The New York Times Book Review
Shaking a Leg: Collected Journalism and Writingsby Angela Carter
One of contemporary
"An electrifying intellectual autobiography, with all the narrative expanse, drama, outrage, and high comedy of the author’s fiction. Angela Carter is revealed here, anew, as one of the most important thinkers of twentieth-century world literature—and one of its most pungent voices.”—Rick Moody
One of contemporary literature’s most original and affecting fiction writers, Angela Carter also wrote brilliant nonfiction. Shaking a Leg comprises the best of her essays and criticism, much of it collected for the first time. Carter’s acute observations are spiked with her piercing matter-of-factness, her devastating wit, her penchant for mockery, and her passion for the absurd. Whether discussing films or food, feminism or fantasy, science fiction or sex, Carter consistently explores new territories and overturns old ideas. No cultural icon escapes her scrutiny; as in her fiction, Carter offers glorious evidence of the transforming power of the imagination. From delightfully wicked commentaries on Gone with the Wind, a Japanese fertility festival, and fellow writers, including Lawrence, Lovecraft, Borges, and Burroughs, to enchanting personal essays, Carter shares her thoughts and herself with glee.
“What a wonderful collection—sharp, funny, too decent for sarcasm but great wit and humanity, an unusual combination. But it makes us miss her, miss laughing with her, that real, intelligent, tough writing woman.”—Grace Paley
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The Mother Lode
The first house in which I remember living gives a false impression of our circumstances. This house was part of the archaeology of my mother's mother's life and gran dug it up again and dived back within it when the times became precarious, that is, in 1940, and she took me with her, for safety's sake, with this result: that I always feel secure in south Yorkshire.
This first house of my memory was a living fossil, a two-up, two-down, red-brick, slate-tiled, terraced miners' cottage architecturally antique by the nineteenth-century standards of the rest of the village. There was a lavatory at the end of the garden beyond a scraggy clump of Michaelmas daisies that never looked well in themselves, always sere, never blooming, the perennial ghosts of themselves, as if ill-nourished by an exhausted soil. This garden was not attached to the cottage; the back door opened on to a paved yard, with a coal-hole beside the back gate that my grandmother topped up with a bit of judicious thieving for, unlike the other coal-holes along the terrace, ours was not entitled to the free hand-out from the pits for miners' families. Nor did we need one. We were perfectly well-off. But gran couldn't resist knocking off a lump or two. She called this activity: `snawking', either a dialect or a self-invented word, I don't know which.
There was an access lane between the gate of the yard and the gate of the garden, so it was a very long trip out to the lavatory, especially in winter. We used chamber-pots a good deal - `jerries' cause of much hilarity due to the hostilities. My mother had a pastel-coloured, Victorian indelicacy which she loved to repeat: `When did the queen reign over China?' This whimsical and harmless scatalogical pun was my first introduction to the wonderful world of verbal transformations, and also a first perception that a joke need not be funny to give pleasure.
Beyond the brick-built lavatory, to which we used to light our way after dark with a candle lantern, was a red-brick, time-stained, soot-dulled wall that bounded an unkempt field; this field was divided by a lugubrious canal, in which old mattresses and pieces of bicycle used to float. The canal was fringed with willows, cruelly lopped, and their branches were always hung with rags tied in knots. I don't know why. It was a witchy, unpremeditated sight. Among the tips where we kids used to play were strange pools of oleaginous, clay-streaked water. A neighbour's child drowned in one of them.
The elements of desolation in the landscape give no clue to the Mediterranean extraversion and loquacity of the inhabitants. Similarly, all this grass-roots, working-class stuff, the miners' cottage and the bog at the end of the garden and all, is true, but not strictly accurate. The processes of social mobility had got under way long before I had ever been thought of, although, my mother always assured me I had never been thought of as such, had simply arrived and, as I will make plain, somewhat inconveniently, too.
We took this trip back, not to my mother's but to her mother's roots because of the war. My grandmother had not lived in her native village herself since she was a girl and now she was an old woman, squat, fierce and black-clad like the granny in the Giles cartoons in the Sunday Express, because she, an old woman, took me back to her childhood, I think I became the child she had been, in a sense, for the first five years of my life. She reared me as a tough, arrogant and pragmatic Yorkshire child and my mother was powerless to prevent it.
My mother learned she was carrying me at about the time the Second World War was declared; with the family talent for magic realism, she once told me she had been to the doctor's on the very day. It must have been a distressing and agitated pregnancy. Shortly after she began to assemble all the birthing bric-a-brac, the entire child population of our part of south London was removed to the South Coast, away from the bombs, or so it was thought. My brother, then eleven, was sent away with them but my mother followed him because my father quickly rented a flat in a prosperous, shingle-beached resort. Which is why I was born in Eastbourne, not a place I'd have chosen, although my mother said that if Debussy had composed La Mer whilst sitting on Beachy Head, I should not turn my nose up at the place.
So off they all went, my mother and my embryonic self, my brother, and my maternal grandmother went with them, to look after them all, while my father, in a reserved occupation, and who, besides, had served the whole term of the First World War, stayed behind in London to work but he came down whenever he could manage it and that was very often because he and my mother were very attached to each other.
My mother went into labour in Eastbourne but when she came out of it we were on the front line because Dunkirk fell while I was shouldering my way into the world; my grandmother said there was one place in the world the Germans would not dare to bomb so we all shifted ourselves to a cottage that my father now rented for us next door to the one in which my great-aunt, Sophia, my grandmother's sister, and her brother, my great-uncle, Sydney, lived. And though the Germans bombed hell out of the South Coast and also bombed the heart out of Sheffield, twenty odd miles away from where we had removed, not one bomb fell on us, just as she had predicted.
Uncle Syd worked down Manvers Main Colliery. He was a tall, gaunt man of a beautiful, shy dignity, who had, I understand, originally wanted to be a bookie but whose mother had not let him. I remember him all pigeon-coloured, soft greys touched With beige, the colour of the clothes he was wearing when I last saw him, when he came down south for my gran's funeral. And a pearl tie-pin. And a gold watch-chain, across his camel-coloured waistcoat.
Sophie was a teacher. She had no formal qualifications at all, I think, had simply never left school but stayed on to teach the babies the three Rs and did so until she retired in the 1950s, qualified eventually by experience, natural aptitude and, probably, strength of character. Besides, by then she had taught several generations of the village to read and write, probably taught most of the education committee to read and write. She, too, had a great deal of formal dignity; I remember how, unlike my grandmother, who had lived in London most of her life, Syd and Sophie both had very soft voices, country voices. Though we could hear Syd's cough through the wall, the dreadful, choking cough that all the men over forty in the village had.
The south Yorkshire coalfields are not half as ugly as they may seem at first glance. Rather like the potteries, they are somehow time-locked, still almost a half-rural society as it must have been in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. The wounded and despoiled countryside remains lush and green around the workings; sheep graze right up to the pit-heads, although the sheep I saw when I was a child were all black with soot, and Doncaster Market is far richer in local agricultural produce than the pretend-markets in Devon. There is a quite un-English pre-occupation with food; the pig is dealt with in a bewildering and delicious variety of ways but butter and cheese are good, too, and so is bread, the perfume of next morning's loaves nightly flavouring the air around the corner bakery.
The streets of the red-brick villages are laid out in grid-like parallels, cheapest of housing for working families, yet they manage to fold into the landscape with a certain, gritty reticence although it is one of gentle hills; there is none of the scenic drama of west Yorkshire, instead, a bizarre sense of mucky pastoral. The colliers were often famous poachers in their spare time. My granny taught me songs that celebrated the wily fox, the poacher's comrade, and his depredations of bourgeois farmyards:
Old Mother Flipperty-flop jumped out of bed,
Out of the window she stuck 'er 'ead -
`John, John, the grey goose is gone
And the fox is off to his den, of!'
It is almost the landscape of D. H. Lawrence, almost that of the Chatterleys, Mellon was as tough on the poachers as only a true class-traitor could be. Lawrence ratted on it all, of course, Lawrence, the great, guilty chronicler of English social mobility, the classic, seedy Brit full of queasy, self-justificatory class shame and that is why they identify with him so much in British universities, I tell you. I know the truth. Him and his la-did-dah mother.
But I read The Rainbow a little while ago, searching for some of the flavour of the lives of my grandmother and her family eighty years ago, ninety years ago, in a village not unlike Eastwood, only a little more gritty, and there was Sophie, teaching school like Ursula Brangwen but making a much better job of it, I'm happy to say, perhaps since nobody sent her to Sheffield High School and taught her to give herself airs. At that, I hear my grandmother speaking in my head.
But Sophie did trek all the way to Leeds to go to art classes. Ruskin was a strong influence in these parts. To my knowledge, Sophie never drew or painted for pleasure when she was grown-up but she taught me the rudiments of perspective, and most of the alphabet, before I was five. Her father, my great-grandfather, had he owned a pub? At this point, they vanish into mist; there is a brewery in Sheffield with their family name, but it is a common enough name in south Yorkshire. Some connection was supposed to have been the cock-fighting king of the entire country but all this is irretrievable, now. I do not even know if they had seen better days, but I doubt it.
All the same, there was a beautiful parlour-organ in Sophie's pocket-handkerchief-sized front room and a grandfather clock so old it is now in the museum in Barnsley and a glass-fronted cabinet full of ancient blue-and-white china that must have been very fine because my mother always lusted after it but never managed to get her hands on it, in the end, because Sophie outlived her, to Sophie's grief. At night, the kitchen was lit by the dim, greenish, moth-like light of gas mantles; we took candles up the steep wooden stairs to bed. There was a coal range, that Sophie blacked; no hot water; a tin bath filled with kettles in which Syd washed off his pit dirt. There were no pit-head baths at Manvers Main until 1947, when the mines were nationalised.
Smelling of sweat and the sharp, mineral odour of coal dust, the miners came off the shift blacked up as for a minstrel show, their eyeballs and teeth gleaming, in their ragged jackets, braces, overalls, and I remember gangs of them exhaustedly swaggering home, so huge, so genial and so proudly filthy they seemed almost superhuman. I'm a sucker for the worker hero, you bet. I think most of them thought that nationalisation would mean workers' control and were justifiably pissed off when they found out it didn't, sold down the river by the Labour Party again, the old story.
Death was part of daily life, also; scarcely a family had not its fatality, its mutilated, its grey-faced old man coughing his lungs out in the chair by the range. And everybody was, of course, very poor. It wasn't until the 1960s that miners were earning anything like a reasonable living wage and by then Sophie had electricity, and a bathroom, and a gas-stove, benefits she accepted from the Coal Board without gratitude, for they were no more than her due.
Of course I romanticise it. Why the hell not. I cry with pure anger when I pass the pits beside the railway-line from Sheffield to Leeds; the workings, grand and heartless monuments to the anonymous dead.
We are not a close-knit but nevertheless an obsessive family, sustained, as must be obvious, by a subjectively rich if objectively commonplace folk-lore. And claustrophobic as a Jewish family, to which we have many similarities, even if we do not see one another often. I cannot escape them, nor do I wish to do so. They are the inhabitants of my heart, and the rhetoric and sentimentality of such a phrase is also built into me by the rich Highland sentimentality of my father's people that always made my mother embarrassed.
Since they were a matriarchal clan, my mother's side of the family bulked first and largest, if not finally most significantly.
My maternal grandmother seemed to my infant self a woman of such physical and spiritual heaviness she might have been born with a greater degree of gravity than most people. She came from a community where women rule the roost and she effortlessly imparted a sense of my sex's ascendancy in the scheme of things, every word and gesture of hers displayed a natural dominance, a native savagery, and I am very grateful for all that, now, although the core of steel was a bit inconvenient when I was looking for boyfriends in the south in the late fifties, when girls were supposed to be as soft and as pink as a nursuree.
Gran was ninety when she died ten years ago and wandering in her mind, so she'd talk about the miners' strikes of her girlhood, how they'd march in their pit dirt and rags with banners and music, they would play harmonicas, and she leaned out of the attics of the house where she worked as a chambermaid to watch. She would have made a bloody awful chambermaid, unnaturally servile until something inside her snapped.
My maternal grandfather, who died before I was bom, originally hailed from East Anglia. There was no work on the farms so he joined the army and I think his regiment must have been sent to south Yorkshire to put down the strikes. Nobody ever told me this in so many words, but I can think of no other reason why he should have arrived there in time to meet my grandmother in the late 1880s or early 1890s. He met her; they were engaged; and he was sent to India.
When we were clearing out my grandmother's effects, we found a little stack of certificates for exams my grandfather had passed in the army. In Baluchistan, in the Punjab, in Simla, he had become astoundingly literate and numerate. He must also have learned to argue like hell. Furthermore, he became radicalised, unless the seeds had already been sewn in the seething radicalism of the coalfields. He wrote to my grandmother once a week for seven years. Characteristically unsentimental, she threw away their letters, with their extraordinary fund of information about an NCO coming to consciousness through the contradictions inherent in the Raj, but she kept the stamps. What stamp albums my uncles had.
Of all the dead in my family, this unknown grandfather is the one I would most like to have talked to. He had the widest experience and perhaps the greatest capacity for interpreting it. There are things about him that give me great pleasure; for example, as a hobby, later in life, he enjoyed, though only in a modest, yet a not entirely unsuccessful way, playing the Stock Exchange, as if to prove to himself the childish simplicity with which the capitalist system operated. My grandmother thwarted this flair, she never trusted banks, she kept his money in matresses, no really, in biscuit tins, on her person, in her big, black, leather bag.
When my mother's father came home, he married gran and joined the ILP and went to live in London, first Southwark, then Battersea, four children in a two-bedroom rabbit hutch. A yard, no garden. No bath. To the end of her life, my dotty aunt, who lived with gran, washed at the public slipper bath.
They were magnificently unbowed. There was a piano for the children, who played it; and did amateur dramatics; and went to see Shakespeare and Ibsen and Sybil Thorndyke in Saint Joan at the Old Vic. He was a clerk in the War Department; he used his literacy to be shot of manual labour, first rung up the ladder of social mobility, then worked in one of the first of the clerical trades unions. (Which may have been down a snake.) He got out of the slums, feet first, in his coffin; gran stuck it out until the street was demolished in 1956. Before the First World War, he chaired a meeting at which Lenin spoke. He shook Lenin by the hand and he led my eldest uncle, then a small boy, up to shake Lenin's hand, also. This uncle, however, grew up to adopt a political stance somewhat, as the Americans say, to the right of Attila the Hun.
