Cameron, Clegg, Miliband, cui bono? You Can’t Take Away a Nation.
I’ve been thinking of writing a book about poverty, and the cancerous growth of agencies as middlemen that add nothing but misery, leaving the rest of us to deal with the hidden costs. It’s too big a subject. You start getting lost in minutiae. What does it mean in a changing world, for example, to be working class? What does it mean to be poor? These are relative concepts. I once asked my former best mate Liam what the girl he got off with the night before was like. He started off by telling me she was quite nice. Then he told me she wasn’t really that nice. By the time we got to the truth we were both howling with laughter. Well, I was. Linda Tirado tells us how it is.
She does a good definition of poverty, choosing ‘between the terrible option and the dreadful option’. That could be choosing between paying your rent or eating. Walking to work when walking back will mean missing the start of the second split-shift of the day in the other job and getting sacked. For Linda Tirado Living Hand To Mouth is a metaphor for the way she lives, but one that can also be taken literally. Tirado was in an car wreck and her mouth was smashed up. It left her in constant pain and in need of dental treatment, which she couldn’t afford. It also left her the stigmata of a poor person’s teeth, which she covered up with her hand and made her unable to eat in public or, funnily enough, tell jokes, because we signal the punch-line by laughter and, with her teeth, she wasn’t willing to do that, show herself off, like a freak.
Another mark of the poor is polyester. If you wear a uniform and its made of polyester, you can be pretty sure that you are poor. Check your wardrobe.
Tirado tells us that roughly one-third of Americans are like her and can be classified as the working poor. Poor people talk. Nobody listens. That’s not politics. That’s life. But she’s not talking about other people. She’s telling the reader about herself, her experiences. ‘I made a lot of poor financial decisions. None of them matter in the long term. I will never not be poor.’ Poor people play safe. We have that cigarette or that drink, things within our grasp. It’s easier that way. There’s no makeover show -discounting the lottery, which is a regressive tax anyway – no holiday from being poor.
‘We start the day with a deficit.’ But sometimes that deficit is not enough to get Food Stamps or help with the rent and it’s never enough to get Health Care. Tirado is good on being the wrong kind of poor. It is not a crime-yet. But on a daily basis the law favours the rich. The poor are always suspect. She doesn’t want to overthrow the rich, but she just wants them to be more considerate of poorer people, which is a polite way of saying be fair guys. In other words she does want to overthrow the rich. She wants those to have bleak lives to have a bit more. I’m with her on that one.
‘Poverty,’ she says ‘is when a quarter is a miracle.
‘Poor is when a dollar is a miracle.
‘Broke is when five bucks is a miracle.
‘Working class is being broke, but doing so in a place that is not so run down.’
A miracle for me is if our political masters gave a shit. Change is a revolutionary idea.
Every day is All Fools Day when you’re just being yourself. Same beginning. Then two trillion -or more- cells later, we come apart. In between we acquire a repertoire of habits. Vincent Deary’s ‘How we are’, the first in his trilogy of How to Live, picks apart what makes us ourselves. In essence, a person and their reality, make up their personality. That’s me speaking, not Deary (and what a wonderful name for a pseudo-philosopher).
I was looking for an index in his book so I could quote back some Gurdjieff, but deary me, Deary has no index. I’m lazy, so I’ll not bother I’ll just tell you what I remember of Gurdjieff, a hazy memory of the guru making his disciples leap out of bed and assume a complicated yogic position. He was pushing them beyond themselves, to become another self. The new self is the same as the old self, but has more of a repertoire. The old new is replaced by the new you. Science is a body of knowledge but also a way of looking at the world. Scientists love baselines. Take a cyclist, measure his lung capacity, heart rate, how much the wheel turns when he cycles. Keep pushing. Establish a new you. Pick up your Olympic gold medal. Good in theory.
Most habits are incidental. Where did I put those tea-bags. We don’t think. We do. We reach for the tea-bags. When something goes wrong the process of thinking and not thinking unravels. We are creatures of habit. Deary ask difficult question of how we make ourself? And he asks the related question of how can we make ourself better. Even primordial sludge leaves a track. He follows that route that suggests we follow the path of least resistance. Our bodies are geared to react in a particular way. We run before full recognition sets in that a bear is looming out of the darkness. If the bear turns into a blanket blowing in the wind, we rationalise it. We add facts onto events, not the other way about. We rationalise it.
How to Live looks at how we accumulate and grow into seeing things in a particular way. We are not alone, he suggests. Others too have seen the bear. We prepare ourselves.
In the chapter titled ‘Second Natures’, Deary quotes from a TV show I Didn’t Know You Cared, (I’ve never heard of it) ‘What are we today Gilbert?’ What gives Deary’s book, Deary’s look at his life and the life of others force, is the examples he uses, which gives his book a chatty tone of one bloke down the pub talking to another — about something and nothing. For example he uses the film Ghostbusters (a film I’d never want to watch again, or so I thought). It’s meant to be a comedy. Near the end, Gozer, a Sumerian God is about to cross over from the supernatural realm to wipe out downtown New York. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is a moot point. Gozer’s job is destruction. The Ghostbusters’ job is salvation. And in this they have admitted failure. Gozer is coming and there is nothing they can do about it. But -and there always is – the demonic herald, while not exactly a democrat, has checked the rule book and he has to allow the protagonists, the Ghostbusters, to decide in what form Gozer the Destroyer becomes manifest. Dan Aykroyd thinks Puff Marshmallow Man. Gozer the Destroyer turns into a figure of fun. Deary’s point is that in times of transition we can and do make choices.
