I’m a marxist

I’m a marxist, but the Groucho kind.  I didn’t say it: a Parisian revolutionary did, in 1968.  It’s very apt.  I have found it very difficult to understand what I think about politics at the moment.  Laughing about the Labour party seems to be the only thing to do.

It seems to me that there are three issues.  First, the robust opposition of the government position on any policy.  Second, what will happen to the Labour party?  Third, social media and national media’s role in it all.  My problems seem to lie with the third issue.

Everyone – and that is EVERYONE seems to have an opinion – on everything.  This is a good thing, I’m sure it is.  But having an opinion is not necessarily the same as having an informed opinion.  So often when I’m talking to people on the street or at a party, I am struck by the rehashing of an opinion from one editorial or another, as if offering up an opinion because it has been published is good enough.  Someone’s opinion formed by experience and real thought, I value.  Hearing the editorial of the Telegraph or the Observer from two days ago is boring and doesn’t inform my view.  When people spout it onto their Facebook status, as they often did during the Remain/Brexit vote and its aftermath, it becomes tiresome.

Ascertainable information, that’s where we need to start.  This leads me to my first issue.  I love Jeremy Corbyn.  I love what he is trying to do.  I love that he is setting out to change the way that politics works, and that he is for everything I want – nuclear disarmament, renationalisation of the railways, anti-austerity among other things.  I think that this is a movement that used to be idealistic and is now hope that could become reality.  But – and this is a big but.  It is a movement.  And a movement is different from government.  When you are the major party of the opposition, you are part of the government, as far as our constitution is concerned.  Every shadow cabinet member is appointed to forensically examine what the government is doing and to question their policies.  That is what the opposition is for.

When Jeremy Corbyn stood up for his first PMQs and decided to do things differently by asking questions that were tweeted to him, he was simply undermining the very people he has said he is representing – you and I.  Our constitution is a beautiful ecosystem where the government and its opposition interweaves like ivy growing on an old tree.  If the ivy becomes too strong, the tree dies.  If the ivy is cut back too much, the tree buckles.  Each has a role to play.  The word ‘robust’ is the legalistic term used for law made well – a robust constitution is one where the government has put forward good law which is challenged well by the opposition.  I go on like this because…well, under Corbyn…you see where I’m going?  This has failed to happen so far.  He has his own opinions and his own agenda. If he fails to challenge and if he fails to lead his party because they don’t want him, well how do we hold an increasingly powerful Tory government to account?

And what will happen to the Labour party? Whichever way its going, it needs to get stronger soon.  Corbyn is a Jesus Christ figure – yes, I know it’s someone else’s opinion, but I tend to agree with it.  He has begun a movement similar to a religion.  His most vociferous supporters love his humility, his persecution – they love that photo of him being hauled off from outside the South African embassy, and conveniently forget that while he was protesting, people like Peter Hain were also protesting and doing more within government.  Corbyn never agreed with the party whip if he didn’t want to, and voted against the Labour party more times than David Cameron.  Calling people ‘Blairite scum’ is madness – people who were the first to sit down with the IRA and get the Good Friday agreement passed are not scum.  Are you saying Mo Mowlam was ‘scum’??! It’s madness.  Yes, the Iraq war.  Yes, Blair and his millions and his Murdoch godfather years and his weird Steve Bell-style rictus grin.  But ‘scum’?  Corbyn has actively encouraged this dissension and vitriol simply by being someone who does politics by disagreement and protest, rather than by the normal channels.  Let’s look at it another way – if he sweeps to power and every policy he has is enacted, what will opposition to Corbyn look like?  How will he get through his policies if he does not use the constitution and the laws and the regulatory methods of our parliamentary system?  Because the point is – how do you change things within your laws if you aren’t willing to use the proper channels?  To win the argument, you’ve got to be at the table, just as Mo Mowlam was, just as Peter Hain was.

I don’t want to vote for Owen Smith, because I don’t think he is experienced or even that clever.  I don’t want to vote for Jeremy Corbyn.  I would like to see Yvette Cooper or someone like her, forensically interrogating every decision Theresa May makes.  What are the chances?

Eventually, there’s always a bigger dinosaur.  The ending of ‘Jurassic Park’ is what I’m talking about.  The little dinosaurs chase the children and you’re squirming in your seat and the kids run out into the foyer, and just as they’re about to be eaten and everything is going down the toilet – the T-Rex eats the little dinosaurs.  It happened to the Tories: the little dinosaurs, Cameron and Osborne chased the children, and when they were killed off, for a moment or two, Boris and Gove tried their hand at teasing us all.  But the big dinosaur that is – the people – got rid of them.  Corbyn thinks he’s the big dinosaur.  What he forgets is – this is Britain.  We don’t like people who think they’re saviours.  We like to laugh at people like that.  Corbyn and Smith are just the little dinosaurs.  Something else will happen.  Remarkable things always happen.  If that means the Labour party re-configures, so be it.  We need an opposition.  Something will give.  Until then, let’s all enjoy laughing at them all.  It’s all we can do.

