Monday, 6 July 2015

Centre Court

Here is a piece I wrote back in July 2003 when Martina Navratiliova won her 20th Wimbledon title with victory in the mixed doubles. It seems I was reading Barbara Kingsolver's High Tide in Tucson at the time, hence the apology, although I can't remember now if it refers to a particular essay in that brilliant collection. It seems appropriate to post this during Wimbledon fortnight and to celebrate the US decision to legalise same sex marriage. Now if they could only bring back serve and volley lawn tennis...

(with apologies to Barbara Kingsolver)

I’m sitting in my friend Anne’s living-room, wearing my favourite faded black denim jeans and shiny new tan Cowboy boots. To fully admire these my feet are up on Anne’s glass-topped coffee-table. We are scoffing peanuts, swigging back Molson beer and watching the game on TV.

But the game is not the World Series or even the Superbowl, although no doubt many otherwise well-adjusted mid-life women could justifiably spend their time on either. The game we are giving up our Sunday afternoon for is being beamed by satellite over five or six thousand miles, from the sedate manicured grass lawns of the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club in Wimbledon, UK.

None but diehard fans of this august institution set amid leafy London suburbs now recalls that tennis was once the Young Turk, invading the sacred lawns of SW19 with gut-strung rackets swinging fiercely against the cylinder-shaped wooden croquet clubs known as mallets. These days Wimbledon is internationally famous, one of the four Grand Slam tournaments that all tennis players dream of winning but few attain. The only one, now, that is played on grass, where the skills and tactics of serve-and-volley are barely mastered by modern players. But still they come, Young Turks and old, to try their hand on grass that has surely been cut with nail scissors.

On court is Martina Navratilova, definitely an old Turk. Nine times Ladies’ Singles Champion and holder of ten further titles in doubles and mixed doubles. Her partner, a smiling, round-faced Indian man called Leander Paes, was born the first year that Navratilova played at Wimbledon, in 1973. Then she was a mousy-haired, sixteen-year-old chubby Czech. Five years later when she won Wimbledon for the first time, beating super-cool, elegant Chrissie Evert in a three-set thriller, she was stateless, a defector, her parents huddling round a TV set near the East German border to watch their daughter’s triumph. Now the Berlin Wall is a distant memory and Navratilova is one of us, a US citizen, lithe, lean and lissom with tinted blonde locks. In crisp shorts her presence on the court is eager and efficient, like a well-bred greyhound, her competitive instincts undimmed. She wears her forty-six years lightly, like a plastic raincoat that can be discarded when the sun shines. Martina Hingis, the tennis champion who was named after her, has recently retired, aged twenty-two. Her two opponents today, Rodionova and Ram, Russian and Israeli respectively, are both more than half her age.

It is evening sunlight on Centre Court, midday in Tucson. As Anne and I settle in there is no sign that the crowd are about to drift away to car or Underground Station, even though the media-dubbed ‘business end’ of the tournament, the Men’s Singles Final, finished nearly three hours ago. They know, as we do, that a piece of history is about to unfold, served up by a middle-aged woman with a pink triangle in her racket.

In 1979 it was Navratilova who helped her then doubles partner, Billie-Jean King, to win her record-breaking twentieth Wimbledon title. The previous record-holder, Elizabeth Ryan, had prophetically died the night before. We fervently hope Billie-Jean, on the verge of her sixtieth birthday, won’t do the same as Martina lobs and volleys her way to equalling that record.

They are our heroes; two sporting women who have surpassed all expectations of our sex, pioneers of fitness, diet and dedication. But above all they have been true to themselves. Living their personal relationships in the spotlight of public attention and judgment they have let their tennis speak, not their lesbianism. Whatever that is. Women who love women, and life, and tennis.

