You are currently browsing the monthly archive for November 2008.
David Goodhart writing in November’s issue of Prospect on Social Mobility in the UK, ‘More mobile than we think’.
“Both sociologists and economists agree that there has been some falling off from the high levels of mobility in the mid 20th century, although both record higher continuing levels of mobility—absolute and relative—than most non-experts would expect.
There has, for example, been a big increase in women taking higher status jobs and there are now many more female students than male. These are mainly middle class women but there is also quite a lot of upward mobility among women. This must have had some effect in reducing “room at the top” for lower income men. “Feminism has trumped egalitarianism,” concludes Tory thinker David Willetts. Similarly, the recent high levels of immigration have been mainly into lower-paid jobs, but in professions such as medicine and finance there has been a stream of migrants into top jobs too.
Then there is the effect of the abolition of most grammar schools. The sociologists, with their stress on mobility being driven by changes to economic structure, tend to see educational institutions as channellers of mobility not creators of it. If grammar schools had not existed people would still have been selected by some mechanism for the new higher status jobs. (Before grammar schools and then universities took over the role, big organisations from the army to large manufacturers acted as mobility “scouts”—spotting bright people with little education and often propelling them right to the top.)
Moreover, sociologists point out that grammar schools only ever educated about 15 per cent of the cohort and were middle-class dominated except in heavily working-class areas like Goldthorpe’s south Yorkshire. Both left and right have invested too much significance in grammar schools. But they did help to move a few people from close to the bottom to the very top, and Labour’s abolition of most grammars is one factor behind the continued private school domination of Oxbridge and key professions. Fewer grammar schools and more middle-class colonised universities also seem to have contributed to that hardening of the link between educational attainment and family background—the opposite of what the advocates of university expansion wanted.
[I]t may indeed be the case that the longer-term trend is for high levels of social mobility—both absolute and relative—to become ever harder to achieve. For one thing social mobility has always been “sticky” downwards—once people reach a certain level of wealth, or position, their children tend not to fall back too far; this was true even in the Soviet bloc. When, for example, the big bang swept out some of the dull but well-connected brokers from the City they were more likely to become estate agents than binmen.
To sum up: although mobility, both absolute and relative, has dropped off the high levels of the mid 20th century it still remains quite high, except at the very top and in the long tail at the bottom; the trouble is they are the places that matter most.
“…he who knows his own weakness as a result of the many temptations and trials that he undergoes through the passions of soul and body, understands the measureless power of God and how He redeems the humble who cry out to Him through persistent prayer from the depths of their hearts. For such a person prayer becomes a delight. He knows that without God he can do nothing (cf. John 15:5), and in his fear lest he fall he strives to cleave to God and is amazed as he considers how God has rescued him from so many temptations and passions. He gives thanks to his Saviour, and to his thanksgiving he adds humility and love; and he does not dare to judge anyone, knowing that as God has helped him, so He can help all men…”
St. Peter of Damascus
In 1616 William Shakespeare bequeathed to Anne Hathaway, his wife since 1582, his “second best bed” together with its furniture, the drapes and coverings. It seems that this was not a slight since the second best bed would have been their matrimonial bed, the best bed being reserved for guests and usually left to the male heir.
My aunt gave me photocopy today of a will of one of our ancestors, Agnes Wheyman. The will is dated 1574, about forty years earlier. A few months ago I listened to Germaine Greer’s fierce rebuttal of previous views of Shakespeare’s marriage to an illiterate older seductress who got pregnant and forced 18-year-old William into a shotgun marriage and became a shrewish companion he despised, and her circumstantial arguments that instead Ann Hathaway remained the love of his life, a love poignantly marked by the gift of that second best bed. I’d like to read her book now, to find out more about the life of women then.
In the name of God. Amen. The XVI
day of February 1574. I, Agnes
Wheyman of Denyngton within the diocese
of Norwich, wydowe, being sick and diseased
But of hale mynd thanks I give unto
Allmighty God and mak my testament
and last will in forme following. First
I commend my soule to Almighty God
my Creator and Jesus Christ my Lord and Saviour
and my body to be buryed in the church
yarde of Denyngton. Item I give
and bequeath unto Rose Wheymond my daughter
my bedsted with the featherbed and bolster
and all other things as it now standeth.
