian of our personal morality, we should be very careful about how we allow it to legislate against pleasure.

The case of David Laws falls into this difficult area. He says that he never considered his relationship a partnership: it wasn't public, it didn't involve sharing bills or even a shared social life. That sounds convincing to me, even though it's evident the relationship was important to him. Not all relationships are partnerships. I'm also old enough to remember that anti-gay prejudice and persecution continued long after consensual acts between adult males were legalised. I can understand why someone of his generation - even though he's a little younger than me - might choose not to turn a relationship into something as public as a partnership. Privacy can become a habit. Not everyone wishes to share details of a relationship with friends, let alone the broadsheet and tabloid press.

I'm no fan of David Laws. I don't like the economic policies he has outlined in the Orange Book - and I don't suppose I'll like the cuts he's eager to impose. But it would be unjust to condemn him when I wouldn't condemn a benefits claimant in a similar situation.

I'd rather save my opposition for the economic policies he represents.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Robin in Nottingham

There are mild grumbles in Nottingham about the new Robin Hood film. Nottingham can live with an Australian playing the outlaw, a newish story and even the usual dodgy accents – outsiders tend to be uncertain how Nottingham people speak. But word has got round that the character played by Russell Crowe – Robin Longstride – is a Yorkshireman.

Reviews of the new film were lukewarm. Nonetheless, Nottingham has declared that May is Robin Hood Month. There's an exhibition (costumes and set, I think) at the Castle and I've seen signs of other events in the area.

I hadn't expected the mediaeval market. I came across it on my way to Nottingham Contemporary, paying my second visit to the Uneven Geographies exhibition. While I hate shops, with few exceptions, I find it hard to resist a market and began to explore the stalls.

I watched a man making a thick leather tankard. I hadn't heard of leather tankards before but the procedure looked convincingly mediaeval. Opposite was a stall selling sausages and another offering Transylvanian glass – nothing to do with Dracula but delicate and glowing. There were stalls selling food, jewellery, carvings – all sorts of delights. It wasn't until I reached the stall selling baseball caps made of panels cut from tin-cans that my lazy, sun-soaked mind began to wonder about the label “mediaeval.” Still, the Heineken cans are a pleasing shade of green though the Coca-Cola logo might look out of place in the greenwood.

I started spotting other inconsistencies – a sausage stall, staffed by two smiling men in Robin Hood hats, was named after “King Tut” - much earlier, I think, and unremembered in mediaeval times. I know the Crusades saw returning soldiers bringing all kind of new goods to England - but would they have brought smiling Buddhas fashioned from resin? Did they eat ostrich burgers in baguettes in Sherwood Forest? I couldn't rule it out but kangaroo meat is totally implausible. Wodwos carved from wood seemed more authentic.

For a few minutes I counted inconsistencies. Then I began to delight in them. I love the Robin Hood legend but I've never insisted on historical accuracy – it's a baggy myth which is refashioned with every telling and imagining. Robin probably didn't wear tights, despite Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn and Richard Greene – and at the same time he did, because imagination makes it so.

My Robin Hood isn't Robin of Locksley, returning nobleman, but the outlaw beyond class who sees an unfair society and acts for liberty and justice. His greenwood is a place of freedom and equality – and women are equal there, because that's how I've imagined it.

I began to wonder how my Robin would be today. He might be with the migrants who live outside the law in our cities, aiming at invisibility but too often exploited. Or perhaps he'd be an eco-warrior, defending the wild places and remaining greenwood from those who exploit them for cash. Either would be a more uncomfortable Robin than any Hollywood has produced. Only the TV series of my childhood really engaged with contemporary politics.

But Nottingham's mediaeval market didn't seem entirely out of place in the Robin Hood myth. People who'd come to Nottingham for all sorts of reasons mingled at the stalls. There were Goths, political protesters, parents whose children wanted to splash in the fountain – all assembling in the Old Market Square and strolling round the stalls. They moved easily from demonstrations of weaving and wood-turning to chat with the vendors of amber, carved elephants and eco-clothing.

Myths update themselves all the time. No single version can hold them.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Border police

From England, borders seem simple. There's sea. Motorway signs proclaim “Welcome to Scotland!” and “Croeso y Gymru” but passing these isn't a serious matter – even in Orkney or on Anglesey we're still in the United Kingdom.

Hadrian's Wall is a reminder of what a boundary might be but its watch-towers and forts have crumbled. Walking the path of Roman border patrols has become a challenge or delightful ramble. Sheep graze nearby and children scramble across what is left of the frontier. Like so many monuments built to control the neighbourhood, it's been reclaimed by the locals for tourism and play.

