Tuesday, September 18, 2018

My Latest First Anniversary

The other day it occurred to me, with a smirk of satisfaction, that I haven't had a seizure for a year. Of course, these anniversaries are meaningless in a way. I could have one ten, twenty, thirty seconds from now and be right back where I started. I have gone for longer than a year without seizures too. Once I lasted eighteen months and thought I had beaten the condition, to whatever extent a permanent condition can be beaten. But last year, in the space of a few months, I had three very bad seizures; once I might even have died had my partner not been with me when it happened. So I will allow myself a small moment of celebration.

I have not gone without my brushes with the condition this year. I've had multiple warnings -- auditory and visual hallucinations that can precede a seizure. They often came when I was over-tired, or when I watched television in the dark, or looked at a computer screen for too long without a break. They came when I was feeling under pressure too. Only yesterday, on the bus going to a meeting I didn't want to attend, the warning happened, and as usual I thought a seizure might be seconds away. Fortunately, it wasn't; I just had to sit through the meeting with a headache and the nausea that warnings -- one might call them false warnings -- leave you with.

Today, on my latest first anniversary, I am feeling good, if a little tired after waking up early and getting no fresh air since. Will I go another day without having a seizure? Will I go another month? Another year? I don't expect anything from my condition except surprises, so we'll see what happens. As Raymond Carver once (beautifully) wrote, as part of a longer poem:

After that it was all gravy, every minute
of it, up to and including when he was told about,
well, some things that were breaking down and
building up inside his head. “Don’t weep for me,”
he said to his friends. “I’m a lucky man.
I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone
expected. Pure Gravy. And don’t forget it.”

'Gravy' by Raymond Carver

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Casting Out the Devil: Living with the Stigma of Epilepsy

Recently I lost my job. I'd been working at House of Fraser's Wellingborough warehouse for four years. Last year we began hearing whispers about its financial problems. Then DHL lost the contract to deliver the service for House of Fraser; it was won by XPO, who, we all presumed, had promised to deliver the same service for less money. But whatever was happening in the offices over our heads didn't work. House of Fraser went into administration and was bought by Mike Ashley, owner of Sports Direct, where the abuse of workers was so infamous Ashley was called to explain himself in Parliament. (As far as I'm aware, not much changed.) Ashley, as the new boss at House of Fraser, immediately fell into a dispute with XPO, who wanted some assurance that he would make good on the millions of pounds they'd invested in automation to make the service more 'efficient'. He said he would pay them nothing; he was under no legal obligation to pay, so he wouldn't. It was war. And we, the ordinary workers, were the victims. Everybody at the warehouse employed by an agency -- the number ran into the hundreds -- was told with only a couple of days' notice not to come into work anymore. My agency promised to find us all other jobs. I expressed an interest in a certain warehouse on the outside of Northampton, my choice dictated by amenable hours and the accessibility of the place by bus. I'd had enough of the four-hour commute I'd put myself through every night for the last four years just to get to Wellingborough, only ten miles from my house. And everything seemed to be set; at a jobs fair I'd attended they said the company were desperate for new staff. I even spoke to the agency man who supervised that particular contract, asking him if he knew when I might be starting. 'I'm talking to the manager this afternoon,' he told me. 'He'll tell me what sort of volumes he needs and when, and I'll get back to you.' (People are 'volumes' now in the workplace.) That call happened six weeks ago and I've had no reply. Why? I can only guess. When the agency staff were laid off at House of Fraser, the supervisor there said our personal files would be passed directly on to the supervisor in our new workplace. And on my file there is one word that, in the years since my diagnosis, has changed everything: EPILEPSY. The same agency knew about my epilepsy at House of Fraser; but I'd already been in the job for two years when I was asked to make a health declaration by either the agency or DHL, so I lied and said I'd just been diagnosed. I knew what would happen if I didn't. I'd been treated like a pariah by employers since I started having seizures. It makes you guarded about what you say and to whom, and it cautions you always to expect the worst. The worst, after all, usually happens. But since, as far as they knew, my epilepsy was a recent discovery, they couldn't fire me because of it. That, of course, would be discrimination. Hiring someone who you know to be epileptic, of course, is quite a different matter. And you can have all the anti-discrimination laws you like, but if an employer doesn't want you because you're black, or a woman, or you have a learning difficulty, or you're in a wheelchair, or you have a long-term medical condition like I have, all they have to do is say, 'We went with someone with more experience,' and nobody can contradict them. Unless you can afford to go to court.
When I tell prospective employers I have epilepsy it's like the kiss of death. You can see the horror in their faces as they try to calculate how to respond to my disclosure without landing their company in a lot of legal trouble. One care work company actually had their lawyers on me, and insisted I give the company directors access to my medical records.And I have informed another agency in the last six weeks about my condition and despite my experience, my qualifications and my immaculate (ironic, isn't it?) sickness record, they can find nothing for me either.
Is this a coincidence? Have I become, in the last few years, mysteriously unemployable? Perhaps, but I don't think so. All of which leads me to an obvious solution. If I want work, I will just have to lie about my health as I did before to get work. But then, every company I've worked for in the last decade does random drug testing. If something you're taking is detected in your urine sample, and you haven't declared it, you will be instantly dismissed. As an epileptic I have to avoid stress. I can't be fearing, every day when I go to work, that I won't have a job before my shift is finished. I've got my seizures under control now, more or less; that kind of anxiety would put me on the floor again in hours. I can only hope that something good comes along, and while I'm waiting for that to happen, do a little retraining. Warehousing was all I could do when my epilepsy barred me from continuing in care work. Maybe if I learned how to do something else, I'll find less fear, more open-mindedness about what is, after all, a condition which many of us can have and lead perfectly normal, safe and productive lives. After being seizure-free for a certain amount of time a person is allowed to drive again; if you are considered safe behind the wheel of a car on a busy road, where could you, with any justice, be considered a danger?

