Saturday, 29 August 2015

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Blanchot nails the school summer holidays

‘Since when had he been waiting? Since he had made himself free for waiting by losing the desire for particular things, including the desire for the end of things. Waiting begins when there is nothing more to wait for, not even the end of waiting. Waiting is unaware of and destroys that which it awaits. Waiting awaits nothing.’

BLANCHOT, M., L’attente l’oubli, Paris, Gallimard, 1962, 
trans by John Gregg as Awaiting Oblivion, pp. 24-5, 
University of Nebraska Press, 1997. 

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Summer loving

Summer is as dreadful as ever – it's not that we're not doing nice things, it's that woven into those things come horrible events like having too many friends with cancer at the moment, two with terminal brain cancers.

This week I have been an adult.

This week I visited my friend who has terminal brain cancer. We wanted to put on a 'play in a day' with her children, mine, and her cousin's, because she and her cousin used to love to do this in their own childhoods. The play eventually ended up as a two-minute iMovie, some kind of insane Arthurian Dance-Off. It was fun, but it was also not at all fun. It is not fun to see children playing, and know that their mother is going to be taken away from them. However much one can dress up the day with costumes, and ice cream, and pasta and iMovie. Yet this is what you do when there are children, because children want to play. They understand what is going on, but they want and need to play. They are full of unquenchable optimism.

The next I tried to go fruit picking, with someone else's child, and the car broke down in the field. I had to be very grown up and call the AA, as opposed to bursting into tears and kicking the car. He duly appeared, trundling across the field, a knight in a white van, and saved me with coolant. It could have been worse.

The next day, after crying my way through Inside Out, there came a call from our neighbour. Her husband, too, has a brain tumour, and has suffered such severe seizures recently that he has lost the power of speech. They needed help getting to hospital for a blood test, because he is falling a lot. The rain poured from a leaden sky, as though smiting me for my previous life of blithe indifference to other people's suffering.

The day after that, I tried to take the family to a local festival, to do a water slide. A Planned Happy Day! Except that… my daughter managed to use up all her dry clothes, and had to be taken home in tears, because she felt judged by others for wearing a swimsuit. Her excruciating embarrassment brought years of changing room unhappiness flooding back to me. Why is puberty so cruel?

The contrast between sorting out the children's bickering, buying food, doing the cooking, picking up pants, shouting about food in the living room, planning and replanning entertainment, and trying to cope with the emotion of seeing other people suffering, is leading to headaches, insomnia and complete despair.

Normal relentlessness in motherhood comes to an end once the little blighters are in bed. In my son's case, practically tethered to the bed. But this kind of relentlessness connects you like a laser beam to all the suffering on earth.

Of course I could 'choose to distance myself' – except that I cannot. These are people I know, they are my friends, we have had fun together, I love them, they have children, they are my age, they could be me, I could be them.

All I can do is offer compassion. But compassion tears you to pieces. Better not to care. But I cannot not care.

I get it in the neck from my own family for not sorting out their, much more minor, problems. Except that they are not altogether minor – daughter having a large tooth extracted, then having a painful fixed brace fitted; son having a removable brace fitted and needing to learn to speak and swallow saliva again; husband working incredibly long hours, salvaging our financial situation after months of difficulty…

So it turns out that caring is a bottomless pit. You cannot save anyone by caring. You are ripped to pieces by doing it. And through it all I hear the critical voices of those who say, 'this isn't about you', 'grow up', 'suck it up', 'get over yourself', 'get it in proportion', 'just get on with it', 'if you can't stand the heat', 'you shouldn't have had kids then', etc. etc.

To me this is Motherload in extremis – where your natural tendency to care about others becomes too painful to bear, because you are helpless to help them. Expected to sort out everyone's problems, unable to do more than put a sticking plaster over them.

I've got to a point where I can't even write about Motherload, because the ethics and politics of care are so entangled. It's not my place to expose others, to seem to cash in on their suffering. To bear my Motherload honourably, I should, perhaps, do so in silence.

But… I tell my daughter not to be self-conscious, because everyone else is too busy worrying about how they look themselves to judge her. I tell her to be proud of herself. Yet here I am, worrying about being judged for writing about how life feels at the moment.

I will write. Because these experiences are not mine at all. They are other people's suffering witnessed. It is my role to bear witness, to scream at the heavens about the injustice of it all. Life itself is so grotesquely, so unbearably unfair, but it is the task of the adult to bear it, to allow that unfairness to stream through the body in waves and particles, to be aged and denatured by it, and still to hold fast to what is good, beautiful and true.


After I had written the above, I found out that my friend, Nicole Smith, died this morning from brain cancer. Grace, who is nearly nine, Alex, who is eight, and her husband, Rod, have to go on without her.