How do old habits become new habits? Rehearsal. We can always change our mind. We can change our heart. When choices arise we make the right one for us. If life was that simple, Deary Deary, but he doesn’t become puffed up about it.
It’s National Poetry day so I thought I’d look at Edward Hirsch’s (2014) Gabriel: A Poem.
I’m not qualified to write about poetry. I’m not qualified to write about grief. Edward Hirsch is qualified on both counts. He wrote A Poet’s Glossary and How to Read a Poem both of which I intend to buy. Poetry is a foreign country and I’d like to learn the language. I might even attempt a few of the mangled phrases that novices use and, with a lot of gesturing, I might just be able to order a drink or a loaf in poeteese.
The form Gabriel takes is the three-line stanza. Even an oaf like me can recognise that. There is a mirroring of the terza rima of The Divine Comedy and Dante’s descent into hell. I didn’t recognise this, but stole the fact shamelessly from a review by Tim Addams. I read the poem as I would any short story for entertainment and for the things it could tell me about humanity and loss.
I liked Gabriel, the boy that didn’t fit, because he was too much himself.
He loved his twenty-second birthday.
Above all others it was the night of nights.
Night of celebration.
Gabriel come blow your horn, because you didn’t see twenty-three (sorry for that outbreak of poeteese). Gabriel took GBH, a synthetic, colourless drug and he died. Hirsch speaks of ‘Poor Sisyphus grief’. He inhabits grief and speaks to fellow poetic travellers that have been there and returned to tell the tale. The ‘way it takes courage/To get out of bed in the morning/ And climb into the day’. He berates Rainer Maria Rilke, for example, and his grandiose claim that poetry was a quasi-religious vocation and therefore he did not have time to to attend his daughter’s wedding, something Hirsch had a great deal of sympathy for but now found to be total rot.
He does not hide the troubles that his -adopted- son brought.
He was a trumpet of laughter.
And chaos who did not sleep.
Through a night even once.
Even though ‘Every day was an emergency,’ Hirsch could not hide his love for his son. Nor did he think he should. Now when he looks into life he sees the faces of fellow sufferers.
One of the stories he tells is of Gabriel and a friend winning $800 and blowing it on one night of riotous youth. Gabriel had $40 left. His friend told him to keep it for the next day. For Gabriel there was no next day. He bought coffee and doughnuts for the down and outs with it. This is the mark of a man that understood what it was to be labelled outcast. The mark of a great man.
I’m a big fan of Jane Eyre and that Charlotte Bronte, well, she’s well hot too. We all know the story of little orphan Jane Eyre all alone in the world. She’s a plain girl with a fiery temper. In the opening pages she bests her bully of a cousin, John, and tells her Aunt Reed, who is her guardian, what’s what, which isn’t a winning combination. Only beautiful girls are allowed to have fiery tempers. Or plain girls with large dowries. Beautiful girls with large dowries and little or no temper, that’s win-win.
Not that the aristocracy would have used such terms circa 1850. After the revolutionary fever of 1848 that swept through Europe that’s revolutionary talk. Jane Eyre as a revolutionary? Or as the journalist and novelist Bidisha puts it ‘How much of a heroine was Jane Eyre?’
This has something of the standard English Lit., about it that I immediately started scrawling down answers. Sex before marriage? No Jane wasn’t that kind of girl. Bronte, however, picked on a real problem for the aristocracy: where to seat the governess. In a world where God has ordained everyone’s place, with Englishmen at the very top, just below God, an English lady was a lesser being, but had to be treated well and kept in place like a good horse, with a stall at the top table. Governesses, as Jane shows, were tricky beasts. They could be sent to sit with the servants and other dumb animals, but many governesses were spawn of the gentry and knew how to wield a knife and fork and not spit on the floor.
Here we have the problem dramatised with the introduction of the beautiful and fiery Blanche Ingram. Blanche jokes that as a little girl she liked nothing better than to terrorise the governesses that ruled her life. She wouldn’t let them of course. She was a free spirit. Just as Mr Rochester was a free spirit.
Cut to the domestic dogsbody Grace Poole and the madwomen in the attic. Mr Rochester, is of course, not a free man. He’s married to a mad woman and not only is she mad, she’s coloured (Creole) but doesn’t know it. Mrs Rochester is Bertha Mason, the female Steve Martin from The Jerk, not only does she not understand she is coloured, she doesn’t understand marriage leaves her with the same rights as an American cockroach and frequently trying to burn down the house and biting her brother to death will not change the laws of the land. B1+ for effort though.
Jane instinctively understands all of this. A sham marriage is no marriage at all. She flees. Here’s where Bidisha finds some biographical gold. Charlotte too was fleeing from a broken romance. Like Jane she had fallen in love with a married man, in Brussels of all places, a professor of languages. Her professor acknowledges Charlotte’s love and allowed her to write to him every six months.
Jane is offered the same kind of deal by the aptly named St.John. He tempts her with the offer of a platonic marriage based on a mutual understanding that there was a lot of the Lord’s work to be done converting Heathen folk in Hindustani into godfearing English gentlemen and he promises no hanky panky. Jane is torn. She is on the verge of agreeing but she doesn’t love him and therefore decided she cannot marry him.
Bidishia rates Rochester as rotten to the core. She didn’t realise this when she was a young naive runt reading the book. She has a trump card. Not only is she a woman. She is a coloured woman. She better than others understands this problem better now. A* Bidishia. You’ve passed all your exams, grown up and now live in the real world