Damian Barr (2013) Maggie & Me

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I enjoyed this memoir. It reminded me a bit of Kerry Hudson, Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma. Only it wasn’t Tony Hogan that stole Damian Leighton Barr’s mum but Logan the plumber. Glen is one of those taciturn men that does twelve-hour shifts in the Craig (Ravenscraig Steelwork) and says things like ‘make your bed and lie in it’.  He makes good money and they are one of the first in the street to own a colour telly. But the colour telly is in 25 Ardgour Drive, Carfin, with their Da.

‘It’s the 12th of October 1984. I am just eight years old. Me and my mum are stuck to the BBC Nine O’Clock News in the strange new flat.

…Flat 1, 1 Magdalene Drive, Carfin.

My wee sister, Teenie, has cried herself to sleep in my mum’s lap. Our old life is crammed in the cardboard boxes bursting all around us.’

Mum is pregnant with Logan’s child. Make your bed and lie in it. Or use terms like *Spoiler a middle-class convention to alert the unwary reader to what-the-fuck?

Spoiler, Maggie Thatcher survives the Grand Hotel and Brighton Bombers. “‘Shit disnae burn, Maggie won’t,’ says my mum.”

Spoiler, Logan disnae burn either, but he really should.

Spoiler, Damian is gay, or even homosexual. In the working class community around the Craig that’s a worse offence than making your bed and lying in it. Or being a smart-arse, both of which are true of Master Barr.

Damian Leighton Barr I admire your wit and wisdom. Margaret Hilda Thatcher I hate you with a passion as hot as the ovens of the Craig that you cooled. Making 85 000 miners unemployed was a masterstroke. Fossil fuels are killing the planet, but, of course,

‘There are individual men and women and there are families…There is no such thing as society’. Margaret Thatcher, 23rd September 1987.

Spoiler, aye there is.  They fuck you up, your mum and dad. So do working-class communities. So does society You’ll find it here in this memoir. Now fuck off and read it. Or don’t. I don’t really gie a fuck.

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Lorna Byrne (2010) Angels in My Hair.

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I think I’ve read this good book before. I get that sometimes. Words wash over me and through me and I’m not really reading, although I am. For the record, I read ‘The International Bestseller’ a few weeks ago, again, or not again (as this might have been the first time). Just to remind myself, where I look at words every day, Lorna Byrne sees angels. (I don’t know if Angels is a proper noun, or is it a bit like cows or sheep? No capital letter?) Here’s the rub, I believe she does see angels.

Seventy-seven percent of Americans believe in Angels and I’m not American. Probably ninety-six percent of them voted for the moron’s moron. Around seven percent of the UK population attend Christian worship. We are an agnostic nation, verging on the atheist and that’s just the way I like it. I can witter on about cognitive dissonance, or Schrodinger’s cat, but the truth is I’m with Eva Lowenthal in that I find it quite easy to believe that ‘evil does exist’. Lowenthal was secretary to the Reich Nazi Propaganda Minster, Joseph Goebbels from 1933 to 1945 and she observed first-hand how under the right conditions evil flourishes. I read about how Alabama is trying to shut all abortion clinics and outlaw abortions, even in the case of incest or rape and that to me is an evil perpetuated on poor, mainly, black women. I hear about a five-year-old girl trafficked and taken into care in Glasgow, with no nails, kept in a box and raped. And I want to kill. To hurt. To maim. I’ve no problem believing in the reality of evil. Or even the devil. I’ve got a problem with religion and a problem with God.

Probably, the best definition of religion is the Dali Lama’s, my religion is kindness.

That makes me smile.

Karen Armstrong in her introduction to A History of God, summarises how I feel.

As a child, I had a number of strong religious beliefs but little faith in God. There is a distinction between belief as a set of propositions, and faith which enables us to put our trust in them. I believed implicitly in the existence of God; I also believed in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the efficacy of the sacraments, the prospect of eternal damnation and the objective reality of Purgatory. I cannot say, however, that my believe in these religious opinions about the nature of ultimate reality gave me much confidence that life here on earth was good or beneficent. The Roman Catholicism of my childhood was a rather frightening creed.

