How I wish they weren’t. Ready for the backlash, me.
The Barbarians are Winning
The slaughter of classical music, its notation, and tradition to serve spurious values.
The Barbarians are Winning.
The dominant theme of my life is running a race alone but being pipped at the post from off- field. It has happened again. I was on the point of posting this rather heated blog only to open the Spectator and find Rod Liddle’s article entitled ‘The War Against Intelligence’. He ends it with the words ‘the barbarians are winning’. It is about the deliberate erosion and subjugation of European ( aka ‘white’) culture in classical music. His is a discursive analysis about absurdity that first found reasons to suggest that Beethoven was black ( evidence in his negro cadences?- or as Liddle poses ‘kumbaya’ in the Moonlight sonata? Yeah right) but then (real evidence now wearing thin) banning Beethoven for not being black. (I seem to remember Shakespeare went through a period of being German.)
My piece is more narrative but describes exactly how this is being done, and how it affects someone I know. Politics very close to the bone. That takes me back.
In this ‘hyper-sensitive’ age of disapproval it is increasingly necessary to seek deep into opinions and from what they arise, before considering their merits. Owning an opinion is also to own its groundswell, which may be well-tilled earth, or shifting sand. I now watch viewpoints with the attention I might give to a breeze through a birch. It may conceal a luminous woodpecker or merely the displacement by a passing breath. When it comes to racial attitudes my views have been long marinated, and turned in the pickling of frequent spices.
Something happened this week to draw out this ‘opinionated piece’. I am increasingly keeping powder dry before venturing out. Mainly because I have little left, and want to use what is there to some purpose. The purpose may well be my own slaughter since I have no gladiator editor to ward off fury.
You will get a better perspoective if I take you on a small detour to lend height and breadth.
As many of my long term friends know I grew up in the hottest bed of racial conflict, not hot as Portland Oregon is hot, with fires and destruction, but South Africa, hot with repression and the danger of unexpressed and entrenched fear. Die ‘swart gevaar’ ( the black danger) was never openly evident to the privileged whites, but to justify repression it was kept well stoked in the general sense. In the particular of my fairly unique family it was derided (if ever it was referred to) and avoided. They, each of them, went slimly: Some mastered Zulu and worked in educating the aspiring, some worked in black hospitals ministering to mine-damaged lungs, one was locked up for 90 days at a time (twice)for being unwisely verbal. Mostly they were too busy to become conspicuous, but when white supremacy drew close my grandparents and then my mother took refuge in remote regions of black supremacy; Botswana, Lesotho and then Swaziland (Now Eswatini).
My ‘second mother’ was the daughter of a Zulu chief, who entered my life when I was six, and never left. From my family I learned how to refuse conformity, but from Milly Thoko Ndaba I learned how to love, and how to laugh and how to dismiss the small minded as beneath contempt. She usually laughed before offering any opinions or advice. Philosophy was her default, and for her a just and loving God was an intimate.
So that is my groundswell: a society built in fear, but a homestead refuge of refusal to be part of any of it. As a preparation for what now swirls about us, I was lucky. Privation was never resented but merely the price to be paid. Saying ‘no’ comes naturally. But ‘no’ has been the cause of much rejection, now from friends and even my daughters, for in the balmy ‘liberal tolerance’ of England they have never needed to be honed to discern that ‘liberal’ and ‘tolerance’ are covers for everything but. I had come close to forgetting that, too.
England is good at half obscured prejudice, nothing too sharp, or too explicit but otherwise it slides over the ‘regrettable’ or the jejune. Provided any opinion is padded with subordinate clauses, and covered with climbing qualifiers what is meant can be ignored. In fact what is meant will often be re-interpreted ‘I am sure that is not what she meant’ thereby exempting the listener from any need to question or confront. Because I do usually mean exactly what I say I have few friends, and that privation is still the price to be paid. Nothing new in that.
My first booster injection of the vaccine of remembered truth came from a literary editor who was reading my memoir, She seemed to be enjoying it until she read a description of my stepfather. My stepfather was a truly despicable man; he blighted my mother’s life and because she was all I had, he fair ruined mine. There was no trouble in describing his character, or his devilish cunning, or his imperious racism in dealing with beloved Milly, whose life he ruined equally out of petty jealousy and spite. Her spiritual honesty, and verbal clarity was a mirror in which his inferiority was inescapable, and he delighted in humiliating her. In South Africa a white hand always held the whip when it chose.
The problem in the memoir came when I mentioned he was Jewish, and with the nose to match. ‘His nose won every argument’ was what I had written. ‘You CANNOT say that. No publisher will touch it, and nor should they’ Her capitals screamed outrage. The fact that the book is filled with heroic Jews, acting for Mandela’s defence, cultured Jews standing alone against apartheid (Helen Suzman) generous Jews ministering to Milly’s need to wean a baby away from the ‘group areas act’ (that prohibited her child from remaining with us) cut no ice at all. One Jew with a nose undid all my fair and fulsome tributes. The scales of balance were tipped by a single vividly unpleasant Jew. He was not even ‘observant’ but he did like borscht and gefiltre fish.
