Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Cafe conversation with artist Henry Krokatsis


Having not had time in ages to pen my pearls on matters maternal, here's a conversation I just had with the artist Henry Krokatsis, filmed by Nick Knight, for a project called Cafe Conversations.

It's all about indifference, the immaculate, indecipherability, the informe, and sundry ideas that start with 'i'. Enjoy. Once you're bored, skip to the last 3 seconds for a laugh.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Shattered, The Hare with Amber Eyes, One Day

What an eclectic group of books to comment on, you may well say — and it is true that Shattered (Rebecca Asher), an indictment of how women have colluded in their own undoing, largely by obeying their biological drive to have something to cuddle, does not sit easily alongside One Day (David Nicholls), a thinly-veiled first draft of a Richard Curtis movie, and The Hare with Amber Eyes (Edmund de Waal), the story of 264 small carvings, travelling around anti-Semitic Europe from the 1870s to the present day.

The only thing that brings them together is that I have been compelled by all three of them in very different ways, and read them with equal absorption for very different reasons.

One Day is captivating because it tells the story of my generation: people who went to university in the dog days of the 1980s, after an upbringing under Thatcher, graduating into a recession. It is a great chronicle, in the tradition that only the English seem to do well, of wistful regret for fulfilment left unpursued. We are really good at this: Dickens was its master. The English are brilliant on the what might have been.

We have Emma, the highly intelligent English graduate who struggles to find her feet post-university, because she does not know anyone, and is too proud to sell her soul, and Dexter, the stupidly good-looking and easily-led university good-time boy, who walks straight into fame and success.

They nearly get together on graduation night, and improbably remain friends over the years although their lives are travelling in opposite directions. Both yearn for each other, but cannot traverse the flotsam of their materialistic, status-consumed era to make a life together. Life, or rather the tail end of Thatcherism and the barely-different rise of New Labour, conspires to keep them apart until it is too late.

What I loved and winced at is that both characters are forever trying to tell their own story, both trying to express who they are and judging themselves from the outside, in a peculiarly British form of self-deprecation, the one that ensures class stasis and merely gestures in the direction of social change.

Emma cannot become the writer she wants to be, because she comes from the wrong class, and so has to earn a living. Dexter cannot grow will and integrity because he is the playboy scion of a mismatched Shires couple, the mother all faded 60s beauty and the father gruff bluffer with money. The characters are trapped in their situations, and they know it. There is only indirection and the occasional drunken outburst to signify their truth, the life path they should have been on had society not been the way it was.

Ah England! where caste conformity stills predicts life chances more than intellect, aptitude and energy.

The Hare with Amber Eyes tells a very, very different story of loss and regret. Edmund de Waal was born to tell this story, in the same way that Emma in One Day was born to struggle and doubt herself.

De Waal's heritage is the doomed Ephrussi family; their movements from Odessa to Kent, through breath-taking fortune and miserable annihilation, the story of the West's own self-immolation in the twentieth century. He has the perfect totem for this tale in a collection of Japanese netsuke, which move with the fortunes of the family, and bear witness to its rise and fall, becoming now objects of admiration, now playthings, now vehicles of memory and testament.

Like the assimilated Jewish family whose story they track, the netsuke are strange to their environment, always foreign to whatever context they are in, begging questions, on the move. They both fit into the contexts they turn up in: display cabinets, ladies' dressing rooms, Japanese apartments, middle class London living rooms, but they are also always impervious to these temporary homes. They are themselves: mysterious, ever-interpretable objects that expose how we try to construct our lives, and mediate our longings, through things. They remain, their owners have gone.

The netsuke are a memento mori of a lost generation, too small to have been catalogued by the Nazis as they took apart the Ephrussi house in Vienna, but equally small enough to have been saved; the one remnant of a lost fortune that turned out to be irretrievable even after the war had ended.

De Waal is now their custodian, finally aware that he is only their temporary keeper, and he takes his duty rigorously and seriously, in poised and polished sentences that sit together with silent spaces between them, on show, formally perfect, allowing the pain and anger of the story he must tell to seep between them. He sticks to the facts, the little steps that echo the much larger convulsions in Europe and are finally swept up in them. He sticks to what he knows, and does not project his own feelings: the netsuke speak for themselves, but they do not speak in words, and the meaning of what they say, and what they seem to be, shifts perpetually.

Finally, Shattered. I must confess an interest here. Not only a mother myself, but also a person who (like Emma in One Day) wants to write but cannot because she has to earn a living, and a person, moreover, who wants to write a book about motherhood, very precisely, I cannot fail to be envious of Rebecca Asher, who has beaten me to it.

