The Quality of Mercy

I must admit I am approaching this piece of writing gingerly. The thought of being trolled by some appalling witch of a woman in Tower Hamlets, some union-jack flapping person in Penge or a coven of ghastly, acne-faced sprogs in Market Harborough, fills me with dread. This is just my opinion, and you are free to decide I’m wrong.

Firstly, on the BBC’s news channel today were further details of the Welsh politician who took his own life this week, whilst under investigation by the Labour Party. Now – after his death – it appears that the accusations are in connection with inappropriate touching, or groping. He and his family felt that he had been denied natural justice. Since he had not been allowed to have any details of the accusations, he could not defend himself.

This is what I think:

No action is so bad that a human being should be driven by public opinion to commit suicide. Whatever someone has been accused of, in this country at least, they remain innocent until proven guilty. And even if they are eventually proven guilty they should be given a chance to put their side of the story, to apologise, to express remorse and to attempt to make amends. We do not have the moral right to push another person over the edge.

That thing about casting the first stone – male or female, which of us hasn’t done or said stuff in their past that – in the light of current thinking – they now wish they hadn’t?  Is it proportional, is it fair to seek a belated revenge for some decades-old pat on the knee or unwanted kiss after a boozy lunch by destroying somebody’s career? We cannot really know the vulnerabilities of others. They may appear strong and confident, but how desperate might they be, inside, right now? They could be waving, but then again they might be drowning.

wavingMy second thought is about the American actor Kevin Spacey. I don’t know whether he is guilty of all the things he has been accused of – I didn’t even know he was gay – but it seems that now they are planning to edit him out of his latest film. By the miracle of technology they are going to substitute a different actor for him.

Until now there has always been a clear, if unspoken, barrier between the work of an artist and the private life of the same. Painters, musicians, actors, writers, scientific geniuses, just like the rest of us, may be held to account and if necessary prosecuted for any wicked or foolish act they commit, but are we really going to deprive ourselves for ever after of what that person is capable of creating?

It seems to me that Kevin Spacey is one of the very few great American actors. Compared to him most American actors (and yes, actresses) are pants, frankly. Has it now become impossible for him to act in anything, ever again? I have this feeling, you see, that people with gifts are sent here to use them, and preventing them from using them is a form of spiritual torture, which is something none of us has the right to inflict.

I seem to recall that one of the main pieces of advice handed out to couples in counselling and parents having trouble parenting their children is never to say ‘I hate you’, but rather to say ‘I hate what you just did’ or ‘What you said made me angry, and this is why…’ Surely we should apply this principle when those in public life fall short of whatever standard of behaviour society happens to be finding acceptable at the moment?

Surely we could bring ourselves to say: we hate what you did but we will not pretend that you never existed. We will not prevent you from exercising your art, or from giving humanity whatever gift you were sent here to give, because you are human and we too are human. We disapprove of what you may have done in your past and private life, but we will not airbrush you out.

Where sheep may safely graze

I always associated this piece of music with England, perhaps from constantly hearing it on The Home Service (1939 – 1967 national radio station, now BBC Radio 4) in my childhood. Now (ach!) I discover that it is in fact Bach’s Cantata 208 and the ‘sheep’ of the title are not so much our lovely, fat woolly English sheep roaming over hill and dale, as the citizens of Weissenfels, who could ‘safely graze’ under the gracious care of the Duke of Weissenfels. Presumably the Duke was a patron or sponsor. Later it came to be thought of as the sheep being looked after by the Good Shepherd. However, it’s a lovely piece of music and I have included a classical guitar version of it. Much prefer guitar to other instruments (particularly abhor trumpets).

I was thinking about the love of one’s country the other night, whilst plugged into the MP3 player, drowning out the upstairs-and-downstairs thundering of the beastly neighbours by listening to, among other things, The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams. Music is more powerful than words. It cuts through all those ‘logical’ explanations, our sophisticated smokescreens. Like Sheep, The Lark Ascending reminds me that if you are British you cannot ever really get away from the love of your own country. This is an unfashionable and somewhat embarrassing thing to say, and it usually only surfaces here when some external threat arises.

It’s one of those visceral things like there sometimes are between people – an invisible cord joining the two, painless and mostly-forgotten about until you try to pull, or find yourself being pulled away. I feel that I have always been here, through all my incarnations. I suspect some of us are ‘travellers’, soul-wise, and some of us arise the soil. We grow out of a particular landscape, and are part of it.

When I was quite young my mother sank into depression. In those far-off days everything female/unhappy-related came under the heading of – in ascending order of severity – Needing a Tonic, Nerves, or Nervous Breakdown – the standard treatments being a) bottle of iron tonic from the chemist b) Pull Yourself Together – ‘Curtains’ as the Samaritans put it – or c) Being Taken Away. Suspect Mum had the Nervous Breakdown. She did not get Taken Away, but it felt as if she had gone away somewhere, and she only half returned.

