We Don’t Need Another Hero

guns for librariansMuch about the Trump administration has been upsetting, but the notion that we should arm teachers in schools reaches a new nadir of dangerous idiocy.  You only have to think about it for five seconds to see the pitfalls. Not only would this provide handy weapons on site for any disaffected youth, but teachers, who already give more than the average employee in their work,  would instantly become first in the firing line, whilst the escalation of gun warfare would only endanger more children in the crossfire. But much has already been said about this online and in the media. In fact, I wonder whether images like the one on the left (which made me laugh) are actually better at skewering the madness. It seems that the situations our politicians want to put us in are so absurd that satire is a more effective response than reasoned debate.

After all, what good is reasoned debate in the post-factual universe? Since we’ve given ourselves permission to believe whatever we want, we all enjoy the benefits of confusing our opinions and assumptions with the truth. And when we have that powerful Hollywood image of the every(wo)man who suddenly finds extraordinary abilities in the midst of a crisis, why would we want to swap it for the reality of what happens to human beings when they’re scared? Malcolm Gladwell in Blink quotes Dave Grossman, a former army lieutenant colonel and the author of On Killing on what happens when our heartbeat rises above 145 beats per minute, and it isn’t pretty:

‘…bad things begin to happen. Complex motor skills start to break down. Doing something with one hand and not the other becomes very difficult… At 175, we begin to see an absolute breakdown of cognitive processing… the part of your brain that is the same as your dog’s… reaches up and hijacks the forebrain. Have you ever tried to have a discussion with an angry or frightened human being? You can’t do it… You might as well try to argue with your dog.’

From here on in your vision becomes restricted and your behaviour excessively aggressive. You’ll be clumsy, helpless and probably void your bowels. Gladwell talks about how people can’t even manage to dial 911 when in a state of panic because they can’t remember the number or access the necessary motor skills. But who wants to face up to the physical reality of fear? It’s a lovely thought, a comforting thought, that any of us could save the day in a desperate situation. But it’s comforting only to our vanity, and it probably wouldn’t be any comfort to our kids in the middle of a school shooting.

There is much political and cultural baggage around guns in America that I couldn’t possibly talk about. But I can talk about one of the most powerful factors in the post-truth universe and that’s the hypnotic effect of stories. One of the all-time greatest stories in the western culture is the one in which the average individual becomes a conquering hero in a violent battle against evil. It’s a story that structures all kinds of aspirations into our lives, and one that encourages us to overprize strength and aggression in the pursuit of power. Very few conquering heroes are born out of the shadow qualities of kindness, gentleness and compassion, and in consequence, these essential qualities are overlooked and dismissed. But we forget where that story of the hero can take us, because its perverse rewriting is at the heart of every school shooting, in which some child decides finally to experience the power of violence and the violence of power in a show of unstoppable strength.

Here’s the paradox: we need stories to understand our lives, past, present and future, but stories oversimplify and distort. Stories are essential to making sense of being alive, but we also have to keep challenging them or they mislead us.

In the first ever online writing course I did, I was given a couple of articles and told to create a 500 word story from them. I kept making the mistake of including too much information, and too many points of view. ‘It’s your story, Litlove,’ the tutor would tell me. ‘You can make of it what you want!’ This horrified my little academic heart. It seemed to me a deal with the devil. If I wanted to tell a powerful story, I had to remove all complexity and ambivalence from the narrative. I could not equivocate. And yet the closer I inched towards that powerful story, the more inaccurate I knew it became.

The other day I was listening with Mr Litlove to a programme on Radio 4 about civilization in which Edward Gibbon was getting it in the neck for his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Since his book came out in the 18th century, we have tended to trace western civilization back in a straight line to ancient Greece and Rome, ignoring the important influences on our culture from the east. We’ve drawn false and foolish boundaries between so-called civilized and primitive peoples. We’ve created a history that’s been all about conquering heroes and strength and power without paying too much heed to the human and ethical cost of it all. But doubtless Gibbon’s editor said to him at one crucial point, ‘It’s your story, Ed. Tell it whichever way you want!’ I expect, though, that he added that if Gibbon wanted it to sell, he should tell the people what they wanted to hear, too. Because cultures get the stories they deserve. There are always some stories we are more willing to hear than others.

