Literary Locations

This Week’s Bit of String: Under the patchwork quilt

My grandparents’ guest bedroom was one of my favourite places. A rocking chair in the corner, a handmade crazy quilt on the bed. Shelves of AMC magazines that my Grandpa kept, unwilling to throw away anything with portraits of cinema’s Golden Age stars. The nightstands, under the dropped eaves, were metal and wire 1970s pieces loaded with books.

The books would change, and I never delved into how or why. Was my Grammy exchanging them with her sisters? Did my older cousins swap them out? However it happened, rootling around in this bedroom was where I discovered Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.

This is the quilt from Grammy’s house, in a writing corner I briefly had here before some, erm, home “improvements” commenced

It was an abridged version, still hefty, a yellow hardcover with that plastic that peels off in satiny strands if you pick at it distractedly while you read. There were a few black and white illustrations, the sisters each given distinct appearances. 

I was 9 or 10 when I found the book and read a few pages while my siblings ran around. The opening image of Jo stubbornly tomboying, sticking her hands in her pockets and whistling, made me laugh and I read it to the others and we all mimicked the gesture.

Family Home

At that point, my grandparents had lived in their Vermont house for at least 50 years, raising 6 children there. A pastiche of wallpapers, AM radio, the smell of American chop suey or home-baked donuts, and all objects well-worn, softened at the edges. Keeping the same house for so long felt magical, as if the air we breathed there was different, the atmosphere more sustaining.

During my latest summer visit to New England, I took a trip with my two sisters down to Massachusetts to see Orchard House, where Louisa May Alcott lived with her family (after they’d moved dozens of times, due to financial struggles). It was a hundred degrees out, with a major heat warning cautioning everyone to stay inside. Fortunately for us, Orchard House is gently air conditioned, preserving the many artefacts within.

Recognise it?

We were amazed at how authentic the place still is. Nearly all furnishings were used or made by the Alcott family. Paintings by Louisa’s youngest sister May (aka Amy), doll clothes stitched by Lizzie (Beth), crocheted bedspreads and even the wedding dress of the oldest sister Anna (Meg). We were quite awestruck.

In the master bedroom, there was even a timetable devised by Mrs. Alcott (Marmee), allotting how many hours the girls ought to spend on learning, on chores, and on other types of enrichment. It reminded us of the chore charts our mother would create to encourage the three of us plus our brother to each do our share.

A Room of One’s Own

While my clever and crafty sisters took great interest in different crochet and knitted pieces, I geeked out over Louisa’s room. She had her own writing desk, a white, rounded table her father built her. It jutted out between two sunny windows. This was exceptionally rare, for a women to have a desk.

The desk was ornamented with a nautilus-shaped inkwell, very Transcendentalist, and pens given to Louisa by her mother. Mrs. Alcott had composed a little poem to go with them, a prayer that the Muse would keep Louisa’s creative fires burning. Such obvious support really moved me.

I’ve now read Little Women more than once, unabridged as well as that old abridged version, along with some of Alcott’s other works. If you’ve also read it, and/or watched the film adaptations (two of the more recent ones were filmed at the actual Orchard House so it is instantly recognisable), you’ll remember that Jo (aka Louisa) writes up in the garret, and stores her pages in a disused tin kitchen. However, Orchard House doesn’t have an accessible attic.

Schoolhouse behind Orchard House where the Alcotts and other Transcendentalists educated newly freed people from Missouri.

Much of Little Women is based on Louisa’s life, and I’m sure in the dozens of other places she lived while growing up, she did write in attics and in all kinds of nooks and crannies. I wonder if she looked back on those corners with the most nostalgia, and perhaps even found them more inspiring, despite the wonderful space she ended up with.

Certainly, creating a writing garret for the character of Jo was a brilliant authorial choice. Think of how many young, non-affluent readers Louisa made writing feel accessible to. You don’t need a desk, or a view, or a room of your own to write. Not according to Little Women, anyway.

That was something that I loved about the book growing up, and the Winona Ryder film version that came out when I was in high school. Thoughts of Jo, bundled up against the cold, writing through the night really motivated me to work harder. Whether it was under that quilt on my grandparents’ guest bed, or in a basement corner on a typewriter that cost $5 at a yard sale and that I later abandoned after finding a snake in it, or in countless notebooks on bumpy bus rides or squishy sofas or prickly theatre seats at dress rehearsals; whether it was with shouting children or my husband trumpeting upstairs; whether it was scribbling at a bar between taking orders from customers or in the back of a woodworking shop while my students were learning new skills on a field trip… Sometimes, the most unlikely writing places are the ones that stick with us. They yield the hard-earned words, they witness the flood of the ideas that simply will not be kept back.

After all, a main message of Little Women is how hard work makes life feel more meaningful. It was nice to see this backed up by the many loved, homemade objects in the Alcott house, just as I remember them being in my grandparents’ home.

What sorts of places have you written in, and who are the writers or characters that have inspired you to do so?

Straying from the Original

This Week’s Bit of String: Ready for the close-up

To prepare for her A-Level Photography next year, I took a Year 11 student on a little expedition Thursday morning before the blue skies were completely obscured. We both had our mobile phone cameras and we found a wealth of photo ops right behind the school. 

My student is a fan of the big picture. She stands back to get everything in one photo. I’m rather the same. It’s challenging to look at a whole panorama and remember to consider whether it would be even more striking from other angles, or broken down into close-ups.

Bit like writing, really.

One of our findings.

So we were trying to get examples of low angles, high angles, and macrophotography. I found myself in a much more creative frame of mind, running around going, “Ooh, what if we tried this?”

My lovely autistic student started out not doing close-ups. I showed her examples of macrophotography, but her method was to say, “Out of the way, I’m going to take a picture!” She’d take one from really far, zoom in as much as possible, and crop after. The resolution of doing it this way is not ideal.

