Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Oh sod it it'll have to be some knitting

Can't seem to get a proper post together, so it'll have to be some more knitting, including Tom in a hat.

The hat in this picture in fact, featuring all Tom's knitted Christmas presents, none of which were ready in time for Christmas:

These items include the epic merino/cotton half fisherman's rib sweater I think I mentioned a while back, which just about came out OK, proves not to have enough warmth in it to be worn just now, and I was so fatigued by the sight of it after about half a million tiny half-fisherman's rib stitches by the time I'd finished that I was not sorry to see it put away for a bit. Also featured are a pair of green and black striped thick socks, and said hat.  This is the second hat I have attempted to make for Tom; the first was too big, too fuzzy, too fussy and, ultimately therefore, too feminine. Odd this masculine/ feminine knit thing, it really is quite delicate, anything too fuzzy and chunky, however sombre the colour or plain the stitch, is just not right. Tom didn't complain of it in those terms, but nevertheless that was the fact. 

This one, however, seems to have worked. The red and grey pattern was derived from an old chart to be found on the Estonian museums public portal. Despite careful transcribing of it onto big squared paper, my maths still let me down and there's an odd jog in it so it doesn't flow freely round the hat, but Tom, like Eric Morecambe, says you can't see the join. Also by the time I'd accomplished three repeats of it the hat was already too long so I had to rather hastily bring it to a conclusion by means of gathers rather than decreases, but, even so, it is a satisfactory garment and has already been christened on a wet and windy beach.

The other noteworthy thing about it is that I started and completed it in a single day on New Year's Day, which listening to BBC Radio 4 FM's all day dramatisation of Tolstoy's War and Peace, which was very good, and which the sight of the hat will always bring back to me. I did take a break to eat mid-evening and so missed the battle of Borodino. (Finding that link has just revealed to me that the actor playing Pierre Bezukhov, Paterson Joseph, is black. I love radio.)

So here is Tom wearing his hat (I've noticed he's often a crowd pleaser, so I'm shamelessly exploiting this):

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Books again

One or two posts elsewhere,  Zhoen pondering the matter of writing in books, library or otherwise, comments left on the last post when I featured the books I had at Christmas, and conversations, started me looking back over certain earlier reading experiences, and thinking about the meaning and value we give books as both concrete and abstract things. Stella too, has been writing about culling things, possessions generally, then books in particular. She dwells on the connections reading creates for us, with other people and with our own history. She mentions H is for Hawk, and how it will connect her with me since she came across it here, which is nice. My finding that book was already part of a long series of occurrences of synchronicity, prompted and giving rise to other memories in turn.

I suppose I tend to be on the lookout for things about falconry. Like Helen Macdonald, the book's author, from my teenage years I wanted to be a falconer. The wish faded, there was little opportunity to explore it hands-on at the time, and the extensive reading and research I made showed me that it would probably demand more time, money, grit, heartbreak and a stronger stomach than I would likely ever be able to manage, but I still love the subject, and very much enjoyed our day at Fauconnerie Bretagne a couple of years ago. One of the first books I found on the subject, and one of the first adult books I remember buying for myself, at the age of about thirteen at a school book fair, I think, was TH White's The Goshawk. This has been on my bookshelves ever since, becoming so familiar that, slender and plain-spined as it is, I had largely ceased to notice it, and even wondered if it were still there. But there it was, between Le Grand Meaulnes and the Mary Renaults, and I was happy about that, not only that I still had it but because of the company it was keeping. My ordering of books on shelves is idiosyncratic and fairly fluid and has developed organically, and I don't necessarily remember exactly where things are, but it is important to me, so when lack of space, appropriate height of shelves, additions which expand certain groups that need to be kept together, and my own acts of culling necessitate changes that force certain volumes into places alongside others where I don't really think they belong, it bothers me a bit.

At about the same time as, or just before, I must have read a review of H is for Hawk, the Sunday afternoon radio dramatisation was of TH White's The Once and Future King. It was quite a good one, using bits of White's own Book of Merlin coda as a device to make the narrative retrospective and non-linear, which meant that the darkening heaviness of story's progress could be lightened and enlightened from time to time by some of the episodes from the first volume. I'm sorry for people who haven't read the book, that the label of 'fantasy novel' might put them off. Not that I want to run down fantasy novels anyway, but I just can't think of it as one. I suppose if I had to I'd describe it as a kind of psychological novel, but on an epic, historical, mythic scale, but also the inward broodings of a brilliant, sad, bitter, hurt, rather twisted man. Not sure if I'm selling it to you yet. It's about love as weakness, evil as power, about betrayal and cruelty, good people doing bad things and bad people doing worse ones, about national and personal mythmaking, and most of all for me it's about terrible, painful loss of innocence.