So for me, what is important is not the fact that we tell stories that are only partial, but that we keep doing it and in willing ignorance of what stories overlook. I think it’s time to become wiser about the way stories seduce us, give us trajectories that lead us astray as much as they lead us to truth, and insidiously make our beliefs more absolute and justifiable than they really are. In particular, I think we need to challenge this story of the conquering hero and stop giving so much glory to the notion of strength. If we lived in a culture in which we made kindness and compassion heroic, we wouldn’t need so much fear.


The Strange Love Affair of Kathleen Raine and Gavin Maxwell

In one of their final and terrible rows, Kathleen Raine told Gavin Maxwell ‘”My work will be remembered when yours is forgotten.'” She regretted it afterwards, and described her words as ‘unforgivable’ in her memoir, but fate had far worse in store for both of them. Neither is especially well remembered today, although Gavin Maxwell’s book, Ring of Bright Water (the title taken from one of Kathleen’s poems) still stirs a few readers. Tarka the otter has managed to outlive them both in the cultural memory.

raine and maxwell
Tambi, Kathleen and Gavin

But Kathleen Raine was a highly esteemed poet in the mid-twentieth century, and when she met Gavin Maxwell for the first time, he was in a state of some distress. A shark-fishing venture he had founded had gone bust, and a bad relationship breakup had brought him to the point of despair. He was thinking of scraping some money together as a society portrait painter, and as such was introduced to Kathleen by her publisher, Tambimuttu, who liked to meddle in the destinies of people he knew. “That woman is very lonely,” Tambi had said to Gavin, urging him to ask her out, and Gavin had complied ‘perhaps because he was under some obligation,’ Kathleen later speculated. So the two went out, grudging at first, but then they discovered a shared heritage: both had been born in the North and were in thrall to the natural landscape there. ‘I found in him what I found in no other person,’ Kathleen wrote, ‘a knowledge by participation, the knowledge nature has of itself; for both of us nature had been, and still was, a region of consciousness.’

When they both independently wrote poems for one another based on the symbol of the rowan tree, Kathleen was ecstatic. She fell deeply in love: ‘my meeting with Gavin had healed every old wound and made of my fragmented life a whole,’ she wrote. And she turned the full force of her love on Maxwell in a willing sacrifice. She decided she would ‘take upon myself Gavin’s suffering as the price of his release from it.’ In practice, she turned into a cross between a therapist and a mentor: ‘He would telephone me at any hour of the day and I would obediently and gladly go, listen, praise, criticize.’ There was however, one insurmountable problem. ‘I never really at heart accepted his homosexuality,’ Kathleen admitted in her memoir. ‘Perhaps I was not so naive as to suppose that I could physically change him; yet I did think that on another level I could win his love.’

Oh dear.

Kathleen’s previous love life had been fraught with disaster, and so now she was committed to follow her ‘daimon’ as she called it, the force of creative life inside her, which doubled as a convenient excuse for all kinds of things. The daimon would not allow her to marry again, and so was in full accord with the platonic friendship. Then Gavin took to using her as housekeeper at Sandaig in Scotland, where she looked after his otter while he was travelling. Kathleen brought her great friend, the painter Winifred Nicholson, on these trips with her, and together the two women created some of their finest work in the devastating beauty of the Highlands. A rowan tree, that symbol of their shared consciousness, grew near the cottage, as a kind of pagan blessing ‘I forgot that his house was not mine,’ Kathleen wrote, ‘for I was there as an extension of himself, to love all he loved because it was his […] I felt it to be my task to enrich and transmute for him his world into poetry.’

But of course such a halcyon vision could not last. Cracks began to appear. Kathleen showed Gavin the diaries she had been writing and what she thought to be ‘a sacred record of things,’ he described in horrified anger as ‘a woman’s indiscretion…a kind of potential blackmail.’ Their versions of what was happening between them were entirely at odds, but Kathleen fought with all her might against seeing this. Maxwell was adept at cruelty, a man who loved animals far more than human beings, and essentially a prickly loner. He would speak callously to her, mocking her appearance and in his casual use of other people, cause her immense jealousy. Things came to a head one day when he returned to Sandaig with a lover in tow and more or less threw Kathleen out of the house. In torment, Kathleen ran to the rowan tree and placed her hands on the trunk, ‘calling upon the tree for justice. “Let Gavin suffer, in this place, as I am suffering now,”‘ she cried. When misfortunes began swiftly and variously to arrive at Maxwell’s door, Kathleen was utterly convinced that she had caused them.

