Saturday, 30 December 2017

Juno and the Book

The Book was three weeks overdue. Juno found herself running with it to the library, seized with sudden guilt, just before closing time on Friday afternoon. The State had tightened up their renewals policy after the new loans scheme proved so popular that the Books were starting to run out. As she ran, she wondered how a reading programme intended to build empathy and understanding through the ‘celebration of difference’ had ended up being a bit of a bun fight.  There was now a three month waiting list for the most popular titles, and even the older books were usually checked out by lunchtime.

“Can I renew it – please?” Juno smiled hopefully at the librarian.  The older woman was clearly embracing her role; she’d put together the classic librarian assemblage, from the pinze nez and bun, to the cardigan and sensible shoes. It wasn’t uncommon for people to dress in costumes which reflected the roles of bygone days (roles known back then as ‘jobs’) - from those times when labour was a commodity, and someone else decided what you were worth.  During her run to the library Juno had seen a waitress, a park-keeper, and more randomly, someone dressed as a priest.  Uniforms of all kinds were banned now, but strangely people still loved to dress up and look like each other. The imposition of difference had ironically resulted in resistance through similarity.   Caught up in the librarian/wayward lender scenario, and the pleasure in acting it out, Juno half-expected to be shushed at this point.  But the building itself was anything but quiet.  Most of the noise, it seemed, came from the Books themselves, and she could hear a low rumble of conversation echoing through the vaulted atrium. Clearly the chatter hadn’t been successfully confined to the sound-proof reading rooms.

True to form, the librarian looked exasperated. “There’s already a waiting list – and this is your third renewal.  What are you doing with it, for heaven’s sake? Memorising every word?”
Juno considered the woman in front of her for a moment before fixing on a strategy. This was a person who clearly loved stories; you had to, to toil all day for nothing in a place like this. 
“I really need to know the ending. Just one more day?”

They’d burnt all the analogue books just before the revolution of 2021. It was during that strange time of interregnum – while the world was dying and waiting to be reborn. A time full of dark words from powerful and dangerous men, foolhardy, arrogant and incredibly self-assured. If there was a mood that Juno remembered from that time – and she couldn’t remember much – it was utter self-belief in the face of obvious untruths.  Not just from leaders, but manifested through denial on a massive human scale; everyone seemingly blind to the world around them - a world that was rapidly falling apart.   Old fuels disappeared quickly, but that wasn’t the only reason they burnt the books.  In the pain of loss and shame, and a desire for new priorities and collective renewal, it seemed best to obliterate the past and just start all over again. 

Back in her apartment, Juno ran her finger down the Book’s spine.  When you joined the library you had to sign a long list of terms and conditions in order to receive your card; it wasn’t like the loan system she remembered as a child.  There had been a bit of misuse of the Books; people using them like the old-fashioned dating app Tinder, taking out things they liked the look of and browsing with no intent to read them properly.  Juno had been guilty of this too for a while, but told herself it was just natural curiosity.  The rules now stated that there was to be no intimate touching of the books, other than the necessary functions of handling them.  But she’d broken the rules twice already with this one.  How could you really immerse yourself in a story unless you held it closely – felt its weight, buried yourself in its scent? 

Juno’s latest book was called Malthe. He came from Denmark originally, and she loved his contrariness.  Malthe dressed conservatively, but beneath the shirts and pressed trousers were numerous tattoos - words overlapping across his skin, so that reading him became much more than just an auditory experience.  The slimness of his hips disguised a love of pastries, and he would smoke cigarettes on the balcony straight after the five mile runs he took every day. Juno loved to hear the strange words of his country and tales of old customs, from days before the removal of borders and the emergence of One Nation.  He told of his life in Nyvhavn, describing the rows of coloured houses stretching down from Kingens Nytorv along the harbourside.  He shared the stories of Hans Christian Anderson, and of other lesser-known traditions and folk-tales, and spoke of the power of  ‘faelleskaab’ – togetherness, belonging and community; not only was it a different time, but it felt like a different world.

There were no stipulations about what you should do when you took a book out, so Juno used her imagination. She read Malthe everywhere; on the train, walking through the park, sitting on benches in the bustling squares, while the people around them bartered and traded.  At night she dreamt of travelling, to visit the places of which he spoke so eloquently. It was loneliness probably – or that’s what Juno told herself – along with the power of Malthe’s story-telling. She’d read an article years ago, about people who were sexually attracted to intelligence. His words moved her so much that when she closed her eyes she could see them dance in all their strangeness, enveloping her in such a way that made her body seemed to vibrate with the echoes of them.  It was very much like the virtual reality games that had been so popular in the days when actual reality got too much to bear. She had a strange sense that Malthe’s words might actually be written on his bones, or borne along on his blood cells.  She wanted to feel him inside her too, but Malthe told her laughingly that he wasn’t ‘that kind of a book’.

