Archive: Walking in darkness

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By ’87, we’d had enough of London. Its streets had turned out to be paved with just enough gold to take out a mortgage on a small house at a substantial remove from work, from where it was at, and from the kind of green fields that somewhat older children would probably want to frolic in one day if they weren’t to eventually succumb to a life of dissolution and hard drugs. We felt hemmed in, and worried that one day, my brother would bounce himself out the window of his tiny bedroom. And so, with a cunning little manoeuvre that saw us kids stay with relatives before arriving at a miraculously-furnished new house, we moved.

Perhaps this clever ploy explains why, for many years, I had dreams of hidden trapdoors and mysterious tunnels, Narnia-esque wardrobes and loose bricks into underground caverns. Or perhaps, given that I thought I knew how to think myself into flight and could hardly sleep for fear of the cybermen hiding under my bed, I just had an over-active imagination. Goodness knows we needed one, in those heady days of two-colour text adventures and Sylvester McCoy as Doctor Who.

Darkness

My home, in the dark

Or perhaps the house itself inspired such thoughts. I wasn’t the only one to have them. It was bigger and older than the London house, and while publicly I scoffed at my brother’s unwillingness to go up the stairs alone after dark, I did so myself with some trepidation. There was a haunting aspect to the way the shadows clung at the walls, a solidity and an age to the darkness that may not exactly have menaced, but boy did it know how to loom. It was a darkness that demanded to be taken seriously.

But I was not easily cowed as a child, and over time I came to an arrangement with the dark. What made it mad, I figured, is that although it had been there first, it was still forced to flee on a regular basis by these four persistent, fidgety beings on their meaningless nocturnal perambulations. Pretty unfair really, a concept that the young me understood all too well. So rather than shoo the darkness away with my blundering invasive presence, I swam through it, my hands learning to follow the wooden detail on the wall that started out at head height and sank over time to my waist.

Even now, I still prefer to walk the house in darkness. Sometimes, because I’m grown-up and sensible now, I tell myself that it’s because I don’t want to wake anyone. But the house and I, we know different.

From here on September 9th 2013.

Archive: You may now turn over the paper

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A gym hall, the late ’90s. A faint smell of sweat hangs in the air – a memory of exertion past, or anticipation of what is to come?

“You may now turn over the paper.”

Swissshh. And so we do.

Read the poem below and answer the question that follows. You are advised to spend thirty minutes on this section.

Ambulances – Philip Larkin

Closed like confessionals, they thread
Loud noons of cities, giving back
None of the glances they absorb.
Light glossy grey, arms on a plaque,
They come to rest at any kerb:
All streets in time are visited.

Then children strewn on steps or road,
Or women coming from the shops
Past smells of different dinners, see
A wild white face that overtops
Red stretcher-blankets momently
As it is carried in and stowed,

And sense the solving emptiness
That lies just under all we do,
And for a second get it whole,
So permanent and blank and true.
The fastened doors recede. Poor soul,
They whisper at their own distress;

For borne away in deadened air
May go the sudden shut of loss
Round something nearly at an end,
And what cohered in it across
The years, the unique random blend
Of families and fashions, there

At last begin to loosen. Far
From the exchange of love to lie
Unreachable inside a room
The traffic parts to let go by
Brings closer what is left to come,
And dulls to distance all we are.

Analyse the poem with reference to its form, language and meaning.

I did not analyse the poem. What I did was cry, hunched over the wooden desk, flooding the crisscrossed graffiti of ages indiscriminately, SKINS RULE OK and METALLICAAAAA alike, shoulders heaving, trying not to let it show, trying not to be the laughing stock, trying not to dampen the precious exam paper on which I was to write nothing.

And I thought I’d gotten away with it too, until a voice cut through the tangle of my thoughts as I tugged my school bag out of the middle of the bottom of the sea of possessions outside the exam hall. “A word, Caroline. If I may.”

I think I told my teacher that my grandmother had died, which she had, and that I’d been to her funeral, which I had. We never spoke of it again.

Did I cry because the poem, speaking as it does of the nearness at every moment of our lives of death and grief, made me think of granny? Was I reminded of the cosy darkness at the back of the room where we coloured things in, played in the rocking chair and drove small sports cars recklessly in circles in the shadow of granny’s friend’s Bill’s chair, over whose shoulder you could read the strange newspaper with the shiny-faced naked women and the big shouty headlines?

Or was it something altogether more selfish that seized me that day? Was it a nascent sense of how grief would impinge on my own young life? An infantile sense that the text was chosen just to spite me, unshakeable in my belief that such things could only have happened to me?