Item for that the said Rose
did lay out 12s [shillings] to redeem my cowderon [cauldron]
home again I give her also the
said cowderon. Item I give to my
sone Robt. Wheymond my charger
Item I give unto Margery my daughter
my best gowne. Item I give and
bequeath unto Edward Wheymand
my sone a round stole [stool] and
a quishen [cushion]. And all the Rest of
my goods and chatells and whatsoever
they be I give and bequeath to the
said Rose whome I do ordeyne and make
to be my sole executrice
and she to see this my last will and
In witness wherof I have sent my mark these being witnes
Photographer David Cotterrell’s diary of the weeks he spent in the company of military medical staff at the main field hospital at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan appears in the Guardian today.
The soldier is wheeled across. I watch from a distance with a telephoto lens. By the time I have walked past the quartermaster’s office to the entrance, the ambulances have arrived. As always, a crowd of some of the NHS’s most highly paid and skilled consultants are waiting in DPM clothing.
He is taken to Resus. Awake, in pain and bloody. The doctors adopt varying roles. One doctor stands with a nurse and an administrator at a lectern taking notes of every observation. Others direct the x-ray team, manage the unwrapping of the field dressings, check the vital signs, look for internal bleeding and try to calm the soldier. He is young; I suspect, a Commando.
His right leg has been bandaged in three field dressings – each one can absorb a litre of blood. His foot is unwrapped and clothes are cut away. It strikes me that all the kit fetish that follows the FOB [forward operating base] postings is discarded. The boots, the webbing, holsters and DPM are cut into pieces, and deposited into a black plastic bag for incineration.
Two Afghan children and their dignified elderly-looking father appear from the ambulances. I am struck by how beautiful they are. The son has shrapnel to his face and is in pain. The daughter has a wound to her leg and looks like aliens have abducted her. She is wide-eyed and confused. All three are covered in a thick layer of desert dust. I leave them as they are stabilised in Resus, unable to face another operation so soon.
We descend in darkness to Kandahar and as the ramp opens we feel the aircraft spinning around. A majestic sight comes into view. The open ramp of a C17 is waiting, framing an illuminated strategic team. The C130 backs up to its larger sibling until 50 yards of ashphalt separates the two worlds of tactical and strategic care. […]
Standing on the runway between these two great transport aircraft, I watch the stretchers being ferried across, illuminated by an honour guard of ambulances and Toyota pick-up trucks. I feel a strange sense of calm as the patients, strapped into the stretchers and protected by an assortment of Day-Glo equipment, are received by the C17 strategic CCAST [combat medical technician] team. I feel that some of the tension has passed away. They are crossing a threshold on the runway between combat and care. Their guilt about leaving the friends and duty, which appears so present at Bastion, seems to be left in the Hercules. As the stretcher crosses the halfway point between craft, it crosses a threshold. The gravitational pull of home overtakes the longing for the immersive FOB community. Powerless to resist, there is no shame for the soldiers. Their injuries answer any inquiries. The comfort, care and cleanliness of the civilian world beckons.
Read the full extracts here
Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love!
Oh! we, who have known shame, we have found release there,
Where there’s no ill, no grief, but sleep has mending,
Naught broken save this body, lost but breath;
Nothing to shake the laughing heart’s long peace there
But only agony, and that has ending;
And the worst friend and enemy is but Death.
Peace: Rupert Brooke
Alistair Darling, the UK’s Finance Minister, announced in the House of Commons today a raft of measures which the government hopes with act as a catalyst to spark new growth in the dwindling economy, injecting £22 billion into the UK economy. Chief amongst those measures is an immediate decrease in Value Added Tax (VAT), the sales tax forced upon the UK when it joined the European Communities on New Year’s Day, 1973. The VAT rate will be reduced from 17.5% to 15%. Pensioners and those on low incomes or benefits will also receive more money. This is to be funded by an increase in government borrowing. The pound immediately increased in value against the dollar, reversing its previous sharp decline. Markets rose by unprecedented amounts.
