At once a charisma and a curse

Do you have a favorite quote that you return to again and again? What is it, and why does it move you?

Oh… no!

Well, you asked for it.

It’s a long quote, translated from German into English. To make it worse it’s Carl Gustav Jung – so nobody’s going to read it. Farewell, Gentle Reader! But since it’s concerning faithfulness to the law of one’s own being, I am forced to admit that this is the quote I return to again and again:

Clearly, no one develops his personality because somebody tells him that it would be useful or advisable to do so. Nature had never yet been taken in by well-meaning advice. The only thing that moves nature is causal necessity, and that goes for human nature too. Without necessity nothing budges, the human personality least of all. It is tremendously conservative, not to say torpid. Only acute necessity is able to rouse it. The developing personality obeys no caprice, no command, no insight, only a brute necessity; it needs the motivating force of inner and outer fatalities. Any other development would be no better than individualism. That is why the cry of “individualism” is a cheap insult when flung at the natural development of personality.

The words “many are called, but few are chosen” are singularly appropriate here, for the development of personality from the germ-state to full consciousness is at once a charisma and a curse, because its first fruit is the conscious and unavoidable segregation of the single individual from the undifferentiated and unconscious herd. This means isolation, and there is no more comforting word for it. Neither family nor society nor position can save him from this fate, not yet the most successful adaptation to his environment, however smoothly he fits in. The development of personality is a favour that must be paid for dearly. But the people who talk most loudly about developing their personalities are the very ones who are least mindful of the results, which are such to frighten away all weaker spirits.

Yet the development of personality means more than just the fear of hatching forth monsters, or of isolation. It also means fidelity to the law of one’s own being.

When I first read this I was going through a really bad time. I was trying to psychoanalyse myself – for two years, whilst driving back and forth to work, in sunshine and in blizzard. I’d drive along talking to Jung, talking to God, grieving for and talking to my lost lover and soul-mate – conversation after one-sided conversation, trying to explain – to me, via the three of them, why I felt like – and often dreamed I was – the driver a bus hanging over the edge of a cliff. Or that outcast chimp – you know, the one the other chimps attack if it gets near the food; the one that’s about to starve – or get eaten by the Lion – or whatever it is that eats chimps.

It was not until I read – and re-read – the above paragraphs from The Development of Personality that the ‘click’ occurred and I began to heal. Maybe it had been necessary – all this. Maybe it was worth it. Maybe I was metamorphosing into something new. Maybe I ought to fight the good fight. And he had been through it before me. I might be alone, but I was not, and never again would be, the only.


I fly to you

(I love this video)

A handful of phrases, images and lines of poetry seem to have stuck with me over the years – as if they were things I was meant to remember.

For example, there is a poem called On Wenlock Edge by A E Housman. Vaughan Williams would later translate it into a piece of music.

I’ve always been haunted by ‘the Roman and his trouble’ staring at the hill, watching the autum leaves falling like snow, observing the gale that plies the saplings double, and whose bones are now ashes under Uricon. And then there is the Middle English fragment Westron Wynde (don’t let the spelling put you off – just read it aloud):

Westron wynde, when wylt thow blow / The smalle rayne downe can rayne? / Cryst yf my love were in my armys / And I yn my bed agayne!

And sometimes two ideas get linked, and cannot thereafter be un-linked – conflated is probably the word – and a story begins to be born. I ‘sense’ a Roman soldier in the grip of some terrible sorrow, standing on a hilltop and allowing the wind to batter him, the rain lash down on him… and a modern man, standing in the same place centuries later, their stories somehow linked or parallel.

Also permanently connected in my imagination are Bede’s story/metaphor of a sparrow flying through a lighted hall in winter (see Passing from winter to winter again) and a line from a hymn we used to sing at ‘the Methodist’:

He sees the meanest sparrow fall unnoticed in the street…

So here is another conflation which, many years ago now, made itself into a poem:


I sail my little boat upon your sea – / A fragile craft, and sailing fearfully; / And when I sink, as sink I surely will, / Be you the billows, let me fall through you.

