Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Weekend List: No. 14

Joy! It's Saturday. There is very little to be done this weekend, except to let go and lay back into it . There's an overflowing recycling bin to empty, and that's about it. I can't believe we're only 3 weeks into the New Year. For me, January seems to have lasted about 2 months. On the 12th, my Granny died. Just a few days after I wrote about her, and then just five days later we were saying goodbye to her, with a service on a a beautifully frosty Saturday morning a few miles outside of Bristol. We burned her incense in the chapel before everybody arrived and even though I knew she was in that box at the front, it still felt like she was going to walk in, return from a holiday just in time for the festivities. We tried not to slip on the frosty flagstones. I shared big, tight hugs with her ex-boyfriends, even the ones I felt embarrassed around as a child, and it felt completely right. My Mum and I were among the six pallbearers, and carrying my Granny's coffin was probably one of my proudest moments. I know Granny liked the idea of a clan of incredibly handsome young men carrying her, but Mum has never let the women of the family get relegated by the (few) men taking the best jobs. It was a perfect send off, from Leonard Cohen's Anthem right down to the comedy moment when five pallbearers faced one way, with the sixth turned in the opposite direction as we prepared to carry her out. "To me, to you!" That gave the chapel the good laugh, and put the fun into funeral. We carried Granny out to Enough Is Enough, her coffin threaded with green foliage, purple lisianthus and yellow tulips. "No pink", we'd said. I balanced the oak on my shoulders, resisting the temptation to throw disco fingers, and tried not to trip over Cousin James's feet in front of me, or let my mules slide out from under my feet. We passed my Dad as we went through the door; he hadn't seen Granny for years, and didn't really say goodbye and we both had wet eyes. We all went home, with a car full of bouquets and willows in vases and delicious mustardy sausages all wrapped up in tin foil left over from the wake, and collapsed in front of the woodburner in our pyjamas, drinking red wine and letting it all wash over us, tossing us and soothing us.


Culture

"A lot of people knew my grandmother to be as nice as pie, just as a lot of people knew my mother as an incredibly talented theatre arts administrator and overall fun person to be around. Neither of these observations was objectively wrong, they just weren't the whole story. But there again, what can you say to that? In the history of the world, a whole story has never been told." It's amazing what the living expect of the dying by Meghan Baum.

"There are the soldiers and sailors pulling a night shift for no good reason other than orders, photographing themselves and their comrades on the verge of sleep or already under. Cops in noirish black and white, their pictures framed to show a bit of badge. And nurses. A lot of nurses." Instagram's Graveyard Shift by Jeff Sharlet.

"When you do that thing where you disappear and don't answer your phone for an entire evening- that really upsets me. Maybe not everyone would be upset by that, and maybe you don't think it's a big deal, but that's a sore spot for me." Karley Sciortino goes to couples therapy.

Gosh, this is good. Jon Ronson and film-maker Adam Curtis exchanging emails about power, the "mutual grooming" of social media, and why we ignore modern crimes. Adam Curtis amazes me as somebody who seems to see the things we don't, the warning signs that we miss (when we become too wrapped up in ourselves, or entertainment) with such effortless clarify. I found this email exchange fascinating, and can't wait for his 2 1/2 epic Bitter Lake. Jon Ronson in conversation with Adam Curtis. 

Music

Pitchfork's Bjork interview, which I'm saving for a quiet moment this weekend.

A compilation of early footage of Joni Mitchell on Canadian television show "Let's Sing Out"

Ruf Dug's LN-CC mix.

Tabu by Michel Legrand, aka the soundtrack to your early 1960s roadtrip.

Style

Nowness x Apartamento Magazine apartment tours. Somewhat disappointingly the subjects seem to be exclusively rich, with a remarkable amount of contemporary art and modernist furniture. But how can you resist Christiaan Houtenbos and his dressing gown. 

Odd Pears patterned socks that come in 'pairs' of three, so you can dress mis-matched or straight-laced, depending on your mood.

Listening

If you listen to just one thing, make it this. My new hero Ellen Burstyn on Anna Sale's Death, Sex and Money podcast.