No Jew can be described other than in glowing terms. They are universally sacrosanct. Must be nice for circumstances at birth to absolve all sins in advance.
I ventured to seek other views on this from good literary friends. They all agreed with the editor. I would be laying myself open to distorted and selective quotations. Any book would die on the printing block! Decapitated by a single description of a singular nose.
A nose is a trope. Verboten. Ignore the distinctive, and concentrate on the generic? That makes all vanilla blancmange, and every editor warns of its banality. Until….
This was my recent re-induction into the gymnastic distortions now required. In South Africa it was limited to racial and language issues, here, in contemporary Britain it has swept up everything, from views on Greta Thunberg, or taking the knee, to the elimination of historic records, and reorganising the British Library to billboard the wrongs of colonialism. Now it includes even a writer’s discernment to describe what the eye of a child saw. Achtung; you will think approved thoughts, and use approved words. All the bien-pensants nod in unison and pass the asparagus.
This brings me back to the most recent additions that have capsized and overflowed the marinade with so much salt water, little savour remains. Because the baby still floats I will outline what is destined to destroy it utterly.
Before I do, I think it worth mentioning that when I was growing up in South Africa the bloodbath was believed both imminent and inevitable. Fear weaves powerful prognoses. What happened? Truth and Reconciliation involving a white supremacist Leader who surrendered power without a fight and an orderly election, and the unification of a divided country that has, mostly, done all it could to try and rebuild together. Far from perfect but no longer afraid of the ‘other’, just afraid of criminals who come in all shades. You could call it patriotism, or allegiance, or history for all have played their part. I would add common sense pragmatism, and knowing when to lay down arms. There are relevant parallels everywhere where such pragmatism could work wonders. But essentially I believe South Africa escaped because racism was never denied; it was on the surface inescapable and entrenched in law. Much easier to face and wash away what lies blatant on the surface.
The event that triggered this ‘opinionated piece’ has been reported to me by a friend, a dedicated violin teacher, whose pupils and their aspirations have filled her life. Their repertoires, their studies, recordings, University applications, concerts (and their sometimes difficult parents) are the whole and centre of her existence teaching at an esteemed Conservatoire. She has begun some of them at ages six or eight and most reward her by seeking music scholarships, degrees, performances which stretch her technically to master increasingly demanding works herself in limited time. Musical excellence is her only guide. For it she will select the repertoires that play to each pupil’s strengths; lucid articulate Bach for the discerning, feisty Tchaikovsky for the gutsy, and unaccompanied for the very brave. The violin reveals everything, from muscle tension to empathy, egotism to sensitivity. So any tension is deleterious, and gritted teeth the worst of all.
She has fostered her pupils progress by suggesting those that are committed and talented should apply for the Conservatoire’s Junior Saturday school to round out their musical experiences with chamber groups, orchestras and theory. In doing that she halves her income every time they succeed, being paid less than half her private teaching fee by the august institution who takes its profit from her dedication. ( And has been known to boast that prestige draws teachers that accept low wages! It never mentions how prestige pays the gas bill) This she has never resented or mentioned.
Over the past eighteen months her work has been largely on line and because back to back teaching over skype led to crippling headaches she managed by filling Sundays and evenings to disperse the effects of radiation. Delighted to return to a room and pupils face-to- face she arrived for this new year full of hope in renewal and eager to enjoy the company of her colleagues in the snatched moments over coffee. But a staff meeting first introduced a two new edicts.
Edict one: Parents would no longer be free to wander the corridors and drop in on concerts or rehearsals They could attend the coffee bar and only those concerts in which their offspring was performing. Those that paid the substantial fees, and were exhorted to foster daily practice were no longer welcomed as part of the institution. This was explained as required by ‘Child Protection’ because the general public were now invited to help offset the cost of recent building projects! How can Joe Bloggs with malign intent be distinguished from a parent if both are allowed access? So the potentially malign are welcomed at the expense of the dedicated? In this day of almost universal lanyards- including gay pride for an all girls school once a year-somehow this is not considered a solution.
Edict Two: Every pupil will be required to include BAME compositions in their repertoire and for concerts BAME music will be featured. For those unfamiliar with the acronym BAME stands for Black , Asian, Minority Ethnic. Have you ever heard a person describe him or herself as a ‘minority ethnic’? Would a collection of Sicilian Mafia qualify? The sophisticated Japanese, the immigrant Uighur, the Romany gypsy all will fit the required box. How they must rejoice to be indistinguishable from one another! I am not sure ‘women’ count any longer, there are now too many of us. What is ‘Asian’? Chinese, Japanese, Malayan, Indian? Or just foreign looking and dusky?
It went on :Pupils will not only play bame music but be told why it is important. They will analyse it and it will be incumbent to enthuse about it. Jews Harp, sorry Marranzano, ( too universal) Irish fiddle, Negro spirituals? Or…? Compulsory Sitar, Tambura, Tabla or Guzheng, Pipa and collection of gongs? Marimba? Penny whistle? Skin drums? Ankle rattles? Why not go whole-hog?
From violin teacher to social ideolog at a stroke.
