whose party is it in 2018 anyway, Willow?

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To my niece Willow, I was born on the 10th December 1962. Fifty-five years ago not only was my mum Jean alive, but she had given birth and was nursing me back to health somewhere in darkest Braeholm. I wasn’t expected to live. I don’t remember the reasons why.  Yeh, we showed them mum. What we showed them I’m not really sure. I’m nearer death than birth now. Life is the miracle. And I’m not likely to forget you birthday, Willow. It’s also the 10th December.  And as the Bible, book of Timothy, suggests ‘We brought nothing into the world and we can take nothing out of it’.

So baby Willow, I’m 55 years older than you, let’s play a game in which you sit wherever you are in 55 years’ time and look back and tell me what the world looks like. I don’t remember any of this but we had the Cuban Missile Crisis and later the assassination of the President John F Kennedy. I’m hoping you don’t remember President Donald J Trump. Shakespeare knew his villains intimately. He portrayed Richard of Gloucester  as ‘the bottled spider’, vainglorious, treacherous, ruthless murderer and usurper, but nobody’s fool. President Donald J Trump is everybody’s fool. His claim to fame is dropping ‘the mother of all bombs’ in Afghanistan and taking money from poor people and giving it to the rich. I’m not sure why bombs are called mothers. But I hope Willow you see your fifth birthday. Like me, I hope you sleep securely through threats of Armageddon and nuclear winter and the world keeps turning.

Prospero and Brave New World and the closer we get to utopia the closer we get to dystopia is something you’re going to have to live with Willow.  George Orwell, I guess got it nearly right with his three shifting blocs. The axis of the world is shifting and I’d guess China is where America was before the start of the First World War. Perhaps there will be a transition, such as Fritz Laing’s Metropolis, but the future is one in which we are equal but some are more equal than others. Deep machine learning and the use of pattern recognition software will serve your needs before you know what they are. Your body will no longer be your own. Behaviour will be monitored.  Healthy and wealthy will be conflated into flawless new bodies and flawless new babies in smart cities.

‘Hoist with his own petard.’ I’m of average intelligence and can guess what that means. I google it and see it’s from Hamlet.  But intelligence will no longer have any meaning. Machine learning how to play the game ‘Go’ shows it is possible to beat intuition as it is possible to surpass the logic of the best human chess players. Machines will be connected to other machines and humans will be part of that loop. Just as the Wright brothers took off in their flimsy craft, flew and crashed it was possible to predict air flight, quantum machines no longer need to play humans to master the precepts of ‘Go’. Machines play themselves and work out first principles. When, and if, deep learning machines master the problem of consciousness then humans need no longer be in the loop. That’s a different kind of Armageddon.

Willow, what we do know for sure is machines will do most, if not all, of the work we take for granted. How many angels fit on a pinhead? How many doctorates can fit on a subatomic particle? Masters of pattern recognition predict the future and make it happen. Energy usage will be the only transferable currency. All that green crap, waves, wind, water and sun will be the stopgap until the machines figure out something better. Nature will be a treasure trove of a different kind. Picked apart for its lessons and reconstructed. The sea will be harvested as the earth has been.

‘Gentleman, it’s your duty to make yourself rich!’ says one of Anthony Trollope’s characters in The Way We Live Now. It’s your duty to make everyone else poor. Make the world warmer and vast tracts of land uninhabitable. That’s not what Trollope said, but we’ve had our Silent Spring moment with Trump’s refusal to sign the Paris Accord and Global Warming Agreement on fossil fuels. No one can make the super rich do what they want to do. Monopoly holders of data work by their own rules.

But the problem of making everyone else poor, with no work and no surplus value, as they’d say in Marxist ideology is when everyone’s poor and wealth accumulates with the super rich as Thomas Picketty showed in his constant rate of return in his model of Capitalism is stagnation. Not enough money to buy all these surplus goods. But, of course, there’ll be no money. Not as a store of value, but as a shifting energy equation, this will be related to land use and global warming. The problem will be how to find new ways of punishing the poor for being poor.