What the Framers Had in Mind

Framing is important. Proximity is, too. We’re working on Photography before Year 12 has officially started in order to ease this young lady into new ways of doing things. Whether we’re neurodivergent or not, we all need time to break habits and see new perspectives. 

When it comes to running a country, the United States had a real headstart. The revered U.S. Constitution is pretty much the first of its kind, and is now about 234 years old. Did you know almost every other country in the world has a constitution now, and most were written in the last hundred years?  

My favourite one I took. It’s through a table tennis divider.

Needless to say, that encompasses a vast array of nations with varying success at the democratic experiment. But some of those countries are doing just fine, and are not in any way less free, equal, or prosperous. Which is weird, because who knew a people could derive liberty from a document NOT written by a few white guys in powdered wigs who thought not-white and not-male humans could be property.

As ever, much Supreme Court controversy comes from how “originalist” its Justices want to be, or not. Must all US legislations still be measured against the words of the original founding documents, or is there room to grow?

The thing is, even originalism is very much up for interpretation. If a law pertains to something not referenced in the Constitution, then is that thing not allowed to exist at all? Or does it mean we can do what we want with it? And there are many angles to originalism, and different approaches have been developed over the years.

Now What I’m Gonna Say May Sound Indelicate

The Founders themselves were not exactly orginalists. They included Amendment 9 to ensure that “unenumerated rights” which they might not have known about could still be allowed to exist, much later. They also went and added 2 more amendments in less than 20 years. I wonder if they envisioned that 234 years later, a top state official would explain before Congress that he believes their Constitution is “divinely inspired.” Particularly given most of the Founders were more interested in Locke and Rousseau than they were in the Bible.

When Edison invented his light bulb, did he expect we’d still be using the exact same version a century later? Because I don’t think we are. 

I say we get a whole new Constitution. Give the thing a good edit; keep it broad yes, but maybe offer some clarity. Schedule it in for a full-on maintenance every fifty years maximum, to be carried out by a mix of scholars and ordinary people selected like jury duty. Look at the nation from new angles, get up close and see rather than continually trying to crop and fit the vision Jefferson et al. had. The resolution from how much they’d have had to zoom in to see us now, and vice versa, is just awful.

Just put a little effort in. One of my macro shots on Thursday

A new Constitution would never happen, I know. America has far bigger problems (although a lot of them stem from extreme constitutional interpretations) and too little time and money.

By the way, money features a LOT in the Constitution. Imports, duties, trade. War’s in there a fair bit. It’s true that women and God are never mentioned. Males are mentioned, and in fact Article I Section 8 mentions pirates! Ooh. So if you want to be super originalist, the Supreme Court has a lot more basis to rule regarding pirates than regarding women.

I really like some of what I’ve written, but I wouldn’t want anyone to base how they live their entire life around them, let alone how a whole country has to live. Though it’s exhausting work, the power to edit and evolve is a great relief and, well, freedom; as is the ability to learn from new people, whose voices may have been stifled before.

My student did start taking close-ups at the end of our session, by the way. She saw a single, white bindweed blossom grown up through a bush and charged right in through the branches to capture a shot of this “lonely flower.” I’m excited to see what else is going to inspire her, and learn from that myself.


Imagining What Can Save Us

This Week’s Bit of String: Miners and runaways

A hundred million years ago, according to geologists, the Southwestern region of the UK was underwater, populated by sea urchins and other such creatures. As the seas dried, the remains of those little shelled beings were compressed through extreme heat into our incredible coastal cliffs.

The same coast which Roman soldiers breached a couple thousand years ago, undoubtedly bringing with them enslaved persons from various corners of their territory. They discovered the cliffs near Beer, now a lovely seaside village in Devon, and began to quarry the stone, building arches underground to access it.

From Roman times to the 1500s, the method of extracting Beer’s pale, chalky limestone didn’t evolve much. Workers picked clear the top of a chamber, a crawlspace about 3 feet high, then climbed in and, in the cold darkness for up to 14 hours daily six days per week, they picked downward to carve blocks, 4 tonnes at a time.

When the Church ran the quarry, in the Middle Ages, they even forced miners to buy their own candles. And if a block had flint or a crack in it, the miner didn’t get paid for that day.

View through a Roman arch

These blocks, made of ancient crumbled seashells and dug out by men in harshest conditions, have been used in more than half of Britain’s cathedrals, and around the world.

I learned about Beer’s miners on a quarry tour last weekend. I wondered, how on earth could people keep living with such a laborious, unrewarding existence?

One answer, apparently, is that the miners drank lots of rough cider. And probably they were pretty friendly with each other even while deafening one another from the echo of their picks. Maybe they had nice families waiting for them at home.

But they must also have been picturing themselves somewhere else. It’s hard to imagine a life without imagining, isn’t it?

Of course, we are lucky now to access books, travel, music, and things that clue us in to alternative existences. Before all those, there still would have been storytelling and songs, there would have been starry skies and vast seas and the people who sail them. Even medieval people might have had something to distract them as they worked. Did they know about the Romans before them, and imagine proving themselves in a gladiatorial ring, marching into a hot ancient city to a hero’s welcome?

Descents of Fancy

The day after visiting Beer and its caves, we went toward Lyme Regis and looked for fossils. There’s a whole beach where the Jurassic layer has shifted from under the cliffs, creating the “Ammonite Pavement.” Vast slabs with prehistoric squid shells perfectly visible.

I used a short thin stone to pry loose part of a clay underlayer, with lots of little scallopy fossils. As I pounded the edges of my chosen rock, I imagined I was a miner with my pickaxe, providing cathedral material.

I can picture this tree lifting its roots and just shimmying down the cliff

Do other creative people sometimes imagine a tougher existence rather than a rosier one? It’s like when I was little and my sister and I pretended we were running away from a Dickensian workhouse or a slave plantation every time we packed for an overnight at Grandma’s.
By picturing ourselves in those situations, we weren’t trying to claim the suffering others went through, or minimise it. Maybe we were a little callous to inject this sort of peril to make our lives more exciting. But also, I think that spending mental time in such stories helped make us more empathetic as we grew up. Possibly, hopefully, it makes us a little less dramatic about the trials we have in our own lives.

