I’m very pleased to feature this week a guest post by Paul Wood. Paul is the author of three books about trees in London: London’s Street Trees, London is a Forest and London Tree Walks, and he writes the blog thestreettree.com. London Tree Walks, published in October 2020, features a dozen walks around London from […]Great estates: the changing role of trees in the municipal housing landscape — Municipal Dreams
As part of our Heritage Lottery Funded project, You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place, we are working with volunteers to install listening benches across Essex. These solar-powered park benches play clips of recordings from the Essex Sound and Video Archive, recordings chosen and put together by our volunteers. The listening bench for Coggeshall…
These rainy breezes which come like
Squall-driven seabirds, bearing a scent of hyacinth.
The eye bending towards the cold mainland
The heave of hill, the grassy banks
Rain-soaked, softened to blur,
Making the landscape look younger
In the rain-filled lens of your eye.
You step quietly, gingerly, like
One bearing lilies, pomegranates
Underfoot, the apple tree
Bending to your music;
Like it’s a visible act,
Like you’re a bride who whispers
‘Ah, Paradise’, playing for time,
A button horse stitched to your bodice
Rearing up, mane like a crested wave.
All eyes obscure, obscure eyes.
Our lord a spectacled lord,
Peering and squinnying,
Spring in his hand, sunlight
Spilling through his fingers, violets
In his hair.
All over the world people are posting short stories about a flat tyre. This is the fault of Ron Carlson and his chapter called A Writing Lesson: Three Flat Tyres and the Outer Story, Chapter 2 in The Cambridge Companion to Creative Writing. Carlson encourages his readers to write a story based on a flat tyre. Here’s mine – a thought and writing experiment. Out of my comfort zone.
It wasn’t even our car. And I certainly had no idea what sort of car it was – maroon red, old – dull. Smelling of mould and smoke, the grey cloth seats sticky-damp And I didn’t even know what that sound was – thought we’d gone over a bump and then a deeper thrumming, an irregular, unbalanced feel to the motion of the car. “Flat” he said, pulling over. I wound down the window, smell of peat, sheep shit, seaweed. He got out, the boot screeching reluctantly as he searched for the spare. I followed, walked up the deserted road, to stretch my legs.
“Really out of our comfort zone now,” I thought to myself, thinking of crispy-skinned fish and frying pans and a warm red fire. It was dead cold. A bright moon with inky clouds racing across. The dark grasses bent and bowed in shivering rhythm to the bitter wind. He was blowing on his fingers, tucking them under his oxters, and then lying on the gritty road to attach the jack to the car and crank it up. The road ran round what looked like the shoulder of the hill – down below, a black invisible sea loch; beyond, dark hulks of hills delineated by the brighter darkness of the sky.
“I didn’t know you knew how to do that,” I said. “How’d you learn how to change a wheel?”
“Everyone knows,” he said, not really listening to me, as he rolled the spare round to the wheel hub. He blew sharply down his nose.
“Fucking spare’s fucking crap.”
It wasn’t actually true, though, what Lee said – lots of people drive cars who don’t know how to change a wheel.. Angela probably could. My stupid mum and her bloke probably couldn’t. They’d ring someone up, they’d sit in the car and wait for someone to sort them out. Poor useless, helpless rabbits. Fuck them.
“It’ll have to do,” he said, throwing the wheel and the jack back inside the boot. He looked up along the road.
“Come here then,” and pulling me towards him. Sticking his frozen hands inside my jumper, on my breasts, my nipples dead tight and stiff with cold. He laughed, playing with them. It was nice. I clung on a bit.
“Better get on,” he said, moving off and getting back behind the wheel, turning the ignition. I ran round to my side and got in.
“How far to O-ban?”
“Oban. Another hour, maybe. We’ll leave the car in a car park and wait for the first bus.”
“What will your gran say when we turn up at her’s?”
“Dunno. She’s deaf anyway.”
“I can’t go back, Lee – they’ll do me for nicking Angela’s phone and all her money and that.”
“Yeah – and this car. We’ll tell my gran we’re on holiday.”
The car thrummed on through the night, occasionally lighting up the bright yellow eyes of sheep that emerged out of the darkness.
“They’re like bleeding zombie eyes, aren’t they?” I said. “Like in the films.”
