Thoughts of an amateur cellist (2)

Earlier this week I spent a concentrated period of time practising ten or so bars of a middle passage of Bach’s third Suite for Unaccompanied Cello which I am currently learning ; this involves lots of string changing, tricky positions and repeated sequences.

Three observations. 1) When I first played it, as if sight reading, a few weeks ago, I gained most of the notes immediately, bowed fairly well and grasped its musicality. 2) After an intense period of practice, it was beginning to flow if not sounding quite as good as that first run through 3) After a break of a couple of days, when I played it for my teacher, it sounded execrable; my fingers seems to hold no memory of the sequence of notes or my arm of the pattern of bowing, it took me several attempts to find the underlying pattern/tune to the passage.

In other words, practice makes imperfect.

Or not.

I have been here before. Many times. I know – or hope – this is a stage in mastering the passage in question. But what’s the logic of the brain, the hand, the self? I can only compare it to certain kinds of writing, where the first draft might flow, but when the hard work of re-writing/editing starts, the entire story, much of the characterisation etc, seems to break down. It is only later, that the tough middle part, the actual hard graft of writing,eventually reveals itself in a much better piece of work.

Of course, the other possible explanations are 1) I had a rotten cold and just wasn’t playing very well 2) I hadn’t practised enough 3) My younger daughter was doing her homework at a computer behind me during the lesson and I was distracted by her.

Seven things I love

Being tagged by Normblog means I must now choose seven things I love which is easy ( apart from narrowing it down and ranking it in order which, apart from the people I love, who always come top of my list, is slightly artificial ) and then tag seven other bloggers, which will be hard, as I am quite new to this game.

Seven things I love

1) My family and friends ( and Oliver our cat!)
2) Writing
3) Reading and thinking and talking about books
4)Thinking and talking about politics and public events
5) Music, including occasionally playing it badly myself.
6) Walking – and jogging ( but only once I’ve stopped jogging)
7) Eating out, but only when I am hungry

( But this leaves out films and sunshine/sunsets and a hundred other things which is why I can’t do lists………..)
I will add the seven bloggers later……………..

Thoughts of a non swine kind….

For the past few days I have been ill with spring flu of the non swine variety, the illness that has affected so many in recent weeks, including, so I read in today’s coverage of the Cannes film festival, the actress Penelope Cruz whom I find it impossible to imagine looking anything other than gorgeous. Anyway, as befits the thought processes of someone with a fever, dizziness, cough etc but the continuing domestic tasks of a mother of two, including a fifteen year old taking triple science GCSE papers, let me tell you what has been on my mind these past few days:

* Ida, the forty seven million year old fossil, with its milk teeth and broken hand, found at the bottom of a volcanic Italian pit in the early eighties and sold to a tenacious scientist with a flair for publicity who has put his findings up on a free website, to further public understanding. I am particularly interested in Ida because, when helping my fifteen year old with her biology revision, we did quite a bit on fossils and what they reveal of our ancestry. The thing I find most amazing is that homo sapiens, who follows homo habilis and home erectus ( apologies to the exam board if I remember this in the wrong order) is only about two hundred thousand years old but the marmoset monkey has long been established as thirty million years old. Extraordinary.

* Michael Martin, the first speaker of the House of Commons to be forced out of office for three hundred years ( the last one was found guilty of financial corruption.) Martin is clearly a scapegoat who has also made many mistakes and misjudged the mood of the essentially upper class workplace he was supposed to preside over. But contrary to the mood of my last post, I am now finding the speed with which the parliamentary system is unravelling rather exciting. Could it lead to the wiping away of all the pomp and pretension and patriarchy of both the Commons and the Lords and lead to not one but two modernised elected chambers?And might we see a host of new representatives offer themselves for election. And I don’t mean Esther Rantzen……

* on the subject of new political representatives, and this is definitely the effect of fever, I have actually been wondering for the first time in my life what it would be like to stand as an MP, now that I am in proud middle age and pretty clear about what I believe and the changes I would like to see. Given my parentage/family background etc I am often asked why I did not go into politics – well, they have to ask writers something – and I have never been in the remotest sense tempted. But flu has brought out new imaginings in me, and in many others, judging by the messages I am getting from other mid life friends who say ( of themselves, not me): if not now, when?

* Nicholas Moseley, whom I am currently researching; the writer son of fascist Oswald and his half brother the equally infamous Max ( whom I admire solely for taking on the tabloids rather than bowing sheepishly to them) I am going to interview Nicholas in a week or so. Now, there’s a difficult inheritance, yet as the writer of many books including Accident ( made into a terrific film with Dirk Bogarde) and Hopeful Monsters ( which won the Whitbread in 1990) Nicholas has at least managed to carve out a life for himself separate from his infamous father.