The money that governments spend comes from revenue or from borrowing. Revenue from taxes is an important part of a government’s overall revenue. If it cuts taxes, it gets less revenue, and if it wants to continue spending at previous levels or increase spending, then it will need to replace that lost revenue from elsewhere, typically by borrowing.
Government borrowing generally takes the form of issuing government bonds backed by the national bank. These bonds may be bought by other governments or by other investors. In the UK small private investors can buy National Savings Certificates and Premium Bonds – both forms of government borrowing. The huge government deficit in Japan is almost entirely funded by the investment of private Japanese savers in government bonds: in the US the position is different – very little of government borrowing is funded by domestic investments (less than 25%).
Government borrowing is thought to be a bad thing, especially by Conservatives everywhere in the world. I now turn to Geoff Riley, Head of Economics at Eton College, David Cameron’s old school, to tell us why:
There is a consensus that a persistently large budget deficit can turn out to be a major problem for the government and the economy. Three of the reasons for this are as follows:
1. Financing a deficit: A budget deficit has to be financed and day-today, the issue of new government debt to domestic or overseas investors can do this. But it may be that if the budget deficit rises to a high level, the government may have to offer higher interest rates to attract buyers of government debt. In the long run, higher government borrowing today may mean that taxes will have to rise in the future and this would put a squeeze on spending by private sector businesses and millions of households.
2. A government debt mountain? In the long run, a high level of government borrowing adds to the accumulated National Debt. This means that the Government has to spend more each year in debt-interest payments to holders of government bonds and other securities. There is an opportunity cost involved here because interest payments might be used in more productive ways, for example an increase in spending on health services. It also represents a transfer of income from people and businesses that pay taxes to those who hold government debt and cause a redistribution of income and wealth in the economy
3. Wasteful public spending: Neo-liberal economists are naturally opposed to a high level of government spending. They believe that a rising share of GDP taken by the state sector has a negative effect on the growth of the private sector of the economy. They are sceptical about the benefits of higher spending believing that the scale of waste in the public sector is high – money that would be better off being used by the private sector.
As a rule, it is thought that government borrowing of more than 3% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and a National Debt of more than 60% of a country’s GDP is harmful. Within the Euro-zone the Stability and Growth Pact set out in the Maastrict Treaty defined borrowing of more than 3% as “excessive” and Member States are obliged to try to keep within this limit.
CIA compiled figures on the level of national debt as a percentage of GDP are presented here. The UK (43%)appears below other European countries such as Italy (104%), Norway (83.10%), Germany (64.90%) and below the US (60.90%). Japan’s debt runs at 170% of GDP.
The UK is not bound by the Maastrict provisions because it is outside the Euro-zone, but Italy, France and Germany all have annual borrowing above the 3% limit. The UK under the stewardship of Gordon Brown as, first, Chancellor of the Exchequor and, now, Prime Minister has meanwhile striven to keep borrowing below 2% of GDP although the UK used to run without a deficit in the 1990s and only began to have any borrowings when public spending on health and education, in particular, increased under the Labour administration.
Currently, the budget deficit (that is, the deficit between taxes and spending) is at its highest since immediately after the Second World War. Critics of the Government argue that the acknowledged deficit figure does not represent the true scale of borrowing – because it does not include civil servant pension liabilities nor liabilities under Public Finance Initiatives (PFIs).
Government borrowing has historically run at a deficit, worst in the mid- to late-1970s, although there was a short period of budget surplus in the late 1980s during a period of strong economic growth under Margaret Thatcher’s government (which turned into the last deep recession). Because, returning to Geoff Riley, the question of government borrowing is a vexed one, and there are advantages, too, of governments running a deficit:
Two main arguments stand out
1. Government borrowing can benefit economic growth: A budget deficit can have positive macroeconomic effects in the long run if it is used to finance extra capital spending that leads to an increase in the stock of national assets. For example, higher spending on the transport infrastructure improves the supply-side capacity of the economy promoting long-run growth. And increased public-sector investment in health and education can bring positive effects on labour productivity and employment. The social benefits of increased capital spending can be estimated through use of cost-benefit analysis.
