Abracadabra (A New You Effective Tomorrow)

Hmm, being someone new, tomorrow, anyone in the world I wish, alive today or long ago. Hmm….

This is one of those Daily Post prompts. You’re meant to write a Post in response to the Prompt, then create a Pingback within the Post – somehow. That’s an awful lot of Ps to get one’s head around but I’ll have a go, though knowing my technological luck it’ll either fail to ping or it’ll pong instead. Another hazard of pingbacking, apparently, is self-pinging. I envisage this as some nightmarish feedback loop, my blog feeding back to my blog feeding back to my blog…

Talking of ponging. We weren’t, but it sort of ties in – I can’t help but hear the late Kenneth Williams fulsomely singing in a commercial for toilet cleaner. Kenneth Williams was a comic genius, one of those chaps you couldn’t help laughing at. But uneasily, always uneasily. A strange mixture, always: ultra-camp/scary. Anyway, a rudimentary cartoon loo, having inserted into its tank a block of a freshening product called Bloo, announces “Oooh, I feel like a New Loo.”

I wonder what it would be like if you could, though? Take some sort of magic tablet, wave some sort of wand, yell Abracadabra – and there you are all of a sudden: someone else. And maybe somewhen else.

Apologies: marginally relevant Blast from the Past.

Well, I definitely wouldn’t choose to be me again: one lifetime of me-ness has been way more than enough and if reincarnation turns out to be a kind of Groundhog Life and having to come back as the same person again and again and again until I get it right… Nooooooooo!

I’d like to be a Man, for starters. Men on the whole lead more interesting lives, and they are free in a way that women still aren’t. Still. And probably never will be. I want to lead a proper life.

And I’d like to be musical because that’s something I’m not – except in my soul. In my soul I am a great composer, I am… In reality I am the girl who could never make sense of musical notation. I got stood next to the music mistress in Assembly and told to turn the pages while she belted out some hymn or other on the piano. She knew I couldn’t read music. I’d had to report to her in the staffroom after school about not being able to read music, even. So why… ? Revenge, I suppose.

Of course I turned the pages in all the wrong places and nearly died of fear. She was bald, I remember, my music teacher. Going thin on top. And Apparently her false teeth fell out during one of her music lessons – landed with a porcelain chatter on the piano keyboard, apparently. If only they had obliged during my page-turning-assembly-humiliation, everyone might have laughed at her instead.

And if I’m going to be musical and a man I want to be Thomas Tallis, who wrote Spem in Alium, the best piece of music ever. I always wanted to meet Thomas Tallis – how much better to be him.

In which case I’ll have been born towards the close of Henry VIIIs reign and will have started out as an organist in Dover Priory, in my own county of Kent (so perhaps I am Thomas Tallis, spookily reincarnated for some unfathomable reason as a lumpy old Englishwoman). And then I’ll make music at Canterbury Cathedral (been there, done that, paid the entrance fee, investigated the souvenir shop – they won’t let you out otherwise).

Throughout my career, though ‘an unreformed Roman Catholic’ I’ll play a careful political/musical game, subtly adjusting my style to suit the tastes of four successive monarchs. Not much else is known about my life except that I will write quite a lot of the world’s most fantastic music. But what else matters apart from that?

I’ll die peacefully in my house in Greenwich in November 1585 and be buried in a church called St Alfege, the exact location of which has disappeared from the maps. My bones may be discarded by labourers when the church is rebuilt between 1712 and 1714. All that will remain of me is a brass plate upon which someone has engraved some verses so dire as to be worthy of that remarkable (and much later) Scottish poet William Topaz McGonagall:

“Entered here doth ly a worthy wyght, / Who for long tyme in musick bore the bell: / His name to shew, was THOMAS TALLYS hyght, / In honest virtuous lyff he dyd excell.

“He serv’d long tyme in chappel with grete prayse / Fower sovereygnes reygnes (a thing not often seen); / I meane Kyng Henry and Prynce Edward’s dayes, / Quene Mary, and Elizabeth oure Quene.

“He mary’d was, though children he had none, / And lyv’d in love full thre and thirty yeres / Wyth loyal spowse, whose name yclypt was JONE, / Who here entomb’d him company now beares.

