Laws of Motion – Karine Polwart

Laws of Motion, folk music by the Karine Polwart Trio
Laws of Motion is an optimistic album. Karine Polwart, song meistress, with Steven Polwart her brother and Inge Thomson, acknowledges the rush, horror and separation of contemporary life, but offers up hope and positivity in the face of it.
BBC Radio 2 Folk Singer of the Year in 2018, Polwart is from Bannock in Stirlingshire and uses native vocabulary in the poetry which is her song lyrics: ‘hollers from the delta’ in Laws of Motion and the ‘skirl and moan’ of the wind in Cornerstone being just two examples. She alludes to earthquake and tempest, human cruelty and war, juxtaposing them with the silent night sky, gardens and remote islands.
Ophelia, the first song, named after the hurricane, is painted in a fiery palette: the red dust of the desert, the sun, blood and burning trees. In contrast, the plaintive, sweet vocals create a strong visual image of two people in reflective mood after an argument.
Laws of Motion, the title track, conjures up poignant images (‘babies wrapped in prayer shawls’) of exile and migration which was originally written with Martin Green for Flit, a multi-media project, in 2016. The images are disturbing but there are threads of love and life throughout and the music is matched to the melody with powerful, opening instrumental surges.
In I burn but I am not consumed it is refreshing to come across an original approach to Donald Trump‘s relationship with the Scottish soil. He was born on the Isle of Lewis and Polwart imagines what the ancient rocks would say about his behaviour, concluding that however powerful he thinks he is, he doesn’t command the elements. Here the spoken word is effectively interspersed with lines of harmonic melody, as later in Cassiopeia.
Suitcase, again written with Green, is about the kinder transport in which 10,000 Jewish children were brought to Britain for safety just before the outbreak of the Second World War. Using the repetition of words (‘heading for home’) and train-like rhythms, the hope this time is in the boy’s heart, not to actually get anywhere but to simply grow old. The final notes are spine tingling.
Cornerstone is a series of gentle tales of women and men who sit still. By listening to the birds, to the wind; by tending the candle and the lighthouse; these individuals serve their communities whilst quietly honouring nature. The opening and underlying drone, together with the final glockenspiel ‘bells’ and the harmony on’ and listen’, create echoes of the lonely landscape.
Matsuo’s Welcome to Muckhart opens with the beautiful line, ‘I was born on a jasmine wind’, harking back to her highly successful 2017 collection, A Pocket of Wind Resistance. Light bubbles of Japanese lotus and water lily are conjured with the tremble and pretty picking of guitar and wavering voice.
Young Man on a Mountain is about the Polwart grandfather who fought in the Battle of Cerere (Italy 1944) and also planted trees in Balquhidder. Using the lilt and sound of the spruce and pine, Polwart evokes the silence which her relative kept after the war, as well as the atmosphere of her homeland.
Crow on the cradle is Sydney Carter’s anti-war song using nursery rhymes in a chilling rumination on bringing a baby into a war-torn world. The Robin, which follows, is a simple retelling of how the robin got its red breast with angelic harmonies linking past and future in true folk tradition.
Finally, sparse piano opens Cassiopeia, which uses both ends of the telescope – stars through the velux window, nuclear explosion, the Big Bang and the advised list of 1979 household necessaries for 14 days in a fallout shelter. Sparkling runs and trills are used alongside the spoken word, reminiscent of Floret Silva Undique, Martyn Bennett’s setting of Hamish Henderson’s poem on the album Martyn Bennett.
In Laws of Motion, the album, Polwart asks what we are left with in the face of the terrible occurrences of our world, how to survive the horror of it all. She gives us this answer: be still and quiet, be thoughtful and take pleasure in the beauty of our natural environment. Together with haunting melodies and fascinating stories, these songs linger behind in the soul.

Rise – non fiction by Gina Miller

Gina Miller was the lead claimant in the 2016 constitutional legal case against the UK Government over triggering Article 50. This book is her personal account of why she followed through and what she believes in. It is both a call-to-action and encouragement for others to take strength from her story.