My maternal grandfather died of cirrhosis. A life-long teetotaller, the years in India had wrecked his liver. My grandmother's house was full of relics of the Empire, an ebony elephant, spears, a carved coconut shell representing the Hindu cosmogeny, beautiful shells from tropical seas, some with pierced messages: A Present From The Andaman Islands. Also enormous quantities of souvenir china, mugs, teapots and sugar basins commemorating every coronation from that of Edward VII to that of Elizabeth II; there was even a brace of scarlet enamelled tin trays from Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. Contradictions of English socialism. And enormous quantities of books, of course, some very strange: Foxe's Books of Martyrs, not one but three copies; Macchiavelli; Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
Their children were indefatigable self-educators, examination passers and prize-winners; those shelves were crammed with prizes for good conduct, for aptitude, for general excellence, for overall progress, though my gran fucked it all up for my mother. An intolerably bright girl, my mother won a scholarship to a ladies' grammar school, a big deal, in those days, from a Battersea elementary school. My gran attended prize-days to watch my mother score her loot with a huge Votes for Women badge pinned to her lapel and my mother, my poor mother, was ashamed because my gran was zapping the option her daughter had been given to be a lady just by standing up for her own rights not to be. (My mother used to sing `The Internationale' to me but only because she liked the tune.)
Perhaps my mother was ashamed of gran, as well, because gran talked broad Yorkshire until the day she died, all `sithee' and `thyssen' and `'e were runnin' like buggery'. When she gracelessly shoved a plate of food in front of you, she'd growl: `Get it down thee,' with a dreadful menace. She taught me how to whistle. She hated tears and whining to no purpose; `Don't be soft,' she'd say. Though she was often wrong, she was never silly. When I or anyone else was silly, she would wither me: `Tha bloody fool,' making a broken diphthong out of the long `o'. How to transcribe it: half-way between `foo-ill' and `foyle'.
When I was eighteen, I went to visit her rigged out in all the atrocious sartorial splendour of the underground high-style of the late fifties, blackmesh stockings, spike-heeled shoes, bum-hugging skirt, jacket with a black fox collar. She laughed so much she wet herself. `You wait a few years and you'll be old and ugly, just like me,' she cackled. She herself dressed in dark dresses of heavy rayon crepe, with grey Lisle stockings bound under the knee with two loops of knotted elastic.
Her personality had an architectonic quality; I think of her when I see some of the great London railway termini, especially St Pancras, with its soot and turrets, and she overshadowed her own daughters, whom she did not understand my mother, who liked things to be nice; my dotty aunt. But my mother had not the strength to put even much physical distance between them, let alone keep the old monster at an emotional arm's length. Although gran only actually lived with us in Yorkshire, and went back to her own house, five miles away, when we all went back to London at ceasefire, I remember her as always and ineradicably there until I was ten or eleven, by which time she was growing physically debilitated. I would have said, `frail', but that is quite the wrong word.
But my grandmother's toughness was a limitation of its own. There was to be no struggle for my mother, who married herself young to an adoring husband who indulged her, who was subject to ill-health, who spoke standard south London English, who continued to wear fancy clothes long after she was both wife and mother. My grandmother could have known of no qualities in herself she could usefully transmit to this gift who must have seemed a stranger to her. So, instead, she nagged her daughter's apparent weaknesses.
With the insight of hindsight, I'd have liked to have been able to protect my mother from the domineering old harridan, with her rough tongue and primitive sense of justice, but I did not see it like that, then. I did not see there was a drama between mother and daughter.
At my wedding, my grandmother spread brown sugar on her smoked salmon and ate it with relish. She did not approve of the man whom I married because he wore a belt to keep his trousers up instead of braces. She wore her hair in a bun on the very top of her head and secured it with giant, tortoiseshell pins.
When I lived in Japan, I learned to admire their tolerant acceptance of the involuntary nature of family life. Love in the sense of passionate attachment has nothing to do with it; the Japanese even have a different verb to define the arbitrary affection that grows among these chance juxtapositions of intimate strangers. There is also the genetic and environmental snare, of course; they are they and you are you but, nevertheless, alike. I would have defended my mother with my grandmother's weapons.
I also admire the Russian use of patronymics, although matronymics would do just as well. Aeneas carried his aged father on his back from the ruins of Troy and so do we all, whether we like it or not, perhaps even if we have never known them. But my own father recently resigned the post to go and live with his own brother and father, moving smartly out of our family back into his own, reverting, in his seventh decade, to the youthful role of sib. At an age when most parents become their children's children, he redefined himself as the equal of his son and daughter. He can cope with the ruins of Troy very well under his own steam. He will carry me out of them, I dare say.
When my father attached a plastic parakeet he'd bought at Woolworths, his favourite shop, to a disused gas fitting on the ceiling of our kitchen in south London, my mother said to him in a voice of weary petulance: `Age cannot wither nor accustom stale your infinite variety.' They had then been married for thirty-five years.
My father has lined the walls of his own new home with pictures of my mother when she was young and beautiful; and beautiful she certainly was, with a broad, Slavonic jaw and high cheekbones like Anna Karenina, she took a striking photograph and had the talent for histrionics her pictures imply. They used to row dreadfully and pelt one another with household utensils, whilst shrieking with rage. Then my mother would finally break down and cry, possibly tears of sheer frustration that he was bigger than she, and my father, in an ecstasy of remorse we've always been very good at remorse and its manifestations in action, emotional blackmail and irrational guilt my father would go out and buy her chocolates.
The gift wiped away all resentment, as it happened, because he often bought her chocolates when they had not rowed at all. He really loved to buy her things. She herself liked Harrods, especially the sale, and sometimes Harvey Nichols; he could never see the difference between these places and Woolworths except the restaurants but, since they very much enjoyed eating lunch out, he was happy to go with her, happy to carry the packages.
A morning's shopping was a major trip and they could indulge their taste for this diversion freely because my father worked from three o'clock in the afternoon until midnight most days. My mother was sometimes sorry for herself, to spend all her evenings alone, but he would come back in the middle of the night with the next day's newspapers and make her tea and bring her biscuits and they would chatter away for hours in the early morning. If I was awake, I could hear them through the wall.
Their life together was one of daytime treats and midnight feasts when I was usually at school or in bed. They spent more time alone with one another than do those parents who use children as an excuse for not talking to one another, and at times of the day when they were both rested and refreshed. No wonder they got on one another's nerves, sometimes. Then the storms were amazing. One could never rely on tranquillity, or not for long. But the rows were never conducted in hushed whispers not of that `pas devant les enfants' rubbish and were never about anything important, like money. Or me. At least, not yet. They were about nothing at all, a blocked-up lavatory, a blunt carving knife, my father's enthusiastic but not terribly scrupulous washing up. (`He'd like to wash up before we sat down to dinner.' `He thinks we're going to want mustard all week.') Their rowing was the noisy music of compatibility.
It was a household in which midnight was early and breakfast merged imperceptibly into lunch. I can remember no rules, no punishments and I was expected to answer back. Once you were inside the door, a curious kind of dream-time operated; life passed at a languorous pace, everything was gently untidy, and none of the clocks ever told the right time, although they ticked away busily. We relied on the radio for the right time.
I went to look at this second house in which I lived last Christmas, the time for sentimental journeys. It was a good deal nicer than I had remembered it; a largish, even imposing Edwardian terrace house with a bay at the front and a little garden at the back, abutting on the Victoria-Brighton line. I had remembered it as smaller, poky, even. The entire street looked brighter and fresher than in the past; there were a few chocolate brown doors and the glimpse of a Japanese paper lantern in some front-rooms. Hardly any net curtains, now. The whole area is clearly on the up, again, but my father sold the house five years ago, sold it for peanuts, glad to be shot of it now she was gone, and went off.
My father and mother had settled down, as I've said, only a few miles away from her own family if 500 miles away from his, in Balham, then, in the mid-1920s, a solid, middle-class suburb, lace curtains, privet hedges and so on. They planted roses in the arid soil of the back garden and, unfairly enough, for my father only entered the garden to brutally prune them, they bloomed lavishly every June. They furnished the house with mahogany sideboard, leather settee, oak Welsh-dresser handsome furniture; I wouldn't mind some of it, now, only my father abandoned most of it there. He has no affection for possessions, unless they have only sentimental value. He keeps my wedding dress. Perhaps in case I need it again. No, he'd want to buy me a new one. But my mother loved nice things and said, when I told her I was leaving my husband, to be sure to take with me some silver-plated teaspoons she had recently given me. I did not and have often regretted it.
Here, when we came back from Yorkshire at the end of the war to a street that had had the residue of respectability bombed out of it, we settled into a curious kind of deviant middle-class life, all little luxuries and no small comforts, no refrigerator, no washing-machine, no consumer durables at all, but cream with puddings and terribly expensive soap and everything went to the laundry. And we were too messy for genuine discomfort. But our household became increasingly anachronistic as the neighbourhood turned into a twilight zone. A social-realist family life for those first seminal five years, that I remember so well because the experience was finite; but the next ten years have a far more elusive flavour, it was as though we were stranded, somehow. A self-contained family unit with a curious, self-crafted life-style, almost but not quite an arty one, a very unself-conscious one, that flourished on its own terms but was increasingly at variance with the changes going on around it. My mother's passion for respectability in itself became a source of deviance; she actively encouraged me to wear black woollen stockings at a time when they were a positive sign of depravity. She forbade me lipstick in the days when only female beatniks did not wear lipstick. It was all very strange.
Since my father returned to his granite village beside its granite sea, returned not only to his native land Scotland but to the very house in which he grew up, triumphantly accomplishing the dearest dream of every migrant worker, I understand better how it was we were always somehow askew. I felt like a foreigner because my mother had married a foreigner, although neither she nor he himself ever realised it. Being a Scot, he never fully comprehended the English class system, nor did he realise he might have been socially upwardly mobile within it; he only thought he had not done badly, which is a different perspective upon it. He had seen what Dr Johnson, one of my mother's favourites, called the finest thing a Scotsman can see, the high road to England, and he took it; did well enough; married happily; ushered into the world two satisfactory children. And then he went home, a symmetric life. He was a journalist until he retired and, of course, journalists have a curious marginality on their own, a professional detachment. If he had pretensions, they would have been to style as such, I think. He remains something of a dandy. He has always enjoyed walking sticks, bow ties, selects a different form of headgear for different hours of the day.
So we did not quite fit in, thank goodness; alienated is the only way to be, after all. After the war, my mother was always trying to persuade him to move to a posher neighbourhood, as if she thought that was the problem, and a house big enough to have my gran live with us, as though the presence of my gran would not have cancelled the whole thing out. Mum fancied Streatham; she had her eye on one house after another and sometimes we were so near to moving that she would pack all the books up in cardboard boxes, but, when it came to the point, my father wouldn't budge.
He entered into the fantasy of the thing wholeheartedly, of course; estate agent after estate agent was led up the garden path by him, but, when the crunch came, he could not do it. I don't think it was the idea of living with gran that put him off; they recognised that, in their ways, they were a match for one another and treated one another with deference. But he was himself utterly oblivious of the way the neighbourhood was growing seedy, the way the house was falling down. `Nothing wrong with the old shack,' he'd say, as the woodworm gnawed the rafters and the defective wiring ignited small conflagrations hither and thither. `Nothing wrong with the old shack.' Not defensively rather, with the air of a man startled that anyone might think otherwise.
No. He hated the idea of a big mortgage. He liked to have the odd bob in his pocket, for chocolates, for ice-cream, for lunches out, for nice things for my mother, for his own modest dandyism, for occasional taxis that turned into taxis everywhere after my mother grew ill. Also, he particularly enjoyed travelling first-class on the railways oh, those exquisite night-trains to Scotland! We could not afford a nicer house and all those luxuries besides; he did elaborate sums on the backs of envelopes to regretfully prove it and then would climb back happily to the little eyrie he'd made for himself in the attic, where he would lie on his bed listening to obscure continental stations on his radio, smoking his pipe. `What are you doing?' she'd shout from the bottom of the stairs. `Contemplating the futility of it all,' he'd say. `Contemplating the futility of it all, you old trout.'
When she told him how much she hated being called an old trout, he'd riposte: `The trout is the most beautiful of fish.'
Charm is our curse.
So they stayed put. After he retired from work, maybe the only move he really wanted to make was back to Scotland but she would not hear of that, so put herself at the tender mercies of his kin and of the deathly climate. After I left home, they turned increasingly in on themselves; a good deal of the joy evaporated from their lives with my mother's illness and there was her own mother's death, a great blow since the umbilical cord had been ill-severed. But that was later, when I was no longer a child.
My mother and father were well on in their marriage when I was born, so there is a great deal about them I do not know and I do not remember them when they were young. My father was older when I was born than I am now. But he loved to take snaps in those unknown-to-me days and there are dozens of albums of pictures of my mother. My mother in wonderfully snappy clothes with my brother in his photogenic babyhood; with a black and white dog they had; in an open tourer my father subsequently crashed; on beaches; in fields among cornstooks; at the piano; playing at typing on my father's typewriter, every inch the dimpled twenties' child-bride. My mother would often say what a lovely time she and my dad had before the war and there is the proof of it, trapped in the amber of the perpetual summer of the amateur photographer, redolent of a modest yet authentic period glamour.
I was not in any way part of that life, which had ended with the war; and the war ended with the onset of their middle-age. After the war, everything became drab and drabness, I think, instinctively repelled them both. Chaos, even mayhem, yes; but a drab, an austere time, no, even if my mother paid a lot of lip-service to respectability. Love and money only bought me lousy toys in the 1940s and I acceded to my brother's generation, I loved best his plush Mickey Mouse and his books, Alice and Pooh. Times grew less hard; then, at last, I acquired in full measure all the impedimenta of a bourgeois childhood, a dolls' house, toy sewing-machine, red patent-leather shoes with silver buckles, organdie dresses and so on, but these were all a little spooky in a twilight zone and the Cold War was a curious time during which to recreate a snug, privileged, 1930s childhood for their daughter. I went to primary school with apprentice used-car dealers and my best friend was a girl whose uncle trained greyhounds, whose mother was an office-cleaner. Not that my parents thought there was anything odd about that. And always, when I came home, the dream-time engulfed me, a perpetual Sunday afternoon in which you could never trust the clocks, until, when I was fifteen, she was ill. And never fully recovered, was never really well again, always an invalid now. And the music of their rowing died to a soft obligato.