“As he dyd lyve, so also did he dy, / In myld and quyet sort (O happy man!) / To God ful oft for mercy did he cry, / Wherefore he lyves, let deth do what he can.

It was the first snowfall of the year…

…and time for him to go.

Again this year he had been fortunate. A minstrel could not take bread and board for granted, even at ġéol, that most festive of seasons. Twelve days of feasting, drinking and song. A roaring fire in the Great Hall, so many logs piled into it that the sparks flew high. Not infrequently these decided to nest in the tapestry hangings that lined the walls. Such hangings were priceless and must be swiftly beaten out by the two servants appointed to that task, who were armed with a ladder and damp cloths. Minstrels were much in demand over ġéol, but there were many minstrels on the roads nowadays, roaming from castle to castle and trying their luck.

You needed to be young to cover such immense distances on foot. You needed to be healthy to survive the in-between nights sleeping in barns and ditches, stealing apples from orchards and turnips from fields in passing – the occasional steaming pie from a window-ledge; the in-between days performing in market squares and taverns; the likelihood that at any time you would be attacked and robbed of the coins you had earned.

But then you also needed to be old, for the songs to be in your head. How many days and nights of walking for just one song to be born and committed to memory? How many losses and loves and close escapes for the germ of a song to expand into one of the many-versed ballads beloved of the Lord and his lordlings on winter evenings? How many days of adventuring among hedge-sparrows and serving maids, to give the songs their unique colour and beauty? How long for a complex, unforgettable tune to be born out of joy and sorrow, sunshine and snow? How many days on the road?

Sometimes, even now, there were women. This time it had been Moire, one of the kitchen girls. A brown girl, he thought with a smile: brown hair, long and horribly tangled, brown eyes, brown skin – though most of that was dirt. She had been kind to him, and he to her. He had sung for her before to lure her to his pallet in one corner of the kitchen, and sung for her afterwards, to lull her to sleep. She was weary. Kitchen girls were perpetually weary. It was a life, he supposed, but not much of one. Like him, she had survived.

He had not said goodbye to little Moire, though he knew he would be leaving when the first snows fell. He never said goodbye. In any case he would not be coming back this way. He felt it in his bones.

Felt death in his bones. He shivered, wrapping his furs more tightly around him, and hoisting onto his back the pack containing all he had in the world, including that most precious possession of all, his lute, wrapped in silk, then wool, then oilcloth. On the turn of the stone stair, through a slit in the stone wide enough to fire an arrow but narrow enough not to receive one, he felt an icy draught. The early morning sky was aflame with yellows and pinks as the sun attempted to rise and warm the earth. But the ground was frozen hard. Any snow would be bound to lay.

Soon, all would be white…

snowfall

The small raine down can raine

But I believe that lovers should be tied together. Thrown into the ocean in the worst of weather. And left there to drown.

Just in case the whole picture doesn’t come out – this is the whole text of this anonymous piece of graffiti. Is it written on flesh, or just something flesh-coloured? Is that a lopsided heart for a signature, or a wonky B?

It’s poetry, isn’t it? Maybe unintentional. But why full stops where there might be commas? What sort of sad, bitter or reflective frame of mind might someone be in, to even think of writing it?

It reminds me of an Irish song – Constant Lovers. I’ll just give you the two last verses:

Then she flung her arms wide and she took a great leap / From the cliffs that were high to the billows so deep / Saying: “The rocks of the ocean shall be my death bed / And the shrimps of the sea shall swim over my head.”

And now every night at six bells they appear / When the moon it is shining and the stars they are clear / Those two constant lovers with each other’s charms / Rolling over and over in each other’s arms.

I first heard it sung by the Copper Brothers. Once heard, both the tune and the words stay with you – like those doomed and constant lovers of long ago.

What on earth got me started on this tack? Oh yes, marginalia. I was thinking about another famous poem, supposed to have been written in the margins of a medieval religious manuscript and found many centuries later and set to music.

Westron wynde, when wilt thou blow / The small raine down can raine. / Cryst, if my love were in my armes / And I in my bedde again!’