Rise, Life Lessons in Speaking Out, Standing Tall, and Leading the Way covers multiple genres: part autobiography (although Elizabeth Day helped her write it), it also falls into the self-help book, and ‘how to run a successful business’ categories, with some marketing and self-promotion thrown in. Miller writes about her early upbringing and childhood in Guyana (her father was the Attorney General of the island after the fall of Burnham (link to Guyana history , and her time at school in England (she started aged 11 and lived alone with her equally underaged brother from 12) when she had to work before school and at weekends and didn’t see her parents for up to a year at a time.

Covering topics such as domestic and sexual abuse, bullying, racism and misogyny, marketing methods and storytelling to engage clients, self-belief, self-image, feeling an imposter, and feminism, she also writes extensively about being a working mother and an activist. The authors use statistics and research in these areas, and frequently make statements such as, ‘Women are more likely to question their own beliefs about what’s right and what’s wrong,’.

Miller comes across as strong, occasionally vulnerable, sensible, and, at times, clear thinking. She is ultimately a determined fighter and we get true insight into the origins of this facet of her. She has been the butt of vast amounts of private and public abuse (principally sexual and racist) and she followed up Viscount Philipps’ incitement to violence towards her on Facebook, winning the case. The more she exposes these personal injustices in the second half of the book, the more uncomfortable the tension is between the fact that she has not bought cases against most of the men who perpetrated them, whereas she continues to stand-up for others (see her True and Fair Campaign to make financial dealings as transparent and understandable as possible.

At times the writing speeds easily along (‘Social media has amplified their (abuser’s) destructive voices and created echo chambers that reinforce their views.’), and there are several touching images such as her father brushing her hair every night and telling her about his work. In other places there are mixed metaphors and a great deal of repetition, some of which serves as bolstering of important beliefs such as tolerance, or reflects the difficult issues she is struggling with (why didn’t anyone else join her in the struggle for what was right, she often asks). Often, however, it appears to be simply poor editing – phrases and words used over again.

In the end, despite the muddled style and occasional posturing, the spirit of this remarkable woman comes through, together with the sheer determination which has won her and us, important democratic and human rights.

Queenie – short story by Alice Munro

Queenie by Alice Munro

Written in 1999, nearly 50 years after the Canadian born writer published her first short story, Queenie looks into the why and wherefore of the protagonist’s puzzling and surprising behaviour. Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013, Munro’s character complexity is artfully created in this seemingly simple but tragic story. The Queenie of the title is half-sister to the narrator, Chrissy, and whilst this tale gives us a little of their background, it is mostly concerned with their relationships.

Opening with her father’s exhortation to Chrissy to be kind to the new sister she’s about to meet, we quickly learn that he is out of touch on many levels. Although this is not Queenie’s own father, perhaps this early establishment of lack of awareness and care explains her subsequent choices. There is a sense in the story that this sort of disconnection is associated with a male assumption of hierarchy over women and children. The patriarchs and husbands have no apparent need to try and understand them or be sympathetic.

The naivety of both girls lays them wide open to potential damage, but in fact Chrissy is able to accurately describe her music teacher’s dominating behaviour in class (children are often the best judges of abusive behaviour if allowed to express it). Again, much later, on meeting Stan’s friend she has immediate insight. Queenie, on the other hand, has more personal knowledge of the neighbour through helping out in his home as a child so we, like her family are taken aback, and can only assume that this was enough to persuade her to trust the much older man.

Munro creates palpable dread and fear – not least with Queenie’s phrase, ‘Stan wouldn’t like it’. Immediately we know we are in the vicinity of male to female mental abuse. It isn’t horrific because there are touching moments between the two girls, both as children and later. A feature of Munro’s work is the moving back and forth from past to present, and the account of Stan’s former wife’s respiratory illness gives us an unconscious warning of a chilling scene in the second half.

The domestic and interpersonal detail is easily read and enlightening: Queenie distractedly forgetting to pour the water into the teapot and lifting her clothes to hide the letter; Chrissy seeing the cinema foyer and instantaneously realising why Queenie has died her hair black.

A tale of growing up, there is sadness and human regret – that familiar sense you often get in short stories of characters knowing something isn’t right, or even not wanting it to happen, but seeming to be unable unable to either muster the energy or the courage to alter the outcome.

