Friday, 26 August 2016

I Get Into Mahler

I have always liked the name Gustav.  When I won a panda (a toy one) at the Gothenburg Funfair in 1982, this was the name I chose.  However, I have held a prejudice against Gustav Mahler until this evening.

Kahlil Gibran says of children that you may "give them your love but not your thoughts".  This is a great sentiment, and I try to live by it, but it's not exactly true.  I'm pretty sure my thoughts about Mahler came from my parents - he's conspicuously absent from their vinyl collection, which I treasure.  For as long as I can remember I've assumed him to be too grandiose for good taste, too ostentatious, loud and long.  So I have avoided him, though I made an exception once and listened to Das Lied Von Der Erde because someone told me it was good.

This evening, I listened to Mahler's symphony no. 2 for what I think must be the first time.  And I listened to it loudly, because my younger son put on his new CD and he was therefore in charge of the volume control.  We listened to symphony no. 1 earlier in the week.  There are 8 more to go.

I listened to Mahler whilst drinking some of my brother's home made wine. It would seem that home made wine is an excellent antidote to prejudices, including those about home made wine.

Mahler's work seems to have been written to keep musicians gainfully employed - including 4 flautists, 10 trumpeters, a choir, 2 (two!) harpists and "the largest possible contingent of strings".  It lacks restraint, and it is known as The Resurrection.  

I found The Resurrection just as implausible, grandiose, ostentatious and long as I'd been warned - and I found it to be absolutely wonderful. 

Monday, 8 August 2016

I Hear A Story

I am in the middle of reading Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery.  It's a series of short narratives in which neurosurgeon Henry Marsh gives insights into what it's like to operate on brains and spinal cords - on a patient's essence and function. 

I have learnt, more than anything else in my time working in the human services of social care and education, that it's important that stories told for learning from the truth of someone else's experience are listened to.  There's a power in the telling and a power in the hearing and the being heard. 

In Marsh's case, amongst the horrors of and wonders of tumours, speech gain and loss, recovery and death, he needs to tell us about the humanity of his doubt in the face of many of the decisions he has to make.  He hides neither the necessity for confidence-verging-on-arrogance required for cutting into brains with a steady hand, nor the humility and sense of inadequacy he has accumulated over a lifetime's experience of mending, curtailing - and sometimes worsening - the injuries caused by disease and accident.  He writes of the conversations, the impossible conversations, he has to have with patients and families - of the importance of being straightforward whilst not extinguishing all hope.

I'm finding it hard to put down this book, so when I woke early on Sunday, I began to read where I'd left off, heavy-eyed, the night before.  Then I remembered with irritation that I needed to get up to move my car before the traffic wardens' round began.

The morning was clear and scattered with clean sunshine, and I was suddenly glad to have been forced up and out.  There were two other people in the street - a council employee bent to the task of sweeping up after the night before, and a man walking towards me, pushing a bike.  I didn't recognise the cyclist, but as soon as I saw him, I knew he had something to tell me.

As if stepping from the other side of Marsh's pages, he began the story of how his son had been involved in an accident the day before, how it had happened, how he'd been rescued from worse, and how, even now, he was being prepared for an operation.   He told me what the doctor had explained about paralysis, how he'd had to keep it together since everyone else in the family had been so upset.  The story was so new to him, so much in need of telling now, right now, that it spilled out as if he were crying: his son's life saved, but broken in an instant.

Today, I am still thinking of the chapter of the cyclist's story - his telling it to me in the quiet, bright streets of a summer's morning, how he may need, in all weathers, to tell and retell the story of his son as part of the way in which he can try to make it into a shape that is easier to carry.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

I Tick A Box

I was have been asked by  to rate my recent experience of New York City.  Apparently, this will help other people to decide whether or not to travel there:  Did you like NYC?  Please tick Yes or No.

In my day job, I am often asked to write references.  This is a responsibility I take seriously, and it requires me to use my judgement and to be truthful to my experience.  But when asked to do this by ticking a series of boxes, I find myself flummoxed. 

Consider the following example:

Please assess (to the best of your knowledge) the applicant’s qualities and abilities :






Not Known/Comments








Faced with recommending a candidate I've known for a couple of years, but only in one context, I don't know which box to tick. Is Excellent Honesty the default position, or starting point, from which someone can only slide towards Poor as occasions for Dishonesty arise, or do I assume Poor Honesty until opportunities for deception have arisen and not been taken, or opportunities for Honesty been taken?

What, I wonder, is the definition of Good Honesty and could it be better than Excellent Honesty (too brutal in some situations) for this particular job?   Is my definition of Good Honesty of too high or low a standard?  Who says?

Is Average Honesty acceptable or the sign of moral deficiency?  And when working out Average Honesty, am I required to use the mean, mode or median?  And should I show my workings?

Does Honesty which could be described as  Poor become Dishonesty?  Unreliability can't be a synonym for Poor Honesty as there is another assessment to be made about Reliability in the row below.  But I won't take you there.

As it happens, I liked New York City.  Yes I did.  I liked it a lot.  And I mostly liked it because I went there with my son.  But there's no box for that.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

I Carry A Placard

Friday 24th June was a troubling day - the date had long been in my mind.  I woke early to the news of the Leave vote, felt stunned. 

