Memory: that magic lantern show

I went to visit my Old Lady yesterday and she confesses – as she always does confess – that when she sits in her armchair, sometimes, of an evening, unable to see the television clearly, unable to read – her mind drifts off and random memories come back to her. She sees the exotic places she went on holiday, the adventures she had as a little girl and a teenager, her many cousins and their many wives (all dead now), colleagues she worked with, her parents, her grandparents…

Every time she tells me this she sounds anxious. She has lived a brisk and practical life and I suppose she feels guilty now for daydreaming.

And yet it was good life. She was close to her family, when they were alive. Early on she found a job she enjoyed, worked hard, studied in her spare time and made it into a career. She has had the courage – and the means – to travel widely. She has had the gift of making friends, and now she has a store of colourful memories to dip into.

My Old Lady is a bit of a hoarder, always telling me she intends to have a good old clear out. She never actually succeeds in doing this, but in her regular efforts to do so she happens upon air-mail letters from long dead pen-friends, invitations to dances in foreign capital cities, letters from travel agents in faded type, holiday brochures and envelopes full of dog-eared photographs, and these bring everything back.

Youth is the most beautiful thing in this world – and what a pity that it has to be wasted on children! [George Bernard Shaw]

I suppose it is inevitable that this should be so.

It is better that children start life afresh and that adults are not tempted to describe to them the horrors of old age. It is better that they dance through their childhood under the illusion that life is bound to go on in exactly this sunlit way forever. When I see on the news children in awful circumstances, forced to witness or commit atrocities, converted into adults before they have properly been children, this is what saddens me – that in having their childhood and youth cut short they have also been deprived of their capacity to imagine, and of the memories of Better Days which would have sustained them later, in times of trial and in old age.

So, my Old Lady tells me once again about her Magic Lantern Show and I once again, attempting to reassure her, tell her that something very similar happens to me. I tell her that when I am washing up all those cat bowls of a morning, and gazing out at the garden and the too-long grass, and the dew still on all those fallen leaves and faded hydrangeas, images and fragments of memories flash up, unbidden.

I don’t tell her, but mostly they are unhappy fragments, of my current life at any rate: I don’t seem to have her knack for happiness. But occasionally they are strange fragments – flashes of lives I don’t remember having lived, and faces I don’t remember ever having seen before; even, occasionally, visions of flight, swooping down over lakes or battlefields, or strands of music it feels exactly as if I am in the process of composing. All of which are so brief, dissolving instantly, so that all that is left is an impression, a memory of a memory.

I worked in a call centre for five years or so, at the broken-down end of my ‘career’. This involved sitting on a rickety office chair in a kind of plywood rabbit-hutch for seven or eight hours at a time surrounded by rows and rows of other rabbit hutches. We all wore headset and the calls came in to us automatically.

Our sole task was to persuade people to do market research surveys – no selling involved – but of course people never believed that. And so, every so often an irritable person answered the phone and you had to, basically, read a script to them, asking them if they would like to take part and then if they agreed asking them a whole string of questions so nonsensical that you wouldn’t have been able to answer yourself.

On short surveys it would be seven or eight hours’ non-stop repetition of the same five minute survey. On long surveys it would be perhaps one respondent per hour; twenty minutes of script-reading and typing; nothing to do in between. We were not allowed to read, do crosswords or to write down anything apart from survey-related notes, or a tally of the surveys we had done.

Most people did not last five years. Two years was considered by the employers to be a good innings. Memory, and imagination helped me to stick with it. (I needed the money!) During those hours my mind sent me a constant magic lantern show, like the washing-up show only more so. During those hours whole poems got written in my head, whole philosophies of life were considered, rejected, constructed, deconstructed and modified.

So when my Old Lady feels embarrassed about her daydreaming I want to tell her – but don’t know how – that the Magic Lantern Show is a gift, her reward for a life hard-lived. And when young people complain that they are bored I want to tell them to go out there and make memories, learn stuff, think stuff, see stuff, meet people, have adventures, visit places, take photos, save the tickets, save that straw hat, write a diary, record your impressions and store them somewhere. Make a memory box. Start it when you are seventeen.