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Shipwrecked in Trumpland

There's a poetry page I've recently discovered that's doing something I think is really important. It's called Winedrunk Sidewalk: Shipwrecked in Trumpland and as the name suggests, it publishes a lot of poems about Donald Trump. I don't know if it has ever published any poetry in praise of Trump; I'd be surprised if anyone had written any, at least any that were publishable. But the anti-Trump poetry is fierce. So are some of the other pieces, all of which the editor, John Grochalski, selects to build a picture of life in Trump's America. Don't like messages in your poetry? Think writers should stay out of politics? The quality of the work in Winedrunk Sidewalk makes those objections redundant anyway, but as I'm sure John would agree, there are times when intellectual detachment just isn't good enough. The leader of the most powerful nation in the world is a racist, a homophobe, a self-confessed sexual predator and an enemy of the free press. Only weeks ago a socialist bookstore in London was raided by fascists. Can we continue to turn our backs and pretend everything's dandy when the world we grew up in, as fucked up as it was, is collapsing around our ears?

Saturday, March 31, 2018

What's Going On: Keeping It New in my Fifties

Leah Song of Rising Appalachia

Poetry is my vocation but music is my love. Music even gave me poetry, in a sense. I'd read one poem I loved before, but only one: Dryden's 'MacFlecknoe', which succeeded where others failed because it had fart jokes and a reference to people chucking their poo into the Thames in the morning. But listening to the words of Bob Dylan, I woke up to poetry's incredible possibilities. I also first encountered Allen Ginsberg in Dylan's movie 'Renaldo and Clara'.

I don't listen to Dylan anymore. There seems no need, I exhausted my appetite for his take on the world a long time ago. Other musical heroes have faded (Neil Young, for example) while on certain days I still listen to some. When Willie Nelson has a new one out, I always try to hear it. Partly that's because of Willie's amused detachment from the business he's in. He doesn't need fame for personal completion.The other reason is that he doesn't do the same thing repeatedly. In the last few years we've seen a reggae album and duets with Snoop Dogg interspersed with peace songs and dark meditations on death.

My creativity and my sense of personal well-being rely on my involvement with other artists; not as much as they depend on my relationships, but art is significant. Music, however, has changed. Just not in the way we think. Some younger people I've spoken to say it isn't as good as it used to be. And people in their forties and older, many of us, are convinced it's not. 'In our day you could see the Sex Pistols and the Jam on the same edition of "Top of the Pops",' they say. 'Now everything is Ed Sheeran and Adele.' I've even expressed that view myself on occasion and retreated into old musical habits to hide my mind from the over-produced commercialised garbage played ad nauseum on the radio. Crosby, Stills and Nash are vastly more appealing to my ears than anything I've heard on Heart Extra.