What is materially damaging to the rich will in an Orwellian way be regarded as an attack on equality of accord.  But I lack the scrivener’s art, the means to look into the future Willow. When I was growing up in the 1970s I never imagined the internet, but neither did I imagine Britain regressing to a state where the poor need to go to a church hall to get food to last them a few days, nor that so many children would be living in sub-standard housing and poverty. Four in ten children. I expected things to get better and I hope you’re not one of them. Outside this shiny vision of the end of scarcity is a dystopian vision. When poverty because a digital country and not an economic and social relationship then that’s where we’ll all live and only the rich will float above it.  We come into the world with nothing. We go out of the world with nothing, Willow it is compassion which makes us fully human. Live in the here and now and not in a simulation of now. That’s a different kind of Armageddon. The church my mum brought me up in called it limbo. It was a sin to be truely selfish.  Put yourself out on a limb, Willow. Dare to be you and not a slice of identifiable code.

 

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Celtic 0—0 Rangers

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The last Old Firm game of the year and Rangers take a point and could have taken more, but from some crucial saves from Craig Gordon. Ranger’s keeper Wes Foderingham also blocked well, early on, from Moussa Dembele. His save from James Forest was superb. And Scott Sinclair hit him with the ball twice and contrived to miss, just before half time from six yards. A first half that Celtic dominated, after a shaky start, in which Rangers had the upper hand. Much of that had to do with Michael Lustig. His first four passes went to Ranger’s players and his one-two with Scott Brown played Morelos in on goal.

The Ranger’s striker had a number of chances, particularly in the second half. A header in particular was a poor miss. Celtic bringing on Nicham brought some stability to the team and as he was able to pass the ball and retain possession. All over the park Celtic players failed this basic test. Keep the ball, pass the ball. In the final third they were shoddy. Craig Gordon’s save from Tavernier’s acrobatic effort was world class and the save of the match. Dembele was slow to leave the field when subbed after sixty minutes, but it was another game in which he hasn’t scored. Not good enough. Griffith’s arrival didn’t have the same impact of  Nicham’s for Sinclair. The Celtic onslaught in the last ten minutes didn’t arrive. Some half chances, but with the caveat that Rangers could at any minute have went up the other end and scored – as they nearly did so many times.

I need to grit my teeth and say a draw was a fair result. Celtic aren’t as good as they were last year when Rangers came here and drew 1-1. Not a backward step for the Bhoys, but certainly a sideways step. We need to come back fitter and stronger after the break and if it’s Dembelie-less so be it. Rangers best chances today came from simple passes, mainly from defenders going astray, but Stuart Armstrong is perhaps most culpable of late in midfield.

Celtic’s best player, Craig Gordon. Pass marks to Brown for being Brownie and bossing the first half. Nicham for his cameo as substitute. James Forrest, good start, but faded. That apart substandard Celtic. But still on track.

Bernard MacLaverty (2014) Collected Stories.

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Bernard MacLaverty short story collections begins in 1977 with Secrets and ends with his fifth collection in 2006 with Matters of Life & Death. I read one or two of his short stories a day, in no particular hurry. An uneven bunch. I’m looking at the contents page. Some stories stick in the mind more than others. Perhaps that has more to do with the more recently read story. I re-read the introduction, MacLaverty taking a look back at his own collected stories in 2013. Like much of his writing it was dry and funny. As a reader and sometimes writer I laughed at  the explosion of creative writing schools and classes (money-making schemes).  MacLaverty quotes Flannery’s take on it:

Flannery O’Connor…when she was asked if she thought universities stifled young writers said they didn’t stifle half enough of them.

My favourite short story in the 600 page collection is from 1982, A Time to Dance, which is also the name of the collection. Nelson with his eye patch and his determination to make his own way in the world, a world he can’t see in front of his own eyes, his mum a stripper, who can’t do anything with him, but has got to try, is perfect in its imperfections. I’d read it before, but didn’t realise until now it was MacLaverty’s work.

In the first collection, Secrets, the short story Hugo stuck out. The narrator’s father died when he was eight. MacLaverty’s father died when he was twelve. Hugo is a lodger in the house his mother keeps to make ends meet. Her favourite lodger is Paul and she takes Hugo on as a favour. Both are pharmacy students. Paul is bumptious keen with the charm but not good with his studies. Hugo is a brilliant student, but not good with life. But Hugo has a secret he wants to be a writer. ‘Literature is the science of feeling’. Hugo’s book…his masterpiece…well…having been in that position myself and I’m sure placed others in a similar predicament as the narrator without the tragic denouement. See Flanner O’Connor’s advice above.