According to the official statistics, the BAME population forms 6.3% of the British population. Their representation at the Conservatoire is 38% but more must be done. The roughly ten black classical composers that have gained recognition, with the exception of Samuel Coleridge Taylor, are all American, and almost all their compositions are orchestral concertos and symphonies. Orchestral works are not amenable to instrumental solo development .There is a viola sonata by Julia Perry. Sheku Kanneh-Mason has not commissioned a cello concerto from a bame composer as far as I know. He chooses Dvorak, Elgar and Saint Saens himself.
If these ‘bame’ works need exposure then why are they not featured by the professional orchestras? Usually there is a reason, and in this day when orchestras are in want of new scores I doubt that names like Florence Price, Undine Smith-Moore and Julia Perry would occasion racial prejudice. Perhaps their works have little appeal, or perhaps they do not challenge orchestral development or merit what is always minimal rehearsal time? But now students of classical instruments must make good that historical neglect in the tight time available to full time academic studies where musicians sacrifice sport, weekends, and hours of practice each day? To play Woke works? By artificial emphasis they must foster the political priorities now decreed? Priorities that have nothing to do with music?
Training a classical musician takes more hours than a brain surgeon. For it they sacrifice many of the ordinary pleasures of childhood, and their parents a great deal of money. No profession is as ‘giving’ to the general good as music, and no discipline requires as much selflessness in obedience to the composer, or the ensemble. Yet with a few exceptions they are very poorly paid. ( About the same as a safety inspector with a clip board) The competition is fierce and often ruthless. You would imagine that a music conservatoire, aware of all of this, would be the one place they might expect support and sympathy and a very compassionate level playing field. But now the climate demands the complicity to take the knee and abase objectivity to appeasement, to sacrifice the long traditions of Western music for the ephemeral social ‘do-gooding’ of tokenism.
It does not stop with the music. Anyone listening to the BBC ‘Young Musician Competition’ can predict the winner in every class. No considered judgement is required. If there is a bame participant he/she will win, regardless of the brilliance of their white English competitors. So it will be with the choice of orchestral leaders, and performers in the Colleges of Music. What is being diminished is the Western tradition of classical music along with the other indices in literature, art, publishing, comedy, drama. It will be left to the Asian diaspora to keep the flames of Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart lit. Oxford University has already banned Beethoven and dissolved an orchestra. Why is this acceptable? Who has ordained this erosion and compliance?
Setting aside the political priorities what does it do to the bame musician? The belief that artificially elevating their skin colour, or minority status to the conspicuous is assisting their development is the opposite of what they seek. Instead it elevates the institution’s pc credentials at the expense of those who contribute to its prestige. What each individual wants is to know is that when they are selected as soloist or Leader they have deserved it, judged on performance alone; that the playing field is truly level. And what does it do to the dedicated white musician who knows he has little chance no matter how gifted or dedicated? He or she will never succeed? Take it on the chin for the ‘greater good’? Utopias are always spurious ‘four legs good, two legs bad’ arguments. Both end without any legs at all.
How does a teacher continue to encourage pupils who know their dedication will be amputated before they get real chances?
It seems to me so obvious that this deliberate distortion is destructive to all sides. Why then does it prevail? How has this indoctrination taken such universal roots? Is Claus Schwab’s New World Order already underway? The Order in which what shines must be roughened up, what is indifferent must be elevated so that none will have prizes? That’s how it looks to me, and I am grateful for the company of Rod Liddle on the naughty bench.
What I do not understand is this universal conformity. Are these ‘directors of the arts’ simply placemen, or are they so obedient they no longer think? Or perhaps closet racists over-compensating?
What I know from my own roots is that this is true evil masquerading as kindness. It is patronising condescension and creates entirely un-necessary resentment in all sides of the one profession where collaboration is paramount. Perhaps that is its purpose? To undermine the high art and hasten its demise. That of course would fit the intentions of uniformity which have already succeeded throughout education. The problem with classical musicians is they tend to individuality and a unique contribution. Long hours of lonely practice does that in the company of genius that still calls and dictates. Which is perhaps why they have lasted as long as they have, but this may be their final subjugation. And our universal loss.
A hoot for our time. This was the instruction to his followers from Duduzane Zuma, reportedly living high on the hog in Dubai, on the proceeds of his father’s limitless looting of South African wealth. Watching the frenzied looting in Kwazulu Natal and Johannesburg, followed by the burning of warehouses and now the endless queues for non-existent food, there is a hollow laugh somewhere deep down.
For me the hollowness is almost bottomless. Twenty seven years of the post-Mandela ANC governance of South Africa has brought it to this? The bright hope of a bloodless revolution, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s wise approach to healing wounds and expiating bitterness, the submission of the once powerful minority white population to acceptance, only to end in ‘loot responsibly’.
The looters are starving. They are unemployed and likely to remain so, they are also largely illiterate which is why the only shop left untouched was a bookshop. They face power outages but televisions and fridge freezers were trundled away in supermarket trolleys. Not that there will be much to put in them, even should they work. The police joined in; a police van can carry a fair bit of loot. So too the occasional Mercedes Benz joining the fray! Even the vigilantes guarding their homes seemed content with deterence and waving a gun rather than using it. For the most part.
