Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

You might think that 28 million quid is a lot of dough these days but apparently it ain’t. Well, even two million quid is not a lot, according to Mylene Klass. You can’t even get a decent garage in London for that kind of money to live in, as she reminded the hapless leader of the opposition, Ed Milliband recently. But £28m is not a lot of money either, especially if you are a female artist like Georgia O’ Keeffe. Her Jimson Weed/White Flower No 1 sold for that figure last week in New York. However, when compared to her male counterparts, O’ Keeffe’s auctioned piece is dwarfed by the prices fetched by works of art by the likes of Picasso and Pollock. In a sort of journalistic hara-kiri piece, The Guardian’s chief arts critic, Jonathan Jones, blamed men like him who have long championed male artists over female ones.

Jonathan’s article made me think that there were parallels here between female artists and female writers. Even as the landscape of publishing has drastically altered in the last ten to fifteen years with the advent of the internet and all technological developments related to it, the field of literature, prizes and recognition remains very male, and I would dare say, very white, middle-class and middle-aged.  “Field of literature” refers in this case mainly to the perception of it, rather than the output. When it comes to output women might actually outnumber men, although I have not got any figures to back that statement up. It just feels that way. The internet and self-publishing, especially, have served well the female of the species. Yet, here is the crux of the matter. Prolific female writers are still judged on the genre in which they write rather on the transcendence of their work, unlike their male compatriots. Occasionally women are given the keys to the club, but on the whole the Picassos and Pollocks of the written word still guard the entrance. An example that comes to mind is the excellent short-story  writer Alice Munro. Profiled everywhere, from The New Yorker, to The London Review of Books, Alice should be seen as a game-changing writer in her own right. Yet the language most critics use when focusing on her work seems to imply that Alice Munro is a niche or even a cult author. Contrast that with Updike, DeLillo and Franzen. The phrase “The Great American Novel” is never far behind.

Does any of this matter? No, it doesn’t, and it probably wouldn’t if writers were judged solely on merit. But that’s not the reality. The knock-on effect of this perception of some male authors as epoch-making and female writers as niche-creators (chick-lit anyone?) is that literature becomes a marketing playground on which readers are easily duped with shiny toys. Not all readers, granted, many of us can still think for ourselves, but gender division and its implications is a dream scenario for a publicity company. If you want proof of this, how about this: you may think you know who I am but you are wrong. In reality I am a 60-year-old woman who has a disposable income of more than £1,000 a month. My favourite food is Vichysoisse soup (I had to look that name up, by the way) and I enjoy going to the theatre. Oh, and I have a cat. Obviously, you probably know that I don’t have any pets and that I am forty-three years old. Oh, and before I forget, I am a bloke. How did we arrive at that description? Through my love of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels and the few short stories by her I have read in other publications. It turns out that fans of Mantel’s fiction fit the category I mentioned first. According to a YouGov Profiles service we, readers, can be labelled according to the writers we follow. The reality is more complex, as we know, but isn’t this “boxing-in” attitude a consequence of the same phenomenon I explained before? Do you think that fans of Ian McEwan have to worry about being stereotyped? Not a bit, because the author they have been identified with is one of those game-changers, who has been trying to write “The Great British Novel” with his mates Amis and Rushdie since the 80s. Meanwhile Sarah Waters gets on with what she does best: writing brilliant, best-selling novels, but apparently, no epoch-making ones.

Hilary Mantel: reading her makes me change my sex and age
Maybe I am just letting off steam. After all, it’s not every day that I open the paper and realise that someone has changed my sex overnight without my permission, adding a few more years in the process. The irony is that the article about the YouGov Profiles service came straight after one about a campaign gaining ground currently in the UK in which readers want to “let books be books”. This means that books should not come with a tag attached to them that says they are either for boys or girls. I quite agree with the campaign. I’m willing to start another campaign called “Let Readers Be Readers”. My gut feeling is that it would probably change the perception we have, not just of readers, but also of writers and their transcendence. Maybe we could start with a donation of 28 million quid. After all, apparently that’s not a lot of money.

© 2014

Photo taken from The Guardian website

Next Post: “Urban Dictionary”, to be published on Thursday 27th November at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

A few years ago I found myself in conversation with a colleague at my previous school but one. She was older than me with grown-up children of her own and inevitably our chat turned to parenting. She was doing most of the talking and I was doing most of the listening as I thought that someone of her experience would have some handy tips for a parent like me, about to embark on the “terrible teenage years” with my son. There was one comment she made, however, that left me questioning some of the strategies my wife and I had deployed when bringing our children up.

My colleague said in all seriousness that she didn’t expect her children to put her in a care home when she reached her twilight years. She wanted to be looked after by her offspring in the comfort of their homes (I imagine that she meant that her children would take turns looking after their mum). I remember being taken aback by her confident and casual manner. It was almost as if she had already arranged her care plans for her elderly years. When I asked her what her children thought about her decision she did not hesitate to answer: “That’s the deal and they know it. I looked after them when they were little. I wiped their bottoms, changed their nappies, I fed them and took them to the doctor’s when they were ill. I expect them to reciprocate when I am unable to fend for myself.”

