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Maria

Books, books, books

by Maria on December 2, 2017

Around November, I declare a ban on any new/borrowed books and try and finish all the books I’ve started that year. Slow-going, this year, as I was for some reason unable to read for much of October and November, and lots of the unread pile is non-fiction. Anyway, some highlights of the year, below. Another post to follow on what’s on the Christmas list.

A book that lingered in mind long after I’d finished it was Laline Paull’s fascinating The Ice (The Bees is still one of my favourite books of the last decade, and I pressed copies of it into two more people’s hands this year.) The Ice is set in the very near future, about the friendship between two men who each want to save the last bit of the Arctic. The chapters begin with excerpts from the memoirs and letters of others who have been obsessed with Arctic exploration, drawing out the historic roots of our drive both to explore and exploit.

Recently I listened to a LRB Cafe event podcast with China Mieville from about 2014. He mentioned something about “…extruded-literary fiction product which is about the calm, chapter by chapter decoding of a never very mysterious metaphor to clarify what life is a bit like, and the book ends with a ‘yes, that’s so true’, that is very wise’.” We all pretty much know what that is, when we see it. I can’t be the only one hungry for novels about politics, money, the environment, the movement of people and surveillance capitalism. Laline Paull’s The Ice grapples with several of these, and the world of work, which is quite rarely found in fiction, and the deals individuals make with themselves and the world they find themselves in, and whether we have any business holding onto hope. [click to continue…]

Saudi, Lebanon, Iran …WTF?

by Maria on November 8, 2017

That’s kind of it, really.

What on earth is this new Saudi prince thinking? That he can enlarge the sphere of the existing proxy war to fight and win a conventional war against Iran..? Despite vast spending, SA barely has an military – and no, buying lots of shiny weapons, equipping a few militias, renting mercenaries, and fighting a partial air-war in Yemen won’t much count against Iran if SA succeeds in picking the war it seems to so badly want. The rhetoric and posturing seem to go significantly beyond sabre-rattling for national unity. What can the game-plan possibly be?

If the Aramco thing isn’t going ahead, soon – clearly – then where will the $$ come from for all this?

And why make Hariri resign on the same day as the Saudi putsch? Was the plot against him real? And is he at liberty? (Slightly more than averagely curious as I very briefly met him, seven or eight years ago, with some Lebanese friends in Washington. Charismatic man.) And, oh gods, WTAF was the son-in-law of the US president doing, sniffing around just before all this?

What does the approaching end-game in Syria have to do with it all? Will Russia stay out of any widening of the Yemen conflict? And is anyone who sold SA its mountains of weaponry and aircraft and the people to operate them – God knows actual Saudis couldn’t be expected to do the heavy-lifting – feeling just a tingle of ‘oops’..?

Should someone leak those Brexit reports?

by Maria on October 29, 2017

Writing isn’t cathartic, though reading can sometimes be. Last week’s post about my disillusionment with the UK, a country wracked by its own wilful austerity and now taking out its pain on its immigrants, was taken to heart by many among the three million other EU citizens living here. I’m glad about that, because many of them felt that few people are expressing their sense of loss and anger. But I am especially struck by one comment; “Yes, but what about the duty of hope?”

The “duty of hope” is a phrase used by some involved in the Northern Ireland peace process to actively remind each other that at many (realistically, almost any) points along the way, it’s all looked disastrous, but that if they’d indulged in the perfectly rational feeling of hopelessness, they would never have gotten anywhere. Life goes on. It has to. So what’s next?

Anyone who has access to some or all of the UK government’s reports analysing the likely effects of Brexit on UK industry should consider doing what they can to get them into the public domain. The reports were commissioned by the government and contain materially important information the UK needs to help it decide what to do next. There is a massive public interest in learning what they say.

The government’s argument is that the information will weaken its negotiating position. I believe that argument is moot. The government’s negotiating position could hardly get any weaker. It has been weakened by the too-early triggering of Article 50, the calling of a disastrous general election, and by putting power over the process into the hands of parochially ignorant and ineffective ministers. If the government cared about the strength of its position, it would have developed a stronger one, and handled it better, tactically. Secondly, if the UK position is, to the few who know the worst, so fatally weakened by this information, then that information is too important for the country to remain ignorant of.

There are efforts already to get the information into the public domain. Freedom of Information requests have been made and denied. Questions have been put in Parliament. A petition by MPs has been submitted. All have been repelled. An attempt to force a judicial review of the compelled secrecy of the documents is ongoing. Occasionally, there are calls for whistle-blowing. [click to continue…]

Working to Rule

by Maria on October 23, 2017

“Not my circus, not my monkeys”.

That’s what I mostly say these days when asked about British politics. Up to about a year ago, I was an active member of a political party and involved in a fair amount of volunteering. I saw myself as being part of things, an enthusiastic party to the social contract. Those days are done.