The cursing of Gavin Maxwell reverberated around Kathleen’s friendship group. Her long-term patron and great friend, Helen Sutherland, was understanding. ‘You wanted him to see,’ she wrote in a letter, a useful insight because Kathleen was desperate that Gavin should share her vision, not just of their love, but of herself and the depths of emotion she experienced for him. But another friend, Elias Canetti, was weary of the Sturm und Drang. ‘Each time she told me her tear-bedewed story I listened. I don’t know where I got the patience from. Her complaints were invariably boring. I knew that not a word of it was true, all of it was illusory, and the persistence of the illusion was such that I would sometimes disbelievingly remind myself: well, she is a poet, after all.’ Canetti had told Kathleen quite frankly that Maxwell did not love her; she had not believed him.

However, in other ways, Kathleen took the matter into her own hands. The next time she stayed at Sandaig, the burden of her wounded feelings came with her. ‘Was it, in part, this pain of resentment which inclined me, in the last days at Sandaig, to disobey Gavin?’ she wrote disingenuously in her memoir. For Kathleen took it into her head not to follow the strict instructions Gavin had given her for the care of Mij, his otter. Against his orders, Kathleen took the animal off his harness, and then allowed him to roam freely on the side of the bay he did not usually visit. Inevitably Mij lost his way home and was knocked over and killed on the road. Kathleen was distraught at what she had done, and dreaded confessing to Gavin. In fact, he took the news more calmly than she expected, telling her that it was impossible to contain wild animals completely. And where one would expect Kathleen to be relieved and grateful, she became obstinate. ‘I could not accept his forgiveness,’ she wrote. ‘I had become habituated to thinking of myself in the role of the giver, the helper. I had clung to that role in part for self-righteousness, in part from fear of losing him; only by being needed, I thought, could I hope to be wanted.’

Oh the dark powers of the insecure and submissive, the dangers of unwarranted generosity, the calamitous donning of the role in order to hide the vulnerable self. Kathleen’s hard labour for Gavin was, as she later realised, a form of emotional demand. If she gave enough of herself, he would spare something of his closely-guarded soul. The profound attention she paid him, was a hopeful investment in the possibility that he would attend to her. As their friendship fell apart, she grieved ‘for what seemed to be his inability to see any longer the fairy-gold I offered.’

Several years later, their paths crossed unexpectedly. Kathleen had gone to Greece in order to write her autobiography, and it so happened that Maxwell’s brother owned a villa near where she was staying. They met with kindness and happiness, and so overjoyed was Kathleen to be back in contact with Gavin again, that she pressed her memoir upon him to read. It just so happened that it was the part – The Lion’s Mouth – that detailed in full her relationship with him. After the trouble her diaries had caused, it seems incredible that Kathleen was still insisting on her version of events, hoping against hope that Gavin would ‘see’. He did not see. ‘For Gavin was entirely to disown and deny any participation in a relationship I had thought mutual,’ Kathleen wrote. ‘”outrageous” was the word he used.’ Maxwell also believed now that Kathleen had cursed him, and that the terrible car accident that had smashed up his leg, his financial problems and the crowds that now flocked to Sandaig after the success of Ring of Bright Water, ruining his peaceful idyll, were all of her making.

Even this conflict failed to pierce Kathleen’s carapace of fantasy. When they parted at Greece, having made some form of peace over her manuscript, Kathleen wrote ‘I think it is possible that all Gavin’s sexual adventures and misadventures, all my wrongs and heroics, are only superficial, are nothing but children’s make-believe in comparison with what really was and is and always will be between us.’

They remained in touch until his death. Kathleen later calculated that he had passed at the moment she saw a flock of curlews flying in formation. She insisted that on seeing them, she knew.

