Saturday, September 26, 2015

Temps perdu

One summer, in the 1970s, we nearly moved to France. A friend of my parents, Paul Brown (catchphrase: "how extraordinary!"), had bought a ruined château, Château d'Usson, in the Pyrenees, and fancied - and it does seem fanciful - that he would restore the château and start an artists' community there, with my parents as the first artists.

We travelled to France in the car, with a clandestine £400 of Paul's money hidden in the glove compartment, it being forbidden at that time to take such large sums of money across borders. I'd just read The Silver Sword and this gave me terrifying visions of arrest and incarceration for breaking the law. Then we spent a hot, beautiful summer there, camping on the hillside, which was long enough for my parents to realise that the enterprise was doomed, and for us to learn about blueberries and lizards, and to meet the locals who must have regarded us with considerable suspicion, but who seemed friendly, especially an old man who drove an ox-cart; and to build, with Sije (Paul's girlfriend, an energetic Dutchwoman much younger than him), a house made of grass sods - which once built crawled with ants and was uninhabitable.

Paul's utopian dream never came together and not long after we left at the end of that summer, he split with Sije and moved back to the UK to a converted mill in Yorkshire near Aysgarth Falls. The château is still described as ruined: clearly nothing was ever built there. Even though this experience was, at the time, overlaid with a fear of the unknown and of the sheer recklessness of the idea of leaving everything behind to live in France, it remains in my memory as an idyllic, happy summer.

John Wyndham wrote a short story, Random Quest, about a parallel universe created by a science experiment where the world has diverged and certain things that happened in one universe never happened in the other. Remembering Château d' Usson, a place that looms large in my memories of my childhood,  I think of myself in the parallel universe where my parents stayed at the end of the summer and we went to local schools and became, essentially, French. I'm still living in the mountains with dozens of children and my skin is as brown and wrinkled as a walnut.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

We hear the playback and it seems so long ago

"They send the heart police to put you under cardiac arrest
 And as they drag you through the door they tell you that you've failed the test"

Max, who has very clear ideas about what he likes to listen to, asked for "Video Killed the Radio Star" and I was prompted by that to listen to the Buggles' first album, The Age of Plastic, and muse about Trevor Horn and what an unloved visionary he seems to have been. My sister and I bought this album together in 1980 and, as we did with every precious record we bought, listened to it repeatedly. Listening to it now the songs are prescient but also incredibly sad - particularly "Elstree", which was Claire's favourite and always makes me think of her. ("Video Killed the Radio Star" sounds a little trite to me now, but maybe I've just heard it once too often.)

Working for the BBC may actually be a pretty decent job - I know at least one person who works there and is considered highly successful by everyone else we know - but there is something elegiac about this song.

I think of Trevor Horn as being in the category of people whose fame and consequent wealth brought them strange tragedy, not least by changing their lifestyles and/or political views - Rik Mayall and his quad bike; Bryan Ferry and his terrible reactionary children - but Trevor's tragedy was stranger than most: his son shot Trevor's wife, Jill Sinclair, with an air gun in 1994 and she died 8 years later, without ever speaking again.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Whatever hope is yours

Courage was mine, and I had mystery
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery
From Wilfred Owen, Strange Meeting (1918)

I thought of these words this morning as I cycled past the University of Melbourne campus – something about the open bay windows of the well-appointed Victorian buildings of whatever Faculty it was reminded me very strongly of Glasgow and my first year there as an undergraduate (shown above, the School of Law). The poem is about war and the pity of war, but those lines are about the power of youth, if you can only grasp it.

I didn’t get the most out of university by any stretch – I lacked the confidence which age, or background, or a certain type of school can give you – and I didn’t do any of the things that were open to me and that I actually longed to do: write for the university newspaper, join the History Society, take up fencing and rowing, because I didn't dare. I clearly remember the sense of being an outsider staring through a window at something I had  no right to be part of  – a feeling that returned to me for a moment, in distilled form, this morning.

What is very clear to me is that background and schooling play an essential role in equipping children with confidence to go out into the world. Many of my classmates were from families of lawyers. They’d gone to certain Glasgow schools (out of 120, 15 from the same private school). While, after a couple of years, they may have begun to see this as a disadvantage of sorts, as those of us who came alone had to make friends and probably had a more interesting time of it in the end, at first it was a clear clique and another way for those of us with no connection to the law and to each other to feel excluded. I didn’t have any connections  to follow up for internships in my first summer break; I didn’t have the money to go away to Europe on holiday as many did; I didn’t even know how to write a CV (I cringe to remember that my very first CV was handwritten). I spent time with a tiny group of friends and my boyfriend. I moved in small circles.