Two sets, two more beers. As the sun descends over South-East England, Anne and I stand and cheer, raising our glasses to a legend, a modern goddess achieving her dream.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

On Reading: Pastures of the Blue Crane by H. F. Brinsmead

I am grateful to have reacquired recently a copy of this novel, by the Australian author and environmentalist Hesba Fay Brinsmead (1922 – 2003).  The copy I had as a child got chewed up by the family dog and for ages all I could remember about the book was this beautiful cover and that it had a heroine called Ryl. Pastures of the Blue Crane was first published in 1964; this Oxford University Press edition was produced in 1970. It is Brinsmead’s most well-known work and was made into a television series for the Australian Broadcasting Company in 1969.

The novel opens in a Melbourne summer (November). Sixteen-year-old Amaryllis Jane Merewether, known as Ryl, is leaving school. She believes she is all alone in the world. Her mother is mysteriously absent and her father has long ago abandoned her into the care of his lawyer, who has acted as her guardian and placed her in a series of boarding schools. No demure heroine, Ryl is “calculating, self-centred… and yet not without flashes of charm”. Through “the judicious habit of present-giving”  she has won invites from school fellows so that she doesn’t have to remain at school during the holidays. Now her lawyer-guardian tells Ryl that her father has died and that she has jointly inherited his substantial estate with her previously unknown grandfather, Dusty. They meet for the first time in the lawyer’s office and at first sight seem an ill-suited pair. Their crusty relationship is explored as they find themselves co-owners of a farm called Bundoora in Murwillumbah, North New South Wales. It turns out that this is the place where Dusty was born and raised. On her first morning Ryl is woken by the sun and looks out to see the glittering landscape:  a ‘fanciful’ pasture of rosy pink grass crested with silver and within it a ‘fanciful’ bird – the blue crane. Dusty and Ryl have very different ideas about what to do with their property - and about spending the money they have inherited.  Through her encounters with this remote community, and ultimately her shared battle with Dusty to preserve their home, Ryl finds love, friendship, family, and her future career path, as well as discovering the truth about her parentage.  The novel’s treatment of themes related to age, race, gender and the secret shame of families is somewhat antiquated now but must have been both fresh and daring at the time.  Pastures of the Blue Crane is a well-crafted ‘coming-of-age’ novel , which casts a fascinating light on aspects of life in 1960s Australia.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Blackbird's Prayer

Blackbird's Prayer

If you were to ask the blackbird
why she is fervently picking up sticks
from my garden this April morning
I doubt that she would answer
other than to say: And so it is,
for blackbirds.

Susanna Reece

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Shetland Remembers: 8 April 1940

Blackboard recording events on the night of 8 April 1940
Fascinating talk this afternoon  up at the Sumburgh Head Lighthouse and Visitor Centre by archaeologist Chris Dyer, on the anniversary of the averting of a Luftwaffe air raid on Scapa Flow. The Centre has recreated the Radar Hut that detected the incoming enemy aircraft and has lots of artefacts and photographs telling the story of the scientists and military personnel who made this possible. Chris has also discovered letters sent to the Admiralty and the Northern Lighthouse Board by the Lighthouse Keeper, who was concerned about the 'militarisation' of the site and threats to civilians. The Luftwaffe raid has been described as an attempt at a British 'Pearl Harbor'. The prevention of the raid was undoubtedly due to the careful monitoring on Shetland and was an important event for Britain's defences in the early years of World War II. To celebrate the anniversary, there was also an amateur radio station set-up, complete with old radio magazines and a replica Enigma machine.

As well as the twentieth century military history, Chris talked about the archaeological features that show the use of the land at Sumburgh as an Iron Age Fort, evidence that this has long been a site of strategic importance.