This seems an unlikely thing for a bored young monk to have written on a cold and rainy day, when he should have been concentrating on his illuminating. Although I don’t know…

I was trying to remember which muse-deserted author scribbled an impassioned Come to me again, o mon bon… in a margin, but I can’t. And apparently Google can’t either. I do believe there’s a word for something someone Googles for the first time? A Googly or a Froogly or something? I thought Google knew everything. Perhaps I just misquoted.

I had a quick flick through some of my own books in the hope of retrieving some deathless marginalia – for when I become famous. In Pen to Paper by Pamela Frankau I appear to have pencilled this:

‘The sleeping and the dead are but as pictures; ‘tis the eye of childhood that fears a painted devil’ Macbeth. I see this is in response to the following Pamela paragraph:

Though a mort of human sins and troubles come solely from a lack of imagination, its possession may likewise engage you in unprofitable exercises:- Lying; slandering; over-anxiety; over-embroidery; painting devils on the walls, other people’s walls as well as your own.

I have a sharp ear for a quote. She’s calling to mind some specific literary devil, I thought, and I was right. Wasn’t I? Nice to have been right about something, in a long lifetime of having been wrong about most things.

In the front of Jung: Selected Writings (my most dog-eared and thumbed-through book) I find a sad little pencilled list – one of my many Plans. I had been going through a bad time, psychologically (hence the desperate thumbing through Jung since I couldn’t afford a psychotherapist). I was trying to make plans for leaving my husband and had scribbled:

? P/T job – move first – when do you have to start paying? ? Career – library – ask after work ? work – help

I’ve always found life-planning difficult. When do you have to start paying what, I wonder? Rent, probably. P/T is my shorthand for Part Time. Was I really going to ask about employment in the library? Perhaps I was just going to the library after work, to ask about something else. Underneath I’ve written:

Anima – Persona + projection 96

God & unconscious same entity? 329

Conscious growing out of unconscious 218

Definition of intuition 219

(The numbers are page references.) But what a mixture a mind is at any given moment. The one mind battling to disentangle anima from persona, God from the unconscious, and wondering if it could find work by going to the library, and when exactly rent might be payable. I can sort of feel the state I was in. I remember driving around for two years, holding imaginary conversations with imaginary Psychotherapists, with Jung, with God – with anyone who might be listening, trying to sort it all out. One day, I thought, everything will suddenly become clear. I will Understand.

Still waiting.

And in Aesop’s Fables (yes, I found my Aesop’s Fables) in really dreadful handwriting, strangely young to have found the words worth defacing Aesop for, I have written

Wherefore, seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight…

And there it stops. Google does know this one: Hebrews 12:1. But why on earth was I reading Hebrews at that age? Or even the Bible? Maybe I just liked the sound of the words.

Maybe I’ll go back to scribbling in my own books again. If only to provide myself with a tiny surprise or two, little mysteries to be solved in my decrepitude when the weather’s too rough to get out with the shopping trolley; when the warm, springtime Westron Wynde has once more failed to blow and the small raine down can raine.

PS: Just found those words. Should have Googled them earlier. They’re part of a song by someone or something called Bright Eyes, called A Perfect Sonnet:

Well, I do like the words. Not too sure about the music.

Do empty vessels make the most noise?

I think this saying comes from Aesop’s Fables. Normally I could check. I’m fairly sure I still have my childhood copy of Aesop, complete with crayon scribbles and my address in wobbly blue-black ink, all the way down to …England, United Kingdom, The World, Universe. Unfortunately all my fiction books are in cardboard boxes at the moment and stacked in the wardrobe. The painter’s coming to paint the top half of the living room on Thursday. Why only the top half? It’s a long story, perhaps for another day.

The picture I had in mind was of two pots floating down a swirling river, one metal pot and one clay pot. However, I did manage to unearth that story on the internet. It’s not the one about empty vessels. It’s the one about the unwisdom of floating down a raging river in the company of a metal pot, if you happen to be a clay pot. The point being, of course, that whether you bump into the metal pot or the metal pot bumps into you – you’re the one that’ll end up fragmented. Something about this reminds me of businessman Alan Sugar and his perpetually televised mission to select Apprentices from a crowd of smarmy, yelping, expensively-suited, shiny-shoed, self-promoting contenders. Now there’s a metal pot if ever there was one.