Nicole was a wise, witty and formidable woman, whose courage during her illness was humbling and inspiring. I always had a good time with her. She was the real thing, feisty, hardworking, and funny. She had complete integrity, and a great bullshit detector. She fought for reason, right and justice all her life. She was a force for good. She never gave up, and she found true joy in life. I'm going to miss her.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Jon Day, Cyclogeography

Jon Day as cycle courier, back in the day
I sat down with Jon Day, one-time cycle courier, now English literature lecturer, and had a very enjoyable discussion about cycling and his wonderful essay on it, Cyclogeography (published by the rather fabulous Notting Hill Editions).

What I really loved about Jon's views on cycling was that he thought the British attitude to the bicycle was po-faced, while the French have a completely irreverent, subversive and inherently revolutionary take on le cyclisme.

You can read the interview here – and take a look at Shiny New Books, which is all about what's hot in literature this summer.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Knausgaard on the pram in the hallway

So here is how Knausgaard names my particular Motherload:
'I had nothing but contempt for precise plans to pinpoint the most suitable time, both as far as our own lives were concerned and which ages went best together. After all this was not a business we were running. I wanted to let chance decide, let what happened happen, and then deal with the consequences as they emerged. Wasn't that what life was about? So when I walked down the streets with Vanja, when I fed and changed her, with these wild longings for a different life hammering away in my chest, this was the consequence of a decision and I had to live with it. There was no way out, other than the old well-travelled route: endurance. The fact that I cast a pall over the lives of those around me in doing do, well, that was just another consequence which had to be endured. If we had another child, and we would, regardless of whether Linda was pregnant now or not, and then another which was equally inevitable, surely this would transcend duty, transcend my longings and end up as something wild and free in its own right? If not, what would I do then?
Be there, do what I had to do. In my life this was the only thing I had to hold on to, my sole fixed point, and it was carved in stone.
Or was it?
A few weeks ago Jeppe had phoned me, he was in town […]. I told him what my life was like now. He looked at me and said with that natural authority which was typical of him, "But you must write, Karl Ove!"
And when push came to shove, when a knife was at my throat, this was what mattered most.
But why?
Children were life, and who would turn their back on life?
And writing, what else was it but death? Letters, what else were they but bones in a cemetery?' 

Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: 2: A Man in Love
trans. by Don Bartlett (Vintage, 2013), p. 334.

There it is, the thing I struggle with:
'Children were life, and who would turn their back on life?
And writing, what else was it but death? Letters, what else were they but bones in a cemetery?' 
I set this out at length, because I'm willing to bet money that, had I written this under my own name, I would have set off a chain of vitriol directed at my person as a woman and mother – who does she think she is, putting writing before her beloved children? No, her job is to darn their tights, run their cake sales, concoct delicious and nutritious suppers with the right balance of Omega 3s and A, B, C, D and E vitamins, go to every single one of their concerts and assemblies, and ensure that she has done their homework properly! She must also have a marvellous career and figure, a pristine and airbrushed home, a loving man and yahdiyahdiyahda. Then, and only then, is she in her proper place, in order to be criticised for not fulfilling those functions perfectly.

Which should come first, the mother, the child or the writing? There are no right answers, only, often, self-righteous judgements, which cause pain and fall short, and cauterise lives, and send people into hiding.

Perhaps that's just my paranoia. And probably Knausgaard has had equal amounts of vitriol directed his way. But what do you expect? He's a selfish bloke. Women aren't, mustn't be like that.

All he's trying to express, and all I am ever trying to express, is that this paradox between living and writing is irreducible. It is irreducible, but it is expressible. Whatever your gender.

And that is why Knausgaard puts a question mark at the end of the last two sentences. It's not that he doesn't love his child. It's that he is in love with the 'what else' that writing is, if it's not death.

Writing marks endings, every time; and every time, writing is also the weary and hilarious realisation that nothing has ended at all, that life goes on despite all attempts to record it and pin it down.

Mindful as I like and try to be, it is the irreducibility of things that finally fulfils me.

Not the letting go, but the hanging on, the trying and trying to understand.

The comforting knowledge, in the end, that it is all beyond me. 

Wednesday, 24 June 2015


I'm not given to advertising, nor am I much of a cook, so this is hardly a major endorsement. But I am sitting on a secret, soon to be a secret no longer.

This man's cooking is breathtaking. I've been sitting in his cafe, pretending to write, but actually eating cake, drinking great coffee, scoffing extraordinary flavour combinations in salads, and munching on bread selections, for the last two years. I've been greedily keeping him to myself (although everyone in Muswell Hill now knows about him). He's opening a new place in Hoxton, I think, and I'm already bracing myself for the day when boring old Muswell Hill is left behind in his wake.