Radar detection at Sumburgh Head

British propaganda poster

Replica Enigma machine
1930s radio magazines
The view from Sumburgh Head

Allan Williams Turret, Toab, Shetland

Shetland Flag flying at Sumburgh

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Easter Day: Arising

What does it mean, this resurrection story? Early in the morning it is the women who go to the tomb only to find that their Beloved is no longer there. When they give witness to having seen the Risen One, they are not believed. Yet gradually the men too are able to see. But what, or who, are they seeing? In Seeking the Risen Christa, Nicola Slee writes of her own experience of Easter Day spent with a group of women, one of whom says: "Jesus died as a Palestinian, Jewish man. Christ rises to be God with us in many different forms..." Perhaps in all forms. Including the Risen Christa. At the local airport here on Shetland there is a book exchange - today I found there a copy of The Barefoot Indian, the making of a messiahress by Julia Heywood. It spoke to me on this day of arising, an invitation to greet the Risen Christa within as well as without. In the church calendar, today marks the start of 50 days to celebrate the risen life. This is not just the life that Jesus stepped into through becoming Christ; rather it is the life in which we are all invited to participate. What will it mean for us to arise, to know the grave, bear our scars, acknowledge our own suffering and that of others; and yet remain hopeful, offering and seeking healing for ourselves and others, coming back out into the world with compassion, caring, gentleness, kindness and courage? "Alleluia, I greet the Risen Christa in you!"

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Great Saturday

This Holy Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday is one of the strangest and perhaps the most forgotten day in the church year. What is this day, how should we spend it? The One whom we have loved and known has gone and will not return. The only certainty we have is that finality. We are grief-stricken, bone-tired, fearful, perhaps even terrified. Nicola Slee calls this day 'the feminist gap': a time of 'shedding one reality in order to discover something new'. Her poem The Christa of Holy Saturday describes powerfully those times when we don't want to get up, would rather stay asleep, weep, rest, remain undisturbed. The late great John O'Donohue's last book Benedictus, also has a wonderful poem called 'for the interim time', where he writes of those times in life when the path behind us has disappeared without any clear way marked ahead. Here, at this mid-point in the Easter Triduum there is an opportunity to remain deeply with our sense of loss and uncertainty, not knowing what is going to happen next or how long we will have to stay here, bereaved and vulnerable. We may be without hope, fearful that it will always be like this now. Or we may be waiting for the new with a sense of curiosity but without any idea of what it will be. Here we must rest and wait. We do not know what deep transitions and transformations may be at work behind the tomb's sealed door.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Good Friday - Scatness Stations

Scatness is a very special peninsula near to where I stay in Southern Shetland,with Iron Age buildings of unknown purport at the tip. My aim today was to take a meditative walk there, stopping at various points to create an alternative Stations of the Cross.

The underlying theme (in part following Nicola Slee's book Seeking the Risen Christa) was to think about the Cross as the Tree of Life, responding to the natural world around me. Apart from Station III, which is as found, I created the five stations by gathering materials from nearby and placing them as felt right to me. Instead of offering my own interpretation of these, I leave you to respond in whatever way is of value to you. Blessed Be She!
Station I

Station II

Station III

Station IV
Station IV

Station V

Station V
Station V

Thursday, 2 April 2015


Not the Last Supper

I want to believe they were there
before as they were after
sharing the Passover meal.

After all, his table fellowship
wasn't known for its exclusions:
prostitutes, publicans, sinners.

And so often they are there
without being named, or named only
as an afterthought: certain women.

But perhaps this time it was purely
a male affair: lessons in betrayal,
sacrifice, and how to be a servant.

Things that the women already knew.

Did they huddle together wondering
what on earth was going on upstairs?
A farewell supper but not the last.

Perhaps their exclusion served better
to mark the change: the Risen One
will be revealed first to a woman.

The next time they gather here
they will all be together.
Everything will be different.

