The Generation With No Name

People Stand On The Berlin Wall

This hostorical perspective of a member of Generation X in Australia was offered to a number of publications with a certain confidence, but those who were offered the essay declined to run it, and so here it is.

Politics was in a shambolic state when some of us were born. The Dismissal had just happened, events of such moment they would be marked every year by debates, opinion pieces and re-enactments featuring versions of Sir John Kerr’s eighteenth century composer hairdo. Now that most of the dramatis personae have left us this anniversary doesn’t seem so urgent, but it is still discussed. Respect for the position of Governor General suffered. Politics became a hard game, played to win by a new breed of ruthless younger men intent upon replacing gentlemen legislators of a previous era.

In the 1970s terrorism was cool. Celebrity terrorists had appealing nicknames like Carlos The Jackal and their dreadful work was international. There were the PLO and the IRA and you couldn’t be considered a proper paramilitary organisation without an acronym. Although religion was sometimes a justification for atrocities, the operatives were secular in character. They wore headbands and open necked shirts with far too many buttons undone. They wore aviator shades and they drank and smoked and had girlfriends.

Things changed a bit in the early 1980s, when some of us started school. Labor won power, replacing a government which never really got over its role in the Dismissal. The task of modernising the economy continued under the stewardship of competent salesmen who taught us to understand economic graphs and use the terms they used in our own conversation. The dollar was floated, which modernised the economy a bit more.

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher led the US and the UK. To a little boy both seemed to be there forever in their quest to lead the free world in the struggle against the Evil Empire. There was excitement when the President revealed his Star Wars nuclear missile defence program, promising some kind of video game on a grand scale to defeat the Soviets,  at a fantastic cost, which somehow made it all the more exciting and likely, for America was huge and powerful and they could do whatever they wanted. We knew that the third and final Star Wars film was on its way, and wondered if there was any connection between the two. But the numbers were absurd and the plan had more showbiz than sense about it.

Meanwhile in both countries the poor were further disempowered as economies were forcibly modernised. Economists called these ideas “neo liberal” and they would soon be emulated by politicians in other parts of the world. Traditional factory jobs in traditional industries disappeared when it was realised that people in less-developed parts of the world could do them for even less money. This process was given the satisfyingly sophisticated name of globalisation, and presented as exciting, new and creative.

Free trade was a good thing, said all the countries which counted. There was no future in artificially propping up traditional industries with tariffs and duties. The market should be free and it should be independent and uninfluenced by governments. The alternative was Communism, which was no alternative at all. At the same time there were nightly reports on the news about what our entrepreneurs were doing. These men were heroes and we followed their hostile takeovers and mergers. Banks propped them up as their deals became riskier. Within fifteen years most of them were in gaol or bankrupt or had fled the country. Without them we would not have won the America’s Cup and Queensland would not have so many resorts.

Soviet news rarely reached us, but when we heard about the reactor malfunction in the town of Chernobyl it emphasised that the world was a dangerous place. Those of us who were about ten already knew that our lives would probably end in a nuclear war. Now we were reminded that it didn’t need to be a war: nuclear things could kill you. Sympathy for the victims was genuine – they didn’t seem like enemies at all.

But the adults didn’t let this worry them too much. They were busy being confident. In this era we focussed on the world, and thought we were good enough to be compared with anyone. This seemed right when the film Crocodile Dundee was a global hit for Paul Hogan. The stock market crashed in 1987, and this should have warned against the over-confident assumption of bottomless prosperity, but doubt was put to the back of our minds in the next year’s Bicentennial celebrations, where tall ships with advertising on their sales re-enacted the arrival of the First Fleet, and a deluge of government money poured into projects, some of which actually warranted it.

Some of us started high school at about this time and at this age thoughts naturally turn to adult things. But it was no longer easy to do the most natural thing in the world. No, AIDS would kill you if you had sex with anybody. The award-winning Grim Reaper advertising campaign emphasised that the disease would strike at random, that nobody was safe. Such were the new anxieties of our generation.

Soon the Berlin Wall came down and this happy occasion liberated the oppressed peoples of Europe, ending the Cold War. Except that now economic conditions were precarious: millions of Eastern workers desired their piece of the Western capitalist dream. China might be more economically open, but it was still an authoritarian regime with nuclear weapons, and many Soviet era warheads were still around.

The overall anxiety level had eased, but now we were anxious about the environment as well, particularly after the discovery of a hole in the Ozone layer and what the experts were calling the Greenhouse Effect. This hadn’t become a debate yet. It was a theory with a lot of evidence and we wrote essays about it in Geography exams.

