Well, here she is, the new dog, to fill the aching void left by Tia, the Golden Dog, who was killed in a road accident on 15th December last year, after only thirteen months living with us. I can’t believe it was so short a time.
The new dog was named Buttercup by the rescue charity, but I wasn’t shouting that in the park, so we’ve renamed her Flora. Don’t let the look of innocence fool you; she’s a terror. The picture also gives the impression that she can read and is therefore a doggy prodigy: nothing could be further from the truth. I am fairly convinced that we’ve taken on a canine cretin.
In fairness, it is still only about four days since she left Romania, was transported hundreds of miles, separated from her litter mates and dumped in a house with two strange humans and a cat. She’s entitled to be a little disorientated.
I was working on the day she arrived and had an evening class as well, so wasn’t home until about half-past-nine. By then, she’d bonded with Amanda, and wasn’t about to spread the love. We’ve had a difficult weekend of adjustment. Flora hasn’t got the hang of me yet, and howls whenever Amanda goes upstairs, or pops out of the house. I’m supposed to completely ignore her and let her come to me. She’s shown some curiosity about me, but hasn’t decided I’m her friend yet. I don’t take rejection well, and am finding it quite difficult.
Amanda is working this afternoon, so I’ll be in the house with Flora going spare for her favourite human. To remind myself that it is worth it, I have made a gallery of pictures of Tia, to which I linked in the first paragraph of this post.
For now, I just keep thinking that I’m a cat person. Yes, since Tia died, I’ve missed the walks, and the devotion of a trusting dog, but I am finding all the adaptation a real headache.
Flora is quite pretty though, and I love the way she hasn’t quite grown into her paws yet. I’m sure we’ll be best buddies before long.
My father died on November 30th. He had been ill for five years, with one of the exotic derivatives of leukaemia that can be emolliated for a time, but will triumph in the end. We were very lucky that the care, for him and us, during his illness, was wonderful. He was treated in a well-funded Macmillan Centre in a large NHS hospital whose excellent condition is due, no doubt, to it being in a Tory semi-marginal constituency. He died there, with an attentive palliative care team staffed by nurses and a consultant he had come to know and who treated him as a friend. Everyone should have such care.
My mother and I were with him when he died. He’d been unconscious for a couple of days, stretched on a bed that was almost too short for him, his head and shoulders raised, his mouth open, a tube in his nose quietly hissing oxygen into him. Every few hours, his painkillers would begin to wear off, and he would rise towards awareness, wave his hands feebly and move his jaw. I was thrown into panic by this activity, pestering the nurses, or trying to dab at his mouth with a wetted sponge, making useless attempts to comfort him. My sister, Charlotte, my mother and I stayed in the room overnight the night before. They slept on chairs and I had a pillow on the floor, and, horrible as the situation was, we were close in a way I don’t remember us being for many years. He was a missing part, just a bodily presence, although we spoke to him, telling him we loved him very much. In one of his periods of stirring, Charlotte said, “We are so lucky to have you as our father,” and I wept silently, so as not to upset him.
In the small hours of the morning, with just my mother and me in the room with my father, Charlotte having popped home for a few hours’ rest, I noticed that he wasn’t breathing anymore. It was that simple. After a controlled bedlam of nurses checking we were right, I closed his mouth, and a nurse switched off the oxygen, and my mother and I sat in silence with his body.
“I wish I could cry,” she said.
Over the rest of the weekend, we clung together, my mother, my sister, Amanda, our friends Vanessa and Pete, my niece and nephew and I, going through photo albums, walking the dogs, and coming to terms with a world without him.
Amanda and I had to return to the Island. I didn’t want to take too much time off work, as I had learners coming up to exams, and they needed my support. We returned to Bury St Edmunds the following weekend, though, and took part in the preparations for the funeral. Then we came home for another week, before the long drive back up to Suffolk for the weekend of the funeral, which was scheduled for that Monday.
Our car had developed a fault, which we had had fixed on the Island, but which had left the computerised engine management system messed up. On the Saturday morning, in bright, sharply cold sunshine, Amanda and I drove up to the Peugeot garage on Moyses Hall estate, and booked the car in. It was so cold that we stopped in a pet superstore place and bought Tia a coat, because we were worried she would be too cold on the walk back to my parents’ house. Then we ambled back through the leafy estate, letting Tia roam on a long lead, the grief of our loss a gentle topic of careful discussion, but feeling peaceful in the glorious winter weather.
Back at the house, my mother was worrying about my father’s office. He had kept the most bizarre things: hundreds of old coins; documents without any filing system; cuttings from newspapers about people we didn’t know, and instruction booklets for devices we had never come across. We’d spent the previous Saturday trying to make some sense of it, and Charlotte had dug out all the documents she needed for the registration of his death, and for the other annoyances of bereavement, like re-registering the car in my mother’s name, transferring the joint bank account to her and adding his investments to the estate, so that his will could be processed. Amanda and I spent an hour with her, in the office, trying to calm her nervous rummaging, and prevent her from messing up what order Charlotte had been able to impose.
We were rescued by Charlotte phoning to ask whether we wanted to go for lunch in town. The day remained bright and lovely and we leapt at the distraction.
While I searched for gloves and changed my shirt, I heard a commotion downstairs. My mother had accidentally let Tia out of the front door and she had done one of her disappearing acts. By the time I’d got my boots on, Amanda had already gone out of sight, chasing after her.
I ran across the square and through the alleyway that leads from the new estate where my parents’ house is, onto the industrial estate behind it. The A14, the major road through East Anglia, runs past the estate, on a raised bank with wooded sides about ten metres high. Because of the trees, and the good insulation of the houses, it’s easy to forget it’s there: like all nuisances with which you live, you either get driven mad by it, or zone it out, and I am good at zoning out nuisance.
Over the noise, however, I thought I heard a scream. I was behind a warehouse where I had walked Tia late the previous Sunday, and I ran back round to where I had a view through two industrial buildings to the housing estate. A man in mechanic’s overalls was walking hurriedly across the square. I ran towards the alleyway, but before I got there, through another gap, I saw Amanda carrying Tia and I registered, without absorbing it, that Tia’s head was lolling from her arms.
