Tree surgery and Janet Frame’s ‘The Linesman’

Tree surgery: ash tree

Tree surgery: ash tree

Three men arrived the other day to carry out tree surgery on two trees beside our garden. As I watched the man climb a ladder then attach himself with harness, clips and his ropes and abseil up, down and round a tall ash, then a lime tree, chainsaw bombinating (a word I just encountered in the Introduction to an Anthony Trollope novel, and had to look up; I’m determined to start using it!), I felt a mixture of trepidation and exhilaration. He was so high up, so precarious.

And I half recalled a poem from my youth about someone looking at a man up a telephone pole, with a shocking last line. I tried Twitter, to see if anyone could name the poem or author. No success.

Then someone suggested I try the National Poetry Library. I sent an email, and after a few days had a reply from Lorraine, asking if I could recall any lines or phrases. A few days later I got a positive response. She’d found it! [Update, 13 Dec: she’s emailed to say it was her colleague Russell who found it, so thanks, Russell!]

It’s not a poem. It’s a very short story by the New Zealand writer Janet Frame. It’s called ‘The Linesman.’ I found a copy online HERE:

Three men arrived yesterday with their van and equipment to repair the telephone lines leading to the house opposite. Two of the men stayed at work in the house. The third carried his ladder and set it up against the telegraph pole twenty-five yards from the house. He climbed the ladder and beyond it to the top of the pole where, with his feet resting on the iron rungs which are embedded at intervals in the sides of the pole, he began his work, his hands being made free after he had adjusted his safety harness. He was not likely to fall. I did not see him climb the pole. I looked from my window and saw him already working, twisting, arranging wires, screwing, unscrewing, leaning back from the pole, dependent upon his safety belt, trusting in it, seeming in a position of comfort and security.

I stared at him. I was reluctant to leave the window because I was so intent upon watching the linesman at work, and because I wanted to see him descend from the pole when his work was finished.

People in the houses near the telegraph pole had drawn their curtains; they did not wish to be spied upon. He was in an excellent position for spying, with a clear view into the front rooms of half a dozen houses.

The clouds, curds and whey, were churned from south to north across the sky. It was one of the first Sundays of spring. Washing was blowing on the clotheslines in back gardens; youths were lying in attitudes of surrender beneath the dismantled bellies of scooters; women were sweeping the Saturday night refuse from their share of the pavement. Perhaps it was time for me to have something to eat – a cup of coffee a biscuit, anything to occupy the ever marauding despair.

But still I could not leave my position at the window. I stared at the linesman until I had to screw up my eyes to avoid the bright stabs of spring light. I watched the work, the snipping, twisting, joining, screwing, unscrewing of bolts. And all the time I was afraid to leave the window. I kept my eyes fixed upon the linesman slung in his safety harness at the top of the telegraph pole.

You see, I was hoping that he might fall.

Lime tree

Lime tree

It was that last line that I’d remembered. We’ve all surely had that strange mix of impulses when standing on a high place like a cliff or mountain: excitement at the panorama, and an urge to jump. So it was with the tree surgeon – or the linesman: how skilful and fearless they were. Precarious. ‘He was not likely to fall.’ Confident that his was a position of ‘comfort and security.’ She wanted, she believes initially, to see him come down safely.

Maybe Janet Frame was also creating an extended metaphor for her own experience. The dangerous, precarious act of creating as an artist. Exposing yourself to the gaze of others, while increasing your own capacity for observing the lives of others (all those verbs of ‘staring’, ‘spying’). The awareness of the possibility of success or catastrophic failure; the mix of artistry and sheer physical hard work (the vocabulary of ‘snipping, twisting, joining, screwing, unscrewing’).

Lime tree againMaybe as well she’s alluding to the horrors of electricity (the linesman is ‘arranging wires’): she endured countless procedures of ECT, and I believe narrowly avoided a leucotomy, as primitive ‘treatment’ for her mental health problems as a young woman (that ‘ever marauding despair’ felt by the narrator).

There’s a sense in this story that the woman is both detached from the linesman, observing him, but projecting herself into him: she becomes him.

I’m pleased to say our tree surgeon safely completed his task and left intact with his two mates. The squirrel whose nest was exposed by the removal of lime tree boughs was less happy. Serves him right for eating all my bird food.

My thanks to Lorraine and the National Poetry Library for their detective work.

A Pure Woman. Lloyd Jones, Hand Me Down World

Lloyd Jones, Hand Me Down World. John Murray, 2011. First published in New Zealand in 2010.

This is a love story and a ghost story.

Jones HMDWorld coverIt tells, in differing, often conflicting versions and recensions – as in the Akutagawa story on which the Kurosawa film ‘Rashomon’ was based – how a young African woman has no real identity, no substance in the eyes of Europeans she meets; even her name used later in the novel is the one she stole from a woman she encounters in Italy, with tragic consequences: Ines, one form of the name Agnes – which significantly derives from the Greek for ‘pure’ or ‘holy’. Ines, like Tess, is a Pure Woman.