2. The budget deficit as a tool of demand management: Keynesian economists would support the use of changing the level of borrowing as a way of fine-tuning or managing the level of aggregate demand. An increase in borrowing can be a stimulus to demand when other sectors of the economy are suffering from weak spending. The fiscal stimulus given to the British economy during 2002-2005 has been important in stabilizing demand and output at a time of global uncertainty. The argument is that the government can and should use fiscal policy to keep real national output closer to potential GDP so that we avoid a large negative output Maintaining a high level of demand helps to sustain growth and keep unemployment low.
So we have the Government arguing that the increase in government borrowing (made necessary by the announcement today of cuts in VAT, and increases in benefits and allowances) is an essential tool to kick-start the economy and revive it from its recessionary spiral. The proposals break Gordon Brown’s own Golden Rule – that borrowing is only permissable to finance investment, not to fund day-to-day spending, and also take the UK outside the Maastrict limit. Exceptional times call for exceptional measures, the Government would argue, and claims that it has the backing of other major economies around the world who will follow suit with similar measures.
On the other hand, the Conservatives, ever mistrusting increased borrowing, argue that it will have an inflationary effect, and that the value of the pound against other major currencies will fall still further. Immediate reaction in the currency markets tends to suggest that this latter point is unlikely to be true, and that the fall of the pound against the dollar, in particular, reflected its previously inflated value.
Ever prudent, the Chancellor, under Gordon Brown’s tutelage, proposes to ensure that Government borrowing is brought back below the desirable limits by increased tax revenue raised by the improved economic climate (the Government hopes to have reversed the recession by 2010) and by an increase in taxes for the wealthy. Tax rates will be raised to 45% on income over £125,000 in 2011, raising about £2 billion in extra revenue, and national insurance contributions (paid by employers and employees) will increase by 0.5% at the same time.
I’m not quite sure what the Conservatives think the Government should have done. Nothing, I think. I heard a pensioner saying she thought that it would have been better to target the VAT reductions by removing VAT from fuel bills – gas, electricity – and by giving greater concessions in relation to the local Council Tax. But I think the Government is more interested in creating a “feel good” factor than putting more money in the purse of stretched families. It wants people to start spending again – and that it not about giving them more to spend, but making them feel better, safer, about spending what they already have. See above …
I suppose this day had to come. I feel sorry for Sarah Palin, for turkeys. Is nobody looking out for her?
You might want to read the book first …
After a few pages I decided I didn’t want to read The Outcast. I would have preferred to shut the book and throw it away and never see it again. But pitted against that was my wish to join a book group that several of my friends belong to, and the desire to be part of the book group won over the desire to stop reading the book. The book got worse, worse than I had thought it would be. Disgusting to read in places, revolting, painful, sensational, and titillating. I kept wondering how the author could write as she had, what she must have experienced in order to be able to write as she had, or whether she had just sucked life experiences out of those around her and used them in her book and seen a film in it.
Lewis is the Outcast, the cast out child in comfortably upper-middle class postwar Britain, where families live in large detached houses with housekeepers, and play tennis on their lawns, and drink sherry in each other’s houses after church on Sundays.
Lewis’s early life was lived in his mother’s arms until his father is demobbed and destroys their coupling and changes the balance of everything. His father not only takes away his mother, but sends him away, dismisses him. Lewis keeps hoping for crumbs of love – he waits at the end of the drive for his father comes home every day, but his father dreads seeing him there and tells him to stop doing it. Meanwhile Lewis’s mother is lonely too, and finds comfort in lunchtime cocktails and the comfort is false comfort because it leads to her death, her accidental drowning, and then Lewis really is all alone. Ten, and all alone with nobody who loves him.
