CRAFTSMANSHIP

A friend of mine with a bad back has decided to treat herself to a terracotta reclining chair. To make room for it in her tiny flat, the brown settee had to go. Adamant that nobody would want that old thing, she doomed it to the tip, sorry, the recycling centre. 

We hummed and hawed over the options of how to get it into the car for its final journey and in the end decided to saw it in half.

In the process we discovered how carefully it had been constructed. We admired the craftsmanship that had gone into making it. While I sawed, I started to tell her about the unsatisfying book I’d just finished.

In the case of both the settee and the book, solid craftsmanship was not enough.

I am not going to name the book or its author because I am not having a go at her personally. In fact, good on her for identifying the formula which propelled her debut novel into the New York Times best seller list.

But.

I cannot sit comfortably with the formula any more than my friend could sit comfortably on her old settee.

In the opening chapter, the reader is introduced to the heroine. She is intelligent, established in her career, fit in both senses of the word. In the formula she is h.

She is wary of the hero the first time she meets him. He is intelligent, established in his career, and so wealthy that he owns large properties in several countries and flies between them in private planes. He is impeccably dressed in expensive clothes. His temper is uncertain. He has many secrets. In the formula he is H.

The formula reads H > h because the hero has to know more and accomplish more than the sassiest, most feisty of heroines. He has to rescue her when she inadvertently endangers herself. I can buy the idea that she is prepared to compromise her career for the sake of their joint quest but I am uncomfortable about the ease with which she accepts that her role in her relationship with the hero is subservience.

My reward for sawing up the sofa was £1.67 in loose change. This morning I discovered that a new one in a similar style retails for over £1200.

My reward for finishing the book was a lesson in how to pace a novel. As a result, I have changed the order in which my heroine makes her first journey of discovery in her father’s homeland to provide a more dramatic conclusion and to set up the second volume more clearly.

However in my books the formula H>h will not be applied.

Morven Ash

September 2016

Review of Josephine Tey: A Life by Jennifer Morag Henderson.

Review of Josephine Tey: A Life by Jennifer Morag Henderson.

Actually this is a reminiscence about a favourite woman author as well as a review of a biograph about her.

My family devoured crime fiction written by women in the so-called Golden Age of Crime Writing. We had some of Agatha Christie’s novels, all of Ngaio Marsh’s and Dorothy L. Sayers’s (two in hardback) and most of Josephine Tey’s.

We also had a small bookshelf in the loo (definitely the loo, not the toilet, because we were middle-class and also owned most of Nancy Mitford’s novels.) I have an abiding memory of a battered copy of the Great Pan edition of Tey’s The Man in the Queue sitting face up on top of that bookshelf. The image above is the cover. I was only little: it scared me.

Around the age of 13, already passionately interested in history, I read the Daughter of Time, perhaps Tey’s most famous novel. Nobody will ever convince me that Richard III murdered his nephews and I suspect Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, arranged the murders of the Princes in the Tower.

I then read The Franchise Affair and Brat Farrar, several times because I loved the horses and assumed from the Englishness of the scene that the author was English.

My mother informed me that Josephine Tey and Gordon Daviot were pen names for a Scottish woman called Elizabeth MacKintosh. My mother had a dismissive attitude to Scots, based mainly on her observations of her in-laws. She called them unfeeling, uncommunicative and narrow-minded and shared the view of the English ruling classes that Scots could govern any country except their own.

Among the many pleasures of reading Jennifer Morag Henderson’s biography is that it redeems Josephine Tey’s Scottishness* and at the same time explains why she has not been ranked more highly in the canon of great Scottish writers. Unlike her near contemporary and fellow resident of Inverness Neil Gunn, Tey was not part of the budding Scottish literary renaissance or the nationalist movement.

Henderson is also an Invernessian who draws heavily on local knowledge and connections. She creates a clear picture of the subtleties of the class structure which combined with Beth MacKintosh’s reserve and spikiness to form an awkward relationship between the famous writer and the small town in which she was raised, to which she had to return in her twenties to look after her widowed father and from which she escaped periodically.

The range and depth of Henderson’s research is fascinating. She has identified down the men towards whom Beth MacKintosh had romantic feelings. She has traced a third pen name. She writes with such immediacy that, as she says towards the end of the book, ‘sometimes it is hard to realise that these lively young women and men are all dead and gone.’

As part of Bloody Scotland in Stirling over the weekend of 9th to 11th September, Val McDiamid and Jennifer Morag Henderson will discuss the life and work of Josephine Tey on the Saturday morning. I regret that I can’t be there and won’t have the opportunity to congratulate Ms Henderson in person on her enthusiastic and generous portrayal of a complex character.

Morven Ash

August 2016

*Spell check never ceases to amaze me. It suggests I replace Scottishness with Skittishness. Has it been programmed to think that skittishness is a Scottish characteristic?