Andy Warhol's Factory Friends

Debbie Millman's Design Matters podcast, with guest Maria Popova, of Brain Pickings.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

About Annie

Sometimes there's so much to say and no clear place to begin. Write any daft thing down, but just start: over-the-shoulder advice from a parent when bedtime was within sight and the homework nowhere to be seen. Even now, an empty page balks back until cleaning the bathtub feels easier. Tonight is just one of those nights, full of so much indecision that going to the pub and finding words for a friend is a hardship. Even when it's not quite clear how else you can spend the evening.

It's this feeling that has me pottering around the flat, doing everything and nothing. I skipped the first track on an album and listened to the rest of it over, as I have done all week. I laboured over a pot of daal, only to freeze it straight afterwards. I wanted to lose myself in the cooking like I might on another evening, cheeks flushed, radio on, wine glass in hand. Feeling it all. But tonight I’m distracted and not at one with myself. This little pocket of mine, this cosy flat isn't cocooning me like it normally does, and it’s unsettling. This is my space, me, champion of solitude, but I’ve found myself going from room to room, as if I’ve put my keys down somewhere. Unfinished tasks spread across the place. There’s a new hole that’s opened up and I hadn’t accounted for it being there. But it’s there, and so lovely I want to sink back into it. It’s appeared out of nowhere, this woozy little hole, growing and getting hungrier and becoming more consuming and it feels alright to let myself get pulled in, especially now. My family is gently shaking, there’s a small quake under the surface, measuring so low on the Richter scale we can barely feel it, but we know it’s there. It’s easier to ride through it when there’s someone else to hold onto, but that’s not something I want to admit, because what if there wasn’t somebody else to hold on? That’s not a very forgiving sentiment to have. But I want this other who has recently started slotting into this space, my space, to be around. And what for? So I can sit here and be equally distracted from my book in their presence?  Maybe I should just start this album from the beginning. I look at the travel-sized bottle of eyewash in my bathroom, so very glad it's there, and curse it for making my flat feel quieter than I feel comfortable with.

"We've said everything we need to say, haven't we lovey?" Granny said before I left her on Friday. These words left me with such a deep comfort. I tucked them away along with "I'll always be close to you" a line that in writing, looks lifted from a romantic comedy, but which made me sob uncontrollably in the corridor outside of my work. Something that she didn't need to tell me, but that felt truer because she had. People don't really go away. I sat with these words, and the photos I took from the big red trunk in her sitting room, and sat on the train back to Manchester swimming in it all. I tried to put things down onto paper, into the very truest eulogy possible. This was tricky in itself because the image of myself standing in front of a crowd kept popping into my head, until it stopped feeling terrifying and started feeling vain. A pre-emptive, self-congratulatory slap on the back, like a drunken best man at a wedding, happier with himself and his chosen words than the sentiment behind them. I wanted to get it right. This wasn't going to be John Hannah devastating everybody, slewing them with e.e. cummings. This is me, talking about my Granny and what she meant to me, to us, to people in a crowd I don't yet know. A tug of war between the past tense and the present, a crowd that isn't gathered yet but will be soon.

So we've said everything we need to say. Yes, and no. In a way. When I'm back in Manchester, the line loses its power. There is so much left to tell you, I think. There are things I have to say but I can't because they haven't happened. Like, "Granny, my book is finished, here's the first copy." or "Thank god, I don't feel repulsed any more. I'm happy and so in love." I even realise now, quite bitterly that I don't know where that bloody potter is! Somewhere near Tetbury, she couldn't even remember, she had to drive around until she recognised the streets and found his shop. She bought me that glazed pot with a geometric pattern for my last birthday, just weeks before we found out she was ill. I opened it at work, telling Polly that it was from "my Mum's Mum" so she would know it was from the writer Granny, the one who writes me postcards about the changes in her garden, the peace of the seasons adjusting. I wonder how many of those postcards she wrote to me when she was ill and none of us knew it yet. I have a stack of them in a drawer, in that tricky-to-read handwriting. Written mostly over the last four years and it was probably growing inside of her the whole time, while she was scratching an itch at the back of her head.

In February she wrote me;
All well here. Life is full of good things. Yesterday I had lunch in the garden! The bulbs are coming up. Spring will be here soon.

She signed off take care my lovely girl and carry on living life to the full!! then there was an asterisk, and tucked into a tiny gap was written *it's a knack we both seem to have...

