Maggie & Me – Damian Barr

maggieMembers of our group found this book ‘believable’, ‘thoroughly enjoyed’, ‘one of the best for a long time’, one was moved to tears. One, about the same age as the author, thought it to be realistic’.

However, another found the prose to be flat, typical of journalist who has to produce so many words to a deadline: this happened, then that happened etc.

Another thought that there was an abrupt change from the time he was ‘in that awful house to his going clubbing and having money.

Colour in normal life is evoked against a cold war background: We’re still in our uniforms — mine the burgundy and sky-blue of Keir Hardie Memorial Pri­mary School, his the dour brown of St Theresa’s Primary School. In summer the sun never really sets here — you’re further north than you think. There’s always a patch of snow-wash denim blue in the indigo of the night. We know the Soviets are pointing nuclear missiles at us because Glasgow, as Mr Baker points out on the multicoloured globe one day, is on the same latitude as Moscow. The mention of two sunsets (the second being the factory) was evocative.

The author is bullied – never out your faith in those trust exercises done in PSHE lessons: JUMP?! Some pal! I can’t believe this — my best pal in the whole world is offering me up to them. I feel like Aslan on the stone table….. At the end of the Lord’s Prayer I say a quick one in my head asking God to kill Logan and make me like girls so I won’t burn in hell, Amen.

He reads some Aleister Crowley and imagines a spell that would kill his enemies.

Like most children, the author imagines accident or death and the grim satisfaction of supposed reactions of others, especially those who have bullied him: jump I’ll end up one of those pissy-smelling kids in a wheelchair that everybody hates. On the upside, I’ll get loads of sympathy and I’ll never have to do gym again….. I feel them all round me pushing. For a second nothing happens. Then there is only air above and below. We don’t spin or topple, the wardrobe and me. In total darkness we drop like a stone . . . straight down for what seems like for ever and I brace myself, careful not to put my tongue between my teeth because I remember Mr Baker telling us not to in gym. Cool calm floods my veins like the antifreeze in my dad’s Escort. I take deep breaths and think of my mum and my wee sister and my dad and hope they all cry for me…. and I delight in the trouble he’ll be in if I do get run over.

At secondary school: The second years are the meanest, pulling at hair and spitting at us, maybe because they were us so recently. Third years and fourth years are more interested in each other but you’ve still got to be careful. We’re completely beneath the notice of the occasional fifth and sixth years. Sharks don’t eat minnows.

Homophobic bulling by name calling never leaves him: ‘Barbie’, ‘Gay Barr’ and the startlingly original `Gaymian’.

The Christian Union is a respite from bullies and from an unhappy home: At the first assembly she takes, Mrs Rayson announces she’ll be holding a meeting in the gym every Wednesday after school for pupils who want to find out more about Jesus. I need more stories and I’m desperate to go anywhere but home so I head along. ….`Welcome to Scripture Union,’ says Mrs Rayson, smiling. `Jesus said to St Mark: I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me. Through Scripture Union you will understand the word of the Lord and come to know Him and love Him just as He loves all of you.’ A huge fart vibrates through the floor before reeking through the air and the perpetrator takes a beamer. ‘Even you, David Dawson: says Mrs Rayson, her kindness stretched but not snapped.

We start off singing ‘The ink is black, the page is white; together we learn to read and write,’ which has a ploddingly pleasing ‘da dum dum dum’. It’s about how we’re all the same inside. I think I’m different inside. This doesn’t have much to do with Jesus and neither does the one about hammering in the morning and the evening. … The right answer produces a Black Jack from her miraculously bottomless handbag. Loaves and fishes. Soon my tongue is swot-black. We learn that how we act in this life decides where we go next. Up or down. We must always speak the truth. If we’re good we’ll go up to heaven and if we’re bad we’ll go down to hell. (Not very good theology) ….. I started coming as an excuse to avoid home but I really do love it now: none of the boys or girls who call me names come here, you don’t have to run or catch a ball and the stories are great. (He tells his father that it meets daily.)

