Friday, 21 September 2018

Friday Five: Spring has sprung

To put it simply; spring appears to have happened in the last week or so. Here, as proof, are five pictures of the pretty flowers in our garden.


Wednesday, 12 September 2018

The Human Face of History

Crime, Punishment and Redemption: A Convict’s Story by June Slee 
(NLA Publishing), Pp. 194

The diary of John Ward is one of the few existing records of life from the perspective of a convict. He was sentenced to ten years transportation to Australia in 1838, before which he spent 19 months on the prison hulk York, moored at Gosport. He was then transported on board The Mangles (1839-1840) but by the time he arrived in NSW, they were no longer receiving convicts, so he was sent instead to Norfolk Island. During 1840-1844 he came under the more humane system of Captain Alexander Maconochie and his marks system, before being sent to Van Diemen’s Land to serve out the final four years of his sentence.

June Slee is delighted with this diary of 155 pages, which provides valuable information about the period. In this book she has copied excerpts from the dairy, adding analysis and background. It is lavishly illustrated with photos, paintings and images of artefacts, collected by the National Library of Australia. Interpretative sections on a variety of topics add colour and include smuggling; eating out; fox hunting; county courts and the justice system; hulks; homosexuality (punishable by death – between 1801 and 1835 more than 50 men were hanged in England for sodomy); convict ships (often shoddy and barely sea-worthy); surgeons-superintendent (the highest ranking man on the ship; he had power over all the convicts; a decent one made a huge difference); convict class and society; and evangelicalism (men could be saved through religious conversion).

In some ways it is reminiscent of Moll Flanders, dwelling on the sordid and squalid aspects which sell, and then the religious conversion and desire to do good seem narratively disappointing. His religious conversion is probably a result of the evangelical tracts which were in vogue at the time. He sees life through the eyes of the evangelists and shuns relatively innocent pleasures such as the line-crossing ceremony held as the Mangles crossed the equator, describing it as “very improper”. The diary in effect becomes an extended confession in which he interprets his previous lifestyle with new-found disapproval.

As a surviving record of transportation, John Ward’s diary adds a human element to the statistics. “Transportation to Australia began with the arrival of the First Fleet at Botany Bay in 1788 and ended when the Hougoumont landed 279 convicts in Western Australia in 1868. Over that 80-year period, an estimated total of 163,000 convicts was sent to Australian penal colonies from Britain.”

Sections on Captain Alexander Maconochie are fascinating from a philosophical perspective as to the future of the nation. He believed that punishment alone would not result in peopling the colony with desirable citizens, and that it was important to recognise that those who were convicts would become settlers.

In writing his diary, John Ward hoped that it “may prove of service to those that may come after me”. Clearly he was intending to convert potential sinners to his brand-new evangelism, but it has proved invaluable to those studying this fascinating period “as a rare, if not unique, eyewitness account of the final decades of British transportation to the Australian penal colonies.”

Friday, 7 September 2018

Friday Five: Really Cross Stitch

When I was in America, I found a fabulous book called Really Cross Stitch; for when You Just Want to Stab Something a Lot by Rayna Fahey. It contains patterns for subversive cross-stitch; traditionally a conservative domestic pastime for women, which is fueled with channeled rage. Inspired by the banners and signs at recent marches around the world, Really Cross Stitch takes all that anger, outrage and protest and puts it inside a pretty, decorative border.

I have been making the samplers and giving them as gifts as to friends and family. Fahey also writes short explanations, which enhance the art and complement the craft.

