Poor Cow

Poor Cow
Nell Dunn

Poor Cow tells Joy’s story – a working class girl from south London, we first see her walking home from the hospital with her newborn baby.  Her husband, Tom, is a ‘tealeaf’ and soon ends up inside.  Joy then takes up with another thief, Dave, and enjoys a short period of bliss, before he too ends up in prison, leaving her to fend for herself and her young son.  Joy’s narrative then splits – her thoughts of men and sex, compared with the reality of sleeping with men for money; her dreams of romance, contrasted with the realities of poverty and domesticity.

I can’t abear the thought of all these women in the flats around me – all doing the same things – mopping down the lino, washing their husband’s shirts, changing their babies, doing the shopping, it’s all gone bent on me – the everyday life – the sight of a shopping basket almost turns my guts.

Although it was written in the late 1960s, Poor Cow is still relevant. Working class women are rarely given their own voices, and although Nell Dunn was herself from an upper class background, Joy’s voice seems very authentic. Dunn lived and worked in Battersea and befriended girls like Joy. She knew them intimately and this shows in her writing.

I first read Poor Cow and Up the Junction when I was a Sixties obsessed school girl.  I remember trying to quiz my taciturn mother about ‘the Swinging Sixties’ and receiving an extremely disappointing response – “the Swinging Sixties didn’t come to Smethwick.”  I think that’s probably true.  Reading Poor Cow, you get a sense of the myth of Swinging London seeping into Joy’s dreams, but remaining unattainable for women from a lower class background.  Women who are trying to scrape a living, caught up in damaging relationships, ‘getting caught’ and having backstreet abortions, ending up middle-aged and on the game…

It’s quite depressing, but Nell Dunn’s lightness of touch lifts this novel from ‘kitchen sink drama’ by sharing with us Joy’s inner thoughts, which are bright and romantic.  Although it was written before I was born, Poor Cow spoke to me of the continued gulf between expectation and reality in the lives of working class women, and seems just as important now as it was in 1967.

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Peach

Peach
Emma Glass

I was inspired to read this by my friend’s review here: Stickers on Apples.  Ray’s review is far more eloquent than anything I’m going to say, so I’d recommend reading it.

*Spoiler alert – I literally give away the ending.*

I read Peach in one sitting and I think that’s quite a good way to approach it – immerse yourself in the book completely.  It deals with the difficult subject of sexual violence and trauma in an extremely unusual way; I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like it. It has the aftermath of a sexual assault running through it, but it was so bizarre that it I didn’t take it literally.  It is surreal and dreamlike:  characters morph into non-human form, taking on the quality of food stuffs: jelly babies, custard, sausages and in the main character’s case, a peach.

The style is poetic, often like a nursery rhyme, sometimes like a children’s book, such as Each Peach Pear Plum.  I took the peach to be a word play on ‘pit of the stomach’, but it’s completely open for interpretation.  In fact, the playfulness in terms of language leads to my main criticism, it seems too playful for a such a brutal series of events.

I think that’s because I couldn’t take the very visceral and gruesome events seriously – even though the language was very strong, the actions seemed almost ridiculous.  Peach sews up her own vagina and then removes the stitches a few days later.  I know from reading other reviews, that this turned a lot of readers’ stomachs, but speaking as someone who has had an episiotomy sutured without an anaesthetic, I don’t think you could suture your own vagina.  I’m really brave, but I screamed the bloody hospital down. So if you can’t take certain things literally in this book, then to me, it lessens their emotional impact.

If Peach is a literary experiment in the expression of trauma, does it all become a clever game?  Or is it a serious attempt to find a new language to describe the feelings around rape and abuse?

Every woman’s experience of rape is different and therefore how we deal with the psychological aftermath and express our experiences and feelings around it, will also differ.  The only section that really spoke to me was the ending, which involves Peach’s disintegration, so that only the hard stone in the pit of her stomach is left.

“I can’t grow. I can’t hold any soul.  In this pit I will sit.  In this pit I will sit. In this. In this. Pit.”

