Sunday, 28 March 2010

Malham Cove

Today we visited Malham Cove a 260 foot limestone cliff in the Yorkshire Dales. We climbed somewhere in the region of 400 natural steps to get to the top of the cliff face. Sam, Alice and I were much slower than the others, but then we tend to talk more too. One of the best things about hiking from my point of view is the opportunity it affords to actually speak to each other. There is no television and there are no Xboxes or DSis or PCs to interrupt and distract people; talking is the best and only form of entertainment. As we walked today I remembered some of the songs my dad used to sing with us in the car when I was little. There was the one about one man who went to mow a meadow. He took his dog, Spot and a bottle of pop with him and also gradually invited several other men to help with the job. There was another about a tiny house by a tiny stream where a lovely lass had a lovely dream, but I lost the tune somewhere much to everyone's amusement. The children had learned some songs on scout camps and school holidays which they in turn remembered and we walked along the limestone pavement at the top of the cliff singing a song about Tarzan being hit by a rubber band. I needed some sort of a distraction from the drop to the right of us and by trooping along like a platoon of soldiers the children avoided any panicked stay away from the edge shrieks from me.
It’s easy to imagine a huge waterfall cascading over the cliff, but the last time water was recorded flowing over the fall was in the early nineteenth century after a period of heavy rain. Nowadays the underlying cave systems have a large enough capacity to swallow any flood water before it reaches the fall. Divers have only explored about 1.6km of the cave network. There is a lovely story about a nineteenth century 'Spooky Parson' who claimed to have had 'visions' of the nature of the unexplored cave behind the Cove. He wrote down his predictions in a famous sealed letter, which was to be opened once the cave behind the Cove was discovered. The letter was actually opened by the Chairman of Malham Parish at a meeting in 1997, but most of the contents were undecipherable. Here is a site which describes some of the exploration which has taken place to date.
For me there is something magical about standing on structures that are thousands of years old and wondering who may have been there before. I tried to express this as we walked away from the waterfall at Gordale Scar, but everyone was busy chewing mentos and the words weren’t enough anyway, so the photographs will just have to speak for themselves.

Monday, 22 March 2010

A Kind of Intimacy

I blogged about listening to Jenn Ashworth read from her novel A Kind of Intimacy here. I started reading the book on Saturday morning and finished it by teatime: it was a book that I couldn’t put down. I watched Notes on a Scandal recently and the comparison that Alison Flood makes between the two stories is apt, although I found A Kind of Intimacy more terrifying, which probably had something to do with Annie’s size and age: twenty eight is very young to be so damaged and Annie’s obesity tends towards Stephen King's Misery (Anne Wilkes), rather than the jolly Father Christmas kind.
A Kind of Intimacy was especially disquieting because of Annie’s humanity – her nervousness in social situations, her desire to make friends, her faux pas and her reliance on the advice of self help books all engender empathy – the reader is torn between liking Annie and despising her, between understanding and disgust, between pity and anger. Jenn’s reading of the book was extremely entertaining and as a result I expected it to be much funnier than it was, however it was intriguing and intense and I didn’t feel in any way cheated when I reached the end.
After I finished the book I carried the residue of it with me for the rest of the evening. I was disquieted, uneasy; I felt stirred up and slightly jumbly. I like a book that does that to me; a book that makes me think, knocks me for six, picks me up and gives me a good shake.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

True stories

Last night I went to watch Sam play his guitar in a concert. I had to take all four children with me as Neil was working late. In the past this would have given me palpations, but fortunately they are at an age now where they can enjoy a concert. Sam had to be at the concert early, so we arrived 40 minutes before it was due to start and were able to sit in the front row. Daniel and Jo played on their DSis while we waited. Alice had hoped to play on Jo’s old gameboy. Jo plugged it in to charge when he got home from school, but he didn’t have time to press the switch on the plug because he needed to go outside and practice free kicks (this explanation made perfect sense to him and he gave it straight faced when the gameboy battery ran out after just 10 seconds). Fortunately I had several pens in my bag and I handed the concert tickets to Alice and told her to draw on the back of them. She told me to sit very still because she was going to draw a picture of me.

