Tuesday, 23 April 2013

The Dinner by Herman Koch

I heard about this novel from my Dutch friends who raved about both the novel and the author – Herman Koch – who is a bit of a celebrity in his native Holland, and an actor in the long running satirical comedy series Jiskefet.  Okay, Dutch and sense of humour?  Maybe not so much - it's a bit like recommending a French bathing product.  Nevertheless,  when I picked up the book I still expected it to be amusing and it didn't disappoint.  But it’s also much more than that. Yes, the dinner is beautifully observed and bitingly funny - but it also leaves a disturbing taste in your mouth.  Even as you’re laughing, you’re uncomfortably complicit in the dark tale that unfolds over the course of the meal shared by two brothers Serge and – the narrator - Paul Lohman and their wives.

The couples meet to discuss their errant children and even before they arrive at the fashionable restaurant, Paul’s internal musing on whether to shave, or not to shave, raise a smile of recognition in the reader; even if the reader is me, a woman, who has – despite all claims to the contrary, and the nickname of Wolfgirl – no experience of facial hair.  What I do have professional experience of, however, is restaurants.  In the past I’ve eaten, not merely for recreational purposes, but for three years it was my job to eat out for the FT. This novel wickedly sends up the preoposterous rituals of dining in a high-end restaurant where people go to see and be seen and the food is presented with religious ritual and pomp.  When Koch begins to describe the absurd posturing of the maitre d’, the listing of specials, the over-eager replenishment of the water glass, the wine-tasting, you think for a second you’re reading A.A. Gill at his best – and worst.  This is especially true because Paul, our hapless diner, is just, well not to put too fine a point on it, not very nice.  His brother Serge however, a well-known politician, is worse.  At first you can’t help but sympathise with Paul for having to live up to this pretentious, more successful, prig.  But, of course, that’s not the whole story…

I’m not giving too much away when I say both the evening and the families soon begin to unravel, revealing a very sinister act that soon shows both brothers in their true light and raises the questions about nature vs nurture that all parents ask themselves.  How far would you go to protect your children?  Do you think your children could ever be capable of a horrific act?  Surely not?

One night, many years ago when my son aged around 13 was at a sleepover with a nice Catholic boy whose parents were remarkably down to earth for the chi-chi little private school they both attended, my husband and I were awakened in the middle of the night by furious ringing on the door bell.

Every parent knows that this is never a good thing.  As we hurriedly dressed and rushed down two flights of stairs to the door, I did a quick inventory of the children; the smallest was asleep, the elder boy – who followed us down to see what the commotion was about - was obviously safe.  My elder daughter was out with friends god knows where, and of an age to raise anxiety, but at least the younger son was okay, tucked up in the house of God in West London.  My heart was racing as my husband opened the door – we had already seen the silhouette of two men in black wearing helmets , but nothing quite prepares you for the anxiety of a policeman’s knock in the middle of the night.  You immediately think a child must be dead, then a parent – and under grizzly circumstances.  Why else would they send a police delegation?  What I certainly didn’t expect was to see my tear stained son’s face, cowering behind the officers.  Apparently, after the holy family had gone to sleep, their son and mine had let themselves out of the house and been caught tagging – writing graffiti on a wall near his friend’s house – in junkie heaven in Paddington.  Tagging!  My husband and I repeated weakly.  The child didn’t even have the sense to really ‘tag’ but had helpfully written his own name.

We took him inside gave him a sound talking to and sent him to bed.  Then as my husband and I went to bed, I expressed a profound relief.  ‘I know,’  said my husband, ‘part of it was shock, but I just wanted to laugh.  I thought he’d robbed a house or been caught selling drugs or buying them or something.’ 

Well, suffice to say that the kids in The Dinner are involved in something more serious and sinister than daubing on a wall.  We grounded our son who was sensible enough to know that having the name Hussein, even then, was Not-a-Good-Thing and that the only reason he got off with a caution was because he talked posh and went to a private school.  The Catholic kid prayed about his crime with his parents, and later became a pot head and was expelled from the school.  

What happens here?  Well, it’s a little different, and very morally ambiguous.  And if this book doesn’t send you racing to Google genetic illnesses as you race through the pages to the end, then I’ll eat my napkin.

And if you find one that matches let me know because despite spening a whole morning on the web researching(when I should have been working), I didn’t find one – which as far as I’m concerned, is the story’s only flaw.

Monday, 22 April 2013

I'm on fire

I’ve burned for lovers, and had my fingers burned as a result. I've burned with longing, with desire, and with fever. But now I just burn.  I wake in the morning and my arms are on fire.  On a bad day it creeps into my chest.  On a really bad day, it wakes me up long before the night has even ended and I lie there feeling like I’ve been scalded, tossing and turning.  On the worst of days I’ve groaned with agony.  It’s hard not to think about those times when I open my eyes it’s there at 6am, waiting for me.