Much has been written about the reasons for and fallout from the millions of decisions made by individuals faced on 23rd June with a binary choice: Remain / Leave - a choice reducing the nuances and complexities of the UK's relationship with the EU to something blunt and, as it turns out, dangerous.

The reason the date of 24th June had been on my mind, however, was more personal.  That evening, I read as the guest poet in the Shore to Shore tour organised by Picador and Wenlock Books.  Carol Ann Duffy, Gillian Clarke, Imtiaz Dharker, Jackie Kay and John Sampson stopped off here to perform at one of a series of events celebrating poetry and community spread along a route from Falmouth to St Andrew's. 

All that day, I wondered what to read.  The set I'd planned in advance seemed flimsy, inconsequential.  What could a few hundred words do or mean in this context of new social, political and economic upheaval?  I am not a poet of grand themes - I write about what's ordinary: about queuing, about small encounters, about everyday instances of connection.  

What I remember most clearly about the evening, two weeks on, is the transformation of the confused and sombre mood by the reading of poetry, along with John's fanfares and musical frolics, to a responsive, bewildered and committed audience.  I remember being amongst strong and strongly feeling women whose welcome of me, whose humour, fury, passion and incredulity gave me a sense that all was not utterly lost.

'Everything is politics', says Thomas Mann.  And so I started with my poem Michelangelo's David.  It's about a queue.  But it's set in Florence.  So it's also about love, language, and the fluidity and permeability of borders between people and cultures.  It's about the joy of the taken-for-grantedness of those exchanges: it's about knowing the words pizza, gelato, cappuccino without having to try.  I read the poem with new energy, as an act of poetry. 

After all the beauty and wisdom of the poems read in sorrow, conviction and rage by Gillian, Jackie, Imtiaz and Carol Ann, right at the end, each of us poets, with Carol Ann directing, raised in turn a defiant placard.  I held up my one word feeling that sense I often get amongst poets: of being held, of belonging not just to this momentary four word phrase, but to people amongst whom truths must be told.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

I Say Thank You

I've been wondering  what to say to the house I'm leaving.  I tried this:

Thank you for having me.

It didn't seem enough.  So I tried this:

Thank you that it's me you have had, here, within these walls, these lovely rooms and garden.

Thank you for giving me shelter, for the leaking roof, for all the warmth and draughts.  Thank you for the silence, the birdsong, the Saturday night revellers.  Thank you for the wisteria, the damson tree, the ground elder, the bindweed. Thank you for facing to the north, and sheltering your garden to the south.  Thank you for being my children's first sanctuary, their first playground, their first sickbay, their first studio, their first theatre, their first accident site, their first library, their first battleground, their first concert hall, their first dance floor.

When they were young, I danced my sons around the living room to the theme from Zorba the Greek.  I danced with my eldest on my hip, whirling around until we fell onto the sofa in giggles.  When the time came, my second son took his place in one arm, whilst I held his brother's hand, and we circled around and around the carpet, dizzier and dizzier.

Today, I haven't known how to say goodbye to this house.  I tried saying more:

Thank you for being a place of laughter, of desperation, of joy, of sorrow, of contentment, of adventure, of emptiness, of hope.  Thank you for the company, the loneliness, the deep connections, the arguments.  Thank you for the sleep, the dreaming, the wakefulness, the growing, the rest and weariness  Thank you for yesterday, last year, the last twenty-two years.  Thank you for today - for the hugging, the roast chicken, Kate Bush and Bach.  Thank you for tomorrow.

But even this wasn't enough for all that is in my heart, so I asked for music.  To my surprise, within seconds I was tapping my feet.  And it was as if my body knew what I wanted to say at last, as I picked myself up, danced through the rooms once more.
Zorba The Greek Theme

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

I Still My Soul

Yesterday morning I woke and thought of Dave.  A few minutes later, his name lit up my phone.

Much as I like him, I hadn't thought of Dave for quite a while.  He fixes my trusty car, and it has been very trusty of late, but even so, it needs an MOT each year.  What I thought when I woke yesterday was, "It must be about now that V40's MOT is due, or (gulp) maybe it was even due last week, or (here's hoping)  maybe it's due next week ... ", and before I'd woken enough to check my V40 file, Dave texted me with a reminder. 

Lots of thing happen which are coincidences with rational explanations (Dave runs a business: he keeps a diary ...), but I still enjoy moments like this as surprises of connection.

I used to have lots of ideas about the mysteries of our connectedness to each other and the world, having grown up with parents who prayed about every detail of our lives.  At one time, I'd have thought Dave an answer to a prayer I may not even have prayed. 

I drove to work instead of going by train today because I had to go to the garage to pay my bill.  But if I'd gone by train I wouldn't have heard Finlandia on Classic FM on the A5 heading towards the Welsh border; I wouldn't have been reminded of the Finlandia Hymn - one of Sibelius' finest tunes.  It's a beautiful, calm melody coming towards the end of a piece representative of the struggles of Finnish nationalism. 

The words given to this tune - Be still my soul -  are familiar to me from childhood, and as I crossed into Wales, I felt a peace come to me and a sense that, whilst I no longer subscribe to the meaning of the words: to the fundamentalist and terrifying Christian doctrine of human sacrifice bringing atonement for my sins, I am nevertheless connected to this lovely music, to the memories of summer Sunday evenings spent in the sleepy light of that Highbury church, to my mother playing the organ, to the choir singing, to the wealth of music my childhood gave me, and which has the capacity to light up my life.