The heater was on full blast; there was only a rubbish radio in the car and I could only get some kind of late-night phone-in with stupid music. I gave up and just watched the road for a bit – nothing, nothing, a sheep, nothing, nothing, a rock, a sheep…. What would happen when Angela found out that I’d fucked off? She’d be upset, I reckoned. She’d want to find me and sit me in her office and talk to me about myself. She wouldn’t like it that I didn’t want to do that anymore, wanted to go with Lee and have a life. Lee said we could work in hotels for the summer, make some money and then go to Norway. One of his friends was on an oil rig in Norway. Lee reckoned he could get him a job. Lee said I could probably get work there too, because I look older than I am, and no-one could find us. Or Iceland. There were hot springs in Iceland, you could bathe naked in them with snow all round you. Or we could go to Ireland, I told Lee, to my dad’s family – except to be fair we couldn’t – I didn’t really know where they lived, or even their names, really. And they didn’t know mine, I thought, imagining walking up to some door in a terrace of grey brick houses and saying to someone with a weird twangy voice, “I’m Carly.” “Who?” they’d say.
The car thrummed along, a grey line like a frayed edge appearing ahead of us in the night sky. We could just keep driving, for ever, maybe, I thought. Never stop, just keep going, drive past all the people jumping into the road, trying to make us slow down: ‘stay here, we’ll get the police onto you, you belong to us, go to school, get a job, fuck yourselves up like your parents did.’ We’d drive past them all, drive to Norway, no, we wouldn’t even stop there – just drive through the night, just me and Lee, in our crap car with its crappy spare tyre and useless radio, for ever and ever.
This post becomes something about hyacinths. It’s 23.52 – nearly midnight. It’s dark cold, it’s dead winter. I conjured hyacinths out of memory, out of a buried yearning for something to grow, perhaps, some stirring of growth down in the darkness there?
But first I wrote this:
Today, I read fragments of things – a fragment of an article about ‘third camp’ socialists; a fragment of an article about Robert Klein; a fragment of my daughter’s excellent piece about digital mapping. Too tired it seems right now. to read anything through. Maybe give it a go tomorrow. At least I finally sent off student’s reference tonight. I wanted to finish off reading Judith Butler’s article about Can we live a good life inside a bad life – in which she explains her concept of grievable lives. And how this immediately allows us to imagine the ungrievable lives and how that is so immediately a concept that we needed to have. So ‘props’ to JB (I’ve just learnt what ‘props’ means!).
I printed more of my lino cuts of rose hips. Cousin thought they might be pomegranates – a category of scale error, and perhaps not noticing the thorns! But – with another who loves the proper terms for things – cousin’s husband notes the ‘calyxes’ and presumes they are not pomegranates, though not sure what else they might be. We have a short discussion about the plural of calyx – I go for calyses!
Brother brings pink hyacinths growing in a bowl. Just green fleshy cones – about an inch or so high. It’s the fag end of the year – who said that? – I feel the earth’s sullen deadness; I’m waiting for the planet to shudder on its axis and tip again towards sun, light, growth. Grateful therefore for the gift of hyacinths, their green growth nosing out of the earth; marvellous, later, those intricate, curlicued petals, massy, pink, perfumed.
It has to be admitted, though, that the hyacinths are not blue, and so are not perfect. My mum grew blue hyacinths for me – what love to do that, to remember that I loved the blue ones, and make sure I had them. I don’t know now why I have a fixed preference for blue ones. I suspect – responding to hints and associations that may mean nothing – that there might have been something in a poem or a novel or even in Greek poetry – Seferis? Some imagist or modernist perhaps – or just Eliot and his lilacs? – that I wanted to emulate as the forgiveably posturing teen I was.
I used to take bowls of the blue hyacinths my mother grew for me back to Aberdeen after New Year. They filled my student room with scent, through the cold blast of January and February. They scent my memories of those winters – the rain and sleet, the wind, the dark dark dark.
I like dark blue hyacinths best – not the Cambridge blue ones, Oxford blue, despite my years of sojourn at Cambridge. Feel somewhat dissatisfied with the blue hyacinths of today that never seem to attain those dark blue hyacinths that live only in my nostalgia.
I lost my sense of smell and cannot smell the hyacinths anymore.
I miss my mother, winter deadness.
The dark dark dark of you.
Texts for nothing – Samuel Beckett
An orchestral conductor beats a silent bar or so to set the tempo for the orchestra – a ghost measure called the ‘measure for nothing’ – that explains Beckett’s choice of title for 13 brief tales he wrote sixty one years ago, my birth year, actually. At the time of writing the tales, Beckett described himself as struggling to ‘go on’, and wrote these ‘prose stutterings’ which expressed, he said, the “failure to implement the last words of The Unnameable [an earlier work]: I can’t go on. I’ll go on.
The conductor’s arm sweeps, preliminary, gearing up the orchestra – poised, all enter on time, the first breaking of the silence, all the stuttering rehearsals done now, here’s the real thing…
Sometimes the writing is like that – stutterings, a text for nothing.
