‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’ for the Twenty-First Century
I have adored Rebecca Solnit’s writing since I found her wonderful book exploring an activity almost all of us do, or have done, and take for granted, though some of us have a passion for it – walking. Her book Wanderlust, A History of Walking showed what a fine, broad, interesting mind she has, exploring the biology and evolution of walking, the development of walking for pleasure instead of necessity, cultural attitudes to walking, the sexual politics of walking, walking as resistance and political action, and much much more.
So I knew I was going to be absorbed, educated, enlightened angered and amused by Men Explain Things To Me and Other Essays, a collection of investigations into various aspects of the relationship between men and women, and into the workings of a society which has clearly shown of late how far we still have to go
In the first, title essay, Solnit looks at ‘mansplaining’ though she doesn’t use the term with a wince-worthy encounter with someone who clearly was all mouth and no ears.
The Longest War explores the dark subject of rape.
We have an abundance of rape and violence against women in this country and on this Earth, though it’s almost never treated as a civil rights or human rights issue, or a crisis, or even a pattern. Violence doesn’t have a race, a class, a religion, or a nationality, but it does have a gender
Worlds collide in a Luxury Suite takes the issue of power and domination into the relationship between capitalism, the IMF, and the way the developing world has been exploited and held back. She links this story with the personal one of Dominique Strauss-Kahn formerly head of the IMF, and the African chambermaid he was charged with assaulting
In Praise of the Threat looks at the changing history of marriage, and how same-sex marriage, without the historic inequalities of marriage between the sexes, metaphysically may make for a recognition that a marriage should be between equals. Which is not what marriage has traditionally been.
Grandmother Spider examines the invisibility of women within much genealogy. Look at the Bible, as example. All those begats, almost all men. Where are the daughters in the list, where the mothers?
Fathers have sons and grandsons and so the lineage goes, with the name passed on; the tree branches, and the longer it goes on the more people are missing: sisters, aunts, mothers, grandmothers, great-grand-mothers, a vast population made to disappear on paper and in history
Woolf’s Darkness is a celebration of Virginia Woolf, and her willingness to face the darkness – her own and the world’s, and to engage with the mysteriousness of life, and the not-knowing. This is probably the most poetic of the essays. By which I mean that it takes the reader, by flash of unknown and surprising juxtapositions, as poetry does, into seeing the non-linear nature of our lives
We know less when we erroneously think we know than when we recognise that we don’t. Sometimes I think these pretences at authoritative knowledge are failures of language: the language of bold assertion is simpler, less taxing, than the language of nuance and ambiguity and speculation
Pandora’s Box and the Volunteer Police Force is a celebration of feminism, which, as Solnit points out is not just about changing women’s lives for the better. We (men and women) are on a journey here
Feminism is an endeavour to change something very old, widespread, and deeply rooted in many, perhaps most, cultures around the world, Innumerable institutions, and most households on Earth – and in our minds, where it all begins and end”
“I think the future of something we may no longer call feminism must include a deeper inquiry into men. Feminism sought and seeks to change the whole human world; many men are on board with the project, but how it benefits men, and in what ways the status quo damages men as well, could bear far more thought
Thought provoking, articulate, beautifully written; thoroughly recommended
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it – George Santayana
Stuart Maconie, author, broadcaster, journalist and commentator on cultural and social history is, by virtue of education and profession, now one of the intelligentsia. Very much a Lancashire lad (Wigan, as he reminds us) he has not lost his roots, and has a pleasing down to earth quality in his writing. Thoughtful, intelligent, warm, humorous, this also shows a lively interest in people in all their diversity.
In the wake of last year’s referendum, Maconie, like many of us, found himself musing on our divided nation. Connections between the 1930’s and the present seemed to be suggesting themselves, as right wing, populist politics, divisive and suspicious of outsiders, seemed on the rise
2016 was the 80th anniversary of the 1936 Jarrow March/Jarrow Crusade, occasioned by the closure of the single employer on which all else depended, the steelworks. Unemployment was rising in the country, and the gaps between rich and poor, South and North, were obvious. 200 men set out to march to London to deliver a petition to Parliament. Jarrow captured the public imagination, and the March has become a legend of dignity,resistance and solidarity on the one hand and uncaring capitalism on the other, a divided nation
Maconie, a keen walker, decided to emulate the 300 mile journey made by the Marchers, following their daily itinerary, ‘visiting the same towns and comparing the two Englands of then and now’
Some of the parallels were very clear:
The rise of extremism here and abroad fired by financial disasters, a wave of demagoguery and ‘strong man’ populism. Foreign wars driven by fundamentalist ideologies leading to the mass displacement of innocent people. A subsequent refugee ’crisis’. The threat of constitutional anarchy with conflict between government, parliament and judiciary. Manufacturing industries, especially steel, facing extinction….Inflammatory rhetoric stoked by a factionalised press…….A country angrily at odds with itself over its relationship to Europe, the elephant in the nation: Brexit
This is far more than a purely personal story of one man’s walk. Maconie engages with the people he meets, garners stories of then and now, recounts the history of the places he travels through,, whilst following some of his own interests, football, music – of all kinds, and finding, often conviviality and hospitality around food, reflecting the cultures who have added, across the centuries, to the rich loam of this island .