That she only had one last day with the Book felt desperately unfair. A loans system should rightly reflect the length of time you actually needed to read something; although if she was honest, Juno knew she could have kept Malthe for a year and still not understood or absorbed everything he had to say.  She’d planned a long walk and a picnic lunch, but for some reason Malthe seemed to want to stay near the apartment.  He was unusually reticient too, responding to Juno’s questions with counter-queries and empty pauses, which she ended up filling.  It took her until lunchtime to realise that this time, she was the one being read.

And once the reading started, the stories rushed back to her in a flood. Tales of childhood, of lost words and phrases, descriptions of food, of friends and pasttimes... and of growing up on a coast where the sea still lapped the shore and you could walk on sand rather than plastic.  Of games that she would play with friends in the street, and of the libraries with real paper books in.

Later, back at the library, Juno signed a new library card.  She hadn’t noticed before, but the phrase on the back read Veritas Liberabit Vos.  Malthe had told her the same – that the truth will set you free – when he convinced her that it was time to tell her own story.  Smiling, and brimful of words, she handed him back, and checked herself in.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

How easy it is

How easy it is 
To hold your hand,
and talk of love.

Not the love
thrown as accusation
Or sharp as a cat's claw
that catches on my clothes
And is hard to shift
(as loose threads are never
entirely smoothed away)

But instead love as
the touch on a shoulder
A shy hello at a bus stop 
A father hearing 
'Your son is doing well'
The fleeting permanence 
of a footprint in plaster
A reassuring glance,
and the way I count your freckles 
or the pebbles on a beach
(the result is just the same)
The tilt of the heart 
like waves rolling over the horizon
to let the next, and the next, and the next
roll in behind

I hold your hand,
and talk of love,
and how easy it is.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

On hope, ethics and uncertainty - or what my holiday reading taught me

On holiday recently I read a few books that made me reflect on my own way of being in the world. Unless we're religious (and often even then) I get a sense that we don't often consider our own personal philosophies of life; we might look for quick fixes through self-help books, or seek out new ways to make us happy (yoga, meditation, travel, therapy*) but a deep examination of values and ethics isn't really the 'in' thing. Alongside our personal struggles, and intrinsically connected with these, there are of course the massive global issues; immigration, technological change, future of work, climate change, and so on. Proper consideration of these challenges requires us to engage in ethical, moral and philosophical debates, yet the political, like the personal, is usually distilled into soundbites or simple solutions, or worse, denied in a fog of 'post-truth'.

In my teaching I encourage new educators to consider the place of personal values, morals and ethics in everything they do, and this is usually through processes of reflective practice. Reflection (done well) encourages us to consider our own reactions to events, and prevents us tumbling repeatedly into situations and relying on old convictions or beliefs that may not actually serve us any longer.  We can be led by the heart or the head when we act, but rarely examine which or why.  Sadly, when we leave teacher training behind, reflective practice is often forgotten too.  I chose a number of holiday books which I hoped would help me to get back into this space.**

My thinking has been shaped most recently by posthuman and nomadic thinking (Braidotti, 2013).   Braidotti draws heavily on the writings of Baruch Spinoza, the Dutch philosopher who was a lens grinder and social outcast for much of his life. His book, Ethics, makes readers question their most basic assumptions about life, truth, religion, politics and science. It is his emphasis on affirmative action and our need to act ethically that has been forefront in my mind recently as I attempt to navigate this post-truth, neo-liberalist, individualised world.  So my first reading choice was Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain by Antonio Damasio.   This book is a fascinating blend of philosophy and neuro-science which supports Spinoza's rejection of the mind/body split through recent scientific research. It examines the notion of 'emotions' and recent discoveries which prove that they are literally embodied in our brain chemistry, physical responses and muscle memory.  'Feelings' are our response to emotion, and it is how we interpret and act on these that can be pivotal to our survival and interaction with others.

My second read was The Path by Michael Puett, and I was surprised to find echoes of the same themes. This book offers a guide to 'living well' and encourages us to 'rethink the concepts of our lives...behaving in ways that bring about real change.'  It is more philosophy than self-help fortunately, and based largely on the principles of Daoism. Like Braidotti's call to 'think global, act local' it asks us to focus on daily moments rather than worrying about the big stuff.  The overarching question here is, 'How are you living your life, on a daily basis?'