I liked My Dear Palistrina. Danny, the narrator is a sickly boy. His mother sends him to learn the piano with Miss Schwartz. A musical step-up here into the middle class, a kind of advanced aspirational elocution lesson. Miss Schwartz has fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe and ended up in Catholic Ireland, where even the Angel Gabriel would be viewed as a suspicious foreigner and he’s not a Jew or a woman. She teaches music to make ends meet. But Danny is the kind of musical prodigy few people are lucky enough to teach. She believes in music the way that poets such as those around Auden in 1930s thought that they and poetry could change the world. Danny is too young to understand why the locals hate Miss Schwartz, but he remembers what she said about the power of music.

One of your Popes had a great thing to say once. He had been listening to some music by Palestrina with Palestrina himself. He said to him, “The law my dear Palestrina, ought to employ your music to lead hardened criminals to repentance”.

On the Roundabout in Matters of Life & Death is a reminder of how crazed The Troubles were and have the potential to be again. The Trojan Seat is a kind of knock-about story playing with that theme. Not that there is a theme, drunkenness and forgiveness and the looking back of a live such as A Belfast Memory,  where the most important fact seems to be not that the young girl is dead, but she died a virgin, died without having sex. Winter Storm seems to prefigure MacLaverty’s novel Midwinter Break, but I guess you could say that of other stories such as The Break.  Have a look and see.

 

Louise Welsh (2012) The Girl on the Stairs.

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(Shit. I’d a whole spiel in my head about this being the tricky second novel, after the great debut novel and international success of The Cutting Room. But when I checked publication date, it was Louise Welsh’s fifth novel. Not her second. Anyway, I was going to fling in Swing Hammer Swing, Jeff Torrington’s debut novel and his follow up novel The Devil’s Carousel. I raved about the first and emm, didn’t rave about the second.  I’d segue away to Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird and fifty years later, the unfortunate book that buried her, Go Set a Watchman.  If Harper Lee had written the first we’d probably not of heard of her and would not associate Gregory Peck as being a real-life Atticus Finch and his career would have nose-dived too. I’m lucky because I’ve not got a career to worry about. Nobody much has read my first novel Lily Poole. Although Scottish Book Trust are currently searching for a novelist daft enough to mentor my second novel, it’s a fair bet that it won’t get published and if it does nobody will read it either. But I’m in good company.  I’m a reader more than a writer. There’s consolation that Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories (Mr Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin) with a dedication to his lover W.H. Auden and a protagonist William Bradshaw who is fleeing Oxbridge and England to the Weimar Republic and Berlin because he had only sold twelve of his published poems. Snap.)

William Bradshaw finds playing the relationship game with Mr Norris very boring. It’s a mark of how you are related to whom and where are you in the social standing pecking order. In twenty-first century The Girl on the Stairs with the backdrop of a unified Germany and Berlin as the new star we find old hates and Venn Diagrams.

There were many different worlds, Jane thought, but they didn’t exist in different planes: one slotted on top of the other, as Alban Mann implied. They overlapped, like Venn diagrams, and you could be at the intersection of several realities without even knowing it.

Jane the peely-wally narrator is from Glasgow, and she’s an outsider in many ways. She’s pregnant. Her lover and wife Petra, is another woman. Jane has moved to Berlin to live with her, but is largely languageless, dependent on the kindness of strangers to speak to her in English. Jane is dependent on Petra for money. And although Petra and Jane stay in a reconverted and modern apartment complex, they live next to a graveyard and Gothic chapel, the haunt of prostitutes and corvines that call to her. It’s haunted house territory and Jane is made to feel like the madwomen in the attic when she accuses Dr Alban Mann of beating and raping his thirteen-year-old daughter, Anna.

Jane remembers a fairy tale about a mother who has gone to lift her baby from its cradle and found it transformed into a wrinkled old man. In the story the mother has let the old man drink from her breasts, until he has drained her dry.