My memories of this time are one reason why I’ve endowed a scholarship at the law school for a student from a disadvantaged background. A really important part of this is the offer of mentoring: on the assumption that without the patrician background, someone like me would be starting out with absolutely no knowledge of how to operate in the university environment. A wealthy background and an education that is paid for gift the recipient with much more than just education – there’s also a much better awareness of how to work the system. When people attack the idea of quotas for disadvantaged students they seem to be unaware of this: the real impact of “disadvantage” is not just measured in wealth but in confidence.

It took me at least 10 years from the day I started university to grow into confidence in myself. While that is what has made me who I am, and I don’t regret it, I do sometimes think of what I might have done then if I’d only had the courage.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

The really useful crew

When I first saw this video cruelly skewering the pretensions of underpass Goths, I was of course tempted to react with amused contempt. I hate Goths; who doesn't? People used to accuse me of being a Goth and I loathed that. Those po-faced, self-important, whey-faced losers! The style has remained amazingly unchanged for the last 30 years: the I-feel-so-sorry-for-myself pout, the over-egged black-is-how-I-feel-on-the-inside melodrama, the black lipstick, the stack heels ... Particularly in this clip, despite some decidedly non-canon outfits (neon? White?), the self-importance is quite overpowering. What's not to dislike? On the principle that the best way to attack someone is not to attack them, but to make fun of them, what better than a humiliating soundtrack comprising the theme fromThomas the Tank Engine to accompany their earnest, yet supremely self-conscious bopping?

But on reflection, I couldn't help feeling a bit sorry for them. A bunch of misfits, universally execrated wretches, chronically misunderstood, a cohort of loners and losers, having a bit of fun the only way they know how and expressing their feelings of angst under a bridge... Not really harming anyone, and maybe my contempt is just another version of the bullying they have experienced all their lives?

(Not you, Marilyn Manson - you saw all that and you wanted to make money out of pretending to be part of it.)

Maybe my contempt is just another manifestation of the epidemic of hate and polarisation that the Internet amplifies. So I have thought better of it. There are worse ways to spend your time - maybe "being in a gang called the Disciples, high on crack and toting a machine gun".

I've got to comment from a purely aesthetic point of view, however - that really is taking the concept of "dancing" and making it into something ugly.

(It is also an extremely funny video.)

Saturday, February 07, 2015

O whistle and I’ll come to you, my lad

The title of this post is one of the scariest ghost stories ever written, which was told to me as a child and which still haunts me. The content of this post is less elegant: the story of my encounter with a  thoroughly disagreeable person on my daily cycle to work.

I was reading yesterday about a troll’s response to someone whom he cruelly attacked by impersonating her dead father on Twitter (an act even more despicable than the foul remark that Julia Gillard’s father must have “died of shame”). He said that his reaction to her was not even about her feminist views; she just “seemed so happy in yourself, and I didn’t like that”.

My daily cycle route takes me along a cycle path for about 3km, then through a park for another 2km, on a very safe, wide road with a marked cycle path. Often I’m in a good mood: the sun is shining, the trees are green, I have a happy home life, and work is usually going well. On this occasion I was whistling to myself as I cycled along. At the lights, a cyclist in front of me (young-ish, dark haired, wearing one of those German infantry cycle helmets) turned around and gave me what I subsequently realized was a Hard Stare. I said “Good morning!” and thought no more of it. The lights changed, she cycled ahead and I continued to cycle along whistling to myself. At the next lights, however, she turned round and we had the following exchange:

Ms Malcontent (angrily): “Are you doing that deliberately just to be annoying? Because it’s really annoying”.

Me (surprised): “No – I was doing it because I was happy.”

Ms Malcontent (more angrily): “Well stop doing it because it’s really annoying”.

Me: “You must be very unhappy. I hope you don’t behave like this towards your work colleagues”.

Ms Malcontent (nastily): “Only the really annoying ones. Like YOU”.

Me: “When you get to work and tell your colleagues about this encounter, they’ll nod and smile and agree with you, but secretly they’ll be thinking ‘Oh My God, what’s wrong with her? She must be really unhappy.’ Because that’s what I think.”

Ms Malcontent: Nothing (already self-righteously cycling off).

I did examine my conscience after this encounter – was I whistling too loudly? Is it really annoying? But also asking myself: did this person have any right to say this to me so aggressively? I decided in the end not to take it personally; here I’d encountered someone very unhappy, with who knows what terrible things happening in her life, to the extent that she thought it was OK to be vilely rude to a stranger.