When I chisel a fossil free, I’m just taking it home so I can glance at it occasionally, and smile remembering a sunny little adventure. It’s not going to form the grand arch of a cathedral or the dungeon stairs in the Tower of London. Those Beer miners, for all their struggles, at least were part of something great and I’m so glad their contributions are now recognised, in the Quarry tour and in our imaginations.

Building Great Things

When I think about people like those miners, or when I stand in a Remembrance Service and listen to the names read out of terrified young soldiers who died in battle, I concentrate really hard on who they might have been as humans. This is probably silly, even delusional, but I hope the waves of my empathy somehow make it back to those people. So that, for an instant, they sense they’re not forgotten.

More imagination fuel–this rose must have some magical power, right?

Obviously it’s not enough to just imagine what people’s lives were like in the past; there are people struggling now and we need to donate, amplify, and vote in ways which benefit them. I think imagining is a strong motivator though.

Our ability to imagine, and then to empathise, may set us apart as a species (although, have you ever watched a cat slink around outside? I think our feline friends have some extremely melodramatic fantasies…) but at our core we are self-interested. In order to care about someone else’s plight, it helps to picture ourselves in their stead.

In the aftermath of 2001’s terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. John Lennon’s song “Imagine” was banned from radio stations. Because if people are using their imaginations, that might not be so good for the weapons industry’s profits.

Of course, running alternate scenarios in our heads also just makes things more interesting. When I have to sit quietly with my students in their exams, I can pretend I’m actually in the Great Hall at Hogwarts taking O.W.L.S. tests. If stress is keeping me awake at night, I play a comforting memory of my Grammy’s voice. And I probably won’t use the miners of Beer in a story, because their reality feels so extreme I don’t think I could do it justice. But it’s inspiring to contemplate the many layers of history that have unfolded on the very earth beneath our feet.

What daydreams have you embarked on lately?

2021 Reading Round-Up

This wasn’t my most prodigious reading year, but I’m incredibly grateful for the books I did get to read. There were some long-anticipated hits, and some delightful surprises. In my top ten alone, there’s quite a range from comics to inspiration to memoir with of course plenty of forays into fiction.

As always, I’m including a favourite quote from each book. That’s the best bit! Previous years’ top ten lists are here, here, here, and here.

Things I Don’t Want to Know by Deborah Levy

This is a quick read, meandering through episodes of Levy’s writing life. From the riveting opening sentence through travels in Majorca and flashbacks to Levy’s childhood in apartheid South Africa, I was engrossed in her reflections. As she crosses geographical borders, she also investigates the borders between secrecy and sharing. How deeply can women writers afford to feel?

I read The Midnight Library while visiting London after Christmas

“Smiling was a way of keeping people out of your head even though you’d opened your head when you parted your lips.”

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

An exploration of the multiverse that can result from a single life, Haig’s popular novel is like having someone read you a choose-your-own adventure book. The protagonist gets to pick different volumes off the shelves and read herself into alternate lives. It culminates with satisfying vibes of “Merry Christmas, you beautiful old broken down Building and Loan!”

“She had shrunk for him, but he still hadn’t found the space he needed.”

Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh

Another volume of her irreverent, candid, hand-illustrated memoir. My whole family loves Brosh’s work. I laughed hysterically reading about how she raided her neighbour’s house as a child, and then later in the book I cried at her struggles. She champions her uniqueness while also being incredibly relatable.

“Because that’s intimacy, Buckaroos. Somebody who understands exactly how weird you are, and you understand how weird they are, and you’re sort of in a mutually beneficial hostage situation.”

Brick Lane by Monica Ali

One sister stays in Bangladesh and tries to earn her living in a garment factory and then as a household servant, while the other comes to London as a Muslim bride, speaking no English. Multifaceted characters, perfect descriptions, a plot spanning two continents and volatile periods in recent history.

Finished Brick Lane while headed north to the Lakes District in the summer.

“Outside, mist bearded the lampposts and a gang of pigeons turned weary circles on the grass like prisoners in an exercise yard.”

The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander

This is a pivotal read for shaking up your routine, challenging yourself, and making the most of life. It helps you believe in the positives—not just in yourself, but in others. I loved the “Giving an A” chapter, promising students an A in a college course provided they write a detailed letter at the start on what they’ll do to earn it, and then follow through.

“It is only when we make mistakes in performance that we can really begin to notice what needs attention. In fact, I actively train my [music] students that when they make a mistake, they are to lift their arms in the air, smile, and say, ‘How fascinating!’ I recommend that everyone do this.”

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

An award-winning debut novel tackling race and class, and having to grow up. I loved the depictions of friendships, and child-rearing. The main characters are a baby-sitter who loves her charge so much it brought tears to my eyes, and a mum who is still not comfortable enough in her own skin to genuinely care for a pre-schooler who may have the same insecurities.

“‘You get real fired up about what happened that night in Market Depot. But I don’t need you to be mad that it happened. I need you to be mad that it just, like… happens.’”

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

This is also a dual narrative about race and class, but it’s set in the American South before the Civil War and Emancipation. The enslaved characters try to keep their culture alive and their family bonds unbroken. I read it fearing for their safety, but also admiring the spirit of the main character, Handful.

“You come from your mauma, you sleep in the bed with her till you’re near twenty years grown, and you still don’t know what haunches in the dark corners of her.”

Elinor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

A mystery, almost a thriller, as well as a fictional journey of self-discovery. The narrative voice is so compelling, you feel for her and want to protect her even as she self-sabotages her quest for companionship by being harsh with those around her. It’s uplifting to read about Elinor coming to terms with not being completely fine.

“These days, loneliness is the new cancer—a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way. A fearful, incurable thing so horrifying you dare not mention it; other people don’t want to hear the word spoken aloud for fear that they might too be afflicted, or that it might tempt fate into visiting a similar horror upon them.”