I fly to you, as on a sparrow’s flight / Across a lighted room from night to night; / And when I fall unnoticed, as I must, / Be you my busy street, my pavement dust.


A penchant for chambermaids

Life without a computer – it sends quite a shiver down my spine, though. In the short while I have been blogging stuff has come together for me – the blog gives me somewhere to put all those random bits of writing I’ve been randomly writing all my life. Better whirling in cyberspace, unpaid and anonymous, than attracting mildew at the back of my garage and read by no one at all. It’s given me an outlet and a focus – something to achieve each day.

I suppose I would adapt and survive if all computers were suddenly beamed up by a silver spaceship, and in some ways it might be easier for me than for a younger person who has never lived without computers, and blogs, their little furry inhabitants. I would keep on writing, but the blog would become a paper object, a combination of diary, “essais” as Montaigne called them, commonplace book, notebook and attempted fiction. I would miss having readers – probably more even than I want to imagine at the moment. One half of writing is expressing oneself, the other half is communicating. Without a reader I would have lost half my reason for writing but probably not all of it. I’d still derive a certain amount of satisfaction from keeping up with my diary/notebook in obscurity. And after all, what else would there be to do?

I do hope that another time around I’d be more organised – work out some sort of format or system and stick to it. No more rusty paperclips, scraps of paper and overflowing cardboard boxes. All in the one place, and indexed. Ideally I’d be a latter-day Pepys, sitting down at my desk to write of an evening, in longhand, in a series of beautiful ledgers. Maybe even by candle-light, though a periwig might be excessive. Maybe I’d even invent a code, as he did. It would be amusing to write ream upon ream of stuff in hieroglyphs that would occupy scholars for centuries to come, trying to translate. Of course I don’t have as much to hide as Pepys, who went about the King’s business and needed to be discreet. He also had a clever and somewhat shrewish French wife and a penchant for chambermaid-fumbling. The bits in plain English are juicy enough.

But as for life without a computer, that would be inconvenient. I live in a remote place and if I had to rely on the village shop – well, I couldn’t. There’s hardly anything in it. Try feeding eighteen cats from a shop that puts out four tins of cat food per day and thinks that party balloons, plastic clothes pegs, can openers and little sewing kits are more important than bread and baked beans. If I didn’t have the computer I would need to be somewhere else post haste, always assuming that I had the choice. If computers suddenly ceased to exist, I’m guessing we would see a mass flight to towns and cities. Baby boomers especially would be on the move, trying to insure themselves against a computerless old age.

Even selling houses. Imagine it, without Zoopla and Rightmove. Virtual window-shopping would be out and endless trailing round estate agents’ offices and leafing through sheaves of property details would be in: no sidestepping the over-attentive oily charm and the hard sell then. Instead of eliminating a lot of unsuitable properties via some practised snooping on Google Maps – doing that dizzy-making thing with the arrows to see how wide the street is, whether there’s parking or a dirty great un-photographed factory opposite – we’d have to actually go there. What a waste of time.

And emails – no more emails. Back to handwritten letters with stamps on. Postcards, even. I wouldn’t mind that: it would be nice to hear that papery rustle on the doormat and not be absolutely certain it was either a bill or a colourful candidate for the recycling box.

Passing from winter to winter again

Remember those lovely genies who grant wishes? Well, you’re one and you’ve just been emancipated from your restrictive lamp. You can give your three wishes to whomever you want. Who do you give your three wishes to, and why?

Taken literally, this one’s a no-brainer. We probably all know friends or family members in dire need of a granted wish. So – a one-paragraph post coming up?

Let’s get the wishes out of the way. After all those years cramped and confined in that abominable brass contraption, here I am, breathing fresh air, expanding… That’s enough of a wish for me.

Wish number one: would go to my Canadian sister. Her husband, my brother-in-law, has just learned that he is seriously ill. He and my sister are in a bit of a spin at the moment. I would give the wish to her, so that she could magick him well again.