Crystal necklace

I am walking around the Shambles market in Stroud on a Friday morning.  It is a little piece of the past, this market: book stalls selling Orwell marked in shillings and pence and a series of illustrated ‘Life of the greats’ – Goethe and Victor Hugo, both of which I avidly study and realise that I have practically no room left in my life, due to filling my head with the details of someone’s life who I’ve met twice and am now friends with on Facebook.  Also, my Aniston fascination (mainly – will I ever be that thin again?).  There’s a man who puts out two giant cardboard boxes full to the brim with old and new watch straps, the matching pairs rubber banded together.  Behind him, he’s selling various vintage gowns including a flowery terry towelling zippered dress in blues and greens and yellows that all my friends’ mothers wore on the beaches of the seventies when it never rained and the sun seemed to sit above our heads like a beautiful wish come true.

This stall sells old jewellery too.  He has a fold out wooden jewellery presentation case which is lined with faded maroon velvet, and on it is pinned the costume jewellery of the past five decades.  Hanging closer to him on silver racks are crystal necklaces, each marked up with white cardboard labels.  Most say ‘1930s’ – the costume jewellery of that time is stunning.  The beads are either facet cut or polished, in different sizes.  Many are clear glass, some have the rainbow tones of magpie wing feathers, some are amber, yellow, blue.  My grandmother always wore a crystal necklace – three stranded, with a rainbow tinge to the clear facets, the clasp 1920s in its style: art deco-ish.  I see one, and think of buying it.  But what for?  I’ll never wear it.  Taking it off its hook and handling it makes me ineffably sad.  I almost tear up.

My grandmother was fearsome: a sturdy, 1930s type woman, the sort of woman that comedians like Groucho Marx or Abbott and Costello would laugh at.  They had bosoms, rather than breasts, like the helm of ships.  They made pronouncements about the state of the world in the butchers’ line.  They carried umbrellas at all times, often under their arms like army Majors.  On a Sunday, my grandmother, Hilda Millicent – cousin/Aunty Millie to her family – would dress in a Broderie Anglaise sari blouse, and a silk sari, normally in a muted colour: often deep grey or pinky brown. And always a three stranded crystal necklace, and a dab of Eau de Cologne 4711. She would put on her good leather slippers and sally forth into the hot Sri Lankan day, using a beautifully delicate umbrella as a parasol to protect her from the sun’s rays.  On one of our trips to Sri Lanka when I was eleven, I remember driving to church on a Sunday morning, and seeing her walking down the street, on her way to the same place, and crying out excitedly – there she is, there she is!  But my parents told the driver to drive on.  She liked to walk.  It would complicate our lives and hers to stop, I think they presumed.

She was formidable, but she was also tender and kind and shy of us as we got older and visited her in Sri Lanka, talking with our London accents and throwing our large limbed bodies around in a forward, brash manner.  She taught me everything that I love: to read, to garden, to touch children’s heads with a full hand in order to still them and comfort them, to cook the food children like when they feel miserable, to squat down when talking to someone small, how to sew, how to draw and paint, how to pull a carrot intact, how to walk along next to someone without speaking, how to show love.

Touching the necklace in the market is electric because its cold.  I was never allowed to hold my grandmother’s crystal necklace or undo the clasp or do it up again.  I would touch the necklace around her neck perhaps once or twice in my life, and it was warm with the heat of her, and then my hand would be taken away.  In the market I don’t undo the clasp but trace it with my fingers: she died when I was sixteen, and even now I cannot open it.  Even now, I’m not allowed.

 

Unbuilding the walls

I’m talking to my dry stone waller. We have one this week. Our wall is going higher, to protect us from the autumn and winter winds. When we first arrived, we put in willow withy fencing, which, within five years, blew down. It leaves us very naked – sitting in the garden in the summer without fencing means every passerby sees us and hears our often expletive-laden conversations.