In the early nineties there was a hot war. Iraq invaded Kuwait and the US led a coalition to stop their evil dictator, who was left in power because his regime was deemed stable enough to look after all the precious oil which the country produced. It was a brief war and some of us spent the last week or so of our Christmas holidays one year watching it like a TV show, which was entertaining enough if there was no cricket on. Australia was involved, as usual.

An economic recession resulted in many job losses and the failure of many businesses. It didn’t sneak up. We focussed on ourselves, laughed at nihilistic comedy, and were introspective as we regrouped and started again.

Interest rates were so high that you could make money just from having something in the bank. This meant that repayments on any kind of debt were crippling. Remedies adopted by politicians aimed to further modernise the economy. Economic rationalism was a phrase so overused as to be almost meaningless. It was the reason for everything. Government assets were sold and functions privatised, public service jobs were slashed and those who formulated these policies told us to trust them and said that if we took our medicine it would be good for us in the long run. An uncertain future called for advice, and the best advice said we should finish school, go to university, and get a good job. So we studied fearfully hard, hoping that things would improve.

At this time they started calling us Generation X, the cohort following the Baby Boomers, a mysterious group without a proper name who were said to be cynical. We had more than enough reason to be cynical in the ‘90s. Most of the certainties of the previous generation had been removed or were threatened. The social safety net had contracted, suicide was a growing problem, and traditional community values rejected kids who weren’t straight.

Within a few years the recession was a memory. Some of us had finished school and started university and saw protest everywhere. Everyone needed to work by this time, so marching had to be fitted in around holding down a regular job. But there were a lot of things to protest about and the number of things grew when the Coalition returned to office after many years in opposition. Government programs were cut and it was said that the user should pay.

At this time we turned on each other and pointed fingers at those who didn’t measure up to our Australian values. Comfortable members of the community begrudged assistance given those without their advantages. Once again, the economy needed to be modernised, this time with all stick and no carrot. And all in the name of achieving a budget surplus, the concept which enjoyed exalted significance as the only measure of financial responsibility everybody could understand.

Economic rationalism was pervasive. Efficiency dictated major restructuring in our winter sports, and after talks and mergers a few clubs disappeared altogether when experts tried to understand the world of culture and tribal allegiance in financial terms.

It was at about this time that some of us started losing touch with the fragmenting popular culture. Hollywood was dominated by special effects films with no plot and it became impossible to maintain contact with new music untainted by commercialism, so some of us decided not to bother any more.

We felt safer when strict gun laws were introduced, although it required the massacre of several tourists at Port Arthur by a mentally ill man with a semi-automatic rifle in order to bring about this reform.

As the 1990s drew to a close many parents bought big screen TVs, the newest status symbol, using government money designed to assist with new-baby expenses. It wasn’t the first appeal to parents. When government-owned bank and telecommunications companies were privatised “mum and dad investors” were encouraged to buy shares. The share market would keep going up forever, said braces-wearing experts on TV, sitting at their desks with Times Square in the background. Everyone was too eager to invest to consider that this wasn’t logical.

Aspiration was good and people were encouraged to improve their position by buying and selling. When this idea was applied to housing homes became regarded as a commodity rather than a place to shelter. We were told the value of real estate would never fall, and that this could only be a good thing.

Certain words took on a new importance: words like mateship and un-Australian and political correctness. When these words were used the message was about excluding people and disapproving of behaviour. Only a few years before the words had been Asia and reconciliation and republic, but some people grew tired of hearing those words and those people feared a multicultural future.

Words and symbols were important enough to be contested, and a disagreement of this type resulted in a failed constitutional referendum, which meant that Great Britain’s monarch remained our head-of-state.

It was a self-absorbed way to end the 1990s, but before long the Olympic Games were here and we revelled in being at the centre of the world. A lot of money was spent in anticipation of the festival and we congratulated ourselves that if we could do this well we could do anything. But the euphoria didn’t last. In the years following, economic confidence flagged in the Olympic city, as it does in all host cities after the games have ended.

We were a small demographic group, outnumbered by our seniors and soon to be overwhelmed by those reaching adulthood in the twenty-first century.  Some of us were working full-time by now, and had our heads down. Experience had taught us to take nothing at face value, especially if the story seemed too good to be true, and this meant we trusted politicians less.

