They do furnish a room

Books have been my life’s companion, alongside plants. Maybe my laptop runs them a close race now, although I don’t have an e-reader. But am I a writer? I do write, and I have been said to be a good writer, though you may judge. Even the remote possibility that I may be a writer of Something (academic essays, poetry, blog-posts) does not make me a writer of anything which might be published, nor especially the writer of a novel. I’ve had the idea in mind for years, always procrastinated. There are so many disincentives – the idea, the sustained effort required, a fear of failing to produce anything I would be satisfied with, and now, most of all ‘the market’. So much dross emerges from so many aspirant writers, there’s something in me which now deters me from even trying: a weak position. Has everything been said? Not by me … Yet now I have the time, I have few other claims on my attention. Surely at this point the will to do it has not ebbed away?

It’s a cliché that everyone has a book in them. I think I have a book in me too. My life has contained both the usual and the unusual experience, permitting me to think I could write something both accessible and novel. In my travels I have encountered many people, both ‘types’ and individuals more or less recognisable. My interest in psychologies and social dynamics brings me to ask the questions whose answers might be the stuff of a novel. Yet a dilemma has long plagued me – how to disguise the experience or the person? And in my awareness of the human tendency to stereotype I question my own ability to avoid cardboard cut-out characters, and repetition. Even here, over short entries and a few days I have the feeling that I’ve said it before, and to the same listener – how dull!  We repeat and repeat until we learn a lesson, then the urge to voice the thing evaporates. Maybe I would rather not bring forth this book in me, but continue to cherish the idea of the book. I’m aware as time passes that the will to bring anything into the world, to be a burden to me or others, is weakening. Maybe to have the idea , turn it in the light of the mind and see it sparkle, then let it slip away, is enough. Now, rather than making more things, it’s more a de-cluttering phase of life. I’m shedding the accumulation of six decades. But, humanly, it seems one must have ‘occupation’. Could writing be part of that occupation?

As a reader, what do I read?  Even before reading, I do like a good picture book. Sometimes the words are too much effort! One can look at a beautiful book for hours. There are long journeys in picture books, and the thoughts they provoke can be an enthralling as words written.

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Le Vertige des Reserves: Bibliotheques et Musees de Geneve

“Reading novels needs almost as much talent as writing them” (X. Trapnel in ‘Temporary Kings’ by Anthony Powell). I read novels, even of the lighter sort, and I would never assert that science fiction, fantasy, or comedy are empty of worthwhile content. But I do also like a challenge or something more experimental as well as the purely narrative (Will Self). I gravitate to certain themes; psychology, the quirks of religion, gender, art, madness of various kinds; and tend to avoid the environmental as too close to the bone, not really the stuff of fiction. But I do wonder whether too much novel-reading engenders over-stereotyping. If each author has a tendency to write their own stereotypes, may those not reinforce my own?

I both read and write poetry. Nobody knows. Or they do, because I tell them. But there is, maybe, a kind of reluctance to publicise something as fraught with misunderstanding.

poetry book
poetry …

Biography also feeds into the willingness to think one knows a person by what they write. Whether a bad person can produce good art (of whatever kind) is a vexed question into which I might delve elsewhere. Thomas Hardy, Henry James, T.S.Eliot. Is it my imagination, or do I like female biographers of male subjects? Must be some inaccuracies of interpretation there!

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bio …

Recent non-fiction has considerably improved my understanding of surprising facets of the world . ‘Oxygen: the molecule that made the world’ by Nick Lane brings together some extraordinary insights into how life on earth emerged, and how a substance can have very contradictory aspects. Mark Lynas’s ‘The God Species: How the planet can survive in the age of humans’ challenged some of my environmental positions, although as a person with a low threshold for risk, I would not concede all his points.  ‘Sapiens: a brief history of humankind’ by Yuval Noah Harari will be my next reading venture. It has to be admitted that I have a bedside stack several high.

Finally no list would be complete without the ‘how-to’ manuals, which feed my (easily-sated) hunger for the new, or otherwise my search for the One activity which will absorb my creative powers until they ebb away completely – weaving, gilding, calligraphy, bookbinding, tassels and cords … part of the book-burden which I shall maybe soon shed. My short attention-span has threatened the structural integrity of my bookshelves –  I am weighed down with diversity. A startling aside here is that what goes around comes around. A book recently borrowed from a friend, Sheila Hicks on her small weavings, looks remarkably like the craft offering from the Women’s Institute which I so nearly acquired from the Haslemere Transition bookstall at the last Farmers’ Market. A discussion on where art becomes craft must wait a future entry, except just to note here that the physical book is a beautiful and satisfying thing, which will not, in my view, be replaced by technology. A book is a material possession, baggage in all senses.