Susanna Reece

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

St Mary of Egypt

       Today is the feast day of St Mary of Egypt (also celebrated on 2nd and 3rd April in some traditions). She is known as the patron saint of penitents. Most of what we know about her comes from the life written by St Sophronius in the 7th century. The dates of her own life are disputed, although she possibly lived to a very great age.
      It is said that when Mary was 12 years old she ran away to the city of Alexandria and lived there for seventeen years in the grip of sexual obsession, keeping herself through a mixture of begging and spinning flax.
       At the age of 29 she travelled to Jerusalem, paying for her passage by selling her body to pilgrims travelling there for the Great Feasts of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Mary too tried to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre but felt barred by an unseen force. She interpreted this as being caused by the 'dissolute' life she was living and felt filled with remorse. This led to a conversion experience. After venerating an icon of the Virgin Mary, Mary was able to enter the church and venerate a relic of the true cross.She returned to the icon to give thanks and heard a voice saying "If you cross the Jordan, you will receive glorious rest." She followed this voice and was baptised and then retired to the desert where she lived as a hermit until her death perhaps as much as 70 years later.
       I have always been fascinated by Mary, even though so little is known about her. What led her to leave her home at such a young age and become a street child in Alexandria? Was it her sense of adventure or was there something more sinister going on that she felt compelled to leave behind? She appears to have blamed herself for her 'shameful' lifestyle and sexual 'misconduct'. She certainly seems to have got caught up in an unhealthy dependence on sex as a way of coping with her situation. As recent events have shown, even today society remains ready to see sexually exploited young girls as the ones at fault, responsible for what happens to them, rather than holding to account those who exploit them. This seems to be very deep-rooted in the collective psyche and we are still early learners in understanding what is needed to address our blindness and lack of care.

       At the same time, twelve step programmes suggest that the way to recovery from any addiction is to take personal responsibility and surrender to a higher power. Another way of looking at Mary's conversion experience is to see it as the ultimate 'wake-up call', a manifestation of her inner Wisdom that the way she had been living was ultimately self-destructive. For me, Mary's act of penitence can be seen as a heartfelt Yes to the Divine, a decision to choose a better way, responding to the call of One who offers unconditional love and understanding. Her life experience still speaks to me powerfully today, perhaps especially in our extroverted world which so often seems to undervalue silence, solitude and stillness. I too seek 'glorious rest', appreciating times when I can become a hermit for a while, although grateful that it doesn't require me to live alone in the desert for 70 years!

Thursday, 1 January 2015

On Reading (and Watching): E. F. Benson's Mapp and Lucia

It was my Dad who first mentioned E F Benson's wonderful books to me. "If you ever come across a book called Miss Mapp," he said, "grab it." As I was just moving to a new job in a new town I had access to a new library and, by one of life's nice moments of synchronicity, it had a copy. This was the early eighties and I think the books must have been long out of print but around that time they were re-published by Black Swan in six jolly paperbacks. (They made a great Christmas present for my Dad!) Tom Holt wrote a couple of sequels and a very new Channel 4 did an excellent TV adaptation of the last 3 books by Gerald Savory. 

Benson wrote his Mapp and Lucia series between 1920 and 1939 and they were hugely popular at the time. Original readers such as Noel Coward, Gertrude Lawrence and the poet W. H. Auden, famously said they "would pay anything for Lucia books". Miss Elizabeth Mapp and Mrs Emmeline Lucas were at first in two entirely separate spheres, each dominating their own small worlds of Tilling (based on Rye in Sussex) and Riseholme (based on the Cotswolds village of Broadway) respectively. The comic potential of bringing them together and giving each a new and more formidable foe is achieved in book four of the series, Mapp and Lucia, and the subsequent two. Apparently readers wrote to Benson begging him to allow Miss Mapp to win at least one round over Lucia but he never did. I think Gerald Savory paid homage to this in one scene he created for the Channel 4 series which was not in the original books: Mapp, played by Prunella Scales, and now married to Major Benjy, has a typically 'poisoned sweet' go at Lucia, played by Geraldine McEwan, on the eve of her marriage to her long-standing friend, the effeminate Georgie Pillson. As she leaves Mallards House (once her home and now Lucia's) she twirls her handbag in triumph. It's a nice touch (perhaps also a coded reference to then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher?). I regularly watch my DVDs of this series and I recently re-read all six of the books, so you can definitely say that I'm a Benson fan!