Alan Price’s 1974 jarrow Song with 1936 British Pathe Films footage
This is an engaging, fascinating account, sometimes angry, often scathing about those whose manipulations fostered the divisions and uncertainties we now face, populists of the right and of the left. What stands out, again and again, is the richness of a culture, in this country, which has always been eclectic, fed by generations of ‘outsiders’ across the centuries, settling, marrying, having children who have feet in the history and culture of the new homeland, and influences from the old. ‘ Britishness’ develops, as it always has
Hard to read, unbearable to write, unimaginable to live through
This is one of those books that any reader must wish had never needed to be written. ‘Samer’ is the pseudonym of a young man, living in Raqqa, who was part of a resistance group within Syria, struggling to survive under the harshness of the Assad regime, and then struggling to survive after Daesh captured the city. The small group he belonged to were endeavouring to let people in the outside world know what their terrifying existence had become.
In Raqqa controlled Daesh, communicating with the western media is punishable by beheading. And of course, Western journalists are not allowed into the city. Those who are determined that the outside world should be aware of what their lives are like are in permanent danger of discovery, permanent danger of death, and also place their families in danger. It is a vicious choice to have to make, bearing witness seems the only possibility of any kind of less bleak future. The activist group Samer belonged to had made contact with the BBC. Samer’s resistance was to keep a journal of events (something, of course, punishable by death)
The journal was published after his escape from Raqqa – his present whereabouts are in a refugee camp in northern Syria.
I received this as a digital review copy from the publisher via Netgalley. It is a book I did not want to read, but felt I must
Samer tells the bleakness of his country’s present story simply. Too much of what happens is unbearable to linger on, and, living amid horror I suspect that allowing full realisation in would make surviving impossible. There is only so much pain which can be borne. Here is the experience of one who should have been an ordinary young man, one who loves his country, his family, his friends, his religion, one with ordinary hopes for an ordinary future. Exceptional events, orchestrated by terrible people, have forced ordinary people into making heartbreaking choices – for Samer, telling this story meant a certain death, and leaving his country, his family, his friends, was the hard choice. Resistance is the act of bearing witness.
Illustration by Scott Coello
Line drawings by Scott Coello are similarly spare. Samer’s diary is translated by Nader Ibrahim. Excerpts were originally broadcast on Radio 4.
“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”
I read this many years ago, and always remembered it fondly, so it has been a real pleasure to re-read it. I had forgotten quite how sharply, precisely, creatively and wittily Woolf makes her points. And I had also forgotten quite how beautifully her ‘stream of consciousness’ style works in a non-fiction setting, where she is exploring the unequal opportunities afforded to women in terms of exploring and fostering their creativity, their education, their growth and development, in a world whose systems were designed to exclude them.
Her 1928 book, A Room Of One’s Own is a world away from the dry marshalling of facts, and a world away from hammer bludgeons of polemic too. Yes, there is anger – at discovering as a female, she is not allowed to walk on the hallowed grass – only College Fellows can do that, and, hey-ho, there are no female fellows. The chapter of ‘disallows’ on a quite ordinary day continues, locking her out of the library, the meaner endowment of colleges for women – because, until only some fifty years before the book was written, all a woman possessed was her husband’s. Changes were put in place after the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870. But it did mean that as, in the main, as she points out, most men were less interested in advancing the education of women than women were, until Married Women had the legal right to own the fruits of their own paid labour and to inherit property, the likelihood of generous endowments to colleges for the further education of females was less likely than the generous endowments to colleges for the further education of males.
The history of men’s opposition to women’s emancipation is more interesting perhaps than the story of that emancipation itself.
The writing of this essay followed on an invitation Woolf received from a Cambridge college to give a lecture on ‘Women and Fiction’ and follows her musings on what this could possibly mean : A talk about women in fiction, as described by male and female writers; a talk about female authors; a talk about what women are like – or some combination of ‘all of the above’
Woolf’s ‘stream of consciousness’ writing perfectly serves this incisive, discursive account, examining women’s position in society, examining why the novel has proved to be a potent creative place for women, and mixing analysis of society, history, literature, and political structures in a wonderfully fertile, creative, juicy, living way. She refutes those who have undervalued women’s creativity, dedication, imagination and genius, in the creative arts or elsewhere, by showing how often it was a powerful, moneyed, privileged few who produced ‘geniuses’ – and how much of this was due to access to education. She points out that our dearly loved Shakespeare himself was some kind of rarity – he was not part of the aristocracy. And, to take another tack, over the last hundred or so years, there have been all those pathetic attempts to claim Shakespeare was not Shakespeare, but some cover for a lord.
a book is not made of sentences laid end to end, but of sentences built, if an image helps, into arcades or domes.
Given the wonderful, but dice-weighted-against-it, reality of Shakespeare, Woolf imagines a sister, equally rare in creativity, and unique imagination, born in the same fertile environment which did produce Shakespeare. And she traces the impossibility of ‘Judith’ to have had access to the chances and accidents, the opportunities seized, to produce our Bard of Avon, for the distaff side. Woolf gives us sharp, thoughtful analysis – but the packaging is delicious, playful, inventive and remarkably potent.
I re-read this simultaneously laughing in delight – and raging
Life for both sexes – is arduous, difficult, a perpetual struggle. It calls for gigantic courage and strength. More than anything, perhaps, creatures of illusion as we are, it calls for confidence in oneself. Without self-confidence we are as babes in the cradle. And how can we generate this imponderable quality, which is yet so invaluable, most quickly? By thinking that other people are inferior to one-self.