Within a year a boatload of refugees bound for Australia had been picked up by a Norwegian vessel and promptly refused asylum when the rescuing captain attempted to have them accepted here. This event encouraged those who didn’t like the idea that anyone might be given special treatment, especially if they were from countries which did not share our values. The concept of queue jumping was used to buffer prejudiced views, but within a few weeks terrorist attacks on famous buildings in New York and Washington meant that you didn’t need to hide racist assumptions any more. Most arguments could now be reduced to us versus them.

Until this point the US president, the son of another US president, had been a figure of fun. Afterwards he was still considered a buffoon by everyone except the sizeable number of Americans who believed that domestic security could be strengthened by reducing civil rights and interfering militarily in Iraq. These people voted for him again four years later. World leaders who should have known better were complicit in his rather naive plan to bring peace to the Persian Gulf and gain control of its oilfields, and they joined in. Australia helped, as we always do.

The War on Terror was underway and we were told it would be a more successful enterprise than the War on Drugs, which had been attempting to destroy the international narcotics trade for decades.

At about this time, some of us decided that we needed to carry all of the music we had ever owned with us at all times, and luckily Apple made a sophisticated device for that. Personal entertainment had come a long way since Space Invaders and PacMan in the ‘80s, but strangely it was just that type of crude arcade game that we played on even more sophisticated devices – when we weren’t looking at pictures of cats or food or our friends’ over-achieving offspring – and you could make phone calls with them too.

Politics changed when the long-serving government was defeated and there was bold talk about the environment for the first time in a while. It didn’t last though. An apology to indigenous people was derided as both potentially dangerous and a hollow symbolic gesture, while the notion that a government might attempt to address the connection between pollution and climate change was ridiculed. Some of us had a serious girlfriend at this time, and our focus was on other things, but it was clear that politicians were less constructive than ever.

Citizens had lost faith in the system to the extent that elected representatives were no longer allowed time to learn their jobs. Just as voters turned on their politicians so politicians turned on each other, replacing elected leaders in the hope of improving opinion polling numbers, and this whole process did nothing to improve the quality of governing. Somehow in this period of instability Australia was affected only slightly by the Global Financial Crisis. The reasons for this are disputed, but may have had something to do with massive amounts of wasted money or prudent management of the economy.

Terrorism proliferated. The names of the organisations changed but the grievances and methods of dealing with them were the same. Religious zealots with a hatred of our society proved a formidable foe, yet we still refused to understand them.

We were living in bigger houses and talking less to our neighbours and had never been as incurious. We doubted medical advice about having our children vaccinated and gave them bizarre first names. And whenever asylum seekers arrived by boat they were treated as if they had done something illegal.

The future we had hoped for seemed unlikely to eventuate and the political present had turned very strange. Amid plots and feuding the Queen’s husband was given a knighthood. Some of us still rented the house we lived in, with no prospect of buying our own, and our more successful friends were doing obscure jobs in finance which were really about making rich older clients richer. Some of us got married to our sweethearts as an argument broke out between Baby Boomers, our predecessors, and Millenials, the cohort after us – a misunderstood group, as we had been, said to be disengaged, but at least with their own name. The two groups traded insults while we looked on.

And the kids who didn’t study hard and go to university but instead left school early and ignored the knowledge economy found themselves as tradesmen and women with golden economic prospects. Their response to the modernising economy was shown to be the right one. It made a few of the rest of us who had followed the sensible path wonder if we had wasted our time.

Those of us who were about forty might have had very little to believe in, but at least we had our heroes – until a huge number of them were swept away in the cultural holocaust of 2016. Then the Brexit and Trump election results showed us what a future shaped by traditional values might look like.

Sorting human beings into groups is necessary in order to understand our society, and our society has changed a good deal since some of us were born in the mid-1970s. The Millenial influence grows as they mature but ageing Boomers continue to shape our culture while they hold on to their positions of power.

Younger people, more than the rest of us, are deeply offended by prejudice and feel strongly about same sex marriage. We can only hope that their view prevails on this and many other issues1, for their commitment to social justice is genuine and this country would benefit from a little more generosity now.

For them to change the world they must not follow their elders, as we did, but assert themselves and create new Australian values for a more decent Australia.