I remember she stopped practising cartwheels on the lawn and no longer felt like playing tennis on the road with us, in the gaps between infrequent (and always black) motor cars. I remember mainly that it seemed to go on for years, and involved having to be quiet while Mum curled up on the sofa with yet another headache and Nan tiptoed round doing the housework, and getting us our tea. I remember all the aspirins, and the four hour thing. On the dot, every four hours, another two aspirins. No more than twelve a day. I remember Dad telling me it was my fault, for arguing with my sister. If I was better behaved, he said, Mum wouldn’t be sick.

One thing I don’t remember, from then, but do recall overhearing Mum talking about years later, was her obsession with the Atomic Bomb. She was convinced that we, her three girls, were all going to die, at once, and soon, under some great mushroom cloud. I am guessing that this bit of her illness may have been around 1962, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Recently it has occurred to me that what with North Korea, and America, and Russia – the whole world, it seems – threatening dire outcomes and technicolour mass destruction – wouldn’t it just be ironic if what Mum so feared for her children were to come to pass after all, but over half a century later and when she was way past fearing or comprehending it? What if she even somehow wished it into being and is somehow linked, to it?

But let’s not venture onto that same dark pathway into the woods: no good ever comes of it. Let’s just say the music made me think, about all that has been, here, on this little archipelago of islands, swished around by a chilly sea, lashed by gales in winter, rained on every few days, blessedly warm and sunlit on occasions.

All our history, all those little lives. Dinosaurs once walked where I live now. We find their footprints. We find their bones. All those kings and queens, those beggars and paupers. All those families, all those mothers fearing for their children, all those wars, all that surviving somehow-or-other, all the new generations, all the moving on, the changing and the staying the same. Sometimes, like my mother before me, I feel that something pulling away, that potential for catastrophic loss, that painful tug on the cord.

Isn’t there a white knight upon a fiery steed?

It doesn’t seem to be fashionable – or perhaps I mean politically correct – anymore, for a lady to long for a hero. I suppose we threw that particular baby out with the feminist bathwater, along with expecting doors to be opened for us rather than slammed in our faces, and for seats to be given up for us on an omnibus.

In The Female Eunuch Germaine Greer makes passing mention of a husband – her only husband. She was married to him – I’m sure she said for a week. I don’t have a copy of the book now – I must get another – but seem to recall that his irresistible attraction had been something to do with that comfortingly tweedy masculine shoulder against which to bury one’s head.

I just checked it out. She was married in 1968 to an English graduate who was working as a builder. Perhaps it had given him broad shoulders and a suntan – that always helps. In true ’60s style they met outside a pub in the Portobello Road and, after a brief courtship, got married using a ring from a pawnshop. According to Wikipedia it only lasted ‘a few weeks’ and Ms Greer spent their wedding night in an armchair because her husband was drunk and would not allow her into bed.

The Female Eunuch actually came out in 1970 but in my provincial backwater I didn’t stumble across it until some years later: in W H Smith’s actually – fascinated and horrified in equal measure by a truly, shockingly, hideous cover – see below. I remember covering said item using brown paper and sellotape so that my parents wouldn’t be tempted to confiscate/immolate/jettison it. (My mother had form with book-throwing.)

female eunuch

I was twenty-one at the time and married as I was reading it. What a fool! If only I’d found it six months earlier I might have gathered my wits and relocated to Auchtermuchtie or possibly Muckanaghederdauhaulia, County Galway. And I married exactly that heroic sort of man – the comfortingly tweedy masculine shoulder, and so forth. He was even working on a building site and had the temporary broad shoulders/suntan.

What is it in us, though, that still pines for a hero? Even now when subjected – as one all too frequently is – to Bonnie Tyler’s cheesy 1980s bellow-fest Holding out for a Hero – I get that same little shiver. I know exactly what she means. Don’t you, other ladies?

Or if not a Hero, at least a Gentleman.

According to one website, these are the 23 behaviours of a Gentleman:

  1. He opens the door for a lady
  2. He walks closest to the curb
  3. He makes reservations (what does that mean – for a restaurant?)
  4. He gives her his jacket
  5. He is punctual
  6. He rises when she enters a room
  7. He gives compliments sincerely and often
  8. He helps her to be seated
  9. He gives up his seat
  10. He helps a lady on with her coat
  11. He says “please” and “thank you”
  12. He minds his table manners
  13. He is never rude to servers, bartenders or anyone else for that matter
  14. He pays
  15. He gets her safely to her door
  16. He listens
  17. He keeps his word and a secret
  18. He never hits a woman
  19. He shows initiative
  20. He pays attention to detail
  21. He asks her family’s blessing before proposing
  22. He is a jack of all trades – knows how to do things – the guy people look to in an emergency
  23. He goes out of his way to let her know he cares, every single day

Goodness, I’d forgotten about most of those. Ex scored well on 5, 18, 19 and 20 and ultra-highly on 22. I used to think that if we were ever to get stranded on one of those tiny cartoon desert islands together, with only a palm tree and a ball of string he of all men would have been able to whip up a watertight raft and guide us, using only the sun and stars, to South America or Finland or somewhere.