There's a lot of falconry throughout The Once and Future King, but especially in the first volume The Sword in the Stone, along with many other birds and animals and animistic nature and colour and magic and jokes galore, including lots of ironic anachronism generated from the conceit that Merlin was born and lived backwards through time, an idea entirely White's invention, but which took off so well that many people think it is an original part of the Arthurian myth. There is fun and education and wisdom - I still love the Badger's Dissertation as one of the most satisfying of creation stories - a few sad and worrying moments and a few early intimations of later themes, but overall a completely delightful, joyous, appropriate children's book.  I read it one summer when I was about twelve, I think. I had a comfortable and sheltered childhood and was undergoing an old-fashioned though serious education; I was not a precocious reader, and mostly was still cheerfully consuming Monica Edwards and Arthur Ransome, stories of birds and animals and tomboyish adventure and old legends were my meat and drink. At the end of The Sword in the Stone I was thrilled, I knew this was more substantial fare and wanted more, so I announced I would read the rest of the work. My brother, three years my senior and always more of an intellectual heavyweight, looked somewhat doubtful and warned me that I wouldn't find it as pleasant, which of course made me think he was patronising me and I had to rise to the challenge.

The second volume, The Queen of Air and Darkness, is fairly short, and I did get through it. But the blow to the solar plexus which the two episodes of Morgause's evil which open and close the volume delivered remain with me still. I can remember sitting up in bed with the sick knowledge that I couldn't un-read it. In the first, she boils a cat - 'both woman and cat had black hair and blue eyes' - alive, in some detail, on a whim to make an invisibility charm. The charm fails and she loses interest, throwing out the cauldron of water, skin fur and bones out of the window. This shocked and disgusted me, yet I persevered, and somehow her seduction of Arthur at the end - by means, perhaps, of another charm, a ribbon of skin carefully cut from around the outline of the corpse of a dead soldier - had a deeper and more poignant impact. Arthur, though somewhat blooded and battle hardened by this time, is still the open, energetic, kind-hearted, well-intentioned boy of the first volume, an innocent. Merlin, who has the powers of magic and foresight to protect from and avert evil, for a number of reasons - whether a kind of time-travel directive, the requirement that Arthur and others, should work things out for themselves, simple absent-mindedness or the enchantment (not altogether unwelcome) of his own sorceress Nimuë - cannot or does not intervene. Arthur doesn't know who she is or what he's doing, or what the ultimate cascade of consequences will be, but as TH White concludes, innocence is not enough.

Well he certainly helped me offload quite a bit of mine. But it wasn't the first time this had happened. At a similar kind of cognitive point, when I was beginning to choose and read independently at about seven or eight, there were some little softback collections at pocket money prices that I liked very much as objects, they were small and chunky and had bright, slightly folk-art kind of covers, those for the younger readers had red spines and those for rather older ones dark blue. I'd worked through the red ones and reckoned I was ready for the blue. This turned out to be a collection of stories including Bluebeard, a story my evidently sanitised education in fairy tales so far had omitted to incorporate. As I recall it, the details of the contents of the bloody chamber were not spared. Again, I remember where I was, in the back seat of our estate car on a shopping trip, maybe left there with my brother with our books while our parents finished the shopping, as happened quite frequently in those days. I remember closing the book in horror and not picking it up again. Neither then though, or with the TH White, did I tell anyone about what I'd read and how it had affected me, though I may have muttered something to my brother about 'I see what you meant.' I don't quite know why not; a sense of not wanting to share the distress, protecting my elders from something nasty or a kind of fear that I might get into trouble for messing with nasty things myself, pride, that I ought really to be able to cope with difficult stuff for myself, but also perhaps a sense that what happened between me and my books was my private affair, and a knowledge, underneath, that there was in fact nothing that could be said that would make me feel better; 'it's only a story' wouldn't wash with me, then or now - as if that makes it any less real!

And I don't quite know, in these times when children are both exposed to all kinds of horrors, real and fictive, which make these mild trauma seem very small beer, and yet are also overprotected and overseen and fretted about, so that a child psychology book I've read deplores the Saint Nicholas tradition as trying frighten children into good behaviour and damaging them terribly, and that reading AA Milne's 'James James Morrison Morrison' could create serious anxiety in them, or when a mother I knew, still reading (the early volumes of) Harry Potter aloud to her thirteen year old, used to make off the cuff deletions of things she thought would distress or frighten her, quite how things should be.

