ON SHUFFLING ‘ORF AND THE OLD STUFF

At the moment I’m going through the old stuff – bits of writing found in carrier bags in the garage or in the darker recesses of my computer. I’m posting them in Retro, not because I think they are extra-specially good and worthy of posterity or whatever, but because if I don’t put them there where will I put them? Eventually I’ll shuffle ‘orf * as they say, and someone or other – a relative if I have any left, Council or Salvation Army if I haven’t – will find these various damp, spiderous carrier bags in the garage and bin the whole lot.

The only trouble is the time the old stuff takes. I promise myself I’ll just post it, quick, then get back to doing what I should be doing which is writing new stuff. Nobody is likely to read the old stuff. Even if they do, since it’s billed as ‘Retro’ they won’t be expecting an awful lot of it. But I can’t resist the temptation to re-read it, and then I can’t resist the tinkering, the editing…

I’ve hardly got started on my IDEAS file for La Tour Abolie, although I suppose I should be grateful to have an IDEAS file.

It is heartening to note that I’ve improved quite a lot since the 1980’s and 90’s. My ‘tech’ has improved quite a lot too. Some of the old stuff was typed on an Amstrad; you can tell by the dot matrix printing. My first computer…

Quite a lot of it I skim through and – ‘Oh – urgh – no’ – there I am again at Writers Group, a pompous twit(ess) intoning aloud my Amstrad-generated ‘homework’ to my fellow scribblers. We were a small group, meeting every other Thursday night. It was a long drive to get there. It often seemed to be raining and always seemed to be dark when we arrived to hop around shivering on the pavement while we waited for the key-holder.

Happy days, though, in a way. We hired the room over the RSPCA shop. It was cheap, but not comfortable. We often had to remain in our hats and coats because the central heating boiler was temperamental. I remember one Christmas we brought food and wine and crackers, and having pulled the crackers put the paper hats on over our outdoor hats.

There we were, drinking the tinny tea we’d made in the tiny kitchen; sitting on wooden chairs round a trestle table, each waiting impatiently for his or her chance to read; instantly switching to Daydream as soon as we’d read, because of course there was no point listening to anybody else’s. We knew how bad we were: none of us really expected to make it big, and none of us did.

Occasionally a couple of addicts, or possibly street people, trudged up the stairs to sit amongst us; two grubby, foolish-looking young men who drank our tea but never brought any writing, who never spoke, whose names were never asked, who were never asked to read but also never asked to leave. It wasn’t even that warm for them but I suppose it was out of the wind.

For all of us, it was a safe place.

* What dreames may come, When we haue shufflel’d off this mortall coile, Must giue vs pawse. Shakespeare: Hamlet (1602)

In Shakespeare’s time ‘coil’, or coile’, or coyle’, meant ‘fuss’ or ‘bustle’.

But shuffling? Visions of old geezers in dressing-gowns and bedroom slippers, shuffling their way towards the edge of giant cable-drums, whence they tip over the edge and tumble into oblivion.

One possibility is that Shakespeare intended ‘shuttle’ rather than ‘shuffle’ and the printers at some point misread it. A shuttle was a long, thin wooden implement that weavers wound their thread around before weaving. The shuttle was thrown backwards and forwards through the strung threads of the warp to make cloth. This horizontal component, made by the shuttle, was the woof or weft. You can see how woof/weft must be related to weave and woven. As the weaving went on, the thread would be unwound by the shuttle from the spool – a spool being a species of coil. Shakespeare loved multiple associations with words (resonances) and could have been using ‘coil’ to signify both the terrible fuss and bother of life and a coil of thread, which in dying we finally offload and unwind, disentangling ourselves from life.

But, thinking about it, I have another suggestion. I wonder if Shakespeare meant ‘shuffle’ in the sense of ‘shrug’ or ‘slough’? Because the picture I now have is of a man tightly bound with rope who, by shrugging and wriggling gradually manages to loosen his restraints, so that the whole ‘coil’ falls to the ground and he can step out of it. This makes it something like a snake shedding its skin, an expansion, a new beginning.

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