Apart from these disordered thoughts, I have about twelve books lined up to read, and one huge tome still to finish. So far this week I have only been able to manage DVD’s in the afternoon, lying under a scratchy tartan blanket.My final observation then is that Jane Austen is perfect for flu. I have re-visited Sense and Sensibility ( brilliantly acted by all the A list of Brit cinema, including Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson – who also wrote the script – Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant etc ) and Pride and Prejudice ( again fine performances from all the cast.)

So that’s the end of my report from the groggy front line. Finally, let me repay the compliment to Normblog, the supremely talented blogger, who increased my hit rates and blogging self confidence on what would otherwise have been a supremely sluggish day.

Ever thought of standing for Parliament Norm?

Crisis time.

For the first time in my life, I am worried for the future of our democracy. As the expenses crisis deepens, here are a few observations.

* while MP’s from all parties have been ‘ caught out’ by careless accounting and unjustified claims, I was particularly outraged by money claimed to dredge a moat, fix piping under a tennis court and trim wisteria on a country cottage.

* I don’t want to see political leaders playing at being very angry, because they think that is the way to deflect the public’s fury. It’s too late for all that, and anyway, it is a form of political play, judging by the comments of those like Andrew Mackay who said that his conversation with David Cameron about his resignation was ‘very friendly’

* these revelations come in a wider context. For instance, Letwin’s tennis court claims jostle in my head with memories of the man’s unbelievable arrogance a few years ago, when he said that he would rather ‘beg, borrow or steal’ than send his children to the local struggling secondary school, Lilian Baylis……………

* …………stopping that angry train of thought right there…….I can see where so much of this expenses crisis anger is coming from, a fury that could be heard audibly on BBC’s Question Time last night where members of the audience were heckling the most downcast and furtive looking group of MP’s I have ever seen. People are angry not just about this week’s revelations; they are angry about the revelations in the wider context of the kind of society we live in, the inequality between citizens, the arrogance of a certain class, riding high since Thatcherism, and a political class that agree about most things and yet have not tackled some of the pressing inequalities in our society.

* for this reason, I think it vital that we don’t descend into cynicism, manipulated by an amoral press, who are having a field day exploiting and exposing the human weaknesses of the political class. As the expenses crisis unfolds, right wing parties put out their ugly propaganda and attract votes on the basis that ‘ they’re all the same, out for themselves, not protecting British people etc.’

This is a really worrying development and makes it vitally important that those of us who believe in democracy, and the power of democracy to effect genuine change, do not slide into a parallel cynicism or apathy.

For this reason, and borrowing from lessons learned at times of personal crisis, I can see this is an important turning point. And a turning point always involves a choice, put crudely, between negative defeatism or genuine change, on the basis of objective analysis.

This is such a moment of choice for our parliamentary system and politicians that goes far beyond a cleaned up expenses process. This crisis must be a spring board for a shift in politics, the emergence of a new generation and type of political leaders, and a politics more concerned with the hard slog of promoting social justice than enriching the egos or purses of particular individuals.

Thanks to the NHS ………………

In today’s newspaper, there are reports of powerful healthcare lobbies in the US using our National Health Service and its apparent ‘ failures of choice’ – God, how I am coming to despise that word – as a means to oppose Obama’s proposals for more widespread access to healthcare.

I am incensed when I read this, particularly as today of all days, I am revisiting the NHS myself, for some routine scans and checks.

My first visit is to a slightly scuffed white van parked behind an ugly municipal library. Ten minutes early, there are no signs of life within the van and I worry that I may be about to witness the absence of a small, local ( but always crucial) piece of the NHS jigsaw. But no, at 9.30 am on the dot, a key is turned, and a white coated woman, who looks like Parminder Nagra, the actress who plays a doctor in ER, welcomes me into a warm, light space, for my mammogram. It’s all over in fifteen minutes; by the time I leave, I pass a group of understandably subdued middle aged women of every ethnic origin, waiting patiently for their breast check.

Stepping out the van, I feel deep gratitude, not just to the efficient women who have made a painful process as pleasant as possible, but to the founders and footsoldiers of the NHS who have kept the idea and practice of free medical care alive over so many decades and which is of direct benefit to this group of diverse women, now, today, in May 2009.

That feeling of gratitude continues as I travel to a big teaching hospital where my appointment takes longer, involves fancier machines, more personnel; again, I wait in a warm, clean space, this one enjoyably bustling. Everyone is pleasant. I am not kept waiting extra time; the doctors are friendly, keeping me informed at every point in the process.