Maps tell another story. Boundaries are clear-cut – black lines that separate pink from green and yellow are as obvious as a railway track. There are even lines parcelling up the sea and white wildernesses governed by penguins and polar bears. In maps, boundaries are as unavoidable as the kiosks in which uniformed guards check and scan the passports of tourists.

Of course, I knew it was more complicated than that – just I knew there were nomadic people and people whose sense of nation and community crossed arbitrary frontiers. For years I've been fascinated by Auden's poem about the partition of India. The older Auden isn't often thought of as a radical poet but that poem is as critical as any I know about the cowardly bureaucracy of colonialism.

But I hadn't really thought about the no-man's-land crossed by migrants and patrolled by bored armed guards until I saw Ursula Biemann's video installation at Uneven Geographies, the latest exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary. Watching the guards in a nearly featureless desert, I suddenly saw the world from a perspective much closer to the migrants'.

The guards knew where the border was. There was a pile of stones here, the remnants of a building there and a railway line dividing to cross two indistinguishable pieces of ground. Sometimes the guards watched. They moved through crumbling buildings. At other times they just stood. One held a bunch of keys close to his waist. One drank water from a bottle. Dust and discarded plastic blew past them. They waited for the migrants to arrive.

The story was told of a Dutch tourist who found himself on the wrong side of the border. He was arrested and held for ten days. His belongings were confiscated. He never saw his car again. The story was routine – worth telling only because the man was an accidental migrant and a European. For those who cross frontiers these are everyday hazards.

Hunger and thirst don't stop the travellers. In another video, an imprisoned migrant told, without surprise, that ten men in his group of seventy had died of thirst when crossing the desert. The men who survived drank their own urine. They arrived and were imprisoned. They waited to be sent back – and to set out again.

Ursula Biemann's videos focus on the sub-Saharan area where the nomadic routes of the Tuareg have become the paths which migrants travel. She shows the practical demands of migrant life and the optimistic determination of travellers who are convinced life has more than poverty to offer.

Near the videos there's a series of photos of Tangier by Yto Barrada. One shows a football game on a run-down hard pitch in Tangier. The pitch is surrounded by torn wire. In the foreground a boy is making his way through a hole in the wire towards the players – it's another permeable boundary.

Between the photo and the videos, I began to see boundaries in a different way. I thought of the times when, as a child, I saw a boundary as a challenge. When my brother and I were small we liked to “go trespassing,” which meant entering any area where signs said we were forbidden. Building sites and college grounds were alluring. Most fascinating of all was an old air-raid shelter which I think we entered once – but I dreamt of it so often that dreams have obscured the reality. I can't recall exactly where the air-raid shelter was.

I still want to travel and see new places. Work and family detain me in Britain but I'm not rooted here. The film of the border guard awoke my migrant self. I realised that there aren't so many differences between me and the Africans setting out on their risky journey. I have some luck: the security provided by my red British passport and respectable appearance. I can book my journey on the internet or ask a travel agency to find me a tour and a guide.

The exhibition Uneven Geographies was worth visiting for the way it exposed and displaced my assumptions about boundaries. There's more to the exhibition than that. Delicate diagrams sketch out webs of financial power – webs so complicated it seems impossible to break free of them. The webs date back to the 1970s – it's all so much more complicated now. There are installations, photographs, displays. So many achieved a small adjustment in my way of seeing the world that, by the time I emerged, I was reeling.

Behind all the works is the net of global economic interests which holds us all. The exhibition lays bare the ways in which the rich west depends on people in other continents and the devastation of the earth. I'm haunted by new ways of seeing, in which the west is no longer central. I feel displaced from my safe, convenient way of life.

That doesn't mean I see a way out of the net. Neither vision nor analysis shows a way of adjusting the huge imbalance of power. But seeing differently still feels right and worthwhile. This is the first exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary that has changed my ideas.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Tea for one

I'm fussy about tea. I like it in large quantities. If it's ordinary tea in a market or transport café, I like a half-pint mug. If I go to a café or tea-room - or if I drink tea at home - I expect to pour my tea from a pot.

Just lately, tea-drinking at home has improved, thanks to my daughter. She never got round to sending her mother's day present but brought it with her when she visited for Easter. She knows I enjoy tea and presented me with an elaborately-wrapped wooden tea-box with tea pigs inside. I think they're called tea pigs. They are exotic, silky tea bags which feel as though they've been hand-crafted. The tea is delicious, worthy of my best Chinese tea-pot, which I bought as a treat for myself in my student days. It makes tea-drinking even more of a special occasion.

I felt the contrast when I made a journey to a good, free exhibition at a local art gallery. I'd decided the whole outing could be a special treat and that I'd round it off with tea and cake in the café. There was carrot cake - in the kind of big, chunky slices that require tea in a pot, ideally with a pot of hot water on the side to keep tea at the proper strength.