Anxiety, I’m told by Dr Google and a score of other people who can’t spell and who’ve seen countless specialists and had heart scans and investigative procedures and found nothing.  This doesn’t put my mind at ease.  I can still imagine a hundred and one diseases that I might have, and frankly – even the catch all of ‘anxiety’ isn’t any comfort.  I don’t even know I’m anxious, and then I am – about the bloody burning.  Seems madder than ever to be anxious because you’re anxious about the symptoms of your anxiety.

Damn it.  I meditate.  I sit and breath like I’m a human ventilator, and my breath is all that’s keeping someone alive (well in a way it is – me) and I visualize, and I chill, or with burning arms, I try to chill.  But no, it’s still there, invisible sunburn, searing me like a steak with no fat. 

Though I’ve plenty of that.

Maybe it's the menopause, I've been told once or twice as though that would be a perfectly reasonable explanation.  I asked my doctor.  She didn't know, despite being one of the people who offered the diagnosis.  She shrugged.  The big M is the catch-all for hysterical symptoms - we haven't come far since men attributed anything resembling neurosis to the uterus.  As if that somehow makes it okay.  Yes, sure, you wake ten times a night in a burning sweat and it's all fine - what are you worried about?  It doesn't matter if you haven't slept for a year, it's just the menopause.  No it's not, it's the fricking womenopause.  If it happened to men there would be a Government Health Campaign and a screening process - and possibly a treatment that didn't put you at risk of cancer.

I've never had the menopause before so I can't judge.  Neither can my GP who is twelve and barely through puberty.  It doesn't seem to over-concern her this time when madness is expected and correspondingly perfectly normal, but it's something that every single women will face unless death gets her first.  We won't all be mothers and we won't all be wives.  Some of us might still die without ever having sex, but even if you don't use it, you still lose it.  The menopause is coming to get you.  What isn't coming is sympathy.  It's natural, you know, so you have to suck it up or look like a cliche of a woman who's past it, who's shut up shop, who can no longer be considered fertile, and therefore desirable.

'Menopausal women' is a derisory term for the flabby, the permed, the thick of waist and ankles.

I'm definitely all of the above, except for permed, but I'm not sure I'm burning because of hormones waxing and waning.  But if I am, Mother Nature didn't think very far ahead with her plan for reproduction.  By rights we should all be dead by now and not having to suffer any of the ill-planned symptoms of age-related barrenness.  I suppose one could find out.  But there seems remarkably little import on helping women to understand or manage the menopause, and what does exist is buried in a ghetto of others like us whispering.

All I know is that I'm not having a hot flash. I've had those - they're totally different animals.  I'm taming something else here, without much success.  Though it's still eating away at me...

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

In the Monkey House

Meditation.  'Oh how lovely just to be able drift away and relax...'  Says my work wife.

But it's not like that at all, and nothing like I expected.  Sometimes you do, in fact, drift off to dreamy realms, and often I fall asleep, even sitting up.  But the idea is not to let your thoughts meander away but to simply notice them, and then draw your attention back to your breath.  Your breath, my dears, is not that interesting, which is probably the point.  What's more, when you concentrate on breathing it's remarkably hard to do.  You fall into the spaces between the breaths, the long silences between letting go of one and taking another, and sometimes those spaces seem vast and uncrossable, and taking the next breath an unbelievable effort, meaning you wait too long, and gulp it, snatch it greedily into your lungs.  And then your nose itches.  A nose that you didn't even remember you had although it's stuck there in the middle of your face, probably not (in my case) your most beautiful feature and something you try to avoid looking at, especially in profile because you look like a middle aged hen, but suddenly it's on fire, the only thing you can think off, demanding to be scratched.  You try not to.  You try to 'notice' it and then turn your attention back to the breath, that thing you do unconsciously every minute of your life, which is suddenly laboriously difficult.  If you give in and scratch your nose, you'll get a moment of relief and then your feet, those things you plant on the floor at your desk and don't move for hours while you're beavering away at the coal face of Facebook or work, or both, suddenly start to scream at you - 'move me, move me damn it' and once again, you draw your breath into them imagining them to be soft spongey lungs that can be soothed by filling them with oxygen - and sometimes they can, and other times they continue to feel as though they're in a vice and you're consumed by the desire to just move them, even just flex your toes - a desire so powerful it's the only thing you can think of.  If you're standing up, it's even worse. The longing to sit down is overwhelming, but somehow in the tube in the morning you can happily stand for thirty minutes without wanting to curse out everyone in the carriage.

