Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Brian Keenan at Suffolk Book League

I heard Brian Keenan speak at Suffolk Book League last night.  I went with little idea of what to expect and arrived late. This meant that my friend and I arrived at the venue when the talk had already begun. This is never a comfortable situation to be in and I took my seat with a heavy heart. Would I be able to pick up the thread? I had felt a strong compulsion to hear Keenan speak and I wanted to see him in the flesh. I was 19 when the hostage crisis hit the newspapers and it provided  one of the ongoing narratives of my early adulthood. The work of Gill Morrell and the Friends of John McCarthy meant that the plight of the hostages was in the news seemingly daily for four or so years. As we were leaving my friend told me that she remembered the mast head of her daily newspaper counting up the days that John McCarthy had been held hostage. I had a vivid recollection of a postcard that I had on the wall in my bedroom when I first moved to London with the slogan Remember the Hostages.  The illustration showed two hands gripping the bars of what I read to be a prison window. The bars were in fact pencils-a visual reference to McCarthy's job as a journalist.

So my mind was full of my own thoughts and memories and it felt serendipitous that at points in the talk Keenan spoke about the difference between history and memory, and of the difference between memory and forgetfulness. He has written a memoir of his childhood and the talk wove together memories of his childhood self, the process of writing his book about Alaska, the death of his mother and much else besides. The threads of his story wove together and then split apart again. He created endless patterns and reoccuring motiffs- not a linear account but something much denser with each memory bringing forth another memory and then another- the passing of time rendered seemingly timeless, something tangible and very much of the here and now as well as of the there and then. I was reminded of the period after my own mother's death when images of her seemed to cascade through my mind- not as she had been, her dying self, but as a young woman and a child, before I was born, memories of things it was indeed impossible for me to remember. It was as if  I was building up a composite image of her, to keep within me, in place of the flesh and blood woman.

Not easy to write about without sounding pretentious- but I have had a bash at it because  the overwhelming feeling that I had, hearing Keenan speak, was one of an emotional connection. I will probably never speak to him (although I'd move heaven and earth to hear him talk again) but it feels so important to have been able to sit in a room full of people, ostensibly strangers, and yet feel a strong connection to my fellow human being.

And that's why I'm writing about Brian Keenan in this blog. Because if one of the strands of my story is about the Big Society then  it is also about my own political dissaffection.The alienation and isolation engendered by the day-to-day grind of the political reality that we face, is the antithesis of what I experienced last night. Remembering the hostage crisis I also remembered how it felt to be one of Thatcher's generation- of growing up in the Eighties amidst unemployment and the assault on the unions, of earning £4 000 a year as student nurse when people in the city were earning millions, of constantly voting for the loosing team. Defenders of the Thatcher legacy will often argue that her famous comment that there is no such thing as society, only men and women was taken out of context. In or out of context it seems apposite- there is no such thing as the Big Society only men and women standing alone waiting for the axe to fall.

And no, of course I haven't heard a thing about the council's plans to consult with the public over the New Strategic Direction. As If!

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