Perhaps what it all boils down to is that a Gentleman – or a Lady – earns that description by putting the other person at their ease. If you feel relaxed, happy and altogether better about yourself after an hour or two in someone’s company, you can probably award them Gentleman/Lady status.

However, no need to marry them.

And at least finish reading The Female Eunuch first.

due south

And another picture of Paul Gross, and, because there can never be enough, yet another:

paul gross 2

Carrie

Baby brother’s crying in his cot. I peer at him through the white-painted bars. His face is very red and one little arm in its knitted cardigan flails against the bars. He has thrown his little bear. Where is it this time? I get down on my hands and knees and crawls around in search of it. There, against the curtain-hem. How did he throw it that far? Must be very strong. But boys are strong. I brush the dust off the little bear. It’s blue, with rainbow stripes across the chest. Very soft, it feels. I push it back through the bars. A minute later it comes sailing out again.

I carry my satchel on my back, leading my brother by the hand. It’s his first day at Infants and he’s getting in a pickle with his coat, his own little satchel and his Mr Men lunchbox. Mum was too upset about saying goodbye so I ended up bringing him. I lean across to take the Mr Men lunchbox from him. He resists at first, but then lets go. He knows I’m trying to help.

And here we are on Brighton beach. I am fourteen. There is me, my little brother and my Mum, and the new brother or sister that’s inside Mum. Mum doesn’t want to know if it’s a boy or a girl as long as it’s fit and healthy. Dad isn’t with us. He doesn’t come with us to the beach because he lives with another lady now. Her name’s Janice. Dad refers to Mum’s new man, Darren, as her Squeeze. Darren’s the baby’s father, of course. Squeeze is a coarse sort of word.

Pick up your brother’s bucket and spade, would you, Carrie? He’s gone and left it down there and the tide’s coming in.

I am going on my first date, carrying my first grown-up handbag. It like it. It’s crocodile, see? Not real crocodile – crocodile skin pattern. I mean, you wouldn’t get a pink crocodile. I have all sorts of stuff in it – too much, probably. What do you need on a date? I have brought along some money, both change and notes, and my mobile phone. I have brought paper hankies in case of mascara smudges and for blotting the new lipstick, which I have also brought. I have brought a fold-up mirror, in case there isn’t one where we are going. I don’t know yet where we are going. I have brought a hairbrush and a comb, and a notebook and a pencil in case of… in case of… emergencies. Or whatever.

We are Christmas shopping. It’s our first Christmas together, so very romantic. Money is tight so I’ve made a list, allocating a certain amount to each person. It’s quite fun, finding stuff when you’re on a budget, but hard work. Have to shop around, literally. And all the time you’re lugging the stuff with you in those extra-deep Christmas bags with the silly string handles that cut into the palms of your hands.

Got room in one of those bags for the calendars, Cazza? They’re a bit awkward. Need my hands free.

I ease myself into the coffee-shop armchair, almost tearful in my gratitude for its cosy support but wondering if I will be able to get out of it without help in half an hour’s time. How embarrassing to have to call out to the waitress for a tow. The child weighs heavy in my womb. Going to be a big baby, Mum says. And overdue. Only by a few days, though. They say the first is often a bit late. My back hurts so. I want my body back.

How much longer?

I am packing the car for a visit to my brother and his wife. We need a bigger car really. Once you’ve got all the baby stuff in there – disposable nappies, wipes, plastic bags, spare Babygro, in fact two spare Babygros, toys, bottle, formula –not much room left. And that seat takes up so much space. Buggy folded and crammed into the back. Maybe if hubby gets that promotion we can get a bigger car. Hopefully before the next baby comes along.

We are walking in the woods. It’s a family outing. I am giving my little girl a piggy-back. She started to get tired half a mile back, started whingeing. All right now though. It’s one of those Forestry Commission places. Lovely, lovely day. The sun beats down through the leaves and dapples the path ahead of us. Top of my head is really quite hot with it. Should have brought a sunhat. They do say to protect the back of your neck. At least I thought to bring her sunhat.

Ibiza at last. Here we come, just him and me, finally empty-nesters. Two whole weeks of lying about by the pool reading dog-eared paperbacks. In theory. Sun-tan lotion, check. Cardigans, check. It can get chilly of an evening. Both our bathing gear, check. Insect-repellent, check. His asthma inhaler just in case, check. Passports, check…

Well, that’s the café visit accomplished. It gets harder and harder work, being out of doors with him. Don’t forget your stick. Huh? I said, Don’t forget your stick. My…? Stick! Your stick. It’s fallen under the table. Hang about, I think can reach it. Now, your coat. Coat! Left arm back. No, into the sleeve. You’ll need to bend it slightly. I said, bend it slightly! That’s it. Now, right arm back…

Damn, that’s the stick gone again.