The point about Chris is that he is Australian, and has worked all over the world. He feels the magic of herbs and spices, nuts and seeds. He understands that you need to keep things fresh and simple, but also put them together to make the tongue tingle. He serves pieces of cake as big and generous as his heart.

ChrisKitch has reminded me of all the things I miss about Australia and its foodie adventurousness.

We bought his cookbook the other day. Loving it. Big Flavours from a Small Kitchen.

Grudgingly, I'm going to share the location. But it's mine, all mine.

Monday, 22 June 2015

The many meanings of altruism

A friend of mine recently decided she was going to look for ways to get her kids involved in volunteering, as she was finding it really difficult to show them altruism in action. Sounded like a really good idea, and I promised to join in.

An opportunity duly arose to pick up litter after a local festival, so I got my daughter to come with me at 6pm, reassuring her it was just a few minutes of her time.

We walked around a park on a warm sunny evening, the longest day of the year, in orange hi-vis vests with pink gloves and litter-pickers (which have a surprisingly accurate and satisfying grip) for under half an hour, collecting bits of nougat, cigarette butts and plastic bags. 

As we went, we discussed the philosophy of altruism. 

AKA, she was furious with me. She really could not accept that doing something to help the community without a direct return to herself was reasonable, worthwhile or anything except a punishment (welcome to my world, darling). She was angry with me for inflicting it on her, and with her younger brother for somehow 'getting out of it' (he had been invited to a party, and I felt it was somewhat mean to a nine year old to say he couldn't go in order to litter pick…). She was incensed at the amount of stuff 'people' throw unthinkingly on the floor (take a look at your floor, love), and didn't see why it was her job to clear it up (it wasn't, but it has to get done – sound familiar?). She wouldn't accept that the local park was even part of her community, despite the fact that we have been to this particular festival several times, and it's a mile away from where we live (too close to home?). 

To me this is actually a signal that my lovely daughter should do a lot MORE of this kind of stuff. How is she going to find out that she IS part of a community otherwise? How else is she going to understand that her own actions have consequences?

On the other hand, I myself came home from the experience tired and depressed by having to fight her selfishness, and wondering which one of us was mad. It didn't help that my husband also thought it was 'too hard' on her. 

And there is a part of me that agrees – the feminist part – which looks at who was volunteering and notes that it was all women

A man 'jokingly' commented, "That's right, get on with it!" to us. I could not prevent myself immediately retorting, "I don't see you doing anything". I said it 'jokingly' too. He was not impressed, and stalked off. What possessed me? Perhaps it was the molten fury of hearing my female child spoken to, in this faux-sexist (which is, in reality, sexist) way. 

I struggle with this all the time – I want my daughter to help out at home, because we are a family, plus she helps make the mess. At the same time I don't want her to grow up a household servant. I call this my Cinderella complex: who is the Cinderella in the modern household? I seem to be playing the part both of the ugly stepmother and of Cinders. 

The message has to be that everyone chips in to get the work done. I get our son to put out the recycling and lay the table, and we've tried to say that their pocket money is in return for certain chores, but it is a CONSTANT fight – which I lose easily, simply because I get ground down. 

I really want to keep going with the initiative to find ways to show the children they are part of a whole community, not islands separate from it, and that giving back or paying forward is at least one route to true fulfilment. 

Yet at the same time I feel so utterly exploited myself, in that the role I have taken on is pure 'giving back' and 'paying forward', but there seems to be so little direct reward for doing it, and indeed so much active criticism of it (global over-population, narcissism, pushiness), that I'm not clear whether I or my kids are in bad faith. 

It is, potentially, explosive to articulate this, but I, personally, don't feel personally fulfilled by raising children. I am a manager and an administrator, accountable to the whole of society, without any benchmarks or performance measurement, and no possible career progression. Or indeed financial recompense. Raising the next generation is all voluntary. 

I actively look for ways to feel happy with the role I willingly took on, yet over the years the feeling of alienation has actually grown despite my best efforts. However much I try to cut corners, do less, be in the moment, there simply isn't any time left over, after all the things that are expected of me and of them, just to love them

I don't quite know at this stage what it would take to enjoy being a mother. 

1. Mindfulness? I couldn't even get to yoga this morning I was so tired. 

2. Letting go completely? Anarchy and chaos.

3. Shouting at all the people I feel criticise me? A likely violent response.

4. Not bothering to try and get our son to do the 11+? Hmmmm.

5. Leave? Of course not. 

6. Spend yet more time with the children? Are you kidding me? Do you know how present I am in their lives? They're sick of the sight of me.

No, the answer is that I should do something completely different with some of my time, something that is only for myself, so that 'being a mother' can be confined to a role, and not spill over so constantly into my identity. Motherhood turns out to be separation anxiety from yourself

The way for me to remember what altruism means, probably, is to be more selfish.