A question mark on her face: Who is going to look after me?

So, the answer in short was, her children had not been consulted. It was the sort of agreement that tacitly implies that if you are a child you pay back to your parents whatever they invested in you in the first place. At this point I have to add that my ex-colleague was originally from the subcontinent, probably India, although I’m not totally sure. This element is important when it comes to analysing family dynamics. I have noticed, as I’m sure others have, especially those based in the British Isles that families from traditional backgrounds function differently to those in which both parents were born here. My ex-workmate was a sari-wearing, proud Asian mother. We always used to have good conversations in the staff room but it was only on this occasion and in future interactions thereafter that I noticed her mentioning these expectations she had so well described before. Moreover, it transpired through our regular chats that this was the standard in her culture; not just respect for the elders, but also to care for them.

This conversation left me with a puzzle. Have my wife and I been doing the wrong thing? I asked myself. Maybe we should have thought of our mature years and ensured that our children got the message that they were meant to look after us (not at the same time, I hope) because we have done the same all these years for them. Perhaps we ought to treat this period of our children’s lives like a pension fund and put our savings in them. Yet, there is another part of me that says that this is unfair. Please, do not get me wrong, I still think that respect for our elders is paramount and that no matter how ill, infirm or mentally unstable an older person may be, she or he deserves the most humane treatment there is available. At the same time, foisting responsibility on to the young shoulders of our offspring for our well-being might backfire in the long term. I can imagine all kinds of situations arising; none of them conducive to a conscious effort on the part of the young person to soothe and cushion the effects of the passing of life on an older member of society. This is one of those scenarios where coercion, soft or hard, does not work.

It is different in more traditional families, especially those in Africa and Asia. I think that my neck of the woods, Latin America, has for many years been under the influence of western lifestyles and this has had a knock-on effect on family dynamics. Still, there are remnants of this palliative care in some countries, but on the whole, we tend to send our elderly away to care homes to be fed and dressed by strangers. Professionals, yes, but still strangers.

Part of this, I think, lies in the fact that it is less difficult to develop an emotional and affectionate bond for a new-born. With babies, our natural parental instinct kicks in immediately, even from the time they are still in mummy’s belly. There is also the element of a fully conscious individual, us, caring for one who is not fully aware of all the attention she is getting, nor who is giving this attention and what it means. Fast-forward many decades hence and the situation you come across is the following: two fully conscious individuals, one of whom is the aforementioned parent, but now rendered almost powerless by that phenomenon called Time. I am mainly referring to those cases where an older person cannot look after themselves. There are many cases of perfectly independent elderly citizens who lead a healthy, active life well beyond their retirement age. I say to them: “I hope to join your club when I reach your age”. But the truth is that cases of vulnerable older people left to their own devices outnumber those who are self-sufficient. As I mentioned before, the dilemma is the erstwhile child getting to grips with the fact that it is their mum or dad who relies on them now. This situation is further complicated if the relationship between progenitor and offspring has been damaged at some point, or whether one of the parents was an authoritarian figure in the past and this caused frictions in the family unit. The dynamics between grown-up child and aging parent will change drastically with unforeseen consequences for both camps. Furthermore, witnessing the slow and unavoidable physical and mental deterioration of people who until recently were of sound mind and body, might trigger off thoughts of mortality in these grown-up, but still young, children. I would not be surprised if a form of (self) denial were to make its presence known in their attitudes to their parents and other elderly people.

At this point I return to my previous question: is it fair to treat children as an investment or as a pension fund into which we put all our savings hoping to make use of these savings when we hit retirement age? Whilst in more traditional societies this might be the norm, the truth of the matter is that our world is changing fast. A shrinking labour market means that sometimes you will find your dream job not in the vicinity of the house where you grew up with your mum and dad, but thousands of miles away, in another country. Globalisation means that intercultural unions are becoming the norm with the usual relocation. Also, the concept of the nuclear family as we used to know it has been turned on its head – for the better, in my humble opinion – which means that nowadays it is mum and dad, only mum, only dad, mum and mum, dad and dad, or grandparents. All this has a knock-on effect on the way we look after our elders when they can't fend for themselves.

In an ideal world, I would like there to be the option for children of fragile, elderly parents to ensure that the latter can spend the rest of their lives in total comfort in a care home. Or, if the children so wish, the choice to look after their parents in their own house with some support from the government. To me it is giving back rather than paying back (I don’t like that phrase in the context of parenting) to these people, the majority of whom have made a valuable contribution to society.

This is a complex issue, and one that I have only begun to make sense of in recent years as my children keep growing up and I keep getting older. Unconditional love for my little ones means that I ought not to be thinking of any obligation on their part to change my clothes, bathe me or feed me if they don’t want to. At the same time, there is another part of me that would appreciate being cared for by the people to whom I gave life. Or at least not being tossed in the scrapheap as it has happened to others. Now that I have found my voice on this subject, I would love to run into my ex-colleague and ask her how her plans for her twilight years are shaping up. Something tells me that her answer will not have changed.

© 2014

Photo taken from Lens Snippets

Next Post: “Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts”, to be published on Tuesday 25th November at 11:59pm (GMT)


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