By the time I got back among the houses, and ran up to the house, Amanda had laid Tia down by the front door and run in, shouting about needing a vet. I knelt down beside the poor, broken dog, and, I think, saw a moment of consciousness before she died. There was blood around her muzzle, her tongue was hanging out and her neck was skewed in a position that said it was definitely broken, but she retained her beauty and her face was still the face I had come to love over the past thirteen months.
I shouted into the house to Amanda, “She’s dead”, and was humiliated to realise I’d wailed it. I buried my face in her fur, and there was no movement. She was warm, but lifeless.
It seemed one thing too many. For a moment, I considered running away. I am a selfish man at heart, and I had been at a high pitch of anxiety since my father’s illness had got worse, months before. For the past two weeks, since his death, I had been promising myself that, at the funeral, I would put this period of unhappiness and tension to rest, and return to sanity, calm and a life of hobbies and good living with a renewed sense of the basic rightness of life. Kneeling in front of my mother’s house, beside our dead dog, that seemed to be a future that I had just lost.
I think, though, that you do find the strength to do what needs to be done, in moments of crisis. My mother was distraught, although, as always, she wasn’t crying, but trying to behave with dignity. I got up and hugged her, and then went upstairs to find Amanda, who was crying on our bed. I comforted her, and cried with her for a moment, and then went downstairs again to my mother.
I phoned Charlotte, and then my mother and I took Tia round the back of the house, through the car park and into the garden. Through my reassurances, my mother took control by trying to organise, and she said that we could bury Tia in the top of the garden. I pushed Tia’s tongue back into her mouth, and arranged her head so that she looked as though she was sleeping, and then I suggested we go inside.
I made tea and Amanda came downstairs. Incredibly, she had managed to compose herself. I loved her so much just then. She had wanted a dog for so long, and when it had finally become realistic, she had worried and fussed over the process, and had been surprised, I think, that it had been a joy, rather than the disaster she had expected, in her anxious approach to life. I knew, though, that she would be thinking about my mother, who was preparing to bury her husband of five decades in two days, and was trying to control the impact of this new calamity, that seemed to confirm her natural pessimism. Two sides of her character – her anxiety and her impulse to care about the feelings of others – were at war, and her selflessness triumphed.
Charlotte arrived. I asked her to stay with Amanda while my mother and I took Tia’s body up to the top of the garden. We got a spade and a shovel from the shed and dug a hole in a patch of ground that my mother had only cleared of weeds that autumn, and which she was planning to use for climbing plants. When it seemed deep enough, I laid Tia into it, arranging her as best I could. When my mother asked me whether I wanted to start filling in, though, I said it could wait for an hour or two. Tia was still warm. “I don’t want those nightmares,” I said.
There didn’t seem anything else to do, so we went ahead with our lunch plans, walking into town. To get out of the estate, we had to pass the path that Tia had bolted up, onto the A14, and Amanda found that hard. She explained what had happened and reproached herself for chasing an excited dog, when she should, she felt, have hung back, waiting for her to come back to her. I doubted that Tia, once she had given way to curiosity, would have noticed, but I didn’t try to contradict her then. The man in overalls I’d seen was a mechanic in the garage by the main road, and Amanda and I dropped in to thank him. He was kind and sympathetic, but embarrassed, and I said to myself then what I would say many times over the next few weeks: she was just a dog.
My father’s funeral was on Monday 17th December, 2018, at half-past-two. If that seems a little histrionic in its precision, my excuse is that such details matter, two months on, as it all begins to feel a little distant.
By the good offices of the church warden, Teresa Goodenough, who is a long-term friend of my mother’s and a true Christian, we had been allowed to hold it in the church of Fornham All Saints, the village in which my parents lived for twenty years, although they had ceased to be parishioners when they moved into town, and transferred their worship to the cathedral, which was more accessible to them as my father grew frailer. Kindness surrounded us in the arrangements. Two friends of my father’s officiated: Canon David Crawley, who is the Anglican chaplain at the hospital where my father died, and Revd. Michael Edge, a neighbour of my parents who is a retired cleric and who used to visit my father at home to read with him and, it seems, chat about memories of the Church of England.
My cousin, Nicky, and her husband, Chris, stayed with us at my mother’s house the night before. They’d travelled up from Devon and the meal we shared on the Sunday evening was a joyous affair, with Charlotte and Eden (my niece) joining us. Later, we got out the photo albums again. I think I may have been obsessing slightly. I had been busy over the week since Tia’s death, burying myself in Labour Party stuff and trying to shut things out, and I felt now that I needed to throw myself into some role of mourner-in-chief.
In the morning, my uncle and aunt came over from Norwich. Charlotte, Eden and Ruben (my nephew) arrived mid-morning and then Vanessa, Pete and their daughter, Maya, turned up. It was another lovely, bright winter morning. The house was full of flowers and cards and the sense that my father was a man widely loved had begun to seep into my grief.
Charlotte and Amanda had taken my mother dress shopping on the Saturday and had had a proper girls’ day out. The pain of losing Tia was still hanging over Amanda and me, but we had been able to hold it off when we came back to Bury; to keep the focus on my mother.
At the appointed time, the undertakers’ car turned up and Charlotte, my mother, Amanda, Ruben, Eden and I piled in. It was all a bit of a daze. You see funeral processions and you try not to stare, but it’s one of those experiences that can never feel entirely novel when it is finally your turn to sit ashen-faced in the extended Mercedes: it is too familiar as an observer. Our route was by ring roads, round the back of the sugar-beet factory and through Fornham St. Martin, all golf-courses and flat-pack housing estates, and so arriving in the centre of the village, outside the church, was like stepping out of a mundane world and into a picture-book one. Fornham is not what it was when my parents lived there, but it is still beautiful, and the church is like an archetype of a village church.
Going in was a shock, though. It was filled. Teresa was rushing about, organising more seating. In the end, just shy of two hundred people were packed in. My father had been a founding member of the St Edmundsbury Male Voice Choir, and a couple of dozen of them packed the choir stalls. Amanda and I were sat in the front row to the right of the aisle, while the rest of the family sat to the left. I stared up at the East window and prayed to the picture of Christ there.
The vicars and Charlotte had asked me whether I wanted to do a reading. I hadn’t wanted to do a eulogy: how could I sum him up? Chaotic, honourable, loving, daft, pompous, kind, gentle, brave and funny: none of it would have sounded like the stuff of a loving son. It would have sounded like a performance. I had latched on loving, and chosen the only text that came to mind at the time they asked: Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13, on love. I’m not actually a huge fan of Paul, but he is very good on love, and it has been the front page of my website for over a year, so I know it. It seemed right.
