Karen’s book is published…

Local artist, Karen Thomas, is not a one for bragging but I seriously think she would be excused if she did, given the stunningly professional nature of her new book, A Passion for Watercolour.

Karen, who lives in Bridgerule in becoming increasingly well-known for her contemporary watercolour paintings, especially of animals. Her award-winning work is exhibited at art fairs and galleries throughout the west country and beyond, inspired largely by nature. She gets close to animals, really trying to understand them, in order to capture their characters and expressions. Her style is expressive, her use of colour impressive. She is lauded and applauded by artist, Steve Hall, and others. Her name is spreading far and wide, so much so that she now also attends numerous events outside the south-west.

It has to be said that Karen devotes herself 150% to her painting; her output is high-quality yet prolific, but she is also savvy at reaching her audience, for she works hard at communicating with the lovers of her work. She has stacks of followers on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and she blogs regularly and well (all time, all effort, but she feels it is worthwhile to connect with her audience).

The book was in response to people wanting to buy catalogues of her work. It is a book she decided to self-publish, thereby retaining control and creating a book she absolutely believes in. She will sell it through her website and at exhibitions. Pre-publication sales were high, and website sales continue to be buoyant.

Loving what she does, Karen’s enthusiasm as a painter is infectious. Understandably,  she now receives many commissions and also has her own studio in Okehampton where her imagination can take further flight.

I was thrilled to be asked to play a small part in this book by offering an editorial overview. Karen listened to my comments, taking them on board and adapting her already impressive writing to make it even stronger. As an editor, that makes such a difference. Authors may not always take every comment on board, but if something requires tightening or elucidation, then it really helps if the author means business and realises criticism is constructive. In that sense, Karen was an ideal client, professional to the last and open to ideas, while understandably wanting to retain control of her vision for what is her first book. What a debut!

This is not a mere coffee-table book of pictures, beautiful though they are, but is a carefully woven tale of Karen’s journey, plus some tips, illustrated by her wonderful paintings. She mentions some of the issues that inhibit artists, such as erratic progress (it isn’t linear) and experimental process. Of course, it is always fascinating to hear of a person’s journey towards success.

Additionally, the book provides hope for anyone serious about art for Karen is not convinced that artists need ‘talent’. She says she doesn’t feel talented. She feels like someone who really loves what she does, has a clear idea of what she wants to learn, and then immerses herself in it. She studies the craft as if her life depended on it, and to be honest, she does go at around 100 miles per hour in working to achieve her goals. We can all learn from that.

In the book, she talks about criticism, experts, the influences on her work, her working tools and methods, how she learns, and notions of ‘good versus perfect’. Then there are the pictures. This is a full-colour book, beautifully presented. Apart from some professional input, Karen wrote, illustrated and had a keen idea about paper quality, size and design.

She worked like the very devil to get the book finished in time for her forthcoming exhibition season without skimping on quality.

Congratulations to Karen on a superb book for artists and animal lovers everywhere.

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Damnable Dementia

Here’s one written when my mother was still alive…the experience I describe here became a distant memory as my mother’s vascular dementia progressed.

Dementia was a demon who created a woman I disliked, dreaded seeing, but felt duty bound to so do, who had me in frequent tears with her downright nastiness, but later it also created a bewildered yet calm person I could once again care about, living in another world, another time. It enabled me to make peace with her prior to her death in 2017.

Since writing this, my father, following a stroke and the onset of Alzheimer’s has also left his home and is receiving nursing home care. He will soon be 90.

My older brother died from multiple system atrophy in 2015. He was 61.

At the time of writing this, when Mum was vitriolic, hateful, and physically strong, it was extremely challenging for everyone, including her.

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Can you imagine having to change your mother’s urine-sodden underwear that she is convinced is wet because she has just washed it?

Or rinsing out her slipper where the urine caught it after dripping down her trouser leg?

Perhaps listening to your octogenarian parents talking in no uncertain terms – and graphically – about sex is more of a sticking point than the physical.

Or maybe it’s the personal insults they sling at you in a truly uninhibited fashion. The swearing. And the bile. “Who are you. I don’t f*cking know you”.

For me, it’s the urine and total loss of personal hygiene in people whose house used to be so clean you really could have eaten off the floor. Now, the place smells unpleasant.

