Category Archives: Essays

The Silence of Bystanders – Auschwitz

Auschwitz did not fall from the sky. [Marion Tunki, survivor]

Anyone who has visited Auschwitz-Birkenau must ask themselves, how was this allowed to happen? You view the piles of suitcases, shoes, hair, glasses, gas canisters and ask how could it happen that 1 million people died in this camp?

Anyone who follows the tweets of @AuschwitzMuseum sees family photographs of ordinary people, children, women, men, and reads the brief account of what happened to them. They too will wonder how it was possible. Here’s an example from Sunday 30th January 2022:

30 January 1937 | A French Jewish girl Nicole Blausztajn was born in Paris. She arrived at #Auschwitzon 19 August 1942 in a transport of 997 Jews deported from Drancy. She was murdered in a gas chamber together with 896 people.

Nicole Blausztajn

I asked such questions when I visited Auschwitz in September 2017. Similar questions are posed by Piotr Cywiński, the Director of the Auschwitz Museum, reported in an article in the Guardian on the 77th Holocaust Memorial Day on 27th January. You can read the article ‘The biggest task is to combat indifference’: Auschwitz Museum turns visitors’ eyes to current eventsby Shaun Walker by following the link.

Is the world becoming [more?] indifferent to the suffering of others, and the mass horrors imposed by regimes on minorities? In Yemen? The Uyghurs? LGBT+ peoples? People of Colour? Refugees? 

Auschwitz

The Silence of the Bystanders

I am a historian and seek to understand the events of the past. I was a history teacher, believing that it was my responsibility to help young people understand events in the past and be able to speak out about them as they should. I am a citizen of the world and of Europe and I believe that it is our duty as citizens to keep our mouths open (a maxim ascribed to both Aristotle and Gunter Grass).

One of the most poignant sights of the final months of the war was of local people, at Belsen-Bergen I think, being required to visit the camp, situated in Germany, unlike Auschwitz, and to bury the many, many corpses of those who had died there and been left unburied. At Belsen camp nurses were required to wash patients at the camp after it had been liberated. No doubt they were reluctant to carry out these tasks, but someone was thinking that they needed to know what had happened to the victims. Bystanders must confront their participation.

Doris Clare Zinkeisen 1945, Human Laundry IWM Art.LD5468

The BBC radio broadcast by Richard Dimbleby, his account of driving into Belsen with the Allied troops on 19th April 1945, is still powerful every time you hear it. You can still listen here.

I cannot remember when I first learned about the Holocaust. I grew up after the war, in fear of what men could do to other people, in the shadow of Hiroshima and the Holocaust. Our generation wanted to be sure such things would never happen again. ‘Lest we forget’ say the war memorials. But it appears that we do forget. Some of us forget.

Let us use whatever means we have to remind ourselves and others, to be sure that we do not allow bystanders to be silent or ignorant of such atrocities in the future. Some will respond to films, such as Schindler’s List, or Sophie’s Choice. I have read criticism of the Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and its use in schools because it distorts young people’s understanding of concentration camps and the reactions of local people to the camps.

Twitter accounts may capture the attention by featuring the individuals, the 6 million individuals who lost their lives.

Permanent memorials, as well as special days, can also draw attention to what must not be forgotten. I have visited the memorials in Vienna and in Berlin.

Vienna
Holocaust Memorial, Berlin, May 2014

And, of course, books.

And here are some non-fiction books. 

If this is a man by Primo Levi (1947). The Italian writer was a chemist, and this enabled him to survive the camp in Auschwitz, but he died in 1987, possibly by suicide.

Man’s search for meaning by Viktor Frankl (1959 English edition). Another survivor, a psychiatrist, who wrote about his response to being in the Auschwitz and other camps.

A Train in Winter: A story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival in Auschwitz by Caroline Moorehead (2011). 230 French women who were active against the German Occupation of France were sent to Auschwitz. Some of them survived, but many did not.

After such Knowledge by Eva Hoffman (2004). The daughter of survivors, a Jewish writer considers the effects on her contemporaries of the Holocaust.

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (1952 English edition), which revealed a life so brutally cut short, a childhood in Amsterdam and hiding as a young woman.

On not being silent bystanders

Auschwitz did not fall out of the sky. Bergen-Belsen did not fall out of the sky. The Holocaust did not fall out of the sky. They were the ideas of people who believed that it was ok to kill off ‘othered’ ethnic groups. And people stood by, in silence, and allowed them to do this.

We must speak out, reject silence, even if that is all we can do when people are oppressed.

Related Posts

Judenplatz, Vienna (March 2013)

Tales from the Vienna Streets (The Hare with Amber Eyes) (July 2013)

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (May 2018)

Bookword in Poland (Sept 2017)

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Filed under Books, Essays, Learning, Libraries, Reading, The Best Books for ...