I chose my cake and asked for a pot of tea for one. "You can't have that," the young woman at the counter said. "You have to have a cup of tea. We only do pots of tea for two."

I smiled and asked whether I could just have one tea bag in a large pot. "Yes, but we'd have to charge you for a pot of tea for two."

I gave up. I was feeling embarrassed. Plainly there was something odd and awkward about the idea that someone should sit in a café alone and enjoy tea and cake. I was given a cup of tea, which consisted of a tea-bag floating in hot water. The tea was stewed before I paid for it and cold before I'd finished my cake. It wasn't much of a treat.

I wrote it off as a solitary episode. But the following week I went to the theatre. I decided to order an interval drink: nothing exciting - just a half of cider. "Just ONE drink?" the young woman serving me asked. She was polite and friendly. I explained that I had gone to the theatre alone - as I've been doing since my teens - and wondered if she pitied me. Or perhaps women on their own are expected to have ice cream in the interval rather than alcohol.

At this point I was feeling fed up. I tweeted about the theatre and, to my surprise, got a polite and friendly tweet in reply from the theatre. I felt better. I finally sent a message to the café and got a reply from them too, telling me their cups are big (yes, they may be, but they don't keep the tea warm and there's something depressing about a teabag floating in a cup) and that, if I asked, staff would provide tea for one in a pot at a reasonable price. I may try again, when I'm feeling tougher.

I'm beginning to notice a world increasingly geared for pairs and couples. Even the café of Nottingham Contemporary, one of my favourite places, has an evening menu based around "sharing platters." When I'm alone I can order "nibbles" but that's all. I like olives but sometimes I want bread and cheese. Sometimes I want to feel it's OK for a single, middle-aged woman to venture out alone. There's lots going on in the world and I'd like to enjoy it.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Wanting a word

"Can I have a word?"

It was early evening and I was walking down Leicester's New Walk. I looked at the young man who had accosted me. He was polite, hesitant, holding a clip-board and pen.

"I'd like a word," he said. "Just one. Any word you like."

This was difficult. There are so many words. I paused for a few moments and thought.

"Insubstantial," I offered.

He looked hesitant, then held out his clip-board. "Would you write it down, please?"

I wrote it as clearly as I could, in capital letters, at the bottom of his word-crammed page.

"Thank you," he said as I handed back the clip-board.

I smiled, wished him a good evening, and walked on.

When I tell friends about the encounter, they assume I'm making it up. I don't know why. I often want a word. Asking people for words seems an altogether sensible endeavour. I did my best to respond with a good one - I wouldn't have wanted to fob the young man off with something like "nice" or "tomato." And I didn't want to ask why he wanted a word. That was his own business - a question would have seemed too intrusive and familiar. It would have wasted his time. After all, there are lots of words out there and he needed the time to track as many as he could. I hope he made good use of them.

I thought of that young man again when I headed to the Turkey Café for an evening of poetry. I'd been looking forward to the launch of Cleaves Magazine's East Midlands section. But it had been a long day and I wondered if I was tired enough to concentrate on an evening of difficult poetry. At the bar I was persuaded to try a Cosmopolitan cocktail - it didn't take much persuasion and was worth it for the sight of flaming orange peel alone.

Poetry seems to pull in the punters in the East Midlands. As soon as the doors were opened, there was a dash for the chairs. The young were asked to sit on the floor instead - but soon the floor was full too. Late-comers stood by the door. Dazed by heat, crowds, tiredness and a cocktail,
perched on a high stool in a hot room, cocktail in hand, I wondered if I'd be able to concentrate.

That's when I remembered the young man making his assiduous collection of words. I didn't have to take in every poem in all its complexity - as if this could ever be achieved when hearing a poem for the first time. This was a poetry reading, not an exam, and it was up to me how I enjoyed it. If all I could take in was a few words and the curving melody of a rhythm, that would be enough.

I settled down as comfortably as I could, and listened without straining. If I wanted, I could find the poems elsewhere and read them.

Readers performed in alphabetical order. Jennifer Cooke offered harsh words and disturbing images, pushing the boundaries of a sonnet. Kerry Featherstone offered English and French words; they almost mirrored each other but not quite - there are no exact translations. Mark Goodwin offered a kingfisher and the mountainous slopes of Ullswater.

There was an interval. Then Daniel O'Donnell-Smith offered modern technology and loss. I love his poems. They move reader or hearer without the easy tricks of modern sentimentality. Finally, as I was tiring, Simon Perril read and summoned up werewolves.

I was unsurprised to see clouds streaking a full moon as I left - an image from silent cinema, I thought.

I ran. Words from the reading clattered and echoed in my brain.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

The battle of the banners

Political conversations are everywhere.