And, suddenly, my reading of Woolf came bang up to date, and I felt her going beyond the well known argument she makes, here, for the necessity for the creative artist to have ‘A Room of One’s Own’, some freedom from the demands of service to others, some independence of means – and I felt her talking about more than literature, and speaking about our divide-and-rule, and the myriad places we practice it
This is a wonderful laying out of thoughtful, philosophical, sparkling creative feminism. Delivered with wit, humour, inventiveness. Oh, she dazzled and she dazzles still.
This was read towards the end of last month, for the particular stage of HeavenAli’s Woolfalong, but, alas, a growing sense of alarm about what might be going to happen ‘across the pond’ rather took away the energy for the writing of reviews
Historical analysis of mental health care wedded to an almost unbearably painful warts and warts memoir.
Historian and writer Barbara Taylor’s The Last Asylum is partly an objective analysis of mental healthcare provision from the early provision of ‘places of asylum’ and/or places of incarceration, to the more recent dismantling of long stay psychiatric hospitals in favour of ‘Care In The Community’ . Asylum provision itself, which, at its best can provide a place of safety and community for the vulnerable, can at its worst also be a dumping ground for all kinds of people with mental, emotional or behavioural ‘difficulties’ which are perceived as outside society norms. And moreover can be a place where the lost, confused, furious, terrified or despairing can be treated brutally and abusively
History’s verdict has yet to be delivered, and it is possible that the judgment will be more favourable to the old asylums, at least in some respects, than psychiatric modernizers would like us to believe
Closing asylums, however, has been far from an unalloyed blessing. The change in the way psychological dis-ease has been dealt with was not a move done with completely pure, outcome driven intent. Cost was a huge driver. Like asylums themselves, and how patients fared within them, ‘Care In The Community’ as a concept is hugely variable on the ground, as Taylor, explains. At its best, people are supported back into community by skilled case workers, with provision for sheltered housing, day centres, and a wealth of trainings. Unfortunately the ‘at its best’ is a rare beast in times of austerity, and in the aftermath of Thatcher’s ‘There is no such thing as Society’ ethos, the vulnerable may find themselves with little care, and outside any community.
Anthony Bateman summarized the situation to me : “The relational, pastoral component of mental health care has been eliminated. All that is left now is a mechanistic, formulaic, depersonalised substitute for quality care”
The Last Asylum is not only objective and historical analysis. Taylor herself is/has been one of the vulnerable, from very young. She came from a high-achieving and materially successful Canadian background. Material well-being, as she acknowledges, was certainly helpful to her in one of her chosen routes towards recovery, but material well-being is not of course any guarantee that parents will be able to provide good, supportive, loving and unexploitative grounding for their children. Taylor suffered abuse as a child, the sexual dynamics in her family were disturbing, and the relational messages from both parents, remarkably creepy. Early signs of Taylor’s anxiety, depression and instability were ignored, and it seems there was a fair degree of undermining of her, as well as exploitation.
The lived past is never really past; it endures in us in more ways than we understand
More than half the book is about Taylor’s long experience of breakdown, rage, terror, despair, self abuse and alcoholism, and details her personal experience as a ‘service user’ of mental healthcare provision – including 3 spells as an inmate in ‘The Last Asylum’ –Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, which on its opening in 1851 represented progressive, enlightened treatment of mental health, but very quickly became associated with some of the worst excesses of institutions where the fragile were dumped, forgotten and incarcerated. At the time of Taylor’s 3 admissions there, in the late 1980s, the final one lasting 5 months, the now renamed ‘Friern Hospital’ was already scheduled for closure, under those changed ‘Care In The Community’ drives. But, as Taylor explains, the Hospital provided a place of safety, support and containment for many, and proper provisions for community care outside were often non-existent
‘Colney Hatch Pauper Lunatic Asylum 1851′
As well as support through hospitalisation, Taylor was also lucky in her NHS psychiatrist. She also took the decision to embark on psychoanalysis, privately paid for. Soon, she was seeing her analyst (including during her spells in Friern) 5 times a week. This went on for 21 years.
I know………it gave me pause for thought too.
Friern Hospital now converted as a prime location for luxury flats as Princess Park Manor
And a large part of this book recounts the circular conversations between Taylor and her analyst – she kept journals recording what she said, what he said, what she felt, what her dreams were. This makes for pretty depressing reading to be honest. And, it must be said at times extremely wearing. Taylor is, I think, very honest: there is little attempt to charm the reader, to get the reader to like her – she presents herself as grandiose, self-obsessed, manipulative and without empathy, compassion and understanding for others around her. Indeed these aspects of her nature and behaviour formed a major strand in her analysis However…….though all this meant that her personal story at times became utterly wearing, there had to be far more to her than that, as she also had a group of incredibly supportive friends over the decades, who clearly loved and cherished her, and did not wash their hands of someone who, on the face of it, in her account in this book, does not reveal just why those friends so clearly were and remain her loyal friends.