Springtime back garden fun with these floofs, reading Brown Baby.

Brown Baby by Nikesh Shukla

Reading this memoir is like spending a day with your best friend. I really wanted to turn up on Shukla’s doorstep and ask to go walking together or something. This is a memoir about the sacrifices and joys of parenting, about raising a small person of colour in an unwelcoming world, about grief and making connections with the family you grew up with. He puts everything in it really, and writes with such warmth and humour.

“If you sleep when the baby sleeps, you have effectively given up. You live by their routine. You are pandering to their tyranny. You’re never sleeping longer than an hour anymore. And you’re wearing dirty pants.”

The Dig Street Festival by Chris Walsh

This hilarious and lovely novel comes from independent publisher Louise Walters Books, and I will be grateful to Twitter forever because without it I wouldn’t have heard about Walsh’s book. Very British and quirky, it takes an endearing, well-meaning protagonist with a Dostoevsky-ish inner monologue through Kafkaesque plot twists with a Dickensian cast of characters. Honestly, it’s just mad fun; please give it some love.

The trouble was, our minds were hard-wired to find patterns in any thing, and to lock into them like meaning-seeking missiles. Not only would we hungrily identify patterns, we would immediately adopt them, fatten them up, farm them, breed and multiply them.”

If you’ve already discovered any of these stories, let’s talk! If you haven’t read them before but decide to give one or two a try, I hope you just love them.

Seven Wanders of 2020

Predictably, it was all British hikes last year. No European cities or the mountain lakes of home. Still, I’m lucky to live with countryside a mile away, to step out my door and choose a walking circuit of 3.5, 4.5, or 6 miles.

Weeks went by when we weren’t allowed even to drive a few minutes and explore Somewhere Else. Temporary easing of restrictions assigned extra value to sojourns that might otherwise not have been so memorable. And when we couldn’t travel, we could look to rainbows or holiday decorations. I think the people who put out massive displays of festive lights and inflatables by the third week of November, brightening the long nights, deserve to have a street named after them.

Dursley: Our Own Town

We’ve been familiar with the local hills for some time, but lockdown meant perusing churchyards, looking up name origins, finding the rare street less homogenous and more individualised than others.

Living in houses squished right up next to each other is hard. The constant reminders of other people practically on top of you, it’s exhausting. And when we fled for our daily walk, there were always a number of people doing the same. My son and I discovered more paths to the river (now more of a stream) and I may have gone mad without access to water in nature. Every day I incorporate the river in my walk, take my headphones off when I reach it, tell it hello, listen to its hurried reply, and imagine I could be on a riverbank anywhere in the world, letting it drown out the traffic and forgetting there are houses lined up on either bank.

Stroud Area: Selsley and Thrupp, A Few Miles Afield

My office is in Stroud so I used to go to this vegan hippie haven every day, walking the canal towpaths, listening to street musicians, frequenting little shops. For 3/4 of this year we could barely go at all. But our first journey out of town (by 7 or 8 miles) in the summer was to Selsley Common to see the dinosaurs, and my husband and I took a couple of canal walks later.

Woodchester: Local Lakes

Where I grew up every little rural town has its own lake plus various other ponds. That’s how you cool off in the summer. Over here, despite this Island being known for rainfall, there aren’t many accessible bodies of water. We had a couple of hikes (as did many others it would seem) at Woodchester, a National Trust estate with pretty combinations of wooded hills and manmade lakes, guarded by an unfinished gothic-style mansion which is pretty much the sort of place I intend to set my next novel.

Liverpool: Street Art and Maritime History

We managed to get a serious road trip in before this vibrant, friendly city was put into higher tier restrictions. With masks and constantly sanitised hands we explored museums to inspire whole fleets of stories: a branch of the Tate filled with modern art, the International Museum of Slavery, and the Maritime Museum. The grand if faded buildings still convey the city’s impressive history as emigration gateway and meeting place of cultures.

Charmouth, Seatown, and the Dorset Jurassic Coast

Plan E to celebrate my 40th in December was a cottage near the sea and fossil-hunting under the coastal cliffs. Plans A and B would have involved seeing my family in the US—I haven’t had a birthday with them since I turned 23. In the end, we were incredibly fortunate just to have this break 2 hours away, as it fell in the 3 weeks between Lockdown the Second and The Raising of the Tiers. And although the weather was generally poor, it left plenty of fossils to be found.

Combe Martin and North Devon’s Cliffs

As soon as the hospitality industry re-opened slightly in July, we went, for my first days off from work in months. Just to a cottage and lots of isolated hikes, mind you, no crowded beaches or anything like that. We love a bit of rock-scrambling and tide-pooling. The coastline in North Devon is pretty dramatic and made for good, even sunny, adventures.

Grasmere and Easedale Tarn: Proper Lakes

The main bit of our autumn road trip was spent a fair way North, in a Lake District shepherd’s hut with no electricity or running water. We hit Liverpool and the brief luxury of a half-empty hotel on our way back down. The Lake District is special for its own ancient landscape and language: fells and tarns and ghylls. Of course we hiked around Wast Water, England’s deepest lake at the foot of its sharpest peaks, and we visited lovely pubs and bakeries and came away with gingerbread and a glorious painting by Libby Edmondson. Our very favourite hike, though, was an unexpectedly bright afternoon walking along a beautiful purple-black river and ascending up to one of the glacial ponds, Easedale Tarn.

Did you get to do much exploring in 2020? If not, did you find anything special and new in your own local area?

In Pursuit

This Week’s Bit of String: Failed brakes

In the winter when my son was 14 months old, the brakes failed on our Ford and I did not have the funds to fix them. I was a single mum with work only as a substitute teacher. My baby’s childminder was up a steep hill in an area perhaps appropriately called Purmort, and the roads were often icy. He enjoyed the thrill ride, but the stress and terror of it nearly drove me to give up on life entirely.