The hollow laugh is lodged in my own childhood. It is difficult to escape from. My idealistic zulu speaking grandfather Harold Jowitt, was the Headmaster to the founder of the ANC, the Nobel prizewinner Albert Luthuli. Both of them forsaw a rich country, and in potential few countries are richer in agriculture, or minerals, gold, climate, beauty, or diversity of wild-life where there could be lavishly enough for all. Education and training would underpin that sharing, and a working life would be universal. Both, along with Mandela, have been betrayed by the greed that followed them.
The President Cyril Ramaphosa who began his career in the Trades union movement is worth $450 million dwarfing Jacob Zuma’s mere $20 million, and son Duduzame’s $15 million, now safely concealed in the UAE. The diamond magnate Oppenheimers wealth remains in the billions. The global elite always seem to survive.
African leadership has been universally condemned by the so called first world as ‘basket cases’ of irresponsibility. But is that because the rapaciousness has been quicker and less disguised? It comes to me that ‘loot responsibly’ might equally have been directed at all the first world monopolies like Amazon, Google, Silicon Valley, and Big Pharma, who have looted any competitor, suppressed news of alternatives and eradicated the inventive by offers they could not refuse. Take the offer or get crushed. So we in the US and UK also have the homeless, the tent citadels, the soup kitchens, and the hungry. And the uneducated and de-educated. They have all grown used to the rigged economies, the parable of boiling a frog-slowly and imperceptibly raising the heat.
Soon we will also have the failed health systems, and the monopoly NHS will be devoid of staff, killed off by the compulsory ‘vaccines’ or dismissal for refusing them. Most of our GPs lost no time in disappearing behind closed doors. The dancing nurses are now chanting on the streets and waving placards. African unemployment has been through neglect, ours has been contrived with Covid as the bioweapon. We will meet African standards sooner than we think.
Perhaps we can learn from the subversive inventive solutions, like the one store that spread cheap cooking oil acoss a broad entrance, sprinkled it with a film of water and watched looters tumble ignominiously unable to gain entry. Poverty has its own creative spirit, and that gives just one belly laugh full throttle.
Time to find similar stratagems. To laugh and get clever.
Where is True North Now?
I mean for the moral compass by which to live. Until recently the magnetism by which I oriented was as clear as the clock-face of time. Hands moved imperceptibly but the hours were there and people I knew mostly agreed and affirmed that we all saw much the same consensus world. The pivot on which the hands were set ( the unmoving centre) was mySelf, the entry point to which all else related. That Self was pinned in assumed liberty; to think, to act, to laugh, to be unwise, and above all to disagree. As long as it did no harm ( that was not liberty but license) there were no constraints; not in its essence. Any constraints were circumstantial, probably financial, or intrinsic, like my age for which I take full responsibility. I do not attend to healthy eating, or obligatory exercise, once smoked too much and still drink in moderation but I bear the consequences gladly, mea culpa. My unwisdom celebrates my liberty.
There were other components to liberty, mostly the belief that I lived in a civilised country essentially, which civility rested in assuming that smaller liberties were sacrosanct. Its imperfections and injustices had redress, its inequalities were recognised, and in the words of my birthplace ‘Alles sal regkom’ was ultimately implied because its humanity sought to grant liberty to all. I believed it had noble aims, although many not yet achieved. That was the centre of the moving hands of my vicarious daily doings. Nothing perfect but au fond good. As good as the air I breathed without thinking about it; a ‘given’, the basis of existence.
Almost overnight that world is gone and with it the Self that took them for granted. I now have to face the fact that they were not granted, or only on loan until the decision to remove them served a deeper purpose. Like feeding a slave until no longer required, and found un-sellable.
Air is now depleted through masks, ( as effective against a virus as chicken wire is against a mosquito), affection curtailed in its expression, humanity rendered abject and obedient. My kin now demand my surrender and acquiescence. Since I am a recovered, I now have natural immunity, but I am also severely anaphylactic; acquiescence (for no gain whatever) is likely to kill me. But if I resist it is I that am selfish. Those who put the value of their holidays above my life (or their own future freedom) have not merely censure to beat me with but the State, and its army of outrage. Elderly women who once smiled and moved on are now beady eyed for the exposed nose.
Sometime ago I wrote a piece called ‘Covida, My New Companion’. Its tag-line was ‘A disease of ruthless truth’. In those innocent days I still believed ‘Rona’ was accidental, the ruthless truth was what it revealed about myself, my friends, and conditional friends, the ease with which I had accepted the generosity of life itself, the better uses I should have made of it- all that self examination was purging. If I recovered I would better honour life’s riches.
It came, as I saw immediately, with an ‘intelligence’. Unlike other viruses (and I have had most of them) this ‘thing’ was not biological. It did not wrestle with temperature, just took it up the scale and left it there, nor inflammation, nor raise my pulse or heartbeat. It took over authority and catapaulted me and my febrile body to the floor of that authority. It played matron and ticked off the inadequate protests with an indifferent shrug. It was in absolute control and would exercise that control until it decided whether I was ready for the morgue, or might be permitted to swab the floor, wring out the sweat, and totter back to vertical, while it moved on and took over another; ‘next’. Next, next.
