I can do this. Clumsily, inelegantly, but it feels as good as I thought it would.
Hup, backwards, forwards hold hold hold, backwards, seven hold hold, backwards, over, arms, legs – or sometimes arms legs with no comma.
I can do this. Clumsily, inelegantly, but it feels as good as I thought it would.
Hup, backwards, forwards hold hold hold, backwards, seven hold hold, backwards, over, arms, legs – or sometimes arms legs with no comma.
Perhaps in years to come my children will want books to teach my grandchildren to read. Please return to number 1 and repeat.
trapeze. Yes, the rumours are true, I am going to trapeze lessons. I booked the first when I was manic and running away with the circus was on my to-do list. It is a lot like childbirth, in that you wet yourself and you swing from ‘I-cannot-do-this-I’m-never-doing-this-again’ to ‘Please, I have to do it again, it’s my turn.’ You go pasty white and pant because otherwise you forget to breathe. Breathing isn’t automatic because jumping off a platform and doing something that causes searing pain (on a level with quite advanced labour, only it doesn’t come and go) is somewhat counterintuitive so you have to switch off all instinctive behaviour.) And I shout ‘fuck, sorry, fuck’ quite a lot. Very much like childbirth. Between weekly lessons, purple splats appear on my skin where little threads inside me have torn. I am splitting at the seams. And I am right up against the child I was in school gym lessons. The humiliation. A dance teacher person mimicked me in front of the class because I’d scratched my bum. When it was my group’s turn to climb the ropes, I had to faff about for the whole ten minutes and try to look busy or invisible so that I didn’t look ridiculous trying to heave myself up. And now I don’t have to do this. I can choose not to go to gym lessons or dance lessons and no one expects me to climb ropes or jump over things. Now I choose to return to trapeze lessons at a circus where people all around me do things I thought had been bred out of humans evolutions ago. They are snakes, monkeys, birds, dancing very high up suspended by swathes of fabric hanging from the ceiling. They twist and turn and tumble the fabric around their limbs. They are human macramé. And I swing from the trapeze with a pain in my pecs that says stop now! WTF! OMG! Perhaps I will go through a barrier. Soon.
Reasons why people with manic depression should go to trapeze lessons:
Scroll down for information about Azimjon Askarov. Firstly, suggested actions today and until further notice:
720755, Kyrgyz Republic, Bishkek city, 91 Malikova Street, Penal colony #47
Prison Address in Russian:
Азимжану Аскарову 720755, Кыргызская Республика, г. Бишкек, ул. Маликова 91,Исправительная колония № 47
Please send appeals:
President of Kyrgyzstan, His Excellency Almazbek Atambayev, Office of the President, Chuy Avenue 205, 72003 Bishkek, Republic of Kyrgyzstan
Prosecutor General Aida Salyanova, Prosecutor General of Kyrgyzstan, 139 Toktonalieva Street, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
My friend who writes so frankly and simply about the days when the wall came down writes here about the days when it went up:
“13th August 1961
It was a Sunday, the sun was out and I was ready to spend it going swimming in one of the many Berlin lakes. Asking for my ticket at the station Of the S- Bahn (Berlin urban railway) to get to Wannsee, I was somehow puzzled when I was asked where I was going exactly. ‘Oh,’ the woman answered, ‘it is just that the other stations are closed down.’
I was still puzzled as I stood in the empty train, empty because it was so early, but I went on swimming and later in the morning I went back home. I have no recollection how I finally heard that the borders had been closed. There were, I believe, many people who just like me did not comprehend what was happening, only gradually.
The previous days and weeks more and more people from the East had crossed the border into West Berlin, most of them using public transport of tube or S-Bahn. You never used those without your identity card and I still see the Vopos walking up and down the trains looking at people, searching bags and taking people off the train who had suitcases or looked ‘suspicious.’
The people who made it to West Berlin had to register as refugees and unless they had relatives or friends in Berlin they had to stay in refugee camps and then they were flown out to West Germany. There had been photographs of the long queues outside the camps in the papers.
