12 September 2014

Scotland - Please Stay

It is my fervent wish that the title of this blog will not ring hollow in a week’s time, in the way of a book I found a few years ago, written pre-1947, whose title was Must England Lose India?  Well, yes, I said at that point, tossing the book aside without so much as a glance at the pages of erudite argument.  

So much for faits accomplis.  Yet I feel compelled to admit a very present anxiety in the pit of my stomach.  Standing on the sidelines in the final run-up to a momentous decision which will be taken by residents of Scotland next week is a hard thing to do.  Quite simply, I don’t want Scotland to separate from the rest of the United Kingdom.   And here are the reasons.

First, the things I am not qualified to speak about.  I cannot comment on future revenues for Scotland and need to leave it to industry spokespeople to elucidate, for example, to what extent North Sea oil might be dwindling and whether new discoveries are financially viable.  Nor do I have an economist’s handle on the anomalies inherent in seeking to keep the pound while severing links with the UK – or the protracted turbulence the pound may experience in the period immediately following a Yes vote for independence.  But I am disturbed at the prospect of poor financial health for Scotland as much as I am disturbed by the tendency for some in the Yes campaign to pass off genuine statements given by (non-political) experts as ‘scaremongering’ or ‘bullying’.  

I’ve watched and listened to debates with mounting disquiet.  I listen to reasons given for independence - amongst them the need for social justice, and to act against the bedroom tax, and child poverty.  Yet these issues are as live and heated ‘down here’ to anyone who seeks a just and caring society.  I listen to anger expressed over the fact that Westminster has taken the country into unwanted wars – yet recall my own incandescent rage when the Blair government, with slipshod justification, involved us in Iraq.  I hear annoyance about expenses-fiddling by MPs as though no English, Welsh or Northern Irish person also shares this opprobrium.   I hear voices countering arguments put forward by pro-unionists with cries that Scottish inventiveness and intelligence will win out,  as though any anxiety we express over Scotland’s future (and, yes, over our future because the Scottish vote will affect us all) even takes into question, in the first place, the proven creativity and ingenuity of Scots.  I hear sneers about the ‘Westminster Elite’ as though ideological distance from the Houses of Parliament in London is solely the preserve of (northern) geography.  In fact, I live just up the same river from the Houses of Parliament and can leap on a train and be standing in front of them in less than an hour.  But whenever a government for whom I have not cast my vote takes power, and only spitting distance from here, I too feel disenfranchised.  
I applaud strong self-governance within a larger framework, and hence am in favour that more powers are being offered to Scotland in the event of a No vote.   Having grown up in the province of Ontario in Canada in a federalist system -  where provinces are responsible for direct taxation, natural resources, hospitals, schools, welfare, intra-provincial transportation and the administration of justice, and where the federal government in Ottawa has jurisdiction over  international and interprovincial trade, communications and transportation, banking and currency, foreign affairs, and defence -  I am comfortable with the idea of power devolved away from central government.   I lived just across the Ottawa River from the province of Quebec whose vibrant character and culture, I would argue, have always been better protected within Canada with its professed commitment to biculturalism and bilingualism.  A Quebec flying solo would be not just overshadowed by the remainder of a still enormous Anglophonic Canada but also by its huge American neighbour to the south.   In the same way, I feel that Scotland is best served by staying in the union, strengthening its culture, its identity and with increased powers, but safeguarded from the economic vicissitudes of going it alone.  There are cold winds out there.

My prayer that Scotland will vote to stay part of the United Kingdom is because I also speak as a child of Northern Irish parents - with Scottish forebears - and as a person with a surname (by marriage) that sounds as Welsh as it is possible to sound who lives in the southeast of England.   I am by no means alone in this country with these kinds of connections.  The four corners that they represent are key to the strengths that currently exist in the UK.  We are linked like kin.  We have shared history and, I profoundly hope, a shared future.  There is, without doubt, much to be modified and improved, yet so very much more to be celebrated in this imperfect but nonetheless joint venture in which we find ourselves. 

1 July 2014

Just Off to Throw a Pot

Display courtesy of Ian White, Doreen Burgess and G and K Malin

Once, years ago, I was approached by another mother at my son’s school. 

‘You should volunteer for the kids’ activity next week,’ she said.

‘What activity,’  I asked.

‘They’re going to be doing ceramics.’


‘Yes. Didn’t you say that you did pottery?’

Well.  Pottery.  Poetry.  They do sound similar.

Ever since then I’ve liked to think I’ve been busy with all manner of crockery, out in my potter’s shed in which a mess of words gets thrown at a wheel then grappled with and smoothed into a serviceable object – now a rustic jug, now a knick-knacks bowl, now an earth-hued goblet ringed with blue.  And as the objects come off the production line, they are placed carefully on shelves according to type, and length of creation.  