It didn’t help that the childminder I’d used during the summer ended up stealing over $500 from me. I qualified for childcare assistance, but the state took a couple months with the paperwork and during that time, I paid the childminder in their stead. She took good care of my son and didn’t deserve to go so long unpaid. When the state reimbursed her for the full period, though, she never paid me back, and ghosted me after I changed jobs and providers.

I looked into support to get money. The town offered welfare grants, but a nice lady with 1980s hair and concerned eyes explained they were prohibited from contributing funds toward car repairs because public transport operated in our area. Even though said public transport only came twice a day and didn’t go within several miles of the new childminder’s hilltop house.

ANYTHING for this guy.

At the time all I could think about was getting enough money to keep my baby safe. I signed up for full state welfare, which meant I wasn’t allowed to indulge in the frivolity of completing a university degree, and that I essentially signed away my right to choose work. I would be required to spend a certain amount of time applying for jobs, and if I turned anything down because it didn’t seem the like the right fit, I’d be disqualified from assistance.

I got my brakes fixed though.

Guiding Principles

America’s Declaration of Independence lists our unalienable rights as: “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Thomas Jefferson was a privileged slave owner but he knew enough to write them in that order. If your life isn’t secure, you’re not likely to worry as much about the other two. We give up freedoms of privacy in order to be safe: at airports, for example.

Many people voted on Tuesday to protect the first two types of rights. Others voted being told—and eagerly believing—they also needed protection. People who think masks are prisons, guns are oxygen, and anyone who looks different is a criminal.

Boston, Revolutionary hotbed

When considering the shocking if tiny rise in Trump votes among white women, I can’t believe all these people were deceived by far right fear-mongering. Some of it must be about pursuing happiness, about whimpering, “But my taxes though,” and scurrying to the ballot box ignoring flagrant racism, corruption, misogyny, negligence, and atrocities.

The genesis of the nation began, after all, with objections over taxes. In America, property is sacrosanct, and has been since Revolutionary days, when American heroes Washington and Franklin objected to the Boston Tea Party due to the material damage. Now, it is quite acceptable to half the nation that a person armed with a semi-automatic rifle can go to another state and shoot Black Lives Matter protesters dead, all because a Target might get graffitied. Many of us, and very probably the Founding Fathers themselves, equated pursuit of happiness with pursuit of property or material goods (including, originally, actual human beings).

I wonder what we’d be like as a nation if we weren’t trained to pursue personal gain. What if Jefferson had written, “the pursuit of justice,” or “the appreciation of prosperity?”

Don’t Tread on Me

I live in the UK now. Government-issued allowances enable, in many cases, only one parent to work full-time so that childminders often aren’t needed. Then there is free half-time preschool, and university costs are capped. Medical care is free. Naturally, the nationalised systems could do with better funding. But any medical concern isn’t pursued my economic ruin.

My taxes though? They’re not low. Nevertheless we have a high standard of living. If there’s a book I want (and have time for), I can buy it, supporting local businesses instead of crawling to Amazon’s cut prices. We have funds to travel and eat out occasionally. And if there’s a car problem or anything like that, we get it fixed without too much angst. I won’t forget what absolute luxuries these are. If our taxes went up to fix the NHS, especially in pandemic times, I know that would be fine.

From a John Furnival piece. The statue’s form is made with Wall Street headlines, but the flame is Emma Lazarus’s poem inviting immigrants, reminding us what truly makes our nation shine

Looking with dismay on my divided home nation, I’m aware that as humans we make all sorts of justifications to ourselves. Would I be swayed, under some circumstance, to swallow lies and endorse cruelty? Could I, this time around, have done more to convince fellow Americans not to do that?

We all need to reflect. Many people are in even more dire straits than I was once. Hundreds of thousands sick, in debt, or dead from a disease ignored and even belittled by the political party in power. People afraid their marriages will be taken from them, people standing up against police brutality. Families simply pursuing life and liberty, torn from each other at America’s border. I didn’t think I needed to point this out: your personal issues or beliefs aren’t more important than those terrible predicaments.

Researching this post, I noticed the oft-overlooked third paragraph of the Declaration of Independence: “…all experience has shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” Jefferson probably had no idea how true that would one day be of his own new nation. With Biden about to take the presidency, I just hope he and Kamala Harris can put the brakes on our headlong pursuit of whatever we think, often falsely, benefits ourselves.

What Took So Long?

This Week’s Bit of String: A nation of former slaves

Long known as the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation, few people know Haiti’s history. It was founded in 1804 by the slave population who boldly overthrew their French “masters.” However, they were then forced to pay money for their freedom or the French (with British help) would reinvade. Haitians started their country in terrible debt, many of them uneducated. The world wouldn’t trade with them. They were never given a chance to catch up to other nations.

In contrast, the American Revolution originated over taxes. I remember my childhood disappointment when I learned this. How unglamorous and ignoble!

Imagine then my distress when I was told a couple years later that the American Civil War wasn’t over slavery, just states’ rights. Yes, it was over states’ rights to hold people captive and abuse them. However, the North wasn’t honourable enough to fight the South over liberty and equality. It wanted its stature and capital back.

One side of my protest sign, the other side reading, of course: Black Lives Matter.

And finally, I was presented with the embarrassing discrepancy between the actual dates of both World Wars and the smaller range of years I’d learned in American history books. We were years late to both fights. Land of the free and home of the brave—where were we?

Now people in my country are fighting for causes of greater value. Do our voices belong in this fight after being silent? What shortcomings held us back before?

Guilt and Persecution

People of colour in the USA and other countries have faced a similarly difficult journey to Haitians. No one rushed to provide freed slaves shelter or teach them to read. No one gave them therapy to recover from family separations. Instead there was sharecropping, for-profit incarceration, Jim Crow, lynching, redlining, police brutality, and probably more I haven’t read about yet.