Some books to help you through the night

As with many people, the pandemic has disrupted my sleep patterns. I often fail to go to sleep or wake at about 2.30am and can’t fall asleep again. I often read at that time (also listen to podcasts, or just fret). For these bouts of insomnia I like books of short stories, or with short sections. I am not trying to be bored to sleep but to occupy my restless mind. These three books have answered the need recently. 

  • Rose Macaulay: Personal Pleasures: Essays on enjoying life
  • Zora Neale Hurston: Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick
  • Marina Benjamin: Insomnia

Personal Pleasures: Essays on enjoying life by Rose Macaulay

Ideal for dipping into, Rose Macaulay presents sixty essays on a range of topics. She gives us something on Cows, Flattery, Hatching Eggs, Elephants in Bloomsbury, Heresies, Logomachy, Solitude, Reading, Writing and many other subjects. Some are short, less than a page, others much longer or with subdivisions. 

Notice the sub-heading: essays on enjoying life. What is on show is a writer who is confident that she has something to say, and that she can showcase her wit, her love of words and her erudition. She enjoys using arcane words and constructing them as well.

The lightness of touch reflects her position at the time: a respected and confident writer, in a steady if clandestine relationship, and earning enough from her writing to be independent. Personal Pleasures was published in 1935, and much was yet right with the world, or at least not yet of great concern in Europe (although there are several references to the Nazi Party and her objections to their policies and actions.)

Handheld Press has been responsible for reissuing many of her books, some of which I have reviewed on the blog (see below).

Personal Pleasures: Essays on enjoying life by Rose Macaulay, first published in 1935 and a new edition has been issued by Handheld Press (2021). I found the introduction and notes by Kate Macdonald to be invaluable.256pp

Related posts

Non-Combatants and Others: writings against war (1916) by Rose Macaulay

Potterism (1920) by Rose Macaulay

The Towers of Trebizond (1956) by Rose Macaulay

Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick by Zora Neale Hurston

This is such a good title, for it immediately conveys something to be considered, something unexpected. Besides it is much longer than most titles. Genevieve West, who collected and edited these stories, made a good choice there. And it matches the title of her best-known novel: Their Eyes Were Watching God.

The twenty-one stories in Hitting a Straight Lick are told in a mixture of phonetic colloquialisms or dialect and more conventional narrative style. You might imagine that they were difficult to read, but I soon got used to the rhythms of the voices.

Most of the stories feature Black people living in meagre conditions. The women have endless household chores to do while earning money at the same time. The men work in the docks, or in other industrial settings often in very low paid posts. The men woo women, often younger women who are newly arrived in their community, and they try to use violence to discipline and control the women to whom they are married. I enjoyed most the stories when the women get their own back. One character who appealed to me was Caroline Ports in The Country in the Woman. She had some amusing and innovative ways of deterring women from messing with her husband. Here’s the best example:

Delphine Hicks – Caroline had waited for her beside the church steps one First Sunday (big meeting day) and had thrown her to the ground and robbed the abashed vampire of her underthings. Billowy underclothes were the fashion and in addition Delphine was large. Caroline had seen fit to have her pony make the homeward trip with its hindquarters thrust into Delphine’s ravished clothes. (197)

There is genuine tension in Sweat, a story about a man who provokes his wife with a snake. And some stories feature very human situations, such as the older man who marries a much younger wife only to find that his much-loved son and his wife fall in love in Under the Bridge

Zora Neale Hurston was born in Alabama in 1891 and raised in Eatonville, Florida. She died in 1960. Her grandparents had been slaves, but she made the best of new opportunities in the 20s and ‘30s. Her name is often associated with the Harlem Renaissance (along with Nella Larsen and Langston Hughes). 

There are some less appealing stories in this collection, but overall it has been a pleasure to share my waking hours with this innovative and witty writer.

Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick by Zora Neale Hurston, her collected short stories, first published together in 2020 by HQ (Harper Collins)Collected and edited by Genevieve West253pp

Related Posts

Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) by Zora Neale Hurston

The first two books were written around the same time but are sharply contrasted. In March last year I wrote a post for this blog on the theme of sleep. I included this slim and invaluable volume:

Insomnia by Marina Benjamin (2018)

Recommend by Deborah Levy:

A sublime view of the treasures and torments to be found in wakefulness. Entertaining and existential, the brightest star in this erudite, nocturnal reverie in search of lost sleep, is the beauty of the writing itself. 

This book sits on my bedside table and I continue to dip into its paragraphs and reflections on insomnia and sleep as required. 

Insomnia by Marina Benjamin, published by Scribe in 2018. 144pp.

You can find the post Sleep in Fiction by clicking on the link.

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Filed under Books, Essays, Reading, Reviews, short stories, Women of Colour, words

Books on the theme of Archaeology

I am lucky enough to live within a mile of an important archaeological dig that the University of Exeter has been exploring for several years. Detectorists discovered Roman coins and the dig began. The received wisdom – that the Romans did not establish themselves west of Exeter – was overturned. There is evidence of iron age living, of a Roman road (where was it going from and to?) and of occupation up to the early middle ages. And then the settlement moved. The village was abandoned and a new settlement established where our village now stands. 

