Thursday, July 21, 2005

Reading the work of Heather Ball

As promised.

Last week I noted here that I had just received a package from a very generous ingrate. (I'll resist the urge to scream in envy at his trip to New York City). Amongst the goodies provided was a small book of writings by Heather Ball. Heather wrote a column in Socialist Standard, and based on what I have read of her work I would have to say that she was a really wonderful and warm writer. There is a light quality to her writing that belies the fiercesomely political stance she was writing from, whether she was writing about her family or more overt political issues. As the introduction by Michael Gill and Stan Parker notes, which they note "exemplifies the biting anger, the humour and the inspiring sense of aspiration that characterised her view of socialism."
"[in present day society] there is an erosion of everything socialism requires and capitalism despises - co-operation, self-respect, love even. I hesitate to use the word 'love' when talking about human relationships - the suspicious sidelong glances I get sometimes make me wonder if it is thought I am advocating multiple orgasms for everyone. Love to me represents the possibility of having such good feelings about ourselves that we can afford to have them about other people too. Yet in this miserable society where money and exploitation must come first, we are discouraged from showing too much concern for one another in case this detracts from our real purpose - to provide profit and power for a minority."
For me, one of my favourite pieces was on "Cleaning Houses", and I have to confess it's partly because I'm pretty laid back about keeping a house clean and tidy. In some ways, Cloud and I are probably one of those couple who still live like they're in shared/student style accommodation even though our circumstances are not like that. I'm certainly one of the few women I know who cares so little for constant dusting and cleaning, even though we're both somewhat asthmatic and could benefit from a tad less dust about (I suspect that my fear of spiders should also make me want to clear cobwebs before they appear, but even that dread cannot seem to quite raise me!)

It always astonished me when growing up that keeping a house perfectly clean, spending time each day dusting, vacuuming, polishing, should not only be deemed worthwhile but somehow curiously only worthwhile for girls/women: it was a female responsibility! Thankfully, my mum never felt obliged to follow this - though many, MANY of my friends at school resented that their brothers were let off the hook of contributing to the household chores. These same friends nevertheless slipped easily into their allotted tasks and I would watch in bafflement as they would weekly vacuum their bedrooms of invisible debris, dust every shelf and surface, and polish each knick-knack. My room was too full of books and encyclopaedias being regularly read, of records being played, of toys being played with to gather much dust, whereas in their rooms and house what they had was sat in pristine stillness from week to week. No wonder their stuff gathered dust.

Perhaps my mum's reluctance to make a fetish of house-cleaning (as Heather Ball calls it) came from what she saw in her own family. My great nan's husband had emigrated to Canada (it was never entirely clear why). Abandoned by her husband, my great nan worked as a seamstress and then as a housekeeper to keep her three daughters. My nan, a single parent to my mum, similarly worked as a cleaner. Maybe being paid to work for others doing what they were expected to do at home for nothing, for the sake of 'appearances', made these women make their own mini-rebellions in refusing to fetishize cleaning in their own homes. Certainly I never grew up with any sense that cleaning and tidying to pristine excess was something to be adhered to - though I did grow up with a healthy sense that it was work.

As my mother grew more unwell, and the toll of caring for my dad drained her life away, the house did become more squalid than simply a non-daily-dusted property (though still short of a full-blown "How Clean is Your House?" farrago). But I was nevertheless always grateful to her for instilling in me that show home settings lacked humanity or human endeavour. Mum was too busy knitting, reading books with me, trying to grow vegetables in the garden to care too much if the thinnest film of dust had settle across a picture frame. The pristine house doesn't lend itself well to burrowing through several books at a time, comparing ideas; it doesn't like to invite people to slouch in a room in communal conversation about life, the universe and everything (accumulating empty beer cans, wine bottles, or coffee mugs as the conversation progresses). The pristine house is currently making something of a fetishised comeback - if it ever really went away - thanks to the current crop of house programmes on TV: something that fills me with dread. To get the most money possible for your house, it is important to anonymise it, reduce signs of living, and maximise its pristine potential. Why? Because heaven forefend that one might only make £180,000 on the house you purchased for £90,000 rather than the possible £200,000 you can get by making sure the woman of the house gets into a proper rhythm of house-cleaning. Urgh.

Reading Heather Ball brought such memories back to me and stimulated these thoughts, and for that sort of provocation, I heartily recommend her work to you.


Kara said...

Great post, Lisa! I too have that book, courtesy of Darren (and Stair -- his fellow non-blogging SPGBer), and I agree that it really is a great little collection of her writings. I haven't read them all but the ones I have were entertaining as well as thought provoking.