The Outcast is Sadie Jones’s first novel and was shortlisted for the 2008 Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction. Lots of famous people gush about Sadie Jones. She looks a bit like Nigella Lawson in photographs, which helps. Unkindly, some people call her novel “McEwan lite”, but that’s about as bad as it gets and being a pale version of Atonement is not bad for a debut.
It begins beautifully, with sparse prose, perfectly weighted conversations and hints, gentle suggestions, of where the characters are going that leave the reader delighted as the character arrives at the way point a satisfying period after the reader has already passed it having already put all the puzzle pieces together.
There is a lovely passage in the Prologue which describes Lewis staring, but trying not to stare at women when he is released from prison, and the paragraph is littered with Lewis’s stares as he finds himself staring again, and then pulls himself away and stops staring and the rhythm of the words matches the eyes so pleasingly.
Sometimes just a few words conveys years of emotions, such as when his stepmother greets him on his return from prison with “We didn’t come” – because they had never come to visit him and her words could have filled pages. Or when his father is reunited with his mother after the separation of the war: “They kissed, embraces clumsily, and then allowed each other to be very close, quickly.”
But the open texture of the words that leaves room for our imaginings does not last. Lewis’s life becomes like a mushroom cloud, unbelievably horrible and damaging and the reader cannot avoid it. Shocking event follows shocking event with an obscene speed that now leaves the reader behind, and this struggling reader became disheartened. I hate, hate reading lurid descriptions of self-harming. Lewis had been a believeable boy who needed to be loved, but he turned into someone who chose to have pointless sex with his stepmother, to say things that hurt people, to take comfort in an aged whore, to burn down churches, to be violent and frightening, and yet we are expected to understand him still, to excuse him still, to like him still, like Kit – to love him for as long as it takes. We do, of course, but it is only part of ourselves and Sadie Jones does not allow the other part a voice. Or is Kit that voice?
Kit is young and lithe and boyish, and she is brave because she allows her father to beat her and whip her over and over again and says nothing and does not allow his violence to stain her innocence, her virtue. Now we know we’re deep in misery memoir ville. And this reader is deeply disillusioned. Lewis didn’t have to do those things and Kit is not brave.
The message of the book is that the love of a good man or woman can redeem the damaged soul, but that’s not true. You can love someone and love them and love them and it won’t make a difference. Lewis’s mother and his stepmother know that.
The only person who can redeem Lewis is Lewis though many a woman and man have hoped otherwise. It’s not that Lewis might not have felt like doing all those things, that sex might not have seemed a good substitute for love, that his anger might have not filled him ripe to bursting, but, ultimately, his father is right when he gives him Rudyard Kipling’s poem to read: “Or being hated, don’t give way to hating”. And we see the long tail of the war, handed down from father to son. And how it doesn’t have to shape us. A friend shared a Persian saying with me at the weekend. The man with good manners is asked where he learnt his manners. He replies “From a man with bad manners”.
The book has a happy ending, which it shouldn’t, but which is a good thing, considering all the muck you have to wade through with Lewis to get there. I can think of two similar men we’ve known, each of them Lewis in their own way. As far as I know one is still hell bent on his own destruction, while the other now devotes his life to going round schools sharing his experience in the hope that he can prevent others from travelling the same road. I’m not sure that it’s love that made the difference: I think it was a will not to let the badness win.
I wonder what the others will think.
Interesting fact: Sadie Jones has prosopagnosia.
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
At several points over the last ten years or so we have made and re-made our decision to educate our daughters in a single-sex environment. Their all-girls’ school has a very good academic reputation despite being situated in a rural county, one of the few counties without a university, and not being able to pull its pupils from a large metropolis. It’s fees are moderate compared to other private schools and its ethos is to offer a good education to bright girls from mixed backgrounds.
Now is one of those times when we have to look at our decision again, this time with our elder daughter, for she is now fifteen years old and too old to agree to go to a school that she does not want to go to, or to agree to stay at a school that she is not happy at.