Asher has in some ways written the book I thought I wanted to write. Apart from sheer lack of time, however, there are other reasons why I haven't produced it. Her book is a savage indictment of all in its path — men, women, and society — everything that goes into making motherhood remotely difficult for women. She would like to clear the way to uninterrupted unity between mother and child, supported by perfect hands-on cooking and cleaning by partners, and financial support from society. Oh, and a fulfilling career at the same time, even though the mother wants to be with the baby. Oh, and women are complicit in their own undoing — of course they are. This is how Frantz Fanon talked about black identity, as so colonized by whites that it cannot impose itself except in fragments, perversions and emulation. Brilliant.

The trouble is that Asher does not deign to complicate her book with actual children. They would perhaps leave muddy prints on the pristine text of her rage. This is a book written from the head and not the heart. After one year of childcare, of one child, I feel that Asher just ain't seen nothing yet. Perhaps she should wait until her children have grown up and left home before evaluating the experience.

I don't disagree with her description of the extraordinary levels of judgement thrust upon women, and the ridiculous collusion many women seem to go in for — calling themselves lucky for picking up the crumbs left to them in the wake of childbirth. I agree that care is resolutely gendered, from pregnancy, and that this is gleefully, conveniently, and ruthlessly reinforced by all and sundry. I too have been told off in the street by complete strangers for some perceived mismanagement of my children. It is utterly bewildering to go from being in control of one's life and emotions, to a situation in which one serves the needs of another — and to find oneself judged and found wanting at every turn simply for doing one's best. I too have had my career amputated (by a woman), and have had to endure vicissitudes in finding my feet since.

But I still don't want to write that book. I KNOW all of that, I've been living it and analysing it since the surprise of giving birth and finding myself on the other side of the female mirror. Asher isn't saying anything new, but she has built a cage so tiny and airless that all I can feel is her depression. Does she really think that she has a vantage point high on the hillside looking down on 52% of the population blind and grubbing in the soil of their own misery? Should we all move to Iceland to understand the delights of shared parenting? Oddly enough, I feel more alive and motivated by my struggle to re-establish myself than I ever did as an academic pinioned and doomed behind the glass walls of my tower. All I could do there was repeat the truisms of literature and critical thought I wasn't allowed to deviate from. At least now I am free to be genuinely critical. Best get on with my own motherhood book, then. Asher has done me a favour: in writing the book of the Furies, I am free to write the book of Athena.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Turning the tables

This weekend, our children ran the house.

Obviously, they do anyway, in a thinly-veiled exemplar of the master-slave dialectic. I went to see Frankenstein this weekend, hence the allusion to Hegel.

But that aside, we thought, after a particularly fraught weekend, in which we were hugely embarrassed by their riotous behaviour, that they could have a taste of what it's like to be in charge.

So we asked them if they would like to make the rules this weekend. Would they? They talked of nothing else all week in the lead-up. Apart from how bad the food was in our establishment, and why did they have to get up in the morning.

V-e-r-y interesting.

1. Daughter played on computer all morning.
2. Son played with mother and father all morning.
3. Lunchtime saw Mummy and Daddy demanding to be fed, and daughter in floods of tears because the breakfast things needed clearing away before she could lay the table.
4. Afternoon saw much fighting, and then a hasty trip to the shops armed with a bag and a £10 note, to buy supplies. Cheese strings, hot cross buns and a red nose.
5. Mother and father enjoyed an anxiety-free day of not organizing anything (other than the washing -- really cannot let that one go).

1. Mummy played on computer all morning. Working. "Working".
2. Children fought all morning.
3. Daughter finally persuaded to make lunch, given that there was only an hour to get dressed, make lunch, practice choir songs, do homework, and get to choir concert.
4. Daughter put finger in toaster.
5. End of experiment.
6. Mummy felt somewhat guilty about toaster incident, but also secretly felt that empirical learning for independence had struck, and that although it wasn't a great learning experience, she would never stick her finger in the toaster again. And I'm staying with that.

What did we all learn?

Son: "Not to eat a whole bowl of raisins. I had a tummyache."
Daughter: "Get more cheese strings."
Daddy: "That we boss the children around all the time."
Mummy: "That it feels really good not to work so hard, and then I play more with the children."

The jury is out.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Saturday, Ian Mcewan: benign dissociation

What a strange novel Saturday is.

But the line I loved it for is an encapsulation of a facet of indifference I've been trying to characterise for a long time: 'benign dissociation'. The neurosurgeon Henry Perowne has just operated on his own assailant, Baxter. In carrying out the operation, Perowne overcomes his personal terror and shock at Baxter's appearance at his house, hours earlier, and attains a mental state of indifference that is tantamount to peace.