Later I recall talking with my brother about what we would do if West Berlin was invaded and that is when I heard how to make a Molotov cocktail. I am so glad I never did make one. Our confusion, hatred, feeling of powerlessness and our fear grew and grew.
Several times I went to the Brandenburg Gate and stood among the people shouting – and also silent – in hatred and sadness. The immensity of these feelings is still with me now. It taught me for the rest of my life how one can be swept away with these.
Life in Berlin was tense. When the American tanks stood right opposite the Russian tanks, their guns pointing at each other, at Checkpoint Charlie World War III seemed imminent.
I cycled to work in those days, all along a street which takes you to the western part of West Berlin called Heerstrasse which is a continuation of the boulevard starting outside the Brandenburger Gate. It is a tree-lined broad street with wide cycle lanes either side. It was again early, very few people around. Then suddenly I saw a British soldier in complete battle gear, holding his rifle ready to shoot. And two or three trees on another and another and another. I was terrified. There were none of the usual soldier calls to the young girl passing by. For the minutes it took me to reach my destination World War III had started.
I learned soon after that it was an exercise. I will never forget the terror I felt on that morning.
The Wall grew. Tragic accounts continued be told, so many deaths, so much pain. My old great aunt was alone in East Berlin, we could not even telephone. For me East Berlin and East Germany became an unreachable garden where the ogres ruled – and beware.
Would I ever see Germany re-united? Would it be in my life time?
I am so grateful that I was there when it happened.”
Irene Empson 9th November 2014.
The 9th November is the 25th anniversary of the day people crossed the wall that split Berlin, unchallenged and jubilant.
Many of us will pause to remember the sacrifice of the armed forces during wars past and all too present. Let us then also pause to reflect on the period between 1961 and 1989 when a city was split so completely that people were killed for trying to reach family on the other side.
(As December approaches another ‘Eastern Bloc’ country will be very much on my mind. In Romania, Ceaușescu had ruined the economy of the country and stolen luxury for himself and his entourage whilst most people starved. I will write more as we come to the anniversaries of the violent road to change in Romania. NB: this link contains distressing images from the start.)
But this week is for Germany and the Germans. I struggle with the packaging of history in books, media reports and school curriculum materials. I prefer to learn my history from the stories of individuals who experienced an event. A lovely friend in Cardiff agreed to tell me how it was for her when she heard the news that ‘the wall’ had fallen. (She has pieces, kept in air tight tupperware because it is said to have asbestos in it). She is German and moved to the UK where she married and had children and grandchildren. She was at home in England when reports hit the British television:
“That evening I was clearing up in the kitchen, the children went to watch the news. Then my oldest called telling me to come and watch as ‘they have opened up the wall’. I was quite cross with him and told him so saying that he should know better than to joke about this to me, but he just stared at me and urged me to ‘come and look’. Well we all sat together, I was glued to the TV, I was sobbing my heart out. It was true. After 28 years of tears and pain and separation people from the East walked into West Berlin and nobody shot at them and no dogs chased them and nobody walked them off into prisons. The next day at work I was still crying. I still cried in the evening , again glued to the TV. I did not realise until much later that I actually was in shock.(Even my regular blood donation yielded nothing). My husband suddenly got up from watching TV, left the room and when he came back half an hour later he told me that we were going to Heathrow in the morning as he had just succeeded in getting me a flight.
Well, that started me on one of the most breathtaking, emotional experiences of my life.
West Berlin was a mass of people. All around the centrum the road was closed to traffic and people just partied, hugged, sang, laughed, cried. A whole city celebrating. ‘Freude! Alle Menschen werden Brueder….!’ I breathed it in, I lived it, I felt it. And I embraced people just on impulse, joy does not know about strangers. You looked and suddenly you were in each others’ arms, laughing and crying. I then travelled on by tube to Checkpoint Charlie. All public transport was free and in the tube we were all like sardines. When I arrived at this place – the Checkpoint- which had always chilled me to the bone and I had had some unpleasant experiences I stood watching people coming over to the West, some tentatively, others already in party mood and the hugging and crying and laughing continued. Well, I walked all the way to the Brandenburger Gate along the wall. There were moments then when I also remembered standing there before, then nineteen years of age seeing the wall being built. I remembered my rage then and my hatred. Well it was pretty late, when I finally called my brother asking for a bed for the night. In his rather laconic manner he just said,’I thought you may be here’.