Published by Chatto and Windus. Photo c Robert Howard

Kathryn Mannix, book festival

At the Edinburgh International Book Festival and Death on the Fringe, Aug 2018

“The ‘d’ word” – a topic that was once part of everyday conversation in the Western world – makes us uncomfortable. In fact, many avoid using it at all costs and instead refer to ‘passing away’ or to ‘loosing someone’. It is the ultimate leveller (we will all get there sooner or later), and yet we are embarrassed and awkward if we have to refer to it, especially with the dying person themselves or grieving relatives.

Dr Kathryn Mannix however, is not discomfited by death, no not at all. In Being Mortal (a Death on the Fringeand an Edinburgh International Book Festival event at the same time) she launches in with direct questions about who has planned their funeral or spoken to loved ones about end-of-life care. At two Edinburgh events she receives an almost 100% response rate to the first question and notes how unusual we are, so perhaps things are changing. She is on a mission to reclaim the word because, “if we stop using this language we can’t do precision or actual reality when someone is in the process of dying.” And that means we cannot reassure them (which is something she is really good at) after receiving a terminal diagnosis, or find ways to give them the chance to “be the person who they are” without fear or pain getting in the way.

Sarfraz Manoor is Chair for this Book Festival event, and introduces her as a ”palliative medicine pioneer”, stating that the session will form part of a “conversation about life, death and the space between them” which her book, With the End in Mind (2017) is concerned with. A top-level physician and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy therapist, Mannix has obviously been a mover and a shaker in the National Health Service and tells us poignant and amusing stories about her early days in training and on the ward. She is keen to recognise her teachers and acknowledge fellow contributors such as Canadian neuroscientist Adrian Owen who was billed but unable to attend today.

Mannix is well practiced in explaining the likely trajectory of death, has clearly thought through her beliefs and ideas, and listened to many. She appears to be unflappable with a hint of the patronising, but that may be a manner she has had to develop as a woman of this status in the NHS. The knowledge she shares is prodigious and at times she speaks with real compassion. She is fluent in this dialect of death, and her presentation seems to be touching a chord, receiving nods and murmurs of agreement from listeners all round. There is many a wet eye in the audience and she knows and names it.

Akwugo Emejulu with Djamila Ribeiro, Heidi Safia Mirza and Sara Wajid, book festival

This event, the first of the Revolting Women strand of the Edinburgh International Book Festival curated by Adele Patrick, is chaired by Akwugo Emejulu with Djamila RibeiroHeidi Safia Mirza  and Sara Wajid.

This fast-paced, urgent meeting addresses de-colonialism, diversity, the de-toxing of our cultural institutions, and a whole lot else besides. All four women are informed individuals, working in academia and the arts, and all bring a different cultural heritage and range of attainments which qualify them to speak about an honest way to bring about change right now.

They are outspoken and share their realities so that we have insight into the situation in Brazil (Ribeiro, writer and activist in the Afro-Brazillian women’s movement); into where the real power lies at Goldsmiths University, London (Mirza, recent Professor of Race, Faith and Culture); and what makes a difference in establishments like the Museum of London (Wajid, Head of Engagement).

Everyone seems to know everyone else in this tight-knit community and it is clear that solidarity is necessary for support and to share valuable resources (there is now a 200-strong Museum Detox network for black, Asian and minority ethnic museum workers who are BAME). The group demonstrate an intense sense of responsibility and it is therefore vital to them that change happens and that the balance is addressed. There is no mincing words: “building community is a good place to start – and [if you are angry] I really recommend rage tweeting,” says Emejulu.

In one hour this panel acknowledge that de-colonisation is a way of, as Ribeiro puts it, “working through another geography of reason”; that Indian women were marching alongside white ones in 1911 (a photo of Indian women holding up a banner is displayed) – “until I found this I didn’t think I was in the history,” says Mirza; and that although museums and other institutions talk about addressing diversity they actually still only employ fewer than 3% ethnic minorities. Because they “are cuddly” says Wajid, we forget that “they are a colonial technology inherently … [and] people can smell the DNA in its actions, can smell it for the bogus bollocks that it is” – in other words paying lip service. That gets nods all round.