Poverty is a psychological catastrophe. Anyone who thinks that madness is down to defective brain chemistry needs to look harder at the overwhelming correlation between economic deprivation and mental illness
I value this book for the honesty and clarity which Taylor sometimes expresses about herself – she is well aware that the ‘luxury’ – in terms of how it helped her – of that 21 year journey of analysis was only available because of family funds – for a long, long, time she was too ill, too self-destructive, too drunk to work. And she also answers the questions which I think any reader must have about whether that 21 years was a waste of time and money, whether she could/would have got better without it, and faster, whether some of the ‘fast result’ approaches like CBT would have been a better option, whether, if long term stay in Friern had not been available, could she/would she have got better – or might she have killed herself without any or all of these supports. Indeed did some of the support (those 21 years) actually make her WORSE. As she shows, going into deep analysis is not some wonderfully self-indulgent place, it’s at times excruciatingly abrading, an endless delving for suppurating boils. Most of us find ways to plaster over and avoid our deepest pains, if at all possible.
Homeless feelings are boundless; they sweep all before them. Their violence is as all-engulfing as the primeval experiences – aloneness, helplessness, total vulnerability – that power them. Some memories never lose their potency; they live on in the heartbeat, the muscles, the breath
She is honest enough, in effect, to say she can’t really answer any of that – who knows? Nor is she crassly suggesting that any one approach is ‘the’ approach for the treatment of mental and emotional illness. What she cogently argues against is the taking away of choice. Some people needed the support of asylum; some people needed a longer, more relational safer space afforded by a psychotherapist – or even a psychiatrist who was more than just a quick dispenser of pills on a ten or twenty minute appointment. What we have now is, often, doing no more than placing a plaster over an infected wound, dispensing pills which cosh the symptoms of dis-ease, and create dependency. It’s a one size fits all.
A disturbing, thought provoking book, and a powerful one
“The real division is not between conservatives and revolutionaries but between authoritarians and libertarians”
George Orwell was not only a writer whom I fell in love with in my late teens and early twenties, but was also a man with qualities, as shown in his writing and his life, that seemed to me heroic.
What struck me about Orwell and his writing was always the humanity of the man, and the honesty to test himself and his beliefs. He knew, it seemed, what he was, and was aware of the prejudices which class, sex, and culture impose (on all of us). He was also someone who could examine his beliefs and was not afraid to admit he was wrong
Nowhere does this show itself so clearly as in two of his great autobiographical, journalistic writings, Down and Out In Paris and London, and Homage to Catalonia, published in 1938. This book recounts Orwell’s experiences in the Spanish Civil War. Like many on the left Orwell went to Spain to fight Fascism. Which in Spain took a different form from Germany and Italy. The democratically elected government in Spain was left leaning. An alliance of various right wing groupings (supported by the arms from Germany and Italy) attempted to overthrow that government. Although there were several right wing groups with their own agenda, they were more united against the left than the multiplicity of left wing groupings were in their prime focus against their common enemy, the right. Primarily, though Russia supported the left, what the Communist Party was supporting was State Capitalism. Some of the other leftist groups, notably the ‘Trotskyist’ Marxist P.O.U.M (the militia Orwell fought alongside when he first went to Spain) and the Anarchists, were fighting for a bottom-up workers’ revolution.
Partit Obrer d’Unificació Marxista
Initially trying to get papers to go to Spain to fight for the Republic, Orwell did approach Harry Pollitt, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain. (Those Britons intending to fight for the Republic needed supporting documents from a British left organisation. Pollitt however did not consider Orwell ‘sound’. This meant Orwell got his papers from the ILP, the Independent Labour Party. Practically, this meant that he was assigned to a militia which was predominantly P.O.U.M . Had the CP given him papers, he would have entered the war with P.S.U.C , the ‘official’ Communist Party (Stalinist) line. And his experience would have been a vastly different one. An ‘official’ CP line was put out, and widely reported in the Press, that the P.O.U.M were fifth columnists, and were in fact a front for the Fascists. P.O.U.M and the more left wing trades union groupings (F.A.I; C.N.T – Anarchists) were of course nothing of the sort, but were interested in winning a revolution, as well as a war.
Except for the small revolutionary groups which exist in all countries, the whole world was determined upon preventing revolution in Spain. In particular the Communist Party, with Soviet Russia behind it, had thrown its whole weight against the revolution. It was the Communist thesis that revolution at this stage would be fatal and that what was to be aimed at in Spain was not workers’ control, but bourgeois democracy. It hardly needs pointing out why ‘liberal’ capitalist opinion took the same line.
The experience of the P.O.U.M. militia, and later, in Barcelona, were for Orwell a transforming experience. The contrast between a top down imposed line, and a bottom up without-hierarchy, though at times frustratingly inefficient, seemed to connect with Orwell’s own desire to seek the truthful, human encounter, rather than the party line.
To be perfectly honest, the complexities of that war, some 80 years ago, still seem difficult to understand, and it is very clear (as Orwell suggests) that information and misinformation was deliberately put out on all sides. Ancient ideological enmities between particular left groupings do seem to get stuck in fighting each other.
Placa De George Orwell Barcelona named in memory of Orwell’s service in the Spanish Civil War
Where I like and trust Orwell is that he wrote this book from his direct experience. A small corner of that war, and from within an organisation which was fairly quickly made illegal. Orwell’s relationship is always with the people he is alongside, not with official lines.
This is at times a remarkably confusing account of warfare. That is not to criticise Orwell – because that is the nature of war, from within the battlezones, minute by minute. Add to that the fact that the Spanish Civil War, and interpretations of what was happening still leads to shouting between different factions and believers on the left, and between different scholarly accounts and interpretations.