School days are well described: It’s now December and the unpromising bulbs are blooming. Every. Single. One. For reasons only he knows, Mr Baker has lined them all up on the boiling cast-iron radiators. It’s nearly playtime and the flowers, like the pupils, are drooping. We all need watering.

We’re doing decimals and they’re so boring I want to die. They seem pointless. The blackboard has been rolled round from the bit with lines on, which promises letters and words, to the bit with squares on, which threatens numbers and sums. The week we went from familiar fractions to decimals I was off with an asthma attack….). School milk is not rich and cold and creamy. It is watery and slightly grey and too warm. But you have to drink your milk. The older I get the quicker I drain my carton. At the end of the day spare milks, undrunk by absent pupils, are given out as prizes for answering general knowledge questions fired out by Mr Baker. I usually win extra milk this way. Sometimes I take that milk home for my mum’s tea.

As are adults: Mr Baker has a black moustache which grows out of his nose. Maybe it’s all just his nose hair and not an actual mous­tache made of face hair like my dad’s. When he throws his head back to make a point I see right up his nostrils. His specs grip his nose trying hard to hold on.

His family was poor: man we’ve no central heating, none of the flats have. At night in bed your breath clouds above you like dreams. Sometimes I sleep with my school uniform on and try not to move so I don’t get it creased. In the morning Jack Frost’s long thin fingers have scratched inside the windows…. That week there’s no money so me and Teenie have to walk the three miles each way to Keir Hardie.

Council houses are so hard to get that they view one with the dead body of its previous owner still in its coffin in the parlour.

Urban blight is exemplified in a nearby stream: In places it’s three feet deep and it’s where Asda trolleys go to die.

However, television serves as the opium of the people against the grim realities of the Thatcher era. This lad loves Dynasty as the highlight of his week.

Emotions surrounding his parents’ separation surface: But this is my home!’

‘No, it’s not. Not any more. C’mon, son, stop yer greetin’.’ I’m trying to stop, to be brave…. I just stand there. I can’t leave, I won’t leave. So he car­ries me out to our car, a red Ford Escort with black spoiler, even though I am eight and embarrassed to be carried….. You’re the man of the house now: he says. ‘Not long and you’ll have yer own motor! (Putting this pressure3 on a boy may make adults feel happier, along with telling them that ‘Big boys don’t dry’, oblivious to the emotional damage that this causes.) …. the chapel that I used to sneak in with my mum who’s barred because she’s divorced. ‘Jesus disnae care about a daft bit of paper,’ she’d say, bowing her head to cross herself before kneeling at the back.

What a curse is asthma: My mum thinks I’m having an asthma I attack and runs for my ‘puffer’. My inhaler is the very latest in weedy boy technology: it’s a rigid see-through plastic bottle like the cocktail shaker in the James Bond films I watch with my dad at Christmas.

Playground lore, as written up by Iona and Peter Opie, traces children’s games back into history. In this case, we get an example of the tripundium, a medieval dance step to which Christmas carols were set: I walk back from Keir Hardie Memorial Primary School in baby-steps heel-­to-toe and for every three forward I take one back.

We all wondered what secondary school would be like: After the holidays Key starts at Brannock High School, which they’ve not long finished building across the road from Keir Hardie. It’s five floors high – the biggest thing around, except for the Craig. High school pupils use pens instead of pencils and walk between specialised classrooms carrying different-coloured folders for each subject. They sit exams instead of tests. Their bell rings at 3.30 p.m. – a whole extra half-hour of learning, of not being at home.

Once he gets to secondary school, he goes through the once-familiar process of names being called out to see whose form you were in, separation from his best friend who joined a different form and the fact that the bells were louder than at his previous school.

It seems like a world apart but they were using BBC computers back then and BASIC programming.

Like many young readers he doesn’t understand Ex Libris: But they’re not library books, we don’t have to give I them back.

I always wondered what Irn-Bru was and discovered that it was a Scottish carbonated soft drink, and I was amazed, given its strength, that pregnant women were advised to drink Buckfast tonic wine.