 
Ignore my criticisms – it’s still really worth reading. I’ll probably tackle it again in the near future.

In Every Dream Home

I love watching old clips of Roxy Music.  I wish I could be transported back to 1972 and be a member of the band.  I was watching this particular video tonight and had what seemed like an important thought, that this is like watching the future and the past simultaneously!

This particular track from the 1973 LP, For Your Pleasure, is very evocative of my childhood.  I remember being fascinated by the sleeve art (although I wasn’t supposed to touch my Dad’s records) and just listening to it makes my memory flicker back and forth in time – to the first house I lived in as a child, then to a house in the 1980s and listening to it as a teenager.

Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space is the perfect book to accompany this song, as it is preoccupied with memory and daydream and our relationship with the ‘house in which we were born’.  It’s a difficult book to read and I only manage it in small chunks, as I’m not used to reading philosophy.  Bachelard sees the first childhood home as a blueprint for how we live in subsequent houses. He means this in a positive way, as he sees the family home as a place of safety and nurturing.  This isn’t my own experience – I worked out that I’ve lived in twenty different houses and I’ve never felt at home in any of them – but I can still see what he means.  He says that when we share this experience poetically, it is like sharing a dream which reverberates in the reader’s soul, because “to read poetry is essentially to daydream”:

It is on the plane of daydream […] that childhood remains alive and poetically useful within us.  Through this permanent childhood, we maintain the poetry of the past.  To inhabit oneirically the house we were born in means more than to inhabit it in memory; it means living in this house that is gone, the way we used to dream in it.

Bachelard also espouses the importance of solitude and boredom, especially in childhood, as a means to necessitate daydreaming.  I totally agree with this and often think that it’s a shame that children today aren’t allowed to be bored.  This surely is bad for them?  They have access to televisions, phones, and other distractions from the moment they can sit upright.  When do they get time to retreat into their imaginations?

Anyway, I can’t say if Roxy Music were inspired by this book.  Although, they could well have been.  Whatever, it’s a great track and predicts the current trend for sex robots!  They were seventies prog rockers, well ahead of their time, in more ways than one.

Loneliness

I keep seeing articles about how lonely people are nowadays. In Korea they’ve invented some sort of robot ‘pet’, which looks like a creepy ghost cat – it’s called Fribo. Apparently, it encourages young people to keep in touch with their friends. My first thought was that it’s probably a sophisticated surveillance device.  No, I’m not paranoid – if you read the article, this creepy Fribo thing tracks your every move and tells everyone else connected to it what you’re doing.  I don’t think that’s the antidote to loneliness – I think that’s indicative of a culture that no longer has any idea of how to form relationships.

Living in a Panopticon isn’t what I’d call having a social network.  But what do I know?  I’m the loneliest person in the world.

Well, I don’t feel lonely as such, but I am very ‘socially isolated’.  I have two jobs and speak to people all day, but it’s just superficial chit chat.  Which isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy it.  I work in a clinic and one of our patients this week was a wonderful woman in her nineties.  We got chatting and discovered that her first boyfriend and my first boyfriend both attended the same teacher training college decades apart.  Although her first boyfriend has been dead for “years and years and years” she said. Hopefully mine is still alive.

Back to Fribo.  I had a Tamagotchi in about 1996, when they first came out.  I had to throw it away because I got upset every time it died.  I don’t think it was much of a companion.  If Fribo is the answer, then I don’t hold out much hope for the youth of Korea.

I don’t remember feeling lonely as a teenager – there was always someone to hang around with.  Usually on the sports ground with a bottle of homebrew or cider – or glue or butane (yikes!).  Would I rather my teenage daughter hung around with a gang of youths in the park, or sat alone in her room ‘chatting ‘ with her friends on WhatsApp?  Neither, I’d rather she hung around with her friends somewhere safe.  Except as anyone with kids knows – they’d still all be looking at their phones.