As for house cleaning -- well, I despise it! I mean, I don't like a filthy place, but if I have a choice of vacuuming or doing something a lot more fun, fun always wins out.

David Duff said...

I wonder if you realise just how tremendously patronising that whole essay sounded. 'I read books, they just kept their houses clean'. Well, bully for you, and I expect you won the school prize, too; and then went off to a pretend university to read a pretend subject; whilst your dim-witted friends and neighbours who obviously have absolutely no imagination, poor dears, just cleaned their houses.

I hardly need say, I suppose, that Heather Ball sounds like a pretentious dip-stick! Is it any wonder that so many of what you would no doubt call the 'working class', utterly despise middle-class intellectuals.

Lisa Rullsenberg said...


I really should know better than even trying to respond. My instinct, and some fellow bloggers, tells me to leave you be with the wise words that there is no pleasing Duffman. But I need to get some of this bile out of my throat that you have generated.

If the piece reads as peon to reading over cleaning, as a comment that reading may be more worthwhile than cleaning, well... then I guess that WAS partly my intention. I'm sorry, but as much as I would like recognition that cleaning is work, I also think that the fetishisation of housework does keep people away from activities like reading, and indeed other fun things. (Though reading has its own particular virtues as it can both entertain and educate).

And please, please I beg you, stop bringing your prejudiced expectations into my life story. At our school only 8 of us took English Literature O level so it really wasn't saying much to get the school prize in it. And after A levels I worked in Accountancy for 7 years, paying my way through Open University study to start off on my so-called 'non-subject' degree studies.

You call Heather Ball a pretentious dip-stick: trust me when I say I am resisting the urge to define you in appropriate terms (though my fellow bloggers have often give me great support in outing you for the obnoxious stench in the blogging world that you are).

David Duff said...

"[T]here is no pleasing Duffman". Difficult, certainly, but not impossible. When you corrected my prejudiced supposition that you went to some self-promoted Polytechnic-cum-University to study your subject of Art History' by pointing out that you worked (and paid) for it through the Open University, well, bless my soul, I think a faint, wintery smile cracked my granite features. Well done, for just an instant, you made an old man happy, and I apologise for my error in jumping to unwarranted conclusions.

But let us move from the personal to the pathetic, aka, Ms. Heather Ball. I have only read the excerpt that you presented to us with such admiration, and it contained the following: "..there is an erosion of everything socialism requires and capitalism despises - co-operation, self-respect, love even." This comes after fifty years of unprecedented (I use that word advisedly since it has *never* happened before in the history of Mankind) financial aid to impoverished countries by rich ones; and equally unprecedented gatherings of zillions of people world-wide for the purpose of collecting money for the same purpose. We have also just passed through a century in which for the first time, governments have accepted the principle that they should tax their citizens and re-distribute the money to the poorest. One is entitled to ask, where has Ms. Heather Ball been? And does she suffer with a visual and audio handicap?

Then she goes on, rather coyly but strangely, to simper over her use of the word 'love', in case anyone might suppose that she was "advocating multiple orgasms". Puuurleeeease!

Then we get this priceless sentence, stolen, I suspect, from the last sermon by the famous 'Rev. J.C.Flannel': "Love to me represents the possibility of having such good feelings about ourselves that we can afford to have them about other people too." Oh, so you can only have "good feelings" (whatever they are!) about other people when, and if, you, yourself, are satiated with them.? So I can safely tell our local beggar to sod off next time I see him, on the grounds that I am feeling rather grumpy about myself - a fairly frequent condition which you might have noticed.

Come on, Lisa, she's a pathetic, platitudinous prat, and more-over, one who writes bad English.

Lisa Rullsenberg said...

Sorry to disappoint you Duffman, but I only did 3 years of my degree via the Open University. I then went to Wolverhampton to finish my degree fulltime (I joined in year two). I was pretty much in the final years of grants and loans had already come in - so this was hardly living the high life. I'd also left home and unsurprisingly even if I had gone home for the summer between my years two and three I wouldn't have been financially supported there (in fact I still financially helped out my parents because lord knows the benefits system wasn't do them many favours). After my studies I went into teaching and education work in general. It says a lot about how we reward those working with students with disabilities, dyslexic students and other students needing support with their learning that only in this coming year may - repeat MAY -I finally earn sufficient to start paying off my undergraduate student loan.

My MA tutor at Leeds helped get me registered on the course there by paying my first terms fees: the rest I paid through part-time teaching, much debt and a loan. For my PhD, after a semster paying part-time fees, I was lucky enough to finally get what you would term "state funding" for my "non-subject" giving me non-too princely incomes of much less then £10,000 each year. Hysterically this was actually above what I had been earning for my often 70 hour teaching weeks working within HE and with disabled students by a considerable factor.