When the time came for me to read, I got up and walked to the lectern and just kept my head down. Revd. Michael had printed the passage out for me in large print, and I took the sheets out of my pocket, laid them on the lectern-top and read. A sort of grace seemed to fill me. I didn’t rush, or falter, and, when I reached the line saying that love “…endures all things,” I looked up, straight at Amanda, willing her to feel the comfort of this truth. She was crying, though, with her head bowed, and so I looked down again, and read on.
On Christmas morning, my mother and I went to the eight o’clock communion in the cathedral. We walked up in frost-sharp air, and took our places in the sparse congregation. It was a beautiful service. The sermon, by the Dean, the Very Revd. Joe Howes, was casual, chatty, included some good jokes at his own expense, but made a wonderful point about, I think, rebirth, although I cannot now clearly remember. (I have emailed him asking whether he can recall what his sermon was and will update this if he gets back to me). It felt as though he had addressed himself to me. By the time we took communion, I was in a real state of prayer; calm and settled, the whirring calculation of my brain stilled.
We walked home through the Abbey Gardens and the sun was white-bright turning to gold on a perfect sheet of frost. In the middle of the gardens, we stopped to look round, and to appreciate the beauty of the morning, and I revelled for a moment in the aftertaste of prayer. Then, my blogging head kicked in and I got out my phone and took a few photos. These are the results.
Still, the grief muddled on, the great sorrow of my father’s loss overshadowed by the petty grief for a slaughtered pet. During the previous week, back on the Island, attending training at work now that classes had ended for the term, and filling the rest of my time with computing tasks to keep myself busy, I had become angry about it, and then worried, that I was not grieving appropriately. Nevertheless, we had a happy Christmas day with Charlotte, Eden, Vanessa, Pete and Maya round my mother’s table, doing it all with a sense of duty that, despite the circumstances, turned into joy. At one point on Christmas Day, my mother said to us, “Mike would have loved this,” and that made it feel alright, being happy, so soon.
On Boxing Day, Charlotte had us round to her house for a meal. Eden was there as well; a quiet, amused presence, treating life like a humorous spectacle, as is her manner. At some point, I must have looked around the room, at these four incredible, brave, kind women; my mother, my wife, my sister and my niece, and realised that, despite the double blow I had suffered, my relationships with them had been strengthened, not harmed, by our shared sorrow. In any loss, there is something to be gained, if you can find it, and, for me, this closeness was like a reward for my not having given way to my grief. I hope the same is true for them. I know that Amanda feels our relationship has been strengthened by the last few months’ turmoil, because we can discuss such things, and Charlotte has made cautious overtures to me as well, but I worry about my mother.
I wish she could cry.
I’m still worried that I haven’t grieved properly. I’ve done some research, and discovered that the advice is so consistent that it must be a reliable consensus: there are stages; they are not written in stone; everyone grieves differently. It all begins to sound a little lazy, as if the universality of loss has reduced the incredible unreality of someone you love no longer existing to a set of bullet points on a web page or in a leaflet that gets misfiled in a health centre.
What nags at me is how sharp my feelings towards Tia are, compared to my feelings about my father. She was just a dog. I can rationalise it by realising that, despite my policy of optimism throughout his illness, I had five years to understand that my father would not be with me forever, whereas Tia’s death came out of the blue, when I was already vulnerable, but it still feels inappropriate, like a betrayal.
In the months since the funeral, I have returned to work, continued to tinker with computers, attended Labour Party meetings and enjoyed social events. Life goes on. Tomorrow, Amanda is going to the mainland to pick up a puppy, Buttercup (that’ll have to change), from a rescue charity in Hertfordshire. Life is beginning to regain its balance.
Perhaps, for me, that is how grief will complete its form: there will be no great epiphany of feeling; no peak of anger or denial or bargaining or depression. Perhaps I will just slide slowly on to the acceptance. Perversely, though, I feel short-changed, and I feel as though I am somehow failing my kind, generous, unfailingly loving father, by not being racked by a sharper sorrow. It makes me wonder whether there is something wrong with me: something missing.
A month ago, I was worried enough about this to begin the process of seeking counselling. Through an employment support service, I have applied for an interview with the public mental health team. It is a service overburdened with supporting people in real crisis on austerity-slashed budgets, but I am told that I have as much right to seek assistance as anyone else. I hope I am not just being self-indulgent. I suppose I will find out.
There is one last event for me to record. A week and a half ago, we went back up to Bury St Edmunds, for the burial of my father’s ashes. On the way, half way round the M25, a fault light came on, and the car slowed to a crawl. I managed to nurse it to South Mimms service station where we spent an anxious couple of hours waiting for the rescue service.
It felt like a repeat of Tia’s death: another focus for my grief overcome by circumstances. In the fluorescent-lit hell of South Mimms, Amanda and I sat gloomily pondering our failings, unable to communicate. My anger was growing and I went outside, abandoning her, and walked to the trees at the edge of the car park and howled. Finally, I remembered that employment support had given me a phone number for a mental health crisis line and I had put the number in my phone.
The woman who answered listened to me patiently for a couple of minutes and then took over. Where was I? Was I safe? Where was my wife? Was she safe? Suddenly, prompted by her questions, my arrogance dissolved and I understood that nothing mattered as much as my responsibilities to my loved ones: my care for Amanda and my duty to her feelings. I thanked the counsellor, rang off, and ran back to Amanda.
Calmed myself, I was able to calm her, and apologise for my selfishness. Over the past five years, she has never once complained about spending almost every holiday with my parents, about driving up to Suffolk every weekend for two months without a weekend to herself, about having her grief for Tia buried beneath my father’s death. I couldn’t put into words how much I wanted to thank her, but she understood, as she has understood everything. We put our coats round ourselves, huddled together and waited together, accepting that what would be would be.
We were driven to Bury in a lorry, with our car bouncing on the flatbed behind us, by a cheerful driver who played Russian rock music all the way there. Some of it wasn’t too bad. We arrived at about two, and my mother, who we’d phoned when we realised we’d be late, had waited up. The house, which I have never really liked, felt like a warm coccoon, albeit, still a beige one. We settled into bed with a sense of renewed well-being.