I’m pretty sure Empty Vessels illustration also involved pots. But never mind. The point is, is it true?

Here I am also diverted, this time by an unpleasant work-related memory. (Most of my work-related memories are unpleasant – some of them mildly unpleasant, a few of them traumatically unpleasant. The traumatic ones I find it difficult to remember at all. I just know they’re there – lurking in that little dog-eared pile next to the disordered file-card cabinet of my subconscious – to be dealt with at some later and possibly more bearable date.) This particular memory concerns a girl I shall call Margot. She was my supervisor in one of the three sections of the Council typing pool – Legal & Administrative.

Margot hated me. She used to adjust the air-conditioning so that it blew on the side of my face every few seconds, until I complained about it. The HR lady took notes but did nothing, so Margot carried on doing it, sneering a little more. She never stopped talking. Ever. And she was getting married. And she talked about this wedding – in between word-processing her wedding invitations and photocopying other bits of wedding-related stationary – all day and every day for months. Her wedding was to be maroon-themed. I remember the cream card samples, the maroon ribbon samples. The maroon bridesmaid dress designs. The maroon wedding cake sketches. All maroon. I think maybe I hated her even more than she hated me. When I finally left – rather to her annoyance (since copy-typists were harmless drudges, never expected to become secretaries – though one step above “bloody old Admin” who filled in dull forms all day and couldn’t even type) to become a secretary at a local college, she informed me I would need all the skills I had learned at the Council, and then some. I couldn’t help but admire this item of arch-bitchery, combining as it did the implication that I could have had no skills before sitting next to her and listening to her blathering on about maroon bridesmaid dresses and fifteen-tier wedding cakes for what felt like several years, and that any skills I might subsequently succeed in getting my head around were likely to be woefully insufficient.

But just because someone makes a big splash in the world, creates a racket, makes themselves the centre of attention – does that always mean they are empty-headed? Maybe they just larger-than-life – entertainers, say or exuberant leaders. Does having the spiel, the self-belief, the showmanship preclude a person from being intelligent? I can think of one particular politician who makes everybody laugh – almost a comedy turn, he seems, at times. But I wouldn’t want to be creeping about the corridors of Westminster on any Night of the Long Knives, having offended him, in case he was lurking in the shadows. And I wouldn’t want to be his opponent in a political debate. The clown has a glint in his eye.

A quiet demeanour may not necessarily indicate high intelligence. I seem to remember reading somewhere a story of a king who decided to visit his blacksmiths in their forge and watch them at their work. All the while he watched them in silence, they greatly respected him. The instant he opened his mouth and started blathering on about blacksmithing – something he knew nothing at all about – their respect was lost. The moral being, if you are in a position of high authority and find yourself among people more knowledgeable than yourself in a certain area – a profound and contemplative silence is the best policy.

I think on the whole I subscribe to Empty Vessels, but always – whether a vessel appear Empty or Full – and to mix metaphors appallingly – look out for a Glint in its Eye.

Trolls, Molls and rocking horses

I was wambling about on the internet recently and came across one of those websites where one person asks a question and many anonymous other persons contribute their answers. I’m thinking chat room or message board, but I’m probably wrong. Maybe forum? I’m just an old biddy who stumbles across weird stuff online every now and again. It was one of those places. A whatever.

Anyway, this person asked: Why do human beings make conversation? And somebody else answered to the effect: Why do human beings ask really stupid questions? Presumably this kind of response is like being a Troll, but not quite so vicious. More like a Mocker, or a Moll. Or a Smartarse.

Because it seemed to me that, whether he or she was in fact stupid, this questioner had come up with a good question. Why do we talk to one another? After all, animals don’t. I’ve never heard a tabby cat addressing a ginger cat thusly: Excuse me, O Ginger One, would you mind moving over so that I might enjoy some of that lap-space? No. Tabby will appraise the situation for either a short or a long while. Then, upon concluding that Ginger is both bigger and stroppier than herself, will turn softly and exit stage left. Alternatively Tabby will place a hefty paw on Ginger’s head. If nothing happens as a consequence she will actually stand on said head, then walk all over Ginger and sit on top of him. My lap! she will be saying, just not aloud. Mine, mine, mine!