It's a knack we have because she gave it to me. She plonked it right into my lap, along with the uncontrollable urge to pee whenever in a bookshop, scrapbooking and being kind to souls; one's own and those of others. The latter, a Christian relic from her upbringing as a vicar's daughter, is always a work in progress, of course. Even when we want not to, there are always some people we hurt along the way.

I sat on that train and spread the photographs out. Annie in Mallorca. Tanned and glamorous, heavier and happy. Annie’s daughters sitting at the dining room table, looking the same but also different. Annie standing on a Cornwall coastal path, hair dyed chestnut red, framed by tall grasses and eleven shocking pink foxgloves. A careless grin, the sort produced when the person on the other side of the camera really knows you, and you really know them. It was Joan behind the lens, one of Granny's oldest friends. This was just one of their many trips together; Joan would fly over from Vermont and they would set off on adventures typified by belly laughs and walking boots. As they got older those protective knee-bandages would come along for the ride too, but the Thelma and Louise spirit was still there. Though she was married to Grandpa for almost 30 years, Granny has had dozens of mini-marriages too. Enduring female friendships especially, with women of all generations. Goths, health freaks, university friends, musicians, survivors, pragmatists, her fellow welsh women and crop circle enthusiasts, all picked up along the way. Annie has shared her warmth with them, given them hours over the phone, and all together they created this bubble of incredible female energy, a power you can't bottle, but can’t help but pass on. A bunch of gossips sharing this not-so-great secret on. Surround yourself with this energy, and everything will fall into place. 


To call Granny a 'strong woman' doesn't seem to do her justice, because nobody is strong really. Does strong mean you bulldoze through, not feeling things, never making mistakes? If we change our conception of strength to include flaws, hypocrisy, personal growth and a consistent loyalty it's a much better fit. Granny is strong, flawed and glorious like all my favorite women are. In her red trunk she has a folder labelled 'Life's Work (Professional)' which for anybody else might sound dubiously ambitious, but which for her makes total sense. She's been constantly working; on herself, on her mind, her relationships and her beliefs about this world. The curiosity has kept her young and active. She used to be a teacher, reading DH Laurence to her pupils, and always willing them towards subversion and new tastes. But she's always been a learner too, and I have always admired the fact that she isn't scared to look like a learner, or to look out of depth in her new chosen field of interest, elbowing her way through to the experts as a visible newbie. She's been doing this for as long as I've been here. In the trunk I also found a hand-drawn timeline of 'Important Life Events', starting not at 1942, but at 1992. What had come before was just as important; the Africa years, the births of Lucy and Mary, that Christmas as a child when the popular girl at school got to dress up as Carmen Miranda and Annie had to go as a fir tree. But 1992, aged 50 was when an important chapter started for Annie. She didn't know it then but it would be the beginning of a twenty-year period of getting to know herself again, after her children had left home. She took herself on a six week tour of India, her first trip alone and toed that line of cherishing beers beneath bougainvillaea and then feeling quite melancholy, only to go back to feeling on top of the world the next morning. It was during this time that Annie learned to be alone after Dick died, and came to acquire that knack of living life to the full. She would be formative in moulding my small mind, teaching me that a good life could come from carving out a space for yourself, but also being open to others. I watched her carving her space. She carved it when we walked down the pavement, and she carved it in her little flat, where we spent afternoons after she had picked me up from school. A photograph from the pile on the train table showed a view her garden; courgette plants, yukkas and ivy sprawling in the background, and at the front, a wicker table. Set for one, with a cup of tea and a book open flat in a perfect pool of lunchtime light. I imagined her full of the moment, jumping up to grab her camera so as not to forget that afternoon and the others like it in A Garden of One's Own.



This is where I come stuck, because what do we mean when we talk about living life to the full? She's only 72- that's not full. When Granny first found out she was ill she wrote this wonderful eulogy for herself. An alternative eulogy, packed with white lies and great, big glaring additions. Me and my Mum always joke never let the truth get in the way of a good story, a reference to Granny's skill for exaggeration. So in that sense Granny's eulogy was nothing but true. There was a trip to Mongolia, a fling with a yak farmer, adventures in Morocco. All the while the continuing need for work to be done, all the time out-witting illness.