From my bookcase: Sovereign: C J Sansom

I have discovered there are only so many way you can ‘stage’ a paperback book on a sofa, or in a kitchen. Note that the cup is empty apart from a tastefully arranged teaspoon, and the scraping-of-the-barrel with the Tesco Oaty Granola bar (which happened to match the book). I fed my hoard of digestive biscuits to the birds whilst awaiting my cholesterol score. The granola bar has been lurking in a cupboard for at least a year, uneaten and unappetising. I knew it would come in useful if I hung onto it long enough.

I’ve now reached book 3 in the ‘Shardlake’ sequence of historical mysteries by C J Sansom. The first one, which I have written about before, was ‘Dissolution’ and the second one ‘Dark Fire’. I read on the internet that C J Sansom is suffering from a form of cancer, though doing well with chemotherapy and currently working on the next massive book in the series. For his personal sake, of course, but also for mine and that of all his other readers, I am keeping my fingers crossed. I am looking forward to reading the several future books he has in mind, which would take his crook-backed detective/lawyer Matthew Shardlake well into old age, and the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

‘Sovereign’ is said to be Sansom’s own favourite instalment, so far.  It is one of those novels that draws you in, the way some films do, so that you find yourself mentally wandering round the streets of – in this case – the teeming, tumbledown city of York long after the you have put the actual book down. York is a dangerous place and Shardlake finds himself narrowly escaping sharp bits of metal flying at him from roasting spits, bears let out of their cages on purpose on dark nights as he is passing, and a crossbow aimed at his chest. There seem to be more deaths in this book, and poor, principled, lonely, misshapen, Shardlake will be forced to disentangle them all amid a web of dark politics and ulterior motives before he is permitted to return to London and the sanctuary of his legal practice.

There is a particularly vivid scene in which Shardlake is obliged to be presented King Henry when he comes to York on a Royal Progress. King Henry, officially anyway, is felt to be a kind of demigod, God’s ‘voice’ on earth, but when he makes a mockery of Shardlake’s disability, describing him as a ‘bottled spider’ in comparison with the tall old man standing next to him, things change. In that moment the lawyer senses the King revelling in his cruelty, whilst making a calculated political point. The King is a monster, a  terrifying creature glimpsed only in segments, as all eyes must be lowered in his presence.

Shardlake ‘records’ the details other people miss. Even as he is being mocked by the King and his entourage he notices that one leg is thicker than the other and that the bandage concealed beneath the hose is discoloured, and catches the rotten smell of pus from Henry’s ulcerated leg.

Sansom’s hero is a modern man trapped in a late medieval setting. This makes his life both difficult and melancholy, but throws into relief the very different mindset of the day. Do not expect much introspection, self-analysis or sympathy for baited bears, dying horses, whipped urchins, starving peasants or emaciated and hideously tortured prisoners, except from Shardlake.

Here are another couple of moggie pictures, while I think about it:

Martha wonders whether she will be the legal owner of this selfie, whilst George has a little wash 🙂

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Pigeon Pout

I am having to force myself to go out for walks. It’s for my health. More of this in a mo, no doubt. Who knows what I am going to write?

I dislike going out for walks. Partly this is because there’s nowhere to walk round here – I mean, it’s a mini-bungalow-grid attached to civilisation by means of one very, very long road lined with holiday camps. The very-very-long-road is very weedy, in between the holiday camps. More kinds of weeds than you could shake a stick at. To mitigate the utter boredom of either walking round the bungalow grid three times in succession, possibly reversing polarity midway, or walking from one end of the very-very-long road to the other, turn left and sit on a damp bench for five minutes before heading back, I listen to music. Even with the sound up it is difficult to hear the music over the passing traffic. Yesterday the left ear of my headset packed up. It was chewed by a cat, some five years ago, and held together with sticky tape.