All those many ‘nexts’ I now know were exaggerated. Just to keep the fear alive. Doctors were paid a premium for Covid-attributed deaths and autopsies were forbidden. The profession followed by most of my family who believed in the Hippocratic Oath was grubbily getting a premium for falsifying. Now only one witness needed for certification to hasten disposal, and nurses sacked for whispering that many wards were empty.
Yet now the undertakers admit to turning off their fridges because business was so slow. They are humming now for the vaccine deaths, and promising business will boom even better in the autumn.
Now that I know it was a carefully patented bio weapon, with a patent number registered, along with the patented vaccine cures for shareholders, all that makes perfect sense. I recognised the difference from the beginning. The difference though, makes all the difference. The resolution I framed, sobered and contrite, now lies in shreds, the purpose left to me, will not reach the world that was. That is over.
But more than ‘over’. Even that past is destroyed (along with every illusion about nobility) together with its history. All those ordinary ‘good guys’ the valiant in mud-caked boots, conquering evil intentions and dying in trenches, were all along the naïve fodder for those planning this plandemic. They assassinated presidents, silenced holistic doctors, murdered dissenting voices, ridiculed any who waved a warning signal, and to keep its impetus going arranged bogus deceptions like 9/11 or the capture of bin Laden or the moon landings—and we believed it all! Yes I believed all of it, swallowed it, if not whole, nearly whole. Because trust was essential to Self. Those we elected would care for us! We had given them their power.
The trenches for this current and final war are the buried freedoms to think, and the dead in them are the valiant dissidents, the flag over them is now the triumph of Pfizer or Moderna waved by Bill Gates, the Clinton Foundation and the carefully engineered Great Reset of the Davos Club. Here comes the trumpet-herald Blair, never slow when a war is on offer. How does one even grasp that every country, its governments, its medical practitioners, its elected legislators, its dancing nurses, have all been complicit in the great deception? The final curtain for humanity? The murder of the useless eaters, and the deplorables; all of us.
That message is not an easy sell, but to save a few I try: To universal contempt. ‘With an intelligence like yours how could you believe in….???’
It does have its comic side. The pantomime villains like Claus Schwab who comes out of central casting as the CEO of S.M.E.R.S.H, the dwarf called Fauci who has been polishing his sickle at all that planned murder for decades, the clown called Bojo who walks on to ruffle his hair in that endearing way, and the wooden men called the army of ‘experts’ with names like Whitty and Vallance who keep their faces sombre despite their investments turning more than a pretty penny. Their absurdity makes persuading the sleep-walkers more difficult. Who can take any of them seriously? Trouble is most of my kin all do. For they are still my kin, and part of me, even though they shun this alarmist interpretation as the raving of a lunatic. C’mon man!
Where is there for any ‘Self’ now to stand?
Who would a writer address? My fond memoir epistle to those I loved, the world that was innocent, is an epistle to false belief, unwarranted assumptions, because the Self that took their measure was deceived by cynical narratives. I saw Israel as the heroic rescue from the desert by dedicated kibbutzim; now I know it was a trade to get a bigger war, and delivered by a man whose country it never was. Thereby to ensure the ferment of the Middle East forever. Money makes the war go around, the war go around…
Lockdown for me has been a new education that has shown me that nothing I believed was true. Almost nothing is left standing except the miraculous beauty of the natural world. There was, in my later life, a deeper measure of truth, but the beauty of the world was precious, because shared. That illusory beauty tied me to my fellow man., to pour a glass as the garden burst open, and the roses scented the evening air. Could anyone write a poem to artificial intelligence, or celebrate the contemporary Tesla, Elon Musk? Now Colleges of Music must forget Mozart or Beethoven and programme minority composers, and orchestras are disbanded for want of diversity: Even a meticulous score is now ‘too white’! True. Bring on the skin drums and the penny whistle.
I can still jive to a penny whistle but it’s not enough.
The past was largely illusion, but an illusion that gave rise to glories of genius; music, literature, painting, architecture: The present is grotesque. So grotesque that we have no resources to comprehend it. But this incomprehension has been carefully seeded by diversions and depravity. It is all so obvious now.
To watch the citizens who once fought incendiary bombs from the rooftops, who slept in shelters but still went to the music halls through the blackouts, who danced a frenzied Charleston, smoked like chimneys and bartered eggs for silk stockings is almost unbearable. Those that turned out for factory whistles and assembled tanks that rolled down ramps already firing, while the men they loved died like dogs, because they believed. Believed in the nobility of freedom from oppression. Yes; they were duped, their generosity exploited to their death and the same people were responsible, or their fathers were. Your country needs you! They signed up to give the illusion of liberty for an interval, and I thank them for that deluded vision for most of my blessed life. I owe them. Big time.