Richard Holloway, like Karen Armstrong, was a cleric and walked away but gives us an insider view of the box-ticking religion. They could no longer trust God and no longer believed in God. Holloway’s favourite novel Andre Schwartz Bartz, The Last of the Just, has a hero Ernie Levy on a train destined for Auschwitz telling consolatory lies to children about the kingdom of God. That sounds like a good fit. A good way of describing religion.

Lorna Byrne, like the fictional hero, describes our world in the opening chapter: ‘Through Different Eyes’.

When I was two years old the doctor told my mother I was retarded.

As a baby, my mother noticed I always seemed to be in a world of my own. I can even remember lying in a cot – a big basket – and seeing my mother bending over me. Surrounding my mother I say wonderful bright, shiny beings in all the colours of the rainbow; they were so much bigger than I was, but smaller than her, about the size of a three year old child. These beings floated in the air like feathers and I remember reaching out to touch them, but I never succeeded. I remember being fascinated by these creatures with their beautiful lights…angels.

I’m not one of those people that can remember being a kid. I certainly don’t remember being in my pram. I can remember being scared of trains coming into Dalmuir station, that somehow the wheels would suck me under. Sorry, no angels, apart from my mum.

Moses and the burning bush. Jesus in the desert. Buddha under the tree. Muhammed in the cave. All saw and heard things beyond themselves. Holloway describes this as a kind of psychosis. Hearing voices and seeing things. What made them real was their ability to convince others that what they experienced was true.

Here’s the testing, here’s the knowledge gained, here is salvation. God does not take kindly to being questioned if we follow the precepts of the Book of Job… Where were you when I created the universe?

Well, according to Lorna Byrne, she was in heaven and she has been tested by Satan himself, she has met with the Virgin Mary and Archangels Michael and Gabriel, been tutored by the Prophet Elijah, she has met the Son of God and I’m sure there’ll be a place in heaven for her.

I’m not too sure about myself and the rest of humanity. We read our own belief into others. I recognise the four horsemen of the apocalypse and the possibility of runaway global warming and nuclear winter. I know that’s an oxymoron. Evil does exist. That I know, I’m not so good at the good stuff. Lowenthal, aged 103, said something quite profound. ‘There is no justice’. She could just as easily be working for the antichrist Trump, bookended by the fundamental Christian Right and Vice President Mike Pence. There, I’ve done it now. A victim of my own verbosity. As soon as you mention antichrist and  Hitler you lose the argument. But here’s the rub again. Hitler could not wipe out humanity. Trump has the devil’s own pride. You don’t have to be able to see angels to notice it.

We can call on The Angel of Belief. The Angel of Strength. The Angel of Courage. The Angel of Miracles. The Angel of Patience. God knows we need a Guardian Angel and all the help we can get to avoid Armageddon. I believe that. The message of religion is quite a simple one. What matters isn’t yesterday, or tomorrow, but now. What matters is this moment. Hope in the now.  May my religion be kindness too.

 

Matt Haig (2015) Reasons to Stay Alive.

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This is a short enough book to read in one, longish, gulp. It begins with an admission Matt Haig makes about 2014.

Thirteen years ago I knew this couldn’t happen.

I was going to die, you see. Or go mad.

There was no way I would still be here. Sometimes I doubted I would even make the next ten minutes…

One of the key symptoms of depression is to see no hope. No future.

A book about depression need not be depressing. We all nod at the statistics; one in four of us will suffer from a mental health problem. Then there’s the call to list people who suffered from depression to show how normal it is. Matt Haig does it. Gawp at pages 166-168 which list some celebrities. We all know about, for example, Princess Di and Winston Churchill and the black dog of depression. I didn’t know about Halle Berry. I wasn’t shocked. I don’t really care enough to be shocked. I’m indifferent. I’ve a knee-jerk reaction to Tories like Churchill, but depression humanises him. When I hear about somebody committing suicide I don’t find it that weird, or strange. Life is like that. Diseases like depression and dementia are democratic. It doesn’t really matter who you are or what you do, or how much money you have, you can suffer from depression. You can get dementia.