5 Samples of Really Cross Stitch:

"For far too long girls have carried this slur as an insult. Our fight has always been one for survival and some of the world's greatest heroes have been girls who've fought back against their oppressors. Here's looking at you Malala Yousafzai! Girls and women are reclaiming this slur with gusto."
"Those who hark back to 'simpler times' seem to conveniently forget that said times were a pretty shitty place for women and minorities. It was common policy for women to be paid less than men FOR THE SAME JOB. Around the world women weren't allowed to make contracts, sell property without male permission, or refuse sex from their husband. For women of colour, the situation was worse. Identify as LGBTIQA+? Forget it. A whole generation of women were sedated thanks to medical 'advances' and doctors 'treated' dissent with Valium. Don't even get me started on abortion... If someone tries to tell you life was better back then, just give them a hand-powered washing machine."
"Never has such an oxymoronic statement ever passed the lips of a political spin doctor. First there was Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's famous call for 'Continuity and Change', now it's almost certain the writers from Veep have snuck in and taken over the autocue. Thankfully, scientists also have some pretty good senses of humour and are countering the muddying of the public debate by coming up with some real fact-based solutions to our global problems. Time for some red hats that say 'Make Earth Cool Again'." 
"The twentieth century should have been a giant lesson in how not to engage in global domination. Unfortunately our world leaders aren't very good at taking heed of historians. It would appear we're not too great at the job of electing world leaders either... Anyone would think there's some kind of ruling elite with vested interest in maintaining a global military industrial complex or something. As the old saying goes, 'Bombing for peace is like f*#^%ing for virginity'."
"The thing about bigotry is that it leads to a blindness. The more you base your beliefs on false ideals of power and control, the less you understand what's really going on around you. Makes things easier for the resistance, because flying under the radar is always possible when you know where the shadow zone is. Craft has played a superb role in human history. Dismissed as women's work, political messages have been hidden in handmade objects since at least the time of abolition. Maps hidden in quilts, stories of disappearances disguised in arpilleras, morse code stitched into samplers, the simple needle and thread has changed the course of history."

Friday, 3 August 2018

Friday Five: Random Thoughts

Here are some thoughts for the week, which are in no particular order and bear no discernible relation to each other.

5 Random Thoughts:
  1. We have just had our oven fixed. It has been out of order for about two weeks. The first thing I made in it was baked potatoes. I think they are the food of the Gods. Someone told me they are the meal of poverty. Whatever, they taste great with butter, baked beans and grated cheese. 
  2. I was talking to a friend's teenage boy child, and he told me that his three favourite things are Bionicles (a line of Lego construction toys), his family, and food. This seems like a solid, no-nonsense list to me. I remember at a slightly younger age telling my mother I loved her almost as much as my bed. I do greatly value my sleep, and probably meant this as a compliment, but it is patently unfair. I'm sure she's long since forgotten the comment, but I am still racked by guilt - sometimes even to the point that it stops me sleeping at night.
  3. I have recently been irritated by advertising slogans, which fail to follow the rules of grammar. For example, an investment finance company advertises itself with the slogan, 'Be ready for next.' Next what? Unless they are referring to the British clothing retailer, founded in Leeds in 1861, which in 2012 overtook Marks and Spencer as the UK's largest clothing retailer, this is an incomplete sentence. It requires a noun at least, if not a definite article. A car manufacturer heralds its brand with the tagline, 'Experience amazing'. Again, I question, amazing what? Grace? Gross disregard for basic syntax? Another culprit that uses adjectives as nouns with car(e)less abandon begs us to 'unlock the more'. I don't even know where to begin with this abomination. Or should I say, 'Witness the wrong'? I read a report this week for the UK Department of Education which claims that more than a quarter of children starting primary school are unable to communicate in full sentences. Is this surprising when so-called educated marketing graduates can't either?
  4. My car has been recalled because it has a faulty airbag. I have been sent dire warnings that, 'If you are involved in a collision, the airbag can go off with too much explosive force, causing sharp metal fragments to shoot out and and kill or seriously injure people in your vehicle.' (The bold type is theirs.) This will apparently be fixed free of charge, which is as it should be, and there is no implied fault on behalf of the owner. I phoned up my Toyota dealer to book in for the free replacement, and they informed me that they were not taking bookings for this procedure until next week. You can probably imagine how terrified I am of driving right now. 
  5. All of which leads me nicely to the point that I suffer from anxiety. I count things as part of daily life. My morning ritual involves counting how many minutes to steep the teabag (three) to how many times I brush and rinse my teeth (five). When I fold the washing I fold five items before I put them away. When I do the washing up I place four items into the basin each time. When I adjust the sound or the time on a digital device, I always have to settle on an even number (I don't care if this makes my clocks a minute fast: that's just how reckless I am). One of the skills I learned through orienteering as a young child was literally how to pace myself. I would count my steps and know how many steps I walked/ran in 100 metres so, therefore, could work out how far I had travelled on the map, which topographical features I could expect to see around me, and where that elusive control should be. I also know how many strokes it takes me to swim a length of the pool whether I'm doing butterfly, backstroke or front crawl, and I count them to myself to ensure I remain consistent. This is a technique I use whenever things start to get a little too much for me. I love to count - the simple rhythm and predictable pattern is reassuring. I find it interesting that I consider myself a wordsmith, and yet it is numbers that have the power to calm. 