The weekend passed pleasantly enough. We put the car back into the Peugeot garage, managing to get through the reminders of our last walk with Tia before her death, and then met Charlotte in town for a coffee, a wander round the market and then lunch at Pizza Express. My mother was in good form, her memory sharper than it had been recently, the terrible weight of her stoic grieving less evident. She was, however, dreading the burial.
Monday came, and we drove out to Fornham in my mother’s car. It was a wet, cloudy day. There was just us, the two vicars, Revd. Edge’s wife, Teresa and her husband Allan. We had a short service, led by Canon Crawley, in the chapel to the side of the church. My father’s ashes, in a pine box with a brass name plate on the top, sat on the altar rail as Revd. Edge read a beautiful reading from Isaiah, which he had chosen.
6 On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. 7 And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; 8 he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. 9 It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.
Then, guided by Canon Crawley, I carried my father’s mortal remains outside, round the church, to a small plot beneath the east window. A hole had been dug, and lined with fake grass. After the familiar litany about ashes, I knelt down and placed the box into the hole, touched, but not overwhelmed, by a sense of the true awe of death. I was conscious of the sense of a performance and annoyed with myself for that. I forced myself to forget that there were people watching, and took care to make sure that the box was level, and square in the hole. My father, who liked his pencils lined up on his desk and his jackets hung in ordered rows in his wardrobe, would appreciate that. In that moment, I felt love for him, and I suddenly had tears in my eyes.
When I stood, Canon Crawley said, “Let us pray,” and we said the Lord’s Prayer. I had to keep wiping tears from my eyes, but I didn’t sob. When it was over, I kept staring down, into the hole, slightly horrified by what I had just done; the finality of it; trying to remember the promise of eternal life that Revd. Edger’s reading had so beautifully described. Someone was at my side, putting their arm around me, and I was moved beyond words to discover it was my mother. Charlotte and Amanda moved in close and we all held each other.
The grave is to the east of the church, beneath the window that depicts Christ the Redeemer. It will get morning sun, and it is large enough for my mother to join him there, when her time comes. Beside it, an old choir friend of my father’s is buried.
Saturday morning with a new edition of the LRB, a pot of coffee and no dog-walking duties: pure comfort.
My work for the week is complete, my folders organised for a couple of hours’ work on Monday, so that I am ready for teaching on Tuesday. I can forget work for two days. Amanda is meeting a friend to walk Tia, so I have settled in my office chair, logged in to the Naxos muxic library with my Isle of Wight Library card, and have enjoyed an hour and a half of reading.
As often happens, although nothing leapt out at me from the cover of the current edition of the review, every article I’ve read so far has been engaging. The opener is a review of Bob Woodward’s recent book on the chaos of Trump’s presidency, Fear: Trump in the Whitehouse. It is difficult to know what there is to be said about Trump’s reign of confusion and hatred that has not already become cliché. Even Woodward’s book has been so widely reviewed, trumpeted and quoted in the month since its publication that I feel I have already read it. David Runciman, in reviewing it, picks on the idea of office politics; the bickering of the mundanely selfish, and observes the extent to which the current American administration has demeaned the role of government in the United States.
Sure…all workplaces contain their share of plots and vendettas, backstabbers and arse-lickers, people on the way up and all the ones they’ve trampled on to get there. But actual politics is about more than that: the power it brings extends well beyond the immediate working environment…
Except, he concludes, in the reign of the great orange pastiche, it doesn’t. Trump does not understand the forces he is supposed to participate in and does not care. His only tools of government are extemporised pronouncement, self-acclamation and hiring-and-firing. He has reduced government to something less, but we are all, Runciman included, struggling to find the correct image to explain the mess.
I had a strong sense that Trump reminded me of someone I had seen regularly on TV, but it wasn’t TV’s Donald Trump. Then I got it. The working environment this White House brings to mind is a reality show that displays a deeper level of truth by being entirely unreal. Woodward’s book reads more than anything like a mockumentary, and the person Trump most resembles is David Brent from The Office. He has the grating inadequacy, the knee-jerk nastiness, the comical self-delusion. But he also has something of the pathos.
The letters pages of the LRB are a slow-burn enthusiasm. I used to skip them, feeling that any pleasure they offered was of the voyeuristic, petty sort experienced by venturing below the line on online news websites. However, they are curated by the editors and are, as a result, always relevant to a regular reader of the publication.
That is not to say that a taste for pettiness goes long unrewarded. This issue, there is a further development – a reply to a reply – in the delightful feud between Rhodri Lewis, author of Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness, and Michael Dobson, who wrote an eviscerating review of that book in the LRB of September 13th. The editors of the paper are wise; they let these academic spats blossom for just long enough for both sides to get a few digs in and then draw a veil over them, so I suspect Dobson’s current letter will be the final say. He has used it well. Taste the vinegar:
Lewis closes by observing that ‘on two or perhaps three occasions I have been seated in close proximity to Dobson at the theatre,’ and he is generous enough to speculate that my apparent obliviousness of his presence may have been feigned out of politeness. I am sorry to have to report that my obliviousness was merely genuine. However, now that I have read Lewis’s letter and his book and seen his image on a dust jacket, it will be possible for me to ignore him in future every bit as politely as he could wish.
Or, to put it another way: “That’s you, that is.”
Pleasurable as this is, there are several serious letters in this issue that extend the topics of recent articles without descending into vitriol, erudite as that vitriol is. In particular, I was interested in the letter from Steve Balogh about the article Neanderthals, Denisovans and Modern Humans, by Steven Mithen from 13th September, which reviewed Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the new science of the human past, by David Reich. The original review had made an impact on me because of the force with which it made the case that racial distinctions between humans are scientifically meaningless, and the stress that modern genetic researchers are laying on this argument. Biology has a dark history of -sometimes deliberate; sometimes incidental- racist interpretation. Now, even well-intentioned work such as Reich’s is laid open to examination in moral and social, as well as scientific lights:
Earlier this year, Buzzfeed published an open letter signed by 67 scientists and scholars in the social sciences, law and humanities about Reich’s treatment of race…The signatories recognise ‘the existence of geographically based genetic variations in our species’, but argue that ‘such variation is not consistent with biological definitions of race.’ Their position is not that human populations ‘have no biological attributes in common’, but that ‘the meaning and significance of the groups is produced through social interventions.’