This, apparently, is the point of meditation.  It's to notice your uncomfortable feelings, your 'barriers' and try and sit on the edge of them, and breathe, breathe, breathe.  Who knew I had so many barriers?  Since starting to try to meditate I've discovered I get very impatient with people talking at me, interrupting my revery, or my attempts to breath quietly, and my thoughts?  Well for a while I thought I had this meditating lark licked, as my thoughts would wave in and out like Radio 4 on a country drive, and it was easy to pull my attention back from them and sink into the breathing.  Until this morning when I sat on the tube ready to practice my usual three minute meditation and found I had a barrel of evil monkeys in my head, all jammering away at once, yacking at me about work, and chores, and worrying away at things, then worrying away at the fact that I was worrying and then worrying because I couldn't stop worrying that I was worrying.

Breath, concentrate on the breath.

But why are you so anxious?  Is it coming back?  Are you going mad again?  What will you do?  Take a Valium?  But I don't want to take Valium, I've just given it up.  Why can't I stop thinking?  Why am I so panic-stricken?

Breathe.  Breathe, damn you.

What am I worrying about?  Why today?  What's so different about today?  Nothing's gone wrong.  There's nothing particular to really worry about.  So why the hell are you worrying?


And then I gave up.  Maybe sometimes you need to think without being in a fight with yourself.  You need to think things through, even worry a little, process things, and if you give yourself permission to think, then you can switch it off easier?

By that time I was at Holborn, and the monkeys followed me up the escalator out into the street where it was pouring with rain.  Walking helps to shake them off.  But only temporarily.  They keep clinging to me all day.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Getting Ripped

Easter without chocolate passed quite nicely.  I spent most of it wrapped up on the sofa like an invalid, watching television, or so it seemed.  The cold is arctic and gets into your bones. Even in my big sheepskin coat which would enable me to play Hagrid in Harry Potter, or one of the Night's Watch in Game of Thrones (which is BACK - and a cause for excitement in my otherwise humdrum existence), the wind whistles up the sleeves and finds its way into your heart.  But the cold has matched my nestling nature of the moment, allowing me to luxuriate in sloth, punctuated by occasional  bouts of activity of the attic clearing - Paperchase visiting - Portobello Road walking sort.  My tomato seedlings still wave too and fro, waxing and waning with the occasional watering, or lack thereof, and the curly beech tree remains unpruned, ready to sprout its ugly shaggy hairdo the minute spring gets going properly, but there's time for the garden yet.

Boyfriend has returned home and I'm almost alone again.  When my youngest goes back to college on Wednesday it will be me and the cats and three unfinished art projects, with one yet to start - lots of good intentions but no actually action.  I'm enjoying it, this near seclusion, but only because it's a break from the norm.  When it was just me this time last year I hated it and lived from weekend to weekend when the boyfriend arrived and seemed to breathe life into the house, but it wasn't really life, more of a forced activity.  The two of us on our best behaviour, devoted to 'doing' stuff, with no idle nights in front of the tv - everything was orchestrated and timetabled - films agreed during the week, with times in the diary, dinners planned, shopping planned, food in the fridge, walks itinerised and every second, or so it seemed, accounted for.  And then he'd go and it would feel, to me, like falling into a limbo of waiting.  Not waiting for him, but waiting not to be alone again, as though he were the wind and I was some sort of becalmed ship needing his presence to spur me into action.  Ridiculous really.  I've grown up on my own, lived on my own, and very much know how to manage my own company even if I've heard all my own jokes already, but it has really taken the presence of the boyfriend over the past three months to reintroduce myself to the joy of my own space - because it's the exception not the rule.

When he isn't there, I might take it easy and watch a rom com or a foreign film I know he wouldn't fancy, or I might decide to clean up the house, or start painting or writing, relishing my own company, eating nothing or something low in calories - no manly carbs or thoughts of vegetarianism.  And when he is there we dawdle and sleep and doze and settle down for BBC4s current Scandinavian broadcast, the time no longer meted out in slots to various pastimes, but fluid and domestic.  Of course we still go out, but there's less of rigid schedule.  We are simply together, doing stuff.  I like it.

Equally though, I like waking up alone and making myself a cup of tea in five minutes flat, instead of waiting like a princess for the boyfriend to bring that same cup of tea an hour later (after he's stroked the cats, and listened to a few tracks, and sent a text and freed a bee from the maws of Mrs Catty...) reading, daydreaming, trying to meditate...  It's like rediscovering the old me, the good old me who likes herself.

Crafty projects however have their drawbacks.  I came back from Portobello with a bargain trunk for £20, complete with lining in a very good condition and a shelf.  Only when I arrived home did I discover the trunk had ripped my brand new, definitely not £20 leather trousers to shreds.  Not such a ruddy bargain.

I know, leather trousers?  Really?  Me.  Yep I'm embracing middle age with seriously bad taste.  Shredded leather trousers, very S&M.