There was some debate about the merits of British Summer and Winter time: Now it’s nearly summer there’s no danger of anybody getting run over. The mornings are light and even the night shines through my horrible porridge-coloured curtains well after bedtime.

The book provoked a long discussion about Thatcher. Presumably the author refers to her as he sees himself as a survivor, like her. He’s far too optimistic about Thatcher – seeing her as essentially well-meaning (quotations from her head every chapter and shows how out of touch she was, including the infamous, ‘`Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay.’ and the odd, even scary ‘`Economics are the method: the object is to change the soul.’): They all blame Maggie like she’s personally going to come and flick a big switch to OFF. I don’t think she will. I don’t think she’s as bad as they say and if she knew how hard my dad worked she’d keep it open for ever. At school we sign petitions and write letters to our local MR ‘They can’t put all those men out a job,’ says Jane in the gift shop at the Grotto. I feel guilty about not visiting her so much but I’ve got Mark now My dad says the Craig makes more steel than any other plant in the world so it will never shut. We will always have two sunsets, maybe if Maggie saw them? If it did close I wouldn’t have to worry about my dad any more – a boy at school told me his uncle pulled a man with no legs left out the furnace and he kept burning away even in the hospital until there was nothing left to bury but his screaming mouth. Better to be pushed under.

The kids sometimes play in a graveyard but are also afraid of it: there’s no such thing as vampire this graveyard is full of crucifix-shaped tombstones, aren’t all graveyards? You’d think Dracula would find a less stressful place to sleep.

Owing to poor or non-existent sex education, the author thinks he has AIDS as a result of a bit of ‘experimenting’ with other boys and sees an article in a Sunday paper: about Tom Jones being a sex addict who cleans his cock with Listerine to stop AIDS after all-night romps. Minutes later I’m in my granny’s bathroom feeding my cock into her mouthwash.

There some loose ends – his mother failed to pick him up after school one day but we never find out why.

All in all, an upbeat, positive story told nonchalantly.

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Smut: Two Unseemly Stories – Alan Bennett

smut(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

We think we know how conventional, middle-class ladies behave but we don’t know what really goes on behind net curtains.

Sex wasn’t invented in 1968, despite what Philip Larkin said. The woman in the first story seems more like a 1950s character. However, as another reviewer points out: “Occasionally, there is a conscious effort to encompass modernity. In a hospital, someone says of a patient on a life-support machine, ”if we switched her off it would reduce her carbon footprint”. But, on the whole, this is old Bennett territory in which elderly incontinence is called ”a little accident” and a young wife (in the year 2011!) is seen as ”the little woman” by her husband and referred to as ”your good lady” by work colleagues.”

The first story, “The Greening of Mrs Donaldson”, was not as funny or absorbing for me as for some reviewers. However, I started to read it amid some distractions and it suddenly, a few pages in, made me sit up and take note that things were becoming incredible. Is this how some people behave? Is truth stranger than fiction?

I suppose previously conventional people, when the constraints are taken away and a new opportunity presents itself, may branch out into new territory.

I also realise that many of us live double lives to some extent.

I wondered of Duncan Ballantyne was a conscious parody of the entrepreneur Duncan Bannantyne

In the second story, there are neat and short character descriptions, e.g.: Graham’s father having nothing to say, said nothing. (Later): Graham’s father was understandably sensitive to this spelling (of Greene) , being something of a silent he him­self.

Mrs Forbes dislikes Catholics because they have lots of children. As one reviewer has pointed out: This has not been true in England for 40 years.

“For Graham’s mother there was little to choose between Jews and Catholics. The Jews had holidays that turned up out of the blue and the Catholics had children in much the same way.”

Another reviewer wrongly suggested that the groom’s father wants the wedding to: be according to The Book of Common Prayer: he doesn’t like the modern service because ”one has to shake hands with one’s neighbour”. But in fact this is not the case in the modern marriage service, only in the communion. – that’s the point. That is what they will witness when they attend church on the Sundays when their bans are read, though someone else points out that it won’t be too onerous as there are usually only four people there.