Orwell was fighting on a front line, near Huesca, where very little was happening as the lines were quite far apart. Paradoxically, it was when he was in Barcelona for a few days leave, looking forward to getting away from the cold and the rats and the lice, that everything kicked off, and the workers,-united,-will-never-be-defeated, broke down because the various Republican faction’s pressing differences opened out into naked conflict
I believe that on such an issue as this no one is or can be completely truthful. It is difficult to be certain about anything except what you have seen with your own eyes, and consciously or unconsciously everyone writes as a partisan
Orwell reminds us that we are ALL partisan and have agendas. Perhaps that is something which is refreshing about him – he describes what he sees, he also applies his investigative, journalistic look to the stories that were told by others with more obvious agendas and party lines to promote.
I went back to my post on the roof with a feeling of concentrated disgust and fury. When you are taking part in events like these you are, I suppose, in a small way, making history, and you ought by rights to feel like a historical character. But you never do, because at such times the physical details always outweigh everything else. Throughout the fighting, I never made the correct ‘analysis’ of the situation that was so glibly made by journalists hundreds of miles away. What I was chiefly thinking about was not the rights and wrongs of this miserable internecine scrap, but simply the discomfort and boredom of sitting day and night on that intolerable rood, and the hunger which was growing worse and worse – for none of us had had a proper meal since Monday
In a way, it is Orwell’s ‘inability to make the correct analysis’ which seems a deal more honest than black and white analyses
That view which I formed when I read this first, has only been reinforced. And underlined by a very apposite quote, found in a Wiki article about Homage to Catalonia
The Spanish Civil war produced a spate of bad literature. Homage to Catalonia is one of the few exceptions and the reason is simple. Orwell was determined to set down the truth as he saw it. This was something that many writers of the Left in 1936–39 could not bring themselves to do. Orwell comes back time and time again in his writings on Spain to those political conditions in the late thirties which fostered intellectual dishonesty: the subservience of the intellectuals of the European Left to the Communist ‘line’, especially in the case of the Popular Front in Spain where, in his view, the party line could not conceivably be supported by an honest man. Only a few strong souls, Victor Serge and Orwell among them, could summon up the courage to fight the whole tone of the literary establishment and the influence of Communists within it. Arthur Koestler quoted to an audience of Communist sympathizers. Thomas Mann’s phrase, ‘In the long run a harmful truth is better than a useful lie’. The non-Communists applauded; the Communists and their sympathizers remained icily silent … It is precisely the immediacy of Orwell’s reaction that gives the early sections of Homage its value for the historian. Kaminski, Borkenau, Koestler came with a fixed framework, the ready-made contacts of journalist intellectuals. Orwell came with his eyes alone.
Raymond Carr, “Orwell and the Spanish war”, essay in the World of George Orwell, 1971
My battered old version of the book also has a later essay by Orwell, “Looking Back on The Spanish Civil War”, which was published in 1953, and gives a clear analysis of the highly complex threads, the unlikely ideological bedfellows, in both countries and political and ideological groupings, from a vantage point 15 years later.
There is also a very clear Wiki article, including a timeline of Spanish history where the seeds of the conflict can be traced, specifically on the Spanish Civil War.
Pablo Picasso – Guernica, 1937 (Guernica was bombed at the request of the Spanish Nationalists (Falangists) by German and Italian planes)
It illustrates, yet again, how deeply tangled and complex the seeds of our ability to self-destruct are. Sometimes the fact that we are a self-conscious species, and our ability to self-reflect, – and self-deceive, as well as deceive others, seems a dreadful evolutionary aberration.
“Loneliness, longing, does not mean one has failed, but simply that one is alive”
I’ve been a keen reader of Olivia Laing, since discovering her first book, To the River, an account of a walk along the length of the River Ouse. Laing inhabits a new kind of academic writing, which to me seems to warrant the epithet ‘holistic’ It also seems somehow to be a particularly feminine approach, though not all female academics employ it, and there are also male writers in the canon.
To explain, this ‘holism’ is different from the kind of distancing, objective, detached ‘scientific’ approach which has been part of, for example, literary criticism. The ‘scientific’ view of literature divorces the writer from the writing – ‘the biographical fallacy’ and dissects text, or history, or landscape or whatever is being analysed and assessed, as if there is an 100% objective reality to what is being observed. The fact that the viewer themselves has a subjective response, a subjective viewpoint which influences what they see, that they have a relationship with the observed, is ignored. Subjective response is always in there. Sometimes we are prepared to acknowledge it, and I must admit I like a writer who owns their bias, where they come from, as Laing always does.
What writers like Laing are doing as they engage with their own particular field of interest and enquiry, is to enter into their relationship with the material. This is poles away from arm’s length. Other writers in this kind of territory include Helen MacDonald, author of H is for Hawk, Kathleen Jamie in her nature writings.
Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, 1942
Laing’s writing is deeply, sometimes laceratingly, personal and revealing. However it is much more than mere autobiography or confession. Subjective experience and objective analysis flow in and out of each other. Laing’s subject – whether her walking along the Ouse, exploring the landscape, history, geography whilst walking out a personal emotional time and place, or her second book The Trip To Echo Spring : Why Writers Drink, which looks at 6 American writers, has, for me, an extremely satisfying result. Because Laing does not distance herself from her subject matter, rather, she holds the relational space between the other, and herself observing the other, I find myself drawn close into relationship with the examined life she is observing.