Ginger will then slide to the floor, conceding the lap. Or he may hiss and spit a bit, then slide to the floor. What are they doing that is any different to what human beings are doing to one another daily – in the workplace, in the street, in war-zones, in conference rooms, on the green or red leather seats of the Houses of Parliament? Encroaching, retreating, negotiating, asserting. All without words.

When I was a child I would often try to imagine of a world without words. It seemed to me that words were unnecessary in all but the least important of situations. If someone is grieving, how can your voice help them? So sorry for your loss. The same thing happened to me. I can’t begin to imagine how you feel. Or you could rest a hand on their shoulder, or sit with them in silence.

How much simpler the world might be if we all woke up one morning and discovered we couldn’t speak. We’d have to look at each other’s faces, get better at body language, start using that sixth sense we all possess but are mostly unaware of. We would develop sign languages, of course – or appropriate the languages deaf people are already using. This would once again be conversing, but less intrusive. If I didn’t want to overhear your detailed, hour long run-down on last night’s televised football match I could turn away. If I didn’t want to be dragged into your marital disagreement in the supermarket queue just because I was unfortunate enough to be standing behind you, I could close my eyes. You and your unwanted information/gouts of stale, second-hand emotion would be gone. The world would be beautiful again.

On another website I came upon a list of Conversation Starters. Good grief, I thought. Why are we so desperate to keep on and on talking at one another, even when we can’t think of a thing to say? Why do we need to exchange phatic pleasantries with total strangers whilst clutching a glass of wine in one hand, a sausage roll and three vol-au-vents on a bendy paper plate in the other? Wouldn’t a smile be enough – to show that no harm is meant? Why are we even putting ourselves in situations where we know so little about the others present in the room that we find ourselves resorting to:

What is your favourite party game? (I can’t remember a single party game. Have I ever even played a party game?)

What is your favourite hang-out spot? (Hang-out spot?)

What’s in your fridge? (Oh…stuff.)

Do you know who sings the song that is playing? (What song?)

What do you think about this weather? (Think about it?)

If you had to give yourself a new name, what name would you pick? (Gloriana, maybe – because then I could dress up like Elizabeth I, wear a tall white ruff and something called a stomacher. I could sit there looking pasty and half-bald and have my portrait painted. Then, if I wished, have the painter beheaded…)

In keeping with the season, these would be Bah, humbug! responses to silly questions. Genuinely rude responses to genuinely silly questions. I’d never use them, of course, because at heart I’m not a Troll – not even a Moll. If I did find myself (Heaven forefend) lingering about in a roomful of people with a glass of wine in one hand, a sausage roll and two vol-au-vents on a bendy paper plate in the other, and someone was attempting to be make conversation with me – however awkward the question and however vague and inadequate my response, I’d hope at least not to hurt their feelings or spoil their evening.

And if someone did ask me an interesting question I hope I’d acknowledge that, and take the trouble to think about what they had asked. Because to ask an interesting question is quite an art. An interesting question is a sign that the questioner has engaged their brain for some time before opening their mouth. Genuinely interesting questions are as rare as rocking horse droppings.

So what would you ask a stranger at a party? On a bus? When stuck in a lift together?

God bless us, every one!

It’s Christmas Eve and I’ve done all the meaningful, useful things I can think of to do – like packing most of my 2,000 books into cardboard boxes ready for the decorator who’s coming to paint the living room next week, and taking delivery of two more sacks of cat litter – What have you got in here, coal? asked the courier.  I’ve watched Ice Road Truckers – one of the old ones I’d missed – plus yet another Extraordinary Weather Events , 2015 programme (foam blowing in from the sea in Devon … a three-day plague of locusts in Mongolia … hailstones the size of frozen turkeys in Texas …) plus yet another montage of People You Had Already Forgotten About Or Never Heard Of In The First Place, Who Died In 2015. I’ve done a little heap of ironing, sighed a bit, moped about a bit and wished I didn’t have to go and see my mother tomorrow a bit. A lot.