Happy Clients, Grumpy Booksellers and Tough Choices

The news from this week: Mr Litlove delivered the bunny chair to its 18-month-old recipient, who was so pleased she squealed with delight and laughed and clapped her hands. He says he’s hoping to get that reaction from all his clients now. However, his bandsaw broke again and his router is so old that it won’t work unless it’s warm. This means he has to cuddle it in front of the fan heater before it will consent to start. I find this quite sweet on one level, but definitely not a long-term maintenance strategy. We’re also wrestling to get all the paperwork together in order to receive, finally, the endowment part of the endowment mortgage we had for a short time. It’s only a fraction of the value we were told it would be back in the 1990s but it requires us to produce endless reams of documentation. As it so happened, I had our marriage certificate on my desk in front of me, having needed it for a struggle to the death with my bank a while back. When Mr Litlove saw it there, he said that was not a good idea to have it outside of the filing cabinet, picked it up, carried it off, and has no recollection of what he subsequently did with it.

I finished a piece of writing for a collaborative art project I’m working on, which I’ll tell you about properly on another occasion. Suffice to say for now that it grew out of this interview and has been such a pleasure; I get to work with two artists whose art I find genuinely awe-inspiring. However, now that it’s done, I can turn my attention to a new project and I can’t decide what it should be. When my eyes were bad over Christmas, I got briefly fired up over an idea for another novel. But my enthusiasm has waned. The thing is, I’m a competent fiction writer, but I’ll never be a really good one. I’m much better at non-fiction, which is also where my heart lies. The issue has been managing the research needed with an hour at most of reading a day (if I have no screen time). All the possible books that grab my attention would need a LOT of research. But then, if I accept it will be a slow process, and work methodically, it’s surely not out of the question.

shaun bythellThis week I’ve been listening on audio book to Shaun Bythell’s Diary of a Bookseller, which appears to have been generated out of the least amount of work possible for a book, but manages to be mundanely entertaining – or possibly entertainingly mundane, I’m not sure which. Shaun is the Jack Dee of the Scottish second-hand book trade, and as a story about bookshops, this is not exactly 84 Charing Cross Road, but more like the television sitcom, Black Books. Shaun is performing a grumpy, subversive, jaded bookseller, or else he has anger issues. My money’s on this being a bit of an act. However, he does have a hated Goliath in the form of Amazon, which comes in for a great deal of bashing over the course of the book, as he never tires of enumerating the ways in which the retail giant is destroying the little people. Of course, you could equally well say that secondhand bookshops screw over authors, kick the stuffing out of the indies who stock at full price, and ultimately undermine publishing which requires a certain level of revenue to keep issuing a decent range of books. But Shaun is not really a 360 degree man.

Instead, he tells us how many online orders they get every day (and how many do or don’t get fulfilled), he tells us about Nicky, his subversive employee who delights in Foodie Friday when she scavenges the Morrison skip for leftovers to bring in as treats. He tells us about his girlfriend, Anna, who is an American writer, and the shop cat, Captain, and the many buying trips he undertakes to assess private libraries that are for sale. He reserves large portions of the diary for telling us about the breath-takingly rude general public who abuse booksellers both in person and on the phone. And the highlight of the year is the Wigtown literary festival, which sounds a lot like the Hay-on-Wye version. The amount taken daily on the till appears at the end of each diary entry, and the last Saturday of the festival is the only day the shop breaks the £1,000 barrier. Throughout much of winter, the figure is more like £100 a day. He’s certainly right that keeping a secondhand bookshop afloat is a really tricky proposition.

As I say, there’s a routine banality to a lot of it that is somehow restful, and he manages to complain about customers in a way that is drily amusing. My favourite anecdote concerns the lady who came in saying that she knew her book club was reading Dracula this month, but she couldn’t remember what he’d written. What I found disappointing, though, was the lack of evident love for books. Shaun sometimes tells us what he’s reading, but hardly ever what he thought of it. When he makes a find in a private library, he’s concerned only for the financial aspect. When the Wigtown festival takes place, he definitely loves hobnobbing with the famous, but he certainly doesn’t say if he took the trouble to read anything by any of them.

But I write this as someone who wants more than anything to write about how wonderful and interesting books are, and for sure this is not a commercial approach. I’ve been thinking long and hard about this lately, and I have come to the conclusion that I’m niche, and that’s an end to it. I have never been popular, or even understood why the popular things are popular. So the stress involved in hunting agents and coming up with market-friendly ideas isn’t worth the bother. I’ve decided that my comfort zone is something I should stay in.