If parents want the best for their children, they’d not go for superficiality: face facts, Edward. He’s very good looking; she isn’t. Marriage is supposed to be a partnership. Good-looking people marry good-looking people and the others take what’s left…..`She may have money.’ `A hole in her cardigan and the same tights three days running? I’ve seen no sign of it. `Her parents are dead. `That doesn’t stop her going to the dry cleaners. If only she’d had some parents we’d have a better idea.

While I know what this sentence means, there seems to be something missing in the grammar: There were no bridesmaids, what few women Mends Betty had not really bridesmaid material.

Is this an allusion to the groom having lots of gay friends?: At the reception both Betty and her new mother-in-law were surprised by what good dancers many of Graham’s friends turned out to be.

An interesting theory about mental health: at first if he was having a breakdown before deciding he wasn’t imaginative enough for that.

It’s not until towards the end that I realised this story was set in Leeds, with mentions of Roundhay and Alwoodley.

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Straight to Jesus – T. Erzen

STJ(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

Evangelicals still claim that homosexuality can be cured, despite all the evidence to the contrary. They have to believe this because to do otherwise would mean that their (narrow interpretation of the) Bible was wrong.

This is an excellent piece of work by a dispassionate scholar. The trouble is that some gay-converters such as Prof. Glynn Harrison, psychiatrist who chooses to believe and argue against the views of his professional association claim that this is merely ‘anecdotal evidence.’ (A phrase he used in a recent Church Of England report on homosexuality) I suppose the views of his patients/clients are also dismissed as ‘anecdotal’

The leaders of ex-gay ministries said (p. 14) that most ‘members’ continue to have gay sex but on a one-night stand basis – they are considered to be ‘ex-gay’ if they repent – so they are caught in a fall-repent-fall cycle – which is what I think S. Paul meant by ‘bondage to the law of sin and death’. The leaders went on to say (p. 15) that this presents a direct challenge to the conservative view that a person must can and move from homo to heterosexuality.

A leader who’d now deserted the enterprise said (p. 34): After dealing with hundreds of people, I never met one who went from gay to straight. Even if you manage to alter someone’s sexual behaviour, you cannot change his or her true sexual orientation. If you got them away from the Christian limelight and asked them, ‘Honestly now, are you saying that you are no longer homosexual and you are now hetrerosexually oriented?’ Not one person said, ‘Yes I am actually now heterosexual.’

The conclusion of the 6-year long (full time) study is (p. 132) 178 out of the 202 men not only failed to change but felt harmed by the procedure.

For those who are gay and Christian, the ex-gay movement provides a fellowship – gays don’t understand or like Christians because they are the enemy. Christians hate gays. The trouble is that this fellowship locks people into ma vicious circle. They lapse, repent and lapse again. This cannot make for lasting relationships because such relations would be sinful. So the person is stuck in immaturity.

If these ‘expert’ groups cannot ‘cure’ gays, why do some churches still claim ‘cures’? Presumably they stick to their bibles rather than look at the evidence.

The movement is riven with scandals: in 1981, after a major scandal that involved accusations of Kent’s sexual impropriety with his own adopted daughter, the congrega­tion and board ousted Philpott from Open Door.

Even when a famous ex-gay gets involved of ‘scandal’, he tries to get out of it: Paulk maintained, even his decision to enter the bar could not be blamed on his own volition. Satan had been working in his life, he said, and gay activists were calling and threatening to ruin him.

Some make outrageous and unsubstantiated claims. One leader: also coined the term “ex-gay” as a way to describe the conversion process. “But I am a homosexual, really, even though I lay claim to my new life. The old hasn’t passed away. That’s man’s thinking, not God’s. God sees us as ex-gay, but He also sees us as struggling and dealing with the old nature with its spiritual warfare.”…. . “There is no such thing as a cure,” Curtis explained. “You learn how to better manage your life, thoughts, and desires and you achieve a sense of wholeness and a better relationship with God.”