Every year I go and visit the dig site, peer at the variations in soil colours, notice the markers, sometimes orange buckets, sometimes slips of paper, and try to picture people living on the site.

Sutton Hoo

Occasionally I read about archaeology. Next to our own dig I think the Anglo Saxon finds at Sutton Hoo ship burial (Suffolk) are the most engaging. A long time ago, before the National Curriculum, I used to teach my school students about Sutton Hoo, not least for its links with Beowulf. The finds are spectacular and the shadow of the ship in the mound is compelling. I have visited the displays at the British Museum more times than I can recall and plan to revisit the site of the curious mounds next to the river Deben next summer.

Here are two books related to Sutton Hoo, the first of which is a novel.

The Dig by John Preston 

The story follows the progress of the dig at Sutton Hoo in 1939. It is told in the first person by several key players: Mrs Pretty who owned the site, the first archaeologist Basil Brown, one of the professional archaeologists Mrs Piggott, and the boy Robert Pretty.

This structure of the novel mirrors a dig, as we slice through the incomplete telling of the stories of all their lives and find clues, some of which are never followed up. The gradual uncovering of the finds is well told through Basil Brown, an amateur employed by Mrs Pretty who is shoved aside by men with more class and education.

The novel reminds us that knowledge is always mediated through the time of its uncovering, in this case an Anglo Saxon king’s burial is seen in the context of the imminent outbreak of war. And we see how everyone’s story is partial, incomplete and above all unknown to others – especially the women’s. Mrs Pretty is mourning her husband, attending a medium for consultation, and Peggy Piggott is on her unsatisfactory honeymoon (sexless one imagines) and attracted to the photographer who happens to be Mrs Pretty’s nephew.

I enjoyed this book, but I wonder if I would have got so much out of it if I hadn’t known the story of the discovery and wasn’t so familiar with the artefacts.

The Dig by John Preston, published in 2007 by Penguin 230pp.

The Sutton Hoo Story: encounters with early England by Martin Carver

This is the account of the evidence and research into the site by the man who directed the most recent dig, published in 2017. All the mounds have been explored, all the evidence described, and all the theories examined. The context for the finds in England, but also in relation to Europe, is laid out. The author reminds us that no account can be final as archaeology is a dynamic study.

The Sutton Hoo Story: encounters with early England by Martin Carver, published by Boydell Press in 2017. 240pp

Essays

Archaeology has inspired creative non-fiction and none more exhilarating than this poet’s view. I was very pleased to come across this book earlier in the year. You can find the full review on Bookword (October 2019), here.

Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie

This is a collection of essays by a Scottish poet. Her themes include time and archaeology. Among other meditations she takes us on two digs, first in Alaska where a 500 year old village is being washed into the ocean. The Yup’iq people live in the village and still live off the land and sea. The dig links the people with their history and the finds extend beyond mere knowledge to influence young people in the village, and the villagers’ understanding of themselves and their past.

A second dig on Orkney also features a site under threat. At the Links of Noltland a large community created in stone is being uncovered, but funds will run out before they are able to  explore the full extent of the remains. Successive generations built on the foundations of the earlier settlements but the elements will take anything that the archaeologists cannot recover.

Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie, published by Sort of books in 2019. 247pp

Archaeology and more fiction

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss 

Set in the 1980s, Silvie’s self-taught father has dragged his family on a holiday to re-enact an iron age camp. The possibility of authentically living as our ancestors did is challenged, not just because living off the land proves difficult and is food supplemented by crisps and cola from the local garage. The beliefs and attitudes of the enthusiasts take on a very threatening aspect reminding the reader of our primitive origins. 

It is a short book, but written powerfully, and the prose develops a momentum, uninterrupted by speech marks or line gaps. There is a full post about this novel on Bookword (June 2019): here.

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, published in 2018 by Granta. 152pp

Agatha Christie

And of course the famous crime writer Agatha Christie was married to an archaeologist, Sir Max Mallowan and accompanied him on his digs in Nineveh and Syria and Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. Wikipedia refers to these novels, influenced by her archaeological experiences:

  • Murder in Mesopotamia (1936)
  • Death on the Nile (1937)
  • Appointment with Death (set in Jerusalem) (1938)
  • They came to Baghdad (1951)

Can you add any other books, fiction or nonfiction, that link to the theme of archaeology? 

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Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie

Sometimes you just know that you must own a copy of a certain book. I heard an extract and a strong recommendation on a recent Backlisted podcast and thought – that’s a book for me. I went as far as Waterloo Station to find it. And I bought it in hardback as it is the only edition currently available. I was setting myself up for disappointment. 