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Arty explanations

I've always been fascinated by those explanatory panels beside artworks in galleries. When I was younger I liked landscapes.  I liked pictures of mountains, lakes, rivers, villages, and cottage gardens. I was keen on animals too - even fields of cows held my interest - but people bored me. I used to avoid the halls of stuffy portraits of primped up posers in dark suits and darker oils, or (less frequently) women in layers of frills and nonsense, always with sour expressions and sallow complexions.

But at least I knew what they were. The abstract art confused me. People didn't have multiple noses and dozens of eyes; they weren't made out of cubes. I was completely impervious to wibbly blue lines on yellow backgrounds, or random dots and geometric shapes. Surely, if you had to describe and explain it; it wasn't art.

And then I began to understand how words can narrate more intimate pictures than paint or pencil, and I began to appreciate the fine art of criticism. Analogies are drawn and connections made. I don't believe a picture is worth a thousand words - I feel that words and pictures can exist harmoniously, each adding value to the other. Incidentally, the BBC TV programme Words and Pictures began the year I was born, was a feature of my childhood education, and my introduction to the magnificent (Sir) Tony Robinson - long before he was Baldrick. 

At one point I wanted to be a curator. I wanted to be the person who put exhibitions together and wrote the blurb that went with them. What a wonderful creative outlet, I thought. I later discovered that the job was far more orientated towards filling in forms, applying for grants and fundraising, than being creative with writing and interpretation, so I gave up on that idea. I do, however, retain the greatest respect for those who provide the words for those little white cards, which in turn provide the insight into a piece of otherwise indecipherable art.

For example, this piece of art is made from a wood table, chewing gum and resin cast. It is an oval mosaic of a bearded bloke, with a slightly unusual back board. It is called Egghead and it is by Sean Healey. It is okay, but I wasn't particularly drawn to it. 

Egghead by Sean Healey
And then I read the reasoning, which explains that the cameo is a portrait of Melville Dewey, inventor of the Dewey decimal system used to classify books and other publications. It is constructed from over fifty pieces of chewing gum, chewed by Healey and his son and coated in resin. These fragments of the whole are then placed on the bottom of a repurposed school library table. The curator elucidates that the artwork "explores the rationales of social power structures. Healey's process-orientated installation work is infused by pop culture and the urban environment." He or she adds that the materials used and the placement thereof is "a nod to youthful defiance yet ironically requires much strategy and intelligence".

Suddenly I like the piece more, and have a greater appreciation for its subversive message and its ironic intent. Without these words, I would not have recognised the full implications of the work. So, do we need these statements to justify the art? Or is it mere pretension and aggrandisment? What do you think?
Detail of Egghead by Sean Healy

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Time Marches On

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
(Bloomsbury), Pp. 343

Although George Saunders is considered a champion of the American short story, this is his first novel. It is daring in form and subject and it won the 2017 Booker Prize. The bardo of the title is a transitional realm in Tibetan tradition where spirits mingle. From here they will either ascend to Nirvana and escape human suffering, or fall back through a series of increasingly wild and scary hallucinations until they are born again into a new body. The Lincoln of the title is either President Abraham or his son, Willie, who died of typhoid fever in 1862. The boy is interred in a Georgetown cemetery and his distraught father visits the crypt alone several times to hold his son’s body. From these slim facts Saunders embroiders a story of fantastic hyperrealism dealing with grief and loss and moments of bawdy humour.

The graveyard is populated with characters from many different eras and circumstances with a strong sense of Rabelaisian machismo; like Dantesque damned souls the spirits manifest with hideous deformities that relate to their erstwhile lives. The spirits refuse to use the word ‘dead’ and believe they are merely unwell or in a sick-box (coffin), fiercely resisting the urge to move on.

Narrated through multiple voices, the novel offers differing opinions on the same thing. Some of the quotes are from characters in the bardo; others come from books and newspapers and we cannot believe any of the accounts, no matter how scholarly they appear with their references and footnotes. On the night of a party in which Lincoln’s son became feverish, none of the eyewitnesses can agree on the presence, size, shape or colour of the moon. Similarly the colour of Lincoln’s eyes varies according to each description. These differing viewpoints extend to his involvement in the war: is he “an idiot”, “weak and vain”, a “tyrant” with speeches that “have fallen like a wet blanket”? Or is he one of the greatest presidents the US has ever known? We see what we want to see, and memory is unreliable. Saunders suggests that history is constantly reinterpreted, and portents and patterns only appear retrospectively.