The reason why some see homosexuality as a sickness to be cured is that they believe it to be the result of trauma: Jeanette Howard revealed her own sexual abuse by a relative and the lack of attention she received from her father as the root causes of her homosexuality.

Most of what Jesus said about the family was hostile, yet many Christians idolise ‘family values’.

Living in an ex-gay house is another closet: than classical) is not permitted in the house. In addition, the men can only watch videos that are G or PG, and they are encouraged to rent Christian videos from the local Christian bookstore. They cannot use the Internet because of the availability of pornography, chat rooms, and other places to meet men. The reason for these restrictions is Frank’s inherent distrust of the influ­ence of popular culture as a potential “stumbler,” a slippery slope that might lead to a sexual fall. Frank believes that television and radio can contaminate the purity of mind they are attempting to achieve and can even have potentially satanic influences. He writes, “Our desire is that the live-in program be a refuge from the world.”…. Although New Hope is only forty minutes away, San Francisco is strictly off-limits, and because they rarely visit, the city, barely visible across the Golden Gate Bridge, has an aura of danger and allure. When Curtis finally met me for a long-awaited shopping excursion in downtown San Francisco at the end of the year, he seemed slightly disappointed. Lessons from the workbook and hearsay had instilled the idea that as soon as a person entered the city, offers of sex and other temptations would abound…. Men in the program are also forbidden to have contact with friends who are still “in the lifestyle,” or living as gay men. Frank writes, “Influence from friends who are not walking with the Lord can be discouraging and harmful to you.”

If you’re not screwed up before going in, you sure will be later on.

These Christians are deeply sexist: “The masculine faces the world: it is oriented to things; it explores; it climbs. Its energy is directed toward the physical: measuring, moving, building, conquering.” In opposition, the feminine “looks inward toward feeling, sensing, know­ing in the deepest sense. Its energy is directed toward relationships, coming together, nurturing, helping…. the basis of gender roles is in a person’s physical body; gender roles stem from biological and physical characteristics like differences in strength and brain struc­ture in men and women; God created these differences, and therefore men and women should act accordingly. He even cited studies to prove that women’s brains are different from those of men and therefore func­tion in a more integrated manner….. muscular Christianity around the turn of the century that transformed images and ideas about Jesus from a long-haired effemi­nate man to a robust, muscular, carpenter figure, Payne sees Jesus as a masculine workman and role model.’ Frank teaches the men at New Hope that “masculinity equals Christ, Christ equals masculinity.”…/ One afternoon toward the end of phase two, when Curtis and I were walking back from lunch in downtown San Rafael, a truck stopped alongside us at a red light, and the driver emitted an enormous belch. Curtis turned to me with disgust and said, “And you wonder why I have trouble getting in touch with my own masculinity.” Drew and Curtis often questioned me about things that supposedly masculine men did, like sexually harass women. What did men say when they harassed women? Did they yell? Whistle? Drew told us about a married man in the program several years earlier who would lean on the porch railing of the New Hope apartments and yell at women as they walked by. Drew and Curtis joked that to become heterosexual, they would have to learn how to harass women, too…… One day when he was feeling particularly down, he spoke about how he was never going to enjoy the camping trips on the weekends, and that he would always be more interested in hair and fashion. The ‘only thing he ever felt good at was styling and cutting hair, and he dreamed of returning to Canada to be a hairdresser…. In his book, Medinger advises to practice some of the traditional male courtesies to women, like opening doors, standing when a woman enters the room, and helping with her chair when she sits down. Whereas Medinger counsels, “Start to treat her as ‘the weaker vessel,’ who is deserving of special honor and consideration,”

If only homophobic parents knew how responsible they were: The most traumatic experience of my life would be having to tell my mom I’m positive.” However, rather than attributing his behavior to something intrinsic in gay men, he acknowledged how much the disapproval of his family and the guilt it engendered in him contributed to his behavior. Speaking of his estranged mother and step­father, he explained, “The only thing that would make that difference would be if my parents were to say, ‘You know what, Jared, we love and accept you no matter how you live your life, and you’re always wel­come in our home.'” He continued, “If I could hear those words from my parents it might change things. I would be open to a long-term rela­tionship, to embracing that.”