 

 

 

ELDRITCH AS DEFINED BY A CAT

ELDRITCH AS DEFINED BY A CAT

As the title of this blog suggests, I love cats of all kinds and the feline aspect of my personality is illustrated in the image that accompanies this post: Morven as big cat.

Another love is language and since I moved to Scotland I have enjoyed discovering some of the wonderfully evocative words in Scots. Eldritch is among them. It means weird, sinister and ghostly.

This is an example from Burns: So Maggie runs, the witches follow,  Wi’ monie an eldritch skreich and hollo. 

This one comes from Robert Louis StevensonThe woman, whose voice had risen to a kind of eldritch sing-song, turned with a skip, and was gone.

One August several summers ago, I had direct experience of something I can only describe as eldritch. At the time I was sharing an isolated cottage with three cats. Belle and Lily were sisters and the third was Belle’s son Teddy. Except when the temperature fell below freezing, I put them all out at night.

Around 5am I was woken by loud screams. They weren’t human: they weren’t any of the feline mating calls or fighting hisses familiar to me. They sounded as though someone was in the kitchen torturing one of my cats.

Even though I was alone in the cottage, the urge to protect the poor creature was stronger than fear. I sprang out of bed and rushed down the stairs.

In the half-light before sunrise, I saw little Lily, the runt of her litter, puffed up to twice her size with her bottle-brush tail upright. She was hurling abuse at the tomcat with the scarred nose and bent ear, which cowered in the corner between the cupboard and the sink.

So as well as meaning weird and unearthly, eldritch is also the perfect adjective to describe the racket made by a small cat defending her territory against an invader.

Morven Ash

August 2016

 

Q&As

Things ashy tend to attract my attention so in the spring of 2016 I was interested to come across the acronym iASH.  Based at Edinburgh University, iASH stands for the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities.

Some of the female academics who belong to it have set up the Dangerous Women Project. Every day for the year between the International Women’s Days in 2016 and 2017, the project is intended to provide a different answer to the question what does it mean to be a dangerous woman?

The piece which follows is a shortened version of my submission to the project. It was not selected, perhaps because I make sweeping statements without attribution and without a long string of academic qualifications behind my name.

And yes, these Q &As are intended to be provocative.

I offer this reassurance to all male readers. I love a couple a guys; I like several others very much; I have met nurturing and supportive guys just as I have had trouble with heartless, horrible women.

But I remain unimpressed by certain types of men, none of whom will read this far, and I really do not care for the current male-dominated system.

 

 Q&As for Dangerous Women

How do I become a dangerous woman?

From the moment you are identified as a woman, you are dangerous to someone.

What makes women dangerous?

Female bodily functions combined with any of the attributes and qualities listed below in alphabetical order: appearance; beliefs, be they political, social and/or spiritual; courage; creativity; desires; empathy; frustration; heart; hormones; imagination; independence; intellect; intuition; rage; sexuality; tears.

Who thinks women are dangerous?

The answer most congenial to feminists engaged in the struggle for equality is unrepentant patriarchs and the organisations they control.

The saddest answer is the combination of genetic inheritance and life circumstances which may make a woman dangerous to herself.

The most uncomfortable answer is other women, particularly those who uphold the values of the patriarchy. It is easy to point the finger at the mothers and grandmothers who subject girls to genital mutilation, but for all women who live in societies which encourage competitiveness and envy it is difficult to stand aside from rivalry with cleverer, prettier, younger or more successful women. For a small example, remember the last time you were tempted to join the fashion police.

How does the patriarchy deal with dangerous women?

The crudest of the weapons used by the patriarchy to silence dangerous women are violence, rape and isolation. They are terribly effective.

The patriarchy also deploys more subtle tools, such as the written word. Around 2,800 BCE the stylus was wrested from the hands of accountants and for most of the next 5000 years almost all laws, histories, philosophies, stories and doctrines were written by a few men to the advantage of themselves, their paymasters or their gods. Dangerous women were, and still are, denounced or edited out.

Over the last two centuries, the patriarchy has had to adapt, not least because it has needed women to join the labour force. The comparatively few women who ascend into the ruling élite on merit are not uniformly supportive of or compassionate towards their less fortunate sisters. Regardless as to whether women actively uphold patriarchal values or have been cowed into passive acceptance of them, the patriarchy relies on them as workers, consumers and believers. Where every hard-won improvement in the lot of women counts as a victory, little is done to change the actual system.

Have women always been regarded as dangerous?

According to the written record, yes.

The more or less voluptuous female figurines unearthed at Stone Age sites have been interpreted as signs of a golden age when humans lived in harmony with the earth and each other. However, the figurines range in date from c30,000 to 4,000 BCE; the sites are spread across Eurasia and in contemporary societies where female deities are venerated respect is not always extended to real women. Sadly the golden age is probably more mythical than historically accurate.