Incontinence isn’t necessarily part of dementia but it frequently becomes one of the many distressing symptoms: confusion, getting lost, struggling with words, forgetting things, mood swings, personality change or exaggeration, low attention span, poor mobility, delusion….the list is endless.

Every sufferer will vary in terms of symptoms, both their severity and type.

My parents live two hundred miles away and I see them infrequently because an hour of my company has long been more than enough for my father (10 minutes now suffices with my mother) yet I remember the days when my mother would spend at least an hour on the phone. They don’t/can’t use the phone these days. Those days have long gone. If the phone rings, Dad is more likely to tear it from its socket than answer it. Of course, in the early days, they were prey to all kind of sales scams by those parasites preying on the elderly, ordering £1000 chairs – and other things – by ‘phone.

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And to be honest, now, if they were not fed, watered and cared for, they would not survive. My mother’s dementia is advanced, so she is in a nursing home, or hospital, depending on how ill she is at any one time…Dad has three carers in a day, plus relatives.

Dementia – progressive confusion – is a subject people rarely think about until it personally impacts upon them. So it was with me. It is only now that my parents have well-advanced memory and communication problems that I am seeking and finding more information about this progressive condition which, according to the Alzheimer’s Society, affects hundreds of thousands of mainly elderly people in the UK.

‘Dementia’ is the set of symptoms affecting reasoning, and mood, among other things, which may have various causes. My mother, for example, has had nearly ten years of vascular dementia caused by problems of blood supply to the veins, commonly caused by diabetes and high blood pressure, or mini-strokes, although I have been minded to look more closely at Lewy dementia, after being alerted to the condition.

Alzheimer’s is the most common problem affecting around 496,000 people in the UK.

The scale of the problem is really quite scary, especially once people reach their 80s, where 1 in 6 of people, already vulnerable because of other infirmities, are affected.

31% of the population, according to a 2011 NHS study, fear dementia more than death or dying, and who can blame them for it is a slow and lingering death.

We are in a country which has over 750,000 dementia sufferers, yet to keep some perspective, it equates to 170 people per thousand aged 80 or above, meaning 830 octogenarians per thousand will not suffer it!

It has become the subject of a Government campaign, as ways to deal with a costly ageing population are discussed, but there are scary regional variations in dementia diagnosis rates with the Alzheimer’s Society telling us that diagnosis is as low as 31.6% in East Yorkshire and as high as 75.5% in Belfast.

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It’s been an interesting journey for me because I have not yet been a primary carer for people with Alzheimer’s or dementia. That task has fallen to my brother who describes it as ‘being responsible for these bodies whose personalities bear little resemblance to the parents we once knew’. And my sister-in-law who, by rights, should not have to deal with it at all. Now my brother is also ill. The difficulties increase.

The Alzheimer’s Society talks of a sense of grief and bereavement, which I believe to be the hardest part for the family of the sufferer. Certainly, there is a very real sense of loss, many seeing it as an ongoing and living bereavement. Or a double loss. Yet, it is astonishing how many people carry the burden of dementia with them, and how few of us can see any joy in it.

It seems to be music and literature that has helped me more than any serious study. After all, any research will not now help my parents who have succumbed to this cruel disease which drags on and on, then on some more.

For example, every time I listen to the Amy MacDonald song “Left That Body Long Ago”, I cry. The lyrics that especially get the tears flowing are those about losing the person, but also that it isn’t the end, it’s merely goodbye. The end can seem like a long way off.

But it also helps to get into the mindset of the sufferer, something we can only imagine because, let’s face it, no one really knows how someone with advanced dementia feels. It is heartening to think that there may be is some happiness within, somewhere. But I’m not sure how accurate that is. Something I discovered from a couple of MOOCs on the subject as that the benefit of touch is much greater than of talk. 

Reading novelist Lisa Genova’s book ‘Still Alice’ about early – onset Alzheimer’s was also a revelation in terms of the sense of the gradual development of the disease and the diminishing sense of awareness in the sufferer.

dependent-765183_960_720 The harsh reality remained that when I set off to see my parents for a pre-Christmas visit two years ago, their diminished state, the heightening of their personality traits (especially the negative ones) and their inability to care for themselves, would hit deep and hard. It did. They were unkempt, as usual (despite family and professional care) and vitriolic and argumentative as usual, with language and innuendo that could make a navvy blush, and which led to many a complaint from their carers.

What surprises me is that so many people experience dementia in the family, but that so few talk about it, until it crops up in passing. It is almost the last taboo.