I've long been searching for a way of understanding the idea of indifference, that takes it away from its connotations of sadism, depression, or stoicism. This is it: benign dissociation.

Perowne decides that he does not have the power of life and death over Baxter, whom he could easily have killed during the operation. Perowne knows that Baxter suffers from Huntingdon's Chorea, and will face his own prison sentence in the future. Perowne does not have to act to avenge his family's honour; it is written in Baxter's genes.

What is disturbing about Saturday is that it functions so clearly as an allegory for the West's stance on Islamic fundamentalism. Perowne can afford his benign indifference, not because Baxter cannot terrorize him -- he can -- but because the world order decrees that Perowne's kind, with their rationalizing lack of poetic sensibility, will eventually triumph. The mind's secrets will eventually be laid bare, and it will be through empirical science and not mystical art. Theocracies will falter as their medievalist exponents are gradually overcome by the people's demand for democracy and freedom.

What saves Saturday from being a diatribe is that McEwan builds in traps to Perowne's own smug forecasting. During Baxter's attack on Perowne's family, his pregnant daughter Daisy, an impassioned and successful poet in her own right, saves herself from assault by reading a Matthew Arnold poem. It is not her father's actions that save her, but her coded conversation with an older poet, her grandfather Grammaticus, who indicates that she should recite. Baxter is mesmerized by the recitation, believing it to be one of Daisy's own poems. His mood is altered: forgetting his desire to rape Daisy in front of her family, he wants only the book of her poems.

Dover Beach intertwines the joyful known and plenitude of the lovers' present with the sad unknown of a future that can only end badly for humans. McEwan seems to imply that the predictive power of poetry can summon known unknowns far better than can the little moment-by-moment activity of the scientist, unwilling to accept anything until it is tested. What is commonly dismissed in the artist as 'getting it out of proportion' is brought back into McEwan's novel as a threatening remainder of anxiety.

Perowne's long saturday begins with unnamed anxieties -- a plane, its engine on fire, flying overhead in the early morning sky. It ends in regained peace -- Baxter under surveillance, and hoist by his own genetic petard. Yet McEwan, in painting a picture of a man who wants to believe that all is well, and under his control, leaves us with the sense that Perowne has learnt nothing, and that the worst is yet to come.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Trials of the 11-plus Mother


I rest my case. The Chinese Mother may have featured on the Today programme yesterday, but England has Lucy Cavendish (whom I have already noted on this blog worriting away about competitive mothering), coaching her son through the iniquitous 11-plus as if her life depended on it. Which it doesn't. From Chinese Mother to Bexley Mother.

On the one hand at least she's honest. Sort of. But on the other hand, it's the kind of guilt-assuaging honesty that enables her to carry on doing what she's doing: openly manipulating the education system, while pleading necessity.

And by using the rhetoric of self-deprecation, and apparently offering herself up to the court of public approval, by writing about her experiences in the Daily Telegraph, she exercises one more level of manipulation: she can play the victim, so that critics like me look like the bad guys for naming what she's doing.

What price solidarity, eh? Never get between a mother and the education of her children. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Tutor.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Diet of words

I'm in a terrible hurry, so only have a few minutes to digest a couple of things with you.

This puts me squarely in the category "overfed information junkie" for a thinker like Alain de Botton, who's been delivering Point of View on Radio 4.

I've heard a couple of these so far. In the first, he argued that humanities teaching in British universities is culturally bankrupt; in the second that everyone else is. I was kind of cross about the first perspective, given how much of my life I gave to trying to help students think clearly, simply and forcefully about works of difficult literature. But I agree with the second perspective, because I find myself swimming about in it these days, running between pointless meetings, unable to research ideas in any depth, and overwhelmed by the number of books I 'ought' to have read, or be reading (quite apart from the cultural events that I never now see).

I agree with him on the notion that we are bulimics of culture: under-nourished because we're on permanent junk-book diets, and unable to take on what is truly nourishing about high art, because this essentially means essences -- eternal truths. The kinds of things, in fact, that universities have been deconstructing since the 1960s, suspicious of the provenance and authority of 'the eternal'.

Alain makes an astute comparison with the repeated rituals of organized religion, which decrees that we will reflect on the same idea, at the same time, on the same day, each year, with a group of others. He points out that there is no such communal system available for literature, and that the mass production of books has devalued the Book as precious object; dehumanizing it, and draining out what is valuable about the act of reading or thinking through this technological and economic facility: if a book is cheap, this cheapens its contents by transposed attribute.