I’ve been an immigrant in four different countries, and in only one of them did I ever feel at home. I used to tell this story about being a civil liberties lobbyist in the UK in the early 2000s. I’d go and do a briefing over tea and biscuits with some member of the House of Lords. They’d start a little in surprise at my accent, and then the meeting would go on as normal, with me offering talking points about the surveillance and police state as counter-productive in fighting terrorism. Then at the end, when the business of the meeting was finished and everyone relaxed and munched the biscuits, the peer would make a point of telling me how much they liked Ireland, had relatives there, had visited or wanted to, some day. As if they were saying “It’s ok for Irish people to lecture us on human rights and terrorism, now.” My story was about tolerance and civility, and how no way could an Arab have a similar meeting in Paris or Washington D.C.

Maybe it’s just as well we white, well-to-do professionals are getting the same stick other immigrants or minorities always have. The gloves are off. An Italian friend was accosted by two men in the cinema queue in Oxford and told to “go home”, for the crime of speaking Italian. (Because she’s a badass, she bought them popcorn and they didn’t know what to do with themselves.) A woman I met last week was abused in the street for speaking Polish on her phone. I can pass until I open my mouth, and if I try I can sound fairly British. But I don’t want to.

Perhaps the UK only feels significantly nastier because it now treats white, middle class EU people more like how it treats the brown-skinned, less connected, less wealthy, or less likely to be able to kick up a stink people. My kind can still get a Guardian sad-face piece if the Home Office messes us around. We have our liberty and our voice. But can any of us say we know what is going on in, say, Yarl’s Wood detention centre, or that its secrecy, authoritarianism and arms-length contractual deniability are not the perfect conditions for institutional abuse? We’ve all heard that kind of story a dozen times, but can no longer even be arsed to say “never again”. [click to continue…]

Brad White, a friend of Crooked Timber, was home in Salt Lake City recently. His mother, Jackie White had suddenly died. It was a good death, as they go; Jackie went just as she raised a rather large G&T to her many friends.

As Brad tidied and settled Jackie’s affairs, he found stuffed at the back of a drawer an article she’d written. Going by the other documents it was with, he reckons it was written in the late 1960s or early 1970s. As far as we can tell, it was never published.

Here is some clear-eyed advice advice written for American women in the workplace, not long after the Mad Men era. Almost fifty years on, the gist of it is still relevant to many women in many more places. [click to continue…]

I screen, you screen…

by Maria on June 27, 2017

I can’t be the only person who gets horrible eye-strain and frequent migraines from looking at computer screens for many hours a day. But my job, in the physical sense, is basically reading screens and typing stuff into computers. Like so many of us.

Then there’s the generalised version of the ‘spending too much time reading crap on Twitter’ problem, which is a total time-sink and makes me aggravated and unhappy.

These are two distinct but also connected issues. Stuff I’ve considered/tried includes:

Turning off the router at night and only turning it on again in the morning a couple of hours into actual work. Other household members can find this annoying. (Understatement)

Looking for a word-processing only machine – but they’re all extremely old and have tiny screens.

Reviving an old laptop and making it a non-connected machine. Helps with the Twitter problem, but not with the migraines.

Writing by hand and inputting later. Good for shorter stuff, extremely tedious in longer doses.

Keeping the lightness setting on my laptop squintingly low. Helps with the headaches, not the Twitter.

Using an unconnected machine for long-form. I always crack.

Freedom or other such programmes. I always crack.

Feeling that as kindles and such can be read without eye-strain, there must be some sort of work-devices that also can? But being unable to find one.

And so forth.

I mean, the overall problem is that we have little monkey (ok, ape) brains and love novelty and distraction and tiny yet sustained doses of social feedback, and also live in a wider techno-capitalist superstructure that wants to get and keep us addicted, etc. etc. And also that an inability to think long-ish and against the grain kinds of thoughts is, well, convenient to the maintenance of that type of economic set-up. I get that!

But I will take 100% responsibility for being so distractable if I can find a way to work without getting a fucking migraine at least every ten days that wipes out my ability to produce work for at least two days, each time. And is also no bloody fun.

So, this is clearly a bleg, but I figure many CT people struggle with this sort of thing, and any experiences/suggestions you have may find a grateful reception from many others.

Also, my back is completely banjaxed from it, but there’s yoga for that.

Signal to Noise

by Maria on June 6, 2017

On Saturday night, a couple of hours after the attacks at London Bridge and Borough Market, I was on the Tube carrying a suitcase and backpack, trying to figure out the best route home that avoided the closed stations. A South African guy was sitting nearby. He inveigled an Italian man opposite him into chat. Within two stops, the South African was teaching a British woman some dancing steps while the Italian sang them some weird, sloppy waltz, a couple clapped not quite in time, the woman’s friends recorded it in hope of a viral moment, and the rest of us acted like proper Londoners and looked slightly irritated while also pretending nothing was happening.