Trout Eggs in Boro Nashimescro Tan (the place with the big racecourse – Romani)
In River by Ted Hughes – a collection of poems about a year in the life of a river and the salmon’s cycle – he writes, in ‘Flesh of Light’, about salmon eggs: “eyes of ova/round and swell” – and riffs on the earth as female, her great fertility in ‘Salmon Eggs’: “Perpetual mass/Of the waters/Wells from the cleft. / This is the swollen vent/ Of the nameless/Teeming inside atoms – and inside the haze/ And inside the sun and inside the earth.” Hughes, later condemned by a certain period of literary feminism for his patriarchal oppression of Sylvia Plath, pondering the monstrous creativity of the woman’s swollen vent.
It’s 1967. Some schoolgirls aged sixteen are crowding round a bench in a science lab, as their biology teacher shows them a wide, glass container filled with water and trouts’ eggs. Light spills through the open,high windows, lemony May sunlight that warms the wood of the benches, the air is full of birdsong and Spring. On the bench, the eggs float in the water, inert, pale, round, each with its dark, mysterious dot of life. In the course of time, in studious quietness, the girls draw the round eggs with dots, the dot lengthening to a comma, and finally th emergent troutlets, their organs shockingly visible through a still transparent body, a large fish eye shining.
With Hughes hanging over my shoulder, his tweed jacket scratchy, his Yorkshire vowels and uncomfortable values scratchier still, I fall to thinking about the cautiously slow and indirect way in which we girls – ourselves with new breasts, teeming with eggs, with bleeding fertile uteri, full of hormonal yearnings for boyfriends in our hothouse girls’ grammar school, growing up in the decade of The Pill and sexual ‘liberation’ which was, however, not yet for us – were invited, without explicit reference to this being our ‘sexual education’, to contemplate sexual reproduction through first, the buttercup – cross section diagram, and then the trout (same), before moving onto the rabbit (same) and finally a hasty glance at human reproduction as pretty much the same kind of thing really – sufficiently covered by labelling yet another mimeographed cross-section of the male and female reproductive system for homework. In glass cupboards, glass jars contain dead animals – a mouse, a puppy, a seahorse – and, if you knew where to look, a human foetus. Young girls ripe for sex crowd round the bowl of trouts’ eggs, witnessed by a lonely and forlorn grey-coloured infanta and her court of dead grey mice, puppies and seahorses.
On my bed one day then, the western sun falling on the bed covers, a small booklet with a discreetly grey cover. Wordlessly placed there, an action as wordless as the purpose of the study of buttercups and trout and rabbits, a medical booklet written by ‘A Nurse’ described what girls should know about sexual reproduction, without once mentioning what actually happened to the penis that could be ‘inserted’ into the vagina, so that for too long a time I puzzled – wordlessly – about how the floppy object I’d caught glimpses of could ever – without such extreme social and physical awkwardness that one would be mad to bother – be so ‘inserted’. The nurse’s grey information I hid in the airing cupboard, from time to time re-reading it to see if I could have somehow missed the telling fact.
Larkin, in his rueful manner, remarks that before the Annus Mirabilis of 1963 when “sexual intercourse began”, that “Up to then there’d only been/…A shame that started at sixteen/And spread to everything.” The facts of life. The fact of life being such awkwardness, such wordlessness – out of which silent female seclusion we eventually burst into the bright colours and loud music of “The Sixties” – such a shout as would chase that furtive, whispered world into the shadows and out of our lives forever – a window that didn’t just open but slammed open, it seemed at the time, throwing light in and letting us out.
This is a riff on something I read which I can’t remember where it came from. Apologies to the author of the original article.
So it was, then, that he had invited her, Marthe, to a Sunday walk on a cold, bright day in February. He couldn’t afford to take her to dinner, he said, but a Sunday stroll he could afford, and anyway, quoting Balzac, “strolling is the gastronomy of the eye.” By way of come on, he suggested the idea of The Delirious Museum, which is, he explained, any crowded but unfamiliar street that would allow them to stroll, comme des flaneurs, observing with interest but in a disengaged way, the unfathomable complexity of the city’s past. Any street will do, Marcel said to Marthe – any street can be the Delirious Museum. It is just a matter of attention – not to the overblown state monuments and architectural public gestures, but to the ordinary details of any old street. “What are the streets of your life?” he pressed her. “Mine are Rue de Pourquoi-Pas, Place St. Helene, Rue de la Colombe.”