The second point I am rushing to make, that runs across the first, is about an article I read last night from the Wall Street Journal, that is busily going viral at the moment.


will take you to an amazing piece of polemic, describing the life and work of a so-called Chinese Mother, in her own words. Apparently to be one of these high achievers, you need to prevent your child from doing anything that doesn't directly contribute to the achievement you have decreed for him or her. This means none of the social activities children usually do, but also enforced practice of the discipline in which the child will excel, and punishment and disapproval expressed in the most emotive terms for any falling short.

The article is so extreme that it seems at times like a parody of itself. Can this mother be serious? She mocks 'self-esteem' as a notion, seeing children as extensions of parental ambition, and she asserts this proudly, seeing nothing wrong with it. She is surprised, in a detached way, when her methods lead to her being ostracized by her social circle.

At first it was easy to see this as ridiculous, and to laugh at it. But then I found myself realizing I felt angry, because it is so unacceptable in Western society to be open about the competitiveness of raising children. We all know that, behind closed doors, mothers and fathers are pushing their children to succeed at any cost ... and withholding affection from them if they do not attain the high standards parents want for them -- out of love, fear, and their own dashed hopes. We will never admit it openly. It is unacceptable to discuss this emotional battle, just as naked competitiveness is frowned on about one's own ambitions. We are allowed to be self-deprecating, but we are not allowed to punish our children if they don't achieve straight As across the board.

What the Chinese Mother appears to say is: "forget ambivalence, and what others think. Forget social consensus. The world will eat us up: arm your children." I can't bear to think that this is all life is, and so I stepped out of the humanities university world that had turned my passions into drudgery and rote. But in the world outside the ivory towers, there is such a mess of illusions and mistaken identities, appearance replacing reality, that it is hard to keep my head above water, and hang on to the values that the literature I love gave me.

I have left the world that Alain de Botton would like us to live in -- because I discovered that it didn't exist in university life, or not any more, and I inhabit a world gone mad, in which it is virtually impossible to live one's life by a firm moral code, or by personal beliefs, and in which one is exposed to the extremity of sociopathic parenting opinions, because they make a good story.

Finally, I've been wanting to talk about The Help (Catherine Stockett). A huge bestseller in the States, this is a novel about black servants in the deep South of America, in 1962, at a fulcrum point between segregation and enfranchisement. It's a great page-turner, and well written. There is the white outsider, a woman too tall to marry and integrate easily into the society on offer to her. And there are the intelligent, fierce and watchful helps, whose insights into the real workings of the families they work for reveal that segregation permeates every aspect of Southern society. It separates friends from each other, husbands from wives, mothers from children. Everyone lives segregated lives if segregation obtains, even its purported winners.

Over the course of the novel, everything goes as it should: we are served a tale of heroic secrecy, the gradual collation of the stories of a group of helps, who tell all to the white woman. She in turn is able to get a foot on the publishing ladder when this collection of stories is turned into a book. One of the helps looks as though she will be able to earn her living as a writer. Another wins herself permanent employment because of her heroism. The bully who has been determined to enforce racism by fair means or foul looks as though her power is about to evaporate. The book of tales ruptures the hermetic claustrophobia of Jackson, Mississippi, and by the end of what we read, it looks as though the old system is going to crumble and give way to newly enlightened times. Perfect. Everyone's a winner.

We discussed this book at my book club, which was very enjoyable, and wine-filled. Lovely. But when I left I found myself thinking about all the Helps I have needed since having children, from all the corners of the globe except from Britain itself. The only person who has ever let me down over childcare was English. I have been fantastically lucky to meet some wonderful women over the last seven years.

But when these same women, who have more than helped me raise our children, have come to have their own, one universal experience has chilled me. Every single one of them has been treated like dirt at the hands of the NHS. During birth, they have all been belittled and ignored. One suffered traumatic post-natal mistakes and repeated surgery because no one listened to her. The one common denominator has been their non-Englishness.

Alain de Botton thinks we miss the point of what great art has to tell us about eternal truths because we are too busy, and because there is no communal place to discuss it. But there I was, in a book club, talking to mothers about a book on raising other people's children. We weren't sure whether The Help was really literature. We didn't notice that the situation in the deep South in 1962 still goes on -- immigrants raise Western women's children, and are not themselves treated equally. We missed the point, but we also got it. We were at least together trying -- to read and think together, despite how strange and difficult it is, despite having absolutely no time to call our own, despite the massive competition and insecurity that saturates our society. We were trying.