Leap while you may, Young Ladies

I used to be able to do that once – that backward flip thing. Never in a bikini on a sunset beach, though. Back garden. Even my Mum used to do stuff. She’d tuck her voluminous 1950s cotton-print skirt into her knicker-legs (we all did that, it wasn’t just Mum) and execute a cartwheel or two on the bumpy grass that had once been a cherry orchard. Not bad after two or three babies. Leap while you may, Young Ladies. Leap for your lives and for the love of leaping.

Presumably this Leap ruse of WordPress’s is because it’s Leap Day – that extra day they put in every four years. I would explain why, but I expect everyone else is explaining why today. Google’s got bunny-rabbits, I see.

‘Leap’ unfortunately reminds me of stuff. At one point I signed on for a Creative Writing course at the University of Kent. I think I had actually got past that stage – sounds vain, but you know what I mean – but I wanted to be part of something for once. I was lonely. I wanted to belong to a Group. Fat chance. I found myself surrounded by Yummy Mummies some twenty years younger. There was one man (there always is) but he left after the first week (they always do) and was never seen again.

Earnest, they were, about The Art of the Novel and Being Creative. Earnest always puts my back up for some reason. I sat there week after week thinking, why do we need recipes for writing? Can there be a right way of writing?  Why aren’t we just…writing?

So we sat there in this underground dungeon of a classroom, evening after evening, and we brought in our exercises and assignments, and we circulated copies, and we tore each other’s work to pieces in a Positive, Creative, Intellectual sort of way. I had written a very strange story about an insectoid creature, distasteful in a semi-sexual sort of way, that lands on an Eden-like planet disguised as an Angel and fools the innocent inhabitants into letting it have charge of their children. Then, Pied-Piper-like, one day, it leads them off the edge of a ravine and they are all found dead and crushed to bits at the bottom and he is eating them. Yum, yum. I was working through some issues at the time. [see Eden (1) and Eden (2)]

The stories were circulated anonymously but to my chagrin everybody recognised mine. One of the Yummies explained, with a flashing, fluoride smile that illuminated the basement darkness – it’s because Rosie’s stories are always about Dead People and usually about Dead Children. Everyone was nodding.

Gulp! Afterwards, I went back over my past oeuvre. Bloody woman was right.

I have since made a conscious effort to write short stories in which no one dies – at all. It’s no good – my characters will keep snuffing it!

I was talking the other day about that free app I found – Dark Echo – and how the footsteps clatter around in the pitch dark, echoing, visually, and how sooner or later they reach an invisible wall and just sort of mark time, echoing the while, until you turn round and retrace your steps across the screen. It’s an infuriating game. It reminds me of writing. That Dead People thing – my dead end.

I went back over the few bits of fiction I have written for, or uploaded to, this blog and blow me down, I’m still doing it. SnuffingIts are rife! I accept it now: I’ve hit the wall, game-wise and creative-wise. I’m clattering around in the dark, my footsteps echoing, echoing; waiting for the monsters to come.

Help! Sharks are attacking my Shack

I do apologise. Being British, and a Lady, I don’t normally do sensational headlines. I can’t say I think much of the rubber shark. He looks like Miss Boakes, my school music teacher, but probably sings better.

So, sharks have not really come crashing through my roof or ploughed their way through the wall – it just felt like that when on a whole lot of buy-to-let investors arrived on my doorstep yesterday lunchtime. Normally my doorstep remains unsullied from one day to the next. Only the Post Lady and the Tesco Man venture down the driveway, and they have to do so carefully because at this time of year it is an inch thick in mud. Further up the hill is some sort of stream, or spring. Water runs down the hill and over the concreted driveways of house after house, then runs down my driveway, depositing silt. Grass grows in the silt. Grass grows in the one and only surface drain. Once a year I have to go out with a bucket and rubber gloves and pull out all the grass so that the annual torrents of rainwater can drain away, down a covert pipe, behind the garden shed and into the garden of the next unfortunate person down. The mud is only one of the reasons I want to move. Maybe the sharks didn’t notice it, in their frenzy.