Elizabeth Moberly is a heroine for many Christians. She belongs to the Eastern Orthodox Church so isn’t an evangelical, but here book Homosexuality: A New Christian Ethic argues that men become gay because they had a distant father (what man over 50 didn’t – that’s how fathers were in the past) and a distant mother. So gay men have to befriend older males to make up for their father-deficit. She doesn’t validate ex-gay movements though.

Jesus once asked a paralysed man if he wanted to be healed. I was reminded of this when I read: As the testimonies demonstrate, nothing is too private or painful share, and it is those with the most unsettling tales who become most sought-after speakers. Yet just as the idea of recovery people to focus exclusively on the self, to a certain extent, ex-gays claim to “brokenness” as a primary source of identity…… By focus­sing on individual stories of pain, the testimonies placed the blame on individual’s choice rather than on the aspects of society that make it dif­ficult to live as a gay man or woman. By making Jesus the only person who can transform a person, this process also removed any sense of agency from the individual, negating his potential power to transform the structures around him.

The participants in these ex-gay groups are not unlike the Roman Catholic priest who gets off on want people say in confession: New Hope requires that the person testifying do so in the most excruciating detail. “It is no longer a question of simply saying what was done—the sexual act—and how it was done,”

 A breakthrough came when Jerry Falwell: On National Coming Out of Homosexuality Day, October 11, 1999, …..reversed his stance of a dozen years that homosexuality is the scourge of Christian­ity and told the audience and gay protesters in an unusually conciliatory manner, “Homosexuality is not more sinful than heterosexual promis­cuity.”

These movements have flourished in the UK but have largely folded when their founders, e.g. Jeremy Marks of Courage, admit they were wrong. It is different in the Sates because: Roughly, fifty million adult Americans agreed that “the Bible is the actual Word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word.”

The author is to be congratulated for her wide reading and her knowledge of Christianity and of homosexuality from the outside.

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Connecting Conversations: Patrick Gale

P GaleNot so much a ‘gay novelist’ as a novelist who happens to be gay, at this event he was talking to Claire Harris, a psychotherapist. It was in a series of events exploring the world of the arts with the concerns of psychotherapy. There was a very large turnout, which shows how ‘mainstream’ this writer has become. (Walking down Park Street, my gaydar was working overtime, spotting someone and thinking ‘He must be going to the same event as me.’ And getting it wrong!)

Gale said that writing appealed to him because he was shy; it is almost a neurotic activity. However, he enjoys meeting readers and getting their feedback. He also enjoys the collaborative work that happens wher making as film.

He sets aside a lot of time for solitude, for his creativity to flow and he can be cold towards people who call or otherwise interrupt. He has to get on with the work although he likes gardening and music to keep him grounded.

He was born into a bookish household – people read during mealtimes unless there were guests. He was lucky in his teachers and would write pages for prep. And his mother kept all his old exercise books. He became able to write from the heads of other people instead of just from his own viewpoint. (Rough Music gave different versions of the same experience.) Boys were not expected to talk about emotions in 1972. Women tend to articulate better so it makes writing about male characters more difficult.

His father was a prison governor, ’which isolated us. We were not allowed to play with officers’ children.’ In junior school, drawing their own houses, most children had finished while he was still finishing off various wings of his house on extra paper. There were lots of unfurnished rooms in this big house where you could play out all sorts of fantasies. He and his siblings were able to climb on to the roof and look down on the prison well below and see all the prisoners exercising. Maybe in his novels, he is looking down on life below. It made him amenable to boarding school, another institution. His mother had become exhausted with all these children. His parents had been driven by social duty.

He was exuberant and gay at an early age (‘mothers always know’) but his mother had a serious road accident when he was aged ten and he became her carer. He also had to cope with a sibling’s breakdown and suicide attempts.