I don’t want to be there with her on my own, chilly and subtly unwelcome – no teensy-tiny sherry, no sticky mince-pie, no tree, not a shred of tinsel. I don’t want to be perched on a green metal garden chair, just like on a Sunday – like every Sunday from here to – whatever the backwards of Eternity is – writing capital-letters notes for her to throw straight onto the floor without reading, or read aloud so badly all the sense has gone from the words.

I can’t be doing with yet another incomprehensible tantrum or yet another update on hauntings by gypsies, voices coming through the walls and plots to divert her drains several feet to the left. I don’t honestly feel like racking my brains for something sensible, sociable and different to say to the lunchtime carer when she arrives – when everyone else in the whole of the United Kingdom (apart from me and tomorrow’s unfortunate carer) is at home enjoying a Family Christmas with turkey, sprouts, stuffing and giant tins of lager, sniping at the cousins or the in-laws and playing Scrabble or Donkey Kong, whatever that might be. Or doing carol-karaoke with the TV set.

What an awful thing for a daughter to say. But she won’t remember it’s Christmas.  I’ll have to make us tea in those tea-stained mugs, and microwave us something if the carers haven’t beaten me to it. She’ll be miserable, and by the time I do leave I’ll be miserable too. It makes me sad to be spending Christmas morning examining dead leaves on an overgrown lawn, wondering why it always has to be wet or sunny for Christmas, never snowy. The same dead leaves, brown hydrangea flowers, black skeleton trees. Listening to the kitchen clock ticking louder, louder, louder in the uncommunicative mega-silence deafness and dementia impose.

I want to be on my own. She wants to be on her own. I’m wondering what the cats are wrecking in my absence. She’s plotting to take her shopping trolley for a long, illegal walk. She’s just waiting for me to go. My name has probably escaped her. So why am I there, then? Presumably because everybody else has got an excuse. And after all, it’s Christmas. Ho, ho, ho!

What else have I been up to today? Well, I’ve been surfing the net, as the young folks call it nowadays. I was a bit stuck for an idea for a post. I mean, I know what I planned to do: I was going to finally start work on Midwinter (see Midwinter Unwritten). I even typed up a summary last night.  but did I write it? No I did not. I got an idea for another post – anything to put off Midwinter – and surfed about looking for background information on that.

And then I fed the fourteen cats.

And then it got dark outside and still I hadn’t seen a single neighbour – though one did push a card through my door and make a run for it.

And then I ate a raspberry yoghurt and a bowl of cinnamon breakfast cereal.

And then I realised I’d run out of space yet again, chugging on about other stuff. I will be writing the substitute post. Maybe this evening after the washing up – one plate, one knife, one fork, one mug and fourteen melamine dishes, each with a different Disney character in the base. Or maybe tomorrow,  après Mama, except that going to see her seems to leach all the writing-ness out of me. And Midwinter. Probably.

Merry Christmas Everybody. Or Season’s Greetings or whatever you’re supposed to say to be politically correct nowadays. Or, as Tiny Tim said, waving his crooked little stick in the air:

God bless us, every one!

Mutton dressed up as lamb

Time and again the ash-blonde woman wandered

Along the gangway to the duty-free,

Cigarette poised just so, her sway exactly

Matching the salty swagger of the sea.

 

Mutton dressed up as lamb, my mother whispered,

And when she turned I saw that it was so;

Beneath the makeup and the white-gold halo

The face was bony, skin pulled tight and dry.

 

Funny how you always seem to notice

The same ones coming back as going there.

She’d found herself a friend, some sort of salesman,

With braces, rolled up sleeves and slicked-back hair.

 

She cried as though the very world was ending

(She would be drunk, of course, they always are)

The man in braces all the while pretending

He wasn’t with her. Later, though, I wondered

 

How it comes to be, that a woman of a certain age

And uncertain pedigree

Should howl like a dog in a very public place

While friends and strangers

Simply turn away.

 

nuance