I also dislike going for walks because walks mean going Out There, and Out There is full of Them. By Them I mean both Locals, who stare at you slack-jawed and drooling as you pass by their front gardens (possibly an exaggeration) and the Holidaymakers, who are here ten months of the year. Holidaymakers are more or less normal to look at but they wear funny clothes; shorts and strange shirts over big hairy bellies, or, in the case of women, sundresses over big but less hairy bellies, and sandals.

Some of them are rather sweet, though, in a city sort of way. Yesterday I passed two ladies in sundresses, with the usual huge, toddler-filled stroller each. They had stopped, fascinated by a couple of pigeons having a bath in a puddle. Apparently London pigeons don’t ‘do’ washing in puddles. I was tempted to stop and point out that there probably aren’t as many giant pavement-craters in London as there are round here, for the rainwater to collect in. I’m sure a London pigeon would be pleased to splash around and get the dust off its feathers, if only it had the facilities.

The walking boots are rather heavy: it’s like gravity increases as soon as you put them on. If only I could turn the world upside down like a piggy bank, I think, clumping womanfully along to the suicidal maunderings of Sarah McLachlan. Then all the people would fall out… somewhere… and I could go for my walk in peace.

So, it’s the cholesterol. I don’t know the reading yet but some pharmacist is threatening to phone from the doctor’s surgery on Monday morning. I am guessing it’s not too bad because last time they tested it it was under the safe limit, but the wretched girl was so mysterious about it over the phone.

‘Why is the pharmacist going to ring me?’ I asked.

‘Um, about cholesterol.’

‘So, is my cholesterol too high?’

‘Um…’

‘Could you give me my results, please?’

‘Ummmm…’ It’s as if I have asked something really embarrassing. But I mean, it’s cholesterol, not gonorrhoea.

‘The pharmacist will discuss it with you on Monday.’

I was so cross that I looked up the legal situation on the internet. Bad news: apparently one’s blood test results are not one’s own property in this country. They belong to the National Health Service, or more specifically to the Secretary of State for Health. So if this pharmacist chooses, he or she could simply say: ‘Your actual cholesterol score is confidential and none of your business, but I recommend you take statins until you rattle, for the rest of your life.’ Hopefully, he or she will be more helpful than that or I will be forced to go private, or buy one of those expensive self-testing kits and puncture one of my own fingers with a nasty sharp piece of metal. I just have to stew about it all weekend.

However, I have already made a start on my not-taking-statins-under-any-circumstances campaign. I have started on the daily walking and am gradually feeding the birds the large store of cakes, biscuits, sugary pies and so forth I happened to have in stock. The bird are dining like Henry VIII at the moment, off the fat of the land.

I have swapped butter for that yellow substance that looks like margarine but is advertised as hoovering up cholesterol. I have exchanged hard cheese for cottage cheese. I have exchanged ordinary pasta and bread for wholemeal pasta and bread. I am reading a book about it. I suspect I’m even going to have to cook again: no more cheese-and-pickle sandwiches and hastily microwaved soup; no more late-night bowls of cereal slathered in sugar; no more Mars Bars.

Hard cheese – it is indeed. Forced to eat stuff I don’t like. Forced to not eat stuff I do like. Forced to go out for walks. Outside. With people.

From Mum’s Old Recipe Book: Bread Pudding

Serves 6

Good way of using up left-over bread.

  • 12 oz (ounces) stale bread
  • 2 oz granulated sugar
  • 4 oz sultanas
  • 1 1b mincemeat (this is sweet – not minced/ground meat)
  • 4 level teaspoons mixed spice
  • 2 level tablespoons granulated sugar, for sprinkling
  • 7 inch square cake tin, greased and lined at the base

Cut the bread into one inch pieces. Put in a bowl and add enough cold water to cover the bread. Leave to soak for at least an hour. Drain well and squeeze out all the water.

Put the bread in a mixing bowl and beat in the sugar. Mix in the sultanas, mincemeat and mixed spice.