I was talking to a work colleague who is also a friend today.  We’ve known each other for years, so we don’t have to pretend that everything is hunky dory.  I said I was having a midlife crisis and she surprised me by saying that she thinks all women with children lose themselves and never realise their true potential.  She said we waste our lives on men who don’t deserve it and kids who don’t appreciate it and then we’re left with nothing.  We no longer have a clue who we are by the time our children are teenagers and no longer need us.  And this is coming from someone who is incredibly attractive, has a boyfriend, a good job and seems outwardly happy.

Bleak eh?  What hope is there?

I hope this blog post has cheered everyone up.

 

Tales of the Smiths

smiths

Tales of the Smiths – A Graphic Biography
Con Chrisoulis

I hardly ever buy graphic novels.  I like Ghost World by Daniel Clowes, but I can’t really say I’m into the genre.  I really enjoyed Tales of the Smiths though.  The artwork is engaging – it’s a pretty thick book, but I didn’t get bored with looking at the pictures.  I’m really not sure how true the biographical information is – it’s mostly gleaned from interviews with Morrissey.  I took much of it with a pinch of salt.

I’m not sure who it’s aimed at – perhaps at a new generation of fans.  My daughter is into the Arctic Monkeys, so I keep suggesting she’d like The Smiths, but she stubbornly refuses to listen to them.  They’re such a timeless band, that I think they must find new admirers all the time.

I didn’t like them in the eighties, purely because of their fans!  I was at sixth form at the height of their popularity and I could tell if a boy was into Morrissey just by looking at him – miserable face, sensitive demeanour, poetry quoting tendencies, black jeans, baggy jumper.  I couldn’t stand them.  Particularly Dave Smith who stole my Ginger Baker LP – I still haven’t forgiven you Dave, if you’re reading.

There’s more to life than books, you know, but not much more…

You Were Never Really Here

You Were Never Really Here
Jonathan Ames

I‘m not functioning right, he thought, and he looked in the mirror, which was a good thing to do.  He hated his face, and it brought him back to reality.

Having watched the movie at the cinema yesterday, I have now read the original story and would recommend that you also do both.  It probably doesn’t matter which order you choose, as they’re very different.  They’re both excellent in their own way.

The film is as near as you can probably get to actually experiencing the effects of trauma, flashbacks, derealisation, dissociation… It is an immersion into someone’s broken psyche, through the cinematic medium, but in terms of plot it goes a bit fuzzy sometimes.  Now, I could be wrong about this – the screen violence possibly ‘triggered’ me and made me dissociate for long enough to lose the thread.  The film definitely isn’t a hand holding exercise, though – it doesn’t explain everything.

However, the story on which the movie is based does explain what is going on in lucid detail.  It has a very clear narrative, very precise language, it carries you along within the story.  It felt that I read it in a matter of minutes because it is all action.  There were a couple of moments, where I felt that Jonathan Ames gave us a little too much in terms of psychological detail.  I didn’t feel that the girl’s counting needed explaining to the reader by Joe – I’m sure we’ve all had to zone out to deal with something traumatic in our lives.  I used to count wallpaper pattern repeats or sing a song in my head.  Anyway, that’s just a tiny criticism.

I think I read in an interview that Ames is working on a follow-up to You Were Never Really Here.  Excellent news – Joe definitely deserves a sequel.

You Were Never Really Here

I don’t read film reviews until after I’ve seen a film, because spoilers drive me insane. I also find that the trailer often gives too much of the plot away. I’ll sometimes watch a trailer and think, “well, I don’t need to bother watching that film now.” Don’t worry, you can watch the above trailer in safety. It’s spoiler free. This review is spoiler free too.

You Were Never Really Here, is based on the 2013 novella by Jonathan Ames. I saw Ames’ name in the closing credits, so I’m guessing the film has his seal of approval. I’ve actually downloaded the book onto my phone, so expect a review of that too, in the near future.  As an aside: I also saw in the closing credits that someone called Jason Babinsky plays the “Eye of Providence” – this is the all-seeing eye, which appears on a dollar bill, but I’m not sure which character in the film this was.  How intriguing.  Perhaps I blinked and missed him.