Yet, it can affect anyone, from the most intellectually capable through the most physically active to the person who has spent much of their life watching TV.

For the sufferer, dementia is bad enough, For the family, it is a huge loss, without the chance to grieve.

And the most sobering thought of all is that it could happen to any of us: you or I.

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Loving Leuven

Sometimes you simply need to go with the flow. I saw Leuven in a holiday ad in The Guardian. Struck by the utterly beautiful buildings, with their peculiarly Flemish roof facades, I parked it as a place to visit, mentioning it in passing to my offspring who were as keen as me to see it.

So, last week, four went to Leuven in Flemish Brabant, by Eurostar.

Eurostar is very comfortable. It feels like train travel should be. Smooth, spacious and pleasant. Belgian trains are similar. The luxury of having space for self and luggage, with a regular, clean, inexpensively frequent service is not to be underestimated. Under 26 and you get a discount, with or without a railcard. Britain could learn from Belgium.

Leuven is an ancient capital, friendly and safe-feeling, a university town, which while historic also feels young and energised. It is less anonymous than Antwerp, which we also visited (the latter does have a stunning station though and an imposing cathedral but the city is currently a massive construction site, not too different to Manchester). Leuven is small enough to capture in a day (we did over 32,000 steps trying) with some marvellously picturesque buildings.

In the Grote Markt is the iconic Stadhuis, a Gothic dream of turrets and statues, each representing a noble or academic from the city’s history. Astonishingly, it survived immense damage during many wars, most recently when a World War II bomb failed to explode. It is a place of loss and revival.

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The university library is inspired. It was rebuilt after World War I’s terror of the German occupation (in 1914) with the help of the Americans. It had to be built again after World War II. As my son put it, these Germans seemed hellbent on destroying everything.  That’s probably not PC, but when you look at the devastation wreaked on Belgium and France during two World Wars, it is not unreasonable.

The library tower contains 300 steps, but there is an unspoken rule in my head that if there is a tower, then it must be ascended, for a bird’s eye view is totally different to anything else. We were well rewarded.

Two gems are St Anthony’s Chapel which we entered unknowingly, assuming it was a small church on the way to the Beguinage. It tells the story of Father Damien, a missionary priest who died in 1889. Damien was beatified in 1995 and canonised in 2009. His missionary life was spent working with lepers in Hawaii. The lepers were quarantined in a leper colony. There Father Damien brought them to the Catholic faith. He cared for the people and established an infrastructure through his leadership. He also dressed their ulcerating skin, made coffins and dug graves. He contracted the disease (only realised when he scalded himself and felt no pain). The youngest of seven children, Damien grew up on a farm. Uneducated, he was not considered good priest material but he was able to learn Latin and the “earnest peasant” took the place of another Father on the Hawaiian mission.

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We now know that leprosy is a bacterial infection causing skin ulceration and nerve damage, which is easily cured with appropriate medication. However, then it was considered terrifying and stigmatising. Sufferers were cast out, literally, into the wilderness of social isolation. Now we know it is not that contagious and indeed that most people are immune to it.

Slightly tucked away but also so worth seeing is the Groot Begijnhof, home to beguines, religious women who lived in a community (yes, a Beguinage) without taking vows or shutting themselves away. In the Low Countries, Beguinages were early gated communities of courtyards, houses, a church and an infirmary, usually slightly outside the main town, so separated off. Why women chose to live there is moot. Traditionally, it was thought to attract single women who had no partner due to men lost in war, but increasingly, it is thought to be related to work opportunities, the chance to live a religious life, coupled with personal independence, all of which were hard to access as a woman. Even all those years ago, some independent women sought to live their own lives.

It is a fascinating place to explore by foot and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site (since 1998).

Put simply, as my daughter said, I loved Leuven.

Why Mummy Drinks – Gill Sims

downloadThis book was a smash with me – easy to read, unintellectual, just a great giggle.

Why Mummy Drinks, written by Gill Sims, is a hilarious tale of family feuds and fracas. It’s the perfect antidote to those perfect Facebook families, those featured in Christmas round-robins and, to use a Simsism, St John of Lewis adverts; those gorgeous, well-groomed children who love each other to bits rather than wanting to smash each other’s heads in, and of course, charmingly compatible partners with no horrible habits or irritating issues.