Duff, you rather remind me of a Gradgrindian boss I had in Accountancy who was baffled why I couldn't just do art history for fun, in my spare time: "why study it?" Since it wouldn't guarantee to make me money or provide a career, what earthly point was there to the subject? Because, of course, as every good capitalist knows, only vocationally useful stuff is worthwhile... What a poor and depleted existence humanity would have without creative people.

I wanted some roses with my bread. And yes, the state did pay something towards my studying. Am I only deserving of some "wintery smile" because I (partly) paid for such luxurious behaviour from my own pocket?

I could only just about manage to make my late dad happy; I certainly don't give a toss about whether I can make you happy.

And, by the way, Heather Ball is clearly wasted on you. Not the first time you've been asked, but please, why do you keep visiting this and similar blogs? I write mostly for my own pleasure - months with no vistors proved that - so it's not as if we need your visits. I'm not barring you, I just wish that I could write without the depressing possibility of another Duffman diatribe about stuff he's never going to agree with, never going to change his mind on, and which only act as a launch for his crass insults.

David Duff said...

A++ for honesty!

Obviously you are confused as to why I should hang around your blog. The reason is simple, but from your point of view, appalling. I like you! When I consider the vast continuum of human types, human conditions, human occupations, I am forced to the conclusion that some-one like you, is as removed from some-one like me, as an alien would be. Even so, and despite the miasma of "witterings and twitterings" that you produce, I discern a rather nice, bright, generous, young woman whose natural wit and intelligence will, with the help of her friends (ahem!), eventually break through the surface of silly ideology with which she is encrusted.

For example, because words *are* important, the state did *not* contribute a penny piece towards your education. It was me, oh, and those dim-witted friends and neighbours of yours who work away at drudge jobs and pay taxes, but who gain some satisfaction from keeping a clean home, it being their creativity. As we all 'contributed', I am sure your socialist sense of fair play will recognise that we are entitled to voice our opinions on the subject.

Finally, I would recommend to you both the pleasure and the necessity of argument and debate. it exposes one's own cherished beliefs to a hale of fire from the enemy through which they either pass unscathed, and thus stengthened, or they die and good riddance! To paraphrase the good doctor, like a hanging in the morning, it concentrates the mind wonderfully.

But let me finish on a pleasant note of agreement, you are absolutely right, Heather Ball is wasted on me.

Clare said...

Mr Duff, can you tell me whether there are things, which human beings do, but which you consider to be a waste of time? Can you list me a few things which people do, but of which you think they would be better employed elsewhere?

I bet you can.

Personally I agree with Lisa. We are all encouraged to believe that we are somehow lacking if our houses are not shiny bright.

Some women and men enjoy keeping their houses this way. They waltz along behind the vacuum cleaner with a spring in their step. They wield their irons with gusto. But most do not. It is a time-consuming chore wich takes them away from more pleasurable pursuits.

Personally I find that life is much more pleasant if you prioritise those things which really are important and deserving of your time. I don't find housework to be one of those things. I have no problem with other people doing it, but I do think it's sad if they do it because they feel they would face approbation if they didn't - rather than because they genuinely want to.

My house is quite dirty in places. It gets tidied periodically because I enjoy things being in order, and I like to be in surroundings which are pleasing to the eye. But I also enjoy such things as playing with my son and writing novels. If I did as much housework as the average woman (and let me tell you, that woman is JUST as likely to be middle class as working class), I wouldn't have achieved half the things I've achieved. I'm glad that I managed to break away from the norm, but sad that others do not.

Clare said...

May I also respectfully suggest that if you genuinely like Lisa you should try and recognise that you don't exactly brighten up her life or make her happy?

Yes, debate is a good and healthy thing. But to have someone constantly visit your blog shouting "You are wrong, I know best, you will learn in the end because you are wrong, and by implication also a little simple. You are wrong, I tell you!" is a little wearing. Not exactly pleasant.

Also... you accuse Lisa of being patronising. You then tell her that you are sure she will grow out of her silly political beliefs sooner or later. I don't really need to say any more, do I?

David Duff said...

Clare asks, "Mr Duff, can you tell me whether there are things, which human beings do, but which you consider to be a waste of time?"

Yes, commenting on other people's blogs. (Ooops, what did I just write ...?)

I cannot, in all conscience, write anything more on the subject of house-cleaning. Were it not for the 'little memsahib', I would end up like one of those sad, old men found dead in a welter of old newspapers and tins of dog food.

Clare finishes the icy admonishment she quite rightly dished out to me with these severe words, "I don't really need to say any more, do I?" To which I can only mutter, "Yes, Miss; sorry, Miss" and promise to try and behave better in the future.