“You can learn a lot about the past – and it’s a pleasant distraction too,” he coaxed. Street signs, par exemple, you can see that the famous white on blue plaques are sometimes placed over names cut into the stone buildings. Did she know that the revolutionaries had decreed that no royal or religious epithets were to be allowed and that was why no saints’ names were allowed. Later, Napoleon, as with so many things, standardised the signs.
>> What are the streets of your life? The 1950s suburbs and the 1960s estates. History in hedges and roses and street names. Willow Way. Links Road. Prospect Terrace. Old Orchard. There were no willows in Willow Way – were there once? Where Holman Hunt had painted the Hogsmill River? The breezy shoreline golf links where the skylarks sang at four in the morning, and the salmon fishers had once hauled their coble boats up the beach.. Was there once a prospect of the River Dee at Prospect Terrace, now obscured by fish packing factories, the railway yards, the castellated prison? Was there once a well-to-do family in the house, smugly overlooking their prospect from the top of the hill, now isolated and semi-derelict in a modern estate of white pebble-dashed bungalows? What civic mind decreed that what people wanted was street names that evoked a lost countryside, while simultaneously attesting to guilty acknowledgement that those very streets lay over the countryside they had destroyed. Old Orchard, a 1960s estate of small houses in a new town built for London ‘overspill’ as it was called, evoking a nostalgia of ‘oldness’ as desirable, nostalgic, prized – a prettiness of cherry blossom, of nature’s free bounty, for city dwellers leaving their urban, old, ‘condemned’ homes for a better life in a new house, ‘in the country’. Old Orchard was a pig farm. It stank. It was noisy with oinks.
On that cold city afternoon Marcel showed Marthe that in les places, you could still see that the ground floors of the grand houses had been given over to shops and workplaces – even now small businesses crowded the pedestrianised streets. In London, by contrast, business was banned from impinging on the lives of the nobility. Nothing of the noisy, haphazard vitality of the people who passed their lives in the streets, hauling, banging, dragging, calling, disputing, would ever penetrate the hushed and secluded life being lived indoors by the propertied classes in England. Marcel and Marthe sat at a table set on the pavement in the loud promiscuity of the street. “When you go into the museum, what do you see? Teacups from which no one drinks, hand mirrors that reflect nothing, pictures which will never be bought by someone who knew just where they wanted to hang them in their home, stuffed animals poised as if startled and about to run from your gaze, things torn from their workaday context – the inkless pen, the fishless basket, the single shoe, the empty oil jar, the lintel of a door that has no entrance…”
We’re talking about work. She’s a part-time care assistant, working for local social work services. She works with elderly people, some of whom have dementia, many of whom are frail and ill, most of whom are lonely and poor. We discuss what it is like to be old, poor, and on your own, or with a partner who is mentally or physically ill, and also what it is like to work with the old – to be party to the perceived ‘downward trajectory’ of this time in their lives, about the inevitability of death, the increasing loss of friends, family and partners, and the approaching end of their own lives.
– She dreams, she says, of walking over the hills. Alone. The wind in her hair, fresh air to breathe, a day ahead with just her and the landscape.
She complains about her exhaustion. She says she looks at her colleagues and they look exhausted too. The demands to cover more cases, to work faster, is relentless. Do six cases, not three, a day. Close down any outstanding cases by referring them to universal services. I look at her questioningly. Universal services, she explains, are those that are publicly available to anyone: tell your clients to go to the library and pick up information there; go on the internet… Her laughter is infectious, as we think of her elderly patients who can’t get out of the house without help, or who have dementia, or who can’t leave a partner even to go shopping. I keep saying to myself – stop laughing. It’s not funny. What are we doing, laughing? Why do we deal with this by laughing. Ha ha haing away the outrageousness and futility of this paltry idea of ‘care’ . That she should have to perpetrate this outrageousness in her reports. It’s a betrayal of the old people she works with, she says, of her reasons for doing the work. She goes into their houses, gets to know them, they get to trust her and she gets fond of them, they reveal their worries and dependency to her, and then she is supposed to tell them there aren’t going to be any regular visits, they might see someone every six weeks and, because of another new organisational practice, it won’t be the same person each time, just someone who reads their case notes prior to the visit; or that some service can’t after all be provided – they are, instead, to go to the library and read about their rights. She hates her betrayal of them, hates being forced to be this way.
– She wanted to be a writer. She wrote and wrote until she was ready to come to therapy. It was her way of coping. She could only come to therapy once she’d sorted things out in her mind, by writing. She wrote letters to her old teacher, a man whose authority excited her, his recognition of her, her school girl’s intellect, the thrill of his expectations of her mind, his body blocking the doorway that she had to squeeze past.