 

1 In the postal survey on whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry Yes prevailed with 61.6% of the vote.
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A Very Short Story About A Man Named Donald

The literary magazine Meanjin decided to mark the expansion of Twitter messages from 140 to 280 characters by holding a little competition. The idea was to write a story within the new word limit. My entry, on the @Turdenmeier account, can be read here: https://twitter.com/Turdenmeier/status/928130682555056129

 

Published in: on November 13, 2017 at 6:54 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Saved By A Book For Adults

About a month ago I was going to bed on a Sunday night and realised that I wasn’t feeling the usual resentful, despairing feeling at bedtime on a Sunday night – I’m exhausted and won’t be able to sleep well, I’ll feel worse when I get up early tomorrow morning, weekends are always too short, I didn’t rest this weekend, I didn’t write enough this weekend, other people seem to be happier than I am, I don’t want to go back to work – but instead I felt sad. Outright sad. I could have cried.

There was a big week coming up for me and I was scared that some of the components might not work out properly. Dad would be in hospital and mum would be in respite care at a nursing home and I was scared, I suppose, about all the things which might go wrong, and unwilling to face up to my responsibilities, which I knew would pile up a bit, on a week like this.

As it happens everything went well. Both parents were home together again on the weekend. But it was only days later – weeks possibly – that I understood something deeper about what I was feeling. I’ve written elsewhere that my journey to work and back must be largely taken up by reading, or else I can feel mentally unsettled and even grumpy. If I don’t read on the train I’m usually very worked up by something.

Now I realised that the reading material itself could have an impact. You see a friend of mine had leant me a book of the kind I don’t normally read. It was all explosions and escapes from certain death as the main character and his allies saved the world. The plot was somewhat convoluted and involved several groups of bad guys, all planning to kill the hero, and the deaths of many minor characters, often in spectacular ways (heads exploding when high-powered bullets struck them was very popular). This story would make an excellent film. It would be a little silly but there would be one-liners and the destruction of sophisticated military hardware and the good guys would win in the end. But it was exhausting to read. This means that fans of this kind of book undoubtedly felt that their desire for more improbable plans and races against time, more action, was delivered. But I found it really difficult to read.

It was difficult to read because there was little respite between the action sequences but mainly because it was all plot and very little character. There were no examples of reading a sentence and thinking, “That was beautiful. I’ll read it again slowly.” There was nothing to savour. There was no poetry, although the story had been assembled very artfully indeed.

And I’m not criticising this kind of book. Not at all. It just isn’t really for me. It was big and fat and heavy and when I was reading it I was thinking about other things I could have been reading. And this absence – the absence of what I usually read and what it does for me – was I think partly responsible for the seriously melancholy mood which set in. I had no release. The appreciation of beauty provides a release. But I also lacked the psychological interest in characters who act and speak in ways which can’t be predicted.

And there were such books to read. When Laetitia and I were on leave recently we went silly at a very good second-hand bookshop just out of Sydney. I was particularly pleased with my haul, which includes biographies of Proust and Evelyn Waugh, Mr. Norris Changes Trains to go with Goodbye To Berlin on the shelf (a book I’ve been looking for for years), EM Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, which I’ve been dipping into when I get a few minutes spare and have been loving, and a handful of cricket books by the great cricket writer Neville Cardus.

Mr. Norris is finished now and was excellent and I wonder why people don’t seem to talk much about Isherwood. In any case, it was a book for adults, and it hit the spot and I’m feeling much better now.

Published in: on September 27, 2017 at 8:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

Published & A Work In Progress Update

It has been a number of months since I have written anything here and there’s Mozart on the radio, so here goes. In fact, there isn’t really the time to do other writing work and one really ought to be efficient enough to use all available free time, so that’s a reason for this too.

Last time I was saying that I would try to get some non-fiction published. The truth is that I knew one piece was about to appear in (virtual) print, in a literary e-journal, and that another thing I had written was likely to be published on a website. The second piece had already been delayed and more delays were to come. For something written in the last quarter of 2016, and accepted well before Christmas, it did seem that waiting until May for it to appear was a longer wait than expected. But these things happen.