The book I ought to write is the book I’ve written half of already.  At first it was about crisis and creativity in the lives of authors, or the way some of the great books have been forged in the fire of terrible events. It’s sort of mutating into the obstacles that writers face over the course of their lives – terrible beginnings in life, bad relationships, motherhood for women artists, difficulty getting published, savaging by the critics and the vagaries of reputation – and how they are negotiated and turned into art. For each of these obstacles I seem to be writing two essays, one on a specific author, and one a more general discussion with lots of different anecdotes. All the specific essays are done, but I need to write the general ones.

But I’m tempted to start the reading for another book. I’ve sort of arbitrarily decided that childhood as we know it began in 1952. Well, it’s not SO arbitrary, more a combination of attachment theory coming into being, which made the mother the most important person in a child’s life, as well as the changes in the post-war world in class, that meant the end of domestic servants and the start of the nuclear family. I wanted to look at 1952 through the children’s literature being published then, to see what we encouraged children to dream and imagine, which says a lot about the world we lived in and the one we want to create. Basically, I’d get to write about all sorts of intriguing books – the Narnia Chronicles, the Moomins, Charlotte’s Web and The Borrowers, Enid Blyton and Dr Seuss, Rosemary Sutcliffe’s historical fiction, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, oh and lots more.

I should stop there, right? But then I think about the crisis and creativity book and wonder whether I should focus just on women writers and the way they have to negotiate their mothers in order to create. Would that make it a better, tighter book? But wouldn’t I be wasting a lot of research I’ve already done? And then I wonder whether I should try to find a project that’s more life-writing and that wouldn’t require as much research at all. I’ve been thinking about a memoir of CFS, written through my pantheon of all-time great writers, the ones who’ve helped and comforted me and given solidarity as only great literature can. And I’d love to write that book, but it would be difficult in other ways. Whatever I choose I’d be committing to for several years, so you can see why the decision is so hard.

Your Opinion Is Valuable To Us

Cafe ChairWe have a bit of a dilemma on our hands. It’s coming up to the deadline for submitting Mr Litlove’s information to our Open Studios organisation, and we need to choose an image to represent his work in the calalogue. Open Studios happens annually during the month of July in Cambridge. For four weekends in a row, local artists open their studios and workshops to the public, and last year Mr Litlove used the event to launch his furniture business. The image he chose for the 2017 catalogue was the one you see above, the cafe chair, and it worked a treat.

Now, we need to choose again. We could, of course, stick with the old image, but generally we think we should have a change. Bearing in mind that the image is not much bigger than a thumbnail, we’re looking for something clean and simple that shows up well despite being small, and we have the following to choose from:


My initial favourite was the river coffee table, which you can see top left. However, we also have strong contenders in the bunny chair, the rocking chair and the desk. He’s also made the art deco dining chair, top right, and in the middle, another desk and chair.

What do you think? Which of these images do you think will stand out best?

J’Accuse! The Sins of the Artist

In the current culture, a male artist with a distasteful event in his life is someone whose books or films or pictures shouldn’t be seen or read any more. I wonder, then, how our culture ought to judge a writer like Emile Zola.

If you’ve heard of Zola, the chances are it’s because of the Dreyfus Affair.  Alfred Dreyfus was a French Jewish artillery officer who was convicted of treason in 1895 after a brief and secret court martial. He was forced to endure a ‘formal degradation ceremony’ in front of all his officers and then sent to Devil’s Island for solitary life imprisonment on what amounted to a very hot rock in the middle of the ocean. It was a terrible punishment, excessive at the least, full of needlessly cruel humiliations and deprivations. In the years that followed, and after a change at the head of the French military intelligence, Lt Col. Georges Picquart discovered that Dreyfus had been condemned on forged evidence, and found proof that the real spy in the army had been a Major Esterhazy. The thing was, Dreyfus was Jewish; he was already an outsider and an easy target of prejudice. He had solved the problem of a traitor in the ranks so admirably that the army authorities closed ranks and refused to listen to Picquart, exiling him to Tunisia and even trying to send him on what would have been a suicide mission. With terrific integrity, Picquart resisted all attempts to gag him. He travelled secretly back to France and met with a group of Dreyfus sympathisers, among them Emile Zola, and told them everything he had discovered.