Not all elections are like this. The last election was marked by apathy and the sense that, when it was over, the New Labour regime would continue. I heard discussions of how to vote that were marked by a sense of guilt and despair – we hadn't stopped the war in Iraq and the war-mongers were about to claim their electoral victory as popular endorsement. Thatcher's dreadful phrase “There is no alternative” hung over us.

I assumed this election would be similarly despairing. After the chancellors' debate on TV, when Darling. Osborne and Cable agreed that, whoever got in, the cuts would be deeper and more painful than under Thatcher, I settled into the gloomy certainty that the next five years would mean the rapid unravelling of everything I value in the hard-won welfare state. Worries about my parents and my children broke into my sleep and woke me in the middle of the night.

I'm still worried. But there's a new thrill in the air. Many young people who never voted before seem to have infected the public debate with their excitement and conviction that change and hope are possible. They aren't agreeing with one another and many are still uncertain how to vote, but they want to listen to the arguments and join in the debates. The power of a single vote makes them feel like citizens.

I was in Leicester yesterday when Nick Clegg visited. I've seen visiting politicians before and remember how, when Tony Blair came to Leicester in 1997, everything was stage-managed and spun to ensure good camera angles. Blair's campaign team provided the crowds with flags to wave, played music (D-ream) interminably and swept dissenters aside.

Nick Clegg's visit wasn't like that. Students, enjoying the sunshine and their last day of term, came to join the crowds and see what Clegg had to say. Most banners were home-made though a couple of Labour supporters brought their own banners to wave. Plainly Clegg's team was taken aback by the hundreds of people. I heard them on mobile phones: “Yes, there really are that many.” Then the battle bus arrived.

A narrow pathway meant that Clegg could get through the crowd, preceded by photographers and cameramen who found it hard to get the pictures they wanted. Clegg stopped as he walked to answer questions – a socialist friend of mine who came at my suggestion managed to ask him about students and bankers. She got an answer though I couldn't hear it.

There was a speech with questions and applause but I was too far away to hear. Instead of trying to break into the crowds I started taking photographs of the posters. The pair produced by the Politics and Pints society cheered me, though Clegg didn't accept their invitation to the pub.

There were more banners today at Nottingham's all-purpose, leftish-to-revolutionary May Day march. The organisers couldn't afford the marches usual base near the castle so had booked Victoria Park instead, to remind locals of the recent closure of the Victoria Baths nearby. The weather forecast threatened rain and gloom and I packed a waterproof jacket. I didn't need it.

There were fewer people than in previous years. With only five days till the election, some of the regulars may have been out campaigning. But there was still a good range of stalls including one celebrating Nottingham's radical history in which a loaf on a stick, decorated with a black ribbon, had served as an incitement to riot. Of course, someone was carrying a loaf on a stick. I couldn't resist a badge with the words “TO THE CASTLE”, recalling the burning of Nottingham Castle in the 1831 riot in support of the Great Reform Bill. I hope no-one arrests me for incitement to violence. I'm still a Quaker and a pacifist – but I can't help wanting to celebrate Britain's radical past and the workers who demanded that their voice be heard.

Women dancers, energetic and costumed as if for an extravagantly-pagan Morris, led the march. Various factions of the left chanted their competing slogans without getting further than detailed debates. Home-made banners greeted the shoppers of Nottingham, mostly with thoughtful, witty and challenging slogans that might make people think. (I was a little uncertain about the demand for “revolutionary praxis now” - the word“praxis” is underused in most conversations I have.) A gorilla danced and handed out leaflets for Greenpeace. I wondered where to fit into the march and found a place with CND and near Friends of the Earth.

Behind me two socialists had a lengthy discussion about how to vote. One argued that a Labour defeat was the only hope for radical elements in the Labour Party. I didn't catch the response.
I wondered whether competing groups urging people not to vote, on the grounds that direct action is needed, were debating the best way not to put a ballot paper in the ballot box.

We walked, sang, chanted and danced past the derelict wreck of a business which still proclaimed in large, wrought-iron letters "PALMER & SON LTD. BYRON WORKS." I thought we made a cheerful display and was pleased to see answering smiles from some of the shoppers. There were cheerful displays everywhere. Outside the glossy new pawnbrokers with its shiny blue fascia, smiling young women handed out white and blue balloons.

It wasn't a long walk to Nottingham's speaker's corner, by the Brian Clough statue. The Clarion Choir were there to greet us. So was Robin Hood in a home-made and decorated banner-gown. I stayed for a while to listen to the songs and speeches, marvelling at how harmonious and tolerant Nottingham radicals can be on such occasions. I'd have liked to go back to Victoria Park with the march but my back was hurting. I slipped away and decided to blog about the march instead.