The first essay, a personal essay as they say, is about my family and me and why I’m not exactly a wacky funster and why it’s all their fault. Of course it’s not all their fault. And I’m not without wacky and fun. Life is rich and varied and no experience is normal. Also, an essay like this is necessarily partial, in that it’s my viewpoint, and others would see the same events differently, but also in that if I had written about the same upbringing years in a different context then the result would have read very differently too. In any case, the thing is available to read (for a fee) here: http://tincture-journal.com/2017/02/26/issue-seventeen-table-of-contents/

The second essay was something I wrote quite quickly when I had pitched something unsuccessfully to an editor who liked what I wrote enough to enjoy it but not to publish it. Which is fine. It was a very good reaction. So I thought, “I’ll write something you can publish then” and I began writing about what I knew and that was about catching the train to work in the morning and before I knew it there was a short essay about some of the less well-known aspects of the history of Sydney. I was still surprised that she liked what I wrote and not a little chuffed that she accepted it. The support through the editing process was invaluable, and turned something a bit unfocussed into something with a point to make, if perhaps a subtle one. The editing of the first piece was similarly a fruitful and more than worthwhile experience, and once again my admiration for editors should be recorded here.

The second essay, the train one, may be read (free) here: http://goingdownswinging.org.au/dark-tunnels/

Our time has been taken up largely by issues stemming from the family of pets who share our house with us, which has grown and now numbers two dogs and three kittens. Regular readers will be aware that our legendary cat Mr Mu finally succumbed to his many sicknesses after living to a great age at the beginning of the year. After a period of months without a cat in our lives a number of remarkable feline things happened over a few weeks, involving joy and tragedy and a very steep learning curve. It’s been fun and I’m writing about it, on an off, an essay which has already reached gargantuan proportions and is only about two thirds written.

And there are other things to work on. Some are nearing completion and are being shown to people and others make the amount of progress you would expect when you take a break from working on something: not much. But I’ll tell you any news of those projects when it comes to hand.

Published in: on June 26, 2017 at 8:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

Non-Fiction Returns

The year is young and there are things to look forward to already. I can’t say much at this point but, unless something untoward occurs, I should be published in two literary journals in only a few weeks’ time. Both pieces are non-fiction, one a personal essay, from the memoir genre, I suppose, and the other something with personal and historical elements, at the same time more frivolous and yet dealing with some serious issues.

Writing about something you can’t write about is pretty unsatisfying. Apologies for that. But there are reasons to be happy, to be positive, to think that I might even be on the right path. However the loss of our friend Mr Mu has cast a long shadow over our little world since early last month, and we are still in mourning, although perhaps the shadow is less dark than it was. It makes it less easy to celebrate a win when these are the circumstances, and you don’t really feel like doing it either. Maybe when these two essays (if they even are essays) are published it will feel appropriate and natural to be pleased. I’m sure it will.

Writing of this kind is a departure for me, in some ways. I tend to write about me and my experience even when I’m writing about other people – all authors do, to some extent, or so I’ve heard. I used to write a lot of non-fiction. All my energy for some years went into recording memories and descriptions of events and essays. I even had a column in a street magazine (which paid nothing), which allowed me to write about my world, or about anything really, which usually came back to me, in some form. It has only been recent that my focus has turned to fiction, and then almost exclusively. But recent in this case means over the last five years or more and it also means that I didn’t attempt to have something factual published for many years indeed – more than I care to think about.

Is this an example of the wheel turning and ending up where I was at the beginning? An essay which combined travel writing, memoir and political musings was the first thing of mine ever to be published, back in the early years of this century, in the UTS writers’ anthology. I subscribe to the spiral theory of history, which suggests that life moves forwards even as events seem to repeat, so that you have learned something since the last time the circumstances were like that, and you hopefully use what you’ve learned and that means you keep moving forward.

So I shall write in a variety of ways and submit things to people if they seem to have sufficient merit to warrant their consideration. I won’t discard an entire genre again.

Published in: on February 2, 2017 at 7:06 pm  Leave a Comment  

Mr Mu 1995-2017

mu-christmas-2016The time has come for me to write of Mr Mu, our venerable, princely feline who died last Monday after a long and increasingly complicated illness.

Mr Arthur Mu was deemed a suitable name for such a resplendent cat and it is difficult to believe that he was briefly known as Pepe. The boyfriend who suggested this didn’t last long and Mr Mu was subsequently known by many names, as seemed to befit a natural aristocrat, for he acquired names like titles.

He lived in several parts of Australia – in the suburbs, in the country, in Sydney, Melbourne, the Blue Mountains, the Mid North Coast and in Sydney again. He was better travelled and had more friends than me.

Before I met him, and he had already lived a long time by then, the image in my mind of what a cat should look like exactly resembled Mu – I just didn’t know it, because I hadn’t met him yet. He was a tabby with a white shirt, white gloves and gaiters on his hands and feet, and he loved to be cuddled after Laetitia had rather forcefully encouraged him to enjoy that sort of contact during his kittenhood. This meant he also knew how to use furniture as a human might, could open cupboards and turn doorknobs, and would be found in a bed with the covers over his body and his head on a pillow or standing on a chair, arms on the table, sharing peas and corn with his human mummy. His body seemed to naturally fit into the bumps and hollows of a human lap and to lie in that position, on you, being stroked, was one of his favourite things.