But I was not disappointed. The book contains a series of essays by the Scottish poet, Kathleen Jamie. It is a beautifully produced book, attractive cover, rich tactile paper and it contains some grainy but appropriate B&W photos. And the text is special too.

Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie

This was not a random shot in the dark attraction. I am interested in archaeology and history. There’s an annual dig a mile from where I live which is rewriting Roman history in the South West. The site appears to have been in occupation for decades, perhaps centuries, before and after the Romans came and went. It is still unclear why the village relocated in the early medieval period. But this is not what I want to write about.

And good writing is always attractive. As an esteemed poet Kathleen Jamie has brought her skill and craft to the natural world for some time.

What attracted me most to these essays was that she connected archaeological finds with the indigenous peoples who live next to the site today. She travels to Alaska to visit a site of an abandoned Yup’iq village which is being gradually washed away by the Pacific Ocean as a result of rising sea levels. The artefacts are in danger of being lost. 

At the end of the dig the archaeologists display their finds, everyday objects, to the villagers. She reveals that archaeology is a force to connect communities and affirm a community’s history. In this case the dig has exposed finds from 500 years ago, before Europeans ‘discovered’ America.

[…] I wandered round from table to table, eavesdropping.

‘And you’d pull the bow like this …’

‘A lamp! My mother had one.’

‘Nowadays we use synthetic sinew, ballistic nylon.’

I saw George, the water man. The last time I had spoken to him he had a map in his hands. Here he was again, but he’d swapped the map for his seal-hunting harpoon, which stood taller than he did. He was showing the students how his modern harpoon toggle compared to those of his Yup’iq forbears at Nunallaq [the dig site]. His was the same shape, same mechanism, but made of brass.

A lady came with a basket she had woven from beach grass. She was plump and wore a bright floral kuspuk and tracksuit bottoms. Her basket was bow-shape, a foot deep and decorated with stylised flowers in what looked like torn strips from an old polythene bag, but no, she said, it’s seal-gut, dyed. I saw her in earnest conversation with a PhD student who was studying the grass-work. (86-88)

Kathleen Jamie visits another archaeological site, this one in danger from lack of funding. On Orkney a large community, built over centuries from stone, is being uncovered, but funds will run out and the elements will destroy what remains. Successive generations built on the foundations of the settlement of others.

Similar themes are approached in different ways in other essays. The Reindeer Cave puts the reader by the poet’s side in a cave in the West Highlands.

You’re sheltering in a cave, thinking about the Ice Age. (1)

Her reflections on the aeons of time and our own world are thoughtful and lyrical. A short observation of an eagle in a landscape is another gem. For a longer meditation she takes us to her past in a Chinese village during difficult times. Her observations of the people in the guest house, the place they find themselves in, and the people whose world they are visiting, these are a delight. Like no writer I know, she links time and the land in ways that provide insight into the current environmental and archaeological crises. 

You can find admiration from another book blogger, who was already familiar with the work of this Scottish poet: dovegreyreader scribbles in September.

Surfacing Kathleen Jamie  (2019) Published by Sort of books. 247pp

And another thing: podcasts

Mentioned that my source for this book was a podcast. I have recently become more enthusiastic about these, finding them excellent companions for the washing up. This was largely a matter of working out how to access them from my ipad, which turned out to be very simple. 

The podcast I mentioned in the opening of this post featured Elizabeth Taylor and specifically her novel The Soul of Kindness. So my discovering of Surfacing was serendipitous. How lovely. You can find a link to the Backlisted website here: https://www.backlisted.fm.

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Women and Power: a manifesto by Mary Beard

I love the way that Mary Beard refuses to keep quiet, as people try to silence her through twitter trolling and snidey comments about her television appearances. But Mary Beard keeps on writing her best-selling history books. She continues to be a respected academic at Cambridge University. And she has not compromised on her appearance, refusing to colour her hair and to alter how she wears it. And now she steps into the feminist ring too with Women and Power: a manifesto.

The attacks on her are misogynistic. They are attempts to silence a woman. To deny her knowledge, intellectual capacity and expertise and to hide her from those who would celebrate her perceived transgressions.

Last Christmas I gave away several copies of Women and Power. I hoped to receive a copy in turn, but it was not to be. So I have only just acquired and read this short book.

Actually that’s not quite true. As a subscriber to the London Review of Books I read the first essay when it appeared in 2014. The second is still buried in my tbr pile of LRBs.

The Public Voice of Women

The first section is based on a 2014 lecture for London Review of Books. It explores the very deep roots of the record of men silencing women: The Public Voice of Women. She is a classical scholar so she begins with The Odyssey and the moment when Telemachus tells Penelope to shut up and go back to her quarters. She notes that it is a mark of his arrival at manhood. But it is also one of the first pieces of written evidence that show women denied the right to speak in public spaces.