Granny hasn't outwit this illness, and she knew she wouldn't from the beginning, I think, even when she was making us mad by talking about living for another 10 years, undoing it all by taking sea kelp medication. But the peace and acceptance she has at the end show that she feels she has lived a full life. Not as full as she might have liked but blooming close. And anyway, what's this fantastical obsession we all have with the ideal death? The work is never done. Very rarely is the last page complete. One of life's greatest acts of mischief is that there's never a conclusion. It just yanks the carpet out from under your feet. It's a wonder that we're always hunting for bookends, for closure, when we know we will rarely find them. We all have to go, and Annie is going. We don't like it one bit, but we loved her and she loved us and thank god for that. "I'm going to ignore Dylan Thomas and go gentle into the night." she said recently from her bed. She’s managed to stay in her own home, and that’s been the best bit of all. She said that she’d been going to some deep places during her naps. Going deeper and deeper. Dipping your toe in, I said, taking a rekkie ahead of the journey. I always thought that watching the deterioration of somebody you love would be the most harrowing thing; she's gotten so very thin but I’ve been surprised it's not been so nearly as terrible as I’d initially imagined, because she's still Annie. This is all par of the course, we are all constantly changing on the surface, our bodies as vessels, transforming faster at times than at others. Along the way we are ourselves, great life-long projects, the work of us, and the others we choose to pass the bricks to. She has this bell next to her bed, and she rings it when she needs something. It’s actually pretty funny. She rings it, and summons whoever happens to be pottering about downstairs. There's always somebody now, because she needs them there, and those friends, the energetic females have gathered, because 'in sickness and in health.' Whichever close friend or relative will come up the stairs, like a servant ascending from the quarters. You see, at least I know I’m not making it all up, she says.

Over Christmas I spent a lot of time walking around the park. It's the triangle at the centre of our houses, between my Mum and Andy, and Mary and her family, and Granny. It’s the park I spent three summers working in, making coffees for people and doing the crossword and sweating profusely at times. I walked along the paths feeling so sad, and stumped by it all, but also so alive. That doesn’t sound like a tasteful thing to say in the context of the dying, but there’s nothing like looking down into that strange void for blowing the cobwebs away. When you can walk around a park aimlessly and just watch the trees, and the changing light and go slowly, things add up. Small pleasures announce themselves and the presence of time becomes more prominent. I watched a pack of small boys doing loops around the park on their micro scooters, and was tickled by the one falling behind at the back, absorbed by the tarmac moving beneath his feet, not watching what was in front of him. I could see the blue sliver of Granny's house at the bottom of the hill, and thought of her in bed where she would be watching the tops of the trees, and the sky, with less time than us. I looped around some more, passing the same dog walkers and the same Dad gently saying ‘come on’ as he pushed his daughter uphill on her bike. I recognised them as a pair I had sold ice lollies to.

Use your time and use your words. It's important to use your time and use your words, because I think that's what we mean when we talk about living life to the full. And they don’t even always have to be the right words, because as we know, you always have to start somewhere, even if it feels daft. You can’t always deliver a line that’ll knock somebody sideways with sadness, though actually it’s pretty skilled if you have the knack. I'm back to feeling comforted by Granny's line. We've said everything we need to say, and really she already knows the rest of the words that are still to come. She knows that what lies ahead for any of us is what lies behind for her. It’ll all tick along, almost as before and I’ll still feel her here because we used our time together, all 23 years of them, and it feels almost remarkable that it wasn't twice that amount.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Weekend List: No. 13


The places we've lived: Harriet Hapgood's piece on rented housing got me thinking about the places I've lived in Manchester, and how each home is remembered in a way that neatly consolidates a moment in time. There was Royle Street for depression, nursing friends through break-ups and the nine days when the rain fell without mercy. Copson Street for movement; for loving cycling everywhere and learning that all I wanted from a night out was to just dance and dance and learning to feel okay about saying "no". Old Moat Lane for that wonderful, long back garden (grass! finally!) and feeling like we'd figured it out, ill-advised bedtime stories, gloriously cheap rent, and break-ins. And my current place for the novelty and freedom of living alone, of battling with prehistoric storage heaters and still experiencing the feeling (80% of the time) of a teenager who has been left home alone whilst parents holiday. (If I want I can eat dinner naked! I can invite men over! I can stay in, dig through my wardrobe and wear those gold heels I forgot about while dancing to disco records!) This afternoon my heart is swelling as I rifle through photographs from the last four years, crush on the people who I've shared them with, and, well- just generally avoid the Christmas shopping I should be embarking on instead of sitting on my favourite, cosy cafe. (Must I? I can't face another trip to a bookstore during which I sadly realise the books I've chosen are really for myself, and not other people at all.)