One of the things I miss now is the feel of his body. Of the way his ribs and legs felt, the texture of his coat, the way he smelled. I can feel it all now in my muscle memory but I so want to hold him again.

For a little while after we met, he treated me poorly – with disdain, of course, as an inferior, but he played mind games with me for some time, in order to test me. While threatening to steal food from my plate, knock valuable items over, eat food he shouldn’t eat, forage in a bin which had seemed out of his reach, and lastly to escape, he was gauging something about my character. Once he did escape, in the country, when I was looking after him for the day, and the way he kept appearing just a little too far way to easily grab him, on the other side of a paddock, was clear evidence of his mischievous and evil temperament. He was a cat, after all.

But I passed his tests, somehow, and we became mates. He had decided that I could be trusted with his Laetitia. And there were things which only the two of us would do. When he knocked on the door, I would answer it. We would spend time together outside the house after I came home from work (“man time”) and later spend time together inside, after he had retired and we decided he would be an inside cat (“lap time”). If you owed him some kind of affection and he couldn’t see a good reason for the delay, he would become quite impatient. It was one of his most endearing qualities: criticising you for not giving him a cuddle quickly enough.

And if he was hungry he would let you know that too. In the last months of his life he became a keen coffee drinker, having been given frothy and warm milk made by Laetitia from the coffee machine, and when she added some actual coffee he liked that too. Mu would demand his coffee and drink it messily with his front paws on the coffee table.

Our dogs didn’t appeal to him, as you can probably imagine, but his squabbles with the smaller dog were entertaining when he decided she needed the occasional lesson in manners. The dog would become cornered somehow – he knew how to do that very well – and might receive a sort of slap with a cat paw, using the motion of a boxer, as a warning, to show her what he could do, if he had been serious. But he wasn’t serious.

He was serious about the people he knew and there were so many of them. Neighbours unknown to Laetitia thought he was their cat when he visited daily. We knew of some who fed him better food than we fed him, guaranteeing repeat visits, when he was gregarious enough that the possibility of insinuating himself in someone’s life would have been enough to keep going back. He would stretch and sun himself and meow on the street and allow strangers to pat him. Sometimes he would snub people, just because he could, because cats sometimes do that sort of thing, but he had time for everyone. And that was the thing about him: I knew him half of his life and it seems like I was with him through so much more than that. There was enough of Mr Mu to go round. All his friends were special to him and all had their own relationship with him and he made them all feel honoured by his presence. Our neighbour used to look forward to seeing him, when he would turn up each morning to sun himself on their verandah and occasionally poo in their vegetable garden, and the neighbour was genuinely sad when we told him that Mu would be an inside cat from then on.

He was sick and old for a very long time and this meant a lot of attention had to be given him. He was indulged – fed whenever he was hungry, allowed to do almost anything he liked – and he indulged us back. The intensity of our relationship with him over the last three years or so goes some way to explaining the utter desolation which Laetitia and I have felt since January 2. Most pet owners think their animal is beautiful and intelligent and charming, but this cat was all of those three things and so many more. His personality was too big for a mere pet, and now it is hard to fathom that he is gone. It simply doesn’t make sense. But gone he is and the world seems to turn more slowly as a result. Our souls are bruised and our bodies weak with the strain of grief.

We will move on, somehow, in time: learn to cope, to fake it at first, and then to properly collect our emotions. But we will never forget our little friend. Before Mr Mu I thought I didn’t like cats. His example showed me I was wrong, and how wrong I was. He wasn’t just a cat though. He was far more than that and words are insufficient to do him justice.

Published in: on January 9, 2017 at 7:42 pm  Leave a Comment  

2016 – Year Of The Editor

Here I am again, at the outset of the year, writing something for my public, with promises of more activity for the year to come. My public is small, as you would know if you are reading this. In fact, if you’re reading this, you probably are my public. Or a sizable chunk of it.

But enough of this triviality. I am still here, still doing this, and once again it is early January. If memory serves, this blog was begun on a first of January, or the next day, on a year I can’t remember, but it must have been after the invention of the personal computer.