Now the undistinguishable Lowry populace scuttles in masks, and exposes its arms for a suicide shot, and wears a badge to prove it! They were all my friends and I cannot reach any of them. To them I am unhinged, to me they are deaf, blind and obdurate. They want to go to Benidorm. I want to recapture and secure liberty. With clarity of vision we could do it, together. The power of ‘no’ is all we need, but we need the ‘all’ to say it.
Most of the world is still saying ‘yes’ and even children cannot breathe
Covida: My new companion.
A disease of ruthless truth
I felt her presence the moment she crossed the threshold. I would not claim she ‘breezed in’, but her penetration came with a cold wind of dread, dread not of illness —nothing in me expected to be one of the chosen— but an unnameable dread that suddenly life as I had known it was to end.
It was certain, not apocalyptic.
I should set the chosen victim in context before I introduce you to this ruthless calculating doyenne with her watch chain and gaunt resolve, a Mrs. Danvers mark ten. I was paddling slowly towards old age with some of the irritating symptoms, to which I gave no attention. I still had things to accomplish, a memoir to finish, other works to polish, and the days were filled with purpose and routines. Purpose had driven my puritanical life, to contribute something of small significance. I had long been indifferent to my appearance, or clothes and I wanted little. I hardly saw anyone. A reason to keep writing was all there was, and it was enough for some to say ‘You don’t seem anything like eighty’. I was nowhere near eighty, then. It was three months ago, that ‘then’.
Like any professional invader, Covida cleared her workspace, which was my mind, exterminating any resistance. She knew exactly what was required. I would submit, no nonsense, and since this would be a rehearsal for death I would lie down and sleep while she went about eliminating the value of anything I had achieved, chopping down and uprooting before the pyre of correction consumed it all, the garden of my life lived. All illusions were swept away by her broom of unvarnished truth.
I slept uninterrupted for eight days and eight nights, only broken by a glass held to my lips every four hours, but the inner journey I took was her prelude for the other still to come.
First the landscape went pewter and metallic-ally grey, and the maw of a funnel sucked me slowly and inexorably towards it, until I fell, like Alice into a wonderland of bleak revelations. Grey flattened replicas of Covids floated past, like blood platelets or planarias with their characteristic spikes, as though suspended in a viscous medium, not threatening because being omnipotent they had no need for menace. They were masters in the medium of my blood and brain, and they were a tribe that had total possession, make no mistake.
Then, one at a time, I floated down past recent friends, and each was wrapped in a coloured film of slight colour, blue or green or grey. I saw that film as my projected imprisonment of those friends by my hopes and expectations of them. Those friends wrapped like mummies, had never been fully seen because I had projected upon them roles that answered to me. My longing for a reader had failed to differentiate between someone who admired my writing— in sich— from what I was writing which she couldn’t believe in, not really. Since the substance of what I was writing was my memories reconstructed with all their innocence, she, not believing them, was not believing in my world or my integrity. So my friendship built over years now seems to lie shattered. My hope had blinded me and imprisoned her. Already I miss her.
So it was with each of them. Another, much younger, was wrapped in my confidence that she had never seen me other then as a contemporary, but Covida ripped off that illusion and showed her as kind but never carelessly equal. I wanted her youth, and she had granted it. I had expropriated her kindness. Others more distant were not mummified by my expectations but patiently waiting for their deserving recognition. I had neglected so many. There it was. One cannot unsee what one has seen.
Covida is a ruthless excavator of truth, the truth about oneself.
After the pewter funnel of recent life I landed in a black landscape in which the setting sun was a thin sliver of light on the horizon. It had the atmosphere of a Caspar David Friedrich painting, bleak but inevitable. That light was the remnant of my future life, if I was to live. I took a vow, then and there, that if I survived I would not return to the unthinking, semi conscious existence I had been living. Nor re-clothe myself in the goals of self-importance, although without them the air blows cold about me. How will I spend my days?
I have not yet found another life to live. Perhaps when Covida gives her consent to let me walk more than three hundred yards without staggering, and remain vertical for a whole day I will. She is parsimonious with her spoonfuls of stamina. Some morning I rise with a teaspoonful that will last until noon, other days she is liberal with enough to see me through until tea time, and I have fed the dog before the desperation to lie down takes me back to bed.
Being stripped naked of all clothes of self belief, all the satisfactions from accomplishments ( and I had a few) leaves little from which to restructure a new existence. Perhaps a dulling of Covida’s influence will tempt me to return to smug satisfaction. I hope I will resist.
I have long had a place I go to in the imagination, a weather beaten grey wooden shack above a cove, shining like a coin, enfolded by the arms of the earth, and known only to gulls. That is where I hope to find a new life. Needing and wanting nothing.
I am now just as old as I look, perhaps older than even I know.
I do wonder whether my single experience is also to be the collective consequence of Covida’s invasion of the planet. Will she strip us collectively naked to repent of our blindness? Will we find its ruthless truth cleansing? I give Covida a female gender since women have a deeper appetite for truth, and are deeper mired in roles which imprison them and those they serve.
Humanity has received new vision, and been stripped of outworn illusions. We, Covida’s elected front runners, may have the wind of that in our nostrils. The haltings of the following tribe are still attempting to reduce the sharp salted new air to the recycled old paradigms ‘only a kind of flu’ ‘a variant of Sars’ in the hope of holding onto hope that Man has seen this before, and survived. Survived for another chance at mistaken identity and the death of value and values.