155 years of those things doesn’t enable anyone to get over the even worse 246 slavery years that preceded them. Yet we’ve seen prominent white TV hosts argue that slavery wasn’t that bad, some masters were nice for goodness’ sake, while the same hosts raise hell if Starbucks makes a cup design less Christmassy.

A few of the Haitian people I was privileged to meet, and a reminder that the president insulted their entire country and population with only tepid objections from a handful of Republicans. Haitian lives matter.

Surely Jesus would not have shared Fox News’s priorities. However, religion seems to reinforce white silence now, perhaps because religions are focused around martyrs. Their exalted figures have suffered, and often people reduce that to an idea that suffering in itself warrants exultation. I believe that’s why some evangelicals support Trump rather than the African Americans living under constant bodily threat. His “suffering” is more like theirs.

In the social media age, many of us aren’t great at pausing our quest for attention. No one wants to relinquish a single ‘U ok hon?’ Whenever someone responds to Black lives matter with “All lives matter,” I picture a person uncomprehending of object permanence, who fears if their race loses the spotlight for an instant, they’ll disappear. A person who can’t see what’s worth fighting for.

Anti-racism means more than disapproving of extrajudicial killings. It means accepting—and expressing—that people have bigger, more ingrained problems than ours. It’s maintaining perspective: having to change our vocabulary to eradicate certain terms, for example, doesn’t equate to the abuses and injustices against people of colour which those terms represent. Feeling shame for how our systems treat minorities is uncomfortable, but nothing like actually receiving that treatment.

Deference and Dominance

In Haiti I noticed a lust to be white amongst some of the young people I met, as if their culture were still under invasion. My Haitian friends wrote me letters posted with stamps that showed white fairy tale characters, although their heritage is full of black heroes and legends. Schoolgirls tried to wipe a birthmark from my arm, not wanting my whiteness sullied.

We white people do the same thing, clinging to figures that have done nothing for us. We’ll settle for so little from those in power. $1200 for months of being unemployed during a pandemic, wow! Or: hey, that heavily armed police officer was polite when I asked directions. What’s all the fuss about?

When our race is the one in power, we have an innate belief that we as an individual can make it that far, too. We don’t want to upset the status quo because change might not benefit us. Why struggle against power figures who look like we do, who could one day be us?

Silence is compliance.” Kneeling in memory of of George Floyd with 200+ others in Stroud, UK

Up till now, some liked having local police departments driving armoured humvees. Some were glad when they could go to football games without having to witness a silent, kneeling plea to stop killing black people. And the rest of us who sympathised with Kaepernick’s point, and who felt nervous about law enforcement with deadly weapons, we didn’t want an argument. Partly we cloaked this in insecurity: who are we to speak up, when we’ve not been ordained by racial struggle? But also it was about staying in our comfort zone.

Then there was a grossly mishandled pandemic. The administration didn’t want to share medical supplies, calling them “ours.” Protest broke out and they called cities “battle spaces” and said they’d send in the military to “dominate.” Increasingly it’s clear the president sees America as another building to stamp his name on.

So more of us decide to fight. Our status quo is already threatened from the top. We might as well disrupt it.

It’s human to care more about things that affect us. We still ache for people who live in fear, and who grieve for loved ones unjustly taken. But we’re not the heroes here. In the great white American tradition, let’s fight even though we’re late, even with less than selfless motives.

This is my attempt to examine my own privilege. Hopefully other white people do the same. People of colour shouldn’t have to explain it to us yet again! Let’s listen to their stories and thoughts, not demand them.

Flags and welcome sign in Minneapolis, USA

There are countless black people dealing gracefully with white reluctance to face their pain. Check out American footballer Emmanuel Acho’s series “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man—” spoiler, he doesn’t make it uncomfortable at all. Visit Patrisse Cullors’s website, who co-founded the Black Lives Matter movement, and understand the aims of all the groups under the Organizations tab. Consider Reni Eddo-Lodge’s words in her book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race: “I don’t want to see white people wasting precious time profusely apologising rather than actively doing things.” Read Langston Hughes’s poem “Let America Be America Again” and Danez Smith’s “not an elegy for Mike Brown.” Recognise why people are fighting for change.

So amplify, and give money! Support protests as a reminder to legislators that we’re the ones who put them there. Since I’ve been to Minneapolis and loved it but never in my mind connected it to the nearby tragedy of Philando Castile, so far their Freedom Fund is the one I’ve chosen to donate to. Next up: more family discussions, more emails to officials, more sharing minorities’ thoughts and work, more donations to educational funding, and I think I’ll check out Dr. Mary Frances Berry’s book History Teaches Us to Resist.

How are you supporting change?

Getting the Picture

This Week’s Bit of String: Racial bias in a dancing competition?

In December 2016, Ore Oduba won the glitter ball on Strictly Come Dancing. My son was quite excited about this, and admittedly I was too, enchanted by Ore and Joanne’s jive in Week 4.

But my son had been anxious as the final drew near. Historically, celebrities of colour get fewer votes from the audience, judging by the frequency they are in the bottom two. Often they dance perfectly well. They just don’t get the audience votes, and have to be ‘saved’ by the judges.

So every year there are concerned murmurs about whether the dancing show itself is racist, and then the requisite backlash from white people offended by the very suggestion.

Here’s the thing: there are more white people than not in this country, and there are probably more white people than not watching Strictly Come Dancing. Humans gravitate toward the familiar, the reflective, so the many white viewers may well vote for a white celebrity. Amongst very talented candidates, that tiny blip of recognition on the subconscious radars of thousands wields some influence.

It’s not overt racism, I think (I hope), but innate bias. We need to be aware of it. To probe our decisions a little, rather than huffily dismiss concerns others have about it.

I notice our gravitation toward the recognisable in other areas. My name, for example. People glance at it and assume it’s Natasha, although they’re neglecting an s and slapping an h in willy-nilly. People see what they’ve seen before.