They are the stuff of inspirational ‘we’re so happy’ Pinterest photos: mother resembling a stick-thin supermodel, father handsome with all his own hair, siblings all smiley and spotless; clean car interiors, cushions in the bedroom (does anyone truly NOT throw them on the floor?), a dearth of dog hairs, and kitchens scrubbed to within an inch of their lives.

The book is a diarised novel about the dulled, dulling bits of marriage and family life, the mundane day-to-day drear, the parts only partly punctuated by getting plastered on the Prosecco. We all know them if we’re honest.

Gill Sims started out as a Scottish ‘Mummy blogger’ (that sounds a tad patronising, who thought that one up?) whose words are immediately relatable to other women, especially her constant refrain of FML. As you read it you are there with her sharing her stuck-up sister, her cantankerous children and her pug-ugly dog.

If mothers are honest, really honest, they really really do get hacked off with their spouses, their children, the dog, and even rank outsiders like the ‘school gate mothers’ – oh yes, and very definitely the in-laws.

Yet, seeking to impression manage, they paste posed pictures on social media purely for external consumption. Parental perfection perfected. They may even begin to believe their own hype…

Who I am.

Who I pretend I am.

Who you believe I am.

Give it a go; if you don’t mind some swearing (that’s the next book, by the way), I guarantee it will make you lol.

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Embrace your inner editor, or cutting words…

Cutting words, making the language as concise as possible is one of my favourite writing activities. Give me a 1500 word essay that is 400 words over count and ask me to ‘edit down’. Heaven! (I know, I know, sad….)

There is just something incredibly satisfying about using as few words as possible to create a coherent piece of work.

Cutting words also known as ‘Editing Down’ is an essential element of writing well. Here is a piece of text with example edits which should help you along the path of eternal editing.

When ex-Speaker of the House of Commons, Betty Boothroyd, banned breast (and bottle) feeding in much of the Palace of Westminster in April, 2000, she did mothers a great disservice. Breastfeeding was considered in the ban to be “bringing refreshments into the room”, and babies were banned because they are “persons other than members of the committee and specified officers and officials”, as if they were likely to affect policy or divulge information. Dorothy-Grace Elder, Member of the Scottish Parliament, spoke out against the ruling, specifically noting that in Glasgow, it is a struggle to encourage mothers to breastfeed, this being a class issue – only 30% of poorer mothers there were then breastfeeding and just 25% of under 20s. Part of the problem, she felt, was the goody two shoes image of breastfeeding and the sense of rebellion that most women feel postnatally, but also the sexualisation of breasts: “men have made breasts sexual objects, for sexual exploitation from advertising onwards. Their natural function is still derided by many men. 172 words

First edit:

When ex-House of Commons Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, banned infant feeding in the Palace of Westminster in April 2000, she did mothers a great disservice. Breastfeeding was considered to be “bringing refreshments into the room”; babies were banned because they are “persons other than members of the committee and specified officers and officials”, as if likely to affect policy or divulge information. Dorothy-Grace Elder, Member of the Scottish Parliament, spoke out against the ruling, specifically noting that in Glasgow, it is a struggle to encourage mothers to breastfeed; only 30% of poorer mothers there were then breastfeeding and just 25% of under 20s. Part of the problem, she felt, was the goody-two-shoes image of breastfeeding, the sense of rebellion that most women feel postnatally, but also the sexualisation of breasts: “men have made breasts sexual objects, for sexual exploitation from advertising onwards. Their natural function is still derided by many men. 153 words

Second edit:

When ex-Commons Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, banned infant feeding at Westminster in April 2000, she did mothers a great disservice. Breastfeeding was called: “bringing refreshments into the room”; babies were banned because they are “persons other than members of the committee and specified officers and officials”, as if likely to affect policy or divulge information. Dorothy-Grace Elder, Member of the Scottish Parliament, spoke out against this, noting that in Glasgow, few mothers breastfeed; only 30% of poorer mothers were then breastfeeding, just 25% of under 20. Part of the problem, she felt, was the goody two shoe image of breastfeeding, the sense of rebellion of postnatal women, and the sexualisation of breasts: “men have made breasts sexual objects, for sexual exploitation from advertising onwards. Their natural function is still derided by many men. 133 words

Can you reduce this even further without losing meaning? It depends upon our audience. If people know what we are writing about we can dispense with yet more description:

Final edit:

When Betty Boothroyd banned infant feeding at Westminster in 2000, she did mothers a great disservice. Breastfeeding was “bringing refreshments into the room”; babies were banned as “persons other than members of the committee and specified officers and officials”, although unlikely to affect policy/divulge information. Dorothy-Grace Elder, Member of the Scottish Parliament, spoke out against this, noting that in Glasgow, few mothers breastfeed; only 30% of poorer mothers breastfed, just 25% of under 20. The problem, she felt, was the saintly image of breastfeeding, the rebellion of postnatal women, and the sexualisation of breasts: “men have made breasts sexual objects, for sexual exploitation from advertising onwards. Their natural function is still derided by many men”115 words

There is more to be done: Member of the Scottish Parliment could become Scottish MP, for example, which = 3 words lost at a stroke with meaning retained…

Think how crucial this editing skill is when you have a word count to consider………losing 57 words – or more – in a paragraph can be quite a big help and tightens up your writing.

While or whilst?

question-mark-2546106_960_720I never thought of while/whilst until recently, when I read a long piece of writing consisting almost entirely of whilst which, frankly, did my head in!  Apparently, they are interchangeable, and whilst sounds posher. 

Does it, though? 

Whilst in the bath, I read my book.

While in the bath, I read my book.

Say it out loud – which is easier to roll off the tongue probably depends upon your dialect ( though I must admit that when I just read those back: whilst struck me as past tense, and while as present in terms of how I said ‘read’).

Some feel whilst is quaint and others suggest it is dated. It seems the jury is out, but this forum on the Guardian website proved interesting.

I quite enjoyed this comment (ouch):

In modern British English, ‘whilst’ is supposedly a more formal variant of ‘while’. It is also, in my experience, particularly beloved of students who write bad essays.

Dominic Watt, Department of Linguistics & Phonetics, University of Leeds

So, does it matter?

Well, the impression a piece of writing makes on the reader is important. This copywriting agency blog suggests exactly what I did to the piece I was checking: 

“I’ve always favoured the more-relaxed and accessible while. There can be something crusty and old fashioned – even pompous – about using whilst in corporate communications, which is why I routinely delete it when I’m editing”.

The Guardian and BBC both prefer while, but they are international news organisations with global readership.

I’ll do what I always do at times like this and refer to the oracle, David Crystal. He is an adherent/supporter of ‘while’. 

Partly, it just depends upon a feel for something and how it looks. “While” in, say, a report, just looks more business-like/modern.  I’d probably generally stick with that.  But for now, I’ll while away my time thinking of something else…

Is Ecofeminism Dead in the Water?

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I live by the sea. While much else that floats around our shores is dead or inanimate, ecofeminism should be alive and kicking. Why? Largely because women’s lives are especially adversely affected by environmental pollution caused by (usually) male-dominated corporations.  However, while I see plenty of beach-side activism, women do not seem to be linking sustainability issues with the exploitation of women.

Simply being a woman means I potentially access more cleansing and cosmetic products than most men. Our bodies and how they are managed do not make us naturally eco-friendly. We are expected to clean up and beautify, most of us acceding to this. Tampon applicators, sanitary towels, and cleansing wipes all go somewhere, and often, it’s through the sewerage system into our oceans. Many cosmetic products, directed at women, have contained plastics we were not overtly informed about. Inadvertently, many of us have been contributing to marine degradation, which sits rather uncomfortably for anyone opposed to exploitation.

On the plus side, while in the 21st century, we know that the environment is in a bad way; we also know that women are increasingly at the forefront of environmental campaigns but also that women sustain their action once the initial fanfare is over; they are in it for the long haul. There are many inspirational environmental women activists out there.

In developing countries, environmental catastrophes regularly impact upon women first, so it is often women who are proactively dealing with the problems. According to Sherilyn MacGregor (University of Manchester) women experience the world in “qualitatively different ways to men” which is fair comment, yet most would still not proclaim themselves to be ecofeminists.beach-1484255_960_720

Ecology is growing in importance as green issues grab the headlines. People (more so since the plastic bag tax)  are becoming interested in the natural world and the havoc humanity wreaks upon it. Beach cleans and plastic disposal events are now massive along our coastline, with women at the forefront of localised campaigns. Re-usable coffee cups are the current target ‘movement’ where I live (North Cornwall/Devon coast) and indeed nationally but will it lead to more awareness of the links between the environment and feminism?