I also like Haig’s admission that depression can be strength rather than a weakness. It’s a perspective that offers futility as a starting point and humility as a finishing point. When you think you are, the worst you can be, then that warped vision sometime allows you to see other’s clearly.  Abraham Lincoln suffered from depression all his life. It wasn’t black and white, but a humaniser in inhuman times. Lincoln, like Churchill, was a leader, not a follower of fashions.

Haig offers Reasons to be strong. We know them, family, friends…but it’s the kind of reminder you get at AA meetings. One slip and its downward. Here we’re talking to the better self that listens and responds.

The trick is to befriend depression and anxiety.

I like that idea. But then my mind goes off on a tangent, if Jesus was to fight Buddha in a square go, who would win?

Haig’s better self needs to write. I get that too. I need to write. To create. And hope there will be somebody to read what I’ve written. The better self, like the lower self, does not live in isolation. Our smallness is our strength. When we lose the path we need to seek others to haul us up. Andrea, Haig’s wife, is the hero here, but so is he. He calls us all to be heroes. As Bertolt Brecht says, ‘Unhappy is the land that breeds no heroes. No Andrea, Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.’  Haig asks for enough room to flourish and make choices. We don’t need more stuff. Reading is a kind of superpower. But the krypton is social networking sites like Facebook. I guess we talk the talk. All the rest is bullshit. That’s a depressing thought. This short book is a delight. Taste it and see. Use your superpower, and read on.

Sally Rooney (2018) Normal People.

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I spend more of my life reading than any other activity, but then, promptly, forget everything I’ve read. I’m useless.  So, of course, I’m interested in new writers. Unfortunately, I also do a bit of writing. There’s a biblical quote for every circumstance. ‘For where your treasure is, your heart will be also’. Sally Rooney is one of the new big things, Normal People was long-listed for The Man Booker Prize.

I never claimed to be normal, but it’s one of those twisted things smart young folk would say. I’d six pints of Guinness and dived into Normal People and got to page 162.

Marianne had accepted an offer to spend her third year of college in Sweden. She’ll be leaving in September and depending on their plans for Christmas, Connell might not see her again until June. People keep telling him he’s going to miss her, but until now he’s been looking forward to how long and intense their email correspondence will be while she’s away. Now he looks into her cold interpretive eyes and thinks: Okay, I will miss her. He feels ambivalent about this, as if it’s disloyal to him, because maybe he’s enjoying how she looks or some physical aspect of her closeness. He’s not sure what friends are allowed to enjoy about each other.

I’ll simplify the story of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (which I’ve never read) and use it as a template. Here we have Marianne, the rich kid, fucks Connell, the poor kid, whose mum works as a clearer for their family. This begins January 2011, when they’re still at school and jumps forward every few months. Connell fucks Marianne. They’re both fucked up in a different way, but both are brilliant scholars and go to Trinity College, Dublin. Role reversal. Connell, the poor but popular kid, is just poor and unpopular at Trinity. Marianne flourishes like a herpes virus and like one of those daft films where the ugly kid takes off her specs and everybody realises how beautiful she is…Yeh, well, let’s carve on a tree with a love heart around it: Connell lvs Marianne: Marianne lvs Connell. Now he wants to send her fucking emails. Must have been that outbreak of classic show and don’t tell and cold interpretive eyes.

These are not my kind of people. There’s a story. What happens next? The secondary characters are scrawls on a page, an there’s  little difference between somewhere in Germany, Canada, Dublin or the bog streets of some little Irish town. The sense of place that is vital for me to care about the characters, well, who knows? Normal People? It’s not that bad. I’ve tried it, didn’t work. You might be more normal. Read on, or wait and watch the film version.

Naomi Alderman (2016) The Power.