Loneliness, in its quintessential form, is of a nature that is incommunicable by the one who suffers it. Nor, unlike other non-communicable emotional experiences, can it be shared via empathy. It may well be that the second person’s empathic abilities are obstructed by the anxiety-arousing quality of the mere emanations of the first person’s loneliness
In The Lonely City, taking as a starting point her own sense of being an outsider, of loneliness, acknowledging this uncomfortable feeling, part, surely of the human condition, she explores how this sense of loneliness, isolation has been a particularly profound springboard for creativity in the work of a group of visual artists. She has particularly focussed on American artists, mainly painters – Edward Hopper, but also mixed media artists – Andy Warhol – and into the work of photographers, film makers, performance artists. She is particularly looking at work in the second half of the twentieth century.
what Hopper’s urban scenes also replicate is one of the central experiences of being lonely: the way a feeling of separation, of being walled off or penned in, combines with a sense of near unbearable exposure…………an uncertainty about being seen – looked over, maybe; but maybe also overlooked, as in ignored, unseen, unregarded, undesired
Nan Goldin – Dieter with Tulips 1984
I was struck by the prevalence of a sense of being ‘aliens from another planet’ in the artists she was exploring – some of whom were familiar to me, such us Hopper and Warhol, most of whom I was introduced to, for example Henry Darger, David Wojnarowicz. Unsurprisingly, a different sexual orientation, ethnicity, or even an outside the norm family structure, a tendency to introspection and reflectivity when society is functioning in at out-there, high achieving jockish way, can lead to this. Of particular interest to me is her exploration of how some of this sense of not belonging and alienation arises very early in childhood – and some would say can begin in the womb. She weaves in some of the work by John Bowlby on attachment theory, Melanie Klein’s work on infant psychology, and some account of the distressing scientific experiments done on infantile attachment with rhesus monkeys and other mammals.
It might sound as if leaping around from her own loneliness following a relationship breakdown, to exploring the strange world of countertenor Klaus Nomi, unfortunately having a beautiful operatic voice a decade or so before countertenors became loved mainstream opera stars, to analysis of AIDS and the attitudes towards gays in the eighties, political activism, psychoanalytical theory, not to mention the analysis of particular artworks in the framework of all this, might be a hotchpotch. Be reassured, it isn’t. Think instead, a remarkably rich and glowing tapestry, a strong, flexible web.
And, talking of webs…………..I do think a book like this could not have been enjoyed and savoured so satisfyingly more than about a decade ago. The ability to go and search for artworks, you-tube clips of interviews, performances, added immeasurably to the experience
David Wojnarowicz collage
One might think that this would be a depressing, despairing read, accounts of lonely, (even if visible and famous, like Warhol) misunderstood (though highly creative) creative lives. In fact, Laing reminds us how often creative works, perhaps born out of rage, despair or suffering, or from the riches of an interior life of the imagination, totally at odds with what the creator presents to the world (Henry Darger) can illuminate and enrich not only the creator themselves, but those of us who see, or read, or hear and receive that felt, shared, awakening sense of ‘meaning’ that the arts can give. Art itself as a kind of healing, whole-ing not just to the makers.
This is a strange story, perhaps better understood as a parable, a way of articulating what it’s like to inhabit a particular kind of being. It’s about wanting and not wanting: about needing people to pour themselves out into you and then needing them to stop, to restore the boundaries of the self, to maintain separation and control. It’s about having a personality that both longs for and fears being subsumed into another ego; being swamped or flooded, ingesting or being infected by the mess and drama of someone else’s life, as if their words were literally agents of transformation.
This is the push and pull of intimacy
(from a section examining Warhol, and examining the author’s response to Warhol’s life and Warhol’s work)
This is a book which touches on many ideas, feelings, and disciplines of study. I suspect each reader will find individual aspects of it specifically speak more or less loudly to them. It’s a very rich book indeed :
There are so many things that art can’t do. It can’t bring the dead back to life, it can’t mend arguments between friends, or cure AIDS, or halt the pace of climate change. All the same, it does have some extraordinary functions, some odd, negotiating ability between people, including people who never meet and yet who infiltrate each other’s lives. It does have a capacity to create intimacy; it does have a way of healing wounds, and better yet of making it apparent that not all wounds need healing and not all scars are ugly
And that, to my mind, is just one stunning example of gold, bread, water, diamonds. Rich, rich, needed
As you can probably guess, I was almost overwhelmed by all this book contains, and wanted to include visual after visual of every discussed artist. However, readers must, as I did, find their own immersive journey.
The Lonely City comes highly recommended by me!
I was delighted to receive this as an advance digital copy from the publishers, via Netgalley It is available, according to the Amazons, 3rd March in the UK, and 1st March in the USA
(Nervously worries whether that extra e is correct, and whether I rolled the r properly)
I do hope William Alexander won’t mind me making the obvious connection between him and that other American ‘Billiam’ – Bryson – that there are a lot of similarities between the two. Both (from author photos) are genial appearing bear-like men. Both are clearly extremely erudite, wonderfully, subtly witty, weave magic with words, have a fine line in self-deprecating humour, and a light-touch wearing of their evidently extensive knowledge. Both also have minds and a writing style which does not go from London to Edinburgh in a straight line, grimly in pursuit of the journey’s end, instead preferring to ramble about delightfully on the scenic route, taking in Japan, Alaska and other surprising destinations along the way. And paradoxically, they both manage to cram all the rambles into a probably shorter (well, it certainly feels that way) journey than that taken by a more linear, less joie de vivre-ish sort of writer.