The article left me with a view of a much more varied and sunny history of human and proto-human interraction, in which the boundaries of species definition are less sharp than we might imagine: an analogue to the answers we all wish racial absolutists would learn about racial definitions. However, this, according to Balogh, might be a misinterpretation. I quote his letter in full:
Steven Mithen steps carefully around the issue of the fecundity of the offspring produced by couplings between ancestral hominin species (LRB, 13 September). The initial sequencing of Neanderthal DNA was of mitochondrial DNA, which is passed only from mother to daughter. It proved to be entirely distinct from that of Homo sapiens: there is today no one on earth whose mitochondria comes from a female Neanderthal ancestor. This means that interbreeding produced fertile offspring only through mating between Neanderthal males and Sapiens females. Subsequent analysis of autosomal DNA showed that the Neanderthal Y chromosome went extinct as well. This means that of the hybrids, only the females were fertile.
The implications are clear: relations between the two populations must have been difficult.
Nevertheless, the developments in DNA archeology are rapid and fascinating. It is an area of study with which I want to keep up. We are a long way from truly understanding what it is to be human, and this new technology has a lot to teach us and a potential for misuse of which we need to beware.
It’s all about race, and its underlying impulse, hierarchicalism. All the mess of Trump’s misrule, and the broader darkness of capitalist inequality, come back to the separation of humanity into groups enjoying legitimacy and dominance and others excluded from that illusory social fortress. Two very different articles highlight this. The first is an account by Thomas Laqueur of a tour of Montgomery, Alabama, focussed upon the new Legacy Museum, a project of the Equal Justice Initiative. The second is a short, coldly angry article by Francis FitzGibbon about the destructive effect of austerity-led misrule over the U.K. justice system, of which, more later.
The Legacy Museum catalogues the scale of the horror of slavery, both when it was the basis of the U.S. economy in a legal framework, and in its reinvention as an extralegal economic structure, skirting the boundaries of slavery’s abolition. I recommend clicking on the link in the previous paragraph. On its home page, there is this:
The Story: Slavery Evolved. To justify the brutal, dehumanizing institution of slavery in America, its advocates created a myth of racial difference. Stereotypes and false characterizations of black people were created to defend their permanent enslavement as “most necessary to the well-being of the negro” – an act of kindness that reinforced white supremacy. The formal abolition of slavery did nothing to overcome the harmful ideas created to defend it, and so slavery did not end: it evolved.
Lynchings served as the enforcement arm of a parallel state in the U.S., and, in a way, they still do, although that parallel state now has one of its most enthusiastic denizens in charge of the greater nation. The sheer scale of the terror is dizzying: 150 deaths in a particular incident (more people than died on Kristellnacht), three a week through the 1890s and one a week or more for decade after decade, and well into the civil rights era. But it is the deliberateness of this sustained failure to concede the wrongness of one racial identity’s power over another that repeatedly shocked me throughout Laqeur’s article:
Lynching – charivari at its most violent, a murderous popular enforcement of majority community values – has nowhere else in the world been employed for as long or as often as in the United States. There are incidences of it in some Central American countries with weak governments; it is now on the rise in India. But it is indigenous here. Before the Civil War whites were the primary victims, especially but not exclusively in the relatively lawless west. After it, close to 75 per cent of lynchings were in the deep South; more than 90 per cent of the victims were black…But the story of African Americans constitutes a special case. No other post-slave society turned to terror lynching to maintain white racial dominance.
And they were horrible murders, as well: the atavistic desire to make the outsider suffer and to revel in his, or her, suffering.
In a 1909 article called ‘Lynching, Our National Crime’, Ida B. Wells identified another, unassimilable strangeness: ‘No other nation, civilised or savage, burns its criminals,’ she writes. ‘Only under that Stars and Stripes is the human holocaust possible.’ Europe had not seen public burnings since the Spanish Inquisition and the burning of heretics after the Reformation. Racial terror was more than instrumental: the hundreds of carnivalesque burnings and hangings were ritually constitutive of the white South, a holocaust in its Old Testament sense. Lynchings were sometimes responses to primitive fears of the sort we usually connect to the early modern European witchcraft trials and medieval pogroms: Charlotte Harris was lynched in Rockingham County, Virginia ‘after a white man’s barn burned down’; three people were lynched because the white family for whom they were working claimed to have been poisoned; seven black people were lynched near Screamer, Alabama for drinking from a white person’s well.
There was always a pretext for the random murder of black people, then as now; often spurious sexual accusations, but, among the many other lies, rejection of a business offer or trying to vote seem to pierce the crazed patina of pseudo-moral outrage of the murderers, just as traffic stops by modern, poorly-trained and heavily armed police forces make us see through the lying generalisations about black American criminality. We should not believe, however, that these pretences were (or are) anything other than rationales for power, because the murderers didn’t (and don’t). They knew (and know) what they were (and are) doing.
The so-called Wilmington Insurrection was, in fact, a coup; whites, furious at the victory of a mixed-race coalition in a local election, started a rampage. At least thirty blacks – the EJI puts the number at sixty – were murdered. ‘North Carolina is a white man’s state and white men will rule it,’ the local paper announced. ‘No other party will ever dare to attempt to establish negro rule here.’
The rape pretext, like all the others, can be linked to slavery: a metonym for the white fear of blacks in revolt. In her 1911 memoirs, Rebecca Latimer Felton, a leading Southern advocate of women’s rights but an inveterate racist, made the link blindingly obvious: ‘Southern fathers and husbands’, she wrote, remembered the fear of slave insurrections during the Civil War, and were ‘desperate as to remedies’. ‘It is the secret of lynching instead of a legal remedy. It was “born in the blood and bred in the bone”, and a resultant of domestic slavery in the Southern states.’
The other aspect of this terror-dominance is the misuse of formal legal structures to embed inequality. While the U.S. has seen a steady decline in overall crime over several generations, the imprisonment of black men has become its own holocaust. Neither is this a new phenomenon.