Many girls choose to leave the school, for various reasons. There are the girls who have never been happy at the school, who cannot wait to leave. We know a few of those. There are the girls who think the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, including those girls who have brothers at other schools. There are those girls for whom the money has run out. There are those girls who have struggled in an environment that is highly academic and who will choose a less pressured option. There are those girls who want to study subjects that the girls’ school does not offer on its curriculum. There are those girls whose parents have watched in horror as all the PLUs leave, and who will be sent away to suitable boarding schools where they may find the social mix more to their parents’ liking. Sadly we know a few like this too, though it was not until last week that my husband heard a lawyer articulate it quite so obviously and repulsively. There are those girls who see boarding school as a way to escape an unhappy home, or the loneliness of being the only chick still in the nest. There are those girls who have been at the school since they were three, and just fancy a change. And there are the lemmings who do not want to be left behind if there is a rush to leave. And there are the girls, and their parents, who like the idea of being educated with boys, of being surrounded by the other sex. A multitude of reasons for moving, but none seriously related to academic attainment since it is virtually impossible to improve on the results obtained by the girls who decide to remain at the school. But then, education is about more than results.
We’ve looked at a couple of other schools with our daughter. One very famous school she rejected as she could only have been a boarder there, and she does not want to board, though she would have chosen it over her own school if it had been closer to home. This school only admits girls in the Sixth Form (the final two years) and struck us as exciting, anarchic, far from snobby, and infused by a culture of excellence and aspiration that made academic success seem inevitable. But she is not ready to leave home yet.
The other school is comfortable, has a wider ability range, and also has boys. It felt friendly, safe, has better music, larger classes, a nicer theatre, is situated in a town not in the wilds, is not wildly exciting but quite different to the very pink girls school, and we have no guarantee that our daughter would achieve the sort of results she needs to get through the entrance doors to university, doors which are narrow and hard to push open because she has chosen a profession that is more competitive than any other. Our daughter would be new to the school, would worry about making new friends. It would be a risk.
Into the soup of our indecision we now throw the recent comments of Vicky Tuck, President of the Girls’ School Association, and Head of Cheltenham Ladies College. One imagine she knows a lot about educating girls, and she is not in two minds about which choice we should make:
“I have a hunch that in 50 years’ time, maybe only 25, people will be doubled up with laughter when they watch documentaries about the history of education and discover people once thought it was a good idea to educate adolescent boys and girls together.”
Her argument, supported by many, and adopted by the body than runs our daughters’ school, is that girls do better when they are educated alone, and that it is only because boys benefit from having girls around, and because we live in a male-dominated world, that some of us may – foolishly – have come to believe that girls need to be educated with boys. Ms Tuck says:
“Far from living in the dying days of single-sex education, I am confident that as understanding of the brain continues to evolve, what is obvious to us will become obvious to everyone: girls learn in a different way to boys and it is crucial to cater for their separate needs.”
I, too, think that most girls think very differently to boys, preferring to spend a majority of their time in a different hemisphere of their brain. A small minority of girls have male brains, and may be happier being taught alongside those with similar brains, and it seems likely that the reverse is true of a small minority of boys.
Vicky Tuck argues a separate point elswhere – that it is fears about the early sexualisation of girls, about a coarsening of society, a Botox and binge society, that have led an increasing number of parents to choose to educate their girls privately. She cites statistics to prove her point: the number of girls at independent (private) schools has risen by 14.5% over the last ten years and over the last three years numbers increased by 2% whilst there was only a 0.6% increase in the number of boys being educated privately in the same period.
Since her statistics seem to apply to both single sex and co-educational independent schools, and she records a 40 year drift away from single-sex education for girls, it is difficult to use the figures as evidence that parents are increasingly opting for single sex education for girls, or that they are doing so because they believe that the education girls receive there will serve them better. Indeed the Girls’ Day School Trust group of schools has seen it roll fall considerably over the past few years despite its best schools consistently out-performing boys’ and co-educational schools. The Financial Times, in a report on September 12th this year, draws a more mixed picture, with some girls’ schools showing a slide in performance that belies the evidence generally that girls achieve higher grades when educated alone.