The first sections of this gripping novel by the New Zealander Lloyd Jones (who was shortlisted for the Booker for Mister Pip in 2007) consist of the multiple accounts from those who knew her at the start of her quest to reach Berlin. The first is a co-worker at a swanky tourist hotel on the Arabian Sea patronised mostly by white Europeans, where it was a prerequisite for the staff that they shed all vestiges of past or identity: as human beings they were as substanceless as ghosts. Even this colleague/friend who knew her for some years never learned her name, where she came from in Africa, or even her birthday:

When we spoke of home we spoke of somewhere in the past. We might be from different countries but the world we came into contained the same clutter and dazzling light. All the same traps were set for us.

Here the language conveys some of the register of a non-native speaker of English, shot through with the poetic sensibility of Lloyd the artificer who filters these forensic, mediated voices of testimony through his own artist’s sensibility to present them to us. It’s an astonishingly accomplished act of multiple ventriloquism and narrative dexterity and ingenuity. In this quotation he conveys how, for women like these, the tourist resort and its hotel is a playground for the privileged guests, but dangerous for them if they forget their place, to be invisible:

You have to leave your past in order to become hotel staff…you had to be like the palms and the sea, pleasing to the eye. We must not take up space but be there whenever a guest needed us.

Lloyd’s is the heartbreakingly familiar one to those of us in affluent Europe of the desperate people risking their lives in unseaworthy boats to make the dangerous crossing to southern Italy from north Africa. Even if the boats survive the trip, unscrupulous traffickers, for whom the people they convey are just ‘merchandise’ or cargo, are likely, as they do to Ines, to throw them overboard miles from the shore and leave them to drown. Most can’t swim; fortunately, Ines can, and she makes it to land, there to continue her quest.

For unlike the other boat people, she isn’t trying to escape from economic hardship or political turmoil; she is searching for what has been stolen from her and taken to Europe, to Berlin – that city of ghosts, bullet-scarred memorials, squares haunted by the book-burning Nazis, and secret photos of atrocities committed by Berliners in their shameful past.

These early polyvocal fragments take on new significance in the second part of the novel when the perspective shifts and we learn why these narrators are testifying to Ines’ progress towards her goal. Then we realise how partial, unreliable, redacted or just downright untrue they were. Only near the end do we hear Ines’ own voice; like many women (see my recent post on The Silence of the Girls) and migrants, she is for most people both invisible and mute.

Many of those she encounters on her journey and in Berlin show her kindness and sympathy; others exploit her and fail to see beyond the colour of her skin or her gender. When she encounters a group of Italian hunters in the border mountains, for example, it’s notable that it’s the American among them who alone resists giving her money to help her on her way; back home, he says, she’d be seen as ‘an illegal, an alien’. The Italian narrator of this section is clearly horrified at this lack of humanity. This is 2010, pre-Trump.

In Ch. 9 a pastor ‘of the Ibo order’ who works at a refuge for African migrants gives his testimony to the ‘inspector’ who is gathering these witness statements about Ines. He laughs at the officer because

you come here to Berlin to ask a pastor, a black man, about ghosts. Presumably you mean white ghosts…For example, there are ghosts we do not see, the spooky ghosts, the ghosts of the American imagination…These are the ones small children worry are lying beneath their beds at night.

The other kind, the ‘real ones’, he says, ‘are simply the ones whom we choose not to see.’ African migrants like Ines fall into this category of the unseen. At first they have names. Then they don’t: ‘Soon they will turn into ghosts.’ Many are sent back to Libya to a hellish ‘detention centre’ where they ‘turn into ghosts’ and go mad or wander into the desert to die.

As tens of thousands of African migrants blow like sand across the sea, ‘fortress Europe’ nails down the shutters, says the pastor:

It pretends. It pretends like the child afraid of the ghost under the bed.

Lloyd is too astute an artist, however, to turn his compelling love story/quest into a diatribe or message-heavy polemic; this is the only place where the narrative preaches, and it’s because the speaker is a preacher who has good cause to do so. But his message lingers through the rest of the story like fading bells of city churches as one passes through a cemetery on the way to Alexanderplatz.

Lisa Hill at her blog recommended Lloyd’s most recent novel, but suggested I start with this one. She has excellent taste: it’s a terrific novel, and one I feel sure will haunt whoever reads it as it does me. Her post of 2010 examines another theme in the novel: the duality or multiplicity of possibilities or perspectives in interpreting alternative truths and their ‘dual capacities’ – hence the prominence in the narrative of discussions of amphibious lungfish, hermaphrodite snails, people of mixed ethnicity, etc. It’s possible to discern conflicting or opposing ‘truths’ in events or entities that seem irreconcilable, but which can be held simultaneously. It’s a subtle reading that I can’t do justice to in a few words here, for I’ve already gone on too long…I commend her post to you, as I do this remarkable novel. Thanks for the recommendation, Lisa.