Studies also show that babies are drawn to certain types of faces—after a few months. There’s an interesting article on that in Slate, here. As we develop (or supposedly develop), we suffer from ‘perceptual narrowing,’ as if our senses get stuck in a rut. If we’re not exposed to a broad range of sights, we will stop looking for them.

Re-Visualising History

With these biases and predilections in mind, I’ve been trying to get the right mental image for the protagonists in my novel about Eve.

Usually when we write a story, it plays vividly in our imaginations, a cinema multiplex in our brains open 24/7. The same is true for me now, but because this story has its basis in something other than my imagination, I have a distinct unease that the imagery is not my own.

Recall every classical painting or children’s Bible illustration you might have happened upon that depicts Adam and Eve. Flowing gold locks—maybe sometimes brown hair, but always porcelain skin, right? God would have been cruel to form such pasty creatures and pop them down under the Middle Eastern sun.

Selection of National Geographic magazines
I’ve been trawling through my best sources for portraits resembling early peoples of Southern Iraq/ North of the Persian Gulf.

Anthropology traces the first humans back to Africa. At some point we probably all had dark skin as a clever, preferable adaptation. One day that feature may well win out evolutionally again. For my work-in-progress I’m using a less scientific source, but even the Bible says Adam was created of the earth’s dust, and then Eve was formed of Adam— probably not lily white, then.

It might be unfair to say racism is behind all the whitewashing that Adam and Eve underwent over the centuries. But plenty of people have twisted passages from early Genesis to support racist ideologies.

For example, after Eve’s son Cain (also a major character in the book I’m working on, and quite fascinating to me) is ‘marked’ by God for committing fratricide, certain factions have said that mark was black skin. A curse justifying slavery and other cruel practices against millions of people. However, God marked Cain not as a curse, but a sign of guardianship, to show He would wreak vengeance upon anyone who, in turn, harmed Cain. In my book I’ve put it on Cain’s upper cheek, figuring it would have to be quite visible:

Against his dark skin it was blanched white as if God had seared through to his very bones.

It’s still hard to conjure up the right image in my head. Not just because I’ve had years of the wrong images, but also because I’ve never known many people of Middle Eastern origin. I’ve unwittingly had my own perceptual narrowing of sorts.

I guess, though, that I don’t always see my characters when I’m writing a story. Most often I see scenes through the protagonists’ eyes: their surroundings, their loved ones and interests.

And I hear the voices. Dialogue—external and internal—scrolls constantly through my head, with or without a precise picture of who’s speaking the lines.

Here Be Dragons

Stitched emblem of a Chinese-style red and black dragon
Oh hey, Gabriel.

It’s been less challenging to picture Eden, the punishing land around it, and the angels charged with keeping the two separate. I decided a while back that our ideas of angels suffered a major perceptual narrowing.

Why are they always portrayed as looking human? There’s no indication they’d resemble us at all. The creation story says God made people ‘in His own image,’ which to me implies the angels weren’t made that way. Besides, if Lucifer, himself an angel, was the tempter in the Garden, he’s also described as a serpent. A serpent with arms and legs, that is, which in his case were struck off as punishment for that fruit episode.

So angels are serpents with arms and legs…how about they breathe fire, too? Yeah, I decided dragons are actually angels. Handy critters to know when outside the Garden Adam and Eve have to keep warm and cook food.

I’ve had Gabriel describe it thus:

‘The man and woman went forth and multiplied. That was the Boss’s only command they followed unerringly, although their kind bred division over the years, too. Their descendants assumed we, the Boss’s messengers, should be shaped like men, often slaying us when we appeared.’

So this book idea evolves to challenge old perceptions: white ancestors, humanoid angels…What will it take on next? Well, there’s God, obviously. Tune in next week to find out how He’ll look and sound.

What steps do you take to fight perceptual narrowing in your creative endeavours?

Believing What We Read

This Week’s Bit of String: Dinner with the minister

Quite a few years ago we had dinner at a Southern Baptist pastor’s house. I’d met his family at a New England playground when our son was little, and as they’d recently arrived from South Carolina attempting to reform us heathen Yankees, they were very friendly and keen to get our kids together.

‘He’s a pastor,’ I informed my British husband before introducing him. ‘Just bear that in mind.’

During the meal, the two men chatted merrily. The minister asked my husband about his physics studies, and eventually followed up with, ‘So do you believe in evolution?’

My husband laughed, leaning back in his chair. ‘Well, I don’t know anyone who believes in creation!’

‘Ah do,’ drawled the pastor calmly.

‘Do you?’ my husband asked me, visibly shaken to his core.

I shrugged. I was raised to, certainly, but in the midst of all the other issues and debates raging through life, I’d never found that one to be a battle worth fighting.

Old Premise, New Ideas

Is it so very important where we come from? I mean, to an extent it is. There’s a lot to learn about more recent history (post-Big Bang or Creation or what have you) that better informs our view of the world and of humanity. But I bumble along in my explorations happily resigned to uncertainty regarding the world’s origin story.

On a mental level, I see the logic of the Big Bang Theory. But the creation story still fascinates me.

Sculpture of a woman embracing a globe
Mother of all…

I’m working on a new novel, starring and told by Eve—‘mother of all the living.’ What would it be like, acting as the prototype for 50% of an entire species? How would she learn to be a woman when no other women were around (and not many men either)?

I’m scribbling the early chapters, as well as researching at the moment. I haven’t read a lot around this issue. I’m planning to read Paradise Lost, and look at the Apocrypha as well. So far, I just keep reading the first chapters of Genesis. And honestly, it’s intriguing.

I’m sure to many, the Biblical idea of Intelligent Design sounds overbearing and rigid. But each verse poses huge questions and leaves much to the imagination.

For example, after Eve and Adam took the forbidden fruit, God clothed them in animal skins. How? Was this the first animal slaughter? Could it, further, have been an animal they’d loved in that place of peace?

Eve is never named in that account until after being cursed by God and exiled from Eden. She’s called ‘the woman,’ or ‘Adam’s wife’ up till then. That’s cold. Why?