Wish number two: would go to my Kentish sister. Her daughter, my niece, has been struggling for many years with kidney failure and a rare complication that means another transplant might be impossible. She is thirty years old. I would give this wish to my sister, so that her daughter could have a normal life, without a roomful of dialysis fluid for company every night.

Wish number three: would go me – or my alter ego, her – the one who blogs a lot. She would wish her mother a respite – a window of sanity, however brief, at the end of a long life, free of the Voices, the confusion and the fear.

However, I have thought quite a lot about wishes and I wonder if, in the larger scheme of things, we ought to wish. I tend towards the belief that we, as souls, design our own lives before we enter them. The ‘older’ we are, as souls, the more carefully we select the experiences we need, to learn what is left for us to learn. In ‘magicking away’ people’s problems – even if it was possible – might we be short-circuiting the life-experience, the suffering, even, that they had planned for themselves in their resting, between-lives state? As a genie on day-release from HMP Battered Brass Lamp, would I be helping them or helping myself as I sprinkled the old fairy-dust and distributed my wishes? In a way, this magic lamp concept is a way of wiping out all those other people problems that nag at you, eating into your emotional capital and sapping your creativity. It’s an endless list of sorrows – but with the genie’s help you could scrub out so many of the items on that list, erasing all those worries spun out by other people’s lives.

But how hard it is to take the longer view, when there is no proof. How hard to remember that this will not last for ever, that the worst of sufferings is short-lived in the context of eternity – a sparrow’s flight across a lighted hall. How hard it is to accept what cannot be changed, and to be patient under duress. If there was such a thing as a magic lamp, how could you not reach for it?

“The present life of man upon earth, O King, seems to me in comparison with that time which is unknown to us like the swift flight of a sparrow through the mead-hall where you sit at supper in winter, with your Ealdormen and thanes, while the fire blazes in the midst and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad. The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest, but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter to winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all.”

Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People

The Shadow Man

The shadow-man, the Prince of Aquitaine / from his dark tower is condemned to see / all, or all shall cease to be.

For his sins, which were legion, he was deprived / of all that made him human. He must / watch at this window for ever, forever weeping.

Music, he has. The lute he loved is strewn with stars / but his own star is dead; his days are ruled / by the black sun of melancholy.

In stairwells, fountains play; the wall is lined / with all books ever made. What can words signify to one / with forever to read them, no one to tell them to?

His nights are terror-bright, there is no sleeping. / Though this sin crown all others, he prays / that the world might end, or he: it is the same.

Though time and battles scar the tower wall it’s standing yet / and never shall it fall. Nor prayer or pitying ever free / the man with all creation in his keeping.






A strawberry plant or a spider’s web?

Far be it from me to offer tips on blogging to ‘my newer sisters and brothers-in WordPress’ (eeeeugh – why does that phrase makes me so queasy?) since I’ve only been blogging since August. On the other hand, I am quite old and I’ve been writing one way or another for as long as I can remember. A bit of this and a bit of that… my first intended project, I recall, was the translation of the King James Bible into ‘proper English’. I’d have been about five.

So I’ll have a go. It’s supposed to be one piece of advice, but I never do what I’m told.