I was up again very early as we had heard the wall was going to be opened up at the Potsdamer Platz to create a further crossing point. So I was there when the cranes lifted the large sections of the wall away. I knew then in my very own heart that it would last, there would be no return to closing it down again. People had climbed on top of the wall, I am afraid to my deep regret I did not manage that. And when the opening was finally open we surged across. On the West the Wall was full of graffiti, colourful, odd sometimes witty drawings, sad drawings, messages.
On the East , however, it was white— completely white— a sinister white – a long stretch of white along the empty stretch of the Todestreifen . All the Vopos seemed young lads, uncertain how to deal with this crowd of emotionally charged people , some of the Vopos handing out pieces of the wall, which had broken away when the slabs had been lofted. That’s where I got my first three pieces from, three pieces of Berlin Wall for my three children.
Some months back my youngest had asked me what I would do if I could cross the wall. I remember that I had answered that I would cross over and go back and cross over and come back and go on doing that for many a times and that is just what I did. And nobody stopped me.
Finally people from the East were allowed to cross at the newly created check point .We greeted the people coming from the East with the same joy and hugs. There were people who had travelled from quite distant places in East Germany. One woman told me how she had been taking part in the Leipzig demonstrations, how she had always dreamed to go to the West Berlin Philamonia Hall and that she now had a ticket for this very evening. We danced around as sisters and to this day I often think of her wondering how she fared in the years to come.
The whole family returned to Berlin at Christmas.We were there when the Brandenburger Gate was opened as a crossing point and I finally was able to actually walk through the Brandenburger Gate, my children became ‘wallpeckers’ when they chipped away pieces of the wall, the Vopos waved to us from the Watchtowers and we were able to go to East Berlin. New Years Eve night was a party beyond belief . One late night my daughter and I went to the Brandenburger Gate knowing it would be less crowded. The Vopo was slightly concerned about my daughter being out so late. But we both were deeply moved by this experience especially when a man suddenly started singing a well known German song about Freedom and Freedom of thought – Die Gedanken sind frei – .
I knew he was singing it for himself. He stood there all alone in the cold night only his voice travelled and silently I sang with him not wanting to interfere with his dream.
Is it really 25 years ago? I do not think I will ever lose the depth of my feelings when I step into the old East. Having lived away from Berlin during all that time it has remained special for me and I am sure will continue to do so.
I will probably mark the anniversary by sitting in my chair, closing my eyes and travel in time into the land of my memories.”
I invite you to ask German people you meet what they felt and what they did – when the wall went up, whilst it was a part of life, and when it came down. Please share stories; it’s how I like my history.
We discussed 4 burning issues. Firstly, we considered the spectacularly titled Channel 5 programme ‘Never Teach Your Wife to Drive‘, which takes as its premise the fact that women are very silly and that tasks such as driving a car are beyond them.
Then we discussed some research that found that ‘half of Brits are bored with their lives.’ I made some brisk suggestions about getting out into the community, being mindful about one’s shopping and listening to the radio when you are cleaning. Cris claimed that washing one’s hair is boring, but I didn’t have time to challenge that because he also explained his theory that we use the word ‘bored’ to describe other feelings that we don’t have the emotional intelligence or language for. This is definitely worth a closer look.
We went on to a list similar researchers (hopefully on full government grants) had compiled of ‘things that make your day.’ These included sunshine, finding some money you forgot you had, and receiving a compliment. Less obvious was ‘bumping into a relative unexpectedly’, which I think has to be put in context before it can be considered as a day maker.
Finally, we were asked to comment on Mr Jason Orange’s departure from ‘Take That’. I could have lived my life exactly as I have so far even if he had never joined a band, so I took the opportunity to point out that Martha leaving Bake Off was more pressing as news.
I’m being silly here but in fact I loved it all. Thank you for having me Radio Wales. I am available at short notice for comment of a serious or flippant nature, with or without the Valleys accent that seems to come out of my mouth as soon as I get into a recording studio.