She once warned me: `Children wreck marriages.' I had not realised how essentially satisfied they had been with one another until then; not that I think she meant my brother and I had wrecked her marriage. If anything, we were too much loved, I don't think she resented us. I do not think she was registering a specific complaint, but making a grand generalisation based on observation, insight yet also, perhaps, she felt a dissatisfaction that was also generalised, had nothing to do with any of us, did not even exist as an `if only', but as if, perhaps unconsciously, she felt she might have mislaid something important, in the eccentric, noisy trance of that rambling, collapsing house.
But then, I do not think you ever know you are happily married until you have been unhappily married first.
She once gave me a rose tree.
It was for my tenth or eleventh birthday. I forget precisely which. It was a miniature rose tree, in a pot. I found it on my breakfast table, beside the other presents, of which there were a tremendous many, I was spoiled rotten. It was no more than a foot high and covered with pink blossom. I was a little disappointed with it, at first; I could not eat it, wear it or read it and I was a practical child and could not really see the use of it, though I could see it had been chosen with the greatest loving care.
I misunderstood my mother's subtleties. I did not realise this rose tree was not a present for my tenth birthday, but for my grown self, a present not for now, but to remember. Of all the presents of all the birthdays of a petted childhood, the rose tree is the one I remember best and it is mixed up, now, with my memory of her, that, in spite of our later discords, our acrimonious squabblings, once she gave me a perennial and never-fading rose tree, the outlines of which, crystallised in the transforming well of memory, glitter as if with properties she herself may not have been at all aware of, a present like part of herself she did not know about that she could still give away to me.
News Review, 1976
My Father's House
The dining room, never used except as an ancillary larder, a cool place in which to set jellies and store meat, eggs and fish for the cat, is unchanged in essentials since I first came here in 1945. This room has the air of formal disuse characteristic of the Scots company room of its period. It was assembled long before I was born and is now almost an informal museum of north-east Scots twenties style, heirlooms and memorabilia.
There is a Brussels carpet; a table of brightly varnished, heavily grained yellow pine built by a long-dead local joiner; wallpaper with cowed brown flowers; a mirrored sideboard piled with souvenir china, plastic bowls, flowers made of wood chips bought from whining tinkers, paper bags containing outmoded hats, a number of plastic dolls in blonde wigs and kilts brought back as giftlets for my now deceased aunt by cronies who tripped off to other parts of Scotland for wee holidays.
There is a glass-fronted cabinet where my great-grandmother's tea service is stored, stately shapes of white china teapot and slopbasin clearly a better class of goods was available in the town in the 1850s than it is today. My father says she was a school-teacher and used to ride to work in Banff, across the Deveron, on a little pony. Banff, a small, granite, seventeenth-century town so obscure that letters directed to it are sometimes sent to Banff, Alberta, in error.
I tentatively identify this great-grandmother as the one whose antique sepia photograph on the wall shows her, good God, in a long cloak, wimple and modified steeple hat and not as if it were fancy dress, either, but her normal apparel, a little touch of the Aberdeen witches. (In 1636, rope to bind witches at Banff cost eight shillings, a lot of money in those days.) But this lady has the stern face of a kirk-goer. There's the picture of a distant uncle who was killed while working on a railroad in Canada. Other family photographs, no longer identifiable, are curiously poignant. Who the hell were they? Why are they not remembered?
There are several pictures in heavy frames on the walls. Two are reproductions in oils of stags in depopulated Highland glens, school of `The Stag at Bay'. There are charcoal sketches of similar scenes in all the bedrooms, the house is crammed with stags, there's even a little stag, made of lead, on top of the massive clock in the master bedroom. But there isn't a landscape that could harbour a stag within a hundred miles of this place. It's a purely emblematic Scottishness, this scenery of crags, spruce, glens, tumbling waterfalls, untenanted except for deer, post-clearance landscapes, in which man is most present in his resonating absences.
Clearly this family was once heavily into the mythology of Scotland. I keep trying to interest my father in the history of his people, now he's gone back to them at last. I sent him John Prebble's books about Culloden and the Highland clearances. But he's cast them aside after a preliminary, dutiful browse. He says they're too bloody depressing.
During the whole of his fifty years down south, he never showed any interest at all in his own foreignness. None of your St Andrew's Societies and Burns Nights, those folkmoots of the middle-class Scots expatriate. There's a joke he's still fond of, though. Jock goes down south for an interview and, on his return, is asked: Did you meet any Englishmen, Jock? `Och, no; I only met heads of departments.' A self-defensive joke. Like the sort of Jewish joke told by Jews. And back he went, eventually. Back home.
It's a long day's drive to a stag-haunted glen from the north-east seaboard soon, it's rumoured, to be oil-rich. The main evidence of the oil rigs off Peterhead, thirty miles away, is the way property values round here have shot up. Fish and farming remain the basics. The Banffshire Journal (sub-headed and Northern Farmer) carries stories about the price of fish, the shortage of pigs, the scarcity of fat cattle. Headline: STRAW DESTROYED IN BLAZE. Another: PORTESSIE MAN PRESUMED DROWNED, after he was thrown from the deck of an Aberdeen trawler when an oil rig supply vessel ah! ripped an eight-foot gash in her port side. That's the only mention of the oil in this issue.
There is ancient and graceful Banff; and there is the mouth of the beautiful Deveron, `sweet Deveronside'; and then there is Macduff, where I come from. Correction. Where my father comes from: I am easily confused by my own roots. Where my father came from and went back to. Two towns separated by a river, and by invisible barriers of class. Brash Macduff was invented virtually as a new town by William Duff of Braco, afterwards first Earl of Fife, during the mid-eighteenth century. They were too busy putting in the harbour to even notice the Jacobite rebellion.
More to the point of this place than the crags and glens on the dining-room wall are the two fine colour prints of clipper ships in frames of birdseye maple. `Whither, oh, splendid ship, thy white sails crowding, etcetera.' From these tight granite harbours, the clippers set sail for China, the immigrants departed for New Zealand.
I remember, about twenty years ago, a German training ship, some sort of triple-master schooner, put into Macduff harbour. It came floating like a tethered cloud past the little white toy-like lighthouse at the pierhead. It floated, it materialised, out of yet another vulgar, Technicolor, Cinerama sunset. The sun always goes down with amazing splendour over the Moray Firth.
I've never seen the town in such commotion before or since. Ancient fishers, with their flat caps, baggy trousers and characteristic rolling gait, thronged the foreshore, feting the crew of the ship that shouldered aside the butch little fishing vessels with their touching names the Elspeth MacFee, the Rose in June, the Grace, the Fear Not, the Intrepid. The ship came out of the past, carrying an invisible cargo of grandparents' memories. (Later, I think, it went down in the South Pacific.) That was something like an appropriate mythology.
I often wonder where the notion of the bustling industry of the Scots came from. Not from Macduff. They're competent, yes; but it's a sleepy town. Outside the church, there's a cross put up by the second Earl of Fife in 1783, whose pediment is inscribed thus: MAY IT FLOURISH AND LONG INCREASE IN NUMBERS AND OPULENCE WHILE ITS INHABITANTS GAIN THE BLESSINGS OF LIFE BY INDUSTRY, DILIGENCE AND TEMPERANCE. Wishful thinking on the part of the Anglo-Scots aristocracy, I'm inclined to think. `Everybody takes things easy,' says the man who runs a taxi service, and does a lot of business ferrying drunks home at closing time. Poverty used to make them work hard; they had to. Temperance was always a more notional than an actual virtue round here.
All the same, a godly town. `If the Lord will, the word of God will be preached on the Lord's Day at 5 pm. All welcome.' So says the sign on the door of the Tabernacle. The North Sea is a killer and those who work upon it pray a great deal, with good reason. `Lost at sea', `Lost at sea', `Lost at sea', reiterate the gravestones in the churchyard, gravestones of Andersons, Pattersons, Shands, names reflecting the Scandinavian influence on this stretch of coast between Aberdeen and Inverness, a region less plastered with phony tartan than a lot of Scotland. I ought to remember that on those occasions when I'm tempted to don the tartan myself.
A couple of generations of my father's family are buried in Doune kirkyard. A theoretical distaste for nationalism, and the knowledge that the Anglo-Scot is the very worst kind, sets up disagreeable tensions within me in the gull-echoing, green place where, with fine self-regard, the dead have their academic qualifications inscribed after their names, BAs and MAs from Aberdeen mostly. Nevertheless, there they are uncles and grandparents all degreeless, alas. And another generation back is buried a few miles up the coast, in Portsoy; that's David, who fought at the battle of Waterloo and married a French wife. The stone was erected by his sons in memory of `the most genial and indulgent of fathers', or so it says; extraordinary epitaph for a Victorian pater-familias in the Calvinist northeast. Either black irony; or else it was true.
He used to live in an earth-floored cottage that now lies in picturesque ruin on the foreshore. We have our little pilgrimages. My father likes to drive out to Davy's grave, Davy's cottage, and we stand and look at the relics, and I try to pretend I don't feel the cold hand of mortality on my heart, of mortality and also of something else. For the circumstances of life in that cottage are unimaginable to me. My family history remains, in some ways, inaccessibly foreign.
It isn't just the great-grandparents who seem impenetrable, either. My paternal grandmother would not light a fire on the Sabbath and piled all Sunday's washing up in a bucket, to be dealt with on Monday morning, because the Sabbath was a day of rest a practice that made my paternal grandfather, the village atheist, as mad as fire. Nevertheless, he willed five quid to the minister, just to be on the safe side.
What fictional eccentricities are these? But all true, all perfectly well-documented. Everybody says I look just like my paternal grandmother, furthermore. I can't go out to buy morning rolls, those delicious regional specialities, without somebody who remembers the old lady grappling with me on the pavement and stressing the resemblance.
They're still a bit bewildered by my accent. My Aunt Katie used to explain, almost apologetically: `Hugh marrit an English girl, ye ken.' And I'd stand there, smiling, feeling terribly, terribly foreign in that clean white town, under that clean, white unEnglish light which is nevertheless, in some dislocated way, home which is where my ain folk are from.
The Japanese have a phrase, `the landscapes of the heart', to describe the Romantic correlation between inside and outside that converts physical geography into part of the apparatus of the sensibility. Home is where the heart is and hence a movable feast. We used to come here for family holidays when I was a child, but there was bad feeling over my wedding and I hadn't set foot in the place for fifteen years, nor felt the lack of it, until my father decided to go home after an absence of half a century that his ain folk did not even seem to have noticed, so instantly did the town absorb him again. And I felt entirely at home here, the first time I got off the bus beside the harbour again. Nothing, nothing had changed.
Unacknowledged but dreadful pressure of roots? Or the last result of rootlessness and alienation, when you can say and mean it `Anywhere I hang my hat is home'?
`Even the native, who has spent his life among these pleasing amenities, and has every detail imprinted on his mind's eye, is fain, of a Sunday evening, to betake himself to some rising ground, to the Gaveny Brae or the Hill of Doune, and feast his soul for the thousandth time on the well-beloved landscape.' So observed Allan Edward Mahood in his immemorial guide to Banff and District, a book my father assures me he kept at his bedside through all his years of London exile. Our rich sentimentality, obverse side to our rigorous cynicism. My ain folk though they are simple, poor and plain folk. Se we proclaim with the characteristic disingenuousness of the colonialised.
Not that there's much nationalism of any kind in my family. When the Scots Nats seemed like so much Ealing comedy, long before they won the local seat, my late Uncle William was leaned on heavily for showing the Union Jack in his shop window at the coronation of Elizabeth the First of Scotland, and took it down for reasons only of pusillanimity. He didn't think his unimpeachable English connections were worth a broken window. England, half-English; Scotland, half-Scottish. Not much of a difference.
It's not even enough difference to make me a mongrel. I never really noticed the difference until I went back there, again, and found how different from home my home was. You don't choose your own landscapes. They choose you.
New Society, 1976
I would say my father did not prepare me well for patriarchy; himself confronted, on his marriage with my mother, with a mother-in-law who was the living embodiment of peasant matriarchy, he had no choice but to capitulate, and did so. Further, I was the child of his mid-forties, when he was just the age to be knocked sideways by the arrival of a baby daughter. He was putty in my hands throughout my childhood and still claims to be so, although now I am middle-aged myself while he, not though you'd notice, is somewhat older than the present century.
I was born in 1940, the week that Dunkirk fell. I think neither of my parents was immune to the symbolism of this, of bringing a little girl-child into the world at a time when the Nazi invasion of England seemed imminent, into the midst of death and approaching dark. Perhaps I seemed particularly vulnerable and precious and that helps to explain the overprotectiveness they felt about me, later on. Be that as it may, no child, however inauspicious the circumstances, could have been made more welcome. I did not get a birthday card from him a couple of years ago; when I querulously rang him up about it, he said: `I'd never forget the day you came ashore.' (The card came in the second post.) His turn of phrase went straight to my heart, an organ which has inherited much of his Highland sentimentality.
He is a Highland man, the perhaps atypical product of an underdeveloped, colonialised country in the last years of Queen Victoria, of oatcakes, tatties and the Church of Scotland, of four years' active service in the First World War, of the hurly-burly of Fleet Street in the 1920s. His siblings, who never left the native village, were weird beyond belief. To that native village he competently removed himself ten years ago.
He has done, I realise, what every Sicilian in New York, what every Cypriot in Camden Town wants to do, to complete the immigrant's journey, to accomplish the perfect symmetry, from A to B and back again. Just his luck, when he returned, that all was as it had been before and he could, in a manner of speaking, take up his life where it left off when he moved south seventy years ago. He went south; and made a career; and married an Englishwoman; and lived in London; and fathered children, in an enormous parenthesis of which he retains only sunny memories. He has `gone home', as immigrants do; he established, in his seventh decade, that `home' has an existential significance for him which is not part of the story of his children's independent lives. My father lives now in his granite house filled with the souvenirs of a long and, I think, happy life. (Some of them bizarre; that framed certificate from an American tramp, naming my father a `Knight of the Road', for example.)