Gender roles come closest to balance and harmony in cultures where food is easily obtainable and where custom dictates that newlyweds live with or near the bride’s family, not the groom’s.

Will women always be seen as dangerous?

Always is too long a word while transhumanists are working on technologically enhanced post humans. The ideas of no more messy emotions, no more awkward, painful bodies and a form of immortality are attractive for some.

In the meantime, women will present a danger to the patriarchy for as long as gender identity is ranked above shared humanity. While many men hang on to their sense of entitlement, it is easy to forget that men and women are all humans who face the same threats to our existence as a species.

What can dangerous women do?

The short answer is anything they set their hearts and imaginations on. This includes rendering the patriarchy redundant if collectively they are minded so to do.

At least in the form of global corporate capitalism, the patriarchy is more fragile than its armoury makes it appear. Capitalism depends on two mutually exclusive factors: continuous economic growth and a planet with finite resources. That fundamental contradiction means that the system cannot be repaired by tinkering from inside. Its collapse is inevitable but it could crumble harmlessly if the women on whom it relies withdraw as much energy from it as possible by buying only the simplest of necessities from it and ceasing to buy into it at the emotional and/or spiritual levels.

Given the failures of dogmatic ideologies, a more sustainable future requires looser, more lateral frameworks which can be easily adapted to meet local needs.

Are women dangerous, courageous and loving enough to recreate a world fit for all human beings?

Morven Ash

August 2016

 

 

On Monday, 11th July, I was among the many people profoundly moved by Jonathan Bachman’s photo of Iesha Evans. Like everyone else, I interpret it through the filter of personal bias and beliefs. Therefore, I see it not only as a powerful symbol for the Black Lives Matter movement but also as a heart-opening image of the difference between the projection of power over and the manifestation of spiritual power.

When I read Iesha Evans’s first brief comments on her experience, I was not in the least surprised that she described herself as a vessel for God’s work.

Her grace in that moment and in everything I’ve seen of her public appearances since stands in sharp contrast to the reaction of the UK’s second woman prime minister after the horror perpetrated in Nice by a violent and disturbed man of Tunisian descent. Theresa May stated her intention to double Britain’s security efforts.

It is so much easier to vilify the hated and feared Other than to search for the humanness behind the Other’s actions but it is there. It is always there. To quote the late Jo Cox MP, ‘We have far more in common than that which divides us.’

Seeing the photo from the street in Baton Rouge brought two other images to mind. The well-known one was that of the man who walked in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square in June 1989. The private one is the mural She Stands her Ground which was dedicated to ‘all the women named and unnamed who work for the world and for others.’

It was painted on a cottage wall some time in 2008 and was whited out in 2011. The central figure was shown mediating energy from the sky and offering it to the earth. (I was told that the wonkiness in her proportions was due to the difficulty of painting on vertical brickwork.) Among the women named on it were Ang Sung Su Kyi and Dr Vandana Shiva. I am quite sure that if the mural were still there, Iesha Evans’s name would have been added to it.

Morven Ash

Red Rosa

Red Rosa

One evening in May I watched Margarethe von Trotta’s 1986 film Rosa Luxemburg starring Barbara Sukowa. The version I saw was in German with English subtitles and it served as my introduction to an extraordinary woman revolutionary.

Born into a Jewish family in Poland in 1870, Rosa Luxemburg had to leave her home country to attend university in Switzerland. In 1897, she was awarded a doctorate in law. Her vision for a Marxist socialist revolution was that it would grow without violence from the grass roots upwards. She hoped that workers throughout the world would develop the spiritual understanding and moral framework they required to co-operate in harmony.

Her political activism meant that she was in and out of prison. Held in protective custody for much of the First World War, she was allowed to keep her books, to write letters and to create a little garden in part of the prison yard. Some of the scenes which moved me most start around 75 minutes into the film as Rosa muses on the importance of remembering to look at the beauty of the natural world.

Rosa was murdered by political opponents on 15th January 1919 in Berlin during the suppression of the workers’ revolution.

The morning after I watched the film, I had the experience which led me to write this.

 

For Rosa

Out about my busy-ness,

I stop – am stopped –

By a hawthorn tree.

See, it says, see these flowers.

See nature in spring.

This is the real life.

I am assailed by colour:

White, rich rose red.

I see – am made to see –

The colour extend beyond my eye

To the infra red behind the rose red.

 

Rose red: red Rosa.

I do not have a cat.

Her last was Mimi.

I do not limp.

I am not forced to exercise

In prison yards alone

And always observed,

A specimen of danger,

Yet I share her place of yearning

For a more natural world.

With her I do not comprehend

Why it is not enough

To walk in awe of life.
By Morven Ash, 2016