  1. Don’t make your post too long, since people nowadays (including me, I’ve recently discovered) have a short little span of attention. You need to make the best use of your material anyway – it’s often possible to split what you have to say into two or three separate or consecutive posts and not give people wordigestion. I made this mistake myself to start with, and still make it, at intervals. When I feel like it. I may even make this post too long. Why not? It’s almost my birthday – give the cat another goldfish.
  2. Follow other people’s blogs and read other people’s posts. You can also follow tags that interest you, which brings you into contact with new bloggers. If you just follow the same five people all the time you’re not going to learn much – and not likely to attract new followers yourself. The value of reading other people’s blogs is a) pleasure and b) finding out what bores you. If something bores you – don’t do that. Why bore people just because other people bore people?
  3. The other thing to notice from other people’s posts – which ones do you read and which ones do you just… Nah! So what put you off? Did the picture fail to grab your attention? Or maybe the title was a bit… so what? What people see in their WordPress reader is the title and the first few sentences of your post, and they’re probably only going to be skimming those as they swoop on by. So make your title a good one and your first few lines a baited hook. That’s one thing I don’t have to work too hard at: a lifetime of downtrodden conformity has left me with an appetite for colour and drama. I take such pleasure choosing pictures and titles and concocting killer first lines. I have noticed that some titles – and I perpetrated one or two myself in the early days – sound like those dreadful ‘compositions’ one was made to do at school. Ten Minutes to Wait. The Life History of a Penny. Scene through a Window. Yawn! Which would you be most likely to read – A Really Embarrassing Incident or The Curious Incident of the Blancmange at the School Gates? My Idea of Heaven or Her mind is Tiffany twisted, she got the Mercedes bends? You’re not writing an essay to impress the teacher. Think of it more like a magazine article or a letter to a friend.
  4. Try not to get addicted to stats. I’m still trying to cure myself of stat-addiction. There really should be a clinic for it. Every hour or so I check in: has that little column gone up since last time? Have I collected any more likes? It’s sad – and I’m convinced watching stats is like waiting for a kettle to boil – it never does. I think the best plan is to produce the best post you possibly can, for you. Just focus on the quality. Not all your posts will be brilliant, but they should all be good enough – not just some old splurge. And once in a while you’ll write a really good one. And you’ll know, when you have. Yay!
  5. That being said, it’s possible to dismiss a post you’ve just written as too lightweight, too ordinary or not exactly what you intended when you set out, and it turns out to be really popular. So that’s the next lesson – people are different and have different tastes. Also, you’ve already read the post – over and over, so the novelty’s worn off – but it won’t have for your readers.
  6. Be yourself – which, surprisingly, takes the longest time to learn. Blogging gives you a chance to use your real voice from a safe space. Nobody can see you. Nobody’s going to laugh or give you that sideways look, meaning Wot ‘ave we got ‘ere – some kind of nutter? I’m odd. I think and speak differently, and ever since I started getting the ‘nutter?’ stare, when I was five or six, I’ve been translating. All my life I’ve hesitated, dumbed down, bleached out the colour, the poetry, the… anything that would give the game away, expose me for either a poet or a weirdo. In my blog, very gradually, I am starting to hear – on the outside of my head – the untranslated me. It’s a raw, vulnerable feeling, throwing off the snail-shell – but it’s possible, because I’m safely over here and you’re safely over there, and never the twain shall meet. (But beware of crossing that seductively blurred line between fascinating little details and way too much information!)
  7. You are writing for other people, not at them. You shouldn’t really be pleading with them to reach in to you where you lie, curled and whimpering in some miniature mind-prison. Ideally you will be writing because you now actually want to reach out to them. There is a mesmerising paragraph in Anita Brookner’s novel Look at Me:

It was then I saw the business of writing for what it truly was and is to me. It is your penance for not being lucky. It is an attempt to reach others and make them love you. It is your instinctive protest, when you find you have no voice at the world’s tribunals, and that no one will speak for you. I would give my entire output of words, past, present, and to come, in exchange for easier access to the world…

When I first read that paragraph, I could have screamed. Maybe I even did scream because that was so exactly how it was for me at the time. And I think there will always be an element of that – but having grown older and got to know myself better, I think it may be possible to move beyond that. You can say, effectively – to hell with the world. This is me. Is that you? Shall we talk?

I used to envisage myself as a spider. I was lonely, and I was angry. By writing I was attempting to lure those pesky flies (i.e. other human beings) into my steamy lair. Now I guess I’m more like one of the strawberry plants my neighbour once gave me, and which I planted on my rockery. It sends out runners in all directions – green tendrils, seeking gaps in the rock, little pockets of earth – and then it puts down roots, from the runners. A new plant starts to grow, and little strawberries come, then flowers. And in this way, it takes over the world!!! (No, not really.)

So, new peeps, new ‘sisters and brothers-in WordPress’ (eeeeugh) the internet is your rockery. Start growing on people. 