Martin, the dry stone waller, is a craftsman who was apprenticed for seven years, he says. He’s from a large Irish family and can tell some stories: occasionally, I think there may be an element of truth to them. We’re talking about bankers. He bloody hates bankers, he says. They cause wars. They cause everything that’s bad about the world. Bankers are the worst of us, Rosa, he says. He calls me Rosa because that’s what he calls me. I say – I used to work for the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development a long time ago. I thought it would be different: I thought they would somehow prioritise things differently. But they didn’t. I’m not surprised, he says. I’m not surprised. He stares off into the middle distance.  His phone rings. Some neighbours drive up, so I have to get the dogs inside the gate. I’m in my dressing gown still and a runner runs past and gives me a grin. I watch his finely turned calves take the hill. His pink Tshirt is contour-shaded with sweat. I’m not sure, but I think he may have winked at me. The lies we tell ourselves.

Martin, when I go back to finish our conversation, shows me the case to his new iphone. It’s as big and clunky as my own. He says that he’s terrible with phones: last phone, last job, he heard the phone ringing and couldn’t find it, then realised he’d built it into the wall. He’d had to unpack the wall to find it. I am only half listening. I am feeling guilty. I am feeling the stories we tell each other – deeper these days. Each time I say one of those facts like ‘I used to work for the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development’, I think of the actualité of the verité.

I was working in the city, mainly for legal firms, during the nineties. It was a febrile time, full of money and it seemed, sex, alcohol, boastfulness, women with bright lipstick on their mouths permanently, men in shirts that looked like they were made of table linen and silk ties that were plump like buttonhole roses, often pink or yellow or sky blue. People were unreasonable in their demands. The work was hard – paralegal work mainly involved complex deal documents on mergers and acquisitions, currency swaps involving amounts of money a normal person couldn’t fathom, and therefore, the language and ideas around the deals became unfathomable too. That word ‘fathom’ is so accurate, because money like that becomes like oceans, lapping at a rickety wooden ship, and each plump tied lawyer a bosun on the ship assuring the captain that what they are doing is manageable and easy, when they are floating above water that has no fathomable depth.

I had two little children. I worked nights in order to bring them up during the day – my husband was still training, so I earned more and did more at home too, as is the way of things. I was becoming burned out toward the end of the second year, when living on coffee and sugar became an untenable situation. The younger child became school age, and so I was able to take a day job, and juggle after school clubs and childminders who picked up from school. I worked as a paralegal for a while, then got on with sending my CV out to every agency who would have me. I was offered many jobs, some paying brilliantly. I went to many interviews. The job I took was as the PA to the head of something on the trading floor.   I remember his name was Marcus and he had Germanic chiselled cheekbones and navy blue eyes. He was a man who you imagined captained well, who seemed to look out to the horizon a lot. My first day, he introduced me around the trading floor – a large, expensive, open plan office with banks of computers next to each other and men and women staring hard at screens while talking into curly tailed phones. It didn’t look as feverish as some banks I had worked at – in my summers at university, I had worked on the trading floors of Shearson Lehman, and boy, were those high octane days. This place was calm and dare I say it? Dignified.

One man, who I swear was Steven Berkoff working undercover to learn a part, was hostile. He was German. He didn’t like me, straight off. He asked me for something the first day – again, no idea what, just information. It was a really long time ago. But I wasn’t able to furnish him with the answer. I was still fiddling about with pencil holders and sign ins on the computer and having a back and forth with human resources about whether my pay could be paid in pounds not Euros, please. The Steven Berkoff sent Marcus the boss an email, copied to the trading floor team, about my incompetence. It was my second day there. One of the kids was ill. I walked off the job. I called the agency and told them to get me out of there. I never went back.

Marcus called over and over again. The messages on the answerphone at first started off arrogant and angry. How dare I walk off? Did I know how unprofessional this was? Then, they became plaintive – could I not just call once, in order to talk it through? He could iron out any difficulties… The last message simply said – he’d heard about the email. He wanted to apologise. Please pick up the phone, I need to tell you how sorry I am. I couldn’t. It wasn’t anything he needed to apologise for. I was incompetent. I accepted that, and I left.

I feel the guilt of saying I worked there now. It’s a nice thing to say. But it’s like I heard a phone ringing in a wall I built, this morning, when I said it. I needed to take the wall down, find the phone, answer it. I wished at the time, that I had taken the phone call and let Marcus apologise. But I’m glad I didn’t now. It’s not important, what I felt. What’s important I suppose is, if I claim that I worked there, I should also addenda the claim with a note that says ‘for two days’. But for those two days, it was rather beautiful to sail along on that ocean, walking quietly through the beauty of the building and sitting in the glass walled office looking out to the horizon, knowing somehow I belonged to the money and the business of money.  But Martin is right.  Bankers are terrible people.  But aren’t we all?  Aren’t we all.