I know there are many who are unhappy with run down conditions in parts of the NHS, who fear angry nurses, stressed doctors or whose elderly relatives risk life threatening infections in grubby wards.

But when I contemplate the alternative I still give heartfelt thanks for the NHS. A couple of days ago, I heard the last recorded interview of Irish writer Nuala O’Faolain, who was diagnosed with inoperable tumours in New York last year. Before flying home to Ireland to die, O’Faolain had several scans in these same US hospitals and calculated that without health insurance, they would have cost her sixty thousand plus dollars.

Yet an incredible forty five million people in the US do not have health insurance nor – pretty obviously – do they have anything approaching a thousandth of that kind of money.

It is for that reason that I retain a fierce pride in, not mere residual sentimentalism for, a public service that, however inadequately at times,promotes parity between people of every age, social background, profession etc rather than divides a nation into the entitled rich and the desperate poor.

Blog Off

My friend – let’s call him O- writes to tell me that he has been ‘exploring’ my blog and is not impressed. This follows a conversation the previous week in which, like several of my friends, he expresses a slightly aggressive surprise at my taking up the practice/habit, whatever we call it? ‘What’s the motive for doing it? What are you trying to say?’ he prods me sharply. Flummoxed, it takes me a few seconds to realise that the motive for blogging is the same as for all creative pursuits: self expression.

As someone who has spent a good twenty five years writing within the constraints of mainstream journalism the freedom is exhilarating even if the ends are less clear. No fitting in with someone else’s angle. No artsy agony over the first line or paragraph or trying to dream up a clever ending. Blogging means I simply sit down and try to say what I want to say on the issue that is currently preoccupying me. Style definitely takes second place to content, a decision, paradoxically, that can be of benefit to language.

The charges against blogging, of course, are many and various. My friend T says I am undercutting those like herself who earn money from journalism. In her eyes, I am now part of a pressing modern crisis: one of the three million or so reasons that newspapers are going under. If I was getting four thousand ‘hits’ a day and were not still a writer for hire myself, I might feel more culpable. For the moment, I see myself as a minnow in a sea of change that is rolling over us all, regardless of what I do.

O. meanwhile finds my actual blog uninteresting. He is not drawn to either the general formality of the site – the ordering into categories of books, articles, news and events etc – nor – here I quote him directly – ‘ the general formality of the writing, the absence of free-ranging expression, the lack of contentiousness and risk. I find your two novels immeasurably more revealing of your actual feelings and thoughts, more passionate, more interesting.’

To which I would answer; but these are my actual feelings and thoughts too! Granted, a blog is a work in progress, like a human being or any piece of art. But as a form of expression, it’s actually more free ranging than most. In many ways it mimics and extends the pleasure of conversation. it provides a space to ‘reply’ ( as I am now doing) to other’s thoughts or observations. It can be reflective, passionate, angry, humorous, discursive, or incredibly short. It’s a way of sharing enthusiasms ( one simply says, ‘check this out’ followed by the URL) Its tone and form is always shift shaping. I love that about it. I like to think that it’s a place where anyone interested in what I am interested in or – dare I say it – interested in what I might think, can return at their leisure. To catch up. Fill themselves in. Look at something my way for a moment or two.

Yes, I am not writing about my inner most feelings on marriage, motherhood, myself as a writer, fears for my health or finances ( all matters I might cover in a diary.) But none of the really interesting bloggers do that either, although I should let O. know that there are plenty who do talk about their thoughts and feelings far more directly and at length. ( So that when he ends his e-mail, ‘ Ah well, if your blog isn’t for me, then nobody’s is.’ he couldn’t be more wrong. He simply needs to ‘ get out more’ on the web, should he wish to, that is.)

A final thought on this nagging matter of self revelation:

A S Byatt says that she spends a lot of time trying to get her creative writing students to stop writing about feelings. Or to stop writing ONLY about feelings. Nuala O’Faolain observes in her terrific memoir ‘ Are you Somebody?’ that she has spent too much of her life looking for or thinking about love while others mastered actual skills and crafts.

One of the blissful things about middle age, I find, is a decided shift in the way I think about emotions, particularly my own. It’s a girl thing, I reckon. A lot of men meanwhile are just beginning to discover the rewards and pleasure of thinking about self more directly. But that, as they say, is another story……..

A win win solution

It was not the stuff of banner headlines. Potentially dodgy economic dossiers took that particular crown. But Alistair Darling’s Budget day announcement of 50,000 new traineeships in social care for unemployed young people — part of a package aimed at creating a quarter of a million jobs — was a substantive footnote to the economic stories. (Read the rest of the article here.)