It is argued by some that Hilary Mantel has committed a crime in writing about the imagined ‘Assassination of Margaret Thatcher‘, and some commentators have suggested it is not simply a crime of taste or decency. However, I’m with Matthew Norman, writing for the Independent, when he asks ‘Under which precise law someone could be prosecuted for writing about the imaginary murder of a person now deceased..?’ Fortunately, I don’t think we have such a law in the UK. We are lucky, remember that.
I’m glad to see English PEN defend Hilary Mantel’s right to tell stories: ‘authors are free to shock or challenge their readership by depicting extraordinary events or extreme acts … It is most disturbing when politicians and commentators in a democracy start calling for censorship on the grounds of offence or bad taste. Not only does it undermine the right to freedom of expression in the UK, it sends a very poor signal to politicians in authoritarian regimes who sue, threaten and sometimes kill writers and journalists for satirising or criticising the political class.’
As a writer, I also defend Mantel’s right to tamper with the past when writing historical fiction, and in this case to imagine alternative stories for a ‘real’ character. Writers use ‘reality’, ‘real people’ and ‘real events’ all the time. At one extreme, what they write is almost documentary-style in its fidelity to ‘the truth’. At the other extreme, the experiences and characters we draw on are filtered and explored and experimented with, and are then harder to spot without some pause for reflection or analysis. (The disclaimer ‘All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental’ is almost always fiction, even if the writer doesn’t realise it at the time.)
Lord Timothy Bell apparently feels that the police should become involved: ‘If somebody admits they want to assassinate somebody, surely the police should investigate. This is in unquestionably bad taste’. As far as I know, you cannot in the UK be prosecuted for bad taste. Again, we are fortunate and can respect that. Indeed many chat-show hosts thrive on the freedom to act in what many of us feel is ‘bad taste’. You can, I think, be sued for being very very rude about someone, but that isn’t really the case here. Mantel isn’t the first person to shed a negative light on Mrs Thatcher’s policies or hairdo, and she couldn’t live the dream anyway, because her target is deceased… it’s a problematic assertion in various ways. And I’m not sure what the police would do: I can picture officers standing around while she offers them tea and waits for them to decide. It’s nice that Lord Bell ‘told the Sunday Times’ that ‘Mantel needs to see a therapist.’ Doesn’t he realise that that’s why writers write in the first place? Kathy Lette has always been honest about this, saying that she only writes ‘because it’s cheaper than therapy’.
My defence of Mantel is not simply that of a PEN member (WalesPENCymru, we’re one of the newest branches), but that of a person with feelings which can be hurt too. She has suffered illness, pain, infertility, confused diagnoses and quite some distress over the years, and she has been left physically affected by all this and by the medication involved. Some people notice that she isn’t thin or conventionally beautiful, and they mention this alongside (or instead of) her work. Her appearance seems to have been used as a weapon by Stuart Jackson MP, who tweeted:
‘Oh dear weirdo @hilarymantel … Sad to be puffed up with bile &hate’. Mr Jackson, your tweets are playground-nasty. You call people who express different opinions to your own ‘deranged’ and goad us to ‘Keep em coming’. How alarming that you represent us at government level. I suppose, with a heavy heart, that you use playground-speak and playground-tone in your work.
Katie Roubaix replies to the tweet above by reminding us that Kate Atkinson wrote alternative second world wars in her book ‘Life After Life’ – but then Hitler is a different case (children do it at school, when they discuss morality: ‘if you could go back in time and meet Hitler as a child, would you shoot him? I don’t think they do this with Margaret Thatcher, at least not in our constituency).
Hilary Mantel’s remarks about the Duchess of Cambridge are being misquoted all over again, to support the view that the writer is horrible, and in this case that she is specifically horrible to conventionally pretty people who can have babies. Look behind the out-of-context quotes and you will see that Hilary Mantel was not being nasty about Kate Middleton so much as vividly critical of how the media – and as a result many individuals – are packaging her. Mantel did not say that Kate is a ‘doll’, she said ‘I saw Kate becoming a jointed doll’ in the eyes of the gawping world. She did not say that ‘Kate’s eyes are dead’, she said that a portrait had killed them, and that in that portrait, Kate ‘wears the strained smile of a woman who really wants to tell the painter to bugger off.’ I suspect royal people often wear such smiles.