I wasn’t allowed to look at the picture while she was drawing it, so I stared straight ahead and ended up tuning in to the conversation of a mother and daughter behind us. The daughter spoke in a loud, self-conscious voice, aware that people might be listening, striving it seemed, to humiliate her mother. The mother responded in flat, weary tones, making no comment as to her daughter’s rudeness. The mother ruined everything, was irritating and needed to just stop talking – doh. It was the mother’s fault that the daughter couldn’t see (they were in the second row) but when the mother offered to change seats the daughter refused. The daughter’s complaints were interspersed with look-at-me comments: I just LOVE these shoes, I need to lose half a stone, I don’t know how I’m going to dance in my prom dress.

I started to feel a bit queasy – how long before I get to enjoy the pleasure of being spoken to like that? I thought.

I broke Alice's rules and looked down at her just as she was waving the pen at me, counting.

‘What are you counting?’ I asked.

‘Your spots,’ she said.

‘Oh,’ I replied. I watched as she began to draw spots on the picture of me. ‘Do you have to draw the spots?’

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘This is a proper picture. But I’ve only drawn five and you’ve actually got thirteen spots. Stop looking.’

I was happy to stop looking at the picture and tuned back in to the conversation behind me which was progressing nicely. The mother had the temerity to smooth a piece of the daughter’s hair down and was told to get off. Some boys sat down next to the daughter: her volume increased accordingly. There’s no way I’d let you chaperone me at the prom mum, no way. You’re too embarrassing. The mother didn’t reply: if such an offer had been made it hadn’t been made at the concert.

I hazarded another glance at Alice’s picture. It seemed to be almost finished, however I noticed that she had only drawn the top part of my glasses frame in two thick lines just above my eyebrows. ‘There’s no eye bits in my glasses,’ I said.

‘They’re not glasses,’ she replied. ‘They’re lines. You’ve got lots of them on your forehead, but I’ve just drawn two.’

‘Oh.’ I took the pen off her and drew a circle around each eye to connect with the lines, making them into glasses. ‘That’s better,’ I said.

‘You’ve spoilt it now,’ she moaned.

A tiny part of me wanted to explain that the spots and the lines on my forehead are new to me, that I wasn’t expecting them, that they have snuck up on me since her birth and I was hoping that she wouldn’t notice. A small part of me felt irritated by the smooth, thick plain of her forehead and the scrutinising eyes underneath, determined to observe the truth of my appearance. Another part of me wanted to laugh at both of us.

I thanked her for the picture, put it in my bag and asked her to draw another one. She drew a picture of us standing next to each other. This time she didn’t look at me. There weren’t any spots or lines, but I seemed to be missing an eye.

She knelt on her chair and held up the picture. ‘Look,’ she said.
The people behind us could see the picture. ‘It’s me and mum,’ she said.

I glanced back over my shoulder and smiled at the mother and daughter. The mother’s face was scrubbed shiny with tiredness, her hair unruly and frizzed. The daughter slouched in her seat, angled away from her mother; beautiful, but awkward, fidgeting with her cardigan. They smiled back.

Not long after the lights went down, Alice crept onto my lap, leaving her seat empty, improving the view for the girl behind us. As Sam serenaded the hall with his classical guitar music, Alice planted a warm kiss on the back of one of my hands and perhaps the girl behind us inched a little closer to her mother too – if this was one of my stories that’s how I would end it.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

The Invention of Solitude

The first section of Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude is a moving meditation on fatherhood. Portrait of an Invisible Man gives expression to Auster’s feelings following the death of his father. Auster’s memories of his father are fragmentary. Auster writes to save his elusive father’s life from vanishing with him. The account is a brief scrap-book like collection of miniature essays, incomplete thoughts and even lists of unconnected memories. There is a strong emphasis throughout both parts of the book on coincidence. There are dramatic coincidences, such as a family album that is totally blank inside (Auster’s father also appears to be somewhat empty on the inside) and incredible coincidences such as the odometer of his father’s car reading 67, the age at which his father died. However, what interests me most about the first section of this book is the urgency of Auster’s writing and his response to death itself.
Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death explains that our insides are foreign to us. ‘(Man) doesn’t know who he is, why he was born, what he is doing on the planet, what he is supposed to do, what he can expect.’ I have often thought how strange it is that our insides are a mystery to us. Not being one for televised surgery, I expect my insides to remain something of a mystery, but I have very clear memories of attempting to position myself in the hollow of my body as a child. I came to the conclusion that the part of me that was actually me lived on a platform behind my eyes and controlled my body like a forklift truck driver. Auster remarks that following death we say ‘this is the body of X, as if this body which had once been the man himself, not something that represented him or belonged to him, but the very man called X, were suddenly of no importance. When a man walks into a room and you shake hands with him, you do not feel that you are shaking hands with his hand, or shaking hands with his body, you are shaking hands with him.’
I’m trying to organise my response to Auster’s thoughts. I’m writing a story about a child who is fascinated with death. The story has been simmering ever since I stumbled across a slide show during some research for another story. The slide show contained post-mortem photographs (as in after death, not surgical procedures). I found it fascinating. The photographs reminded me of Auster’s Portrait of an Invisible Man: they were created to make loved ones visible after death. Many of the children were photographed with favourite toys and living siblings; the things that shaped their lives. The families of those in the photographs probably shared Auster’s fear: ‘If I do not act quickly, his entire life will vanish along with him.’ Maybe that is one of the reasons why people write things down, as a way to remain visible and never entirely vanish.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Back to hiking

