Dead or gone?

We’ve had a bird box for several years. It was a housewarming gift from a friend. There it sat, an A-frame wooden box with a tiny porthole in the front so small we couldn’t imagine any creature getting in there, let alone getting out. So it became an adornment, a pretty fixture without function, until this year when we discovered we had squattters – a couple of blue tits. Neither of us is what you might call an ornithological expert. (There’s a distinction in the bird world between the folks with the binoculars – bird-spotters who are known as birders, and bird-lovers, more commonly called bird-watchers.). We just about scrape into the latter category.

Like everyone else we’ve become more attuned to the world of our backyard since lockdown, and more aware of birdsong in general since the background hum of traffic was so drastically reduced. But that was as far as our interest went, until the blue tits took up residence.

Slowly but surely, we found ourselves watching the nest activity with as much interest as the latest Netflix box set. Not only did our focus narrow and become more concentrated, but we became proprietorial and protective of the precious cargo in our bird box. We stopped putting out food because it only attracted the bigger birds – pigeons, blackbirds, crows – and we wanted to keep our nest a secret, and safe. We noticed how vigilant the parent tits were, never approaching the nest without first doing a 360 degree scope to check that they weren’t being watched. We found ourselves doing the same.

The blue tits’ presence gave us a stake in the life of the garden which up to this had been about plant care and control. Overnight, we became invested in the part of our environment we had no control over.

All through May we watched the frantic activity of the blue tit pair. The female usually lays a clutch of 7-12 eggs which are incubated for up to 16 days, during which time the male will feed the female. After 20 or so days, the birds are hatched. The chicks are born naked and blind and need to be fed continuously involving thousands of foraging trips in and out of the nest. It’s estimated that each chick can eat up to 100 caterpillars a day.

And then the day we were waiting for arrived – when the fledglings left the nest. There were only three of them and we didn’t see them tumbling out of the tiny porthole in the box, but we discovered them on the ground trembling behind our pots, or camouflaged in the branches of plants. They were not much more than three yawning beaks surrounded by a circumference of plump yellow fur on spindly legs. They cried almost soundlessly, opening and closing those beaks with the expectation that mother or father bird might drop a morsel in there. The parent birds duly obliged.

We were looking forward to several weeks of watching them grown and thrive, but the next morning they were gone. We couldn’t believe it. Had they become victims of predators – cats, crows, magpies? (Our one raised bed and our dozen or so pots didn’t provide them with much cover. ) Or had their parents moved them elsewhere to protect them?

The answer is we don’t know. The young can stay with their parents for a few weeks after hatching. But the blue tit mortality rate is very high. Two-thirds of fledglings do not survive their first year. Of a family of 2 adults and 10 young, only one adult and one young bird will typically survive to breed.

Of course, we want to believe “our” blue tits are now fully grown and living independent lives elsewhere but the Covidian stealth of their disappearance suggests otherwise.

It’s fair to say we were bereft. There was something bleak and disowning about looking out into the burgeoning yard and not seeing “our” friends there. The daily ritual involved in hatching and rearing had become an absorbing occupation for us, a show put on for our benefit and to find the place tenantless reduced our yard to backdrop again, rather than habitat. For a while we felt shut out of the secret life of our own garden.

We’ve thought of taking the nesting box down. Could we bear to face the whole rigmarole next year should the blue tits return? For the moment, we’ve left it where it is. After all, this is nature “red in tooth and claw” – to quote Ted Hughes – and now we’ve progressed to being bird-watchers, we know the drill.

Who said knowledge is power?

Plathology

In February it was quietly announced that Warren Plath, brother of the infinitely more famous Sylvia, had died in the US. He was the last surviving family member of Sylvia’s generation. Warren Plath had virtually no presence on the internet and the notice of his death – aged 85 – made no reference to his connection to the internationally known poet. It would be tempting to think this might mark the end of an era though the interest in Sylvia Plath shows no sign of abating, even now 48 years after her death.

For my generation, Plath was one of those writers whose work was handed around like samizdat. Her poetry collections, The Colossus and Ariel, and her novel, The Bell Jar, were staples on our bookshelves . In my early 20s, I devoured Letters Home, her correspondence between 1950-1963, edited by her mother, Aurelia. (It was Plath’s fate to be “edited” by those close to her. Much of the controversy about her legacy centres around her estranged poet husband Ted Hughes’ management of her work after her death by suicide in 1963.)

Plath’s letters had a certain resonance for me. I, too, was the daughter of a widow and recognised the push/pull relationship with her mother when I first read her letters in the early 1980s. (Otto Plath, Sylvia’s father died when she was 8.)