The museum shows how the Black Codes passed by Southern states after the end of the Civil War to restrict the occupations, movements and wages of former slaves led to the rise of incarceration of blacks for petty crimes, partly as a result of their inability to pay fines for small infractions. It also documents the advent of black convict leasing, when prisoners were hired out to provide labour to private companies. It is not hard to see the present in that past, and some of the continuities are almost parodic. The notorious 19th-century Louisiana State Penitentiary is known as Angola after the sugar plantation on the same site which was worked by slaves before the Civil War; after the war it remained a sugar plantation but was worked instead by black convict labour. Those not needed on the plantation were hired out elsewhere. But unlike expensive privately owned slaves whose lives mattered, leased convicts were disposable. In bad years the death rate among leased prisoners was roughly equivalent to that in the labour camp part of Auschwitz.
The final article I read this morning, and the one that made me put down the LRB and decide to spend another morning blogging, was a Short Cuts piece by Francis FitzGibbon on the deliberate, catastrophic dismantling of public justice funding in the U.K. When I stopped working (as a teacher) in the criminal justice system, in 2013, the prison system was at something of a high point. Much was wrong with it still, of course, and the creeping privatisation bode ill for the future. However, the generation of prison officers whose attitudes had been formed in the anarchy and violence of the 1980s (known within the service as ‘the dinosaurs’) had, by and large, been removed, or been sidelined, to be replaced by educated, professionalised officers of commitment and understanding. Suicide, self-harm, violence towards officers and other prisoners, and even reoffending across all types of crime were as low as they had ever been. While Disney had made an expression of interest in the next round of privatisations, and G4s and Serco were defying their incompetence to hoover up more and more of the funds available to prisons, the New Labour government, for all its varied and manifest failings, had managed to keep a lid on the U.S. style marketisation of prisons in this country, albeit a shaky one.
Today, five years later, we are in a state that is probably as bad as the worst period of the eighties, although, with the collapse of principled journalism, you would hardly know it. Prison unrest and assaults against staff; suicide rates that indicate it is becoming a tolerated norm for prisons to suffer regular self-slayings; staffing levels that make the delivery of even basic safety, let alone meaningful activity serving towards rehabilitation a wistful memory: the horror mounts up, virtually ignored by society at large.
Unusually, though, in this political and social disaster, there is a clear culprit. I have been amazed by the continuing power of a particular Tory Minister: Chris Grayling. He is a base, incompetent ideologue, with his eyes firmly set upon the dismantlement of a working U.K. FitzGibbon, focussing upon the effects his criminal uselessness have had upon the courts system, more than on prisons, has this to say about his tenure as ‘Justice Minister’.
Criminal justice has long been a sandpit for policy-makers, with the political imperative being always to appear ‘tough on crime’. It would be unfair to blame one man for the present state of affairs, but for casual ineptitude no cabinet minister comes close to Chris Grayling, lord chancellor and justice secretary between 2012 and 2015…Prison budgets have been cut by about 30 per cent. Grayling stopped prisoners receiving books. He cut the numbers of prison officers. He hived a large part of the probation service off to private companies, several of which have performed poorly and have had to be saved from going bust by the taxpayer. His legacy is the violence and anarchy that reigns in many prisons today.
I have long loathed Grayling. I find it hard to believe that he was not taking bribes or, at least, working in partnership with organisations in whose interests it is to asset-strip the justice system, on the promise of later favours. Otherwise, why, for fuck’s sake? Why?
Trump, interspecies rape amongst early proto-humans, lynchings, political corruption: all these horrors make it sound as though I have had an uncomfortable and angry morning. Nothing could be further from the truth. In a time when the BBC bases most of its news on the press releases of American corporate lobbying companies and The Guardian is lost in a trap of protecting its writers’ London property interests against all political good sense, reading the London Review of Books gives me a slight reassurance that, on many issues, I am on track, at least in general terms. I am outside the LRB’s social and economic class: the subscription is barely within my means now that my hours at work have been cut, but the recognition that I am not alone in my preoccupations is an important pleasure for me.
Being as on-trend as I am doesn’t come easy, and this post is an example of that. Over the last couple of days, I have had an obsessive relationship with a rap album by the actor and rapper Riz Ahmed. For a little while, I thought I had discovered a hidden gem, but it turns out that it is, in fact, two years old and has even been reviewed in Newsweek.
No matter. I love it, and this blog is about things I love. First, though, I need to indulge in a little self-justification.
For many years, I have sought serenity in music, rather than challenge or enlightenment. My escape from the depression and desperation of my twenties and thirties caused a change in my musical tastes. Rock, pop and dance gave way to classical, jazz and (my secret shame) lounge electronica. Ideas are there, at least in the classical and jazz, but they are behind the music, giving rise to it, for the most part; not written into its performance.
Hip-hop and its descendants have had hardly any impact on me. I used, sometimes, to listen to Trevor Nelson on Radio 1 when I was delivering pizzas in the year after I graduated from university, and, I bought Dre Dre’s 2001 in a burst of curiosity after hearing it played by colleagues when I ran a warehouse office, but my feelings about it mirrored the summary on its Wikipedia page: “2001 received generally positive reviews from critics, many of whom praised the music although some found the lyrics objectionable.”
I was a taxi driver in Portsmouth when Dizzee Rascal’s album Boy in Da Cornerfilled radio with a convincing British rap voice. I was paying off a deep swamp of debts then, though, and living in insecure housing, so buying music was a rare luxury. When I did go to gigs or copy a CD off a mate, it was with a group of students I’d worked with before I got my taxi license, and they favoured the bland brit rock of the time – Snow Patrol, Elbow and Muse – , or the type of American rock that I imagine was what U.S. army tank crews listened to as they shelled villagers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and targeted Arabic journalists: Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Foo Fighters, Green Day, but not Blink 182, whose fifth album, for reasons I cannot now imagine, I broke my self-imposed austerity to buy. Jungle, Dubstep, Drum ‘n’ Bass, Grime; these were for young people living metropolitan lives, and I was no longer young, and was stuck in a provincial city where local radio playlists ruled. Years later, for a year or two, working in the virtual campus in Camp Hill Prison, I was surrounded by young men for whom music was rap, Grime and their subsets, leavened with a little R&B. It was the people who excited me, though: their stories and attitudes, resentments and hopes. The music they championed left me cold, and feeling excluded. I realise the irony of this.