Sugar, summer holidays, coffee

This is how summer holidays go: I get up at my usual time and meditate, drink coffee, plan my day’s work.  The fifteen year old stays resolutely asleep until, despite meditation and coffee, I get riled by her inaction, and I yell up the stairs over and over until she appears.  It is the fourth time I have done this part of upbringing (three grown up children can attest to this), and it’s a system that works, I find.  Make her understand that the holidays are not for sleeping in.  They are for adventures, for enhancing the person that you are, for waking from the sleep that schooling creates in your febrile brain during term time.

She arrives at the table with orange juice, chocolate products for applying to toast, cereal.

‘Sugar,’ I intone.  She groans.  ‘Time you replaced that kick with black coffee…’

‘I hate coffeeee…’

I really think this through.  I am at the point in my first pot of coffee that is perfection itself.  The cup is half empty and so is the pot.  The next gulp I take is still hot, but not boiling.  The previous gulps have already hit the golden spot.  The rest, I anticipate, will enhance the high.  Soon, I will be my best person.

Summer holidays are for changing, for trying, for thinking.  I start to explain why she needs to give up sugar, and I realise this:

Every time we make a pot of Fairtrade, organic coffee at home, we are defeating big business.  We are setting the example of standing alone. Why, you ask?

Fifteen year old’s best friend was in the car the other day.  She was telling us that her main holiday this year is going to be at Disneyland Paris with her whole family, third year in a row.  Five days there.  It shocked and alarmed me.   I know, that’s very judgmental.  But, her main break with her family – is to go to a big business place and worship the deities they have set up in the guise of ‘fun’.  They will spend five whole days riding the rides and drinking the sugar drinks and eating the fast food.

If we don’t point out to our children that our bodies, our minds, our free time are being owned by big business, we will sleepwalk into full, globalised custody of these companies.  And this has already become political.  Donald Trump, a businessman, is held up as everything that is successful and therefore powerful in the world.  In our country, although we are much more sceptical, we still laud the commercially successful higher than the creative geniuses who are less good at PR.

Sugar scars our bodies: the giant coffees, the milkshakes, the doughnuts, the popcorn, the sweets – they’re sold to us as ‘rights’ and ‘treats’.  When we get fat and people laugh, other companies (particularly social media companies who are out to get our business from the newspapers who tell us we’re too fat) tell us that we are victims of bullying, and we have every right to complain of victimisation.  If we are wretched and want to lose weight, we are manipulated by a huge, growing industry of diet pills, exercise plans, healthy eating blogs, coconut oil salesman.  Every part of our lives’ existential crises are taken care of by someone selling something.

I myself have spent a couple of weeks obsessing about veganism.  Ask me about probiotics and gut health and depression, or ask me the best recipe for raw vegan cheesecake.  Because, goddamnit, I’ll tell ya.

Drinking black coffee, away from a screen, seems to me to be a righteous act of revolution.  Gaining back your body – the one that reacts perfectly, like an animal’s (I mean like a domestic cat or a snake) – when you jump out of bed in the morning, no pain, no creaks, seems to me as easy as turning off the computer and getting away from the phone.  Getting rid of sugar has been a great start for me.  Not drinking anymore, too.

Cajoling the fifteen year old into doing this will be a fight.  When you’re fifteen, you think that you are owed sugar, that you need sugar.  But when you’re sixteen or seventeen, the bitter products of life seem more attractive: black coffee, olives, strange cheese someone’s bohemian mother offers you at a party, a proper Martini, kissing a boy who has just smoked a roll up.

Big business wants us to remain children.  Children are easy to sell to.  Waking up in the summer holidays – reading books, dancing all night outside with your mates, then: drinking black coffee in your back yard with your face in the first morning sun – that’s the simple way we can all start the revolution.  Be grown up. Embrace bitter. Resist.

Go Backwards to go forwards

This novel has taken me years. I promised its delivery in 2009. Back then, I imagined it would be a long short story – about a woman who gives a home to an elephant in the Cotswold countryside. I wanted an elephant. That was the impetus – I was lonely, after my four children grew up and left me. I reasoned that an elephant and the duties toward an animal of that magnitude would be a fair equivalent. What happened to the book was: I wrote it, it was rubbish, I never looked at it again. The next year, I wrote another book – same characters, different sub-plot and it was rubbish again. Then my agent, Euan, said – Roshi, you need to focus. He’s a man of few words, but those words were the ones I needed to hear. I locked myself in a room above the garage, and I read critical theory for three months. Structure became everything.