In a widowed family (since widowhood happens not just to the wife) the need for approval is concentrated on the mother. It’s often twinned with an underlying anxiety of what might happen should the remaining parent die. On the other hand, the daugther of a widow learns to withhold worries and tailor expectations – especially financial ones – for fear of overburdening her mother.  Signs on, even through much of her inner torments while at Smith College, and later in Cambridge, Sylvia’s letters to Aurelia were determinedly cheery.

Aurelia Plath was ambitious for her children and wanted the very best for them, despite – or perhaps because of – their straitened circumstances.  The dynamics of the widow’s family are all too evident in Sylvia’s young letters. She depended utterly on Aurelia, leaned on her for emotional and financial support, wanted to please her, but resented what she called her “hovering”. Her mother gave her conflicting messages – to excel and to conform.

Lest it be forgotten, the widowed mother often longs to be free of her double responsibilities as well. In the 1970s, Aurelia wrote: “I worked to be free of her (Sylvia) & at least live my life – not to be drawn into the complexities & crises of hers.”

After her first suicide attempt in 1953, Plath was given electric shock treatment at McLean, a high-end private hospital in Boston. Her stay there was funded by the author Olive Higgins Prouty, who was a mentor of Sylvia’s, since Aurelia could not have afforded it. (Mrs Prouty paid $2500 over several months to the hospital, a tidy sum at the time. She had not realised Sylvia’s stay would be so long when she first offered help.)

The most recent Plath biography Red Comet; The Short Life and Blazing art of Sylvia Plath by Heather Clark, drawing on new evidence, suggests that the decision to administer ECT was partly to do with Mrs Prouty’s threat to withdraw financial support. If Sylvia had opted for psychotherapy, for example, her stay at the hospital might have been extended for a year, or more.

Plath’s psychiatrist at McLean, Dr Ruth Beuscher, over-ruled the concerns of medical colleagues at the hospital, claiming that Sylvia’s “over-riding sense of guilt and unworthiness could only be purged by the ‘punishment’ of shock treatments”.

The medical necessity of the treatment seems to have been very far-down the list of priorities.

Ironically, after two of six sessions, Sylvia’s depression began to lift, even though the treatment was then in its infancy. ( Plath had been given ECT at another hospital earlier that summer which had been administered without muscle relaxants or anaesthetic.). She told friends it was like being murdered. She would never forget the effects of it: “I need more than anything. . .someone to love me, to be with me at night when I wake up in shuddering horror and fear of the cement tunnels leading down to the shock room.”

After her death, Ted Hughes claimed the controversial treatment “pervaded everything she said and did”. Nowadays we’d call that PTSD. Little surprise that one of the dominant tropes in The Bell Jar, an autobiographical novel about her experiences at McLean, is the image of the Rosenbergs going to the electric chair in 1953. And the metaphor continued to appear in her work. In a diary entry of June 1958 she described her life thus: “It is as if my life were magically run by two electric currents: joyous positive and despairing negative—whichever is running at the moment dominates my life, floods it.”

Although she was never diagnosed as such, Plath is often referred to in retrospect as manic depressive or bipolar.  But in many ways, it was the electric shock treatment that moved her into what Susan Sontag calls “the kingdom of the sick”. It medicalised Plath’s depression, turning it into a “condition”. But a reading of her early journals reveals nothing more than a young woman with a bad case of life.

She was 20 when she made her first suicide attempt, and her diaries from that time show what we might nowadays consider as typical existential angst, replete with the solipsistic striving of a high-achieving perfectionist and the disappointments of an idealistic young adult.

“I can’t deceive myself out of the bare stark realisation that no matter how enthusiastic you are, no matter how sure that character is fate, nothing is real, past or future, when you are alone in your room with the clock ticking loudly into the flash cheerful brilliance of the electric light,” she confided in her journal.

But they also show a woman in a pre-feminist era struggling with her female and her artistic identity.  “I’m just not the type who wants a home and children of her own more than anything else in the world. I’m too selfish, maybe, to subordinate myself to one man’s career.”

Even at that stage she was grappling with how to combine being a poet and a woman.

Sylvia Plath was facing those same choices in 1963 when she killed herself. She was a single parent, recently traumatically separated from Hughes, struggling to fend for two small (and at the time sick) children on her own – an unconscious mirror image of her mother? – while in the grip of a severe depression and the worst winter England had endured in decades.

She had an appointment at a psychiatric hospital set for the week following her death so help was at hand. But she was also consumed with dread that she might be forced into electric shock treatment again, something she knew she couldn’t face. It was almost as if the “cure” had become the illness.

However, she had resolved one of those choices. She left behind on her desk the completed manuscript of Ariel, her ground-breaking second collection of poems, which was published the following year to great acclaim and established her as a poet of standing.