So, I enjoyed the grime I heard on the radio, but I didn’t take it to heart or listen to it in a way that brought it alive to me. Similarly, although I used to occasionally listen to the BBC Radio Asian Network when the taxi I hired had a DAB radio, and was quite a fan of DJ Nihal for a while, I have not really followed the influence of British Asian voices on pop music. I am too old for the anger and lust and demonstrative introversion of pop music now: the season of semen and sin has passed for me, and the pop and rock music that does reach me all sounds so alike, so much a variation on half-a-dozen repetitive themes, that none of it rises above the status of background noise.
Via an interview with him on The Daily Show (for which you’ll need a VPN service unless you’re in the United States) I came across Riz Ahmed’s music, released under the name MC Riz. He and Trevor Noah discussed his first released track, Post 9/11 Blues, which was banned in the U.S.
I searched for him and found he had two albums on Bandcamp. Neither included this track, but I streamed the more recent one and was mesmerised. I paid a fiver, downloaded it, and put it on my little music player, then I took the dog for a walk and listened through the album. I came home, plugged the music player into the kitchen speaker, and played the album through again as I cooked supper. This morning, the first thing I wanted to do was to play it through again.
It’s called Englistan. I’ve embedded it at the top of this page. If you haven’t clicked play, do so now.
n.b.: I’ve transcribed the lyrics in the quotes below as I hear them. I may have made errors.
The album – he calls it a mixtape – is a series of meditations on the pressures of identity. Specifically, he is concerned with the conflict between his Englishness and his identity as the child of Pakistani immigrants.
Since we were small/we’ve been taught a certain way to be is law/It’s deep-seated, like genes are for/”My son, our people came to these shores/with nothing/honour is all we brought/so keep your culture/keep the thought, son”/Last of the Mohicans talk/Since we felt like outsiders/this helped define us/and we made it our choice/but now, I’m just confused/half-Mohican, half-cowboy/Cos life slips/ideas mix/Is it best of both/or two lives I live?
For a white, provincial, middle-aged man like me, for whom mass culture pretends to speak, it is difficult to imagine the specifics of such a situation. Again and again, Riz’s lyrics are revelations.
‘Scuse me moosh/Pardon me/nah, don’t mind me/I’m usually lost/hard to see/…the usual crop of wannabes/all get in the way/hiding me from public view/I’m not included/in any scene as a useful unit/Hybridity gets low YouTube hits…Paki till I drop/UK till I lose it/Never fitting in/Let the beat prove it
However, While that is a central issue, it is only one element in a rich set of themes, and much of the result is broader and more universal than just Asian representation, important and credible as that concern is. The title track, and the first one on the album, sounds, at first listen, as though it mocks Englishness. The chorus says…
God save the Queen/now she ain’t mates with me/but she keeps my paper green/Plus we are neighbours see/On this little island/politeness mixed with violence/This is England
This is not a specific view. Even on the Isle of Wight, his list of grievances about the sheer awfulness and sordidness of the state of England now resonate vividly.
Where the money you make/And the man you are/stand in opposites/so you drink too hard/Where the banks rob you/and the news is half the truth/wrapped up in boobs and arse/Pigs hit kids so/bricks hit windows/and the high street burns/with broken dreams and herb/Only thing you can’t find in Tesco/is that/and a sense of worth/
However, there is affection, and this line gripped me every time I played the song.
Is Britain Great?/Well, hey! Don’t ask me/But it’s where I live/And why my heart beats.
Isn’t that a central conflict in Englishness for all of us: the weary, stupid prejudice of English exceptionalism, constantly being pumped out at us against all evidence? I have felt this; what he says. This stupid myth of British ‘greatness seems to me to be a national leg-iron, smothering the more realistic love that we feel for the idea of a national identity that is at the root of how we are aware of ourselves.
If Englistan had simply stuck to these themes, continuing to explore them, I think I would have found this a fascinating and enlightening album, but on the fourth track, Sunburst, Ahmed changes tack, to a far more personal topic.
I was caught out by this song. I was depressive for two decades, and it has left its shadows, although I rarely think, explicitly, about it now. Nothing that anyone says about depression is new: its mundanity is part of its cruel strength. It is a paper tiger; an ephemeral bully that, when it has you in its grip, feels all-powerful and inescapable. Ahmed tackles it head-on and comprehensively. Inertia, self-loathing, exhaustion and, centrally, the apparent uselessness of all the trite remedies that only work against despair when you are already through the worst of it, are muttered urgently through clenched teeth in just over four minutes. Through it, though, an R&B refrain repeats and builds the only remedy any of us can offer a depressive: reassurance.
I want you to know now/sunburst will soon come/after rainclouds
Riz duets this chorus with the guest singer, Tawiah between two verses of bleak descriptive rhyming, then there’s a break, and he sings a final verse of brave, common-sense defiance and advice.
First things first/don’t beat yourself up/it makes things worse/It’s not your fault/it’s all just chemical/You’re not a prick/You’re sick/it’s medical…You’ll ride it out and then you’ll laugh/Please believe that this too shall pass
Behind this verse, Tawiah’s voice gradually comes to the fore, repeating the reassurance. I’ve not found it easy to get to grips with R&B voices, but her lovely, emotive, crying voice is used perfectly here.
I was impressed by, and drawn to, Ahmed before I got to this track: I felt close to him after I had heard it.
In the next track, A Few Bob, Tawiah features again. This is the first song to use a narrative structure to carry its theme. Bob, a hapless everyman, is caught in debt and the financial crash. Tawiah sings:
When the house of cards/comes falling down/I’m left holding the joker/Did we come so far/for it all to fall down?/I gave you my dreams and you broke them.
Incidentally, last night Amanda and I went to a screening of a film about the NHS selloff, whose most shocking revelation was the degree to which the dismantlement of the U.K. state has been planned by American corporations and their treasonous British lackeys. This song reflects the fact that young people, who don’t share my lingering delusion in the fundamental decency of the British order, have been perfectly aware of this treason for years.
I didn’t mean this to be a track-by-track review of the album, but each song is compelling in a different way, building on what has come before without repeating. I wanted to talk about the production, which is as much a part of my fascination with Englistan as the vividness of the brilliantly observed lyrics. The electronic music is cold, restless and often disruptive, playing a part in the dramatic structure of the arguments or stories the songs tell. Much of it is in minor keys; the musical theme of the title track is one of the few obviously Asian-influenced segments: a looped phrase of, perhaps, bansuri? My ignorance shames me. I know hardly anything about Indian music, and just as little about how electronic music is produced. I assume it’s all done on Cubase on a Mac.