If you read a good book – commercially successful, beautifully written and satisfyingly concluded – you will not have noticed its structure. You will be in love with the main protagonist or with the geography or the time period portrayed. There will be little about the scaffolding of the book that you will have noticed. And yet…it is EVERYTHING.

Structure played an important part in my first book: HOMESICK was an interlinked collection of short stories: the stories about individuals, linked to each other the way Sri Lankans in Sri Lanka and in the world, link to each other. On any day, on any bus in Sri Lanka, I will be connected by blood or marriage to 10% of the rest of the bus’s population. It’s a small country. This was a way of making a more serious thematic point: we are all connected, I was saying, and our connectedness is universal.

In trying to understand what I’ve ended up with, now I am close to finishing the novel, I realise that my aims for this book have been the same, the very same as for HOMESICK. I wanted to structure the book to show a story that was very specific: the drowning out of voices that tell the truth in a country that has just won a very dirty civil war; to show the universal truths – the situations that every human faces – and how their strength or weakness affects the way they behave. I also wanted to democratize again: the story shows two protagonists on each side of the world.

JJ, is an editor of a newspaper in Sri Lanka. Chitra is his cousin, a former photo journalist and now rich socialite, in England, who gives temporary sanctuary to an elephant in her Cotswolds, Georgian home, in order to find an excuse to get JJ a visa to come to England and escape a sure fire murder at the hands of the government.  Each time one has a scene, the other has a scene – until, at midpoint of the book, JJ arrives in Britain, and they are together. The structure was to be a Mobius Strip – what happens there, on one side of the world, happens here on the other side, until the whole thing is reversed and what happens here in England happens again on the other side of the world. But the structure began to look like an elephant. The story began at the tip of the trunk – streamlined, tight – and worked its way upward into the meat of the face, the head, the neck, the shoulders. And at midpoint: FLAB.

And here is where structure becomes so important. The flab or sag of part 3 can be counteracted a number of ways. Tighten, tighten, tighten. Or push through with your crazy subplot and your – give ‘em what they want: your two busy characters sitting down having a cup of tea, reviewing the situation. Or you could do what I did: refer back to your structural notes. Hold your nerve. Tear up what went before. Walk the mobius strip. Go backwards to go forwards…

PUSH THROUGH

Those are the words on my jotter.  Feeling low, sad, the day looks like Russia.  The land on the normally green Cotswold common above my home is frozen down to the core of the earth.  It is grey.  If it were an instrument, it would be a tuba played by a depressed duck. If it were a lady it would be Margaret Thatcher’s statue.  If it were a food it would be that chicken breast at the bottom of your freezer the clingfilm fell off about seven and a half months ago and it looks like: today.

I am applying for jobs now, because I feel worthless.  I am a writer.  That’s what we do.  We feel worthless and we apply for jobs.  We are no good for anything, and the world knows that.  A writer is like this: on the one hand, I think that anything Benedict Cumberbatch turns up for – an awards ceremony, a funny walks competition, a film about his dying grandmother – I COULD DO BETTER.  On the other hand, everything I do, everything I think, even the air I breathe is just…wrong.  I am rubbish. These two knowledges of my self go hand in hand.  Also, today is a good hair day, so Cumberbatch better watch out.  But also, I have looked at the work and my face has done that creasing up in sadness thing it does: like when I go for a walk and its too cold because the common is now Russia, and the dogs are yelping quietly with each step they take.

The only advice which is good advice in these circumstances is: push through.  Don’t walk away and watch back episodes of Coronation Street, because the younger crowd and their made up faces and stupid storylines will make you feel like an embittered old drunk who has read the Daily Mail sidebar of shame all the way through.  Sit there, in your chair and look at the work and read the work and write something.  Anything.  Draw lines with a ruler and a felt tip pen on your graph paper.  Write a tiny episode of your childhood up as a flash fiction.  Make a weeny card using all your cross hatching techniques and curly lettering which just says ‘You are great’ and send it to someone.

Eventually, something will come.  You’ll write again: and your words will be what you wanted to say.  You’ll read them back and you’ll think – I am so bloody good, I could kiss me.  I could pat me on the head and say – well done, me, you fabulous creature.  Eventually.  That day may come.

I went into Waterstones today, and handled everyone’s hardback books.  I convinced myself that they were easy – that everyone who was there, face out on that table, was just like me, felt just like me.  It’s the ending of this process, I told myself.  One day in June or July or September or May next year or the year after, I’ll be holding my book in my hand.  I stepped out into Russia again, and I thought – PUSH THROUGH.  It’s the only way.  It’s all we have to do.  That’s our life: push through.