It was kind of a nice moment, being light-hearted and international and the kind of thing we all say is so very London. The woman soon gave up in embarrassment and sat down in a trill of supportive giggles from her friends. The Italian got off and reminded us to get the very drunk South African as far as Collier’s Wood. With the state of him, though, he’s probably still sleeping it off at the end of the line in Morden.

On Sunday night, I checked email for the first time in two weeks and responded to a media request on Theresa May’s suspiciously prompt statement that the attacks were due to US tech firms providing “safe spaces” to terrorists. She’s made a career out of cutting police resources while increasing their powers. I guess this makes sense on some collectively sub-conscious level, like an anorexic I once knew who baked endlessly and gave it all away. [click to continue…]

Freedom of the City

by Maria on May 12, 2017

Two nights ago, I got back from a work-dinner, kicked off my heels in the hall and hung up the smart jacket that went with them, pulled on docs and a coat to walk the dog. Which is worse; a half-mile walk in a too-tight dress now, or a long-cold shit on the kitchen floor in the morning? Walk it was.

Half way round the walk – which has gradually lengthened from ‘don’t stop walking right after the dog shits because he’ll learn to hold it in to maximise the walk’ to ‘sod it, may as well do the mile’ – the lolloping pace of the docs, the cool and the dark, and a sudden realisation that with a medium to large sized dog I feel somewhat impervious – it came to me. I felt free. Free in a way I haven’t felt since Jerusalem in 1996, I think it was.

Rolling back a little. My first ever holiday alone. The Greek Islands. Black sands of Santorini, a night spent sleeping on the deck of a ferry and waking up with the sun. Actually, that’s all I can remember. After Santorini I couldn’t take any more of all the same and got a flight to Israel to do some real traveling. I got there a day or two after Benjamin Netanyahu had won his first election. I saw him on the street, actually, in the middle of a dozen or two people bowling along the pavement, then careening from the footpath to cross the street and spin back again, like primary school boys in a moving melee around the ball.

I stayed in a youth hostel somewhere central-ish in Jerusalem.

“Hi Mum,” I couldn’t resist calling home. No point being a rebel unless you let the establishment know. “Guess where I am.”

She couldn’t, so I told her. There may have been a sharp intake of breath on the other end, but history doesn’t relate. History does relate that on the out-breath she said; “Oh you must look up Declan Meagher. He delivered you all and he runs the maternity hospital in Bethlehem, now.”
[click to continue…]

Back, Sack and Crack

by Maria on May 12, 2017

This morning, Milo had his third professional grooming session. The first was a disaster. The salon we took him to thought they knew better than the universal wisdom of Samoyed owners, which is to brush first, then shampoo. Reverse the order, and brushing becomes impossible for, oh, about three months, till the matted undercoat grows out. He came home looking like a sheep who’s been too liberal with the Brylcreem, but instead of comely ripples of fur flowing down his back he had a mogul-field made of clumps of three-inch thick dog-felt.

The second time was pretty good. A woman parked outside and ran a power-flex into the house. Milo leapt into the van and sprang out a couple of hours later looking like a pompom. In the meantime, though, his yowling and weeping could be heard through both the van door and the front door and all the way back to the kitchen. When I went to get him, the inside of the van was covered with so much white fluff it looked like a candy floss drum right before the stick goes in.

Third time round, we went with the van-lady again. We have builders in. (Actually, we’ve had them in since January 2016. Work slowed down a LOT in the summer when the best one went home on a family visit and was press-ganged back into the army to go and fight in Donetsk. Allegedly.) When the van arrived and backed into the back-garden, the builders did the whole manly thing of waving it in and holding the gates, issuing a stream of instructions in loud Ukrainian. The Portuguese-speaking groomer found it very helpful.

Then we all had five or so minutes of trying to catch Milo and calm him down as he pinballed around the house and garden, dodging (mostly) power tools and ladders. At one point he stopped suddenly and tiptoed like a Lipizzaner out of the kitchen to hid behind the door, probably on the logic that if he couldn’t see us, etc. etc. Eventually, we got him into the van. The lamenting began and I went back to work upstairs. [click to continue…]

Just meat following rules

by Maria on May 2, 2017

Seminar on Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway

Recently, someone who works in an adjacent field was described by a friend as having been radicalised. It’s an odd verb, that, radicalised; to be made radical. It sounds almost as if it happens without agency. To have all the depth, complexity and contradiction in your understanding of human life boiled away, leaving the saltiest essence, crystallised on the bottom of a burnt saucepan. That would take some extreme heat, you would think.