She points out that some things have changed but that today when women are allowed to speak it is often on so-called women’s issues, such as childcare, or women’s reproductive rights or health. She argues that we need to explore how we speak in public, why, on what subjects and whose voice fits. And challenge this where necessary.

Women in Power

The second lecture is called Women in Power (2017). In this Mary Beard considers how frequently women have been denied power, or they are punished for trying to acquire it, and concludes that a more radical approach is required. Tinkering and gradual progress are unlikely to change the structures that exclude women. We need to change the structure. Power needs to be redefined, shared, not seen as a thing but as ‘an attribute or even a verb’.

She questions the idea of power and leadership as elite, coupled with public prestige and individual charisma. This idea is reinforced by the notion of power as a possession. And in all cultures power is associated with men.

On those terms, women as a gender – and not as some individuals – are by definition excluded from it [power]. You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male. You have to change the structure. That means thinking about power differently. It means decoupling it from public prestige. It means thinking collaboratively, about the power of followers not just of leaders. It means, above all, thinking about power as an attribute or even a verb (‘to power’), not as a possession. (86-87)

She makes pertinent references to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (serialised 1909–1916, first published in book form in 1979). In the country of Herland there are no men and power and leadership are exercised differently. The men who stumble upon this hidden civilization cannot believe that there are not men leaders hidden away somewhere. Time to reread this novel I think.

My experience

I once held a position of potential power. I was a secondary headteacher in inner London from the late 1980s. It was a time of immense change in education and schools, and I was horrified to come up against the misogynist behaviour of some teachers. I tried to lead by collaboration, but time and again there was confrontation and challenge. And when I went on to work on the new qualification for headteachers and at the University in School Improvement, I came up against traditional models of leadership (male) as the answer to school problems (think super-heads, think leadership college). It is hard to battle against strongly entrenched cultural ideas about power and leadership.

So I like the idea of trying to find new ways of sharing power in all spheres and challenging some very old structures and practices. It starts with being heard and moves on to structural change.

Women and Power: a manifesto by Mary Beard, published in 2017 by Profile Books. 116pp

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Rebecca Solnit and How to be a Writer

Rebecca Solnit is a writer I admire very much. She writes beautifully and she writes about important things: walking, hope, distortions in public life, feminism, and above all about the importance of having a voice. This theme runs through all her writing. You will find links to several posts that refer to her work at the end of this one.

About a year ago Lithub.com published How to Be Writer: 10 Tips from Rebecca Solnit. In every one of her 10 tips there was some wisdom and wit. If you are a writer you might do no better than read the original: here.

How to be a writer

I like to read books about writing, and books for writers. I like to read the advice of writers I admire, including Rebecca Solnit even if they say the things I have heard before, seen everywhere. Here are my responses to her tips:

Write and read

To be a writer you must write and you must read. Thanks also to Stephen King (1999) On Writing, Anne Lamott (1994) Bird by Bird, Francine Prose (2006) Reading Like a Writer and to many other writers. To write well you must write, write lots, write frequently, write more. And you must read, read recently published books and read from the past, read in your field and outside it, read for pleasure and to critique. Read.

Writing is more than typing

I love Rebecca Solnit’s claim that writing is more than typing because it gives me a reason to walk on Dartmoor or by the sea, to visit places, to talk to people about my writing and to practice my developing skills as a writer.

Remember that writing is not typing. Thinking, researching, contemplating, outlining, composing in your head and in sketches, maybe some typing with revisions as you go and then more revisions, emendations, additions, reflections, setting aside and returning afresh, because a good writer is always a good editor of his or her own work.

All those actions – 12 of them listed above – are necessary. I was involved in all of these this morning as I grappled with redrafting the opening scene of a short story. I related particularly to emendations, additions, reflections, and now the draft sits waiting for the next time I work on it, set aside.

Pay attention to your own feedback

Listen to your own feedback and remember that you move forward through mistakes and stumbles and flawed but aspiring work, not perfect pirouettes performed in the small space in which you originally stood.

Pirouettes indeed! But yes, and this is difficult, learning to listen to your own responses to you writing.

I read the sentence again and note the perfect rhythm of the sentence. And also that it perfectly captures the difference between learning to develop capacity and skill and learning to perform for a test or for popularity.

You need some time, some passion and a little joy

All writers know this, but it’s good to say it out loud, or to write it down:

It [writing] takes time. This means you have to find the time.

And you need to believe in what you are writing, so this requires passion and joy:

If you’re not passionate about writing and about the world and the things in it you’re writing about, then why are you writing?

Good question. And you need to bring the joy to bear when you might not feel up to the writing, when inspiration is lacking, and around you everything is depressing.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, and referring back to the importance of voice she says:

The process of making art is the process of becoming a person with agency.

The artist produces meaning rather than consuming it.

Thank you Rebecca Solnit.

And I shall be I the audience when you visit Bristol on 1st November 2017. Rebecca Solnit will be in more places in the UK around that time.