Zola was so outraged by all he heard that he decided to risk his career and his freedom for the cause. He wrote an open letter to the President of France for the daily paper, L’Aurore in January 1898 entitled J’Accuse, in which he accused the highest levels of the military of conspiracy and anti-semitism. He knew he would be taken to court for defamation, but actively encouraged this, knowing that his trial would force the army to show its hand to the nation. No longer could they keep the truth of the ‘evidence’ behind Dreyfus’ conviction out of the public domain.

Zola was really taking his chances. The French nation was deeply divided between the nationalistic right and the Catholic church, and a rising tide of more liberal thought. But what he was also taking on was the entitlement of the patriarchy to be unquestioningly right. The army was absolutely determined not to admit its mistake, nor the full extent of the efforts they had made to convict an innocent man, and on the whole, the state and the legal system were inclined to support them. If it became public knowledge that the army could be so wrong, where would the rot stop? Other great institutions might be challenged too. Antisemitism was a normal way of life, not a monstrous injustice. Jews were perceived in this era as being either rich, and therefore fair game (Dreyfus came from a wealthy family), or a part of those damned hard-working immigrant band attempting to take bread from the mouths of native French people. It was okay to hate them because they were thought to have powers – of wealth through banking, of intelligence, ability and assiduity. For Zola to speak out so loudly and publicly against ingrained prejudice was an extremely courageous act – it was a great deal more than anyone else had been prepared to do. And for this he was stripped of his Legion d’Honneur and sentenced to a year in prison.

But he made a difference. It was the turning point of the Dreyfus affair and although it would drag on for many more years (it was 1906 before Dreyfus received a full pardon), the crack in France’s armour of antisemitism had been broken open by Zola. Anatole France would later say of him: ‘he was a moment in the history of human conscience.’

But here’s the thing. Zola didn’t go to prison. Instead he chose exile, fleeing to London where he lived unhappily until the situation in France improved. And when he went to England, he arranged to bring not just his wife with him, but his mistress and their two children.

Oh yes, here we come to it, Zola was no saint among men. He had married a poor seamstress who couldn’t give him the children he so longed for. When Alexandrine confessed to him that she’d had a child before he married her, but had had to give her up, Zola tried to track the child down, only to find she had died several years before. Then, he fell in love with a servant in his household who gave him a son and a daughter. When his wife found out, it brought them to the brink of divorce.

Zola’s wife forgave him, and she allowed the situation to work. She was not thrilled about it, but she couldn’t part her husband from the children he loved. They remained married tor the rest of their lives, and nearly died together in 1902 when they were overcome during the night by carbon monoxide poisoning. Alexandrine survived the incident, her husband did not. It was always considered something of a mystery as no one could figure out how the carbon monoxide fumes had been trapped in their bedroom that night. After Dreyfus, Zola was the subject of death threats for the rest of his life and there were some concerns that his death had not been an accident. Meanwhile, his enemies maliciously (and doggedly) suggested that he had committed suicide, after realising that Dreyfus was guilty after all.

It wasn’t until 1953 that the French newspaper, Liberation, published an account of a death-bed confession dating back to 1927. A builder and staunch far-right nationalist claimed that he had killed Zola. He had been mending the roof of the next door house and taken the opportunity deliberately to block Zola’s chimney. The truth of this account remains under some uncertainty, due to the years that had elapsed before it was published. Some believe it to be proof that Zola was killed for his actions, some do not. We will probably never know.

So what are we to do with Zola? Where do we find the real man – in his messy private life, or in his courageous public stand? Here’s a few more considerations for you. Zola opened up some of the silenced, suffering parts of women’s lives, writing about prostitution, menstruation and childbirth, but didn’t really approve of women reading his novels. He fell out with his friend, Paul Cezanne, when he took offence at Zola’s novel, L’Oeuvre depicting a struggling artist in delicate mental health and his super-successful novelist friend. He did more than any other author for raising consciousness about the lives of the poor, who had up until then been viewed as figures of charming simplicity in bucolic landscapes by most literary authors. Zola showed their lives as they really were – brutal, ugly, short and thankless. And he made himself a wealthy man thanks to the enormous success of his work. So what do we think of him now, good guy or bad guy? Worth reading or cast into outer darkness?