In other tracks, there are string duets and acoustic guitar trills, echoing, to my ears, Philip Glass or Max Richter minimalist loops. On Sunburst, this is reflected in an atonal opening theme, and the song is punctuated by anxious organ tones and percussive bell strikes until what sound like harp arpeggios lay a suggestion of hope and optimism over the darkness. However, it is on the penultimate track that the modern operatic voice comes to its powerful conclusion.
Benaz is theatre as song. Ahmed’s comic acting chops shine in the final track, I Ain’t Being Racist But…, but in Benaz, it is pure, sincere acting. It is a poem-play about the murder of Banaz Mahmoud, an Iraqi-Kurdish refugee who fell in love with an Iranian Kurdish man and was killed by her father and uncle. The true story has been sensitively and exhaustively documented in a 2012 film, Banaz: A Love Story, which, I warn you, makes hard watching. Ahmed’s rendition of the story is an imagined one, and it is beautiful. He takes her experience and makes it day-to-day; how inescapable young love is, even in the context of a life lived subject to tyranny; especially when the love is the only apparent hope of an escape from that tyranny. It is Romeo and Juliet set in pebble-dashed Greater-London terraces and fluorescent-lit Tesco Metros, with the hope of escape represented by woodland and wet grass. Woven through it is the dance of cello and violin, acoustic guitar and restrained electronic chords that heighten the tension.
It should be a story of unrelieved defeat. That it is not is thanks to a refrain sung by Ayana Witter-Johnson. It seems trite typed below, but, in context, it is gorgeous.
If I knew I’d live in shame/Just to be near you/I would do it all again/I would do it all again.
But even with that redemption, it is impossible to escape that this is the story of a reckless, stupid, ugly and bitterly cruel crime against a gentle, kind and brave young couple. Banaz Mahmoud and her lover, Rahmat Suleimani, are in my prayers, as is her braver-than-brave sister, who now lives her life in hiding.
Part of the discomfort of the film about Banaz is the way in which this family and community tragedy became a political theme and then a racist trope. This is expressed baldly in the final track of Englistan, a satirical monologue without music, in the voice of an archetypal (although unconvincingly literate) white supremacist ranter. It is funny, but it is also a catalogue of despair, especially in the context of all that has come before.
In the Newsweek interview to which I linked at the opening of this post, Riz Ahmed is quoted as saying,
I describe it as a love letter to modern Britain, which is multicultural Britain…A lot of people feel like they’ve been jilted by their country recently, or alienated, or wronged. Their country has cheated on them in some way in the past couple of years…Love letters do sometimes contain complaints.
What he has done, for me, is to describe his and my country in terms stripped of all the comforting bollocks: all the mythopoeic fog that is constructed to preserve a privilege-zone of hierarchical certainty for a subset of English identity. I love my English culture, but I know just enough history to understand that culture is not fixed: we remake it every day, and that is a beautiful thing, if we acknowledge the vitality of our variety as a national group. The idea of a fixed and unchanging England, that has been ‘betrayed’ by change is a lie, and it is a lie that hurts us, belittles us, makes us sordid and stupid.
I am a long way from my areas of authority writing about rap, and about British Asian voices. I have approached this review as a fellow-Briton, in admiration for a work of art that has gripped my imagination and touched many of my concerns. If I have said anything stupid, made any dad-mistakes while writing about an artform about which I have barely any education beyond the research I did for this post, forgive me. I mean only respect for an album that has lit the past few days for me, doing what art should always try to do: opening up the world for me, touching something within me and, ultimately, enlightening me.
On Saturday 6th October, Isle of Wight SaveOurNHS are having a free screening of the film ‘Groundswell’, directed by John Furse. It will be at Quay Arts and will begin at 6pm. John will be answering questions after the screening. A trailer for the film is available to view here
I meant to sit down and write a books post today, but I have been distracted, and in the most enjoyable way.
Last Christmas Eve, I mentioned in a post that I love the album ‘An Evening With Bach‘, by the American early music ensemble, Voices Of Music. Since I made that post, they seem to have revamped their website, because it now hosts a video playlist of over 130 high definition videos of their recordings. Sadly, Schlummert Ein, the aria from the cantata Ich Habe Genug, that I love so much, is not among them, but you can listen to it here, if Magnatune’s website is behaving, which it often is not.
Another find today was the libretto of the cantata, which is here. Knowing the aria so well, I felt a sense of familiarity: the meaning of the German poetry, which I did not understand, seemed to have already formed itself in my love of the music. The first aria, Ich Habe Genug, will linger as a favourite poem, I think:
It is enough.
I have held the Saviour, the hope of all peoples,
In the warm embrace of my arms.
It is enough.
I have seen him,
My faith has impressed Jesus on my heart;
Now I wish this very day
To depart from here with joy.
The video posted above is of Dido’s Lament, from Dido and Aeneas, by Henry Purcell. The recording of the opera I favour is the 2008 CD featuring Simone Kermes, which appears to have had a reissue last year, with a moody new cover image. I prefer the earlier one.
Anyway, just for comparison’s sake, I’ve embedded a copy of Kermes’ performance below. I didn’t choose the picture, BTW.
Entirely unrelated to her corsetry, I think Kermes has a remarkable, unique voice, and her phrasing seems to me naturalistic in a way very few operatic singers achieve. Thanks to Dido and Aeneas, I have become a fan, and have bought the CD of her recording of Blood Wedding: a setting of Lorca’s play by the Danish Composer Hans-Erik Philip. It is beyond lovely. A highlight is embedded below.
Anyway, all this fanboyishness doesn’t take away from my enthusiasm for Anna Dennis’ performance with Voices of Music, which I think is spectacular, particularly as the orchestration is probably much closer to what the seventeenth century audiences at the court of Charles II would have heard. I’d encourage you to click on the link to Voices Of Music’s website, and let their videos play through good speakers. Look out for David Tayler’s lute performances and, in particular, his accompaniment to Phoebe Jevtovic Rosquist’s effortless performance of John Dowland’s Flow My Tears (Lachrimae). It’s another beloved piece of music that this remarkable group give new life.