Thursday, 15 December 2022

December, 2022

Have not blogged in so long, everything is dislocated. My darling mother passed away eighteen months ago, it can still feel unreal. Am cheered up by a woodpecker and bullfinch in front garden and pigeons puffed up like balloons in the back. Writing sustains me, have recently gone back to my novella-in-progress. Just added ALPHONSO, a flash fiction, to blog sidebar that was published in From Glasgow to Saturn, Glasgow University's literary magazine, in 2021. I wrote it when we were in the grips of pandemic, all a bit stunned.

Sunday, 3 January 2021

Chaffinch, 2021

Everything is shit but here is a chaffinch and an impossibly blue sky on New Year's Day.

Friday, 24 April 2020

Pandemic: foxes and sunsets and suicide

A couple of months ago, I saw a cat run across the garden with a pigeon in its mouth. I’ve never seen a domestic cat hunt such a big bird. The pigeon was upside down, white underneath. I did not see it being killed, just saw it being carried away.

I see foxes occasionally, once a year. One ran across the garden last week. It tarried for fifteen seconds or so on the wall, as if it were checking something. I was able to get a photo. It was huge - red and grey. Beautiful. I’ve seen it again since. Twice in a week.

I want it to come every day.

In between the pigeon being killed and the fox standing on the wall, uncommon events in this garden, the covid19 pandemic has impacted massively in the west. I recall watching reports from China in January, but of course did not think at all it involved ‘us’.

Now we are all affected.

Nothing feels real. 

Being chronically ill, I am used to spending long spells of time indoors, semi-isolated, but now the whole world is the same. It's getting a crash course in isolation and illness, in an alarming and dramatic way. The stuff of fiction.

Spring is happening, but it's dislocating. Daffodils have bloomed and withered, tulips are opening, the sun is warm if you shield yourself from the Scottish wind, but you cannot ever relax, the dread of this coronavirus is always there.

Six days into the lockdown, the weekend the clocks went forward, I heard my childhood friend had taken an overdose and was in intensive care. He has a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. The unfolding of the virus and the isolation it imposed was too much for him, he was simply overwhelmed. I had spoken to him four or five times the week before, which made the news of his overdose even more upsetting. Against all the odds, after six days in intensive care, he regained consciousness and after being treated for bacterial pneumonia was discharged to a surgical ward before being admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where I hope they will be able to look after him for as long as is needed. 

I remembered that when the clocks went back last October, my friend had called me to say he had  put his clock back at 5pm, in case he forgot. Before  the lockdown he was doing a writing class and I told him I would love to see his writing, and asked him to send me some. He said he wanted  to write a book and I told him writing a book was hard. I might just write half a book then, he replied. His mother has since told me it is poetry he has been writing.

What struck me when my friend was in intensive care and we did not know the outcome was that his mother, a close friend of my own mother’s, had been a huge support in the early seventies when my consultant anaesthetist father had taken his own life, living in the same town my friend and his mother still live in.

My current writing project is a (slow) fictionalisation of aspects of my father’s life. There is an early scene in particular, with withered flowers - hydrangea -  in this friend's garden in the 1970s. The scene has been in my head for many years, real, but now re-imagined in the novella-in-progress (I was delighted to discover a couple of  years ago, this poem by Rilke, 'Blue Hydrangea'). More than ever I've been thinking of the importance of storytelling. I have also been thinking of anaesthetists  as they are suddenly very much in the media – the experts on ventilators, so much needed in this crisis. In a 1960s' Polaroid, my father looks like a poet with his Paisley pattern cravate, drinking beer in Amsterdam.

The backs of my hands are cracked, my knuckles slightly bleeding, I've been overdoing disinfecting, using too much bleach, just so very afraid of getting infected from groceries/deliveries coming in. With ME your immune system is already in disarray, and we simply do not know how people with ME would be affected by covid19. It's too frightening to contemplate, given how unpredictably and aggressively this novel virus is affecting youngish, healthy people with no pre-existing conditions. There is talk in the medical community of how some covid19 patients are bound to develop ME afterwards. (Suddenly ME is respectable, the devastating illness you can get after a virus.)