William Alexander, a dedicated Francophile, with fantasies of being French is presented with a couple of challenges to this fantasy. One is that he doesn’t speak French. And the second is that he is in his 50s, long past the ‘window of opportunity’ for becoming bilingual, or even fluent, according to various experts on the learning of language itself, and the learning of a second or additional language in particular.
This wonderfully good humoured book explores William’s sterling, perhaps foolhardy efforts to become someone who thinks and speaks like a Frenchman. Along the way, he even adopts a new name, in case this will help. ‘Guy’ pronounced the French way naturellement comes from a shortening of the French version of his own name (cue opera by Rossini)
Less happily along the way William discovers he suffers from atrial fibrillation, and more seriously ventricular fibrillation and has several shocking (literally) medical experiences, whilst he half-idly wonders whether the extreme stress and struggle of his attempts to engage with the language have hastened the ‘breaking’ or break-down, of his heart.
(Here is a lesson for all those of us who are not French : this is how to do it, magnificently, and with impeccably rolled rs – come on, now rrrrrrrrrregrrrrrrrrrrette rrrrrrrrrrrrien – you too will be applauded like this, by an ecstatic audience, if you get those rolls as brilliantly executed as this lady manages:)
There are marvellous, fascinating and witty explanations of language theory, an exploration of the frankly illogical (sorry!) language which assigns the masculine gender to breasts and the feminine gender to beards. Unless the French were always just more nuanced than the English around fixed positions on gender. In which case, kudos, amis et amies. Or is this an fine example of French humour?. The French clearly also are streets ahead of us English speakers in mathematical ability, since their numbering system oddly at times includes multiplication and addition – quatre vingt , quatre vingt dix and the like.
I have now become as fixated on wanting to read more of William’s writing as he is about wanting to speak better French. A book on growing tomatoes (!) and one on baking bread awaits. The man is a raconteur to the manner born, and probably has a whole fleet of shaggy dogs to take out on rambles
Jasmine Donahaye’s confessional exploration of the heartbreaking complexities around the divide between Israel/Palestine: whose land? whose homes? whose sacred and historical places? whose truthful history? – the aching, tearing emptiness in clear sight for one’s own, and others emotional faultlines – is a beautiful, soulful, despairing and melancholy piece of writing.
Donahaye, daughter of two kibbutzniks, one of them born in Israel (her mother) and the other an English born Jew, keen to help the socialist vision of an Israeli society, was born in the UK when her parents left Israel and came to live in her father’s birthplace.
She first visited Israel at the age of 10, in 1978. Losing Israel recounts her profound sense of home, belonging, commitment to Israel, and her swallowing of its myths and hero stories, as absorbed in childhood from her former kibbutznik parents. Israel was the longing-in-the-blood home; Israel was beloved grandparents; Israel her history and connection
The stories we learn in childhood, before we are able to analyse, stand outside and deconstruct them, or learn that there might also be other stories, are seductive and often, quite literally, enchanting – that is, they exert some kind of magic over us, and learning that our view of the world is a subjective, not an objective one, and that someone else is glamoured by different stories and world views, is shocking and unsettling. Often it’s the easiest, least challenging way to live to choose to view our own stories as objective and true, and to choose to view the stories of others as glamours, wrong, false, subjective.
As with any national narrative, in order to legitimise itself, the modern Israeli one is grafted, like a new fruiting variant, onto an old gnarled trunk with deep historical roots
So, for Donahaye, `the Arab’ was dangerous, one who was trying to take `our land’. And then, the complicated history of Israel, or Palestine, or what had been the British Mandate, rather flung itself upon her, after she discovered the role of those passionately idealistic kibbutzniks, including her own grandfather, in taking those “desert wastes and uncultivated scrublands”, to build the kibbutz. Build Israel, There was a false potency in the myth of desert wastes and uncultivated scrublands, a false potency in naming that land, the ownership it implies, that hid the other story of displacement. Not the sorry uncultivated scrubs, but land already settled and farmed by Palestinians. Who has displaced whom, in all its sorry complexity, becomes the theme of this painful, honest and unresolved exploration
Israel’s national anthem is in minor chords, saturated with longing for a redemption that cannot be, a hope that cannot be fulfilled, because who can ever be fully at home in the world when that home rests on the homelessness of others
Donahaye was well into middle age before that other story, that Palestinian story, began to demand she listened to it. Although she had grown up in the UK, where there has been open, sometimes deeply painful dissent between the concepts which `Israel’ and `Palestine’ contain, she then spent over 10 years in America, where perhaps the Palestinian arguments have not been so widely listened to. In conflicts, the history which gets heard is that of the victors. It is not `the true’ history. It is the history of the victors. The `true’ history must always be knotty and uncomfortable : it contains oppositions.