As this is most likely the last post I'll have time to write before Christmas, I hope everybody has a lovely break. It can be a wonderful time, and it can be a funny time too. Sometimes funny ha-ha, sometimes not. So don't feel hard on yourself if you're not feeling funny ha-ha; the holidays have a habit of making us feel obliged to have the best time ever, to communicate our past year with relatives in the most eloquent and least small-talkish way, and there's nothing like that sort of pressure to put the kibosh on chilled downtime. Is this all a little melancholic? It's not supposed to be, but maybe how that's come out, a projection of my own little personal post-it note reminder that Christmas will never regain that magic it possessed in childhood, but that going with the flow helps. I'm looking forward to returning home to Bristol, reading the books I didn't get time to read, sitting at the end of my Granny's bed, drinking fizz regardless of the hour, and crisp walks. Happy (almost) New Year!

Culture

"A story can be like a mad, lovely visitor, with whom you spend a rather exciting weekend." The Art of Fiction, with Lorrie Moore.

"My house, shared with four others, was fine at first...I mopped my wooden floors. Bought my own curtains. You can do a lot with twenty quid and a trip to Ikea... Our neighbours in the Residents' Association gave us a vintage sideboard that we filled with fancy-on-a-budget wine and we had people round to dinner. I made tacos!" Harriet Hapgood on calling your landlord every week, making a home from a rented house. 

Inside the iconic Habitat 67 housing complex.

Do artists have a responsibility to address social issues through their work? A double bill: A.O Scott's essay "Is Our Art Equal To The Challenges of Our Times?" and this resulting panel discussion.

Style

I know you care. Lindsay Lohan's Top Shelf for Into The Gloss.

Birdsong London, an online shop stocking products handmade by women's groups and charities.

Watching

Simon Amstell's Numb

Listening

Beats In Space radio show #757

David Sedaris: The Santaland Diaries goes live on Christmas Eve. Savour it with a mince pie, or whilst wrapping presents.

I Am Not Afraid by Owen Pallett. From the album I've been binging on all week. Part Sufjan Stevens, part In Rainbows, with hints of Perfume Genius and John Grant;


Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Weekend List: No. 12

A bumper Sunday edition of The Weekend List. This weekend has been a low-key one for me; yesterday was particularly marvellous, and for the first time in months I spent it lazily indoors, over at Nanon's, sprawled under a duvet on the sofa, with her mirroring me on the one opposite. With absolutely no intention of moving, silent laptop marathoning with a best friend, mince pies to hand, central heating on and an occasional grunt from one sofa to the other "I just watched the Beyonce film. I think I'm ready to be back in love with her." "Mm-hmm." "I've just remembered we ended last night dancing to Voulez Vous and feeling like the best dancers ever...Voulez Vous!" You need a Saturday like that every once in a while. Without further ado, some links to lose yourself in. Pop the kettle on, you know the drill.

Clockwise from top left: Little Chef, Lolworth, 2013, Benjamin McMahon; still from William Onyeabor: Fantastic Man, directed by Adam Bainbridge and Camilla Wasserman; Bushman's Cave; Eartha Kitt. 


Culture

This brilliant and bizarre interview with Michael Keaton in small-town Montana

Eartha Kitt on love and compromise

Good for the soul. New Yorkers roller dancing to William Onyeabor over at Nowness.com

Chris Hadfield's Reddit Q+A from when he was on the International Space Station. (Side note: I interviewed Chris Hadfield this week and it was everything I dreamed of and more. He's one of those people who is consistently fascinating and articulate- poetic, even. Even though he had this tired look in his eyes, of somebody who was essentially just working, and repeating the same ideas over and over and giving a lot of himself, it was amazing to speak with somebody who has been to actual space and looked at us all from above. You can listen to the very short interview here, just as long as you're patient with my early awkwardness and inability to get my words to match the ones in my head. Babysteps.)