Moderate oven. Gas mark 4 or 350ºF/ 180º C.

Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and bake in the oven for 2 1/2 hours until golden. Cool slightly and remove from the tin, then sprinkle with granulated sugar. When cold, cut into squares. Can also serve warm with custard or cream.

Hector likes to live life on the edge!

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Flavorful? Eeeeeeeugh!

There is no such word as flavorful – or if there is there jolly well oughtn’t to be. What’s wrong with flavoursome (or flavorsome, if you’re American and determined to leave out the ‘u’)?

Or tasty? or piquant? or delicious? or savoury for that matter? Or scrumptious or yummy if you feel like going downmarket?

Flavorful?

What a truly horrible word that is! Just seeing it in print has ruined what’s left of my day.

I refuse to write a post about it.

Love the one you’re with

We recently lost Bruce Forsyth, the all round entertainer and game show host. I must admit he wasn’t one of my favourites but I recognised his abilities, his professionalism, his popularity and his longevity. He had many catchphrases but his most recent and best-remembered is “You’re My Favourite”. Hosting one of the BBC’s most popular shows, Strictly Come Dancing his job, in a way, was to protect the contestants from the judges.

Each couple went on and danced. Some were brilliant, others made a bit of a mess of it, but invariably at the end he would greet the bespangled, lycra-and-satin clad couple as they sashayed towards him trying not to look as if they were gasping for breath, with a huge smile. And before they turned to face the judges he would reassure them in a stage whisper “You’re My Favourite“. Nobody believed him of course, but I bet it mattered to hear it at that point. Sometimes we have to pretend, and pretending can be enough.

Growing up, both Canadian Sister and I understood that English Sister was Mum’s favourite. Her last-born, her surprise baby. This was just a fact of life though we may have grumbled about it between ourselves, every now and again. Anyway, Mum got old and she got galloping dementia and other stuff, at which stage all sorts of things that might best have been kept secret began to be blurted out. During one of my Sunday visits she said “Of course (Canadian Sister) was always your Dad’s favourite”, and that cut like a knife. She had lost the ability to make connections between things by that time – logic was one of the first things to go – and I suppose it didn’t occur to her that that left me as nobody’s favourite. It’s simple when you think about it – two parents, three children – if there must be favourites then one of them has to be out in the cold. Why had it taken me so long to realise?

However, life isn’t fair for anybody, and we survive these things.

I can’t blame my Mum. I have eighteen cats and it’s difficult to share the attention and affection out equally. Often I’m harassed and worn out, wading through this sea of cats, all demanding something. And some cats, lets face it, are especially charming. It’s easy to love short-sighted George, for example, a goofy, clumsy cat who falls off everything and falls over himself in sheer excitement if he gets to sit on your lap. George is beautiful and fluffy, and he needs someone to look out for him.

Not so easy to love Kitten, who is ancient and deaf; who wakes me in the middle of the night bellowing for attention; who hauls pieces of food out of her bowl and distributes them over a wide area for me to clean up; who is voluminously sick on the carpet at least twice a day; who may die at any minute, so every morning when I find her curled up in her favourite cardboard box I have to wonder, is she going to lift her head when I tap on the edge to wake her, or is this going to be The Day?

Not so easy to love Rufus, either – that bony little ginger chap inherited from the disabled woman over the road. Rufus was left mostly to his own devices, I think. He lived a hard, tom-cat sort of life and he hung around outside most of the time. He got fed by anyone who happened to remember. Rufus now has a cauliflower ear and a weepy, half-closed eye that the vet can’t do anything about. He likes to curl up in the bed with me on winter nights, which means I can’t get to sleep in case I squash him, so I lie and wait for him to leave of his own accord. He sometimes bites – luckily he has very few teeth nowadays – and sometimes spits. He has never forgiven me for stealing him away from Old Mummy, not understanding that Old Mummy died.