When this moment came back to me this morning, unannounced and unbidden, it was painted in clear, clean lines: background cause + immediate cause = weepy effect. The more I thought about it, however, the less sure I became. The me at the funeral was small, and in the way, and wearing borrowed clothes. The me that sat in that exam hall was, for all the misdirected angst and emotion, beginning to bounce tall in her silver Dr Martens, starting to dream of brighter futures and dreaming spires. It feels like there were years between the two.

UK exam hall

The Great British Exam Hall (By WahTee (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons)

Memory is a curious thing, something that bends itself to needs we don’t even know we have, without even letting us know it’s doing so. Hear a story often enough and you’ll start to believe you were there. Believe you were there and hey presto! you were the life and soul, a raconteur sans pareil. Supply it with a disjointed story and narrative will grow up like bindweed to fill the cracks.

And there was no exam hall, no ancient desks, no sea of bags. Nothing rested on this exam, really. But there again you see, narrative shall out. What is it they say? Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

I still cried, though. And I still don’t know why.

From here on November 7th 2012.

Archive: Remember, remember…

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Remember, remember
the fifth of November,
gunpowder, treason and plot!

I see no reason
why gunpowder treason
should ever be forgot.

Say the two words of the title to anyone from the UK, and chances are that they’ll complete the rhyme almost involuntarily, most likely in a deep, portentous voice. Imagine my surprise, on leaving my country, to find that nobody else really does Guy Fawkes Night.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, of course. In theory, what we do on November 5th is celebrate Guido “Guy” Fawkes’ failure to blow up the House of Lords in 1605 as part of The Gunpowder Plot, a wider Catholic plot to assassinate King James I for being Protestant and replace him with an honest-to-goodness old-fashioned Catholic king like what we had had back in the good old days. Never mind that the last one couldn’t speak a word of English and was married to a woman who burned 280 people at the stake in 5 years, thus inspiring seventeenth-century mixologists to create top tomato-based cocktail/ hangover cure the Bloody Mary. If this doesn’t mean a whole lot to you, you should probably be thankful that your history is not as silly as ours.

If it seems strange that we celebrate one man’s failure to blow up the English establishment by setting fire to things and then revelling in the ensuing explosions, consider this: until 1859 there was actually a legal compulsion to mark the day, known as the Observance of November 5th Act. The Act condemned the “many malignant and devilish papists, Jesuits, and seminary priests” who had “conspired most horribly”, thus ensuring its popularity among Protestants with fire in their eyes for centuries to come. Truth to tell, though, I’ve long suspected that what we’re really revelling in is the fact that someone tried in the first place – it speaks volumes that in 2007, the public ranked Guy Fawkes 30th on the BBC’s list of the 100 Greatest Britons, just behind David Bowie.

So now that the religious froth and fervour has subsided, what are we left with? Well, naturally we get our mates round, drink beverages and set fire to stuff, that essentially being the great cultural constant of any festival. But there are specifics that must be observed. There must be fireworks, for a start. Tradition dictates that these fireworks should be enjoyed from a safe distance after a designated adult, commonly known as ‘dad’, lights the symbolic blue touch paper and stands well back. It is considered good form to greet the explosion of the firework, however pathetic, with the words “ooh” and “aah”. A fireworks party is often enlivened by the falling over of the official projectile launcher/ milk bottle/ toilet roll, with hilariously life-threatening slapstick consequences.

Not contenting ourselves with small pretty fires safely far away in the sky, it’s also traditional to gather up branches, leaves, medium density fibreboard, disused railway sleepers and hedgehogs, douse them in petrol and light an enormous fire known as a Bonfire. These items are considered more appropriate fuel in these politically correct times than Catholics. This fine tradition also serves the purpose of preventing Guy Fawkers from dying of hypothermia, given that the whole November fifth thing entails waiting until it’s bloody freezing before enjoying any fireworks, where other countries rather sensibly enjoy them in summer.

Besides serving as a huddling point against the cold and pizzle, the fire also provides the heat needed to craft such delicious bonfire night fare as charred hot dogs, cremated beef burgers, and slow roasted potatoes with a distinct hedgehoggy aftertaste. Mulled wine helps considerably in raising participants’ spirits, fortifying their resistance to seasonal cold, and generating the aforementioned life-threatening comedy mishaps that remind us all just how foolhardy Mr Fawkes was to mess around with gunpowder in the first place.

A Guy Fawkes Guy

The noble art of stuffing some old clothes with newspaper, then burning them.

A final Bonfire Night tradition worthy of note is the crafting of a guy, a lumpen man of newspaper and old clothes who is then burned in effigy, thus proving how great and good politicians and the monarchy are, hurrah hurrah. Starting out as a sort of devil/ pope amalgam, this later became an image of Guy Fawkes, mysteriously acquiring a curly wig and power shoulders during the Thatcher era. For some years, it was popular to exhibit the result to indulgent adults in return for a Penny for the Guy (see also Money for Old Rope), which would then go to buy hard drugs, and sometimes fireworks.

