All Things Bright and Beautiful

Harry Ransome, verger of the Church of the Holy Rood, taps on Nan’s window. He’s encased in a wear-shiny three-piece, with a cake tin under his arm.

He folds upon himself, resisting the armchair’s insistence on comfort, knees fretting his elbows. I think of the trestle tables in the church hall.

It’s bread pudding: cool, dense and claggy as Dorset itself.
‘A little dry, I fear,’ his words stridulate, eyes beseeching/bellicose behind their bifocals. He might spring either way.

Does even an insect-man have feelings to hurt? God knows Nan’s one of the village’s blunter instruments, bless her.

‘It’s nice,’ I say. ‘Just right.’

I was stuck. The project I am working on was insisting that I slow down, that I stop grasping for the words but rather let them come in their own good time, and that I practise listening out for them, as I might listen for the returning swifts. I know this, of course, but still… So I did an exercise by Ali Smith in The Creative Writing Coursebook (Edited by Julia Bell and Paul Magrs. Macmillan 2001). The instructions were to write a story of 100 words in ten minutes and then to change the genders, but nothing else, and see how much the story shifts and why. May I introduce you, then, to Harriet, Harry’s identical twin sister:

Harriet Ransome, verger of the Church of the Holy Rood, taps on Grandad’s window. She’s encased in a worn twin-set, with a cake tin under her arm.

She folds upon herself, resisting the armchair’s insistence on comfort, knees fretting her elbows. I think of the trestle tables in the church hall.

It’s bread pudding: cool, dense and claggy as Dorset itself.
‘A little dry, I fear,’ her words stridulate, eyes beseeching/bellicose behind their bifocals. She might spring either way.

Does even an insect-woman have feelings to hurt? God knows Grandad’s one of the village’s blunter instruments, bless him.

‘It’s nice,’ I say. ‘Just right.’

Well! Harry appears to be an ascetic, grasshopperish man who has come to share some cake with his friend. Harry is a widower. He bakes. He’s an interesting specimen of inquiry, maybe slightly repellent but worthy of respect nonetheless. Crucially, his motivations are not up for discussion. His sister, meanwhile, would be pitiable if she were any more than a stock character of ridicule: a dessicated old spinster intent on snaring Grandad with cake and not even a good, rich indulgent cake, at that, but one made from stale bread, Harriet herself being stale bread in female form: past its best, unwanted, surplus to requirement. Why don’t we just rip her to pieces and chuck her in the pond for the ducks? Harry has my slightly uncomfortable regard: the best Harriet can hope for is my pity. She is more likely to earn my scorn.

Does even an insect-wo/man have feelings to hurt? In Harry’s case this is offered as a genuine enquiry. Do I imagine in Harriet’s that I detect a whiff of ‘she’s not a “proper” woman so it doesn’t matter if her feelings are hurt’? Assuming she has feelings. Assuming she has something more than lukewarm tea weakly thrumming in her veins. I fear the blunt instrument that is Grandad is merely the latest blow that’s been dealt her, that she’s been crushed by. ‘Bless him’ confirms we are on Grandad’s side. Harriet is certainly not his equal, as Harry is Nan’s. And ‘my’ comment, that the cake is just right – could that not in this context be interpreted as a patronising knee-pat?

Why do ‘I’ feel that I need to be conciliatory towards Harry, minding his feelings, whereas to say the exact same words to Harriet is to be condescending towards her, implicating me in the imbalance of power? And/or, more worryingly, reveals me to be more akin to her than her twin brother. Turn it about as I might, whichever angle I view this from it looks like the same thing: internalised misogyny. And that is not an easy thing to sit with as a woman in her mid-forties.

Harriet didn’t exist until ten minutes ago but in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s Harry was a real man, made of scant flesh and, to my child’s eyes, improbable length of limb. I was playing on the floor in my Nan’s living room when he tapped on the window. Nan was in the kitchen, slicing spuds to be made into the best chips in the world. He really did remark on the cake’s dryness and I really did want to reassure him that it was nice. I don’t recall what Nan said.

Postscript
In a reverse-Proustian manoeuvre I made a tin of bread pudding a few days after writing this. It was just as I had remembered.

Reading wrap-up: January 2019

January was a month in which, in retrospect, I could discern neither rhyme nor reason as to the criteria a book or author must meet in order to merit inclusion on various prize lists.

Highlights:

Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver. Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013. Bright young Dellarobia Turnbow heads off up the mountain to escape from her disappointing marriage by the most banal of means and instead is stopped in her tracks by what she initially thinks is a miracle (the forest green and yet burning) but which turns out to be a disastrously misplaced migration of monarch butterflies. I loved the intelligence of this book, paired with Kingsolver’s respect and compassion for her (not terribly sympathetic, albeit understandable) characters. I enjoyed how a global topic (climate change) was grounded in the everyday struggles of an ordinary woman as out of place in her life as the migrating butterflies. Most of all, I appreciated Kingsolver’s craft. I hadn’t read her before and, while she is didactic at times, it didn’t take long for me to feel that I could trust her as a writer.

How To Be Both by Ali Smith. Winner of various prizes. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2014. Comprising the stories of teenager George, grieving for her mother, and 15th Century Italian painter Francescho, two different versions of this book were released: one beginning with George and the other with Francescho. While I was initially wary of the authorial firework display (and didn’t particularly enjoy Autumn either) it remains playful and doesn’t descend into heartless cleverness. I became intrigued by thoughts of how my perceptions of the story might be different had I picked up the other version (mine had George first). There was plenty to think about altogether: art, time, grief, gender. Reading recalled vividly to mind the experience of being engrossed in Peter Ackroyd novels during my A-Levels: there is a similar theme of reality and time being less solid and linear than we tend to perceive. In a sense, I briefly got to “be both”, too!

Disappointments:

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017. Lonely Linda becomes attached to a young family across the lake but suspects that something is not right: is her need to belong stronger than her need to speak up and act on her suspicions? It had a promising theme around beliefs/thoughts and responsibility towards others (and circumstances in which the two become incompatible) and I thought Fridlund captured the sense of place, Linda’s loneliness and the horrible foreboding very well. However, when Something Happened it was all of a sentence and the rest of the book unravelled thereafter. I felt she made inferences at times that her story-craft hadn’t earned and, as a whole, the book read like two or even three novel plots stitched into one. And what the hell was that ending?! Structurally unsound: proceed with caution.

The Power by Naomi Alderman, a Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year and Granta Best of British Writer. Girls discover that they have the power to cause electric shocks through touch. They “wake” this power in grown women and, lo and behold, men are suddenly a lot less dominant. I was curious as to where this would go and amused by the sly humour but ended up feeling bludgeoned by the escalating awfulness. It paints a dismal view of human nature: that we inevitably default to shrieking like chimps and tearing each other’s throats out. We have accepted a narrow and dysfunctional notion of what constitutes power (i.e. power over another) and the book reflects that. In short order the women are behaving in all the ways that misogynistic men/ societies currently do and, my word, does it escalate!

It’s easy to imagine there would be a backlash if such a thing were to occur and I’m not suggesting that female dominance would be all cake and cuddles but what’s presented here is a gender-reversed continuation of patriarchal norms. I’m at a loss to understand all the whooping and hollering this has occasioned. And am I the only one cringing at the obviousness of Margaret Atwood’s cover endorsement? “Electrifying! Shocking!” Really?! (How on Earth am I supposed to trust her judgement after that?) I don’t feel shocked: I feel numbed.