In normal times, I spend much time sitting at my bedroom window watching birds and squirrels and sunsets. It's restorative, a gorgeous way to meditate and contemplate when you cannot do aerobic exercise. This process of contemplation has become even more important. Everyone is commenting on how much louder the birds are, they can be heard everywhere, surely a tiny silver lining of the pandemic.

Friday, 1 November 2019

A woodpecker just when I needed one

I rest a lot in my bedroom. I read there too and also watch garden birds, I have a chair at the window. It is my meditation, my way of being peaceful, my way of 'working out'. It's restorative, I lose myself, nothing else matters. I have had a dreadful few weeks with one thing and another. Last night, I woke up around three with a brutal sinus headache, I am very prone to them and can no longer use steroidal sprays because of ocular hypertension (discovered in 2009 when using steroid drops for uveitis), so I swallowed a handful of Sudafed and Ibuprofen. It's the kind of pain that can make you cry. I had a scan many years ago and have chronic inflammation, possibly from an over-zealous use of mothballs. I declined surgery. Today, I woke early with the pain still on the fringes but bearable. A few hours later, I saw a woodpecker - an adult male great spotted - I've never seen one before. I had on my old glasses and saw a flash of red at feeder, wondered why goldfinches were eating peanuts and when I held up my camera - always in my bedside drawer -  I realised it was a woodpecker. I managed to nab it before it flitted off. It felt auspicious. Today is also the anniversary of my father's death, he died in 1972, and although for many years it was not a date I ever thought about,  since I've  been writing about him, the date has much more resonance. A friend sent me this, the symbolism of a woodpecker. 

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Birds are poets, they are jewels, they are philosophers

As a distraction from the rain, am posting some birds from last year, mostly in garden from window. Birds are poets, they are jewels, they are philosophers. Goldfinch, robin, blackbird, blue tit, mallards, baby blue tit, greenfinch, chaffinch, jackdaw, starling. (Update with a baby sparrow and autumn robin.)

Sunday, 21 April 2019

The Invalid by Matisse

I had never seen or heard of  Matisse's The Invalid until I saw it on Twitter last week and I can't stop thinking about it. This painting would have brought me comfort as a severely ill bedbound young woman in eighties. I would have had the postcard on my wall. I wish there were a postcard I could get hold of. I can't find out much about it except it was painted in 1899.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Autobiographical novel: 'a prosthetic voice' (Alexander Chee). And (films of) Guru Dutt

I recently dipped into Alexander Chee's collection of essays How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. I find reading about writing to be reassuring: you learn things that you already knew but didn't know you knew. It's the kind of book where you want to write down fragments and keep them close to your heart. Chee describes his first (autobiographical) novel as a 'prosthetic voice', which gives voice to those things too difficult to speak about, in his case, sexual abuse. His image of prosthesis is, I think,  quite brilliant.
And so while I wrote this novel, it didn't feel like I could say that I chose to write this novel. The writing felt both like an autonomic process, as compulsory as breathing or the beat of the heart, and at the same time as if an invisible creature had moved into a corner of my mind and begun building itself, making visible parts out of things dismantled from my memory, summoned from my imagination. I was spelling out a message that would allow me to talk to myself and to others. The novel that emerged was about things I could not speak of in life, in some cases literally. I would lie, or I would feel a weight on my chest as if someone was sitting there. But when the novel was done, I could read from it. A prosthetic voice.

The State of Me - hard to believe it was published ten years ago, its message as relevant today - wasn't for me a fictionalisation  about something too difficult to talk about, but rather a representation of the anger and injustice that people with ME have felt for decades due to a wilful reframing/misrepresentation of the illness by a core of the medical/political establishment. The novel had to be written, but the difficulties in writing it were much more the physical/cognitive challenges of ME than an inability to voice the subject. (I also, of course, faced the structural challenges of writing a novel that face all writers, ill or not.)