They were nearly all men, and they liked the garage. It’s true what they say about men, you know – they just love a garage, especially one that has – wait for it – a work-bench and a huge rusty vice in it. Is it possible that someone will buy the whole house, complete with mud-pudding driveway and resident grass, just for the rusty vice?

The cats only poo’d once, which I thought was pretty good going. Violet, the weekend estate agent lady (75 if she was a day) kept them talking in the living room about the extremely low Council Tax rates hereabouts (it’s true – because the roads are kind of unofficial and full of potholes) whilst I slipped out and effected some damage limitation with the pooper-scooper.

I have to hand it to the ancient Violet – as I would to anyone who could keep their calm in a stressful situation – something I have never been able to do – she rose to the occasion. Arriving ten minutes behind schedule, at a house she had never seen before, she found the living room full already of rabid buy-to-let landlords and People Come Down Specially From Norfolk, plus thirteen terrified cats and a gibbering, panic-stricken Seller, and hit the ground running.

Tossing her black leather gloves and fancy document wallet onto the shelf next to the fridge she began to sell my house sight unseen. And this is… as you can see… the living room. Oh, and a… cupboard under the stairs? (I nodded, imperceptibly). And this must be the kitchen. Oh, what a lot of storage units. Well, sir, you could get all your saucepans in and room to spare and oh… what a lovely view down the garden. I do believe… that is honeysuckle, in the summer? (I nodded. Conveying No, actually it’s a passion flower but just as good as honeysuckle if not better was beyond me.) And that tree at the bottom of the garden – behind the fence – that is part of the property… I believe (?)

She was magnificent. She even coped with the People In The Office not having printed her off any sealed bids forms. You can download them on the internet, gentlemen. You haven’t got the internet in Norfolk, madam? Write down your address and I will post you a form and the requisite envelope. It’s all very simple…

But towards the end of our several-hour session she was beginning to drown under the weight of crowds of men in puffy anoraks with cheesy grins and far too many teeth. I knew I had to help her so I grabbed a handful of my pre-printed Annual Service Bills and Council Tax table, and started to take groups of them out to the garage while she did the upstairs. You’re supposed to keep an eye on them, you see, in case they pinch anything. Nerves forgotten, I got almost cheerful in the end, chatting away to the invaders and making up stuff about boundaries and Wonderful Community Spirit.

You were really getting into the swing of it! Said Violet, when they had all gone. No, I won’t have a coffee. Not that I don’t like coffee but it’s not fair to… use other people’s toilets, know what I mean? She works a whole day, does three or four Open Houses one after another, and never has a cup of coffee or a tiddle? The woman’s a hero.

I can see I shall have to watch out for my job! she quipped as, black leather gloves and fancy document wallet clasped to her, she negotiated the over-high muddy doorstep and  sidestepped a clump of thistles and a pothole. Must dash, now.

It took another hour and an open tin of tuna wafted from room to room, to retrieve a trembling Little Arf from down the side of the spare-room bed.

Made the same as the sand

You are on a mission to Mars. Because of the length of the journey, you will never be able to return to Earth. What about our blue planet will you miss the most?

What would I miss the most? Everything:

Water. Fountains; waterfalls, the little fountain in the courtyard at Leeds Castle; the sea, with ships balanced on the horizon like tiny plastic toys; hot showers; rain showers; puddles; floods; ponds; even swimming-pools with their weird chlorine stink…

Sitting about in parks; sun on my ankles and burnishing the top of my head; wind in my hair…

Dry leaves in autumn, crocuses in spring…

Butterflies, mice, baby sparrows, hedgehogs, seagulls, worms, snails.. When you’ve got the Garden of Eden, when you live in a green life-soup, why would you ever exchange it for red aridity and the First Circle of Hell?

satan eve

I’m with Milton’s Satan on this one. Here are the words Milton gives him in Paradise Lost Book 9 (the drawing is by English poet/artist/printer/visionary Willliam Blake)

With what delight could I have walkt thee round, If I could joy in aught, sweet interchange of Hill and Vallie, Rivers, Woods and Plaines, Now land, now Sea, and Shores with Forrest crownd, Rocks, Dens, and Caves; but I in none of these Find place of refuge And the more I see Pleasures about me, so much more I feel Torment within me, as from the hateful siege Of contraries; all good becomes Bane…

This is Satan being almost human as he contemplates the Earth and realises, with sudden anguish, how much he has thrown away for the sake of power.