This is for me, then, in a way: this blog post as the first of many more blog posts. It’s a demonstration or a promise or something perhaps weaker than that – a firm intention, possibly, or a flabby intention – to keep going.

It has been a year full of incident, and I’m not even referring to the catalogue of violence and tragedy in the celebrity culture and geopolitics which largely shapes our lives. Those sad events have been dealt with by other people in other places and there is no more that can be usefully added here. It has been very difficult indeed to accept that some artists have died – that’s all that need be said. On a personal level, there has been work and strain, both in very large helpings, consequent upon the assisting of some relatives with their clutter problem (known by the technical term “hoarding”).

So not as much writing has been done as the previous few years, because there was less time and bugger all energy to do it. But there is more time and more energy now, and so there will be more writing too. Despite all of these calls on free time and reserves of vitality some stories were completed (none published as yet, but hope remains) and a longer work was commenced, which I stuck at for months until interest waned a bit and end of year activities began to overtake. I will pick this up again. All it needs is to make a start and then do a small portion each day – that’s what I was doing before and it’s what I will do again.

The one story published in 2016 year was written the year before, so that doesn’t really count. And, in all the usual ways, it was dispiriting to receive rejections. It never becomes easy. But what did soften the blow was the attitude and care which some editors took in their correspondence. Yes, they were saying no, but they took the time to really explain why. To write as fellow writers and as editors with many competing decisions to make, to lay out their intertwined considerations and even offer genuinely helpful comments on the piece they had decided against including in their journal. A few really fascinating and very helpful email conversations resulted, which had the effect of allowing you to feel like you were collaborating, however briefly, with an editor, rather than just being dismissed by someone who may not have even read what you wrote.

It wouldn’t be right to name names or name journals, but friendly and constructive correspondence with editors from two established journals and one very new journal made me feel a lot better about what I was doing and what I will do. And there were numerous felicitous exchanges with others too. It’s almost always a positive process, if you allow it to be. (Of course there is still the possibility of being treated cursorily, and that happened too – but those experiences were in the minority, and I like to think they constitute examples of a communication breakdown.)

Some of the books I read this year:

A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James – won the Booker Prize, deals with events surrounding the Bob Marley assassination attempt, a big violent book about big ideas, with multiple points of view and several characters, such an ambitious undertaking and brought off with such aplomb

Pour Me, AA Gill – a memoir of the drinking life of the food critic who died in the latter part of the year, beautifully written and amusing

A Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez – a book I’d been meaning to read for some time, the writing exciting and voluptuous (if it doesn’t sound too wanky to say that), many parts will stay with me, as will the possibilities he shows to writers about where you can go with your work, clearly an excellent book, rightly loved by good judges, I did wonder if there was a point that I was missing, but in any paragraph chosen at random you may find a story, more than a vignette, an actual small story, and I love that sort of thing

The Man Who Loved Children, Christina Stead – the father annoyed me at first and then irritated me and I really didn’t like him, but at no point did the question “why did she write him like that?” occur, instead it was the man she invented who I didn’t like, and this must be a sign of very great quality that he seemed so real, the book dealt in some ways with dysfunctional families and this could have alienated me from the material when I was in the mood for some kind of relief from all that

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark – a short novel and one of the best I’ve read, about a teacher and her pupils, her influence on them and their influence on her, but about so much more than that, the writing precise and economical, allowing subtleties and inferences which could easily be missed due to the ease of reading, I shall read more of Muriel Spark

 

And so it begins again. The blow of January has been softened by rather intense reading. I should have known it would be a help. I will write about the books I have read at another point.

Published in: on January 2, 2017 at 11:32 am  Leave a Comment  

Bruno’s Plan

On the day after Bruno’s little finger was severed in the accident the photographer came to his school and in the class photo you can see him, sitting there, in the front row, with his hair parted neatly and a bandage around his swollen left hand. What you can’t see is the patch of red, small at this time but spreading even then. By lunchtime that day oozing blood had covered the bandage and started to leave a trail of drips when Bruno ran about. His plan was to attend the sick bay after lunch and hopefully miss the rest of the day’s lessons that way, and he was very proud of the plan for it was both simple and fiendish.

Published in: on November 2, 2016 at 7:19 pm  Leave a Comment  

Perhaps Not A Gentleman, After All

It has recently occurred to me that, barring some sort of radical change of direction, I cannot be a gentleman. This is not the sort of thing that might worry a lot of people. In fact a lot of people would think the concept is an archaic one and a nebulous one and a bit of a silly one and they might wonder what the hell I might be talking about anyway.