How can we ever come to this place (‘Peace’, written in Arabic and Hebrew); the need gets ever more urgent
I didn’t find Donahaye’s late realisation of that other history surprising, precisely because those beliefs we grow up with, as received truths, whatever they are, shape us. Changing our fundamental beliefs, `losing our faith’ – whether that is religious, political, or any other belief which is as much emotional as intellectual, is an overwhelming experience. Letting go of our cultural and family myths may in the end be liberating, but there is likely to be a deeply painful process involved in that awakening. For Donahaye, it was also linked with the rightness – or wrongness – of her own family history, rewriting her heroic parents and grandparents and finding darker actions in their past
No matter what I learn about its history, what I feel about its government’s acts, its citizens electoral choices, what I think about its political foundations and exclusions, Israel is inextricably caught up with my mother – my inaccessible, elusive mother, who left her community and her country, but inwardly never left, who carried her home all the years of my childhood not in a book…..but in the locked chamber of her heart
I discovered (and was not at all surprised) that Donahaye is a poet. She has that poetic sensibility of grasping the importance and texture of language, of writing, not only beautifully, but with thought, with precision, working images, narratives, descriptions and reflections, whether of her own internal debates and confusions, or what she sees outside her, with freshness, immediacy, authenticity.
What’s In A Name : Cinnyris osea : Palestine Sunbird; Orange-Tufted Sunbird
She has also been, all her life, a passionate bird-watcher. And ruefully reflects how language to describe bird travels and origins: `native’, `migrants,’ comes to have a weightier meaning in that land whose name is loaded, always denying the other. Israel/Palestine – whose home? This became a particularly powerful, and unresolved metaphor in the name of a particular bird, native to the region. As a child, she learned to call this bird the orangetufted sunbird. However, its other name is the Palestine sunbird:
When I was a child we never called it the Palestine sunbird, because we never used the word Palestine…..Naming acknowledges and therefore begins to validate a story. Not naming erases. …it renders a thing void…..semantically the name Palestine erases Israel…the meanings and associations of the word Israel semantically erases Palestine
This is an honest, and a painful book. An uncomfortable one because the author does not take a black and white decision, there is not clear-cut, done and dusted resolution. Rather she stays in that difficult place of nuance. Our stories, it seems to me, all our stories, closely examined, are ambiguous
Love of a person, of a place – the more you know, the more complicated it is. The knowledge that the person is wounded, that the place is stained doesn’t diminish your love…..your need to love is a longing to feel whole, knowing you cannot be whole – a longing to be home, though you will never be at home in one place, not fully
I recommend this book unreservedly. She took me into the heart of the real battleground – we glibly talk about `hearts and minds’ and how we have to win the hearts and minds to resolve conflicts, but it seems to me that is the only real and lasting solution to the eternal, global conflicts which our complex, conflicted species, each and every one of us, are so prone to.
This might, or might not seem trivial, but every picture I looked at for inclusion, had another retaliatory picture behind it : my suffering, yes but you caused My suffering, here are MY dead children : and here are MINE. In the end, I found almost everything I saw provoked a raging fire, and I felt trapped by each image adding fuel to each side. Everything was oil to that flame.
I received Losing Israel as a digital review copy from the publishers, Seren, via NetGalley
A stunning labour of love and a clarion call to delight and achievement!
As a lover of wild walking for almost all my adult life, and a devotee of wild water swimming for many years, it almost felt as if someone (well, to be honest, as this book was created by a wonderful and inspired collective group of women) that is, a collection of wise, doughty and joyful someones, produced a book which absolutely fits me. To save all my friends buying me this for Christmas I’ve stolen a march on them and got it, pronto, for myself.
Now this book may have a practical appeal just for those who live in the more-or-less-greater London area, but it is also an object of visual style and beauty, from the delectable cover, designed by James Lewis, to the wealth of wonderful photos taken of the watery destinations, and the walkers and swimmers themselves. So, if I didn’t plan to use the book, it would still be one to aesthetically appreciate.
Moving on to the purely practical, this is a brilliantly put together book – not only are the instructions clear, but there are useful details of start/finish by public transport, length of each walk, time taken, ease or difficulty of the walk, details about the swimming aspects – for example, depth, ease of access to the water, details of the refreshments available (oh yay!) graphics on a map of the route, details of the precise OS map it can be found on – and, even better there are details of how you can access each map on line to printout and/or to email to a smart phone. This is stunningly helpful, and is part, I believe, of the approach that the publishers, Wild Things Publishers, have taken with their series of books.
So, an astonishingly well thought out package, in terms of both practicality and style – the book itself is far too beautiful to sully by cramming into a walking bag – particularly as eventually wet bathers will be dripping into said bag, nor would I want to break the spine of this book in my printer/scanner/copier just to print out the instructions.
There is also additional historical information about wild swimming, and rights of way, which may spur readers to further thought about the land and our relationship to it. Plus very sensible practical advice to those who may be unaccustomed to the delights of pond, lake, river or sea and only have swum whilst under the influence of chlorination. Magic awaits!
Many thanks to the authors, the contributors and the publishers for a gorgeous addition to my various walking books, and I shall enjoy both stepping out and pretending to be an otter, working my way through the 28 wild water and land experiences.
Oh…and the undoubtedly lovely photo of a swimmer in the River Cam is not one of the delectable ones from this book, which are all copyrighted, but is a Wiki Commons
I have a kind of arms length interest here – I have had nothing whatsoever to do with the making of this book, but I am a long time swimmer in the amazing Kenwood Ladies Pond, and do know many of those who are to be hugely congratulated for this brilliant book. Which was NOT an ARC – I have been impatiently waiting to spend my hard earned dosh on what I knew was going to be stunning!
Wild Water Swimmers of the World, Unite! You have nothing to lose but your bathers!
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