Hilary Mantel attempted to clarify things at the time: ‘when I used those words about the Duchess of Cambridge, I was describing the perception of her which has been set up in the tabloid press…My speech ended with a plea to the press and to the media in general. I said ‘back off and don’t be brutes. Don’t do to this young woman what you did to Diana’…My whole theme was the way we maltreat royal persons, making them one superhuman, and yet less than human. I do think that the Duchess of Cambridge is an intelligent young woman, who if she cares to read my essay will see that I meant nothing but good to her.’
As a writer, I am glad to see people engaged in the debate about what constitutes fiction, what is ‘acceptable’ material, and where the line might be that separates ‘truth’ from ‘fiction’. At the Open University Arts Faculty, we continually encourage this debate. I do hope that most people will communicate rather more respectfully and precisely than Mr Jackson, Lord Bell and company.
I am reminded by someone more intelligent than me that much of our armchair engagement with ‘current affairs’ is based on vague, brief information and a profound lack of understanding. We can’t be experts on everything, but we can stop to think before we fill the air with ill-informed ideas or judgements. It’s tough because information must come from a source, and an impartial source is hard to find and recognise. Maybe we can start by seeing what the people about whom we are talking have to say about themselves.
Now that the fences are down in South Wales (though – strikingly, alarmingly, inevitably – pick your adjective, erected in France for a different purpose), we could pause to find out about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization which was much-protested against and much-discussed this summer.
Here is NATO Secretary General AndersFogh Rasmussen summarising the summit in South Wales. He seems to be an approachable, polite man from the evidence of his tweets (which are followed by replies from angry people).
Here is the website where NATO explains itself accessibly.
Note: “NATO’s essential purpose is to safeguard the freedom and security of its members through political and military means. … NATO promotes democratic values and … is committed to the peaceful resolution of disputes.”
Note also: “If diplomatic efforts fail, it has the military capacity needed to undertake crisis-management operations. These are carried out under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty – NATO’s founding treaty – or under a UN mandate, alone or in cooperation with other countries and international organizations.”
It’s a start.
A Twitter exchange leads me to offer this extract from ‘Word on the Street’, in which Shona has to cope with a Dinner Party…
Fenella’s husband Jimmy was very freckly. His hands, face and neck were so thickly covered that I had to distract myself from wondering if he was that freckly all over. I’d arrived first and when Gloria flung open the door to let them in, I had to back into the hat stand and a vast urn full of pieces of grass. Jimmy followed Fenella into the house, leaning over to grab the hat stand before it fell, and Gloria showered them in words. Fenella matched her and raised the stakes. Jimmy had a long-suffering half-smile in place and made no attempt to answer anything Gloria said to him. The word scrum moved through the hallway towards the kitchen, where Gloria struck up a refrain about how little effort she’d put into the bœuf en croûte. I stayed behind in the living room with Jimmy and he said, ‘So how do you know Gloria?’
‘I … we worked together.’
‘Tim, my stepson, was otherwise engaged,’ he said. My face went very hot. Then I had to show that I was relieved rather than disappointed, but of course I went overboard and it was less convincing that Gloria’s claim that she’d thrown the dinner together in about twelve minutes.
Minister Mike was also otherwise engaged and this challenged the nonchalance of the bœuf a bit because the croûte was drying out fast. By the time he arrived, I’d eaten all the nibbles and wanted to pass away quietly when Jimmy made a gentle witticism about my appetite. Gloria announced his entrance into the living room, twitching with the urgency of moving us all through to the dining room. I was hoping fervently there wouldn’t be a hatch. I can just about cope with the existence of a dining room, but a hatch tips me over the edge. Anyway, I was full of Vietnamese Rice Crackers and Kashmiri Mix, headachey from sherry and desperate for a can of Sprite and a lie-down. Minister Mike’s nose hair was less intrusive than it had been. Perhaps he’d clipped it a bit using one of those tools from the Sunday supplements. He wore, rather unsettlingly, a cravat. I had real difficulty not staring at it because I couldn’t remember ever seeing one in the flesh.