Anyway. I don't have a copy of the blue-backed Bluebeard book, in fact I have very few books left from childhood, presumably it was either passed on to jumble or left in the attic of my childhood home when my parents moved, along with all kinds of other put-away childish things to be someone else's problem, or conceivably, in the case of some of the objects, rare collector's items. That's one way to deal with your unwanted clutter. Neither to I have The Once and Future King, though I did until recently. I think the first one I had was a library book, as many of the books we read were. We owned a lot of books, but it wasn't considered needful to do so, and many of those I remember most vividly, in terms of their content and what they looked and felt like, were from the library (and no, we certainly never wrote in them!). It took me many years to read it all, in fact, the long anguish, sordid betrayal, compromise, cruelty and conspiracy of the four-cornered adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere and the revenge of the Orkney clan were also difficult to work through in a different way, but for all that it has been my constant and much loved companion for most of my life. I often wondered about its author, and the consciousness and personality which created it, so humane and imaginative and so sad and bitter, so when I heard about H is for Hawk I was doubly interested.

The copy of it I owned, for at least thirty years, was a paperback which I bought for my first serious boyfriend when I was seventeen, it had a not-too-embarrassing dedication inside the cover, with a date, so I know how old I was, in my very neat small, pointy, just post-childish handwriting. Not quite sure why; he had courted me with a gift of The Mabinogion so perhaps I thought Arthurian might interest him, perhaps it did, perhaps there was something subliminal going on!  I ended up keeping it anyway when we went our separate ways. It began to fall apart, worse than most paperbacks, quite early; another brother borrowed it and said he had a very active relationship with it, in terms of becoming quite obsessive about the content, making notes etc, while wrestling to try to keep the pages in any kind of workable order. Finally, not very long ago, I threw it away completely, and though it was odd to put a book in the bin, especially such a familiar one, I did so without regret; it was unreadable and I can always download it to the Kindle if I do want to read it again, though I feel I probably won't need to.

I still have The Goshawk though, with its ring marked cover and scuffed edgesand would be sorry to part with that. I might read it again too, before or after H is for Hawk, or alongside.

The other book in the picture, Bird of Jove, is also falconry related, but part of another story, a shorter and lighter one, which I'll get onto later.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

'I see no ships'

Monday, Tom's cataract op. As predicted, considerably less painful than going to the dentist, though an awful lot of eye drops and waiting around and going hungry, though he was given a nice petit dejeuner of orange juice and coffee with lots of sugar and a little madeleine cake like the one Proust had from Aunt Léonie, as well as the mars bar I brought for him.

So last night I felt like I was living with Mad-eye Moody,

but this morning he has two eyes again, and the one worked-on, while sore, seems to be clearing quite hopefully. 

Everyone at the clinic was lovely.

Sunday in St Brieuc

The rendition of the Marseillaise was lacklustre to say the least. I don't really know the words beyond the first few lines, though my mother, about as conservative and Conservative, monarchist and a little-England a woman as one might find, used often to sing it too me as a child. I rather liked and always joined in with the 'Marchons, marchons!' bit, which seemed to be the most enthusiastically sung part on Sunday in St Brieuc too.

So we shuffled our feet and looked embarrassed, but then so did most of the people round us; I think perhaps, even leaving out all the obscure verses like the one the little children are supposed to pipe up about preferring to die in the struggle and share their fathers' coffins than outlive them, even the most unreflecting person gets a bit queasy these days about the notion of watering the furrows with impure blood. But then the British national anthem, when not intoning drearily about saving the monarch, contains a barely veiled subtext and omitted verse about stomping on the Scots, and the German one seems still to hold elements of desire for world domination... it's hard to escape the feeling we really do need a rethink in Europe if we are to shake off the chains of our history. But it's in fact quite difficult to gather in this way without some kind of focus or shared outward expression, so I suppose people reach around for something they all know.

Despite the prior statement that there would be no slogans and no speeches, someone or other from an august body or the administration did get up and deliver some words most of which I couldn't catch, but including 'une laïcité sans adjectifs'. I've been reading more French in the last few days than I must confess I usually read in a year, and find myself wondering and smiling at linguistic comparisons: where a short hard English monosyllable 'kick' needs to be rendered by a long descriptive 'donner un coup de pied', but abstract and metaphorical  intellectual concept words which would solicit puzzlement in anglos are readily found, taken up and used freely and ubiquitously in quite ordinary contexts. So the association to  commemorate and promote a local novelist, Louis Guilloux, administered by the wife of the couple who ran a much loved hardware store in the town, a formidable woman of letters and big in public life (also my boss for a time), awards a literary prize in his name, the remit of which includes the necessity to reject all forms of Manichaism. Eh? I mean I know my Gnosticism, better than many, but I can't quite get my head round that one... More to the point though, the word amalgame is being used frequently to describe the kind of lumping together indiscriminately, tarring with the same brush, of all Muslims which must be avoided at all costs.