A Being Happy

It’s one of the hardest things, to realise when you’re being happy. My being happys scarcely register because they’re so short-lived and superimposed on a background of unremitting gloom and pessimism. A being happy, for me, is like a white bird drifting across thunderclouds, a spark in a fire that’s all-but gone out, a… well, that sort of stuff.

But today I was happy for a few seconds – nay, maybe even a minute – and the reason? Because I had come up with an elegant solution to the broken rabbit-hutch catch. Yes – it was broken. The rabbit hutch – I don’t have a rabbit, by the way – for reasons I won’t go into had been out in the garden for some time, getting rained on. It had a catch shaped like a heart, which I rather liked, but the damp had de-laminated it; it had blown out like a rose and the screw had rusted. Every time I tried to turn the catch another plywood petal fell off. Months, this has been going on.

I had been thinking – as I do with all DIY, which I was brought up to believe only men could do – oh, I’ll wait for my brother-in-law to come over from Canada in the autumn. Or fall, as they say in Canada. My brother-in-law is extremely clever and practical and loves to have a series of ‘projects’ to keep him busy. He builds shelves for his sister and mends the garden fence for his mother. He cleaned out the gutter for my mother one year, and mowed her lawn. Last autumn he painted my bathroom green. Unfortunately  he has now fallen rather ill. There are lots of tests and an operation ahead of him, and other nasty stuff. I am not sure they will make it to the UK this year. Or it may have to be Christmas instead. I suddenly thought – this is no good. You must mend the rabbit-hutch catch, you lazy old moo.

I regarded the rabbit hutch for a while, where it sat in the corner of my kitchen, drying out. Waiting for inspiration to strike. I walked past that rabbit hutch with cups of coffee, with plates of cat food, on my way to the sink, after passing the fridge, and my brain was positively whirring. What you need, I murmured, is something that already has a hole in it. This is because my toolkit consists of:

  • String
  • A claw-hammer
  • Pliers
  • Matches
  • Duct tape
  • Sellotape
  • Scissors
  • Cereal packets
  • Glue
  • Clothes pegs

Brother-in-law was surprised that I didn’t have a drill. I was surprised that he thought I would have one. Ladies don’t have drills. But his sister does have a drill. She is also very clever and capable. But whatever I have fixed about the house I have fixed with one of the above, or a combination. First, I tried out a measuring spoon. I had a set of those American spoons. British recipes give quantities in ounces – or did, before we went, theoretically, metric. American recipes usually quantify in spoons. I realised I would never need the ¼ teaspoon one. I am quite capable of quartering a teaspoonful of flour, mustard or whatever with a knife, having done Cookery at school (see Blancmange ). Also, I never cook now. But the ¼ teaspoon wasn’t man enough for the job, and a bit wobbly. Also, it looked silly. Then I thought – a peg! A peg already has a hole in it.

Then I hit a snag. The screw was rusted into the hole and screw and screw as I might, (anti-clockwise) with my trusty Phillips screwdriver (with the pretty orange handle) it would not come out of the rabbit hutch. So I pulled it out with the pliers which left a bigger hole than anticipated. I found a single long screw left over from a bookcase kit and tried screwing it into the hole but it wobbled and fell out because the hole was too big. Unsatisfactory.

I rummaged around in the back of Grampa’s roll-top desk and found… a whole plastic bagful of nuts and bolts left behind by various builders and handymen. I collect stuff like that. I even go round the outside of the house, picking up nails. Also the elastic bands discarded by the post-lady, and fallen bird-feathers. Waste not, want not.

And in the whole plastic bagful of nuts and bolts I found – well, I’m not sure what it was – masonry bolt is the terms that springs to mind – a very long, very thick screw with a flat end. I poked it into the hole and screwed (clockwise) with my Phillips screwdriver for some considerable time and eventually all of the screw part of the – thingy – disappeared into the hole in the rabbit hutch and didn’t wobble. This left just enough – thingy – projecting from the rabbit hutch to clip the clothes-peg onto. It looks rustic and arty, and works a treat.

Just for a second there I knew how Whatisname felt when he dreamed the structure of the DNA double-helix.