Here’s the only thing I’m sure of: if that builder really did block Zola’s chimney, causing his death, then he just goes to show that in any national debate, intensity of feeling does not make a person right, or justify the means they take to eliminate points of view that feel intolerable.

Un-jinxing Mr Litlove

Well there came a point when I said to Mr Litlove rather sheepishly, ‘I think it’s all my fault.’

He’s been dogged for the past couple of weeks with endless problems in the workshop. He’s had bits of machinery break and need fixing, or taking apart and putting together again. There may have been a number of human errors, too, a bit of miscalculation here, an unsatisfactory cut there. And he seems to have been fighting against one of those persistent atmospheres of uphill struggle. I couldn’t help but remember my glib assurances in the previous post that everything was going terrifically well for him.

‘I’ve jinxed you,’ I said.

Mr Litlove is by training and inclination an engineer He is not superstitious and refuses all truck with magical thinking. So his first response was to laugh out loud and scoff at my witchy ways.

‘I like to think I’ve got a bit more control over my life than that,’ he said.

But I had to disillusion him; it wasn’t playing fair to let him think otherwise. ‘When you’re working creatively, you just have to accept that you’re submitting to forces greater than you in the universe.’

It’s a funny thing but if you want to be creative, you move into a different realm of causality. Physics is no longer your friendly guide. Instead there’s a new equation in play, something like the sum of hard work times the random factor of chance, divided by personal karma. Be warned, that random factor of chance changes regularly, like betting odds on horses, and you can never be entirely sure what the current figure is.

Oh, and I forgot one more influential factor at work: the wandering star of irony. I have a story that illustrates this point nicely, only I’m going to have to tell it rather carefully and vaguely as all concerned need to remain anonymous, as will become apparent. Anyhow, a couple of days ago I found out that I was going to be published in an anthology and this news came as something of a surprise. Last autumn I noticed a creative writing course taking place at a local education centre that caught my eye because a) it was free, b) it had a really peculiar topic and c) it was free. So I went along to the first class and felt something of a disappointment. I haven’t done very many writing courses, just three online, two of which were excellent and one that was so awful I slid out of it after the first session. This one was, well, it did not do the things I was hoping it would do, and seemed like a bad fit for me. But being congenitally compelled to do homework, I went ahead and completed the first assignment. It was a rather wince-inducing exercise of the kind that reminded me of my schooldays, but then again I’m no fan of creative prompts either. I tend to think that if you have a burning need to write something or a fascination with a topic, then you find the best way you can to express yourself. And if you don’t have anything you really need or want to say, then probably you find something else to do. But I wrote this piece and posted it on the class message board to see if there would be any discussion or feedback from the tutor. When there was not, I figured that you really do get what you pay for in life, and that feeling vulnerable in a room full of strangers is too energetically expensive unless it’s in a very good cause. I didn’t go back.

So imagine my surprise when I received an email announcing that my scruffy little assignment was going to be part of an anthology that was coming out of this class. I can only hope that it will be a very minor sort of publication that makes it into the local library and no further. I had a metaphorical moment of shaking my fist at the heavens and crying, ‘Why, universe, WHY? Of all the things I’ve written in the past decade, you choose to publish THAT???’ It wasn’t even a second draft. The only saving grace is that I may have signed up for the course under the secret alias of my married name. I do hope so.

Mr Litlove watched this demonstration of cosmic irony unfold, and then he went back into the workshop to make a few more errors. He’s currently on a batch of four chairs, and he’s got fourteen of them to make in all. When I said to him this morning that I’d try and un-jinx him, he simply replied, ‘Please do.’

And so this is to officially state that Mr Litlove is a mere mortal after all, a plaything of the gods who will have to get used to the universe mocking finer feelings, confident intentions and lofty ambitions. Please release him from the curse of my unwitting hubris.

Let’s hope that does the trick.

Hard Times

This is going to be a difficult post to write – and probably difficult to read, for which I apologise – as it’s been several months since I wrote the post on Harvey Weinstein that attracted a very angry commenter, an event that has affected me much more than seems reasonable. It doesn’t matter how many times I tell myself that people yell at each other frequently on social media, the Reading Room had been, for over ten years, a safe space for me, a place where I could always find a way to discuss any topic with civility and respect for all views concerned. Since then I’ve got thoroughly sick of reading articles about how great women’s anger is. I think anger is like being drunk. When you’re drunk, you’re the funniest, most creative person on the planet. When you’re angry, you feel at the height of your personal power. But it looks pretty different from the sober outside. Being on the end of another woman’s anger, I just felt the hopelessness of witnessing someone beyond my reach, who hadn’t understood what I was saying and didn’t care to. I didn’t suddenly see the error of my ways; instead, I felt more entrenched in my own views than ever, but simply unwilling to express them any more. That’s how useful anger is as a persuasive tool.