The term ecofeminism is as it sounds.  It was coined in 1974 by Francoise D’Eaubonne during second-wave feminism, a time of a resurgent green movement and several environmental disasters. It asserted that there are critical gender, socio-economic and environmental connections between the exploitation of women and exploitation of nature. MacGregor discusses d’Eaubonne’s assertion  “that this new global movement within feminism draws upon the specifically feminine power to combat the ecological crisis and the systems of male dominance that have given rise to it”. However, as a movement, it is not without its criticisms.

1974? Yes, it all sounds slightly dated to me, too, but the issues remain. Maybe my awareness has increased because of my locality, but it seems there has recently been a massive growth in ecological concerns, a big leap forward in the UK and globally, with problems previously ignored now at the forefront of our lives.

It is difficult to call any branch of feminism holistic, but the environment affects us all, so ecofeminism could potentially be a unifying thread. Still, despite the internal sexism of many green organisations and despite product targeting at women by big business, women are, I reiterate, still struggling to make the overt link between environmental and female exploitation. While many women are understandably concerned with social justice and a sustainable world environment for their children to inhabit, they are not yet necessarily embracing the full political dimensions of this. Most female environmental activists I know would sadly still hesitate to call themselves feminists.

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Modern ecological activists are as likely to be women as men, maybe because consumer capitalism has made cosmetic products a gender issue, its products directed specifically at women: plasticised cotton wool buds, tampon applicators, micro-plastics in exfoliators, and sun-screens, leading to a build-up of plastics in our waters, and even as far away as Arctic waters. But also because women use the sea. Does it matter if you are hit in the face by a piece of plastic, or a used sanitary towel while swimming or surfing? Well, yes, actually, and women are fighting back in a practical way because they do surf and swim, as do their children.

In areas like Mexican Yucatan, women are also engaging in different types of waste management. They organise environmental clean-ups not for money but for health gains. Living among garbage in Mexico, women are galvanised by concerns for their children’s health. Here, similarly, women have a vested interest in keeping our oceans clean. I accept that one of the reasons I engage in local beach cleans is so that my daughter can surf in cleaner seas. It’s not all altruism.

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So, it’s great that women are getting angry, which is beginning to refuel the ecofeminist fire. Increasingly, women are heading companies, realising that capitalism and concern for the environment do not necessarily have to mutually exclusive. Women were asking why companies introduced microbeads, too small to be filtered by the sewage system, into so many products. They are now banned here. Did we need to scrape our faces with them? They ended up in the sea. Fish ate them. Mammals, including humans who eat the fish, were also ingesting them, complete with the toxins which they absorb. They are now still in global waters, often in huge accumulations and they remain a massive pollution problem.

There are natural alternatives to beads such as ground up nuts, salt, and other natural products which companies have been forced to use. But exfoliation and other skin care products are a big deal in the market, so companies were reticent to ditch undesirable plastics in products. They did not make it easy for consumers to vote with their feet. As feminists, if we are concerned about environmental exploitation and degradation we need to actively seek out – and reject – contents in items such as polyethylene and polypropylene (read the small print).

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The call, therefore, for women to use only green products (including good old-fashioned soap and water) has an impact at an ecofeminist level, for such choices empower women to have a small but important positive impact on the environment. Not interested? Fine, but therein lies the rub.

Who do you prefer to help save the planet? Women or big business?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing Groups 1 & 2

I have yet to take a photograph of my second writing group, but I feel very proud of the work they have been doing. Some of their writing is incredible, and they are slogging so hard; things are really taking shape. They should feel pleased with their progress and dedication.

My Group 1 is smaller than it was. We are left with some serious writers who are advancing their work at a cracking pace. I’m enjoying teaching them and learning as much in return. Wonderful to see their ideas being tightened up into some very readable work.

Thanks as ever to Lynne Holehouse for letting us use her studio and generally getting in her way! All in the name of art…the art of writing!

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The Beautiful American – Jeanne Mackin

downloadTo be perfectly frank, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I read The Beautiful American by Jeanne Mackin, a writer I had never before encountered until 2015.

The first thing that struck me was the New York Times style cover. The second was that I really dislike Bluefire Reader compared to iBook, but that’s a technicality. Eventually, I bought the paperback, anyway.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book though I didn’t really expect to. Beautiful Americans, surrealism, pre-war Paris, are not my usual reading material. I was not expecting anything too earthy, nor too relevant to me. How wrong was I.  Jeanne Mackin’s book is superbly crafted, and multi-layered; we have all heard the phrase about not wanting to put a book down, but I truly didn’t want it to end. I would close my iPad at the end of a chapter, warm in the knowledge that it would be awaiting me later.