Here we are in the Emperor has no Clothes territory and Dr Mann has to convince others that he not naked, and certainly his daughter is not naked. Anna of the red lipstick and Little Red-Riding Hood red coat and red herring territory.

I liked this book and ripped through it. It’s perhaps not as good as Rilke –and the space between silences- but there’s no shame in that. There was a line that caught me and it’s nothing to do with the Scottish or German language.

Far away in Vienna someone said something in German and Petra laughed. ‘Sorry,’ the laugh was still in her voice.

That’s a great line, but, minor quibble, repetitive. The laugh was still in her voice is attributed to several characters. It reminds me of when I was trying to describe something and had all my characters leaning back in their chair so I could describe the room. See, even great Scottish novelist, Louise Welsh makes mistakes.  We’re all human. I’d say that’s a theme. But when we start talking about themes we lose the plot.

The Girl on the Stairs. Well worth a read. And now on to Louise Welsh’s second novel. I’ll just need to work out which one that is.

Love is Strange (2014) written and directed by Ira Sachs, Film 4, 11.15 pm.

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Love is Strange, but so are my sleeping habits. I stayed up until 1a.m., watching this. Believe me, I need my beauty sleep and so do these old codgers, George (Alfred Molina) and Ben (John Lithgow). Ben is 73. We know that because later in the film he blacks out and falls down some stairs of the New York, brown-stone apartment he lives in, while coming down from the communal roof. The cost of medical care might be a problem, or another problem added to a litany.  George is perhaps fifteen years younger. They are an old married, gay, couple. Finally, after 39 years living together they are able to get married.

That’s where we come in, their wedding, with their family. Well, not direct family. What they mean by that is Ben’s nephew and his wife and son that live in the apartment downstairs. Their neighbours, two male gay cops. And another female couple, who I took to be lesbians, but really who cares what you do with your fiddly bits?

The Catholic Church cares. Gay marriage is the kind of abomination that has evangelists lining up to shoot down such sinful states and if there’s a few casualties along the way, so much the better. Here the law of unintended consequence comes into effect. George loves music and is a music teacher in Catholic schools. Ben is a painter and artist. It’s all very well them arty-farting about for almost 40 years explains the priest that sacks George, but when they make it official, and the Bishop gets to hear about it (it’s all over Facebook) then something got to give. What’s got to give is George.

George is out of work. Ben’s pension isn’t enough to pay the mortgage. Some sharp suit tells George he’s been lucky to have a house for that length of time and out of the goodness of his heart he’s will to compensate them with $17 000 cash. Enough to buy a second-hand car, but neither of them drive. Neither George or Ben can find any place that will take them. They can’t afford to move, but aren’t allowed to stay. What makes this unusual here is it’s not a coloured working class couple, or single mother, but a white, middle-class, elderly couple who are vulnerable.

They need to split up –temporarily – until they get something. George is allowed to sleep on the settee of the gay cops that live downstairs. Ben moves into the bottom bunk of his nephew’s, son’s, bedroom. It reminded me the way we used to separate men and women when we put them in the poor house. There’s a story, about that, an old married couple, no longer having each other to lean on, dying shortly after admission. I can’t remember what it’s called, or who wrote it, which worries me. I should play some scary music here. You’re next, pal.

What follows is the tensions and bickering that happens when people try and do the right thing.  When houses became a financial asset and not somewhere in which we live, financial whiz-kids are always out to make a killing. Coming to a cinema near us too soon.

Hearts 4—0 Celtic.