She’s caused trouble again, she sighs. What have you done? She giggles – (semi)apologetically. We are supposed to love her supposed ‘naughtiness’. I do, but wonder how useful it is for us to think of it this way. A couple of overgrown adolescents, dissing the adults. Could we think about her making complaints about work in a grown up way – would that offer her more imaginative ways out of her impasse, more effective ways to change things? Seeing it as ‘naughtiness’ castrates the potency of her criticisms, perhaps. Safer that way?
So what’s this trouble you’ve caused then? She’s received replies from another social work office in another part of the county. There has been a reorganisation and, in a new and more remote system of accountability, the staff in this office now have a supervisory role. They must read and pass the recommendations coming in from the uploaded care assistants’ reports. This is a strategy to control demand on a limited local authority budget. My client’s recommendations have been sent back to her because the office says she hasn’t filled the form in correctly. It’s obvious from the form what was intended so my client suspects this is just a delaying tactic or, possibly, that someone who is ‘directed’ to only accept correctly-filled-in forms is not allowed to use his or her intelligence about them. She writes back about the waste of time this involves. Also, the office questions her recommendations. They ask, “Have you considered universal services?” She writes back, “No. I wouldn’t be recommending x if I thought universal services would do the trick. This client has dementia.” It all takes time. Time when they could be getting on with finding some proper help for the client. She is oppressed by her sense of urgency and ‘their’ lack of urgency. She is frustrated by their questioning her decisions all the time. Stupid. It’s stupid. She thinks they probably think of her as a trouble maker.
Could she not think of ‘being a trouble maker’ as being someone trying to speak back to authority/power from the grassroots? Oh dear, here I go, off the therapy-piste again. It’s that word, grassroots. Perhaps, I wonder to her, there’s a way to dignify ‘naughtiness’ by saying what it is – the resistance of the labour force to impossible demands placed on them? To speak with and from the authority of those who actually do the work?
But there’s the shame of having to tell supervisors and managers that the work is piling up, she’s not managing her case load, she’s weak because she has to confess that she’s feeling so stressed. Being told to rework your recommendations perhaps feels like being told off at school again, your best isn’t good enough, do it again. Shame isolates us, I say – we hide our sense of not coping out of shame. When we begin to talk to co-workers, it is often an enormous sense of relief to discover that it isn’t you, your pathetic personality or difficult home life, it’s the work that is the problem of not coping. Was there a way she could ask her manager if the team could have an hour a week to meet to identify shared concerns and find solutions – might allowing them this time appeal to managers as a way of them working more effectively? But it’s a new manager, replacing the nice one that she liked (and who solved the workload problem by overworking herself, taking on her employees’ cases herself), this one is a ‘career’ manager, my client thinks. And some of her colleagues would think it’s risky – they just want to keep their heads down, she says. She wonders why. Perhaps they’re afraid of losing their mortgages.
I look at her questioningly. It’s a climate of fear. Re-organisations, directives, more work coming down the chute all the time – perhaps they’ll be re-organised out of their jobs if they say they don’t like the way things are being done. Each worker isolated in her job insecurity from the next. She wonders if she’d quite like to be ‘re-organised’ out of her job, do things she really cares about. You really care about this job, I point out.
Recently, her team were re-organised, something that seems to happen regularly. Re-organisation meant removal from the office where the team often met each other and could share and discuss their experiences of the work they did. It’s more efficient (rental and heating/maintenance costs reduced) if care assistants ‘work from home’. They are given shiny free laptops in order to do this. My client discovers, without much surprise but without resistance, that she works even more unpaid hours than before, following up the visits she makes to her case-load with lengthy assessment reports and recommendations for various ‘care packages’ to be put in place.She has a long backlog of unclosed cases that she’s always not finding the time to deal with because of all the crisis cases she is dealing with in the present.
The care assistants are ‘encouraged’ to visit the new office once a week where they ‘hotseat’ at desks vacated by other social workers – it’s so you feel part of the team of social workers, it’s to ‘stay in touch’, the managers say – but my client misses the ongoing conversations about work, the shared problem-solving and the supportive comments and emotional warmth from colleagues that was all part of being a ‘team’ with desks of their own, and a place for them – symbolically as actually – in the mind of the workplace.
Her supervisor offers to help with my client’s complaint that she has too much to do in the time available, even with all the extra unpaid time she gives to the work. Simples. She is just not working efficiently. Close down all these old cases – you just need to refer them to other services. Pass them on – most of them could be thought of as the responsibility of mental health services. She knows she won’t.