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: October 2018

A month in which I stuck to my book-buying ban and made good use of the Poetry Library’s online collection.

Highlights

The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. I’ve chosen this as my pick of the month (though Burial Rites is a close second) as I think it is the one that will stay with me the longest.

“To succeed, to enjoy lasting good fortune, one must have a different temperament from mine. I shall never do what I could have done and ought to have wanted and pursued.”

Vincent, friend, you did all right! These are fascinating letters which, naturally, give great insight into his art and what it meant to him but which also show him and his work interacting within a wider context than that of the isolated madman of his “mythology”. He comes across as a driven and difficult individual, yes, but also a deeply thoughtful and vitally involved one. The collected letters are simultaneously heart-breaking and affirming.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. The story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last person to be executed in Iceland, for the murder of her lover/employer. I was astonished to learn that this was a debut novel, and will definitely look out for more of hers. I thought there were striking parallels (e.g. the nature of the crime committed, the circumstances and ambiguity of the woman found guilty) between this book and Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace but, while Atwood is undeniably clever, I feel that Kent’s book has more heart: the last chapter, especially, made for difficult reading.

Disappointments

The Canterbury Tales: a Retelling by Peter Ackroyd. I enjoyed Chaucer very much when I first encountered him, many years ago: here’s the cast of lively characters that I remember, with a host of boisterous tales to tell. I still enjoy Chaucer (and one day will re-read the original). Twenty and more years ago I loved everything I read by Peter Ackroyd so was looking forward to a treat: what a disappointment! Why? In a word, misogyny. Whether of the casual or deliberate kind, there’s no let up. The characters, Chaucer and Ackroyd all fall back on “no offence intended: just repeating what I heard” and while this may be accepted as par for the course in Middle English verse, in contemporary English prose the effect is harder to stomach.

The male characters reveal themselves by their words and behaviour as blusterers and blatherskites (Chaucer has a laugh at everyone’s expense, his own included) but the constant harping on the failings of women in a modern voice is at first irritating and then cumulatively demoralising. That’s not my idea of entertainment.

Letters Against the Firmament by Sean Bonney. Written against a backdrop of “austerity” and other Tory doublespeak, I get the rage, I really do. But, for me, this collection is an example of what happens to poetry when it is disembodied, so to speak, when the idea becomes paramount. And it reads as though written not from a need to communicate but to enjoy the big, shocking sound of its voice bouncing off the walls.  The result is phrasing such assertions as: There is no prosody, there is only a scraped wound – we live inside it like fossilised, vivisected mice. Well that’s certainly a striking and nasty image but what on Earth does it MEAN? Anything? Imagine putting hours of machine gun fire into Google Translate: there you have it.