The lens of my encounter with her suggested something utterly unique, and ruthlessly intelligent, something impenetrable beneath the superficial symptoms of her presence. It robbed every conviction that I knew myself ( and I have spent a lifetime following Socrates in that pursuit). The onion has no limits. Nor does the onion of this blundering humanity concerned with appearances, with acquisition, with colour and distinctions, with sex and the liberation from gender, in the absurd belief that the individual is so defined.
The marvel of the unique individual remains hidden by the fluttering of banners. The Cause obscures the Universal.
George Eliot’s 200th Anniversary Today. My personal celebration.
George Eliot’s 200th Anniversary Today. My personal celebration.
A Tribute to George Eliot.
The woman who has guided my life, and plucked at my shoulder whenever I neglected her was born this day 200 years ago exactly. I vowed I would finish a memoir that is not just a literary tribute to her but a sleuthing of her intermittent interruptions through my 78 years of following in her treads. I did so yesterday in time to light the candles today.
George Eliot packed four signed volumes of her last novel (Daniel Deronda)to my great great great Aunt (Eliza Mary Sanderson nee Barrett) who she had never met, and never would. The aunt, who was childless, and who lived in South Africa left them to my grandmother. Nobody knew what had prompted the gift, but the books were bequeathed to me. I first saw them when I was sixteen. Then they were stolen by my own aunt and given to a University Library in a place they would never be asked for.
The influence of George Eliot initially was that of overwhelming admiration, and the seduction to leave Africa for England, for its literature, its poetry, its traditions, its certainty of varied seasons. She summoned me to a different world, and ultimately to the ambition to write. But that was only half the story.
The other half was locked in the mystery of those books. The call to write the memoir was to discover the end of the story that began with them. That gift linked me directly to the author. I discovered not only her (adopted) family’s direct connections to my own but an unknown poetic work that I had never known of but echoed in my narrative poem Involution. It now seems that George Eliot was a restless muse, and found a scribe to finish what she had only just sketched before her premature death at sixty one. It seems my life was merely to mix the colours and sharpen the quills!
Perhaps that is all I was meant to do, to write her Religion for Humanity?
My life has been sliced into decades that echoed each one of hers, without knowing it. It mirrored her search for answers to belief, exploring every doctrine only to find each in turn insufficient. Each exploration of hers gave rise to a stupendous work, from Methodism in Adam Bede, Catholicism in Romola, to Judaism in Daniel Deronda, but the greatest novel of all, Middlemarch, exposed the dry vacuity of intellectual answers in the character of Casaubon seeking ‘The Key to all the Mythologies’. In his arid search for authority he betrays everything and everyone else, most importantly his marriage to his yearning idealistic wife, seduced by his so-called erudition. Erudition of that kind is the atrophy of the soul. This was the work Virginia Woolf called the ‘first novel for adults’. By that I take her to mean that meaning is not arrived at by catalogue or cogitation, or ‘givens’ from any source, but by independent ‘openness’ to all. And the courage to step away from any collective. (George Eliot was never a joiner of groups, not even those who expected it like the suffragettes.) I echo her in that.
George Eliot’s life was a life in search of love, and loving gave access to meaning, not just for oneself but through the lovers of music, inspiration, ideas, and the great adventure of life. Life was the ‘great book’ of wisdom.
Tomorrow I will add an imaginary conversation with the great author whose search was my own but whose recognition and rewards were the very opposite. For now I will rejoice in having known her. She is incomparable.
The Questions the People’s Vote Don’t Answer.
The Magical Tale of a Tail
via The Magical Tale of a Tail
Since I am wrestling with a memoir that is built of such magical bricks ( no straw at all) and one of them has been the intermittent view halloo from Shelley Sackier I post this celebration. I have been searching for my critical friends who intervened at important moments and took their leave at equally momentous intervals.
She is right that serendipitous events must be merely sprinkled in fiction. Probably that should apply to memoir too, but when your life has been a fable from get go, and animals have appeared to nudge it along, there is no shirking or coyness possible.
Here they are.
Then came Milly. A collie more white than black and named for her namesake Milly Ndaba.
who made friends with Alfie and Alfie unwound a snake just at a critical moment when DNA had revealed its secrets.
But in the background was always Noel who kept me company without asking for anything.
This is Not about a Book
An essay about a non-solution; a book that’s not a book but a well contrived catalogue. One solution to writer’s block- just write a long list, press publish.
This is not about a Book. (C’est ci ne pas une pomme.)
The head of steam burbling below the surface suggests an essay coming on. I always take ‘essay’ seriously. It contains built-in respectable failure. A what-the-hell invitation to let loose. The shrug will follow. Ah well is implied.
If I were less self-controlled this might be a book review, but it’s not. I have enough solidarity with a fellow writer not to want to pull any kind of bell or dead-drop rope. Besides like marrying the wrong person half the fault is your own; your expectations chose the book, your disappointment was also yours. So this is not a shout at a book, but wider than that. It’s a shout at the world of publishers, and those agents and sales reps with manicures and glossy lists who have a product willy-nilly, ready for the Christmas market with time for the reviews first.