Puett's thinkers (including Confucius and Zhuangzi) see the world as a series of fragmented and messy encounters - their view is that a need to bring order to this complexity is one of our greatest sources of pain and frustration.  Yet, rather than simply 'going with the flow' or accepting uncertainty (often the mantra of mindfulness practices) we are taught here to hone and refine our responses to every day situations. This is still mindfulness but in an active sense; taking notice of our instinctive responses and then refining them, with propriety.

The book suggests that the idea of living with complexity and uncertainty is challenging and counter-cultural. We take comfort in binary thinking; in the security of being on one side or another, perhaps still programmed for earlier, tribal times. We feel safe in our separateness from nature and anything 'non-human' and seek out spaces where there is one truth and lines are clearly drawn.  Old, familiar behaviours and the affirmation of echo chambers can feel as comfortable and reassuring as an old cardigan, but like old clothes at some point they stop suiting us.

Puett suggests that making change and sloughing off old ways of being is best done through the use of ritual. In this context it means acting 'as if'; taking on roles that are different from our usual ones and constructing new ways of being in the world.  We are usually saddled with beliefs about our personalities and traits, seeing them as fixed and static ('I'm an introvert'; 'I've got a quick temper','I don't like change.') We fix the traits of others too, based on our past experience of them and their own assertions about themselves. This polarised thinking can harden assumptions and make us repeat the same arguments time and time again.  What if we take on a new role though, and act differently next time around?  For example, how might I act the next time I argue with my sister, if my actions were no longer based on the belief that I was always stubborn and that she only thought about herself?  The idea of acting 'as if' is echoed in the Spinozan idea of 'potensia' - soft power, which I talk more about here.  It is affirmative, hopeful and asks the question 'and why not?'  (Of course, the ultimate 'as if' is the phrase 'I love you' which we repeat with hope, despite the fact that it is impossible to love every part of every person, all of the time). Puett invites us to act with others in 'what could happen if..?' interventions; actions which require humility and the ability to admit that the behaviours that always served you all in the past are no longer useful.

My last book, Rebecca Solnitt's Hope in the Dark is an inspiring read for anyone already jaded by the General Election.  It reminds us that change isn't linear; a forward progressive march, but more a 'crab scuttling sideways'. Again, the emphasis is on embracing uncertainty and having an understanding that change, when it comes, can happen in unexpected ways.

I would commend all of these books as a way to question and explore accepted truths about the human condition.  They invite us to act in a way that opens up a constellation of different possibilities; but also require hard questioning of ourselves and continual examination of our feelings and reactions.  There is in each an acceptance that we are fallible, but an overwhelming sense of a journey filled with potential, if we choose to seek it out. As Solnit states:

'Hope locates itself in the premises that we don't know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognise that you may be able to influence the outcomes - you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others.'

*I'm guilty of all of these

**I did have some fun too, honest :)

Braidotti, R. (2013). The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Damasio, A. (2004). Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain. London: Vintage Press.
Puett, M. (2016). The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Tell Us About The Good Life. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Solnit, R. (2016). Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. Chicago: Haymarket.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Woman, universal

For Lesley

I knew you
long before I met you.

In the stories of the women
that came before
and will long come after us.

In the blue of Boadica
fierce in the truth of battle
and in the warrior queen
alone on the African plain.

In the might of Cleopatra
holding love in her own hands
and in the power of the doula
giving faith in our bodies, to overcome.

In Artemis and Athena
echoes through the firmament
as unseen threads join star to star
woven through my life, a skein of hope.

I knew you long before I met you.
Woman, universal.

Friday, 23 December 2016


She wrote it out.
Sat on the beach and sifted for words
Through the stones.
Testing the weight of each,
Feeling the smoothness of pebbles like letters
A thousand metaphors in a grain of sand
And looking for similes, bright and rare as sea glass.

Seeking cadence in the rhythm of the sea and thinking
How the crash of the waves feels as triumphant as love
Till the drag of undertow leaves you cold and standing
Exposed but knowing 
that the crash will come again 

In an avian life that grabbed her by the neck
And dashed her on the rocks
Over and over again, until it was better to crack
And let the words pour out
In rivulets down the cliff face
To sink in the rock pools
Or hide amongst the stones 
Where the feathers are empty quills.
She'll choose the ones she wants to use.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Thoughts on a day off from service, Barton-On-Sea

And so we came
Down from the city of Southampton.
Twenty of us, or more
Pouring along the crevices of the rock
With the languor of treacle
and sticky in the heat.

We glimpsed the huts first
like building blocks from the playroom
washing-line bleached
and pegged to the cliffs.