Here’s what apparently happened to this guy. He published a book about competition. Part of it looked at search engines. Talking about the book soon after it was published, his tone was, by my friend’s account, pretty even-handed; full of ‘on the one hand, we need new ways of thinking about monopolies that aren’t just based on immediate consumer harm’, and ‘on the other hand, we get lots of nice shiny things from this free – to consumers – service’. But things started happening. Pieces got spiked. When he wrote about the issues, the company would complain, or insist on a right of reply, either directly or via proxies. And when he spoke in public, there was usually a paid stooge in the audience. [click to continue…]

UK GE17 Open Thread

by Maria on April 18, 2017

Well in fairness, it hardly feels like summer is coming unless there is a massive, polarising electoral campaign in the UK.

On watching the PM call the election, issuing the death knell for Labour – a sentence the party is only to happy to carry out on itself – I had the same grim satisfaction I remember from boarding school, when the head-nun blasted apart a girl we all knew was innocent. We all stood in a semi-circle around the weeping victim of the precision tongue-lashing and watched as we’d been instructed to, sympathetic, appalled but also weirdly thrilled. Not by the spectacle itself, but by a grim gladness that even the pretence of even-handedness had finally been dropped. The bully in a habit was no longer acting otherwise. There’s always a next victim, and a next one, and in that place, the subsequent victim was me (public verbal demolition AND a face-slapping – from a great height, you fall a long way), but I can’t deny there was satisfaction, then, too.

Let’s watch this nasty show play out as what it really is.

World Poetry Day Redux

by Maria on March 21, 2017

Five years ago, Ingrid wrote a post here for World Poetry Day. Many of CT’s commenters took her up on the invitation to “post poems, with or without translations, of our own making or borrowed from someone else.” The thread was one of the most remarkable we’ve ever had, including people’s favourite poems, own poems and own translations, and in several different languages. Here it is: Poems to Celebrate World Poetry Day.

Poetry can be so nationally-bounded, it’s always good, and quite revealing, to find other people’s geniuses. It often seems to travel abroad with a delay of a few decades, even between quite closely aligned cultures. For example, I’ve only seen Mary Oliver sold prominently in the UK in the past few years. Well known to many Americans, this one of hers is a jewel box of image and emotion, and continues to be both revelation and consolation to me.

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

In Good Hands

by Maria on March 16, 2017

You know that feeling about fifty pages into a novel you can tell you’re going to get along with? When you’re confident the various elements – character, plot, style – are going to be handled well, and the material is the right mix of familiar and challenging. When it’s about things you just find interesting. It’s quite a rare feeling, as an adult reader. It’s a call back to the cocooned and all-encompassing stimulation in the embrace of the books William Gibson calls a person’s native literary culture. That mix of feeling held and also working quite hard at it, but happily so. I had it recently, reading Becky Chambers’ The long way to a small, angry planet*. It was such a strong feeling that I took a pencil to write ‘in good hands’ in the margin.

I had the ‘in good hands’ feeling by page three of Too Like the Lightning (TltL). It begins at a brilliantly chosen moment of crisis that introduces great characters on the horns of a dilemma that underpins the story; how does a studiedly irreligious society cope with a miracle? TLtL also has a sweet boy, both old and young for his age, with an utterly magical power. Bridger can make objects or drawings real, be it into living creatures with all the characteristics of ensoulment, or horrifying abstract concepts with the ability to end the world. [click to continue…]

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One fine day

by Maria on January 21, 2017

Women's March London, 21 January 2017

Your opponents would like you to believe that it’s hopeless, that you have no power, that there’s no reason to act, that you can’t win. Hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to throw away. And though hope can be an act of defiance, defiance isn’t enough reason to hope. But there are good reasons.

Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes – you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the uncertainty of both optimists and pessimists.

Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Darkness, 2005/2016

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. Hope gets you there; work gets you through.” James Baldwin (quoted in Solnit).

Fellowship carries many through the long years when faith is in doubt. A political struggle like the one many now face needs equal parts work, hope and fellowship. Hope and fellowship alone won’t suffice, but oh, how badly we needed them. The worst (yet) has happened. Now we can begin.

Happy Christmas, Timberteers

by Maria on December 25, 2016

milo-xmas-2

Milo sends best wishes from London to all the CT gang. OK, whatever, he’s a dog. He’s only eaten three or four baubles and so far today is more or less continent.

Wishing everyone who’s part of CT a great Christmas, Hannukah, holidays and all the rest of it.

Bit of a weird one, this. I can’t quite find it in myself to write ‘happy New Year’ on everyone’s cards as who knows what’s in store, and the very things that made 2016 so disastrous will make 2017 … oh, well.

Here’s another dog picture.

milo-xmas-3

Be more dog, guys. Be more dog.