Occasionally, people passing by press a curious nose to the window, others enter and engage in polite conversation, yet others handle the goods with long consideration and nearly make a purchase – just like last week when my collection My Shrink is Pregnant came joint second in the Pighog Pamphlet Competition.  

My Shrink, so nearly off to a new home, has gone back on the display case, but much closer to the door.  

And I keep at it, am back at the wheel, hands dirty from shaping wet clay, ears cocked for a shuffle of feet of a prospective customer at the entrance way.

25 April 2014

Inking the Heart

Recently, my heart began to speak loudly to me.  

I thought it might be attempting to shed its fetters, spread its wings.  

Doctors thought it might be acting up and certainly needing investigation.   

Last autumn I consequently underwent a perfusion test, which consisted in putting my heart under drug-induced stress.  The results indicated possible problems in two areas.

No, I was told by my amiable consultant as I sat in his room in early January, there was nothing I could personally do for my heart other than take the prescribed statins, the beta-blockers, the daily aspirin, and fix an appointment for an angiogram.  But in the weeks before the planned procedure - when a catheter would be inserted through the femoral artery then fed up to the heart, allowing the release of dye to show any narrowings or blockages - I felt I owed this vital organ the courtesy of paying it closer attention, and gleaning what metaphors it might conceal.

And so I tuned into my heart’s rhythm.  I posed questions of it, and hushed my chatter in order to listen for answers.   

I went to the Alpujarras mountains in Spain for a week in February to drink in pure light and spring air.

I visited a skilled and gentle healer in whose presence my heart quietened.  

I reflected on what might represent the opposite of fear, and then endeavoured to dream this antidote into all of my cells.

I wrote songs that had been brewing for years.

I sketched pictures of hearts in healing shades of blue.   

I scribbled words in notebooks.   I considered how any heart bunged with memory and emotion might come to sag, misshapen as a Christmas stocking.  

I acknowledged how the twin agents of sorrow and guilt could not so much whistle through a heart as leave gluey thumbprints all over chambers no longer  pristine and correct, where the  femme de ménage in this case, me – may not have exercised her duty to the full. 

And finally, mentally prepared for the possibility of the insertion of a cardiac stent, I showed up a couple of weeks ago at my local hospital to submit to the medically advanced probing and inking of my heart.  

On the huge screen beside me, the lightning strikes of my coronary arteries revealed themselves -  jagged, beautiful, breathtakingly visible.  'They all look fine,' said my consultant.  

So, am I out of the woods?  We are none of us ever out of the woods.  Am I fit?  My programme of fitness commences.  Is my heart all right?  I hope so – now that I have heard it, paid it homage, dipped buckets in its well, and seen the breathing imprint of its internal rivers.

14 February 2014

An Abiding Passion

Mr Darcy wrapping paper from Jane Austen house

In addition to the I Love Mr Darcy wrapping paper pictured above, there were three important things I brought back from Jane Austen's house in Chawton, Hampshire, when we visited a couple of weeks ago on a drizzly grey unpromising day - much like the one outside right now - to find welcome respite in the solid and genteel red brick house, which was the author's home for the eight years before she died.

The first was that sense of excitement tempered with frustration when attempting to infer, imbibe and inhale a life whose artefacts and props are situated all around.  Everything was tantalisingly close - there was the very table she wrote at, there were the letters penned with quill in her assured script, there was the quilt sewn with her mother and sister from scraps of fabric salvaged from their dresses.  And I waited and hoped, merely by dint of walking the same floorboards, that the spasm, the jolt, the judder of inspiration and genius would manifest itself in my own cells.

The second was a reminder about discipline.  Jane's day habitually went something like this: piano before breakfast, writing throughout the morning, a two-hour walk in the afternoon through the gently undulating countryside, then sewing and conversation - if not the occasional writing - in the evening.  Of course, any artist worth their salt understands the need for discipline and the necessity of 'showing up at the page' (as Julia Cameron of The Artist's Way would have it.)  Indeed, Jane's own prescription for dogged perserverance is clear.   'I am not at all in a humour for writing; I must write on till I am', she said in a letter to her sister, Cassandra.  But as I placed a hand around my own throat to drag myself away this morning from a discussion about the benefits of kiwis and cucumbers on Spanish internet television, (ostensibly both educational and linguistically stretching) I envied her life without saturation levels of distraction. 