As the image will attest, I passed many happy childhood years learning the finer points of the art of Guy crafting. However judging by the poor excuses for guys that have recently been taking to the streets, so decrepit and deformed that they must rely on wheelbarrows and human aid to get around, this is a dying art, probably murdered by the same group of burly lads that come round every Christmas, mumble silentnight ‘olynight in a menacing undertone then demand five quid.

From here on November 5th 2012.

Archive: The number one most annoying question to ask a foreigner in Japan

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If you haven’t been following these posts, you might like to start at the beginning.

1. Why don’t you like your country (and are you all this aggressive)?

An afternoon tea party

“To be frightfully honest, I’d much prefer coffee…” (Federico Andreotti, via Wikimedia Commons)

Well now, do you see what you’ve done here? You’ve painted me into a corner, haven’t you? Taken me for a Union Jack-waving, scone-munching, knife-and-fork-requesting stereotype with no mind or personality of her own, then kicked me into the nearest open pigeon hole when I refuse to conform.

I don’t hate my country, no. There are things about it I hate, yes, and miraculously you’ve managed to touch on most of them in the space of this short conversation. But they wouldn’t make me anywhere near as angry if I didn’t care.

I arrived in Japan wide-eyed and full of youthful hope, keen to prove that I was more than the sum of my gangly legs and comically large nose, to bridge the cultural divide and highlight the deep and abiding similarities in our souls. But I also knew that here, not saying was the flower. And so I tried to keep my mouth shut and smile, smile, smile – the only advice I’d received before embarking on my educational mission.

I was to be thwarted in my bid for silence. Mere days in to my new role, I found myself sitting on a stage in front of an expectantly assembled junior high school, trying to answer the question “Do you like Margaret Thatcher?”. The above is not the answer that I gave, but it is the answer that I wish I could have given. The answer that I did give was something mealy-mouthed about how Thatcher’s policies divided people in Britain to this day (usually into opposite corners in which tables are upended and used as ad hoc missile cover), and that many people didn’t agree with them, myself included. But, I added, to soften the blow, that was just my opinion.

An awed hush descended. Seconds later, mutters broke the surface of the silence like tiny fish coming up for breadcrumbs. “My opinion… my opinion…” Yahari, said the headteacher, iken ga tsuyoi desu ne. As expected (being a foreigner), you have strong opinions.

It was a reaction I was to meet time and again, and one not entirely without reproach. There’s a fine line between having opinions and being opinionated, and my very existence seemed to make waves even when my mouth was firmly shut. For the first time in my life, I was considered to be representative of something. I had become An Ambassador For My Country (Whatever That Might Mean). Everything I said was interpreted through a lens – Christian, opinionated, aggressive, mouth-frothing feminist, tea-sipping English lady – that I barely recognised, and had no intention of perpetuating.

But how to escape becoming my stereotype? People listened the hardest when I was most like what I was expected to be. When I tried to fit in, I fell flat on that comedy nose of mine. Every time I hit the stereotype wall I’d blame myself and my language abilities, and hit the textbooks harder. We local gaijin bonded over furtively exchanged textbooks, gathered in dimly-lit family restaurants to squint at flashcards battered and tea-stained with use, huddled together for warmth, protection and linguistic input at the town’s premier (only) watering hole.

I soon reached the point where I could communicate day-to-day. There I could have stopped, but something wasn’t right. I noticed one day that when I spoke Japanese my voice was high-pitched, exaggeratedly feminine, about an octave higher than it should have been. I listened more closely. My words, too, they were being spoken to order, to fill the space in the conversation as expected, not because they belonged to me. In short, I had lost my voice.

Clearly, I was playing a loser’s game. I realised that if I was going to reconstruct myself in this very different culture, there’d need to be a core person there, and many of my values would come from my own culture. And that meant being more than a cypher, more than a brainless smile, more than a high maintenance ambulant steak. So began the mission to reconstruct Caro-chan.

I’m going to make a sweeping generalisation at this point, because it seems like everyone else is at it and I don’t like to miss a par-tay. Britain is a nation that has fought tooth and claw for political representation. It has been ruled by the rich, for the rich, for centuries, and this has fostered an oppositional, them-and-us, two-party system where everybody knows which side they stand on. It’s not only OK to have an opinion: it’s not OK not to.