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I bought this book when it first came out. I’ve picked it up and put it down a few times. It’s got an impressive list of broadsheets such as The Guardian who proclaim it ‘a big, page turning, globe-trotting thriller’ and a leading author of a dystopian future, A Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood,  calling it ‘Electrifying’. I read most of the 339 pages, missing out chapters, here and there, and scooting to the end, which I knew was going to be some kind of Armageddon.

The idea is a simple one. Rise and fall.  The world is turned upside down. We are no longer talking about his-story, but her-story. Women, all over the world, develop the power to discharge electricity from a skein in their body. Men can no longer physically dominate women in the same way that they couldn’t dominate a cobra. This physical inversion of women dominating men becomes much more pronounced and is translated into the social and economic realms. Men no longer run the world. Women do. End of… beginning of. A rewriting of history and religion in which patriarchy become matriarchy and men’s contribution to progress and civilisation is distorted, overwritten and erased. A new world order.

The Power of inversion is a grand idea.

The shape of power is always the shape of a tree…This is the shape of rivers leading to the ocean…It is the shape that lighting forms when it strikes from heaven…The same shape grows within us, our inward trees of nerves and blood vessels…Power travels in the same manner between people…

As it is written, ‘She cuppeth the lightening in her hand. She commandeth it to strike.’

from the book of Eve 13-17

The quasi-religious book is the new bible for the new age. Women can throw lightning- bolts from their hands, inflict pain and death. The roots of the evolutionary tree is not gender neutral.  Nine out of ten terminations are male because female children are wanted and male children an unnecessary expense.

But The Power fails for me, in fact, becomes boring, because the characters never get beyond the one dimensional. We begin with Roxy, head soldier of Allie, the prototype Eve. Roxy’s dad is a cardboard gangster and I was about 100 pages in before I realised Roxy was English. She was visiting the new women’s messiah in a convent somewhere in America. Allie’s got the measure of Roxy in a way no one else manages. She morphs into Eve. Cor blimey. Allie hears voices. I found that quite interesting.  Then there’s Margot, the second of the triumvirate of female leaders. She’s a politician. She speaks with a forked tongue. Ho-hum.

Lots of folk like this book. It was a New York Times bestseller. Read on.

 

 

Miriam’s Dead Good Adventure, BBC 2, BBC iPlayer, editor Gwyn Jones, episode 1 of 2.

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https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m0004gpl/miriams-dead-good-adventure-series-1-episode-1

There’s a simple rule in life, don’t get old and don’t get fat, which becomes a commandment on television. Presenter Miriam Margolyes is the exception to the rule. She looks a bit like Grotbags, the witch, but without the green hair. Margolyes has become something of the flavour of the month on BBC, a kind of low-rent-a-gob, fat and Jewish and a lesbian version of Louis Theroux that is sent to comment on the crazy American trends that perplex and amuse us.  Miriam’s Dead Good Adventure, for those not in the know is a play on words, mimicking Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and the rewriting of history into something groovy. Groan you might.

Miriam starts episode one and ends it in Wren Hall, a place where men and women with dementia spend their last days. As you’d expect with television cameras there’s plenty of activities and the staff all smile. Nobody beats the patients or steals from them. And they even feed them regularly. They get involved in old-fashioned sing-songs. It would break my heart, if I had one. This more than anything else scares the shit out of me. My partner argues it wouldn’t matter that much because you wouldn’t know what’s happening to you. Geoff who visits his wife June most days is a case in point. Miriam went away to America and came back about a month later and they were still repeating the same conversation. You is no longer you, but somebody else. We get the usual stuff from Miriam about how in love they are. Past tense?

In California they take the dictum never get old and never get fat very seriously and test them to breaking point.  The Revolution Against Ageing and Death (RAAD). Miriam usually begins the conversation by asking what age the plastic man or women is and what beach did they wash up from. Then she says they don’t look that age. Plastic people and Domestos bottle never do. Miriam aged 77 looks her age. She has always looked 77, even when she was 57. Plastic people’s pouts give them away. No they haven’t had surgery they were born with a heavenly, fish pout. They all seem to be that certain age where they plan to live forever.