This weekend it was finally warm enough for us to begin hiking again. We started off gently and did what actually amounted to a short walk from Hightown to Blundellsands along the coastal path.

There weren’t any killer hills to climb or rivers to cross, no boggy fields to negotiate – I thought that the children would be pleased, but they were actually a bit grumpy: it’s been a long and sedentary winter for them, even Jo hasn’t done as much exercise as usual because so many of his football games have been cancelled due to frozen/snow-covered pitches.

Jo resorted to his customary coping mechanism for boredom and began to give everyone a football quiz.

Jo: ‘How many goals did Wayne Rooney score last season?’

Me: ‘I don’t know – do you actually know that, Jo?’

Jo: ‘No, but it was probably about a hundred.’

The quiz got boring pretty quickly, so we had to think of something else to do and we started making up jokes about footballers. The jokes weren’t really very funny, but as we walked past the sea with all the other Sunday walkers – families, teenagers, old people, dog-walkers – enjoying the pleasant breeze and chocolate chip cookies (they always help), the jokes seemed hilarious.

Occasionally, when you haven’t laughed for a while, it’s as if all the laughter has been stored up and is just waiting for the slightest opportunity to burst out – that was me on Sunday. Here are a couple of the jokes that were on offer:-

Which football player swoops around the field like a Jurassic animal?

John Terry-dactyl.

Which footballer plays for Manchester United in the nude?

Wayne Mooney.

Who is the grumpiest footballer in the premiership?

Peter Grouch.

Just as we were heading down onto Crosby beach to visit the iron men, a man thrust a piece of paper at us. It was a religious pamphlet, entitled ‘Take Warning.’ 'You may die this year,' it began. 'I wonder that you can sleep quietly in your bed.' Neil read it aloud: ‘What have you really got after all? Any hope? Any peace? Any joy? Any comfort? Nothing, literally nothing!’

As these words floated around the beach, the children all raced off to find an iron man to climb on and giggle at, and Neil and I were left standing on the treacly wet sand. The lyrics to I got life were humming around my head: I got my hair, I got my head, I got my brains, I got my eyes, I got my ears, I got my eyes, I got my nose, I got my mouth, I got my teeth....We followed the children across the beach and took photographs of them wrapped around an iron man. As we headed back up to the footpath I thought about what I’d got: a beautiful view of the Irish Sea, four rambunctious kids, a rucksack with treats in, wet trainers, Neil holding my hand, dinner with my Gran to look forward to and lots of clothes to wash when we got home – a fair slab of peace, comfort and joy, I think. And as we left the beach behind and headed home to the washing machine, there was one last joke:

Which footballer gets his muddy kit the cleanest?

Robin Van Persil.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Reading ~ A Kind of Imtimacy

Last night I went to see Jenn Ashworth read at the Rose Theatre (Edge Hill University). She read from her novel A Kind of Intimacy. The chapters which she read to us were both funny and touching and it was fabulous to hear the opening of the novel in the voice of its author. Jenn is only 27 and has just completed her second novel which she also read from last night. I was simultaneously inspired and depressed by her brilliance! I bought a copy of A Kind of Intimacy this morning, along with a couple of collections of Helen Simpson’s short stories. It will be very quiet in our house after that particular parcel arrives.