He has a curious, quite unEnglish, ability to life life in, as it were, the third person, to see his life objectively, as a not unfortunate one, and to live up to that notion. Those granite townships on the edge of the steel-grey North Sea forge a flinty sense of self. Don't think, from all this, he isn't a volatile man. He laughs easily, cries easily, and to his example I attribute my conviction that tears, in a man, are a sign of inner strength.
He is still capable of surprising me. He recently prepared an electric bed for my boyfriend, which is the sort of thing a doting father in a Scots ballad might have done had the technology been available at the time. We knew he'd put us in separate rooms my father is a Victorian, by birth but not that he'd plug the metal base of Mark's bed into the electric-light fitment. Mark noticed how the bed throbbed when he put his hand on it and disconnected every plug in sight. We ate breakfast, next morning, as if nothing untoward had happened, and I should say, in the context of my father's house, it had not. He is an enthusiastic handyman, with a special fascination with electricity, whose work my mother once described as combining the theory of Heath Robinson with the practice of Mr Pooter.
All the same, the Freudian overtones are inescapable. However, unconsciously, as if that were an excuse, he'd prepared a potentially lethal bed for his daughter's lover. But let me not dot the i's and cross the t's. His final act of low, emotional cunning (another Highland characteristic) is to have lived so long that everything is forgiven, even his habit of referring to the present incumbent by my first husband's name, enough to give anybody a temporary feeling.
He is a man of immense, nay, imposing physical presence, yet I tend to remember him in undignified circumstances.
One of my first memories is how I bust his nose. (I was, perhaps, three years old. Maybe four.) It was on a set of swings in a public park. He'd climbed up Pooterishly to adjust the chains from which the swings hung. I thought he was taking too long and set the swing on which I sat in motion. He wasn't badly hurt but there was a lot of blood. I was not punished for my part in this accident. They were a bit put out because I wanted to stay and play when they went home to wash off the blood.
They. That is my father and my mother. Impossible for me to summon one up out of the past without the other.
Shortly after this, he nearly drowned me, or so my mother claimed. He took me for a walk one autumn afternoon and stopped by the pond on Wandsworth Common and I played a game of throwing leaves into the water until I forgot to let go of one. He was in after me in a flash, in spite of the peril to his gents' natty suiting (ever the dandy, my old man) and wheeled me dripping in my pushchair home to the terrible but short-lived recriminations of my mother. Short-lived because both guilt and remorse are emotions alien to my father. Therefore the just apportioning of blame is not one of his specialities, and though my mother tried it on from time to time, he always thought he could buy us off with treats and so he could and that is why my brother and I don't sulk, much. Whereas she
She has been dead for more than a decade, now, and I've had ample time to appreciate my father's individual flavour, which is a fine and gamy one, but, as parents, they were far more than the sum of their individual parts. I'm not sure they understood their instinctive solidarity against us, because my mother often tried to make us take sides. Us. As their child, the product of their parenting, I cannot dissociate myself from my brother, although we did not share a childhood for he is twelve years older than I and was sent off, with his gas mask, his packed lunch and his name tag, as an evacuee, a little hostage to fortune, at about the time they must have realised another one was on the way.
I can only think of my parents as a peculiarly complex unit in which neither bulks larger than the other, although they were very different kinds of people and I often used to wonder how they got on, since they seemed to have so little in common, until I realised that was why they got on, that not having much in common means you've always got something interesting to talk about. And their children, far from being the raison d'etre of their marriage, of their ongoing argument, of that endless, quietly murmuring conversation I used to hear, at night, softly, dreamily, the other side of the bedroom wall, were, in some sense, a sideshow. Source of pleasure, source of grief; not the glue that held them together. And neither of us more important than the other, either.
Not that I suspected this when I was growing up. My transition from little girl to ravaged anorexic took them by surprise and I thought they wanted my blood. I didn't know what they wanted of me, nor did I know what I wanted for myself. In those years of ludicrously overprotected adolescence, I often had the feeling of being `pawns in their game' ... in their game, note ... and perhaps I indeed served an instrumental function, at that time, rather than being loved for myself.
All this is so much water under the bridge. Yet those were the only years I can remember when my mother would try to invoke my father's wrath against me, threaten me with his fury for coming home late and so on. Though, as far as the `and so on' was concerned, chance would have been a fine thing. My adolescent rebellion was considerably hampered by the fact that I could find nobody to rebel with. I now recall this period with intense embarrassment, because my parents' concern to protect me from predatory boys was only equalled by the enthusiasm with which the boys I did indeed occasionally meet protected themselves against me.
It was a difficult time, terminated, inevitably, by my early marriage as soon as I finally bumped into somebody who would go to Godard movies with me and on CND marches and even have sexual intercourse with me, although he insisted we should be engaged first. Neither of my parents were exactly overjoyed when I got married, although they grudgingly did all the necessary. My father was particularly pissed off because he'd marked me out for a career on Fleet Street. It took me twenty years more of living, and an involvement with the women's movement, to appreciate he was unusual in wanting this for his baby girl. Although he was a journalist himself, I don't think he was projecting his own ambitions on me, either, even if to be a child is to be, to some degree, the projective fantasy of its parents. No. I suspect that, if he ever had any projective fantasies about me, I sufficiently fulfilled them by being born. All he'd wanted for me was a steady, enjoyable job that, perhaps, guaranteed me sufficient income to ensure I wouldn't too hastily marry some nitwit (a favourite word of his) who would displace him altogether from my affections. So, since from a child I'd been good with words, he apprenticed me to a suburban weekly newspaper when I was eighteen, intending me to make my traditional way up from there. From all this, given my natural perversity, it must be obvious why I was so hell-bent on getting married not, and both my parents were utterly adamant about this, that getting married meant I'd give up my job.
In fact, it did mean that because soon my new husband moved away from London. `I suppose you'll have to go with him,' said my mother doubtfully. Anxious to end my status as their child, there was no other option and so I changed direction although, as it turns out, I am a journalist, at least some of the time.
As far as projective fantasi es go, sometimes it seems the old man is only concerned that I don't end up in the workhouse. Apart from that, anything goes. My brother and I remain, I think, his most constant source of pleasure always, perhaps, a more positive joy to our father than to our mother, who, a more introspective person, got less pure entertainment value from us, partly, like all mothers, for reasons within her own not untroubled soul. As for my father, few souls are less troubled. He can be simply pleased with us, pleased that we exist, and, from the vantage point of his wondrously serene and hale old age, he contemplates our lives almost as if they were books he can dip into whenever he wants.
As for the books I write myself, my `dirty books', he said the other day: `I was a wee bitty shocked, at first, but I soon got used to it.' He introduces me in the third person. `This young woman ...'. In his culture, it is, of course, a matter of principle to express pride in one's children. It occurs to me that this, too, is not a particularly English sentiment.
Himself, he is a rich source of anecdote. He has partitioned off a little room in the attic of his house, constructed the walls out of cardboard boxes, and there he lies, on a camp-bed, listening to the World Service on a portable radio with his cap on. When he lived in London, he used to wear a trilby to bed but, a formal man, he exchanged it for a cap as soon as he moved. There are two perfectly good bedrooms in his house, with electric blankets and everything, as I well know, but these bedrooms always used to belong to his siblings, now deceased. He moves downstairs into one of these when the temperature in the attic drops too low for even his iron constitution, but he always shifts back up again, to his own place, when the ice melts. He has a ferocious enthusiasm for his own private space. My mother attributed this to a youth spent in the trenches, where no privacy was to be had. His war was the war to end wars. He was too old for conscription in the one after that.
When he leaves this house for any length of time, he fixes up a whole lot of burglar traps, basins of water balanced on the tops of doors, tripwires, bags of flour suspended by strings, so that we worry in case he forgets where he's left what and ends up hoist with his own petard.
He has a special relationship with cats. He talks to them in a soft chirruping language they find irresistible. When we all lived in London and he worked on the night news desk of a press agency, he would come home on the last tube and walk, chirruping, down the street, accompanied by an ever-increasing procession of cats, to whom he would say good night at the front door. On those rare occasions, in my late teens, when I'd managed to persuade a man to walk me home, the arrival of my father and his cats always caused consternation, not least because my father was immensely tall and strong.
He is the stuff of which sitcoms are made.
His everyday discourse, which is conducted in the stately prose of a 1930s Times leader, is enlivened with a number of stock phrases of a slightly eccentric, period quality. For example. On a wild night: `Pity the troops on a night like this.' On a cold day:
Cold, bleak, gloomy and glum,
Cold as the hairs on a polar bear's
The last word of the couplet is supposed to be drowned by the cries of outrage. My mother always turned up trumps on this one, interposing: `Father!' on an ascending scale.
At random: `Thank God for the Navy, who guard our shores.' On entering a room: `Enter the fairy, singing and dancing.' Sometimes, in a particularly cheerful mood, he'll add to this formula: `Enter the fairy, singing and dancing and waving her wooden leg.'
Infinitely endearing, infinitely irritating, irascible, comic, tough, sentimental, ribald old man, with his face of a borderline eagle and his bearing of a Scots guard, who, in my imagination as when I was a child, drips chocolate from his pockets as, a cat dancing in front of him, he strides down the road bowed down with gifts, crying: `Here comes the Marquess of Carrabus!' The very words, `my father', always make me smile.
But why, when he was so devilish handsome oh, that photograph in battledress! did he never marry until his middle thirties? Until he saw my mother, playing tennis with a girlfriend on Clapham Common, and that was it. The die was cast. He gave her his card, proof of his honourable intentions. She took him home to meet her mother. Then he must have felt as though he were going over the top, again.
In 1967 or 1968, forty years on, my mother wrote to me: `He really loves me (I think).' At that time, she was a semi-invalid and he tended her, with more dash than efficiency, and yet remorselessly, cooking, washing up, washing her smalls, hoovering, as if that is just what he'd retired from work to do, up to his elbows in soapsuds after a lifetime of telephones and anxiety. He'd bring her dinner on a tray with always a slightly soiled tray-cloth. She thought the dirty cloth spoiled the entire gesture. And yet, and yet ... was she, after all those years, still keeping him on the hook? For herself, she always applauded his ability to spirit taxis up as from the air at crowded railway stations and also the dexterous way he'd kick his own backside, a feat he continued to perform until well into his eighties.
Now, very little of all this has to do with the stern, fearful face of the Father in patriarchy, although the Calvinist north is virtually synonymous with that ideology. Indeed, a short-tempered man, his rages were phenomenal; but they were over in the lightning flash they resembled, and then we all had ice-cream. And there was no fear. So that, now, for me, when fear steps in the door, then love and respect fly out of the window.
I do not think my father has ever asked awkward questions about life, or the world, or anything much, except when he was a boy reporter and asking awkward questions was part of the job. He would regard himself as a law-and-order man, a law-abiding man, a man with a due sense of respect for authority. So far, so in tune with his background and his sense of decorum. And yet somewhere behind all this lurks a strangely free, anarchic spirit. Doorknobs fall from doors the minute he puts his hand on them. Things fall apart. There is a sense that anything might happen. He is a law-and-order man helplessly tuned in to misrule.
And somewhere in all this must lie an ambivalent attitude to the authority to which he claims to defer. Now, my father is not, I repeat, an introspective man. Nor one prone to intellectual analysis; he's always got by on his wits so never felt the need of the latter. But he has his version of the famous story, about one of the Christmas truces during the First World War, which was his war, although, when he talks about it, I do not recognise Vera Brittain's war, or Siegfried Sassoon's war, or anything but a nightmarish adventure, for, as I say, he feels no fear. The soldiers, bored with fighting, remembering happier times, put up white flags, moved slowly forward, showed photographs, exchanged gifts a packet of cigarettes for a little brown loaf ... and then, he says, `Some fool of a first lieutenant fired a shot.'
When he tells his story, he doesn't know what it means, he doesn't know what the story shows he really felt about the bloody officers, nor why I'm proud of him for feeling that; nor why I'm proud of him for giving the German private his cigarettes and remembering so warmly the little loaf of bread, and proud of him for his still undiminished anger at the nitwit of a boy whom they were all forced to obey just when the ranks were in a mood to pack it in and go home.
Of course, the old man thinks that, if the rank and file had packed it in and gone home in 1915, the Tsar would still rule Russia and the Kaiser Germany, and the sun would never have set on the British Empire. He is a man of grand simplicities. He still grieves over my mother's `leftish' views; indeed, he grieves over mine, though not enough to spoil his dinner. He seems, rather, to regard them as, in some way, genetically linked. I have inherited her nose, after all; so why not my mother's voting patterns?
She never forgave him for believing Chamberlain. She'd often bring it up, at moments of stress, as proof of his gullibility. `And what's more, you came home from the office and said: "There ain't gonna be a war."'
See how she has crept into the narrative, again. He wrote to me last year: `Your mammy was not only very beautiful but also very clever.' (Always in dialect, always `mammy'.) Not that she did anything with it. Another husband might have encouraged her to work, or study, although in the 1930s that would have been exceptional enough in this first-generation middle-class family to have projected us into another dimension of existence altogether. As it was, he, born a Victorian and a sentimentalist, was content to adore, and that, in itself, is sufficiently exceptional, dammit, although it was not good for her moral fibre. She, similarly, trapped by historic circumstances, did not even know, I think, that her own vague discontent, manifested by sick headaches and complicated later on by genuine ill-health, might have had something to do with being a `wife', a role for which she was in some respects ill suited, as my father's tribute ought to indicate, since beauty and cleverness are usually more valued in mistresses than they are in wives. For her sixtieth birthday, he gave her a huge bottle of Chanel No. 5.
For what it's worth, I've never been in the least attracted to older men nor they to me, for that matter. Why is that? Possibly something in my manner hints I will expect, nay, demand, behaviour I deem appropriate to a father figure, that is, that he kicks his own backside from time to time, and brings me tea in bed, and weeps at the inevitability of loss; and these are usually young men's talents.