Issa Rae, Gina Prince-Bythewood and Lena Waithe in conversation

Food

I Was A Teenage Little Chef Supervisor

Spine Trolley's utterly brilliant #soupreviews

Listening

It's that time of year when we all naturally take a look over our shoulders at the last 12 months and reflect on the things that we did, didn't do, and the things that we liked along the way. For me, this year was especially big on a-u-d-i-o, and so this is a bumper edition of some wonderful things I've listened to. After moving into my flat in June, and choosing to go without internet, I've spent a lot of my time demolishing podcasts and listening to the Radio. There have been epiphanies and sex advice with the Savage Lovecast whilst cooking dinner, wet eyes listening to the 2014 Reith Lectures, evening walks with my headphones and Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow and the Nerdette women, and hanging washing and then eventual apathy with Serial. There's also been a heap of new music I probably wouldn't have otherwise discovered after a new guy joined us at work and got us all listening to NTS. I also met Nija, who runs the wonderful In The Dark Radio nights here in Manchester, and who has introduced me to some wonderful radio documentaries, all in the setting of cosy, pitch-black rooms in pubs and back rooms around the city.

Singing Together with Jarvis Cocker 

No Man Left Behind; one of my favourite listens this year; a story of deep-cave diving and death in Bushman's Hole, one of the deepest freshwater caves in the world.

Japan Blues

Ann Powers' Top 15 albums of 2014; I relish lists like this, full of albums I've missed, or artists I've never heard of.

Shamir's Northtown EP

Shadow of Blood by Lena Platonos. Very sexy; how I imagine the soundtrack to Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin holidaying on a Greek island might sound.

Steve Gunn's Way Out Weather. Pretty country, fairly Bill Callahan, the sort of album that makes me wish I was a man, living commando in one pair of denim jeans, against an Annie Proulx landscape (but free of the death and angst), a few healthy repressions, and lots of horses to whisper whoahhh to. Start with this;



Snacks

The 10 best John Barry soundtracks

City of Sound

If you're looking for Christmas present ideas, my good friend Charlie is making and selling beautiful jewellery

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Porcupine Dilemma


This is Sigmund Freud's porcupine, a bronze figurine the size of a hand, currently on loan to the Wellcome Collection as part of their Sexology exhibition. I visited over the weekend as part of one of my quarterly London trips, which always coincide with a need to get out of Manchester for a long weekend, gallery-binge and catching up with friends; more and more of whom are now living in the Big Smoke. Probably one of my favourite parts of the exhibition, this little porcupine usually sits on the desk in the Freud Museum, alongside the other statues and antiquities, and represents the 'Porcupine dilemma':

"This bronze porcupine was kept on Sigmund Freud’s desk. He thought it represented the prickliness of human relationships. Porcupines crowd together when cold; however their sharp quills cause them to move away from each other when they get too close. This forces them to shift closer and then further apart until a balance of proximity is found. Freud used this to illustrate how people can both benefit from and be harmed by those they are most intimate with." 

Some of the other wonderful materials on show include Marie Stopes' 'Tabulations of Symptoms of Sexual Excitement in Solitude', a very neat hand-drawn graph chronicling her own sexual pleasure over the course of a month. At one point she notes a 'desire to be held closely around the waist til corsets become tempting, tho normally they are abhorrent', and then there's the fortnight when she's 'fearfully tired and overworked' and her libido noticeably flatlines. Throw in beautifully graphic illustrations of ladyparts on the inside of clam shells (perfect) which were given to newlywed brides, a very funny scene from Woody Allen's Sleeper which sees Diane Keaton trying to seduce him while he cleans his clarinet and a fascinating interview with a bunch of students from Mount Holyoke College (where I actually studied for a bit) about sexual identity and Women's Colleges and it was just about the nicest way to spend a rainy Sunday afternoon in London. Standing in a big crowd of people, shoulder to shoulder, all chin-stroking whilst peering at penis-shaped water jugs; there's something about that which is nice and cheeky and good for the soul.