Some links

How to Be Writer: 10 Tips from Rebecca Solnit on Lithub.com

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit in January 2017

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit

Men Explain Things to Me and other essays by Rebecca Solnit (2014) Granta. I posted on Bookword about this book and mansplaining in May 2015

The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit, published by Granta, September 2017.

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Filed under Books, Books and Walking, Essays, Feminism, Writing, Writing and Walking

How Bookish People can have Hope in Dark Days

Powerful malign forces are about in the world, and they work to disempower us. Yet there are also strong alternative expressions of a more positive view of human lives. While some may feel they must hide away until the danger is passed, others are seeking to find ways to give impetus to the strong humanitarian, democratic and positive currents. There are bookish things to do.

It has been a dreadful 18 months

Since the political scene turned toxic about 18 months ago, when the Conservatives were re-elected in the UK to continue the austerity regime, it has felt more and more hopeless to stand against the reductionist and discriminatory agendas gaining ground in democracies. Reactions to migration across the Mediterranean, the vote in favour of leaving the EU, and then the election of Trump, despite his behaviour, all this has been nearly overwhelming. Almost, but not yet overwhelming.

I take heart from some bookish people who remind us that dark days do not equate with the end of hope. Let’s start with Rebecca Solnit.

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit

This book was originally written in the dark days of 2004, but has had some later additions in 2016 in response to more dark days. It is an important book for in it Rebecca Solnit suggests that without hope we are disempowered. No defeatism here! Hope implies the possibility of a better future, not one that will arrive simply by putting one’s head down and hoping for the best, but hope that indicates that action is required.

She describes some of the improvements that we now take for granted, such as votes for women, or changes in East Timor, or attitudes to LGBT lives. She reminds us that behind the imperfect victories in these areas have been movements of people, hundreds of discussions, oppositional acts, challenges, visions of alternatives, all the slow growth of the groundswell of opinion. The hope lay with Suffragettes and other supporters of women’s votes, with those who published stories of the atrocities on East Timor, and the campaigns to promote LGBT rights.

In order to keep hope alive we need to tell the stories of action, alternatives, truth when it is obscured. For me this means not accepting the new American administration press secretary Sean Spicer’s comments to the press, designed it seems to intimidate, about the attendance at Trump’s inauguration. Rather to look for evidence. Trump appears to have declared war on the press, and it seems to me that we must support them in prosecuting their trade: finding evidence, demanding Trump’s Income Tax returns, telling, as they say, truth to power.

But further than uncovering lies and misleading information (don’t forget that bus) we also need to tell stories of how it could be. Hope opens us up to the possibilities that we can work towards. Here bookish people, as well as the press, have a very significant role to play. There are both histories and fictions. History reminds us how far we have come and how. Fiction stretches the imagination, the future possibilities for humans.

Rebecca Solnit points out that this is not fast or direct action.

This is a model for how indirect effect can be, how delayed, how invisible; no one is more hopeful than a writer, no one is a bigger gambler. Thoreau’s 1849 essay “Civil Disobedience” finally found its readers in the twentieth century when it was put into practice as part of the movements that changed the world. (Thoreau’s voice was little heard in his time, but it echoed across the continent in the 1960s and has not left us since. Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Walter Benjamin, and Arthur Rimbaud, like Thoreau, achieved their greatest impact long after their deaths, long after weeds had grown over the graves of most of the bestsellers of their lifetime.)

You write your books. You scatter your seeds. Rats might eat them, or they might rot. In California some seeds lie dormant for decades because they only germinate after fire, and sometimes the burned landscape blooms most lavishly. (66-67)

Don’t be overwhelmed by ‘the defeatist perspective’, she argues. Talk about ‘both the terrible things we should engage with and the losses behind us, as well as the wins and achievements that give us confidence to endeavour to keep pursuing the possibilities.’ (142)

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit. Published by Canongate (2004 with additions 2016) 152pp

Letter from Birmingham City Jail by Martin Luther King

We must retell Martin Luther King’s story. In his Letter from Birmingham City Jail in April 1963, Martin Luther King noted four steps to successful nonviolent resistance. Originally a riposte to eight Alabama clergymen who accused him of being an outsider, it became a foundational text for the civil rights movement, but also for the struggle for social justice and equality everywhere. Here are three extracts:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps:

  1. collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive

  2. negotiation;

  3. self-purification; and

  4. direct action.

I was trained as a historian. Evidence, evidence, evidence. Collect the facts! Pay attention to details!

We who engage in non-violent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its pus-flowing ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must likewise be exposed, with all of the tension its exposing creates to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

For more on this see Maria Popova’s brainpickings of March 18th 2015.

Paul Auster

The reaction of the American writer Paul Auster to Trump’s victory has been astonishment, and then asking the question what could he do, how could he live his life. He has decided to act.