Basically, the book is about Lee Miller, seen through the narrative of her childhood friend, Nora, as they encounter each other at various life intervals. Lee is a woman who courted controversy, who acted ahead of her time, who was an incredible presence. Classically beautiful, she was discovered by Condé Nast, and became the protégé of photographer Man Ray; she entered the dark world of surrealism, later becoming an incredible liberation photographer. Her photos of the Dachau concentration camp shocked the world. Her biography was later written by her son, Anthony Penrose, with whom she allegedly had a strained relationship. Basically, it seemed that Miller allowed nothing, including love, a child, or friendship, to get in her unconventional way, something which one suspects her son found difficult to understand/deal with.

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There is a surprise at almost every turn in Mackin’s novel, which I guess a book largely situated in pre and post-war France must have. It is about friendship, betrayal, survival, in a woman who, despite everything, somehow remains likeable.

As Jeanne Mackin wrote:

The Beautiful American is about love and violence and war and what comes after all.  It is a story of Lee’s bravery: she photographed battles in progress and was there with her camera during the liberation of the camps.  Mostly, though, I envisioned my novel as a story of women and the ability of friendship to bridge trauma and violence.  There is, as a friend said, darkness in the novel; the darkness begins with surrealism and progresses through to the war years.  But there is also an accompanying lightness that comes from our own desire to survive, to continue to feel and express joy and connection.

Additionally, however, I feel Mackin’s examination of morals and mores, of men vis-à-vis women, and the power struggles inherent in the male-female relationship, is fascinating. Basically, the more powerful the women become, the less the men like it, the more emasculated they become, as I guess any feminist could predict. It struck me what a remarkable balancing act is needed for male-female relationships to survive; usually, they seem to work best when the woman subsumes her needs, allowing the man apparent control (as with the early days of Miller/Man Ray) yet women, especially strong ones like Miller, are not able to sustain that position for any serious length of time, regardless of what society – or their man –  dictates.

Some of the most powerful highlights for me were when (spoiler alert) the young Elizabeth Miller is raped, aged seven, and is treated for gonorrhoea. Oh, the shame (all piled on the girl, of course). Closely linked are Nora’s mother’s views. She tells her daughter: “They (men) don’t buy the cow if they get the milk for free”. There are many similar suggestions about female purity before marriage, in small town America (well, actually a city in the state of New York, but provincial) a theme which recurs, alongside issues of social class, directed at keeping women, especially working-class women, in their “place”. For example, Nora’s partner, Jamie, is sent a return ticket by his father, just the one, nothing for Nora. “I was still just the gardener’s daughter”. Nora’s mother herself demonstrates that marriage is meant to be endured, not enjoyed. Her misery in marriage and maternity is obvious, though even she later finds a way forward.

Following Elizabeth Miller’s rape, we begin to learn how, to her, love and sex become two different things, separate. Love is about helping, protecting a person; sex is merely an itch to scratch.  While this explains some of Lee’s affairs, this totally flew in the face of the (feminine)  norms of the day. However, we learn that it was a survival skill taught to the child by her self-made father, following her rape, which seems to help sustain her through her chosen path. Later, Lee also models for an advertisement for Kotex, creating a very public scandal about the great unmentionable, menstruation, so challenging female norms/mores throughout her life/the story.

leemil

One can then see the attraction of surrealism with its disassociation of bodies, and where the ability to photograph the distressing war images from Dachau is born. We learn from the book that the post-War period was just as violent and uncertain as the conflict, as collaborators were tried and executed, and women continued to be raped.

Meanwhile, on the lighter side, the book guides us through wonderful descriptions of great people we can only imagine: the genius of Picasso and Chaplin, the screen stars Gary Cooper and  Gloria Swanson. Through them, we see the decline of the relationship between Man Ray and Miller, as artist Man Ray gives way to the artist, Lee Miller. She is the one courting these famous dramatic creatives, who is feted by them, who photographs them, denoting a power switch.

War was maybe Miller’s forte, for surrealism became realism, so Mackin writes, as the two worlds combined in a horrific, disembodied chaos.

Heartily recommend reading this book.

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