The Girls’ Day School Trust is the umbrella organisation of 29 highly successful girls’ schools in England and Wales – all bar one being day schools. A graph records the overall relative success of all the schools in the Group at “A” level (18+):
The picture is a mixed one, then, and difficult for parents to fathom. The girls’ schools will tell you that you will do best to leave your daughters with them, that they will achieve higher results, be more likely to choose to study science subjects, be more likely to go on to a career in medicine or veterinary science, and have less pressure to look good. One headmistress of an all girls’ school even told me that she would do a better job of ensuring my daughters remained virgins.
The headmasters (or very occasionally headmistresses) of co-educational schools will tell you that education is about more than results and that our daughters will benefit from the stimulation that a mixed environment can offer and may do just as well academically (impossible to prove otherwise, since there is no control).
Both sorts of schools are worried about falling numbers. Especially as we look set on entering a recession.
And we have to choose.
Further reports on Vicky Tuck’s comments:
From the Guardian
At times … I wish
I could meet in a duel
the man who killed my father
and razed our home,
a narrow country.
And if he killed me,
I’d rest at last,
and if I were ready—
I would take my revenge!
But if it came to light,
when my rival appeared,
that he had a mother
waiting for him,
or a father who’d put
his right hand over
the heart’s place in his chest
whenever his son was late
even by just a quarter-hour
for a meeting they’d set—
then I would not kill him,
even if I could.
Likewise … I
would not murder him
if it were soon made clear
that he had a brother or sisters
who loved him and constantly longed to see him.
Or if he had a wife to greet him
and children who
couldn’t bear his absence
and whom his gifts would thrill.
Or if he had
friends or companions,
neighbors he knew
or allies from prison
or a hospital room,
or classmates from his school …
asking about him
and sending him regards.
But if he turned
out to be on his own—
cut off like a branch from a tree—
without a mother or father,
with neither a brother nor sister,
wifeless, without a child,
and without kin or neighbors or friends,
colleagues or companions,
then I’d add not a thing to his pain
within that aloneness—
not the torment of death,
and not the sorrow of passing away.
Instead I’d be content
to ignore him when I passed him by
on the street—as I
that paying him no attention
in itself was a kind of revenge.
April 15, 2006
Just over a year ago I went to a poetry festival and heard this poem for the first time. It has stayed with me, and I thought others might like to read it again, or for the first time.
It seems a shame when something that should be framed, hanging on the wall, a constant beacon, gets lost under a virtual pile of papers. I’m glad the poet’s name stands out in the Tag Cloud I’ve added to the side bar on my blog. I like the way the cloud is made up of all the things I’ve written about, that matter to me, so that the words come to define me, accidentally, without me noticing.
This year some friends went to the same poetry festival, and came to eat with us afterwards, but nothing seemed to have grabbed their attention like this forgiving poem on revenge, though the poetic lawyer read a few of his poems – a memory of his father, and the obligatory poem about a cat. I asked him, as a joke, whether he had a poem about a cat, because poets always write about cats (and I don’t like cats very much and wonder if this means that I won’t like poets very much), and, unsurprisingly, he had written about cats, and so he read that. I’d print it here, but it’s too rude.
In the summer we took our daughters to hear Margaret Atwood recite some of her poems. We sat on the floor, and could barely see her as she hid behind her lectern. She read several about cats, including one about her favourite cat who always came and slept on her face, and she described his neat little pink bum hole. And Lola B only remembered that one line from all the poems that Margaret Atwood had read, and I laugh as I remember, because it seemed like her revenge on her parents who were trying to educate her, and because I cannot remember any other lines either.
Our lawyerly poet also coined a new way of describing our daughters which I liked very much though it took me a long time to decipher his handwriting. I wonder if all poets have illegible handwriting too.
[With thanks to Sami for the loan of a photo that I’ve wanted to use for a while.]