His earlier novels were comic and kept his readers at arm’s length but at the age of forty he started to explore the darker side. ‘My books are getting darker. I put off the introspection.’

In ‘Notes on an Exhibition’ there is a Quaker drive to tell the truth but you realise that the characters don’t always do so. (To research Quakers he went to four different meetings and has even been asked to act as a Quaker spokesperson even though he isn’t a Quaker. He thinks it should be the fastest growing religion because Anglicanism is imploding.

A novelist is like a psychotherapist in that you start with a crisis and then proceed to unpeel the layers which have preceded it.

He begins a book with a question to which he doesn’t yet know the answer. He writes by hand with lots of material which might not be used. Word processing wants to make things too neat and finished too early.

Although he doesn’t do sequels, he was haunted by Morwenna in ‘Notes from an Exhibition’ so she turns up again in his latest novel ‘A Perfectly Good Man’. (And it is in this book that his ‘most evil character’ appears and has more chapters spent on him than he intended. – I found this character to be more ‘sad’ than ‘evil’.)

‘Cornwall claimed me’ as it is his own place, not anyone else’s in his family.

I liked his observation that someone told him that he couldn’t paint or draw because he became too articulate too early as a child.

Asked what advice he would give to an aspiring writer, he said that he was lucky in that he was published when young. Publishers would pay £2 ½ k for a novel and take a risk. His early works wouldn’t be published now, Modern publishers want advances, deadlines do lots of publicity and it is very hard to break into the market. However, self-publishing doesn’t have the stigma that it once did, where you used to seen ass desperate after so many rejections. Nowadays, Amazon publishes work electronically and publishers scan such works to see how many ‘likes’ they get and the n sometimes recruit a writer.

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Notes from an Exhibition – Patrick Gale

notes exhibBipolar disorder and suicide are rife in my family so this book gave me plenty to reflect upon. Their effects ricochet down the family tree in all sorts of ways that the person concerned could never have envisaged or, if they did, they simply just didn’t care, maybe because there unable to see clearly. The Author compares himself to Iris Murdoch: suicides stir up cycles of guilt, family deaths are like Russian dolls, each new pain encasing the shape of ones that have gone before

Rachel bequeaths paintings of genius, done when she was off medication. But she also bequeaths secrets and emotional damage.

Rachel Kelly took lithium or valproate since she was a girl. Lithium is more time-specific so a missed dose is dangerous and she once forgot to take it on holiday and needed an emergency prescription but hid the pills and started self-harming. The anti-depressants prescribed at the Radcliffe Hospital led to suicidal behaviour yet she ended up having a heart attack like a ‘normal’ person

Her Presbyterian childhood meant that she was miserable, hooked on sin. She could only become absorbed when playing and working, which is why her medication was such a handicap and why not taking it was like a holiday with the cost being well worthwhile, at least for her, if not those around her.

Those of us who have visited ‘mental wards’ will recognise the description of the hospital whose records are missing, where visitors are limited to 2-4pm, the built-in coat hangers to stop self-harming, Monday’s ECT, before which she would get wound up on Sunday night. Other patients regarded her as a stuck-up bitch and were afraid to talk to her. The Gideon’s bible with her insane annotations is also par for the course.

The Doctoris unconcerned as to whether nature or nurture causes mental illness and believes that people will get their sweets (pills) elsewhere if he doesn’t prescribe them

At her funeral, a cardboard coffin and thethrowing of rosemary springs was thought to be less brutal than earth but the mechanical digger comes along anyway. People were embarrassed for want of a priest and at the reception all earlier unsaid things bubble up

It took someone with a solid, Quaker spirituality like Antony to cope with her and to take charge of her medication. He was shocked at how few possessions Rachel had and how she could throw paper back books away.

His M.Phil was in Smollet. He took on a badly paid teaching position. Because faculties were mixed, different combinations of students attended his lectures. A Quaker and a virgin, he fount it hard to make friends so the Quakers provided a ready-made community, Quakers are more exuberant (and more overtly Christian) in Africa, which helped his personal development. (In the UK, some meetings regard themselves as superior if people rarely speak – they blame Oprah Witney shows for the current trend wherein people talk self-indulgently and endlessly about themselves.