Gloria’s dining room had no hatch. It was a Victorian museum. The table cloth had been fiercely ironed and mats were aligned with the shadows of the folds. In the centre was a crystal bowl filled with water, coloured glass nuggets and rose petals (these had absorbed a lot of water during the delay and the effect wasn’t quite what it might have been). Fenella raved appropriately while we hovered for instructions on seating arrangements and Gloria made hand gestures indicating her lack of any forethought on this and then told us where to sit. My role as gooseberry was highlighted now because although Gloria had clearly shifted things around when Tim failed to show, you could see he’d been supposed to sit between me and her. As it was, I was marooned in the centre at one side, facing Fenella and Jimmy, with Gloria and Minister Mike at the far ends. Minister Mike was positioned for optimum drink-pouring duty and Gloria stood at her end plunging murderous instruments into the bœuf and pursing her lips about the croûte shattering everywhere. It looked like flakes of dry skin scattered over the tablecloth and some claret-coloured meat juice got splashed about too so it was all a bit visceral. Fenella jumped up and found a stain remover spray in the kitchen. I gazed at the water feature in the middle, wondering how I would manage to swallow any bœuf or croûte with a bellyful of vegetable oil from the nibbles.
Gloria had an electric cupboard on wheels from which she produced: brussel sprouts with flecks of bacon and seeds; matchsticked carrots in butter and sugar; miniature peas with twigs; and the nicest, crispiest roast potatoes I had ever seen. Not a prawn in sight. Fenella raved about all of it, collectively and individually, talking so much she managed to deconstruct the contents of her plate without eating any of it.
When Gloria declared it was time for pud and refused to let anyone help her clear away, Fenella got distracted for a moment in the scuffle and Jimmy began on an anecdote, directed exclusively at Minister Mike. I had to admire the glass nuggets again and try not to burp.
‘… I said fine: go through via our drive and up the lane. Take out anything on four legs, they’ll give you a medal. It wasn’t until half an hour later when we were happily gutting one in the back garden and a chopper starts hovering –’
Minister Mike looked briefly uncomfortable. ‘Joking aside,’ he said, ‘the cull isn’t a public sport.’ He made a politically ambivalent hand gesture. ‘Although rabbits I’ll make an exception for. There’s one who treats my garden like a salad bar – ’
‘What’s all this I hear about choppers?’ shrieked Gloria, sweeping in with an acre of tiramisu in her arms.
‘Six armed police officers,’ said Jimmy, and glugged his wine. Minister Mike shook his head and sat back in his chair.
‘She’d rung 999,’ said Fenella. ‘This woman. She said –’
‘We don’t know that it was a woman,’ said Jimmy. ‘What they told us first was –’
‘Well no, it was a woman.’ Fenella moved things about on the table to make space for the industrial pudding. Jimmy sighed. ‘No, no,’ said Fenella. ‘You tell it. It’s your story.’ She smiled at Gloria, and Jimmy circled the tip of his finger around the rim of his wine glass. Gloria handed me a horse’s portion of pudding, laughed and said, ‘What a hoot.’
‘Someone had rung the fuzz, anyway,’ said Fenella, receiving her pudding graciously.
‘Right,’ said Minister Mike. ‘Fair play.’ He gave Jimmy a man’s smirk.
‘They said there were reports of an angry-looking man coming down the lane wielding a gun!’
‘Six armed officers, two cars and a chopper!’ shrieked Fenella, folding her tiramisu in on itself.
‘Good Lord!’ said Gloria, and we all spooned pudding into our mouths in silent acknowledgement that this police response to reports of a gunman had been entirely unwarranted.
‘Anyway,’ said Jimmy, his voice thick with coffee cream, ‘it all ended well, with Graham arranging to go shooting with one of the policemen next weekend.’
Minister Mike guffawed and Gloria tinkled. Fenella put one hand over her face and slapped the table with the other. For want of anything else to do, I shovelled tiramisu into my face and wondered when I could leave.