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Sheila Hicks, Weaver: a beautiful Book

But all this lovely reflection on past enjoyment of books gets me no further with my own contradictory urge towards writing; stifled, thwarted, frustrated though it may be, certainly unproductive to the present time and still hesitating. My hidden intention here is to develop the habit of writing, form a body of work however superficial, inspect my themes and enthusiasms and maybe tentatively approach some stories, and ‘have something’ to show for all my talk. Procrastination is said to be best addressed by answering the question “What can I do Now?”Well, this is what I can do. What I do Next may involve the Story itself, retreating, mentoring, an agent … but is all rather nebulous so far. Let it emerge.

If I could write a book, or series of books, it would be somewhere between ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ by Anthony Powell, and Harry Potter. I want my book first and foremost to be massively enjoyable for the reader. I would like a wide readership and of course I want to win a prize or make a lot of money. Maybe I only want to satisfy myself that I have written something which seems good to me, even if I have not been read. Maybe I only want to Write something, not even good, not even have it published. The bar both raises itself and lowers itself all the time.

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shelf-burden/consolation/aspiration

There would be psychology, a group of misguided individuals following a misguided guru, and their respective motivations. There would be representation of the interior life, and examination of what behaviour emerges from it. “What did not happen in public had no reality for G.””With G., everything was within himself.” (Anthony Powell)  There would be a morphing of what I know of people into something unrecognisable; changes of situation, motivation, gender. The compound characters would bring the reader recognition but no paranoia. There would be ‘what I know’ – the mysteries of art and plants, the particularity of growing up in the suburbs, of family life in small towns. There would probably be little conversation, maybe I would resort to being the omniscient narrator in some way: after all, we all like to believe ourselves omniscient, do we not? There would be poetic expression – no too demanding experimental discord. There would be excellent grammar (I might need some help with this). There would be a pseudonym. Sometimes this is as far as I get. Who am I? It would be a material book, maybe even with illustrations – no e-publishing, I think. Aah … dreaming again. Most likely there would be, in another decade, some bonfire of my authorial vanities.

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write …

At least, writing occupies less space than both reading and making. And thinking occupies no space at all.

Those curious precipitates

Henry James characterised  the unpredictable outcomes of friendship between two people (and how much more curious among a group of people) as quasi-chemical – explosive, expanding, volatile gases or dispersible obscuring powders. He was a subtle operator himself, secretive in his relationships (especially with women when young) and becoming increasingly reclusive as his dread of being known and possibly judged by society increased with age. He was also utterly dedicated to his art of writing, and not above exploiting his friends’ willingness to share themselves with him, and shunning them when they needed his support. One biography has it (Henry James: The Imagination of Genius, A Biography by Fred Kaplan) that his capacity for true friendship and also sexual love of any kind was ruined by his capricious and domineering parents. Another (Henry James: His Women and His Art by Lyndall Gordon) that he almost ruthlessly used the understandings of women of his acquaintance to build his extraordinarily touching females characters within their stifling conventional societies in Europe at the turn of the last century. A third affirms this view, and also focuses on forbidden male passions (The Master by Colm Toibin). Each author has doubtless committed themselves to a particular perspective, and all cast light on the complexity of the case. But in life outside books, everything is more nebulous, time generates change, chance acts upon the chemistry and living elements exert their own unique understandings.

A.C. Grayling has written a masterly account of the varieties of the experience of friendship (Friendship : Vices and Virtues) which has been a consolation to me as I lose touch with friends, they die, they find themselves in irresistible circumstances and make choices which seem uncharacteristic. But the beauty of a friendship is that is can remake itself, given thought, time and acceptance. May be any apparent change or loss can be borne if there have been truly shared values and an underlying sympathy. Humanity requires that we accept that nobody can be known completely, and that we do not even completely know ourselves, until we encounter the ‘others’, and accept the validity of their experience.

I have often been brought up short, even many years later, by a fresh realisation of meaning in something said by a friend. Statement: ‘Oh, it must be so simple not to be married.’ Correction: ‘There are other complications.’  Statement: ‘I always presumed that two men might understand one another better.’ Correction: ‘Which two men? All are different’. I am almost shamed by the recollection of so much ignorance! Conversely, a friend may say something which reveals their unknowing of my own mental state. Statement: ‘You were confused.’ Correction: ‘I was very clear but our use of language is different, and I am kind enough not to hurt your feelings’. Statement: ‘You want me’ Correction ‘I am feeling fear or distaste, not lust!’ So we negotiate our lives, covertly and overtly. Where there are great self-evident differences of gender, nationality or class, or more subtle nuances of social understanding, how much more can we be mistaken in someone we like, and feel we know. Some blessed souls may have no space between their intent and their expression, but I believe those are few and far between.