Another person, a cartoonist I think, mumbled in an ill at ease tone, some people in the crowd called out 'plus fort!' but to no avail, the PA was buggered and the chap seemed disinclined to his task anyway. There were large sheets of paper on the prefecture railings which people could and did write and draw on, and there were some creative hair styles involving pencils and pens, and some reproductions of the less contentious cartoons on sticks, but generally the stipulation was adhered to. Yet I did perceive a kind of process of apotheosis of the murdered cartoonists and journalists, or of the idea of Charlie Hebdo as a kind of single symbolic entity, the creation almost of a cult of secular sainthood, quite different from the initial, immediate shock and sadness and solidarity we felt at the early vigil in Lamballe, and, it seems to me, deeply ironic in many ways.

Later I saw this, from the Belgian cartoonist Jean Bourgignon, which pleased, in a necessarily wry kind of way:

However, I don't want to fall into a kind of glib false sophistication and cynicism about this. I have been reading and reading obsessively, and thinking, and writing and talking too. Expressions such as 'bandwagon', 'groupthink' and 'secular religion', have quite made me defensive and, rightly, questioning about my responses and actions and those of other people. I am not in the habit of claiming to be someone, or something, I'm not, even symbolically (an avatar on Ravelry caught my eye and made me think too, which said 'I'm not Charlie, I'm not brave enough'). If the amalgame is to be abhorred, then we must be quite careful about voluntarily creating and joining one of our own. I find myself saying things, aloud, in e-mails and elsewhere on the web, which very soon after I want to qualify or retract. No one likes to be seen to be supporting racism, and I am leery of defences which claim that cultural context gives the unacceptable exemption. The civil discourse, good manners, anything for a quiet life, this is how I mostly live and want to go on living. I have already said more than I meant to here, since I had already concluded, so I thought, that I really hadn't anything useful to add to the mountain of debate and comment, and argument and vitriol, still being generated. But to quote a leader in The Economist 'If the proper first response to the slaughter was outrage, after considering the argument that Charlie Hebdo made about free speech, the second response should be outrage, too.'  

So, to come back to what is really rather more within the scope of my talents and this blog: What I Did at the Weekend, we made our excuses and slipped away after the initial rally, filer à l'anglaise, as is our wont, and we were impressed by the good nature, the patience, the cheerful politeness everyone showed, the accommodation and ease with which we moved against the current, the lack of crush so that kids at foot or in pushchairs or on shoulders, the occasional dog - big enough to hold their own or small enough to be carried - weren't distressed or fractious, and 30,000 people were able to move in a comfortable way through a really very small town centre. There's a post on a French blog with some lovely photos here. Coming home, we watched the coverage in Paris on the television, and were even more amazed at the patient, civil behaviour of the crowds, and their diversity, frequent eloquence and goodwill. 

And throughout, here and there, I've been struck by the goodness of the young people, the kind of kids I've known and tried to help with their English and seen grow up: the confident and the less happy in their skins, the conformist and the stroppy, the cool and the intense, the bright little would-be intellectuals who knew more about the English eighteenth century than I did and the trainee car mechanics creeping like snails unwillingly to their philosophy classes. From those who joined the chorus of support for their fellow lycéen Hamyd Mourad after the killers had used his car while he was in school, and he'd turned himself in, and it was immediately being assumed and stated elsewhere that he was the get-away driver and everything else besides, to the ones who spoke to Ouest-France about their views and feelings and posed for a photo-collage on the back page including the two muslim girls, bare-headed and open-faced, who expressed their unqualified support but said politley no, they would prefer not to hold up a 'Je suis Charlie' sign, but would rather have one saying 'Not in my name', on a day when the soldiers are on the streets and in the schools, and the possibilities of hateful opportunist hi-jacking is still very much with us, I prefer to think about them.

And this will be the last thing I post about this, then I'll be back to knitting and the domestic detail.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Observing silence for free speech

Lamballe, 8/1/2014.

Tom's hands, placing those quintessentially French items, mustard glasses, with candles in, at Lamballe's beautiful bronze horse fountain at tonight's vigil.

There are more photos, just seven, and not great quality, but I love them for the atmosphere and feelings and expression, the variety of human life (there were some dogs too but I failed to capture any of them), that they contain. I decided against posting them here as they are of people, and it seems a bit intrusive perhaps, though they mostly aren't recognisable and the only one who clearly is I asked her permission, and there were plenty of of press and other photographers, but still. However they can be seen on the web album here.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015