Susie Orbach, book festival

At the Death on the Fringe and Edinburgh International Book Festival Aug 2018

Susie Orbach 2

Dr Susie Orbach is a bit of a goddess to some people! Her first book and bestseller, Fat is a Feminist Issue(1978) has profoundly influenced several generations of women and girls, as well as therapists and others who work with clients who lap up what she publishes and are influenced by her insights and understanding. Bodies (2009) won the Women in Psychology award for best book, and now In Therapy (from the Radio 4 series of the same name) has caught people’s attention all over again.

Chaired by the fearless and cut-through-the-crap Ruth Wishart at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Orbach is honest and equally straightforward in her presentation and replies. Fielding a range of rather pedestrian questions (Aren’t celebrities just being chronically self-indulgent? If a client falls in love with you, can you carry on?), she admits there are situations when she feels uncomfortable or will occassionally refer someone to a colleague, but also that she talks with trusted associates about issues which trigger her (good practice), and always remains aware of her own reactions and feelings.

In Therapy Orbach book

The In Therapy radio programmes, described by Wishart as “uncannily compelling”, are a device for showing what happens in the therapy room. Data Protection and client respect mean that true-life stories are not an option, so Orbach came up with imaginery scenarios, gave them to actors who ran with them and who then showed up as clients, whereupon Orbach consulted with them.

She seems to have planned to focus on what she thought a Book Festival audience might be interested in and is eloquent on the subject of language. “I find the words reverberate in a certain kind of way,” she says. I have “an intently listening ear, (am) interested in the words which are being said. We notice, together, the cadences, breaks, repetition, whether natural, stacatto, (and we are) listening in a musical way to the shape of the internal world coming into expression.”

There is something for everyone, whether specialist or (potential) client, as Orbach seeks to explain that even if she notices the client is unlikeable (she is pushed by Wishart to focus on this topic), she tasks herself to get behind that and hopes that the person might get to like themselves as a result. Orbach’s dialogue is full of interesting descriptions like, “Therapists are anthropologists of the mind”, and psychotherapy as, “The listening cure”. She sure has a big heart, repeatedly describing her clients sympathetically, with affection and compassion. She comes across as the opposite of jaded after her 40 years in practice.

book festival

Kadamati, dance

At The Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh Weds 22 Aug 2018.

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Kadamati is a site-specific Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) dance performance set outside the gold and glow of the Palace of Holyroodhouse in which 200 plus school children clad in black, perform Akram Khan’s choreography for us in the mellow Edinburgh evening.

We all arrive early, queue, and then parade around three sides of a huge square to wait patiently behind looped rope as if we are the precious cabinets and chamber pots awaiting the tourists’ gaze. City Council dignitaries from all over the world, Nicola Sturgeon amongst them, troop in afterwards, winning their civic brownie points by showing off like this. (There is a Cultural Summit in Edinburgh taking place at the Scottish Parliament across the road).

The teddy-bear-coloured stone round-tower is all that remains of the abbey-palace-prison-barracks first built in 1128 and it somehow stands in stark contrast to the “themes of identity, migration, connection and hope which mark the end of World War I”. The EIF lot loiter in their yellow T-shirts, the security in neon orange, walkie talkies a-chatter, as the tension builds for the six minute spectacle.

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Rows of performers, some on foot, some in wheelchairs, stand guard for the get-go. At last they swarm in groups of 30 or so, settling in five banks, backs to the churtling fountains and they collectively raise their hands, outstretched, in a blessing. Bowing, humble, a great respiratory sound breathes through the loudspeakers and myriad bodies subtly tilt backwards as if in recognition of something bigger than them, a great exhaling being.

When the orchestra starts, heads are thrown up; and when the drums beat, backs undulate. Arms sweep forwards, out and up, the rhythm builds. Faster they wave adding lunges and steps to move gradually out towards us, drawing us into their sphere. It uses Indian dance imagery of course, with wrists crossed, turning now with inviting gestures. Some Step Dancing  reminds of Scottish tradition, and then they cover their faces with their hands, all the time making figures of eight with their torsos, as if, for all the world, they are trying not to look at the outcome, or avoiding the inevitable.

It is moving, meaningfully danced, wonderfully rehearsed, lovingly drilled. One of the most tricky things to choreograph is a massive team of varying ages and abilities, but Khan obviously knows what to do. To show each person as an able individual and also to manage to inspire a common cause so that they watch and listen acutely to each other (which is what must happen to achieve such a staging), this is an art.

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