I think that when women love, support and encourage each other, we can do anything. The sisterhood is the greatest superpower we have. But this latest #metoo movement seems to be heading in the same old discouraging direction of so many feminist agendas, with women failing to have conversations with men in order to begin the process of real social change, but instead policing each other’s words strenuously, insistent that only one line of argument is possible. How can we unite women behind a cause if we can’t allow for any variation in thought and perspective? Politics at its best is about compromise, about reaching the optimal solution for the greatest number of people, and for it to be respectable, it has to be ethical. Which means, we have to be scrupulously fair to the opponent, recognising that everyone concerned is simply another fallible, mostly well-meaning but deeply flawed individual. There seems to have been no place for this kind of humanity and humility in any of the media pieces I’ve seen. It’s all been about the triumph of female anger, which as far as I can tell leaves us entirely isolated, spitting fury at the likes of poor old Margaret Atwood.  Is this really the best way forward?

Well anyhow, the whole thing has been getting me down, and it hasn’t been helped by another chronic fatigue relapse that began at the start of December. It gave me a flare-up of keratitis, which is incredibly depressing as the last one came in January 2017, and after months of taking care of my eyes, I thought I might be free of it. I had just started to do research again, which made me realise how very much I’d missed it. Now I’m back to waiting for my eyes to settle down, unable to do much in the way of reading, writing or even watching television. This relapse has also given me sciatica in my left hip, and although I’ve been to the chiropractor and done my exercises, nothing has helped. Pain has a way of grinding you down, too, and I feel about ninety, struggling to get my socks on or squaring up every which way to my bed, wondering how to get in it.

So it’s ironic that, being mostly unable to work, it’s fears about my inability to place my work that have been really niggling me. The problem is that last year, I was rejected for everything. And I mean, everything. There’s a part of me that thinks this is quite funny, but it hasn’t convinced the other half just yet. The other half has been more discouraged about this than I’ve ever felt about my work in my entire life. Here’s another thing that’s difficult to write about: Mr Litlove had an amazing year. He began his business in the summer and he’s been swamped with work ever since; everything he’s made has been a terrific success and he’s had nothing but praise. And he deserves it; he makes truly beautiful things and I couldn’t be more proud of him. I just feel… rueful, I suppose, that I’ve been attempting to write for eleven years without really getting anywhere. I keep wondering if it’s a sign. If the universe wants you, then it tells you so, right?  But even typing that I know it’s unfair to me, as four years were taken up with study support and another three with Shiny New Books. Subtract the time spent in CFS relapses and there’s probably only loose change left, but still. My confidence in myself is at a low ebb.

January blues, right? Well, quite possibly. I don’t know what the weather’s been like with you but here it’s been awful. So enough already. I’m still standing, albeit painfully, with a roof over my head and ten digits to type with, even if I can’t look at the monitor much. The reality is it could all be so much worse, and so it’s time to wade out of the swamp. I’ve been thinking for a long time about starting a new blog that’s focused on creativity, talking about all that Mr Litlove is doing, and about the process of creativity itself. After all, the problems that beset me at present are all about a lack of creative thinking, about thinking my way around whatever obstacle lies ahead. I firmly believe there’s always something you can do to make your situation better, always something new to try.

And here’s an intriguing thought for anyone else who, like me, has been feeling creatively blocked or embattled lately. Mr Litlove has been approaching his huge order book this year with the same amount of anxiety as I’ve had staring down the void. It strikes me that maybe praise and recognition aren’t perhaps as important, or as effective, as I think they are. I imagine them as the essential rocket fuel that puts you in motion, but maybe all that anyone creative has is the process itself and the endlessly renegotiated relationship we have to it. Maybe we do start out fresh every time, a perpetual beginner in our circumstances, as Rilke says. I find it a comforting thought.