Miriam jumped from California to Arizona. This is the place to go if you want to freeze your body, or if you can’t afford that, your brain for future generations to marvel about how stupid you were.  Pioneers of the super longevity movement plan to live long enough to outstrip our current body’s capabilities by freezing the balls off themselves and achieve escape velocity. Science will have the cure for death and dying and they’ve just got to wait until they can pick up the keys at the nearest showroom.  82-year-old Bernadene, who seems more plastic mannequin than person and cryotherapy enthusiast Jim, her youth partner, who discovered the secrets of eternal youth in his freezer and you’ve only to look at his hair to know it’s true. Bernadene is honest, for those schmucks or poor folk that can’t afford to pay for treatment and live an eternal kind of life, well, the world would be a better place. The secret of eternal life is only for some rich, white folk. Here is Trump’s America in a freezer bag. There’s more, but I won’t bore you with it. Nothing I’ve not seen before.

Climate Change: The Facts, BBC 1, BBC iPlayer, presented by Sir David Attenborough, produced and directed by Serena Davies.

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https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m00049b1/climate-change-the-facts

The facts are global warming is taking place now and the concerted action to limit it 1.5 degrees centigrade by reducing fossil fuel emissions, which was agreed by the Paris Accord, 2015, looks highly unlikely to happen.

‘What we do now will profoundly affect the next thousand years,’ David Attenborough tells us.

Fossil fuel companies have already been working hard to smear the science behind global warming. They employed the same tactics used by tobacco firms to dispute that smoking was bad for your health. And their propaganda has been highly successful. The moron’s moron in the Whitehouse, for example, withdrew from the Paris Accord and denied there was such a thing as global warming. America, as you’d expect, has the highest carbon emissions in the world.  Paradoxically, those countries that produce the least carbon emissions, in the equator, for example, are likely to experience drought and mass starvation.

Not only can we expect mass species extinction in land and sea. Attenborough in his programmes has shown it is already happening. Coral, for example, bleaching and dying. Species dependent on this underwater ‘rainforest’ dying. With warmer oceans we can also expect an increase in wildfires, Antarctica to melt, sea levels to rise, increased severity of hurricanes and tsunamis and storm surges. Apart from modelling, we’re not really sure how this will play out. What we do know is that all the methane locked in the ground will bubble up and lead to a vicious circle of ever increasing temperatures.

Professor Tim Lenton’s model predicts that with three to six degrees and runaway global warming taking place we can expect about 600 million people to become refugees. Let’s round it up to a billion or more. How we treat refugees now does not bode well.

The question of how we can turn a vicious circle of inaction, greed and ineptitude into a virtuous circle of carbon capture and the eradication of fossil fuel from our energy diet is not convincing.

The one clear cause of global warming is mankind.

The solution depends on mankind working together. It means rewriting the history books and the rich sharing with the poor and the lion lying down with the donkey. James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis comes into effect here. Everything we do is connected. Our planet, our blue planet, doesn’t really care what we do. It’s a self-regulating system and since we can’t regulate ourself it will send out shocks and reminders. It will not be ignored. We keep hearing the same thing, no pain, no gain. The earlier we act the less costly will be the costs of climate change. Our children and our children’s children will pick up the tab. I guess we’ll have sucked the life out of the planet and it will have sucked the life out of us and them by then.  Climate change is the most important fact of our time. You can stand with the moron’s moron or you can stand with the ninety-nine percent of scientists that agree it is happening and it is happening now.   We need more than consensus. We need action now. What we’ve had is inaction and drag-back to the status quo. Conservatism has never been so stupid. Do nothing and die. Do something radical for your children. And their children’s children.

Dynasties BBC 1, BBC iPlayer.

Blue Planet II, BBC 1, BBC iPlayer, Presenter David Attenborough.

Television Programme of the year – Planet Earth II

Book of the year. Peter Wadhams (2016) A Farewell to Ice. A Report From the Arctic.