literature

I Hazard A Poem

A few weeks ago I brashly proclaimed to a literary friend that it’s been a very long time since I found any poetry that resonated me, and I had therefore written off all of it. Her response was to send me a poem that has set me off on a personal poetry renaissance that has been a delight and a pleasure. Here is the piece that set off the chain reaction, and I challenge you not to relate to this little gem by Brian Patten.

If You Had To Hazard A Guess Who Would You Say Your Poetry Is For?

For people who have nowhere to go in the afternoons,

For people who the evening banishes to small rooms,

For good people, people huge as the world.

For people who give themselves away forgetting

What it is they are giving,

And who are never reminded.

For people who cannot help being kind

To the hand bunched in pain against them.

For inarticulate people,

People who invent their own ugliness,

Who invent pain, terrified of blankness;

And for people who stand forever at the same junction

Waiting for the chances that have passed.

And for those who lie in ambush for themselves,

Who invent toughness as a kind of disguise,

Who, lost in their narrow and self-defeating worlds,

Carry remorse inside them like a plague;

And for the self-seeking self lost among them

I hazard a poem.

We Should All Be Feminists

Yesterday I read We Should All Be Feminists, a shorthttp://instagram.com/p/u8LNKXIRzJ/ and sweet essay by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie based on her wonderful Ted talk. Like everything she produces it was beautiful, accessible and succinct, and I’ll be gifting it to my 15 year old cousin this Christmas alongside some of my less enlightened male – and female -friends. It summarises perfectly why feminism is a cause that’s still both relevant and necessary and one that we must all rally around, whilst rubbishing many of the myths and “but what about…?”s that surround the word and the movement. Do read it yourselves, it’s very short, but I thought I’d quote my favourite page:

“Some people ask, ‘Why the word feminist? Why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or something like that?’ Because that would be dishonest. Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general – but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender. It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It woudl be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women. That the problem was not about being human, but specifically about being a female human. For centuries, the world divided human beings into groups and then proceeded to exclude and oppress one group. It is only fair that the solution to the problem should acknowledge that.”

#BookBucketChallenge

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There’s a tag going round on Facebook that challenges you to list 10 books that have proved formative for you as a person and the reasons why. The idea of making a Facebook status about the literature that has shaped me seems absolutely too awful for words, but from a purely personal (and procrastinatory) level I still wanted to try and single out 10 books that I can point to for being particularly life-changing or enhancing. So I’m doing it anyway. As someone who spent most of their childhood buried in a book it was no easy feat to choose just 10, but here we go; I’d be jolly interested to hear the same from you too, and I’m going to nominate Jazzy for a start. So here they all are, in order of discovery.

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Feline Border Control

I’m currently reading Nick Hunt’s fantastic book Walking the Woods and the Water, a beautifully written re-tracing of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s epic walk from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul – albeit in a very different age. Leigh Fermor is one of my absolute favourite writers and people (I do plan to write a longer post on exactly why his work has meant so much to me and countless other wanderlusters in the near future) and I wanted to share a quote from Hunt’s version of the journey that particularly resonated with me. He’s just entered Bavaria – a land dear to my heart – and describes the experience of crossing the unassuming border into Austria:

Austria lay down a nondescript road that looked like it could only end in a suburban cul-de-sac, but brought me instead to the green Saalach river, where nothing stirred but a ginger cat picking its way across the bank.”

This sentence conjured up so many echoes of my own time living on a nondescript border with Austria, reached by its own footbridge over the Saalach’s mother river, and its own precocious ginger cat that patrolled the borderland. Perhaps there are hordes of them across Europe – feline guardians of an increasingly integrated continent. Perhaps it’s the same cat zealously making its way up the Salzach’s tributaries in the way that Leigh Fermor and Hunt and countless travellers before them have traversed lands guided solely by a river. Or perhaps I just need to step away from the travel literature for a bit. cropped-a023701-r1-02-2a1.jpg

“That disgusting Cleopatra”

For Christmas my aunt gave me Stacy Schiff’s internationally best-selling biography Cleopatra: A Life. Studying history at university has given me a knee-jerk aversion to reading anything past-related outside of term-time, but I gave it a go anyway – I so rarely get to read a book dedicated to exploring the life of a female historical figure. It’s marvellous. It’s on Hilary Mantel levels of making history fascinating (although hopefully a bit more accurate). It’s an amazing insight into the life of someone right up there amongst history’s-most-misunderstood-characters, as well as the times that she lived in and the people and cultures that surrounded her. Who knew that Macedonian Greeks sat on the Egyptian throne for centuries? Who knew how sumptuously lavish an Alexandrian feast could be, and that the guests would all be gifted the cutlery and the furniture afterwards? Fabulously written and incredibly detailed, Schiff opens up a whole new world of family feuds and erotic scandal, priceless jewels and an unimaginable city that has been lost to the past. The book is amazingly written, and the story amazingly told.

It’s a sympathetic account to be certain; Schiff’s Cleopatra is no “whore queen” sleeping her way to the top, but rather shapes her Roman lovers to her political needs whilst having a jolly good time simultaneously (as her litter of dynasty-uniting children might attest). Hers is not Chaucer’s “martyr to love” whose only tool was sexuality, or Shaw’s “silly little girl” play-acting at politics with the big boys. The Cleopatra of this biography isn’t even particularly beautiful, as the hooked nose and strong chin of her only surviving contemporary likenesses prove. Schiff’s Cleopatra is a phenomenally clever strategist, a polyglot and an educated intellectual, a woman who ruled over an enormous and ancient empire that ended with her death. Schiff is no impartial historian (who is?) and that’s exactly what makes this book so great – it’s a very personal biography, as all biographies should be. It’s deeply pro-Cleopatra and her sex – the succinct passing put-downs of the countless (male) writers who have besmeared her subject’s reputation and memory over the last two thousand years were some of my favourite passages. In an endearingly witty interview with The New York Times Schiff delightfully dismisses centuries worth of assertions that Cleopatra’s diplomatic skill-set ended at the door to the bedroom by scoffing that “it has always been preferable to attribute a woman’s success to her beauty rather than her brains”.

I’m all for the image-rehabilitation of history’s scapegoats, especially if they happen to be powerful and independent females existing a couple of millennia before that was in vogue. I can’t pretend to have any of the ancient history credentials to confirm or deny whether the portrait Schiff paints is an accurate one, but it’s certainly a cracking read – and I also can’t pretend that I was not crackingly convinced.