Chee's concept of  'prosthetic voice' does, though, resonate for me when I go to the project/novella which is partly about my late Pakistani father, the project that often has me thinking of Bernard MacLaverty's description of writing as 'a way of trying out different fathers'. This is exactly what I am doing - when I can - and something in me is a little broken the whole time. The theme of my novella is 'not knowing'.

It's fascinating to learn about writers/artists who would have been contemporaries of my father. I've just discovered Guru Dutt, an Indian director and actor, famous for Pyaasa, Kaagaz Ke Phool (Paper Flowers) and Chaudhvin Ka Chand. Dutt died aged only thirty-nine in 1964 from probable suicide, he had mixed sleeping pills and alcohol.  He had attempted suicide before. Knowing Dutt's life story made it even more emotional watching Pyaasa, the story of a shunned poet, who only finds success when he is (wrongly) presumed dead. And Kaagaz Ke Phool, a melodramatic tale of a director's flop (prescient as Kaagaz Ke Phool also flopped) - had me in tears at the end. Real tears rolling down my cheeks.  When we respond to films we are, of course, not responding to just the fictional narrative but to the narratives in our own lives. I especially love the framing of the film - the opening and closing scenes - with Suresh Sinha as an old man looking back on his life.

I thought of Saddat Hasan Manto and wondered if he had ever met Dutt in Bombay (Manto left his beloved Bombay for Lahore shortly after partition). When googling Manto and Dutt, I came across this review, which likens Guru Dutt's Pyaasa to Nandita Das's recent biopic Manto. Manto and Dutt certainly shared sensibilities, a concern for those in the margins, those disenfranchised, in Manto's case specifically those harmed by Partition (on both sides).

Manto was seven years older than my father. Dutt was six years younger than my father. All were in Bombay in 1947. My father was not working in film, or as a writer, he was a medical student, who had interrupted his studies to join the Indian Air Force during the Second World War. What these three  men would come to have in common was an addiction to alcohol, an addiction tragically implicated in all of their deaths. They were not old men when they died, Manto was forty-two, my father was fifty-three (I was eight). I fancifully allow myself to imagine the three of them meeting up in Bombay before Partition, wondering what they would have spoken about.

I've discovered that Nasreen Munni Kabir made a Channel 4 documentary  in 1989 called In Search of Guru Dutt. I have ordered her book on Dutt. The beautiful and luminous Waheeda Rehman appears in all three films mentioned above. I understand that she and Dutt had an  affair, which ended his marriage to Geeta Dutt.  Geeta Dutt was also the hugely talented playback singer for Rehman's songs. Geeta, I have read, had a breakdown and became alcoholic after Dutt's death. She died in 1972, leaving behind their three children, two sons and a daughter, Nina (Nina was just a baby when her father died). It is heartbreaking that Tarun Gutt, their eldest son also took his own life and Arun Dutt - who was involved in preserving his father's legacy - died of alcohol-related illness in 2014.

Having now also seen Chaudhvin Ka Chand I am left with a huge nostalgia for a period in Indian film-making in 1950s I did not even live through. I think the melodrama, the heightened reality, the muted gorgeousness of monochrome all tap into a process in my head and heart (the not knowing). The wonderful singer for Guru Dutt, in these three films, is Mohammed Rafi, who died aged fifty-five (though it is Hemant Kumar who sings 'Jane Woh Kaise Log' in Pyaasa). I also loved the actor 'Johnny Walker', who brought humanity and slapstick (much needed, to balance the sadness) in his role as the masseur in Pyaasa. I have read Johhny Walker and Guru Dutt were great friends in real life.

Reading Chee's essays and watching Dutt's films, something collided gently in me - it reinforced how important art and film and fiction are in understanding our lives, both for those who create the art and those who consume. Making the hard stuff bearable.