So I pretend, and I keep reminding myself to do so. I remind myself to talk to them and make a bit of a fuss of them in passing. I remind myself that ultimately we are All One and that Kitten and Rufus have souls no less valuable than mine, and no less beautiful than the souls of the other cats. That’s about all anyone can do, isn’t it?

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Where sheep may safely graze

I always associated this piece of music with England, perhaps from constantly hearing it on The Home Service (1939 – 1967 national radio station, now BBC Radio 4) in my childhood. Now (ach!) I discover that it is in fact Bach’s Cantata 208 and the ‘sheep’ of the title are not so much our lovely, fat woolly English sheep roaming over hill and dale, as the citizens of Weissenfels, who could ‘safely graze’ under the gracious care of the Duke of Weissenfels. Presumably the Duke was a patron or sponsor. Later it came to be thought of as the sheep being looked after by the Good Shepherd. However, it’s a lovely piece of music and I have included a classical guitar version of it. Much prefer guitar to other instruments (particularly abhor trumpets).

I was thinking about the love of one’s country the other night, whilst plugged into the MP3 player, drowning out the upstairs-and-downstairs thundering of the beastly neighbours by listening to, among other things, The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams. Music is more powerful than words. It cuts through all those ‘logical’ explanations, our sophisticated smokescreens. Like Sheep, The Lark Ascending reminds me that if you are British you cannot ever really get away from the love of your own country. This is an unfashionable and somewhat embarrassing thing to say, and it usually only surfaces here when some external threat arises.

It’s one of those visceral things like there sometimes are between people – an invisible cord joining the two, painless and mostly-forgotten about until you try to pull, or find yourself being pulled away. I feel that I have always been here, through all my incarnations. I suspect some of us are ‘travellers’, soul-wise, and some of us arise the soil. We grow out of a particular landscape, and are part of it.

When I was quite young my mother sank into depression. In those far-off days everything female/unhappy-related came under the heading of – in ascending order of severity – Needing a Tonic, Nerves, or Nervous Breakdown – the standard treatments being a) bottle of iron tonic from the chemist b) Pull Yourself Together – ‘Curtains’ as the Samaritans put it – or c) Being Taken Away. Suspect Mum had the Nervous Breakdown. She did not get Taken Away, but it felt as if she had gone away somewhere, and she only half returned.

I remember she stopped practising cartwheels on the lawn and no longer felt like playing tennis on the road with us, in the gaps between infrequent (and always black) motor cars. I remember mainly that it seemed to go on for years, and involved having to be quiet while Mum curled up on the sofa with yet another headache and Nan tiptoed round doing the housework, and getting us our tea. I remember all the aspirins, and the four hour thing. On the dot, every four hours, another two aspirins. No more than twelve a day. I remember Dad telling me it was my fault, for arguing with my sister. If I was better behaved, he said, Mum wouldn’t be sick.

One thing I don’t remember, from then, but do recall overhearing Mum talking about years later, was her obsession with the Atomic Bomb. She was convinced that we, her three girls, were all going to die, at once, and soon, under some great mushroom cloud. I am guessing that this bit of her illness may have been around 1962, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Recently it has occurred to me that what with North Korea, and America, and Russia – the whole world, it seems – threatening dire outcomes and technicolour mass destruction – wouldn’t it just be ironic if what Mum so feared for her children were to come to pass after all, but over half a century later and when she was way past fearing or comprehending it? What if she even somehow wished it into being and is somehow linked, to it?

But let’s not venture onto that same dark pathway into the woods: no good ever comes of it. Let’s just say the music made me think, about all that has been, here, on this little archipelago of islands, swished around by a chilly sea, lashed by gales in winter, rained on every few days, blessedly warm and sunlit on occasions.

All our history, all those little lives. Dinosaurs once walked where I live now. We find their footprints. We find their bones. All those kings and queens, those beggars and paupers. All those families, all those mothers fearing for their children, all those wars, all that surviving somehow-or-other, all the new generations, all the moving on, the changing and the staying the same. Sometimes, like my mother before me, I feel that something pulling away, that potential for catastrophic loss, that painful tug on the cord.