We felt shock of sand through nylon
As we watched the ships of our fathers and brothers
move reluctant through the narrow water
Clinging to the shore like babes
And pushing slowly out along the narrow passage
between the legs of the isle and the mainland
born at last into the open sea.

We saw stones starched and white as sugar
Dissolving into tea-warm waves
As seagulls shrieked their dinner call
like the children shouting for tea.

And through it all the sea stretched out
Flat to the horizon
Beneath the smoothing iron
of the copper-plate sun.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Critical remembrance

When I was at school, I had a German pen friend.  Monica lived on the edge of the Black Forest and I visited her twice; I had a bit of an agenda for the second visit as I was accompanying the school football team and one player in particular, but whatever my motivations, my German was pretty impressive after a month in her company.  She lived in a three storey house with three generations of her family and what struck me on both visits was her grandmother, who always dressed in entirely in black.  When I asked why, it was explained to me that it was because she would never forget the war and the losses suffered by her family.  By the time of my first visit she had dressed in black for 45 years.

Fast-forward twenty years or so and I am thinking again about how we remember the past.  It's taken me a while to go back to Germany, but I finally managed to get to Berlin for a long weekend.  It happened to co-incide with Remembrance Sunday and the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. In the same week of the US elections, the opportunity for an exploration of the rise of fascism couldn't have been more timely.

Site of Nazi HQ, Berlin
I visited two museums - firstly the 'Topography of Terror' which despite its slightly sensational name is possibly the most forensic and detailed exhibition I have ever seen.  Built on the Hotel Prinz Albrecht site of the Nazi SS headquarters, it is a catalogue of the rise of fascism, but also a call to action; one of the aims of the foundation is to 'actively confront history and its aftermath.'  The word 'topography' is interesting in itself; the geography of the site is laid out, although little physical evidence remains apart from a few cellar walls.  It suggests a detailed mapping and examination of a landscape at a point in time, a similar notion to the 'cartography' concepts of Rosi Braidotti*, who suggests that we have to map out our history (personal, political, social and cultural) in order to fully understand and learn from it.  The detail of the documentation, records, photographs and artefacts allows visitors to see every perspective and peer into every dark nook and cranny of Nazi history.  The story is laid bare as if presented to a court; there is no sentimentality, blame,sugar-coating or biased interpretation. What you make of it is up to you, but the facts are undeniable and all the more powerful for that.

The second museum was the DDR; an interactive examination of life in Germany's first socialist state.  The DDR for me was the white shirts of the East German football team I saw on TV as a child, the numerous defections and disappearances of sports-people, and of course the fall of the Berlin Wall which is etched on my memory in one of those 'I can remember where I was then' moments. The museum includes a to-scale mock-up of an East German high rise flat, complete with 60s wallpaper, original clothing and a drinks cabinet (they consumed a horrendous amount of alcohol per head, unsurprising really).  The similarities between the two museums and extremist ideologies were striking. Fascism and communism are at either ends of the political scale but come around to mirror each other in many ways; love of the military; corruption at the top; propaganda; enforced patriotism. In both states control was very quickly taken of the education curriculum (always an early warning sign).   If these things sound familiar in present times, we would do well to keep Lawrence Britt's 'Fourteen Defining Characteristics of Fascism' close at hand.

It is said that 'art is on the side of the oppressed', and in a wonderful counterpoint to the stark reality of history in Berlin's museums, creative, affirmative expressions of art are found everywhere. Through the glorious graffiti in the East of the city, the wall-turned open air art gallery by the banks of the spree; the stelae of the Jewish memorial and the empty bookshelves of the book-burning memorial at Bebelplatz.   Art allows us to seek out an alternative world, where 'imagination is a power of cognition and a medium for alternative meaning-making and expression'.**

Detail from the Berlin Wall, East Side Gallery

The last few weeks have been personally tough in many different ways and on many different levels. This trip left me feeling humbled and more privileged than ever to work with teachers who are doing their best to work for a world of social justice, where people still believe in art and creativity, where they see their role being more about developing critical thinkers than consumers of information.  It's a difficult path to tread and becoming harder; but a good place to start this work is always with ourselves. As Foucoult wrote, "The strategic adversary is fascism... the fascism in us all, in our heads and our everyday behaviour, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us."**  We need to work on our own 'cartographies', examining critically our own informed beliefs, values and subjectivities, in whichever way works best for us; only after doing this can we help others to do the same.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Peter Eisenman

*Braidotti, R. (2013). The Posthuman. Polity Press.
**Clover, D. and Stalker, J. (2007). The Arts and Social Justice. Leicester: NIACE.
*** Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1972). Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. University of Minnesota Press.