I travelled for one and a half hours to watch this and feel that I was richly rewarded for my trouble.  Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, a veteran who now works as a ‘hired gun’ rescuing young girls from paedophile rings.  Except that, as you can probably tell from the trailer, Joe’s “gun” is actually a 16 ounce ball pein hammer, which he uses to bash people’s heads in.

It’s a film about violence, but I wouldn’t say that it’s a particularly violent film.  The bloody acts themselves are very skillfully suggested and presented at one step’s remove.  This is highly appropriate, as Joe is suffering from PTSD and is an entirely emotionally detached and dislocated person.  Above all, this is a character study of someone with a disintegrated mental state.  The director, Lynn Ramsay, has said that she wanted to convey that Joe is someone with ‘a head full of broken glass’.  This is successfully achieved through her brilliant direction, Phoenix’s painfully believable portrayal and also Paul Davies’s wonderful sound design.

It is very telling that during one particularly gruesome moment in the film, I actually put my hands over my ears, rather than my eyes.  “We found a way to use sound to get inside the head of the character,” Daniels says in an interview for Curzon.  The soundscape of the film is not naturalistic; certain sounds are amplified to create a sense of disruption, which accompanies Joe’s intrusive suicidal thoughts and flashbacks.  Pop songs are also used in unusual ways, including one of the songs I hate most in the world – I’ve been to Paradise, by Charlene.  But I can’t say how, without giving the plot away.

I have to say that I completely related to the character, Joe, and due to Phoenix’s performance, was able to feel empathy for someone who, let’s face it, murders people for a living.  This is because a major theme of the film, is the legacy of abuse.  Violence begets violence.  Joe is like a broken record – he is going round and round in his cycle of violence, then jumping back, jumping back, when the needle hits a scratch.  This is mirrored in the scars which cover his muscular back and shoulders. He is a damaged person.

I loved Joe and wanted him to survive so badly, but he has nothing really to live for.  Ultimately, this film is about a broken character, who is trying to find something other than death on which to focus.

Fame

warhol

Fame
Andy Warhol

A stock interview question for celebrities, seems to be ‘which famous persons, living or dead, would you invite to your fantasy dinner party?’ If I was playing this game, then Andy Warhol would definitely be on my list.  Not that I particularly like the idea of dinner parties – I’d much rather go down the pub.

I can’t imagine Andy Warhol in a pub.  I’d have to take him somewhere nicer – a cocktail bar, perhaps.  I do have a thing for cocktails.  I tried my first cocktail – a piña colada – when I was nine.  This isn’t a brag, just a statement of fact.  I get that ‘kid in a sweet shop’ feeling when someone hands me a cocktail menu and if I was ever famous (not going to happen), then I would really like someone to invent a cocktail in my honour.  Something fruit based, with parasols and sparklers in it.

After slagging off the cover of these Penguin Moderns, I went and bought another one.  Perhaps the rune-like font has some magic properties?  I’m glad I did.  Andy Warhol is endlessly quotable.  What an interesting person he was.  I feel so sad for him, that the end of his life must have been spent in such pain, due the devastating gun shot wounds he suffered at the hand of Valerie Solanas.

Warhol has lots to say about sex, love, beauty and fame.  Some of it sounds quite cynical.  I don’t think Andy was very lucky in love.  He had an interesting theory that it would be far more exciting to discover sex in one’s forties, than to learn about it too young.  Crazy though it sounds, I’m all for this idea.

Instead of telling kids very early about the mechanics and nothingness of sex, maybe it would be better to suddenly and very excitingly reveal the details to them when they’re forty. You could be walking down the street with a friend who’s just turned forty, spill the birds-and-the-bees beans, wait for the initial shock of learning what-goes-where to die down, and then patiently explain the rest. Then suddenly at forty their life would have new meaning.

Till September Petronella

20180331_094354.jpgTill September Petronella
Jean Rhys

I can’t resist buying books by Jean Rhys. I bought this last week, although I already own all of the short stories in the collection. Such is the seductive power of product placement; these pretty little Penguin Moderns adorned every staircase of Foyles in London and I was completely brainwashed by the time I got to the top floor.