The thing is, you won't hear anything on the radio that will shake you up or thrill you or liberate you, not anymore. (There wasn't that much of it in the old days either.) It's true what the jaded nostalgia buffs and old cynics say about the music business being swallowed by the capitalist ethos of (in Jim Morrison's words) 'money beats soul every time'. If the record companies can't make money from an artist they won't sign him or her; and if artists doesn't bring a radio station listeners, it won't play them.

What those of us of an advanced vintage often forget is that we no longer need radio stations, or even music shops, to act as our intermediaries when it comes to music. The internet has been unwelcome, in a way, for artists with multi-million dollar recording contracts. Columbia police YouTube like Chinese secret police in Lhasa and insist every upload of a Bob Dylan song (Dylan, the scion of Woody Guthrie) be deleted for copyright reasons. Artists without contracts, or artists recording on tiny labels, however, can put their music online and be heard, potentially, almost anywhere in the world. And as listeners we can hear almost any musician in the world, if they have access to a camera.

So lately I've been doing just that, going online to see what, and who, I could find. There are probably a hundred different platforms I don't know about, but YouTube is the one I've been using for my investigations. The results have been extraordinary. It turns out there is a whole generation of young artists who I'd never even heard of making fresh, honest, soulful, brilliant new music. You will never see most of it on tv, and if some of these men and women get within five miles of a giant concert venue it will be when they are busking for pennies from Sheeran fans. But that isn't important. It's the music that's important. Which sounds dreadfully purist and not at all the sort of sentiment you're supposed to indulge in now, but I think people should be purists about their art. Power subjugates and controls first by making us cynical.

Here's one band I found during my searches for new music online. Even their name would prevent them from being played on the radio, unless 'on the rag' means something different on the other side of the water. Seeing how they rattle out 'Something Smells Like Fish', though, I have a feeling that exclusion from mainstream radio wouldn't bother them a bit. They look like they're having a party out on the street.

The most polished and realised of the bands is Rising Appalachia, at least from the searches I've made. They have had some success already, and they come with a complete environmental and spiritual vision for the world. I thought they were my discovery until Martyna, a hippie friend, told me she listened to them every morning. Then I found out one of my other Facebook friends was an admirer too. They do have music out. I've looked for them on Amazon to see if they had a cd I could buy. Unfortunately, they're all in the £15-25 range, which is a little out of my league. 

I could go on for much longer about the fantastic music that's being made right now, and how inspiring it has been for me creatively to find it. But I don't want to tax the reader's patience. I'll end with one more video, this one featuring the most raggle-taggle gang you'll ever see knocking out a great performance on the street. They're the Rail Yard Ghosts and they kick serious musical arse.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Discovering India

This is Gaurav Maurander. I bought a cd of his for 50 pence in a Northampton charity shop yesterday. 'Neemrana: A Musical Journey in India.' I didn't know anything about him, but I liked the image on the front of the disc. It had several people seated on a stage playing traditional Indian instruments: the sitar, the tabla, the sarod, the tampura. There was no evidence anywhere of anything remotely modern or intrinsically Western. It was unlikely, therefore, to be one of those ghastly cds you buy in alternative shops which drown traditional Asian music in soporific synthesisers and rain sounds as a relaxation aid. It was also, as I've already mentioned, only 50 pence, so if I'd guessed incorrectly I wouldn't be too much out of pocket.

The album, I'm happy to report, is a joy, although the liner notes reveal that there's a strong Western connection. The collection of musical pieces that comprised the tour from which 'Neemrana' derives were all composed by Gaurav, but he was asked to write them by two French musicians, and most of the musicians on the tour were French. The last track 'Pahadi-Dhun' was recorded in France too, although the rest are from performances in India. 

Musical criticism isn't my forte, as readers of Suffolk Punch will know. Largely this is because I haven't got a clue about the technicalities of musical composition; if I knew the vocabulary of music, in other words, I might be able to talk about it better. And I understand that traditional Indian music is extremely complicated. Watch, as I have, Ringo Starr and George Harrison discussing how maddeningly elusive mastery of Indian rhythms is in the Scorcese documentary 'Living in the Material World'.