There are undoubtedly many definitions of a gentleman, although none come to mind now. Gentlemen should allow ladies to go first, hold doors for ladies, walk on the outside on the street, and things of that sort. A least I think they ought to do those things. I’m sure I’ve read it somewhere.

My own interpretation of this type of man is hopefully more relevant to contemporary life and is not so much about doing things for helpless women – because they aren’t helpless – but doing things for other people. People of any description, but particularly if they could do with some assistance, like if they are old or sick or injured or something of that sort. And yes, you ought to know which knife and fork to use and how to introduce someone to someone else, but the rules about these things are complex and not worth learning, let alone attempting to apply. No, the rule – my rule – is to make people feel comfortable. If you have just met someone, be friendly. If someone is a guest in your home and they wish to eat asparagus with a spoon, allow them to, without any semblance of fuss or protest. They are your guest. It is your responsibility to provide ease for them while they are under your roof.

Now the whole host thing is an area of struggle for me. I’m a bit shy and a bit unsure and this has frequently led to a guest with an empty glass which I could have filled or a lonely person who could have received a bit of sparklingly witty conversation from me.

You have to be confident to put people at their ease, but it was something I always thought I could work at.

What defeats me is the other element. Always put other people first. This is mainly achievable, and therefore not a problem, when circumstances are without the element of stress. But when it all gets a bit harder, then I can be self-centred and unable to find my way outside my own absorbed little world, wrapped up in me and my nerves and how I feel and why I’m put upon. And these things do not add up to putting other people first, when they see you stressed and can do nothing about it and neither can you. The result is confusion and tension and discord. Certainly it is not putting others at ease and placing their needs before yours.

So that’s that. A gentleman only sometimes, when things are going well.

A pity – but there are no good clubs to go to any more, so maybe there was never a point to any of this anyway.

Published in: on October 24, 2016 at 7:34 pm  Leave a Comment  

A Deprived Childhood

They were watching the Olympics on TV, the whole lot of them – everyone in the company who was at work that day. This was only a brief interlude. While it was the sort of company which would put a broadcast of the games up on a big screen for people to watch at lunchtime or while they made a cup of coffee in the kitchen, they had not gathered for an event before this. It was the big one. You know, the one we were supposed to win? The one we were supposed to win and then didn’t, because that’s the way it goes at the Olympics sometimes.

And there was long jump on the screen before our big event, and the colleagues watched and made comments, as you do, and became transiently well-versed in the byways of this complex and irrational discipline. The athletes were compared and their performances analysed. There was laughter and cheering and some form of delight that only comes when adults immerse themselves in something foreign and trivial and allow themselves to be, if only for a moment, like little children again. Unashamed to admit a lack of knowledge, indeed positively rejoicing in it, they asked each other questions and didn’t know the answers and speculated wildly without any substantial basis in fact.

And someone asked her what she thought. She was sitting there, sitting next to him, wearing leggings and wearing some kind of running shoes. They were sitting in front of me. And he said that one of the women looked strong when he could see that she was openly admiring the athlete on the screen, with her muscle definition and general hardness. Admiration was mixed with a certain envy, it was clear, as she made comments.

“Why can’t I get that?” she said. She spoke as if it were achievable to look like an Olympian, and she spoke as if she was used to getting what she wanted.

He said it takes four years to look like that, and that it can take a lifetime too.

She realised that she was being a little silly. That’s what she said anyway. But you could tell she hadn’t let the thought go. She was still assessing or making some sort of plan.

He asked her if she’d ever tried the long jump, and she said she hadn’t. She wondered if she would be any good. “I didn’t know I liked running. My mother put a violin in my hands when I was six. I didn’t know I even liked sport until a few years ago.”

It was challenging herself that she was her real obsession. She would go on to more and greater challenges: increasingly dangerous pastimes. Running would be a memory when she began scaling rock faces and skiing off mountains.

And the desire to brag would never leave her either. Those lost years in the music room made her want to boast about the poshness of her quite featureless early life and not very grand upbringing. She assumed we would think that everything is sophisticated in England, for some reason. It was really a little ordinary and more than a little tawdry, as we learned later when news came through of her freezing to death half way up a cliff in the Andes, and her mother came in to collect some personal effects from the office. Her mother did not speak with an accent from far way and she told us that her daughter had never learned the violin at all.

Published in: on October 5, 2016 at 7:26 pm  Leave a Comment