I’m not sure about the cover design: the pale turquoise (or perhaps eau de nil?) is easily spoilt and the strange font makes the letter ‘M’ look very awkward.

However, it cost just one English pound – bargain!  If you haven’t read The Day the Burned the Books, Till September Petronella, Rapunzel, Rapunzel and I Used to Live Here Once, then you should pop out and buy it.  It is a very well chosen selection; covering childhood to old age, “and beyond”.

There are many unifying themes.  For example, books, which were extremely precious to Jean Rhys.  I’ve read all of her correspondence and she mentions the books she is reading or would like to read in every letter, especially those to her daughter.  Beauty – this is a vitally important theme to Jean Rhys, who was herself, very beautiful.  In Rhys’s work, beauty is a valuable commodity, but also something very fragile and easily destroyed.

In Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Rhys describes a female hospital patient whose long hair is shorn without her permission.  Perhaps you have to be a woman to understand what a violation this would be.  I wrote a story about this once, based on a childhood friend, whose father hacked off all her wonderful hair as a punishment.  I always wonder about women who shave their own hair off – it always seems like a traumatic thing to me.  From witches to Nazi collaborators, the shaving of women’s heads has always served a symbolic function*.

They’re not very cheerful stories.  Jean Rhys always reminds me of a little lost lamb, wandering the streets, on the look out for wolves on which to prey.  Yes, I meant to get that wrong.  One is never really sure if Jean is prey or predator.

*See also An Ugly Carnival.

Under Milk Wood

Under Milk Wood
Dylan Thomas

I re-read Under Milk Wood every few years.  Thomas is a poet I was made to read at school, but whose work I actually enjoyed (unlike Ted Hughes, whose poetry seemed gloomy and threatening to me).  I actually went to see Ted Hughes when I was sixteen and he was poet laureate – he read a poem about a stillborn lamb which made me feel sick.  Dylan Thomas’s poetry, on the other hand, has always seemed highly erotic to me.  I bet old Dylan could bring ladies to orgasm, just by reading to them.

Under Milk Wood opens in the dead of night and we are invited to be peeping toms, spying on the sleeping characters, privy to their dreams.  Their hearts’ desires are revealed to us as they sleep and many of them are in love with the ghosts of their past; some even share a bed with them.

Myfanwy Price dreams of her lover, Mr Mog Edwards, who responds:

I am a draper and mad with love.  I love you more than all the flannelette and calico, candlewick, dimity, crash and merino, tussore, cretonne, crepon, muslin, poplin, ticking and twill in the whole Cloth Hall of my world.  I have come to take you away to my emporium on the hill, where the change hums on wires.  Throw away your little bedsocks and your Welsh wool knitted jacket, I will warm the sheets like an electric toaster, I will lie by your side like the Sunday roast…

Llareggub and Milk Wood; the characters are confined by their setting and defined by their occupations.  Their relationships are either domesticated and homely or illicit and conducted in the open air;  the play sets up a conflict between marriage and freedom, duty and sexual fulfilment, which is something Thomas experienced in his own life.

He was married to Caitlin, but conducted many affairs, which drove her insane with jealousy.  His home life was full of passion of the wrong kind; with his wife confined at home, while he caroused on tour with his poetry readings, resentments festered and spilled over into violence.  Caitlin herself described the marriage as “raw red bleeding meat.”

I remember reading Caitlin Thomas’s memoir, Caitlin: Life With Dylan Thomas in 1986 – which is remarkable, considering how terrible my memory is.  It was such a powerful book, that I remember precisely when I read it (on the National Express coach from Birmingham to London) and even what I was wearing at the time (black rubber trousers!).  I even remember that by strange coincidence my French and English teachers were on the same coach and seemed very impressed that I was reading a book connected to my ‘O’ level syllabus (I wasn’t considered to be very academic).

So there you go.  My school days weren’t a complete waste of time.  If you don’t fancy reading Under Milk Wood, then the film with Richard Burton is pretty wonderful.