I was brought up to have an opinion on most things. I was also taught to be critical of things I did not agree with, with the possible exceptions of nine o’clock bedtimes and cod liver oil. I believe there is a damn good reason for this, and it is that the world does not tend toward fairness or equality; quite the opposite.

I understand that Japan has followed a very different path, its upper classes voluntarily dissolving their privileged position to establish a modern democracy. I also understand that they did so partly to preempt vile class consciousness infecting the minds of their citizens. I understand this because I’ve bothered to find this out, and kept my mind open while doing so. So the next time I give the wrong answers to the right questions, perhaps you could try listening before you make up your mind.

It’s not aggression. It’s not hatred. It’s because I care.

And if it seems doubly shocking coming from a woman, you’re getting just the shock you deserve.

From here on October 28th 2012.

Archive: The six most annoying questions to ask a foreigner in Japan – number 2

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If you haven’t been following these posts, you might like to start at the beginning.

Here’s number 2 on my own private shit-list of most annoying questions I get asked in Japan.

2. What do you think of Margaret Thatcher?

Well now, there are many different opinions about Margaret Thatcher, famous of course for being the first non-human prime-minister of the United Kingdom. Here’s mine.

Margaret Thatcher is an empty shell of dust and charcoal, a soulless inhuman husk animated by a lunatic hell-wraith of vindictive spite who slurps and sucks at the warmth and affection of communities until they are as dry and lifeless as she, who flails her dread spiderlegs at the foundations of the state and cackles as decades, centuries come crashing down, burying all those who need it most, their arms still outstretched, pleading for succour, who drools and skitters with obscene delight as she spits free school milk in the tear-stained eyes of hungry children weak with osteoporosis, their mouths open in the pathetic hope that the tiniest morsel will trickle down to nurture them.

And when, at long last, the cursed wraith departs the puppet body of what was once Margaret Hilda Roberts, grocer’s daughter, leaving it to crumble into ashes and scatter to the four winds, then, my friends, then shall we shake the skies with our dancing and drain the oceans with our debauchery.

Well, you did ask.

Number 1 is here.

From here on August 17th 2012.

Archive: The six most annoying questions to ask a foreigner in Japan – number 3

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Prince William

Prince William enjoying a lovely suit, which I paid for (by TheMatthewSlack, via Wikimedia Commons)

If you haven’t been following these posts, you might like to start at the beginning.

Here’s the third most irritating question I get asked in Japan.

3. Isn’t Prince William lovely?

Is he? Your guess is as good as mine. I haven’t met him, you see. In England we have this little thing called class, which prevents an oik such as myself from rubbing my filthy calloused shoulders with royalty.

Such as my opinion is, here goes. Prince William is alright. He is a shining diamond in the cesspool of leeches that is Britain’s beloved Royal Family. He’s less belligerently racist than Prince Philip, less prone than Charles to equate sanitary products with hot sex, and, seeing as Harry thinks dressing up as a Nazi is a wizard party idea for someone third in line to the throne of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, appears to have inherited the lion’s share of Di’s brain cells.

Alright, yes. But I draw the line at the man being ‘lovely’. I don’t care that he’s losing his hair (as, incidentally, I’ve just discovered by Googling him) – that just makes him a bit more human. It’s more that him and his troupe of blue-blooded freaks are living life high on the hog off the nation’s wealth while the rest of the country is being systematically screwed out of even the most basic social welfare, on the pretext of tackling a budget deficit run up by a slightly different bunch of posh people tinkering with things they didn’t understand. If the second in line to the throne had any idea what reality constituted for the vast majority of ‘his’ people, perhaps he would have passed on that $1 million honeymoon in the Seychelles. Never mind the cost of the wedding.

But then he doesn’t have any idea, does he? ‘Lovely’ as he might be, he’s still the kind of ruddy-cheeked hamster-faced plummy bastard who chortlingly dresses up as a ‘chav’ with his officer cadet friends at Sandhurst and sees nothing wrong in it. ‘Chav’, incidentally, is a word we use now that everyone in England is middle class and has a nice job in a call centre. It refers to the feckless, criminal and ignorant poor – the indolent poor, as we used to call them back in the glory days of the sixteenth century – who steadfastly refuse to take advantage of the wonderful employment opportunities on offer in a nation where 1.2 million young people are out of work.

Number 2 is here.

From here on August 8th 2012.

Archive: Home from home

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From my recent trip back to Britain.

“Sorry pet,”
she said, and smiled
as I pushed in front of her.
 
Instincts honed
or hardened,
elbows sharpened
in the Hanoi scrum
 
I have become
imperceptibly, almost
alien in my own land.

Hanoi traffic

Excuse me! Excuse me? Excu- BEEEEP (By Dragfyre, via Wikimedia Commons)

From here on November 14th 2011.