Don't think, from all this, it's been all roses. We've had our ups and downs, the old man and I, for he was born a Victorian. Though it occurs to me his unstated but self-evident idea that I should earn my own living, have a career, in fact, may have originated in his experience of the first wave of feminism, that hit in his teens and twenties, with some of whose products he worked, by one of whose products we were doctored. (Our family doctor, Helen Gray, was eighty when she retired twenty years ago, and must have been one of the first women doctors.)
Nevertheless, his Victorianness, for want of a better word, means he feels duty bound to come the heavy father, from time to time, always with a histrionic overemphasis: `You just watch out for yourself, that's all.' `Watching out for yourself' has some obscure kind of sexual meaning, which he hesitates to spell out. If advice he gave me when I was a girl (I could paraphrase this advice as `Kneecap them'), if this advice would be more or less what I'd arm my own daughters with now, it ill accorded with the mood of the sixties. Nor was it much help in those days when almost the entire male sex seemed in a conspiracy to deprive me of the opportunity to get within sufficient distance. The old man dowered me with too much self-esteem.
But how can a girl have too much self-esteem?
Nevertheless, not all roses. He is, you see, a foreigner; what is more, a Highland man, who struck further into the heartland of England than Charles Edward Stuart's army ever did, and then buggered off, leaving his children behind to carve niches in the alien soil. Oh, he'd hotly deny this version of his life; it is my own romantic interpretation of his life, obviously. He's all for the Act of Union. He sees no difference at all between the English and the Scots, except, once my mother was gone, he saw no reason to remain among the English. And his always unacknowledged foreignness, the extroversion of his manners, the stateliness of his demeanour, his fearlessness, guiltlessness, his inability to feel embarrassment, the formality of his discourse, above all, his utter ignorance of and complete estrangement from the English system of social class, make him a being I puzzle over and wonder at.
It is that last thing for, in England, he seemed genuinely classless that may have helped me always feel a stranger, here, myself. He is of perfectly good petty-bourgeois stock; my grandfather owned a shoe shop although, in those days, that meant being able to make the things as well as sell them, and repair them, too, so my grandfather was either a shopkeeper or a cobbler, depending on how you looked at it. The distinction between entrepreneur and skilled artisan may have appeared less fine, in those days, in that town beside the North Sea which still looks as if it could provide a good turnout for a witchburning.
There are all manner of stories about my paternal grandfather, whom I never met; he was the village atheist, who left a fiver in his will to every minister in the place, just in case. I never met my Gaelic-speaking grandmother, either. (She died, as it happens of toothache, shortly before I was born.) From all these stories I know they both possessed in full measure that peculiar Highland ability, much perplexing to early tourists, which means that the meanest, grubbing crofter can, if necessary, draw himself up to his full height and welcome a visitor into his stinking hovel as if its miserable tenant were a prince inviting a foreign potentate into a palace. This is the courtly grace of the authentic savage. The women do it with especially sly elegance. Lowering a steaming bowl on to a filthy tablecloth, my father's sister used to say: `Now, take some delicious kale soup.' And it was the water in which the cabbage had been boiled.
It's possible to suspect they're having you on, and so they may be; yet this formality always puts the visitor, no matter what his or her status, in the role of supplicant. Your humiliation is what spares you. When a Highlander grovels, then, oh, then is the time to keep your hand on your wallet. One learns to fear an apology most.
These are the strategies of underdevelopment and they are worlds away from those which my mother's family learned to use to contend with the savage urban class struggle in Battersea, in the 1900s. Some of my mother's family learned to manipulate cynically the English class system and helped me and my brother out. All of them knew, how can I put it, that a good table with clean linen meant self-respect and to love Shakespeare was a kind of class revenge. (Perhaps that is why those soiled tray-cloths upset my mother so; she had no quarrel with his taste in literature.) For my father, the grand gesture was the thing. He entered Harrods like a Jacobite army invading Manchester. He would arrive at my school `to sort things out' like the wrath of God.
This effortless sense of natural dignity, or his own unquestioned worth, is of his essence; there are noble savages in his heredity and I look at him, sometimes, to quote Mayakovsky, `like an Eskimo looking at a train'.
For I know so little about him, although I know so much. Much of his life was conducted in my absence, on terms of which I am necessarily ignorant, for he was older than I am now when I was born, although his life has shaped my life. This is the curious abyss that divides the closest kin, that the tender curiosity appropriate to lovers is inappropriate, here, where the bond is involuntary, so that the most important things stay undiscovered. If I am short-tempered, volatile as he is, there is enough of my mother's troubled soul in me to render his very transparency, his psychic good health, endlessly mysterious. He is my father and I love him as Cordelia did, `according to my natural bond'. What the nature of that `natural bond' might be, I do not know, and, besides, I have a theoretical objection to the notion of a `natural bond'.
But, at the end of King Lear, one has a very fair notion of the strength of that bond, whatever it is, whether it is the construct of culture rather than nature, even if we might all be better off without it. And I do think my father gives me far more joy than Cordelia ever got from Lear.
From Fathers, ed. Ursula Owen, 1983
Notes from a Maternity Ward
Towards the end of the thirty-eighth week, I grow bored with saying: `Fine,' when asked at the ante-natal clinic how I'm doing. So I try a little joke. It backfires. God, how it backfires. `How do you feel?' `A bit apprehensive,' I say. `Not so much about the birth itself as about the next twenty or thirty years.' The consultant, an unreconstructed Thatcher clone that is, she looks like Thatcher minus the peroxide and the schlap turns on me a face costive with high moral seriousness. `You have done the right thing in not having an abortion,' she says. `But there is still time. If you have any doubts at all, I urge you to seriously discuss adoption with your husband I know he's only a common-law husband, of course.'
I'm overwhelmed by incredulity. Had I ever mentioned abortion in connection with this incipient cherub? Are my companero and I not the Darby and Joan of our circle? Should I say we just got hitched? What business it is of hers, anyway? I lapse into outraged silence. Later, I will weep with fury, but, if I do so now, who can tell how she will misinterpret that. I seethe. Who does she think she is; or I am? And if she delivers this kind of unsolicited advice to the white middle-class to a member of it who has given her occupation as `journalist', to boot then what manner of abuse does she feel free to dish out to the black proletariat? How come she's lived to long? And why don't I punch her in the nose?
I'll tell you why. Because she's chosen to insult me when I'm flat on my back, dress pulled up, knickers down, vulnerable, helpless, undignified.
I would publish her name to the four winds, and gladly. But the hell of it is, she turns out to be a good doctor, as far as the mechanics are concerned. Callous and insensitive perhaps; but quick to spot a malfunction. A gift not to be sneezed at. And, furthermore, a woman so strait-jacketed by self-righteousness I doubt she'd ever understand why I want to crucify her. After all, her concern was only for what was best for the baby. And hadn't I virtually said I didn't want him? When she sees me, all pale and proud, on the ward after he's born he chuckling in a glass box like a very expensive orchid she's as nice as pie. Well done, she says.
`She'. Note how this consultant is female. I'm lying in at the embattled South London Hospital for Women, the last place I expected to be insulted. But there you go. Here, women treat women and she's the only one of them who treated me like a piece of shit.
I haven't been in hospital for thirty years, so I can't comment on the decline in the standards of the NHS; the floors aren't polished until they turn into lethal ice-rinks any more, which is no bad thing. The food has certainly improved, in comparison with the early fifties. The sheer wonder of the NHS remains; that they will do the best they can for us, that we are not at the mercy of a free market economy, that the lovely nurses smile as if they meant it and hug you when you are sad.
Inevitably, this particular hospital is scheduled for the axe. No amount of special pleading on behalf of women whose religion specifies they be treated by doctors of the same sex seems likely to save it; it is due to close down next April, its various wards it's a general hospital distributed around other local hospitals. The staff seems scarcely able to believe that some miracle won't save the place. If the Minister of Health turns into a woman tomorrow, there might be a chance, especially if (s)he then converted to Islam.
It is a rather elegant, red-brick building convenient for Clapham South tube station (the Northern line). It overlooks green and pleasant Clapham Common. It is, obviously, very well equipped; only needs a coat or two of paint and a few vases of plastic flowers to be fit for who? The young woman in the bed next to me made a shrewd guess as to what would happen to the building once the NHS moved out. `They'll sell it to bloody BUPA, won't they,' she opined.
The midwife shows me how to put the baby to the nipple. `Look deep into his eyes,' she says. `It helps with the bonding.' Good grief! Aren't we allowed any choice in the matter, he and I? Can't I learn to love him for himself, and vice versa, rather than trust to Mother Nature's psychophysiological double bind? And what of his relationship with his father, who has no breasts? Besides, it's very difficult to look him in the eye. He fastens on the nipple with the furtive avidity of a secret tippler hitting the British sherry, glancing backwards to make sure nobody else gets there first. When he strikes oil, he instantly becomes comatose. Am I supposed to poke him into consciousness: `Hey, baby, don't nod off, we're supposed to be bonding.' More like bondage. Constrained affection; what resentment it will breed, in time. It's all part of the mystification in which the whole process of childbirth is so richly shrouded. For he is doomed to love us, at least for a significant initial period, because we are his parents. The same goes for us. That is life. That's the hell of it.
Somebody gave us an American publication called Giving Birth. A collection of photographs of mothers and fathers sharing the experience. (Where's the lesbian couple? Discrimination!) The parents look ecstatic; radiant; touchingly, comically startled and so on. Lots of shots of little heads poking out of vulvas. Also quotes from participants: `I felt I had to be very focused. It was almost like meditation,' says one mother. It is compiled by somebody called Mary Motley Kalergis, another name on my post-partural hit-list. (Isn't one allowed a year's justifiable homicide after the event?) The photographs are all in black and white, please note. And, indeed, colour film would have made souvenir snaps of the finale of my own accouchement look like stills from a Hammer horror film. While what was going on next door, an emergency Caesarian, well, that certainly wasn't like meditation, not half it wasn't! This truly nauseating book is designed to mystify. It is about as kitsch as a fluffy blue bunny, and as much to do with the realities of parturition as a fluffy blue bunny has to do with a real live baby.
OK, OK. So this notebook has submerged under a sea of babyshit. Mao Tse-tung called a pig `a manure factory on four legs'. A baby is much the same, except it remains stationary. Some people suggest you chuck soiled disposables on the compost heap. There are a few other suggestions for utilising the formidable quantities of ordure produced by the average baby and heedlessly thrown away every day. To say nothing of the valuable amounts of methane they emit. At the end of War and Peace, Tolstoy has Natasha ankle-deep in baby shit; impossible not to read something vindictive into that, although he does make Pierre soil his hands, too. Anyway, there is nothing wrong with babyshit. The TV news gobs out fresh horrors into the living room every evening; insulted by the specific urgencies of the neonate, that appalling dichotomy the one between our lives as we live them and the way that forces outside ourselves shape them for us seems less desperate than usual. Under the circumstances, a mercy.
New Statesman, 1983
Fools Are My Theme
I'm very pleased and flattered to be here. More pleased and flattered than you might have thought when you invited me. I'd like to tell you how it came to pass that to be an honoured guest at a science fiction convention was a girlish dream of mine from a relatively early age. Since to most of you I suspect that I'm respectable but obscure, I thought that I'd indulge myself in a bit of autobiography. I'd run through my life as a science fiction fellow traveller, if you like.
When I was a child, about eleven or twelve, I suffered from insomnia and I very rarely slept. My father was a journalist and he worked at night. He'd bring in the next day's papers about midnight. This was very exciting. They'd smudge the sheets. He used to bring them to me where I lay on my sleepless bed and all the fresh print would smudge the sheets in a delicious way and get on to my fingers. I liked that very much. If I had a cut some of this printer's ink must have got into my blood. He'd bring The Times for my mother and the Daily Sketch for me. I wasn't very precocious and if any of you remember the Sketch it was about suited for a child of my age.
So it came to pass that in the small hours of those long ago sleepless nights I found myself reading a book called The Day of the Triffids, which was coming out in parts in the Daily Sketch at that time. Now, mock not; I'm aware that this is a book which is not taken terribly seriously these days by people like yourselves. I could be wrong, but I understand this is so. Maybe I was the right age for John Wyndham, who can say. But I enjoyed it very much, and to my enquiring mind, for indeed I had an enquiring mind, it wasn't the triffids that interested me at all. I don't like gardening much. I get very claustrophobic in the countryside because so much is going on. And I think I always thought that plants were like that really if you gave them a chance. It was the idea of a blind world that obsessed and indeed terrified me. A world which was irretrievably changed because of the loss of one Jingle human faculty. And I think that book left a lasting impression on me because it taught me that writing didn't have to be true in order to have a meaning, and a catastrophe that was impossible, that was purely imaginary, could both move and disturb me.
So time passes, I continued to follow the career of John Wyndham, and I would read a little science fiction from time to time. But it didn't really take. Because it was the `Golden Age', and I was already into prose style. I'd quarrel with people's grammar and I'd heckle the page and I'd generally throw copies of Amazing out of railway train windows.
What was important in this life I'm describing was when I eventually went to university, which I did at a mature age, I read English, and I was drawn to that section of our native literature which is actually mostly about monsters. Old English and medieval literature, in fact, which is how I came not to take J.R.R. Tolkien seriously. But it's also the part of our literature, our inheritance, in which literal truth isn't important at all. In Beowulf, for example, it's not a question of do monsters exist or can a monster have a mother? It's: how does a monster's mother feel?
And I also got used to an idea which I think is very important in science fiction, which is that the reader is doing a lot of the work, that reading a book is in a sense a recreation of it. That writing is not necessarily a personal activity, not a personal experience of my feelings or personality, but an articulation of a whole lot of feelings and ideas that happen to be around at the time. I won't bore you with a lot of stuff about medieval literature, which I still love very much, but I assure you that before the invention of printing reading was hard work. You really felt like you'd accomplished something when you'd read a manuscript in handwriting. Just as sometimes I feel that reading some of those books on very friable yellow paper that come apart in your hand, and come unglued from the spine, and the print's all over the page, and it seems to have been written for people who have magnifying lenses in their glasses, that's hard work too. Actually this remained true, about reading being hard work, right up to the eighteenth century with the regularisation of spelling. We were having a panel discussion about critics, and also about publishers and editors, just the other day; and I was thinking I do have a use for editors. It's because they can correct my spelling.
