If the magic of Christmas to me is its silence, then the coming back down to earth of New Year is its noise – harsh voices, loud fireworks, the clash of bottles in the night, on into the morning of the First Day. Here we go again.
The days in between Christmas and New Year are often odd. Some people go away, some come back. Shops stay stubbornly closed or just as stubbornly open. I lost count of people saying they didn’t know which day it was. Sometimes the week seems interminable and this year it surely was.
There are two women I meet on the bus, both a little older than me, both better off, regular attendees at a local church and it is on their way there or back that I usually see them. But I haven’t seen either one of them for a while and you know that nobody lives forever. On New Year’s Eve, I met the younger woman, sort of Phyllis Calvert in silvergilt, and we sat happily together, she glad to see me, she said, me equally pleased to see her. And while we shared our various family bits and pieces, she remarked (as so many people have done this year, those you know and those you don’t know at all) what a strange period of time this is, how unsettled, and frankly, how frightening. And as I got up to get off, we measured each other as carefully as boy and girl on a first date and kissed each other good wishes and courage for 2019.
Somewhere in there I saw the BBC Review of 2018, on BBC4. I love compilations, bits of film, bits of programmes, all the wonderfully gifted people who’d died that year, roughly gathered into subject headings. By chance I saw it a second time and it ended with Aretha Franklin singing as only she could, in all her African splendour.
I made a note of the editor and emailed her at BBC just to say thanks and well done, even better the second time and bless her, she sent me the whole Franklin clip which is like diamonds in my ear.
And then I spent New Year with Pat Barker and Michelle Obama. I was loaned The Silence of the Girls and Becoming respectively by a neighbour who didn’t want to read either yet – but she knows I read fast. My mother used to call this “trying it on the dog.”
Becoming is an inspired title, Mrs. Obama is quite a woman. But nothing prepared me for her candour about her background, the difference between it and that of her husband, the great driving wish to do your best. And to say clearly that, once your husband got into politics, it was like another person in the marriage, constantly to be negotiated. No wonder it is selling. And Becoming is a wonderful play on words. I don’t like the cover photo (all the convention of overdressed hair and a particular kind of eye makeup) but it wouldn’t put me off for five seconds. So that got me to just about the witching hour, when I thank God for my blessings, swallow the last sip of brandy and tonic and look for something else to read because I can’t sleep in the noise.
I read the first two books Pat Barker ever wrote and now she is up to 15. The Silence of the Girls didn’t grab me as a title but the idea of examining the fall of Troy from a woman’s perspective did, bearing in mind that women played no great role in the ancient world. Marriage was less to do with emotion and more to do with order and possession and war – every war right up to this moment – destabilised the enemy by destroying societal norms. Women were just flesh.
I found the ease of the writing and the subtlety of the adjusted stories thrilling. These are my fairy stories – you can keep Game of Thrones.
So here I am, marking the beginning of the new year all in women (unless you count a passing nod to Barack Obama). I didn’t set out to do it this way. My rule of thumb is distinctly non-partisan when it comes to women. The good are great and the bad are horrid, just like everything else in the world.