I have come to the conclusion to accept something that has been offered to me again and again over the years – to become [stand for] president of PEN America. I have been vice-president, and secretary, but I’ve never wanted to take on the full burden. I’ll start early in 2018. I’m going to speak out as often as I can, otherwise I don’t think I can live with myself. From the Guardian January 2017.

He will speak out, supporting an organisation that works against freedom of expression for writers.

Bookish actions

Community of readers has plenty to do it seems to me. Reading. Retelling stories of hope and injustice. Writing stories of hope. Showing us different views of the future.

And as citizens we must support both the law and the press that currently stand in the front line between us and tyranny in both the UK and the US. The press must go on asking awkward questions, must reveal unpalatable truths, seek out and present evidence of wrong-doing, and success.

We who write must write in hope and remind readers not to despair.

Paignton Library 2015

Related blog posts

Not a Bookblogger’s New Year List (January 2017)

Men Explain things to me by Rebecca Solnit (May 2015)

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit in Bookword in Alsace (May 2015)

Steps to Improve your Writing (August 2016)

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A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

You know the most famous line from Virginia Woolf’s essay:

A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. (6)

I sigh with satisfaction when I open one of my copies of this essay. It was published in 1928, between Orlando and The Waves. In this post I ask what has changed after 88 years.

Virginia Wolf suggested that in 1928 the impediments to women’s fiction were removed, but I detect a slight tongue in cheek: the excuse of lack of opportunity, training, encouragement, leisure, and money no longer holds good.

May I remind you that there have been at least two colleges for women in existence in England since the year 1866; that after 1880 a married woman was allowed by law to possess her own property; and that in 1919 – which is a whole nine years ago – she was given a vote? May I also remind you that most of the professions have been open to you for close on ten years now? When you reflect upon these immense privileges and the length of time during which they have been enjoyed, and the fact that there must be at this moment some two thousand women capable of earning five hundred a year in one way or another, you will agree that the excuse of lack of opportunity, training, encouragement, leisure, and money no longer holds good. Moreover, the economists are telling us that Mrs Seton has had too many children. You must, of course, go on bearing children, but, so they say, in twos and threes, not in tens and twelves. (111)

Have the gains in women’s fiction been as expected?

283 Room VBell's cover

This is my fifth contribution to the #Woolfalong hosted by Heavenali on her blog.

A Room of One’s Own.

The essay originated in talks given by Virginia Woolf at Girton College, Cambridge and Newnham College, Oxford in 1928 and she wrote more on the topic of women and fiction in Three Guineas, published in 1938.

In six chapters, just over 100 pages, Virginia Woolf describes what she found when she researched the question of women and fiction, and what was known about women’s lives. She does this through the fictional account by Mary Seton of some days in Oxbridge and London as she prepares for the lectures. She uses the device of a fictional sister for William Shakespeare, Judith, who ends up drowning herself in the Thames for daring to follow in her brother’s path. She builds a picture of the many influences that kept women from writing or publishing. And she considers why those four great novelists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were able to write, noting that three of them used male names: Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte and George Eliot.

The core of her argument is that women needed money and their own room, to provide freedom from want and anxiety, and the necessary privacy. She was also keen to point out that a writer’s ideas and artistry depends upon what has already been written.

283 RooOO cover

It’s better now …

Some things are better now for women in fiction. We no longer think it strange that some women can earn a living, even a fortune, through their skills as writers: JK Rowling, EL James, Suzanne Collins, Gillian Flynn, Paula Hawkins. Nor are we surprised that women are shortlisted and win some of the most prestigious literary prizes; or hold positions as Professors of Literature or of Creative Writing, or run publishing houses.

People who express sexist opinions can expect to be challenged. It is no longer acceptable to keep women off the lawns, out of libraries, out of colleges or the professions. At least not in the UK.

… but not a lot.

But things have not improved as much as might have been hoped after nearly a century of the vote (1918), and 41 years of the Sex Discrimination Act (1975). And indeed since the publication of many, many volumes of fiction by women since the first novels, such as Evelina by Fanny Burney (1778).

But oh dear, how entrenched is the view that women’s fiction is of less value than male fiction! That’s why we still need Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize. And oh dear, how deeply embedded is the idea that Virginia Woolf expressed in A Room of One’s Own:

Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size. (37)

And still we do not find it strange that books by women are not published, read or reviewed in the same proportion as men’s books. I need only refer you to the VIDA statistics reporting the disparity in gender of reviewers and authorship of works reviewed. These figures have been compiled for several years, to show how bad the situation is, and how slowly it is improving. The most recent count (2015) can be found here.