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Celtic’s domestic unbeaten run of 69 games, almost two years unbeaten, comes to a halt at Tynecastle. Celtic have had off days before and contrived to win or, more recently, draw. Here, all over the pitch, Celtic’s passing game came unstuck as Hearts pressed high up the pitch. Celtic players slipped and slid and seemed unable to make a pass. Heart’s players were first to the fifty-fifty balls. Craig Gordon hesitated and looked uncertain. He almost lost an early goal, taking too many touches and the ball cannoning off a Heart’s forward in the Celtic six-yard box. Later, he gave away a needless penalty, hauling down Ross Callachan when he’d lost control of the ball and was heading towards the bye-line. Manuel Milinokovich scored for the Heart’s fourth goal and his second. Milinokovich’s first goal, at the start of the second-half, with Celtic already 2-0 down, to make it 3-0  and Hearts, effectively, killed the game off. Again it was schoolboy defending and a basic error that led to the goal. Jozo Simunovich, not for the first time in recent games, took his eye of a long ball from Conor Randal and Milikovich kept his cool to round Gordon and net. Dedryck Boyata also had a hand in Heart’s first two goals that set up the Heart’s win. For the Heart’s first goal, he tried to play a pass to Kieren Tiernay, who lost possession and sixteen-year-old Harry Cochrane fired in from the edge of the box. Celtic were 1—0 down and deservedly so in the sixteen minute. The second goal, nine minutes later, from Kyle Lafertty was a fantastic strike from the edge of the box, in off the post. Boyata’s loose pass to Calum McGregor had the Celtic midfielder losing that ball and the Heart’s forward running in on goal. Hearts deserved their win. Celtic’s soft centres assisted them.  Only James Forrest gets pass marks. His Celtic team mates, skid marks. Shite.

Elena Ferrante (2006) The Lost Daughter, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein.

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Nobody that’s a nobody ever asks what are you writing? There’s no reason to think I’m writing anything. But if that nobody ever did ask I’ve got a ready-mix answer. I’m writing about us, and I’m trying to get it right. Elena Ferrante writes again and again about Naples. Its crude dialect and its even cruder people who are not to be trusted, even among themselves, especially by themselves.

Here are some crude notes about this novel and its place in Ferrante’s oeuvre.   In My Brilliant Friend, Lila is sixteen when she marries Steffano and into the wealth of the Carracci family. Here Nina is twenty-two and married to the same kind of brutish figure that Lila married. Neither of them are narrators of their own story.

Nina is also on holiday, Leda admires her ease with her body, her beauty. She notes her family supervise Nina’s every movement and her husband pops in for conjugal visits.

Lila, of course, despite being married, and having a child, engineered a meeting with Nino.

Here Nina tries to do the same with a student who works on the beach.  Loyalty to kith and kin and clan are played against a woman’s loyalty to herself and the life she deserves away from child rearing and boring sex with your husband. This is something Leda, the narrator, and before that Elena knows about. We are in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening territory. A woman can’t have a family and career, in the same way as a man can. The idea is ridiculous.

So when the educated Leda admits to  Nina and her extended Neapolitan family that she left her daughter when they were small children for three years, she no longer looks so classy to them. The ugly and very pregnant Rosaria in particular tries to screen Nina from Leda’s influence.  There’s red flags on the beach, another prop in Ferrante’s books and with each wave that sweeps in the fantasy that a woman can, and the fantasy that a woman can’t, builds into a swell.

Here, the mad woman, a cautionary figure that makes the wrong choice and usually drowns herself, is or might be, Leda. Her hysterical attempt to separate herself from her own coarse upbringing through education and learning and therefore to be valued for herself is a Sisyphean task. In the opening of the book this shows with a car that goes out of control and she finds herself in hospital.

It mirrors Elena, the narrator in My Brilliant Friend, who also went to university in Florence, and had two daughters she left to start an affair with Nino, as Leda, does here. Leda’s unravelling begins when Nina’s daughter goes missing.

Time disappears. We are back on the beach where Lila’s daughter goes missing never to be found. Later, Lila, promises that she too will disappear (on her own terms) and does.

Here the beautiful mother’s daughter, Elena, is quickly spotted by Leda and she takes her back to  Nina. But for some inexplicable reason Leda steals the infant’s doll.

You may remember that Elena and Lila begin their beautiful friendship when their dolls go missing in Don Achiche’s basement. The same basement that the narrator in Days of Abandonment, might or might not have been raped in. And the dolls Tina and Imma, find a live of their own, return in the denouement of another novel, but, in the meantime Elena and Lila have daughters called Tina and Imma and it’s Imma that is lost never to be found. Here The Lost Daughter is the doll, but it’s much more than the doll, it life and everything a doll can stand for. Not metaphor, but cold and hard with glass eyes and a body full of sea water. Scratch the surface of women’s lives and dreams and glass eyes stare back. There’s no right or wrong answers. Just life. That’s the beauty of it. Life. Education will tell. But what it will tell is a different story each time.