Now the BBC has offered a new adaptation, with a screenplay by Steve Pemberton. Given the popularity of the 1984 Channel 4 version it was important that Pemberton felt a sense of creative freedom from the constraints of that success. He certainly takes a lot more liberties with the stories and plot-lines than Savory did but that could work if the essence of the thing is captured. Savory left quite a bit out but those who knew the books could spot the various ways he hinted at these points without it interfering with the re-telling. Pemberton's version has received good reviews - both Michael Pilgrim in the Telegraph and Julia Raeside in the Guardian like it.  Raeside makes a valid point about not keeping either the books or the previous adaptation under glass. As a self-confessed fan of Savory's screening, I was aware of my prejudices and tried to keep an open mind. I'm sure there was room for a good, fresh adaptation; sadly this wasn't it.

There is really nothing to like in Pemberton's Tilling, apart from the genuine Rye location. I wonder what a viewer coming to the series with no prior knowledge would make of it all. The main problem is that it just isn't funny. All Benson's subtlety and charm have been squeezed out and replaced with a kind of grand-guignol. There's an over-reliance on contorted facial expressions, with incessant music playing over the dialogue, which has little of Benson's sparkling wit. It's as if we are being asked, do you get it yet, do you get it? Well, frankly, no. Pemberton's changes, while not necessarily inconsistent with the characters, seemed mostly unnecessary and underplayed the brilliance of the words, situations and characters Benson actually did create. There was a good switch in Episode 1 when Lucia performs a tableau of Elizabeth I (as she had in Riseholme) at her Garden Fete in Elizabeth Mapp's home Mallards, which she is renting, rather than the more accurate Britannia; this allows for a nice moment when Mapp thinks that the cries of 'Elizabeth' are for her. I think Benson might well have appreciated this. However, we then have Episode 2 almost entirely taken up with a story about an Indian Guru who turns out to be a London chef. It's a good story but it occurs in Queen Lucia, a book set in Riseholme with other characters. It seems strange to twist the plot so much to include this story when there is so much going on in "Tilling proper". It surely can't be just to introduce Georgie Pillson's two rather grotesque sisters, who never appear in Tilling in the books and seemed more like characters from Pemberton's earlier success, the League of Gentleman?

In general, the cast were also a real letdown. One review said that the players all looked like they wanted to be there but I disagree. It didn't look like they were enjoying themselves at all, or if they were, it wasn't due to anything to do with Benson. Neither Miranda Richardson as Mapp nor Anna Chancellor as Lucia seem to have really got stuck into the essence of their characters' motivations and purposes, partly because Pemberton has ditched the progressive nature of Benson's narrative and muddies them around in ever-decreasing circles. I think Richardson is trying to be appropriately nasty and Chancellor to convey Lucia's insecurities but lingering shots of knotted eyebrows and protruding teeth don't really cut it. On the plus side, it was good to have the vicar's wife back, Mrs Evie Bartlett (missing in the Channel 4 adaptation), nicely played by Poppy Miller. Mark Gatiss as Major Benjy and Nicholas Woodeson as Mr Wyse also showed potential,but weren't really allowed to fly. Pemberton's casting of himself as an uber-insipid Georgie Pillson was uninspired. The fact that he has left out significant characters and plot-lines, such as those involving Lucia's purchase of Grebe and its subsequent exchange for Mapp's home Mallards, the opera diva Olga Braceley and a certain Cotswolds' recipe for Lobster, suggests he is hoping to come back for a second go. Let's hope not.

Too much Pemberton, too much League of Gentleman, not enough Benson: what a disappointment the BBC's new Mapp and Lucia has turned out to be. I won't be downloading Episode 3. You'd be much better off reading the original books. Indeed, I strongly encourage you to do so.