The third was a lesson about passion and commitment.  No, I am not necessarily referring to Mr Darcy, or the need to marry for love - although those themes may be appropriate for Valentine's Day.  This very day, a ring once owned by the author has been returned to the Jane Austen house in Chawton.  Bought at auction last year by the American singer Kelly Clarkson, its export from this country was prevented, allowing time for sufficient funds to be raised to buy it back.  As far as we know, it was not a ring given to Jane Austen from a suitor, but the determination shown by admirers of the author to keep the piece of jewellery here - not to mention a sizeable donation by an unknown benefactor - are testament to the esteem in which she is still held.  It is appropriate that, as far as possible, her objets should be kept at the very spot where Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion were birthed, and Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey were revised.  This is the work of the Jane Austen House Museum, which receives no regular government funding, but relies on donations, public admissions, and sales from its shop.  Their passion for and abiding sense of  Jane Austen as a pioneering writer, as a keen observer of mores, as a woman breaking new ground, linked with the absolute necessity of keeping her actual bricks and mortar home open and available to the public, can only be celebrated.

22 January 2014

Why I (Sometimes) Wear High Heels

Shoes from Yo Amo Los Zapatos

Things are sodden here in the south of England after the rain we've been experiencing.   Someone in the sky keeps turning on the tap.  The full regalia of wellingtons, galoshes or indeed fisherman's wading boots would have been preferable at the weekend when I went squelching through mud that oozed over the top of my normally serviceable walking boots.

Indeed, the wearing of anything as ridiculous as heels was furthermost from my mind - until I  got back home, washed out mud-dribbled socks, then looked at some of the Facebook photos of a couple of new South American friends to the A Woman in Goggles band page.   Clearly, they were shoe crazy, having posted nothing but pictures of exotic footwear from Yo Amo Los Zapatos - the Spanish language version of the Shoelovers website.  Curiosity won out and I clicked on the mouse to see what all the fuss was about.  And there in its splendour was all manner of vertiginous walking gear - beribboned, bestrapped, bebuckled, and impressively beheeled.   

Somehow, I've never completely subscribed to this Woman-as-Shoe thing, witness the sorry contents of the wardrobe.  Let's see, I must possess something approaching close to (ballpark figure) three pairs of high-heeled shoes.

But.  However.  Still...

Why I Wear High Heels
To look taller, of course:
create plinths for my legs
so they can masquerade
as objets fashioned by Bernini;

to shock complacent feet
out of jam-like spread,
streamline them
and keep them on their toes;

to seduce my gait
away from its forward intent,
teach it to rock to the lateral
in a slow pendulum sway;

to click in a tight secretary skirt
down the waxed corridors
of the Johnson Building,
Racine, Wisconsin, circa 1950;

to liberate the calligraphy
trapped in stilettos,
inking circles and swirls
on wood as I dance;

to gain vantage over hedges,
whose shadows hide
the ploughings left
by serfs in their fiefs;

to lift into the burl
of the west wind,
bump the top of my head
on the underside of wings;

and every night,
removing high heels,
to stand down,
find the earth once more.

© Katie Griffiths

2 January 2014

A Coat, a Wig and a Roving Star

Having being born the day before the traditional Epiphany, squeaking in just before the Twelve Days of Christmas are officially over, I’ve grown up being aware of stars and wise men out wandering.

And while I can imagine The Magi at this time of year on their singular journey, busy looking towards the heavens, my own eyes seem to be more firmly on the ground tracking wise men.  Any wise man or woman.  The kind of person on whose door you can rap, who will invite you in, speak in riddles you must untangle, ladle out warming broth, sit and listen to your woes, dust you down, then set you back on course, clearer and more focused.  

I realise that wise people rarely heave into view looking like Gandalf and more often come across your path heavily disguised – often in the garb of a person you’re too instantly prepared to dismiss.  I thought of one yesterday as I was cleaning the bathroom for visitors.  In fact, I think of him every single time I wipe down a basin, and hear his voice saying: immer fliessend, Katie, immer fliessend.  He was a barrel-bellied Croatian gastarbeiter in the Hansa Hotel in Wiesbaden, where I was a chambermaid for the summer I was nineteen, and he taught me everything I now know about turning round a bathroom in minutes – especially, although not necessarily economically, by keeping the water continually running while swooshing around the taps with a cloth.  His words, which were originally meant simply to communicate a knack, have transformed over time into a nugget of wisdom,  and the instructions immer fliessend, meaning always flowing, have become a mantra in my head, not just about water in a basin, but about a way of living that aspires to be easy and fluid rather than rigid and stuck.  

Yet I am still drawn to the notion of a wise and wondrous magical character, stepping out of the gloom attired in home-spun but mystic raiments.  As you can see in the photo above, I’ve laid out his/her coat in readiness (a Kashmiri embroidered dressing gown that my mother brought back from India when she was twenty-seven) and I've provided a flowing mane of hair and a hat graced with the proverbial star.  We used these props in a recent You Tube release of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star reworked by the A Woman in Goggles band.

For this traditional song of looking, wondering and seeking is nothing if not a song for Epiphany.  

And the pictured clothes are waiting to be inhabited and spring to life.