All I can say about 'Neemrana', then, is that it sounds like the India of my mind (I've never been): I don't know how, but the music evokes great heat, flat landscapes and slowly winding rivers, the air pregnant with ancient deities; it also captures the busy-ness of teeming cities. Which is precisely what I want from Indian music. The dance beats that I hear on the BBC Asian Network give me nothing I can't get on mainstream English radio; and I've rarely danced in the fifty three years I've been on the planet.

With time to spare, and curious enough to know more about Gaurav, I entered his name into the search bar on YouTube; unsurprisingly, perhaps, he's there. Each video of his also suggested numerous other traditional Indian musicians I was equally unaware of. This made me realise something interesting. I'm a relatively intelligent, open-minded and culturally aware man. But there are whole areas of the arts I know nothing about, and the determining factor in my ignorance, other than laziness (which would prevent me from digging for information hidden by the cultural selections made by an ethnocentric media), is obviously race. The only sitar players I could have named before yesterday were Ravi and Anoushka Shankar. Perhaps I need to stop expecting that my artistic inspirations should like quite so much like me?

Here's Roopa Panesar, a musician who, my research this morning shows, is well known enough to have been featured on Radio Three - not that I had a clue. I'll be on YouTube again tomorrow looking for more.

George Orwell: When the Etonian Reared his Head

Reading Orwell's 'Down and Out in Paris and London' for the second time, I notice something I didn't see the first time around: his upper-crust Englishness. I'm no Orwell expert, but like everyone who grew up in the political Left, I have a certain sentimental view of him as a champion of the working class; as a libertarian; as an egalitarian; as someone who crusaded for the binning of the old world order.

'1984' and 'Animal Farm' certainly show us a man opposed to totalitarianism, and only a dogmatist would believe that was the province of politics in the East. But traditional English values seem to run through Orwell, at least pre-war Orwell, the way a seaside town's name runs through a stick of rock.

You can see the Old Etonian in his generalisations about race. He expresses a peculiar belief, for example, that Americans know nothing about 'good' food:

They would stuff themselves with disgusting American 'cereals', and eat marmalade at tea, and drink vermouth after dinner [...]. Perhaps it hardly matters whether such people are swindled or not.

Another pearl of wisdom is that women aren't given the job of chef in Parisian hotels because they are less able to co-ordinate the preparation and delivery of multiple simultaneous orders. The most surprising comment, however - at least for me - was this one about waiters:

[...] They work fifteen hours, seven days a week, in many cafes. They are snobs, and they find the servile nature of their work rather congenial.

Only an old Etonian, or the equivalent, could believe that. Hard work and long hours might be congenial to those who are amply rewarded, but no one who's getting paid a pittance wants to spend the best part of every day working his arse off for someone else, even if he or she does think it might be an investment in the future. 

None of the above observations diminish either my enjoyment of the book or my respect for Orwell (perhaps my respect for him is diminished a bit). He was a man of his time, and in any case, I feel I know him a little better by reading them. Many offspring of the upper classes have felt compelled, in the last 200 years, to take up the cudgels on behalf of the worker.

In the current climate of the Labour Party, however - the party which lionises Orwell traditionally - I think about the comments I've quoted, and other, frankly rather racist ones that I couldn't find as I leafed back through the book, and wonder what the reaction to them would be from Labour members if he were alive today, and he posted them on Twitter. The anti-Americanism might meet with tacit approval; even Americans have had the gravest doubts about their country since the election of Donald Trump. But I suspect there'd be considerable public condemnation and expressions of regret by party members about the rest of his remarks, even if they did fall short of calling him a Blairite, which is the usual, habitual response.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Lynching of Radclyffe Hall

Radclyffe Hall may be the least remembered of all the Western writers, poets and playwrights whose life and works were pilloried and forced to endure protracted legal battles in the last couple of centuries. Every person with an interest in the arts knows about Oscar Wilde, D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Henry Miller, Allen Ginsberg. But Radclyffe Hall? My own guilty confession is that I didn't even come across her name until Ginsberg mentioned her in a BBC interview in 1995 or '96. 

