Friday, February 17, 2012

Thinking about underwear

"I didn't get much sleep last night
thinking about underwear
Have you ever stopped to consider
underwear in the abstract ..."

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 'Underwear', in Penguin Modern Poets 5 (1963)

This was one of my favourite poems when I was in my late teens in the late 60s. My original copy is falling apart (has fallen, actually, with very little glue holding this slim volume together.)

I have another, less-falling-apart copy. I had a bit of a thing about this book, and used to buy up copies I saw, so that I'd always have one. My third copy, bought guiltily after the second-hand bookshop owner told me that the beats were very popular with young people, was eventually given away to a Young Person.

So: Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg are the poets in this book. I'm not so keen on the Ferlinghetti now. Ginsberg remains my favourite, and I have a book of his poems as well.

What the beats did was write frankly, colloquially and personally about things that people didn't think were fit subjects for poems.  Rimbaud did this more than a hundred years earlier, and Walt Whitman was a forerunner of the beats as well ...  hence Ginsberg's  'A Supermarket in California':

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon

and later:

I saw you Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.

 And underwear? I frequently think about it as well. I think I should go through my underwear drawers and throw out all the exhausted bras I never wear, and the knickers the elastic has gone in. I think how I like my purple knickers with small pink spots so much that I should have bought more than two pairs of them. I think nostalgically of the ones with purple moons and stars of more than 15 years ago and wish I could find more like them. I wonder if there are many women like me who like their underwear and yet keep it all tangled up and untidy in drawers for years and years, hardly ever throwing any out, so there is virtually a history of their underwear there.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The book I carry around in my head

This is my favourite book from my early childhood.

Growing up in a post WW2 world, most of my books were hand-me-downs, and some of them weren't great literature (but I loved them at the time anyway). But this one, which was in the Little Golden Book imprint (I'm sure it was, though it didn't remain with that publisher) was brought home for me by my teenage sister along with a LGB version of the Twelve Dancing Princesses when I was sick in bed. (In those days mothers believed in keeping children in bed when they were sick, and I was sick a fair bit. The Robert Louis Stevenson syndrome of sick children becoming writers?)

Somehow, it got lost, or at least, didn't survive my childhood. But after I left school I bought myself another copy. By that time, in the early-mid 1970s, Madeline was one of the books approved by the women's liberation movement, and it was available at a radical bookshop, in a cheaply-produced paper covered copy that didn't age well. I still have it somewhere.

But I don't need it, because I carry this book around in my head:

In an old house in Paris that was covered in vines
Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines
In two straight lines they broke their bread
And brushed their teeth, and went to bed.

The youngest one was Madeline...

I certainly found Madeline herself an intriguing character, because of her bravery ( 'She was not afraid of mice, She loved winter, snow, and ice, And to the tiger in the zoo, Madeline just said, Pooh! Pooh!.')

and her individuality. ('And nobody knew quite so well/How to frighten Miss Clavell.')

which shows Madeline walking along the parapet of a bridge over the Seine.

To a child in 1950s Australia, who had never before heard of Paris, much of it was mystifying. The teachers (Miss Clavell) looked like nuns. And the idea of living in what was obviously a boarding school seemed strange.

Which just goes to show how much mystery and exoticism children can accommodate and accept in the books they read. And perhaps Madeline was one of the reasons I grew up to become a feminist.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Women get madder as they get older

Nothing much happens to me now, nor ever will again. But that should not prevent me from trying to write about it. I cannot help but feel that there is something important about this nothingness. It should represent lack of hope, and yet I think that, somewhere, hope may yet be with me. This nothingness is significant. If I immerse myself in it, perhaps it will turn itself into something else. Into something terrible, into something transformed. I cast myself upon its waste of waters. It is not for myself alone that I write this. I hope I may find some general purpose as I write. I will have faith that something or someone is waiting for me on the far shore.
Margaret Drabble, The Seven Sisters

So writes Candida Wilton on the first page of Drabble's novel, writing on her 'modern laptop machine'.

(Candida: I love it that her name is also that of that scourge of womanhood, thrush, whose cure was almost an obsession with me and my friends in our student days).

Candida's awful marriage is over and she buys a small flat in London, where she ekes out her days in little bits of shopping, going to her health club, and in meetings of her Virgil reading group.

I find this book almost unbearably delicious, and read bits of it (which is the way I often re-read, going over just the parts I like, which incidentally, I've heard, is the way a lot of children read) quite often.

There's a bit where Candida asks to lunch a woman she knew in her old life and whom she doesn't particularly like. The first time I read this I thought, 'No man could have written this' (a thought I often have when reading women writers) - and probably no man would find this incident interesting. Reading it is like hearing a piece of gossip from a friend - the gorgeous sense of anticipation, the appalling delight in bitchiness.

And then there are sentences like this these:

Julia arrived at the dot of our appointed hour. For a wicked woman she is always surprisingly punctual.

In an interview I read years ago Margaret Drabble said, 'Women get madder as they get older.' Perhaps she was talking about this book, or perhaps she was talking about The Witch of Exmoor, in which Frieda Haxby retires to a crumbling house on the coast to write her memoirs, to the horror of her children.

In any case, I can only second her opinion. I've been thinking about what she said a bit lately, which is probably why I've dragged her book up to put in the attic on this hot summer night.