One of the things I love about science fiction readership, fans in fact, is that they really feel that they've made your book their own by reading it, which is a very respectably academic thing to do. That you've worked at it by reading it, that it's become yours. And people take a book personally. They tell you what it means to them. They tell you what should have happened in Chapter Seven. They take you to task over things that happened in Chapter Five. And if you didn't quite mean that yourself, well your interpretation is as valid as theirs, but you have to put up a very good case indeed to justify yourself.
Once the book is published it belongs to the fan, not the writer. And though this is a response which occasionally gets up my nose a lot, unfortunately I have a feeling that it's correct, that it is what happens to a book. Once it's written, once it's published, once it's read and somebody loves it, you cease to have any responsibility for it at all. It takes on a life of its own. It doesn't belong to me.
Anyway, into the booksian hermetic world which I've just described, at a time when I was doing research into the untold but not unchronicled early life of the magician Merlin Robert Nye actually used a lot of that material, I was very annoyed he got there before I did just as I was about to learn old Welsh and vanish entirely into a universe of dusty tomes, a magazine called New Worlds dropped into my consciousness. And it was exciting. It seemed to me, because I came to it freshly I found a copy of it in a bookshop that I didn't know any of the back-up to this. I didn't know what had happened. I didn't know why people suddenly began to write like that in the early sixties. I can't tell you how exciting it was. I was reading Ballard and Moorcock and Sladek as they came tumbling off the presses.
I was writing fiction myself at that time, and fiction that was nudging at the edges of possible experience, that was acutely dissatisfied with various formulas of what you'd call mainstream fiction. When I read those mid-sixties issues of New Worlds I realised it was possible to scrap almost everything I found oppressive about those apparatuses of fiction.
People talk about mainstream fiction and sf as though they were two quite different kinds of writing, and fantasy as well, as though it was quite different. But I think this is a false distinction, that it is a labelling that helps librarians, and people who know the kind of thing they like and don't want their prejudices to be disturbed.
I've just had a letter from a friend who's doing a little TV play about the relationship between a man and a woman, and she wants to set it in a circus. The TV director she's working with says: `No, you can't possibly have an affair between a high-wire walker and a trapeze artist. That's weird, that's unlikely. They've got to be ordinary people, like a solicitor and a social worker, that sort of person.' But Lorna says that if she gets them down to the ground and into a flat in Hampstead, that for her then it begins to get really weird, then it gets really strange. She doesn't know what's going to happen next. And that's how I've always felt. As my grandmother used to say: There's nowt so queer as folk.
I could relate instantly to the world of Ballard's Crash. It seemed to me that that was how the late sixties felt, that that was how it was like. That was how it felt to be living through the margin of the Vietnam War. And it was only, it seemed to me, the group of writers who were loosely connected with New Worlds that were actually dealing with the new circumstances in which we found ourselves, as British people in a society that had changed quite radically since we'd been grown up. And also as beings in the world, because we were the generation that grew up with the reality of nuclear weapons. I was five when the Bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and I came of age roughly with the Cuban Missile Crisis, which I think was one of the great watersheds, certainly of my life. I think people who were born after the Cuban Missile Crisis, who don't remember it, are different because it was touch and go for a minute there. And I think you could say that nobody could ever be ordinary again if anybody ever could be, which I don't think they actually could, except in terms of wish fulfilment. But we can't be ordinary now because there isn't the time.
The idea that first gripped me when I was a little kid and read The Day of the Triffids in the newspaper, that the literal math might not be the whole truth, turned into a conviction that one way of asking questions because I think that one of the functions of fiction is to ask questions that can't be asked in any other way is through constructing imaginary worlds in which ideas can be discussed. And speculations about the nature of our experience on this planet be conducted without crap about the imitation of life getting in the way, because whose life are you supposed to be imitating? Obviously a trapeze artist has got as much claim to be alive as a solicitor.
Autobiographically, what happened next, when I realised that there were no limitations to what one could do in fiction, was just what happened when people tried to get out of genre into mainstream maybe what always happens when one tries to scramble one's labels I stopped being able to make a living. Actually I didn't really stop being able to make a living because I've always found it easier to tailor my lifestyle to my income than the other way. So, shall we say, we took a significant nosedive in lifestyle, complicated by the fact that those who'd known me as a mainstream writer kept telling me I'd only gone into genre for commercial reasons, which certainly wasn't so. Novels of mine would resurrect themselves with naked women and tentacular monsters on the cover, but that didn't do the trick. I became the literary equivalent of a displaced person. I kept applying for my naturalisation papers in genre, as some of you probably know, but although some fans were ready and indeed eager to offer me resident alien status, basically someone else always seemed to smell a rat. You can't scramble labels as easily as that. So, with Channelcon, I do believe I have at last received my passport, resident permit and credit card. Thank you.
I'd just like to say a little more about the arbitrary divisions as I see them between straight fiction, sf and fantasy. It's not a question of making genre sf or fantasy respectable, because that would kill it. In mainstream terms my honoured co-quest, Mr Sladek, the Grand Demystifier, is quite outrageously experimental and it's his good luck, in a sense, that he's able to do what he does without disturbing the horses, because he's in a genre, instead of joining the great unread in the remoter regions of the John Cowler catalogue. Not being respectable often means that you are read by people with open minds who are not intimidated by the unorthodox, who love it in fact. It's interesting that one of the first English translations of a story by the great Argentinian writer Borges first appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. It was a story called `The Garden of Forking Paths'. Borges, who only writes little philosophical investigations, has been adopted as a kind of household god by a lot of people who neither know or care that the publication of Labyrinths, which was his first collection, here in the seventies, rocked the entire mainstream to its foundations, opened up whole new possibilities for all kinds of writers. They showed, in fact, what lots of sf fans knew in their heart, that you don't actually need a plot, or characters, only an idea, and a monomaniacal obsession with getting it across.
It doesn't really matter why people read new things, strange things, unorthodox things, as long as they actually read them, as long as they get into the texts. And it was amazing for me to see in the Fancy Dress Parade last night all these people who've got into the texts to such an extent that for a few hours they actually live out these characters from novels. I think this is wonderful. You certainly don't get that at, for example, literary conventions. People turn up imitating themselves at dos like that.
The technological aspects of science fiction have always passed me by. For purely practical reasons. I can't so much as change a plug on an iron. This isn't because I'm a woman, I assure you, my brother can't either. It's kind of an inherited gene. Every time I look at a technological appliance it goes wrong. It's like King Midas in reverse. And theoretical physics has always seemed to be pure poetry, partly because I don't understand it. Fantasy is only what people think of when their minds are at play.
Just recently, in the last four or five years, there have been distinct signs of feedback from genre into the kind of fiction that gets respectfully reviewed in the Sunday papers, that wins the big respectable prizes. Which is difficult for me, because I'm a perverse person, and my response has been to start contemplating fiction about the international arms trade. I don't think it's impossible to do this in terms of the fantastic, far from it. But we live in very confused, confusing and dangerous times, and fiction, which is a kind of log of these times, changes its nature and expands and sucks in material from all manner of places and from all manner of styles and genres to be able to adequately describe ourselves to ourselves at all kinds of levels.
It's also supposed to give pleasure, too, and what's nice is that you're all here basically to have a good time, and you have fun reading books. As a visitor or a co-optee from another part of the literary forest, take it from me, that's odd. It's a real shot in the arm. Actually, it's very nice.
Notes from the Front Line
I've just scrapped my sixth attempt to write something for this book because my ideas get quite out of hand the minute I try to put them down on paper and I flush hares out of my brain which I then pursue, to the detriment of rational discourse. To try to say something simple do I `situate myself politically as a writer'? Well, yes; of course. I always hope it's obvious, although I try, when I write fiction, to think on my feet to present a number of propositions in a variety of different ways, and to leave the reader to construct her own fiction for herself from the elements of my fictions. (Reading is just as creative an activity as writing and most intellectual development depends upon new readings of old texts. I am all for putting new wine in old bottles, especially if the pressure of the new wine makes the old bottles explode.)
The women's movement has been of immense importance to me personally and I would regard myself as a feminist writer, because I'm a feminist in everything else and one can't compartmentalise these things in one's life. My work has changed a good deal in the last ten or fifteen years; it would have been rather shocking if it hadn't, since, during that time, I've progressed from youth to middle age, and, for me, growing into feminism was part of the process of maturing. But when I look at the novels I wrote in my twenties, when I was a girl, I don't see a difference in the emotional content, or even in the basic themes; I recognise myself, asking questions, sometimes finding different answers than I would do now. I also see myself expressing myself in quite different ways now that I'm capable of subjecting to critical analysis problems that, when I was younger and perhaps bruised more easily, I perceived and interpreted in a much more intuitive and also much more self-defensive way. For example, I used the strategy of charm a good deal I attempted to disarm with charm, in a way that makes me feel affectionately indulgent and maternal to the young person I was, who wanted so much to be loved.
I'm forty-two now; therefore I was a young woman during the 1960s. There is a tendency to underplay, even to completely devalue, the experience of the 1960s, especially for women, but towards the end of that decade there was a brief period of public philosophical awareness that occurs only very occasionally in human history; when, truly, it felt like Year One, that all that was holy was in the process of being profaned and we were attempting to grapple with the real relations between human beings. So writers like Marcuse and Adorno were as much part of my personal process of maturing into feminism as experiments with my sexual, and emotional life and with various intellectual adventures in anarchosurrealism. Furthermore, at a very unpretentious level, we were truly asking ourselves questions about the nature of reality. Most of us may not have come up with very startling answers and some of us scared ourselves good and proper and retreated into culs-de-sac of infantile mysticism; false prophets, loonies and charlatans freely roamed the streets. But even so, I can date to that time and to some of those debates and to that sense of heightened awareness of the society around me in the summer of 1968, my own questioning of the nature of my reality as a woman. How that social fiction of my `femininity' was created, by means outside my control, and palmed off on me as the real thing.
This investigation of the social fictions that regulate our lives what Blake called the `mind forg'd manacles' is what I've concerned myself with consciously since that time. (I realise, now, I must always have sensed that something was badly wrong with the versions of reality I was offered that took certain aspects of my being as a woman for granted. I smelled the rat in D. H. Lawrence pretty damn quick.) This is also the product of an absolute and committed materialism i.e., that this world is all that there is, and in order to question the nature of reality one must move from a strongly grounded base in what constitutes material reality. Therefore I become mildly irritated (I'm sorry!) when people, as they sometimes do, ask me about the `mythic quality' of work I've written lately. Because I believe that all myths are products of the human mind and reflect only aspects of material human practice. I'm in the demythologising business.
I'm interested in myths though I'm much more interested in folklore just because they are extraordinary lies designed to make people unfree. (Whereas, in fact, folklore is a much more straightforward set of devices for making real life more exciting and is much easier to infiltrate with different kinds of consciousness.) I wrote one anti-mythic novel in 1977, The Passion of New Eve I conceived it as a feminist tract about the social creation of femininity, amongst other things and relaxed into folklore with a book of stories about fairy stories, The Bloody Chamber, in 1979. It turned out to be easier to deal with the shifting structures of reality and sexuality by using sets of shifting structures derived from orally transmitted traditional tales. Before that, I used bits and pieces from various mythologies quite casually, because they were to hand.
To return to that confused young person in her early twenties attempting to explicate the world to herself via her craft, the person in the process of becoming radically sceptical, that is, if not free, then more free than I had been. Apart from feeling a treacherous necessity to charm, especially when, however unconsciously, I was going straight for the testicles, I was, as a girl, suffering a degree of colonialisation of the mind. Especially in the journalism I was writing then, I'd quite unconsciously posit a male point of view as a general one. So there was an element of the male impersonator about this young person as she was finding herself. For example, in a piece about the suburb of Tokyo I lived in in 1969, I described the place thus: `It has everything a reasonable man could want ... massage parlours and, etc.' I used the phrase, `a reasonable man', quite without irony, although, reading the piece in 1982, it is, ironically, most fittingthe suburb did boast all the conveniences a `reasonable man' might want, although a reasonable woman might have found them inessential, to say the least.
When the piece was republished in a collection of essays last year, I wondered whether to insert `sic' in brackets after that `reasonable man' but then I thought, no; that's cheating. Because my female consciousness was being forged out of the contradictions of my experience as a traveller, as, indeed, some other aspects of my political consciousness were being forged. (It was a painful and enlightening experience to be regarded as a coloured person, for example; to be defined as a Caucasian before I was defined as a woman, and learning the hard way that most people on this planet are not Caucasian and have no reason to either love or respect Caucasians.)
By the way, I make my living as a writer and have done so most of my adult life. This is no big deal and doesn't mean I always made much money. It has always been easier for me to cut my life-style to suit my income than the other way round so it's always been possible to manage. On the rare occasions when I've attempted to work within a hierarchical framework, when you have to get to an office on time and so on, and be nice to people you don't actually like, much, things have always gone badly. Because I've almost always been self-employed, I've had very little experience, as a woman, of the hurly-burly of mixed-sex working life. I get messages through from the front line that fills me with grief and fury for my sisters out there but this is different from personal experience. For some reason, I've almost always worked with women editors at my various publishing houses, and, even when one is dealing with a woman with zero feminist consciousness, there is a difference. Since it was, therefore, primarily through my sexual and emotional life that I was radicalised that I first became truly aware of the difference between how I was and how I was supposed to be, or expected to be I found myself, as I grew older, increasingly writing about sexuality and its manifestations in human practice. And I found most of my raw material in the lumber room of the Western European imagination.
Let me explain this. It seems obvious, to an impartial observer, that Western European civilisation as we know it has just about run its course and the emergence of the women's movement, and all that implies, is both symptom and product of the unravelling of the culture based on Judaeo-Christianity, a bit of Greek transcendentalism via the father of lies, Plato, and all the other bits and pieces. As a Japanese friend of mine once said, the spotlight of history is moving inexorably away from Europe towards Asia and Africa societies that we (and white women can't get out of our historic complicity in colonialism, any more than the white working class can) comprehensively screwed, that owe us nothing and expect nothing whatsoever from us, which is just as well as the idea we might actually owe them something, like cash, doesn't go down too well, certainly in Britain. It is possible, assuming Western Europe is permitted to sidle out of the spotlight of history rather than going up with a bang, that, for the first time for a thousand years or so, its inhabitants may at last be free of their terrible history.
