Friday, September 3, 2010

The Long Story

It’s been a good couple of days. The tulips in their pot have suddenly budded up. In a fortnight’s time they should be out in their glory. And I had an email from John Barnett, ex –editor at Penguin Books who’d just learnt of my illness. It’s a lovely email. It ends ‘it was one of my life’s satisfactions to have worked on the Penguin [Book of New Zealand Verse] with you and Ian.' I’m chuffed. That book was one of my pinnacles and John was a great editor.

Someone recently said ‘you must have plenty of time on your hands.’ I suspect my denial was perceived as bravado. It wasn’t. There is depression occasionally. Regret sometimes. But boredom remains absent, not that I desire it. One major reason; there are still so many books to read and now blogs. My mind’s not only got its own thoughts to live with, there is idea and image galore from the word combination of others.

This morning I’ve been reading the 'Economist' on line. Tony Blair’s autobiography figures large. I don’t think I’ll read it – sounds too self-serving by all accounts. Though he’s honest enough to admit apparently he lusted after Princess Di – he and many more ‘fella’. Now a good biography about Blair would be a different kettle of fish. I’d welcome that. The man who would not admit hubris.

People’s life-stories in themselves carry their own fascinations. This morning I was in the local medical centre for a blood test. (I shut my eyes. I can’t bear the sight of the syringe filling). One such occasion Anne reads. I look at other patients and mentally compose little stories about them. This morning a four generation Sri Lankan family, the younger woman fluent in her English, the grandmother fairly broken but so proud of her great-granddaughter. A very pregnant woman had a nasty cough – I hoped she was all right. That old man obviously had had a stroke. That young man’s mate nervously twiddling a rugby ball – they both looked rather stunned – ill-health can ambush. A frail old lady being looked after attentively by it looked like her frail old brother. The brisk receptionists keeping tabs, dealing with apprehension and quelling the youth with the football with a glare when he started tossing it. Every now and then a doctor would emerge – pick up a folder, call out a name and someone would stand up from the pack and dutifully follow him or her back along the corridor. I was almost disappointed – my musing interrupted – when the nurse called my name. Soon, I was home. Enough excitement for the day.

I meant to blog about my reading. My second paragraph transferred the points to another track. I realise I’m writing about another activity – my mind at work observing, creating, recording. Like reading when this mood’s in control I forget aches and pains, worries and fears. I’ve several times times seen what I thought was a yellow hammer on our lawn. Jenn, our neighbour, says it calls at their place too but she thinks it’s a yellowhead a rare New Zealand bird. Anne asked me to tell her when the bird next appeared. When we got back from the blood test I called her. ‘The bird’s here’. She stepped quietly to the window and was enthralled by the striking appearance of the little creature. I’ve been researching. I think my diagnosis is correct but I’ve love to be wrong.

Back to reading. On top of all the books I planned to read two more have just arrived. Mark Pirie called last night with his anthology of New Zealand poems about cricket. Mark’s earlier anthology of science fiction poems, co-edited with Tim Jones, (one of the Tuesday Poem poets) has just won an award. I flicked the cricket collection. It looks good. I look forward to reading it more carefully.

This morning’s mail brought the latest Poetry New Zealand volume. Nicholas Reid is guest editor, Richard Reeve, the featured poet. Again, it looks an interesting read. Reid reviews briefly recent poetry books. One was my ‘Goya Rules’ released last March. It’s a sympathetic review commenting upon my style and what I was attempting to do. He draws attention to the two science fiction poems, ‘The Return’ and ‘The Last Lecture of the Seminar.’ Of the latter, he says ‘brilliant’. That’s another bonus point for the day. .

And so at long last I come to the book I wanted to talk about, Andrea Levy’s ‘The Long Song’. Despite its frightful subject it has really helped cheer me up. I’d loved her last book,‘The Small Island’, the trials and difficulties of West Indian immigrants in England but also the lower class indigenous with whom they were mingling. A skilfully constructed novel I respected the honest portrayal of her characters as they battled the circumstances in which they found themselves. As an author she was treated them all tenderly, even the unlikeable ones.

The human spirit triumphant is even more obvious in ‘The Long Song’.This is a word I rarely use but it fits here; it’s a ‘humdinger’ of a book The setting is a sugar plantation in Jamaica before and after the abolition of slavery in the early 19th century. The narrator is an old mulatto lady, rescued from penury by her son who bullies and cajoles her into writing an account of her experiences.

I’ve read 'Uncle Tom’s Cabin' and the novels of Toni Morrison. But somehow this account put a realistic face upon the institution of slavery. The language and situations carry a ring of authenticity. Events and conversations ring true, sordid but not sentimental, heartless but not romantically so, atrocious conditions and behaviour, but credible. Treat people brutally and they’ll react as far as they can. What whites see as dumbness is wilful disobedience, a form of passive retaliation.

July the narrator is a tease. She gives us alternative accounts which we like her son have to weigh up as to credibility. Did she see her mother hung. The description is so vivid the reader feels there. But in his heart he knows she wasn’t. But story-telling is an art-form for these folk. July’s crude and bawdy, a pain to her missionary-educated son, but then with her amoral upbringing it would be surprising if she wrote in a refined manner. The coarseness does not repel. The cheekiness attracts. She is more sinned against than sinner. Helpless but human in her situation!

Levy portrays good men, good men changing into bad men or vice-versa, bad men, and all those in between from both races. All placed by happen-chance on a plantation and nearby town in a time of turbulence. Levy doesn’t make judgement. She tells a story – what happened. Or didn’t.

July’s mistress, the narrator’s been plucked from her mother to be trained as a maid, organises a large feast for her white guests. The chat is revealing as the house-slaves prepare the table and the room. The meal is never finished. It was the night the rebellion broke out. July was in the process of stealing grog for her fellow slaves. All hell was let loose. July’s life would never be the same again. The novel pulled me along – slow down Harvey, you can’t trust this narrator.

I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot. There are moments of farce. There are moments of cruelty. There is sympathy and hopelessness. The strangest thing to explain is that I was left was a feeling of a strong sense of pride. July, a slave, proud! Some achievement!

‘Mansfield Park’ will never read quite the same again.



  1. This is a great post, Harvey, full of humanity and courage as well as intellectual challenges. Thanks for it. Belinda x

  2. Harvey, I posted a comment some hours ago but it seems to have disappeared into an electronic black hole - so I'm trying again to say how interesting and moving your post is, filled with optimism and thoughtful courage. Thanks for posting it.