The voices become a cacophony, bickering like characters in a Beckett play and retelling old tales. Saunders had originally conceived these grave-bound scenes as a play and they remain entirely rendered in speech as the narration is handed from voice to voice. We are guided through this bardo by a Greek chorus with three main narrators: Hans Vollman, a man who was about to finally consummate his marriage when he was hit on the head and so has a large erection; Roger Bevins III, a man who slit his wrists over his homosexual lover and then realised he had made a mistake as he lay bleeding on the floor, and the Reverend Everly Thomas, a man who managed to get to the Final Judgement but was sent to Hell and so ran away back here as a sort of waiting room to try and work out what he done that was so bad.

The young are not meant to tarry here, and if they do they get subsumed by Gothic-style creepers that bind them. Our heroes try and persuade Lincoln to let his boy go so that he will not have to succumb to this fate. If the deceased has truly gone to a better place, why do we grieve? We grieve for ourselves; not for the departed, and the way we remember someone after their death is not necessarily the way they really were in life. We are all in a constant state of flux from dreams to wakefulness, from life to death, and perhaps beyond. Lincoln realises that nothing is permanent.

Before people leave the bardo they flicker through all their incarnations; the people they have been but also the possibilities they have not been – their future-forms they had never alas succeeded in attaining. Every time a person leaves, the same sentence is repeated like a stanza an epic poem: “Then came the familiar, yet always bone-chilling, firesound associated with the matterlightblooming phenomenon.” Many resist this phenomenon and cling to the earth, but they cannot leave the cemetery into which they are penned by a “dreaded iron fence” which recalls something out of The Walking Dead.

What is the future for these souls? Does a terrible judgement await us all? If there is Fate or Destiny, how is anything our own fault? There is no question of return, but there is a suggestion of progress. “Time runs only in one direction and we are borne along by it, influenced precisely as we are to do just the things that we do. And then are cruelly punished for it.” This bardo combines many belief systems into one peculiar magical realism, and in the middle of it all is an attempt to come to terms with death, grief and loss, and a man’s need to mourn his son.

Friday, 25 May 2018

Friday Five: Good Beer Week Learnings

When one goes to a week-long beer festival and drinks 178 'unique' beers, it may be difficult to keep track of things. So to prove that I did indeed learn some things, I am willing to share them with you:

5 Things I Learned at Good Beer Week:

Sour beer face (No, it isn't Him Outdoors)
  1. You can have too much sour. Not just in terms of the fact that mouth puckering isn't always fun, but some people also have internal reactions to the acids and yeasts involved. When you've got a hall-full of beer drinkers, these effects may not be particularly pleasant. Just saying. 
  2. I'm fed up with coffee in beer. I like coffee. And I like beer. But I like dark beer that doesn't taste of bitter grounds. There are many flavours I look for in dark beer including chocolate, spice, vanilla, smoke, nuts, toffee, caramel, liquorice, toast, raisins, molasses, and dark fruit (probably not all in the same beer). These days most of those flavours are overwhelmed by coffee, however, which has become pervasive. Wake up and smell the beer, people!
  3. Bourbon burns. Not always, as is proved by the utterly sensational Stockade Old Money Barrel Aged Bourbon Imperial Stout. This was the best bourbon-barrel-aged beer of show and is rich and big and boozy and beautiful with delicious chocolate notes. Many bourbon-barrel aged beers are just too harsh, however, and they burn.
  4. Lavender has no place in a beer. I understand that brewers want to try all sorts of ingredients in beer (I had a beer with snails in it and another including crickets) and many spices blend nicely. I've enjoyed beer with basil, chamomile, and one with Rogan Josh spices in it. But unless you want your beer to be reminiscent of granny's bathroom, may I suggest leaving out the lavender.
  5. Write it down: you WILL forget. Remembering what you thought of 178 beers is hard enough at the best of times. It's even harder when you've had 178 beers. If you care about recording thoughts and impressions for future reference, do it there and then, or you'll have no chance.
Not a mental image you want from a beer