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language and meaning

Maybe dialogue can clarify meanings between friends, but there must be non-judgment. When a friend (or more hurtfully, a family member) tells me I am wrong about something, it is a denial of my experience; the process of my life. I may understand myself to be wrong in time, but I must come there myself. More likely, some third position will prevail. Some believe that to like, one must be alike.  In such a case, I believe a relationship can be saved by non-discussion in certain areas. Leave something in peace until insight prevails. We are not only creatures of reason; emotions can prevent us from thinking or expressing clearly things which may be of core importance to us. Compromise is essential. Some would say that if there is a significant and fundamental difference between two people, they cannot be friends, but I am not so sure. It might depend on the degree of toleration available. Grayling examines models of friendship within which one partner advises, prevents, changes the other. I would prefer to come to change on my own account, not be told by someone who only wants me to resemble and thus affirm themselves. For in difference is the Jamesian chemistry.

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Milk chocolate or plain? (‘Nicky’s Coat’)

For me an ideal friend is somewhat self-sufficient. Co-dependency seems a denial of individual responsibility and agency. Time may divide friends through differing experience and character development, and there may be insufficient remaining at depth to hold on to. In which case, let go. But don’t expect this to be easy. We become used to our longstanding constellations. And yet with even distant separation and no communication, like a star a friendship may be picked up as if it had never been severed. I am not sure what holds. Still other friendshps may simply dissolve away: maybe they were never really there. I suspect that I am somewhat needy of social contact, and sometimes I feel I need my friends more than they need me. But I only have to remember that others may have more pressing claims upon their attention. Only when resentment begins to creep in is it time to stop missing the person’s presence, and learn a little more independence.

Death begins to remove our friends  in a different way as we get older. The untimely loss of young friends can be shattering, but it can also help us to learn that the universe is not a personal place. Henry James experienced resurgence of his creative powers on the deaths of three women in his life, and there is a certain energy in the emotion of loss. One may suddenly make a decision to change, or to live differently, or one may suddenly gain an understanding of something previously obscure (like the poetry of T.S. Eliot, another man hard to know and love) I can’t believe that after death I will be reunited with loved ones. That is not a necessary part of it. But the idea of the material of a friend continuing; breath, clothing, their use of household objects; seems beautiful to me. And thoughts of past conversation, with the new understandings brought by memory and imagination, is consoling. If friends fall out, I believe they should forgive one another and move on. ‘These things happen.’ But a friendship is never completely dead, in my experience.

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Until death do us part?

The wind will listen

So now begins the deception of the word. When I read the books I love, I recognise the supreme difficulty of accurately conveying the meaning of subtle thought. The best authors seem to effortlessly convey ideas onto paper. Sometimes I achieve this, or something close to it, at other times I read back what I have written and feel I have failed utterly, and worse, I have said things I didn’t mean. In the ‘listening profession’ (psychotherapy) the practitioner’s empathy can fail too: their own bias can impose meaning which is not there. Question, question, question …

Handwriting seems to encourage fluent thought, maybe the keyboard does not. A blog must be typed at some stage, until we reach voice recognition, and I truly wonder how those who dictate manage coherence. For me, coherence is wrapped up in the process of planning, shuffling and editing towards meaning, and now only the first is hand-work.

For a long time it has seemed clear to me that every person is an unpredictable mix of their facts and their interpretations. One is a body and its emergent mind within contingent circumstances. Now I am older I can see continuities: there were forbears who were gardeners and domestic servants, anxieties can be expressed in familial ways, the spoken voice can be mistaken on the telephone. A third generation reveals this still more clearly.When I learned about the phenomenon of confirmation bias, I realised a further path to destiny: we choose our meanings from among a variety. Yet another understanding from my studies in psychology is the value of reflection as a path to knowing ourselves. This time of my life is the time when  shall know myself and change myself with the greatest self-awareness.

Suburbia is a fine place to grow up. It is full of people, within which little communities form, it shows the process of environmental change acutely, yet there is space for a child to find their own niches –  the garden, the edgelands, the youth club, the shops. Only the first two really interested me. And then there was the refuge of books to which I still retreat today. There can be a kind of anonymity in the city which is not permitted in the suburbs, still less in the countryside, where everyone knows one’s business. So maybe I should be thankful for my origins among the middling folk. Some, but never too much scrutiny. It was often the case, noted also by friends, that the post-war generation of parents did not commit themselves emotionally to their children to a very great degree. Maybe they were tender in their losses. Both before and after, maybe parenthood has seemed to demand a greater degree of supervision, one way and another.