Then again, considering Adam’s name simply means man, and according to the story there were no other men or women around, I guess they wouldn’t have needed to call each other anything else.

Factual Truth Versus Character Truth

So I’m researching, and questioning, and daydreaming. Not because I intend to find out exactly what happened in the first days of earth, but because it’s fun to imagine.

Isn’t it, in a way, more exciting not to know or worry about whether a book’s premise is true? Hogwarts probably doesn’t exist, and when you think about it, a ring holding dominion over all Middle Earth is somewhat bizarre. But we love finding out how characters—people rather like us—might react in such inventive scenarios.

Bristol Cathedral interior
And we can marvel at the beauty of something without sharing in the faith it represents.

It’s not exactly difficult to imagine a woman breaking a rule—she’s sure she’s only bending it a little—in order to gain some equal footing. So what if it takes place in a garden paradise that’s just appeared out of nowhere, with angels strolling and demons lurking? I feel I can still inject plausibility into her plight.

I think there’s a vital difference between believing a book and believing in a book. It’s the difference between veracity and value; the hierarchical inferiority of situation to character. Aren’t we capable of savouring a protagonist’s authenticity without completely swallowing their circumstances?

I keep going back to this quote from Yann Martel’s eponymous character in Life of Pi: ‘If you stumble at mere believability, what are you living for? Isn’t love hard to believe?’

I’m not putting my trust in the words of Genesis. But it draws me in and I accept its story, the same way I accept a John Irving story or a Joanne Harris one. Fiction writers tell the truth of their characters, and I’m prepared to believe them. Tell me a character, Biblical or otherwise, did such-and-such: fine, I’ll play along. I’ll ponder why, and to what effect.

Do you find it necessary to establish the complete veracity of a book in order to get involved? What makes a story more or less believable—how happy are you to fill in the gaps?

A Statue is to History as a Facebook Profile Picture is to Life

This week’s bit of string: A doctor and a gentleman

In Central Park, a statue pays homage to Dr. J. Marion Sims, a pioneer of gynaecology who founded the New York Women’s Hospital, the first hospital expressly for women. He is described on the statue’s plaque as a philanthropist who advanced the reputation of American medical practice throughout the world. This influential doctor is also memorialised elsewhere, including on State House grounds in South Carolina.

Unfortunately, Dr. Sims is also known for his sadism. He made his scientific advances by experimenting without anaesthetic on slave women in the nineteenth century. As protester Seshat Mack notes in this New York Daily Post article, ‘he was a man who recognized the humanity of black slaves to use them for medical research about the human body — but not enough to recognize and treat their pain during surgery.’

A statue is a melodramatically posed likeness of a single person, often designed and made decades after their death. That is not history. People advocating the relocation of confederate statues aren’t trying to erase history; they’re giving voice to a more authentic one. It’s not a question of whether Dr. Sims and the confederacy existed, but of whether they deserve honour.

I’m not suggesting history is relative and that people can take from it what they want to. I’m saying it’s big, and that people will try to take from it what they want. We have to constantly watch out for that.

Worthy Monuments

With their ability to portray multiple facets of an event, maybe books are some of our more effective memorials. I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin when I was ten, already intrigued by the period. The idea of the Underground Railroad drew me; the excitement of escaping slavery. Even after reading Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, which doesn’t exactly gloss things over, I could not have grasped the magnitude of people for whom there was no escape. It’s still hard to imagine the despair of living in that situation for generations.

Purposefully rusted metal monuments in Gheluvelt Park
Gheluvelt WWI Memorial. Each column represents two months of the war, while just one centimetre of height represents 500 casualties.

What statue, memorial, or even work of literature can convey the suffering of possibly millions of slaves?

Comparatively speaking, I have not much considered the stories of confederate soldiers: ordinary, often poor men persuaded or conscripted into a horrific war. Some of the statues being removed are also memorials to those men, engraved with names of the town’s dead. Does bravery for a bad cause still deserve honour? It’s easy to imagine that a lot of those names refer to decent people, so I sympathise that those memorials mean something to their descendants.

But they aren’t the only piece of history. Some confederate statues are put up on former slave auction site. Hang on, who sacrificed what here? Surely the ones in chains, sold to bolster a white economy, should be remembered. It makes sense to relocate confederate statues to museums or private collections. Government and municipal buildings may sometimes showcase only one side of history, but let’s attempt not to use such a jagged-edged fragment of it.

Meaningful Memorials

In Bristol, UK, near where I now live, a venerable music hall is soon to be renamed. It was called Colston Hall, after a city benefactor (or at least, after the street that’s named after him). However, that philanthropist was also heavily involved in the slave trade, instrumental in the kidnapping of 85,000 Africans.

Cascading pools in the footprint of the World Trade Center
Ground Zero

I have enjoyed shows at Colston Hall. Those bands and memories will still exist under a new venue name. And I’m happy for the change. Who really wants to say, ‘Well, you may have been oppressed and brutalised by something for generations, but I wasn’t, so who cares?’

I doubt many people attending concerts at Colston Hall will notice the name change. Before the renaming campaign, most of us didn’t have a clue who Colston was. Similarly, how many times do we encounter a statue in a park or town centre and actually read the informational plaque, however sparse and biased? There’s not so much honour in being a statue, loved more by pigeons than anyone else.

These days monuments tend not to be statues. We’ve moved on in our attempts to portray the gravity of a tragic event. The World War I memorial in Gheluvelt Park, Worcester, represents the number of casualties in every month of the war. It introduces a staggering sense of scale. Other recent monuments encourage reflection. The pools at Ground Zero and Oklahoma City—my uncle called the latter the most memorable thing he saw in an entire cross-country trip.

Could there possibly be such a memorial to slaves? Could we replace the likenesses of individual confederate figures with a confederacy monument that recognises its bravery yet also the brutal ugliness of its cause? I suspect a truly effective version of either one of those things would be more than just a statue.