The sense of limitless freedom that I, as a woman, sometimes feel is that of a new kind of being. Because I simply could not have existed, as I am, in any other preceding time or place. I am the pure product of an advanced, industrialised, post-imperialist country in decline. But this has very little to do with my ability to work as I please, or even to earn a living from writing. At any time up to the early twentieth century, I could have told as many stories as I wanted, and made them as wonderful and subversive as I wished, had I survived the births of my children or the hazards of working-class or peasant life to a sufficient age to have amassed a repertoire of orally-transmitted fiction. If I'd been born an aristocrat, I could certainly have become very famous and honoured as an actual writer in medieval Japan, where there were many women writers of fiction and poetry, and where human ingenuity in sexual practice (unrestricted by the Judaeo-Christian ethic, which they knew nothing about) certainly seems to have made sexual intercourse less onerously fruitful than in the West. I could have been a professional writer at any period since the seventeenth century in Britain or in France. But I could not have combined this latter with a life as a sexually active woman until the introduction of contraception, unless I had been lucky enough to have been born sterile, as George Eliot must have been. Even if I had been rich enough to afford child care, wealth was no protection against puerperal fever, and being pregnant most of the time is tiring, enfeebling, and a drain on one's physical and emotional resources. In fact, most women were ill most of the time until the introduction of contraception and efficient post- and ante-natal care and you need to be quite strong and healthy to write big, fat books. (You do also need to have been around.)
And, just as I write this, I recall a bizarre contradiction. For the past three centuries in Europe, women have excelled and been honoured for it in the performing arts. Acting, singing, dancing, playing musical instruments. For some reason, the women's movement tends to overlook all that, perhaps because it seems less `creative' to play somebody else's piano concerto beautifully than it is to write the thing. But it certainly takes a good deal more physical energy to perform a piano concerto than it does to write one, and weak, feeble women have been strumming away, sometimes in the last stages of pregnancy, ever since they were let up on the podium. It is odd. Like so many girls, I passionately wanted to be an actress when I was in my early teens and I mm this (balked, unachieved and now totally unregretted) ambition over in my mind from time to time. Why did it seem so pressing, the need to demonstrate in public a total control and transformation of roles other people had conceived? Rum, that.
However, A `new kind of being', unburdened with a past. The voluntarily sterile yet sexually active being, existing in more than a few numbers, is a being without precedent and, by voluntarily sterile, I don't necessarily mean permanently childless; this category includes women who are sterile not all, just most of the time, after all. I/we are not the slaves of the history that enslaved our ancestors, to quote Franz Fanon (although he meant specifically chattel slavery).
So I feel free to loot and rummage in an official past, specifically a literary past, but I like painting and sculptures and the movies and folklore and heresies, too. This past, for me, has important decorative, ornamental functions; further, it is a vast repository of outmoded lies, where you can check out what lies used to be a la mode and find the old lies on which new lies have been based.
There are one or two lies in the lumber room about the artist, about how terrific it is to be an artist, how you've got to suffer and how artists are wise and good people and a whole lot of crap like that. I'd like to say something about that, because writing to cite one art is only applied linguistics and Shelley was wrong, we're not the unacknowledged legislators of mankind. Some women really do seem to think they will somehow feel better or be better if they get it down on paper. I don't know.
Writing the only art form I know too much about, as practice certainly doesn't make better people, nor do writers lead happier lives. How can I put it; although I might have liked to write poetry like Baudelaire's, I certainly would not, for one single minute, have wanted the kind of life that Baudelaire lived. His poetry is the product of terminal despair, and he was a shit, to boot. It is easy to forget that most of the great male geniuses of Western European culture have been either depraved egomaniacs or people who led the most distressing lives. (My two male literary heroes, Melville and Dostoevsky, were both rather fine human beings, as it turns out, but both of them lived so close to the edge of the existential abyss that they must often, and with good reason, have envied those who did not have enquiring minds.) I'm not saying it's great to be a cow, just keep on chewing the cud, although I have nothing against cows nor, for that matter, against enquiring minds. Only, that posthumous fame is no comfort at all and the actual satisfactions of artistic production are peculiarly lonely and solipsistic ones, while the work itself has the same compensations as those of any self-employed worker, no more.
To backtrack about the bit about `applied linguistics'. Yet this, of course, is why it is so enormously important for women to write fiction as women it is part of the slow process of decolonialising our language and our basic habits of thought. I really do believe this. It has nothing at all to do with being a `legislator of mankind' or anything like that; it is to do with the creation of a means of expression for an infinitely greater variety of experience than has been possible heretofore, to say things for which no language previously existed.
One last thing. So there hasn't been a female Shakespeare. Three possible answers: (a) So what. (This is the simplest and best.) (b) There hasn't been a male Shakespeare since Shakespeare, dammit. (c) Somewhere, Franz Fanon opines that one cannot, in reason, ask a shoeless peasant in the Upper Volta to write songs like Schubert's; the opportunity to do so has never existed. The concept is meaningless.
The novel, which is my chosen form, has existed as such in Europe for only two or three hundred years. Its existence is directly related to the history of the technology of printing and to the growth of a leisure class with time to read. Much of that leisure class was female and the novel in Western Europe unlike the forms it has taken when it has been exported to Latin America and Africa in this century has tended to reflect the preoccupations of the lives of leisured women. Perhaps that's why so many great European novels are about adultery, especially when written by men (Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina) who couldn't imagine what else women might get up to if they had a bit of free time. These are interesting historical facts, but they have nothing to do with me as a writer.
One important function of bourgeois fiction is to teach people how to behave in social circles to which they think they might be able to aspire. The novels of Jane Austen are basically fictionalised etiquette lessons and a lot of the fiction that has come directly from the women's movement performs, however unconsciously, the same functions. (Marilyn French's The Women's Room is really an instruction manual for the older woman post-graduate student.)
But all this bores me stiff, in fact, because it no longer seems particularly relevant to instruct people as to how to behave in a changing society, when one's very existence is instrumental in causing changes the results of which one can't begin to calculate. And I personally feel much more in common with certain Third World writers, both female and male, who are transforming actual fiction forms to both reflect and to precipitate changes in the way people feel about themselves putting new wine in old bottles and, in some cases, old wine in new bottles. Using fictional forms inherited from the colonial period to create a critique of that period's consequences. Obviously, one is bound to mention Gabriel Garcia Marquez, although he must be getting pretty bored, by this time, to be the white liberal intellectual's pet fabulist, but there are lots of others and some very fine writing, often in a quite conventionally naturalist mode I'm thinking of the Black South African writer, Bessie Head, who has utilised forms utterly alien to her own historical culture to produce complex illuminations of sexual and political struggle.
But, look, it is all applied linguistics. But language is power, life and the instrument of culture, the instrument of domination and liberation.
I don't know. Ten years ago, I'd have said that I, myself, wanted to write stories that could be read by guttering candlelight in the ruins of our cities and still give pleasure, still have meaning. Perhaps I still think that.
All this is very messy and self-contradictory and not very coherent or intelligently argued. It's been amazingly difficult, trying to sort out how I feel that feminism has affected my work, because that is really saying how it has affected my life and I don't really know that because I live my life, I don't examine it. I also feel I've showed off a lot, and given mini-lectures on this and that, in a pompous and middle-aged way. Oh, hell. What I really like doing is writing fiction and trying to work things out that way.
But I hope this will do.
From Michelene Wandor (ed.), Gender and Writing, 1983
Anger in a Black Landscape
I am no expert in anything, not history, not psychology, not medicine nor peace studies neither (least of all) strategic planning. I am, simply, a child of the nuclear age. I was five years old when they, or, rather, the Allies that is, we dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, a small city of no strategic importance in southern Japan whose name, together with that of Auschwitz, has now entered our vocabulary, the most tragic legacies of the last war, names synonymous with horror that, hitherto, was unimaginable. Before Hiroshima, however, it might have been possible to predicate a future time in which people, savagely rendered sane by experience, would look back on the century of Auschwitz as the blackest period of human history; since Hiroshima, the possibility of that kind of hope for the future diminishes in direct ratio to the growth of the nuclear arsenal.
That act of warfare, the dropping of the A-bomb, perpetrated obviously without either my knowledge or consent, although they said it was for the sake of my future, changed irrevocably the circumstances in which that future life would be passed. Let me not be sorry for myself about this; it changed them less than if I'd been five in Hiroshima. But change them it did, and may well inexorably dictate the manner of my life's ending. For to plan for your old age, these days, seems an act of high optimism, of outrageous gallantry, even. I am, therefore, a child of irony and the absurd; of black humour, of guilt and of anger. These are my credentials for contributing to this book. I believe they are sufficient.
And, over the years, I've grown rather tired of rational, objective arguments against nuclear weapons. To approach rampant unreason with the tools of rational discourse is something of a waste of time. On the other hand, to pose the question: `Do you really want you and your loved ones to be fried alive?' will always, even, presumably, from Thatcher, procure the answer: `No.' Which isn't much help, either, even when it is, finally, as simple as that, since one way of forestalling this grisly fate might be to fry the Russkies first, mightn't it ... well, then. Another way might be to build oneself a personalised bunker, in which to sweat out the thermonuclear blast. Terrific.
& nbsp; One of the most curious phenomena of the postwar period has been the growth of fictions about the blissfully anarchic, tribal lives the lucky fifteen million survivors are going to lead in a Britain miraculously free of corpses, in which the Man with the Biggest Shot-Gun holes up in some barbedwire enclave and picks off all comers. (Polygamous marital arrangements are often part of these fantasies.) The post-nuclear catastrophe novel has become a science fiction genre all of its own, sometimes as warning more often as the saddest and most irresponsible kind of whistling in the dark.
Have you seen Goya's `black' pictures in the Prado, in Madrid? You go through several rooms full of sunlit, happy paintings children at play, beautiful young men and women dancing, picking grapes, a world of sensual delight and, then, suddenly ... paintings in black and ghastly grey and all the colours of mud, where swollen, deformed faces emerge from landscapes incoherent with devastation. The most awful one, that most expressive of a world of nothingness, shows a dog's head peering over the side of a mound of slurry. The sky, if you can call it a sky, is the colour of a bruise. And you know, from the infinite desolation of the scene, he is the last dog left, and, from the look of him, he's not going to last much longer.
Impossible, in that appalling room, to escape the notion, that Goya, in his famous despair, in his hatred of war and human folly, saw further than most people; there is something prophetic in these pictures, that have the look, not so much of paintings, but of photographs taken with some time-warped, heat-warped camera, of a Europe in a future that remains unimaginable ... a wreckage of humanity, a landscape from which all life has been violently expelled ... unimaginable; but not impossible.
We think people who sell heroin are very evil and, if we catch them at it, send them to prison for a very long time. The men who deal in instruments of infinitely greater destruction acquire great wealth and respect.
Yet the iconography of such catastrophe is, surely, familiar to us all, by now! Anyone who reads this book will have her or his own private nightmare of pain, loss, annihilation; my own private image is not a violent one. It is of a child crying in the dark, and there will be nobody to come, not ever. Which is the worst I can possibly imagine.
Yet somehow the hideous poetry of the terminal nature of nuclear warfare can exist almost in a dimension of its own, that deforms thought. As if we still saw war itself as a metaphysical scourge, one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, arriving from nowhere and dominating the world, our real masters. Not as war really is, the product of an interlocked tissue of political and economic causes, of human actions and decisions. But as if nuclear weapons themselves symbolised by the Bomb were the very transcendental essence of war, and, more than that, an externalisation of all our notions of the ultimate evil. The Bomb has become a very potent, perhaps the most potent, symbol of Original Sin.
Well, I've always thought the notion of original sin was pretty silly, anyway; and it certainly gets horribly in the way of any attempts to persuade human beings to behave better than they generally do. Because to deny that people are inherently evil isn't to say that the world isn't full of freaks, zombies and loonies, nor that such as they, with their limited imaginations and atrophied hearts, do not tend to rise to the top in the military or in those places where men and women (but mostly, I'm proud to say, men) sit down with a cup of coffee and systematically design bigger and better ways of causing pain. It is no good saying, `Think of the children, crying alone in the dark!' to a person who hates children, and, given the opportunity, will beat and torture his own. Most people, on the whole, enjoy being alive but a significant number feel they have the right to deny this privilege to other people, for a whole complex of reasons. We live in a country where a good number of British citizens may not sleep easy in their beds due to the murderous activities of white racist thugs and it might even be possible to argue that such a country deserves the visitation of fire from heaven. (You see how easy it is to slip into biblical language, here.)
But such fire will fall upon both the just and the unjust, and upon the innocent, the helpless and the deluded, and some of the latter, alas, are just those with the kind of emotional limitations who can kill in cold blood, and who can certainly contemplate the use of nuclear weapons on somebody else, that is.
However, demystifying the Bomb that is, stopping thinking about it as the product of a Faustian bargain, infinite knowledge for infinite destruction, as if it were all somehow tragically fated, and also trying to stop thinking about it as a full stop in human history, certainly doesn't make the Bomb a friendly beast. Far from it, because, of course, it is just such a full stop. But not a necessary or inevitable full stop. The horrid poetry of it, that mankind was the species that Knew Too Much, doesn't help us understand how, for example, the idea of strategic bombing that is, wiping out civilians became so fashionable in the twentieth century. Nor does it help us try to do our best to prevent the circumstances in which nuclear weapons might be used. It certainly increases one's personal sense of impotence. And it doesn't help us to get out of this mess.
So. Let's start again, from another angle. How has it come to pass that this overcrowded, relatively poor, relatively insignificant little island of ours fairly bristles with nuclear installations? (I'm not being historic about this. I'm speaking out of blind prejudice.)
Surely you must have noticed what an exceedingly law-abiding race the British are? (Or, rather, we like to look law-abiding, whilst privately criminal. But, in practice, appearance is reality.) This was made very apparent in 1981, when a widescale attempt at civil disobedience was mooted after the Law Lords countermanded the fares cuts made by the Greater London Council on what is the most expensive, as well as the least efficient, public transport system of any capital city in the civilised world. One would have thought, considering how unpopular the fares increases were, that it would have been the simplest thing in the world to organise London transport users to revolt. All the revolt was supposed to entail, after all, was a simple refusal to pay. But did we? Did we, hell. And I include myself in this, because I didn't want to make any fuss another British characteristic.