As a tyro writer, I admired Sylvia Plath for how much she wrote. Her collected letters have been reissued in two massive volumes in 2017 and 2018, there are her journals and calendars, along with poems and fiction from an early age. She was constantly engaged with her interior life ( perhaps, sometimes, too much) and always observing – images and ideas from her letters turned up in poems, as did passages from her journals. There is no doubt how vividly she lived on the page. This wealth of material has also meant that Plath is a biographer’s dream. The sheer volume of material written about her amounts to a kind of pathology – or is it Plathology?

To which, I suppose, this blog is adding its two cents’ worth.

Above: Self-portrait in Semi-Abstract Style by Sylvia Plath, 1946: Estate of Robert Hitter

Press Button A

art of the glimpse

You’re wondering about the heading, aren’t you?

What has it got to do with The Art of the Glimpse (lovely title and exquisite cover design by  Owen Gent) of a new collection of  Irish short stories which features 100 practitioners of the form, old and new, including yours truly.  The anthology is forthcoming from Head of Zeus and edited by Sinéad Gleeson –  she of Constellations fame and the newly-announced winner of the Dalkey Book Prize.

Well, the story of mine that Sinéad chose is from my first collection A Lazy Eye (Jonathan Cape 1995) which is called “Divided Attention”.  It’s a story I have a soft spot for because it was the first time I wrote in the second person voice, but other anthologists haven’t shared my enthusiasm for it, until Sinéad came along, that is.

Because it was composed originally on an ancient Amstrad, I had to transcribe the story  on to my current laptop for Head of Zeus.  As I did some small edits along the way, I began to realise how archival the story had become in the 30 or more years since I wrote it.

It was an utterly 20th century creation, a story that couldn’t, and wouldn’t be written now.  Not because of political correctness, or the storyline, but because of technology.

Briefly, the plot is this.  The narrator, a woman in her thirties, shares her guilt about an affair with a married man, by confessing her feelings to a man who makes a series of abusive calls to her in the middle of the night.

Here are five props and devices (both plot and apparatus) I’d have to rethink if I were to bring the story up to date.

1.The landline: the telephonic encounter between the man, who is (mostly) silent, and the female narrator is  conducted exclusively on a landline. A what?

phone box

2. The phone box: the abusive caller, who’s engaged in what one might euphemistically describe as  digital activities (in the old-fashioned sense) while on the phone, uses a public phone box. Which is where the Press button A line comes in.  The phone kiosk referenced in this story featured a coin-operated phone.  You inserted your coins one by one into a slot on the top and dialled your number. When the other party answered you pressed button A in order to be heard.  (If there was no reply, you pressed button B and got your money back through a silver chute at the bottom – sometimes!) As I write this, I realise it doesn’t sound archival, it sounds prehistoric!

3. Caller ID: the narrator’s phone is a fixed, manual, non-digital, stand-alone instrument attached to a wall socket. It has no electronic display. Caller ID has not been invented.

4.  Public exhibitionism: The narrator describes a much earlier encounter with a man who exposes himself on the street.  For anyone of my generation, this was the persistent  sexual threat of our youth. There seemed to be no end of men in dirty macs whose full-time job it was to expose themselves on buses, in cinemas, on the street. The advent of the internet has driven them indoors; I imagine they’re all now porn purveyors on their screens at home.

5. Monetisation of the “dirty” phone call:  Nowadays you elect to experience smut on the phone, and you have to pay for it.  The free dirty phone call is a thing of the past.

Around the time I wrote this story one of my party pieces was a poem by British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, called “Do Not Pick Up the Telephone” which I admired for its superstitious misanthropy.  It’s a most untypical poem of his in that it isn’t about eagles or crows, or nature, “red in tooth and claw”.  It’s about the perils of the phone, a purveyor in Hughes’ mind, of bad news and death.

I sought the poem out and realised that it’s almost as archival as my story.

Death invented the phone, it looks like the altar of death, he writes. Not any more, Ted.

You plastic crab, he berates it, which is a perfect analogy for those crouching models of the 80s and 90s, but not right for a slimline mobile.

World’s emptiness oceans in your mouthpiece/Stupidly your string dangles into the abyss – Mouthpiece? String?  All old hat with wi-fi, Ted.

But although the phone is as outmoded as the one in my story,  Hughes’ poetic rage remains admirably deathless!

“O phone, get out of my house

You are a bad god

Go and whisper on some other pillow

Do not lift your snake head in my house

Do not bite any more beautiful people. . .”

That’s the spirit, Ted!

The Art of the Glimpse includes work  – from across the centuries  – by Samuel Beckett, Sally Rooney, Melatu Uche Okirie, William Trevor, Marian Keyes, Kevin Barry, Edna O’Brien, Claire-Louise Bennett, Sheridan Le Fanu, Danielle McLaughlin, Elizabeth Bowen, Frank O’Connor and Maeve Brennan – and 87 others!  It appears in October 2020.