Emotions were unwelcome in my family. Childish temper, excessive sorrow were denied, and so concealed. The occasions upon which I saw my parents distressed were few and far between. I imitated them and I think I have been seen as a controlled person and one who is made a little uncomfortable by the sight of distress in others, yet I can only suppose that, inside, they felt as I do.  Why is it that age seems to bring emotion more to the surface? is it that experience brings empathy, and we see so much pain in the world?

I have recently been reading Lyndall Gordon’s biography of T.S. Eliot, a life of pain if there ever was one. On the whole sympathetic to him, she brings out the point that how we wish to be known can maybe only be expressed in the inchoate form of poetry, if we incline to it. By many accounts a deeply unsympathetic man, and also unfortunate, both in early personal choices and in his war-scarred era. Some of his demons were entirely of his own making while also emergent from his family history and inheritance. At times he expressed hatred of both women and Jews, he seems to us pompous, elitist and astonishingly selfish though maybe in his tormented way he knew this. To the outward view, he certainly made some very self-serving decisions. Towards the end of his life he accepted that he would not be a saint, contented himself with being someone who tried to help people improve themselves and their society through belief. Maybe he did become kind when he allowed himself to accept kindness. I found myself glad he died happy, though I would have preferred him not to have sacrificed loyal friends. but maybe he had only so much energy left to spend. If I had a biographer who had access to the ‘truth’ I’d hope that her readers would accept me in the way I have more easily accepted T.S. Eliot as just another flawed and exceptional human being. I like the idea that if there were survival after death, we would understand and forgive all, the outer and the inner life of ourselves and others. But I don’t believe this, so the acceptance of oblivion is the best I hope for.

These are some moments which completely changed my understanding of the meaning of my life, and allowed me to see that every person has such a history and is therefore infinitely deserving of love and tolerance. As a child I remember only once wanting anything (it was a simple thing and easily given), which I was not allowed. Maybe this was the first experience of injustice, and a profound acceptance that one may never get what one wants (so don’t ask, and don’t show anyone that you mind). I learned young that I was easily discouraged, by things which did not catch my imagination or by criticism. I didn’t realise soon enough that I could say ‘no’. The longer I played the good girl; quiet, obliging, kind; the harder it became to break out of this role. Even now it is hard. My experience of the death of a friend showed me how emotion affects the mind profoundly (to the extent of depriving me of the desire to eat, and on the more positive side, to enable me to ‘get’ T.S. Eliot’s ‘Wasteland’). From that time I wrote more for pleasure than work. Living abroad enabled me to see how parochial a person can be, and opened my eyes both to diversity and discrimination of varying degrees of subtlety. I realised that significance of the visual in my world through photography. Through studying psychology and mental health I observed the capacity of the human mind for pathology, and its plasticity – another reason to say ‘there but for the grace …’

After making the decision not to become a psychiatric nurse, and accepting that beyond a certain age maybe some kinds of change become impossibly hard, I saw a few therapists in the name of ‘recovery’ (not counting the practice sessions were were obliged to carry out among ourselves under the guise of peer-counselling). I talked about a lot of other things as well, and I hope this led me to become a better and happier person. I don’t know, maybe I was not so good. I came to see the process of therapy as very mixed. Everything depends on the motive, the problem under discussion, most importantly the therapist and their own biases (no denying it) This led to my further understanding of the limits of empathy, and the possibility of losing oneself in the effort to ‘help’ others.  Such a project of the Self is never finished.

Passing time inevitably brings increasing age and I recognise my great good fortune in my temperament and situation. I see myself as lucky. That is not to say everything has been positive, but more that the negative can be accepted and learned from. But it is hard to lose friends through death, extraordinary events and atrophy. It is hard not to be strong in my body any more. And it is hard to be with people who think a person does not change. Yet maybe they are also right in a way. Maybe there is a core personality which does not change, while the superficial character is more labile. Why do we love people? Does that come from a core of being or superficial preferences. I imagine both these ways are possible.

Another book (‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking’ by Susan Cain) enabled me to accept that I am a partial ‘introvert’: while I can enjoy people I also love my own company; its freedom from expectation and its silence. And that my skills are under-appreciated by society at large, which adores action, risk and the short attention span. And a great deal of observation and study enabled me to understand that I am not a person who manifests stress in unavoidable migraines, but that I am sensitive to certain foods, and need to drink a lot of water, as well as live at a slower pace. All this is acceptable, even welcome, as my energy declines. I’m even glad of my quiet nature, since age may be so much harder for the person who prefers doing to being.