Will there even be Christmas this year?
I have just read, skimmed, galloped through a book and it enraged me. I rarely do any of those; books have an authority I am loathe to challenge. There is always hope that redemption lies on the next line, or the next page. Not this one; I read it all but at speed.
I am used to being disappointed by books I order on impulse. This was not bought on impulse, but pre-ordered on the basis of what it promised because I am not so much in the throes of writing a memoir, but beached like a whitened cuttlefish above the salt tide of a perplexed repetitive rolling breaker life.This book would help get me re-floated. It was (ostensibly) about the difficulties of writing about family, with matters of confidentiality arising; it was about the perilous knife-edge between fact and fiction; it was about how a competent and much respected author/teacher was coerced to solve the problems, of keeping things fresh, and being creative and stimulated. All Laocoon problems being wrestled with chez nous.
In a way it did address all of those things, and solved none of them. Instead it explored, analytically the nature of the dilemmas in ‘finding a story’ and then finding ways to tell it engagingly. She never did find a story. She wrote a book about not finding a story.
‘Where’s the story’ dominated about twenty five percent of my valuable time, ‘Look into your family’ dominated the next twenty five percent. And looking for, not looking at, continued.
The members of her illustrious family were leafed through as by a finger in a card index, singly, with much lingering on the reasons for being renowned, before she moved on to the next. A five star family tree hung out to sparkle. So well documented were these estimable generations, she could find no space for herself. She could not add much to esteem, nor supply salacious details or invent a caprice. They were all rock solid in reputation. Or someone else had got there first. But half of a three hundred page book was devoted to this index. I can get the Yellow Pages for nothing and nobody expects me to read it.
I have been having similar problems with George Eliot who threads her running stitches through my book, and half of me thought I should uncover facts about her. Nine volumes of letters and seven biographies later I know less about her than I did. She walked speedily away because my George Eliot was not the same as other people’s. Facts added almost nothing. Or worse. Facts boxed in a Boadicea writer and placed her in carefully contrived ‘at homes’ with other notable visitors, all of whose names you recognised. They shone; reflected by being invited to tea. Same here. That was what I hoped this author would illuminate; how to relegate the biographical and make wild with conjecture; how to render conjecture truer than fact.
It often is.
Her despairing solution ( we are now sixty percent through) was to invent a fictional character that would thread through lives in their trivial and unexplored silences, the interstices that would admit a nanny, a governess or a secretary who might find herself interestingly compromised, abandoned, orphaned. I cannot remember what happened to her, this non-existent member of a family to which the author belongs. This fictional character never rose off the page, never spoke out loud because her function was simply to act as a needle and thread to replace the finger and sift through another generation of the estimable family, whose peppered names got shorter, but whose identities were even less interesting than the Wikipedia-like entries of the first half.
These smaller younger leaves on the family tree fluttered briefly without offering the slightest reason to notice them. Except their fast galloping names on the heels of one another. What their brief hooks permitted were extracts from the author’s other books and not very well obscured references to the hell of earning a living as a writer, and the depths to which one has to sink (Open University might or might not, this year? The exhaustion of coaching! Oh not another talk for another lit fest!) to make ends meet.
We already know all that. Some of us lack the agent who says ‘Find a Story, anything will do, and mention as many important family names as you can. I need this year’s offering and your name will sell anything.
Now I understand the deadening effect of fact when you have wings to fly creatively. I had been taking maiden flights of fancy with the facts of my life for three years. I hoped this book would offer ‘lift-off’. I understand that restraint may be necessary with other people’s (in my case offspring’s) feelings, but how to stay true? I hoped for suggestions of stratagems. How much fictional recreation is legitimate? How much is taboo? The thin line between imaginative re-creation and distortion? How to tell? How to curb? Is truth merely your impressions or does it need ‘sources’ because sources add nothing to emotional veracity on the day (however riveting the facts on another day, or for another kind of reader). Wrong facts can tell a better story, if they were indeed true for you.
All these answers were implied by the banner over this book of a ‘writer’s travel through her family’. Instead it was a lot of ‘woe is me’, how curtailed I am by the importance of my family. I can hardly breathe! Where is there place for me?
The answer came. No doubt with an advance for the attics and cellars of ‘not there, not here’. And ‘this’ll do fine’. It has enough words, doesn’t matter what they are about. Available for pre-order, to which I appended my contribution. The book signings and speech making will follow.
This book, which shall remain nameless, is a lens to light the fire of indignation to a roaring blaze. For those of us who have too many stories to tell, without enough life left to tell them, without the agent to promote them, without the pedigree to make a sow’s ear from a silk purse, are dealt a final body blow with the current hype of this cynical exercise in self-promotion. It is not a novel, not a memoir, not a non-fiction trawl through illustrious forebears, but a non- book. It is a catalogue of harrowing self-congratulation for being too well connected. Very well written.
A bit like trawling through recipes under consideration by Marco Pierre White but never cooked.
Still hungry for answers.