He is not the only eccentric (or maybe he is one oft he few sane people) who refuses to have a mobile. And what’s wrong with pissed in the bedroom sink? It all ends up in the same place and it saves water.

The depiction of his Adult literacy classes is accurate. They are spreading to numeracy and computers and are full of the same hopeless learners who return every year and start to use spell checkers – so they will never learn how to spell by themselves.

Garfield, Rachel’s oldest,poured all the drugs down the loo and temporarily blocked it. He fears to have a child for fear of passing on the mental illness gene. Sulky, he doesn’t go into much detail about his mother as people are liable to be shocked

Morwenna, Rachel’s second daughter, diagnosed herself bipolar. Her mother makes Morwenna more self-conscious instructing her how to hold pencil, techniques, and makes here play into work and expects ‘right answer’ from her. She asks her small talk questions even though they see each other every day. She tells someone that Morwenna is admiring her lovely vulvas and Morwenna ia not sure what it means but that it is rude

 Hedley, her third child, is still avirgin at 19, read Maurice in his gap year but had no courage to go into gay bars though his feet bled from museums. He became C of E, got confirmed, and was shocked at hearing a priest preach against homosexuality. There was some confusion as to whether a church was Roman or Anglo-Catholic – St. James’ Piccadilly is neither, being liberal and very inclusive where homosexuality is concerned.

Despite her bohemian credentials, Rachel thinks her son to be less of a man for being gay. He checked his mother’s packing behind her back

He admires Petroc’s ease with his body, is shy like a typical school master’s son but is relaxed when in role e.g. cinema He kisses Troy but goes no further, goers to an art exhibition specialising in homoerotic works and keeps checking to see if Oliver had left a message – he hadn’t

Oliver, his boyfriend, isfed up with phone calls from Rachel and calls her a talentless bitch during the last 40 minutes of her life, with unforeseenconsequences

Petroc is self-contained like Antony. During his birthday outing to the beach I was expecting the worst, as the tide and overhanging rocks were mentioned. His death when it came was curiously peaceful as he was so happy.

Kelly’s obsessive sketching of planes and autistic precision painting bricks is well-portrayed.

Winnie longed for a sibling to spread the pressure upon her. She starts top attend , weekday Holy Communion but her faith went under the train wheels with Joanne, who had run wild, stopped going to church, taken up smoking reefers out of the window, included, nudes in her portfolio and was pushed in front of a train

The title, refers to the information cards displayed beside works of art in a gallery or museum. Each chapter begins with a different example, all of them referring Kelly’s art or possessions.

About the novel’s stimulus, Gale wrote: In the wake of my father’s death a couple of years ago, I found myself spending a great deal of time visiting my widowed mother. The usual post-mortem business of recycling vast quantities of letters and drawers of old clothes escalated when she decided to snatch the chance to move from a flat which now seemed far too big for her to a perfect but much smaller house just around the corner. On the one hand I found I resented spending so much time away from my home but on the other I discovered that there was something horribly seductive about sliding into an elderly parent’s comfortable routine. In the name of filial duty I was putting my usual responsibilities on hold, my impatience dulled by regular, old-lady treats from M&S, nightly gin and nibbles on the dot of six, and a strange regression to a sexless but immensely peaceful second adolescence. I began to spin a story out of the experience which ended up being the strand of the novel involving Hedley’s prolonged retreat to Penzance.

Comparing it to A Perfectly Good Man, he says that Notes From an Exhibition: is told from multiple viewpoints so that our perspective on the hero keeps shifting. Structurally both novels are double helices with the central figure’s story, from their perspective, being told in reversewhile the chapters told from the point of view of the other characters follow a (more or less) chronological order. As in both novels, it is the reader, not the novelist, who plays God in that ultimately he understands far more than any character in isolation. The reader is the only one in possession of all the facts.

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