Admittedly, a speedy bit of legal sleight of hand meant all kinds of nasty and humiliating things could happen if you didn't pay up and play the game. But I don't think it was fear that made us put our hands in our pockets. No. We paid up out of simple, ingrained obedience. Desire to please the powers-that-be.
In Florence, when they put up the bus fares a few years ago, enraged Florentines torched the buses. And, more magnificently for the British can torch things when they feel inclined, but usually only when there's no point to it, in a hobbyish way far more magnificently, ordinary Japanese people contrived to halt the building of the new airport in Tokyo for fifteen years by systematic sabotage and vociferous civil disobedience. Peasants attacked the construction teams with rice flails. And this from a race the British are accustomed to regard as besottedly compliant with authority. At last, when all was lost and the runways built, overnight the protesters put up a large tower on the biggest runway, effectively halting proceedings for a few more weeks, as a final gesture. Admittedly, the fares in Florence went up from a massive ten pence flat fare to a staggering twenty pence. And Narita Airport is now in operation, although the peasants on whose land it was built ended up with a fair bit of compensation.
OK. So you can't win. Although it is possible to negotiate the terms of defeat from a position of strength and so end up ahead of the game. Concerted and passionate protest against nuclear weapons in these islands may not achieve a global ban, and a universal end to war; but we might, just might, achieve a nuclear-free Europe, or, at least, a Britain cleansed of the diabolical things ... Perhaps it is just that we aren't used to public protest doing any good, these days. We are most lugubriously accustomed to our own democratic absence from vital decision-making in this country. Why is that?
How did it happen that this island has become a moored aircraft carrier for instruments of destruction? The primary decisions about Britain's relationship with NATO were taken out of our hands long ago and all was accomplished with such a degree of secrecy that most people in these islands, if they think about it at all, think that British membership of NATO is a very good thing. Most of us also think that the British Army is a Good Thing and now, basking in the glory of our famous victory in the Falklands at this time of writing it is probably the worst possible time to suggest it is not a fine thing to kill or to die for one's country. That, instead, it is a profoundly monstrous and obscene thing.
There, almost certainly, isn't enough time left to us to set about those long processes of altering public consciousness in an island that has, hitherto, housed one of the most bellicose nations in the world. The British have an exceedingly long history of militarism and of compliance with authority and are reluctant to lose the residual conviction that to be British involves some kind of guarantee against destruction. (`Britons never shall be slaves.') After all, we haven't been invaded by a foreign army for a thousand years! No. Nowadays, we invite the buggers in and call it NATO.
But we don't know whether or not anything can be done about changing things unless we try. As women, perhaps we are more used than man to living with a real sense of personal powerlessness and that may give us, as a lobby, a kind of extra anger. Agitating for a bit less public secrecy as well as against nuclear weapons might be a start.
But let me, again, begin at my beginning for a personal history of how this particular person, five years old in 1945, learned to live with the Bomb for all my adult life is relevant to us all, since our present impasse springs from a mass of personal accommodations to an intolerable situation.
Twenty years ago, yes, and more, I was in CND. And, truly, those long gone days of the marches from Aldermaston were some of the most moving and beautiful memories of my girlhood. It seemed, then, that in the face of those immense shows of serene public indignation exhibitions of mass sanity, as they were that, as had, after all, happened occasionally before, mass protest might change things.
I remember the Cuban missile crisis, as near the edge as we ever got. (As far as we know; much is concealed from us.) And, of course, it didn't happen. The weapons, so it seemed, were too terrible to be used. Just kept to frighten people with.
And, like most of us, after the emotional crisis of the Cuban missile crisis, I drifted away from CND. For, primarily, two reasons, neither of them anything to do with the comforting idea that, since the things hadn't been used, they'd never be used. No. One was:
Despair. It occurred to me that the reason why arms limitation talks and such were suddenly on was because those who enjoyed plotting ways of wiping us all out had decided to put nuclear weapons by for a while and concentrate on things that made less mess. Such as biological weapons, nerve gases and various other areas of research that were, from time to time, hinted at vaguely in Scientific American. It occurred to me that the superpowers were, far from learning to love one another, busily at work on instruments of warfare compared to which the thermonuclear flash might seem positively benign.
In other words, that the Bomb would indeed be banned just as soon as they thought up something worse.
The second was:
Rationality. Applying my reason to the case in hand, I could see no qualitative difference between nuclear weapons and conventional weapons. (And the argument that we don't need nuclear weapons if we are armed to the teeth with the other kind still seems to me one of the most morally abhorrent, if one of the most commonsensical, in the anti-Bomb case.) Nuclear weapons were only the logical extension of the kind of warfare I'd been born into; the kind that unleashed its full fury against the civilian population. And, indeed, the next war will be the first in history in which those in the armed forces will stand a higher chance of survival than their loved ones at home. Maybe we should all sign on, now, as a mass gesture.
Although Tamburlaine the Great enjoyed reducing cities to rubble and slaughtering women and children, he usually did this after his band of paid killers had put down an opposing band of paid killers rather than before. The deaths of thousands, indeed, millions of non-combatants has never, hitherto, been a positive prerequisite for victory in armed conflict and it is this, rather than the nature of the weapons which inflict those deaths, that constitutes the moral difference between war in our time and old-fashioned kinds of wars. In The Nuclear Barons, Peter Pringle and James Spigelman suggest that strategic bombing was invented almost on the spur of the moment by Bomber Command, to save face when they found their target bombing was so lousy they'd deposited bombs on housing complexes instead of railheads and munitions factories. When I lived in Japan, people would tell me how the fire raids on Tokyo in 1944 had killed more people just as horribly as the Bomb on Hiroshima but nobody in the West seemed to have noticed, perhaps because John Hershey wasn't available to write it up. (Don't think the Japanese don't make jokes just because they don't smile, much.) Nuclear weapons are simply the most efficient way of `bombing a country back into the Stone Age,' to quote an American president's plan for another Asian country some time later. (The New Stone Age seems the next plan on the agenda for us all.)
It came to me, then, that the only way to stop nations periodically going to war with one another in this new and morally indefensible way was a concerted impulse towards a federation constructed along humanitarian and egalitarian lines. Given my particular background and bias, this could only mean one thing international socialism. (Note the absence of capital letters.)
Having reasoned myself into Utopianism, always the only rational stance, I asked myself: will it come in my lifetime?
After some thought, I reluctantly answered myself: no.
So, like most of my peers, I decided to put these heavy problems aside for a while and get on with living, for I was young, still, and it was the 1960s and, well, it was fun to be alive. Then the Vietnam War, a focus for anger. And, increasingly engaged with the women's movement, there now seemed within that the possibility for actually creating a new heaven and a new earth, that this might even be within my own grasp, as a woman. For the private and public struggle of sexual politics was something that operated on terms I could more easily grasp than the one against the faceless enemy of militarism whose tentacles stretched everywhere. For this enemy had a face, a familiar and, indeed, often a beloved face, and I could understand the power system of sexual oppression because I had spent my whole life within it. Indeed, it was possible, in those heady days of the early 1970s, to lump all the oppressive, life-denying systems together under one label Patriarchy and ascribe all the blame to men. Capitalism is a patriarchal plot. And war. It was easy, then it still is, dammit! to make jokes about the presidents of the superpowers opening their raincoats and flashing their weaponry at one another (`Mine is bigger than yours,' `It's not!' `'tis so!' and so on.)
Women have always had a tendency to despise men for their emotional impoverishment. Men feel superior to women for the same reason. Impasse.
I really don't know if it would be a better world if women ran it. My natural prejudice suggests it might, although Mrs Thatcher and Mrs Gandhi are not good advertisements for women in command. But this is no argument at all against women taking their fair share of policy- and decision-making, and, since it hasn't been tried, before, it might well make a difference, in the long term. If there is a long term.
It is certainly no argument against asking all women, all normal, everyday women who tend and nurture children, make them clean their teeth and eat up their greens so they'll grow up big and strong, to appreciate that such activity might well be futile. If.
That such activity probably is futile. Because.
But my forties began, as my twenties had done, in a fury of rage. Driving across East Anglia shortly after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, under a sky black with bombers `exercising', listening on the radio to a selection of freaks, zombies and loonies from the Pentagon threatening the USSR with nuclear reprisals, it was easy to forget it was all a publicity stunt ... as it, surely, has proved. Did the USA truly have the intention of teaching the Soviets a lesson by lobbing a warhead or two at the harmless population of the city of Kiev? Would that not have persuaded the beleaguered Afghans only of what they already thought, that the Infidel was as brutal, as foolish and as irrational as the imam had always said? It was all an exercise in frightening and I don't know what it did to the Kremlin, but, by God, it frightened me.
For I realised that, while my back had been turned, during those twenty odd years, the busy little bees in both the West and the East, the highly paid technocrats who live off the fat of the land and scribble away on their drawing-boards secure in the knowledge of those mink-lined bunkers to which they can retreat, if necessary ... these criminal lunatics had been dreaming up, not only non-nuclear weapons of a kind to make the mind reel, but also infinitely more powerful nuclear weapons, more and more infinitely powerful nuclear weapons, as if, once they'd got the knack of it, they couldn't stop.
And something else became apparent, too. In all the threatening and frightening that went on over the invasion of Afghanistan (to no avail; the Soviets are still there), the idea of a `weapon too terrible to be used' was still there. But this seemed to apply only to the very biggest and most devastating bangs. A whole new class of nuclear weapons that might be `too terrible to use', but certainly weren't too terrible to contemplate using, had sprung into being. Maybe what has happened is this: since they keep on inventing bigger and better bangs, the one that is `too terrible to use' is no more than the one they thought of most recently. So, in a sliding scale, last year's ultimate and unthinkable weapon becomes second in line this year, and, next year, will be perfectly all right.
I get dizzy, and lose count, and lose heart, but the formula: `containing n warheads each one with n times the capacity of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima', now haunts my dreams. Notice; too, how this formula contrives to negate the reality of the Hiroshima devastation ... as you might say, you ain't seen nothing yet.
We have, indeed, learned to live with the unthinkable and to think it. Last spring, I saw people, British people, not superficially psychoticlooking, wearing T-shirts with `Nuke Buenos Aires' on the front. A new verb, `to nuke'. So easily, in such an unacknowledged way, has the unthinkable slipped into our vocabulary. Note, too, how `to nuke' is an active verb; it is easier to think of killing than of being killed, for obvious reasons. Can such atrocious garments be donned on Albion's shore without an enraged populace tearing them from the wearer's backs? They can.
The rational, objective arguments against Britain's participation in the scenario for blasting non-combatants off the earth in the name of military strategy and for subsequently rendering the planet uninhabitable have been deployed again and again, with increasing force, over the last three decades. And this is the result of it; the Argies had only to so much as tweak the lion's tail and, pow! How easily the final solution slips out! That the British do not have the capacity to unilaterally `nuke' Buenos Aires is beside the point. The ease with which this neologism springs to the lips of the pro-nuclear lobby is unnerving in itself. There is a little man walks up and down the airport lobby in Boston, Massachusetts, carrying a handpainted sign: `Nuke Jane Fonda'. Useless to tell him you can nuke an individual only if she or he is standing alone in a very remote spot. I know. I've tried it. I didn't try snatching hold of his placard, throwing it to the ground and jumping up and down on it. Perhaps I should have.
As I said, I am no expert, although I possess a hereditary facility for vituperation. In the old days in my father's country, Scotland, the tribal chieftains deployed their poets in territorial disputes; they made them stand on ridges above the combatants, hurling abuse at the foe, until one or other was humiliated enough to leave the scene. Those were the days. Perhaps the time has come again to utilise these ancient skills this time, against both sides.
It's sad but true that the `irrational, subjective' arguments against nuclear weaponry, and, indeed, against militarism itself, are the moral and emotional ones and morals and emotions might be more or less the same thing, at that. I've been engaged, here, in below-the-belt arguments, because these are, perhaps, the only ones left. We must plead, harangue, protest, demand all kinds of things! A lot more democracy; a lot less secrecy; make (oh, horrors! oh, embarrassment!) a fuss, then a bigger fuss, then a bigger fuss again. The peace movement in the USA didn't rationally argue US troops out of Vietnam. It harangued. It shouted. It screamed. It took to the streets.
If the peace movement in Britain cannot persuade our (democratically elected) government, this one or the next, to review our position vis-a-vis NATO, the establishment of Cruise missiles in this country and our whole relationship with the obscene farce of modern warfare, then perhaps, morally, we do not deserve to survive and, almost assuredly, we will not.
One thing more. As women of this island, our traditional role in warfare has been to wave goodbye to our loved ones and then either to grieve, or else, at last, after an agony of anxiety, to welcome them home, when, perhaps, they have been physically mutilated, certainly psychologically damaged and when we had to hide from ourselves the dreadful knowledge that they had killed other women's lovers and sons. This role has been eroded in modern warfare, which offers a wide range of clerical and administrative roles to women and even, oh, thrilling! will let them into the combat zone if they are very, very good. It has, of course, never been true for, for example, the women of continental Europe, who, during wars, tend to trudge the roads as homeless refugees and be repeatedly raped by invading or victorious armies. It is always important to see our social roles not as universals but as relative to different situations, and a war with conventional weapons in the European theatre, of which we are a part, may well procure such a different situation.
Traditionally, we, as British women, are the loved ones for whom the boys fight, for whom they will return. But what if we have been blown away? In the last war, those at home stood a good chance of violent death and, in a nuclear war, there will be scarcely any point in mobilising the troops except to keep down by force the sick and starving remnants of the civilian population. Non-combatants we might still be, but we will be on the front line and then, in a real sense, behind the lines, should we be unlucky enough to survive.
War is no longer the province of men and, as its most vulnerable potential victims, we must arm ourselves not with weapons, but with rage, rage as if against the dying of the light.
From Dorothy Thompson (ed.),
Over Our Dead Bodies: Women Against the Bomb, 1983
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Meet the Author
Angela Carter (1940 -1992) wrote nine novels and numerous short stories, as well as nonfiction, radio plays, and the screenplay for Neil Jordan's 1984 movie The Company of Wolves, based on her story. She won numerous literary awards, traveled and taught widely in the United States, and lived in London.
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