Why is she lower on the literary radar when her book 'The Well of Loneliness' caused a scandal and was prosecuted, and ultimately banned, under the Obscene Publications Act? One answer leaps to mind. Any man whose novel was condemned by the Home Secretary, now or historically, as 'gravely detrimental to the public interest', would be celebrated for all time. Radclyffe Hall was a woman, though, and a lesbian. Or, as she liked to call herself, an 'invert'. The book, which I haven't read, seems to have been a plea for these inverts, presenting them as suffering outcasts who deserve tolerance and understanding rather than the condemnation of the upright heterosexual world.

Can't argue with that, you might think, sitting here in the somewhat brighter light of 2018. But 90 years ago lesbianism, while not strictly against the law like male homosexuality, was seen as vile and corrupt, a degenerate practice that went against nature and would certainly lead astray any impressionable young woman who was exposed to it. So when Radclyffe Hall, already a successful novelist with a public profile, wrote a book on the subject, the moral guardians of the age went into overdrive, using tactics that wouldn't have been out of place in Soviet Russia to suppress it.

Hall had intellectual opinion on her side, but only in the sense that the academic and creative heavyweights of her day generally supported her right to publish. According to Diana Souhami's biography 'The Trials of Radclyffe Hall', Leonard Woolf didn't like the book, Cyril Connolly thought it 'brave' but humourless and boring, and Virginia Woolf thought the campaign to defend it a distraction, and wished it had never been written.

Woolf would defend 'The Well of Loneliness' in court, however, which H.G. Wells and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle both avoided even promising to do by announcing that they had left the country. John Galsworthy, who amusingly was the President of the PEN Club, said he was too busy to go to court and that anyway, literary freedom of expression was not at risk from the Government's attempt to ban Radclyffe Hall's book. The only notable author of the time who agreed to appear for the prosecution, supporting thereby the view that its content was obscene and all copies in existence should be burned, was Rudyard Kipling, creator of Mowgli and Baloo. Kipling also wrote 'The White Man's Burden', one of the most racist poems I've ever fouled ten minutes of my day with, so perhaps there should be no surprise.

At the trial, despite the presence of Woolf, E.M. Forster and 'almost every author of repute', in Sheila Kaye-Smith's words, the case was lost. Sir Chartres Biron, the judge, responding to a reasonable request by the defence to call expert testimony, made the outrageous declaration, 'I am here to decide whether this book is obscene or not.' And perhaps to no one's great surprise, after an appeal that was also lost, 'The Well of Loneliness' was 'consigned to the King's furnace.'

The extracts I've read from Hall's book have more in common stylistically with the writers of a previous age than the experiments and innovations of her contemporaries; by all accounts extremely conservative (quite an irony), only a few years later she developed a virulent anti-Semitism and a naïve infatuation with Mussolini. She was, however -- not that such things are excusable -- molested as a child, and forced to live in a world that regarded her natural sexual orientation as perverted and sinful. That would do great damage to most of us. Being different, or feeling different (sometimes not the same thing), in a society that favours conformity is a well of loneliness that drops very deep into the ground.

Do you remember a time when you sat down and decided whether you were going to fancy boys or girls? No, me neither. What worries me, when I read about Radclyffe Hall, or I consider what happened to Oscar Wilde, is that the tides of political reaction sweeping across the world may take us back to the days when people could be brutalised by the state, as they were, for loving in a fashion proscribed by the authors of a 2000 year old book. Which is the more offensive anyway, a novel that celebrates the diversity of love, or a spirit manual that calls it an abomination when the participants in the exchange can't populate an already over-populated world with more children?

Sunday, March 04, 2018

David Ogden Stiers

David Ogden Stiers, who played the fabulously snotty, secretly fragile Charles Emerson Winchester III in M*A*S*H, has died. God, I loved that show with its brilliant word play and unrestrained self-righteous liberalism. Winchester, of all the main protagonists, was perhaps the only unapologetic Republican in the 4077th (Margaret Houlihan started that way, but softened considerably as the show matured); and yet, because of the depth David Ogden Stiers brought to the characterisation, not to mention his fabulous comic tone and timing, he was always my favourite. I saw a little piece of myself in Winchester too, with his habit of taking refuge from the world in music and the sublimities of art. We did it for different reasons, but there were many times when I too would sit alone in the tent listening to Dylan or Ginsberg while people lived and laughed on the other side of the canvas.