VIDA is a non-profit feminist organization committed to creating transparency around the lack of gender parity in the literary landscape and to amplifying historically-marginalized voices, including people of color; writers with disabilities; and queer, trans and gender nonconforming individuals. [from the Vida website]

And …

Virginia Woolf in 1927

Virginia Woolf in 1927

The truth of the original idea, that income and privacy are necessary to the creative process is still evident. My previous post was about Jean Rhys, and in it I challenge the romantic idea that poverty and artistic creativity go together. You can link to it here.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, published in 1928, and in the Penguin Modern Classic edition, used in for this post, in 1945. 112 pp

Related posts

My previous contributions to the #Woolfalong include:

To the Lighthouse in January

The Voyage Out in March

Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street in May

Orlando in July

 

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Men Explain Things to Me

I’m out walking with a friend. We check the map to be sure where we turn off the path. ‘Are you lost?’ a passing man asks. And he proceeds to take the map from us and to tell us where we are (we knew) and which road to take (ditto). Is that a familiar scenario? It’s the kind of thing Rebecca Solnit would recognise, and she wrote about it in her essay Men Explain Things to Me. Originally published on the TomDispatch blog in April 2008, the essay led to the coining of the word ‘mansplaining’, although not by Rebecca Solnit herself, who avoids the implication that ‘men are inherently flawed in this way’ (see dedication below).

175 Men exp coverReading about walking and how walking and writing and story telling are interconnected I came across the wonderful and multi-talented and multi-knowledgeable Rebecca Solnit. I referred to The Faraway Nearby in my previous post (here), and how it distracted me from other reading while on my walking holiday. I had been waiting for the publication in book form of her essay Men Explain Things to Me since I came across references to it and to her writing. It’s available now.

Men Explain Things to Me

‘Every woman knows what I am talking about,’ says Rebecca Solnit, as she gave her hilarious account of a man explaining. She told him she had been writing about Muybridge, and he informed her that she should read this important book that had just been published. He resisted three or four attempts by a friend to let him know that this was Rebecca Solnit’s book before he finally took it in. ‘He went ashen.’

Giving explanations of this kind involves not listening, and denies a voice to women, suggests they don’t know about things and implies women’s ignorance and their need for the authoritative material to be delivered by a man.

But Rebecca Solnit’s essay is about much more than the annoying experience of being mansplained, silenced, assumed ignorant. In a postscript reflecting on responses to this essay (including being told by some men that she didn’t know what she was writing about) she included these paragraphs, leading us into the other essays in this collection:

I surprised myself when I wrote this essay, which began with an amusing incident and ended with rape and murder. That made clear to me the continuum that stretches from minor social misery to violent silencing and violent death (and I think we would understand misogyny and violence against women even better if we looked at the abuse of power as a whole rather than treating domestic violence separately from rape and murder and harassment and intimidation, online and at home and in the workplace and in the streets; seen together, the pattern is clear).

Having the right to show up and speak are basic to survival, to dignity and to liberty. I’m grateful that, after an early life of being silenced, sometimes violently, I grew up to have a voice, circumstances that will always bind me to the rights of the voiceless. (16)

The Big Picture

The dedication to this collection of essays begins

For the grandmothers, the levellers, the men who get it, the young women who keep going, the older ones who opened the way …

I especially admire Rebecca Solnit’s ability to draw the bigger picture, to link the minor social misery to more extreme and brutal forms of silencing. In a more recent essay (2011) she draws a very clear parallel between the IMF’s exploitation of third world countries and the assault by Strauss-Kahn, the ex-head of the IMF, and other men of power of women, who often come from the same exploited areas of the world (Worlds Collide in a Luxury Suite: some thoughts on the IMF, global injustice and a stranger on a train).

Dominique Strauss-Kahn graffiti in the "Abode of Chaos" museum of contemporary art, in Saint-Romain-au-Mont-d'Or, Rhône-Alpes region, France. Picture by Tierry Ehrmann via Wikicommons

Dominique Strauss-Kahn graffiti in the “Abode of Chaos” museum of contemporary art, in Saint-Romain-au-Mont-d’Or, Rhône-Alpes region, France. Picture by Tierry Ehrmann via Wikicommons

Rape, and the fight back by the women of Delhi, the ‘disappeared’ of South America and the mothers and grandmothers who would not be silenced about their loved ones, gropers on trains who are pelted with grapefruits, the struggle for marriage equality and how gay marriage has challenged the traditional institution of marriage, the removal of women from history through male genealogies, and mansplaining; they are all connected, reproduce inequality, demean us all and silence so many.

175 Womenppower symbolShe pays too frequent tribute to ‘the men who get it’ for me, but I guess that in this collection of previously published essay each one has to reassure readers that some men do get it, and that’s a good thing. Actually it is an important message that men are not inherently flawed. If they were change would be impossible and there would be no hope for the world.

There may not be anyway, but that’s another aspect of this story.

The writing

Beautiful prose. Such a knowledgeable writer. Again, you should read Rebecca Solnit.

 

Rebecca Solnit (2014) Men Explain Things to Me and other essays Granta Books 130pp

For a blogger’s take on Mansplaining in detective fiction see Miss Marple vs the Mansplainers: Agatha Christie’s Feminist Detective Hero by Alice Bolin on the Electric Lit blog.

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