If the day comes, as presumably it will, when men (and women?) set forth on some sort of Mission to Mars, I hope they can find pressing reasons for leaving Earth. Maybe they owe money to some machete-wielding gangster; maybe they are hankering for a long, slow suicide, because that’s what it would be.

In researching around this post I came across some information on the Bushmen of Botswana, who have been in dispute with the government of Botswana.

bushman3

This tribe is the most similar to the ancestors common to all of us, but they were denied access to their drinking holes and (unofficially) forcibly evicted from their ancestral homeland by the government of Botswana. They had to fight through the Courts for their continued existence.

They should be elevated from the status where they find themselves. We would all be concerned that any tribe should remain in the bush communing with flora and fauna. (Foreign Minister of Botswana)

How can you have a stone-age creature continue to exist in the age of computers? (Botswana’s former president, Festus Mogae)

Most of the Bushmen have now been moved out to the Reserve – often forcibly, though the government denies this. They were transported to camps outside the game reserve: places like New Xade, awash with disease, prostitution and the cheapest and deadliest booze. Their character as a people is being relentlessly destroyed there. Those who are left are threatened, abused, and forced to get their drinking water from plants and trees. (John Simpson, writing in The Independent)

And here are some of the things the Bushmen say. This is what it feels like to be sent to Mars, without even leaving the planet:

The lion and I are brothers, and I am confused that I should have to leave this place and that the lion can stay.

I was born in this place and I have been here for a very long time. This is my birthright: here, where my father’s body lies in the sand.

We were made the same as the sand.

Like Adam, we are formed from the small dust of the ground. We are made from this Earth and joined with it; and maybe we will only feel the full strength of those ties when they are about to be severed. It will be like cutting the cord – the one that we do not, as yet, even know we possess.

 

 

 

 

 

That’s how the light gets in

Mirrors – I always think of one particular mirror which used to hang on the wall above the fireplace in my parents’ house. Long gone now. I suppose it may still exist, in a junk shop somewhere, or maybe it has been repurposed to suit some chic 1950s retro apartment. It was a lovely thing, the corners cut in a fluty, art-deco style; the pattern repeated in cream around the edges of the glass. Suspended by a chain from a hook on the wall, it made everyone who looked in it beautiful. That was the glass. It was tinted a delicate pinkish-gold. It was not a very good mirror, by modern standards. One’s reflection was spotted and broken where the silvering on the back had worn away. Mum used to turn it round for me sometimes, to show me. And what do I see reflected in that mirror, apart from my mother and myself? I see cushion-covers and antimacassars embroidered with crinoline ladies. Bonnets and lazy-daisies.

40 mirror

One much quoted verse from the Bible has always stuck in my mind:

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now stays faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

(1 Corinthians 13: 12-13)

When I hear this, I always think of my mother’s mirror over the fireplace. But why ‘darkly’? Surely when we look in a mirror we see ourselves with perfect clarity, if magically reversed? The reason is, that when those Bible verses were being written, mirrors were dim. The concept of mirror is translated ‘glass’, presumably because in the early 17th Century when the Authorised Version was in preparation, a mirror would have been made of glass. But in Biblical times mirrors were made of polished copper or brass. These would have been ‘dimmer’ than glass, and would have become dimmer still, over time, as the metal tarnished, and then they would need to be polished up again.

bronze mirrors

At the start of James Joyce’s Ulysses (and who among us has got beyond the start?) Stephen points to Buck’s mirror and says, “It is a symbol of Irish art. The cracked looking-glass of the servant.” There is always argument as to what exactly he meant by that. I just see a servant alone in some attic room with cheap, shoddy furniture. Quite likely that the servant would be assigned the dressing-table with the cracked mirror. In the early morning he peers at his fractured reflection and sees, not so much a distorted version of himself as a mysterious vision – something prophetic, shadowy, fluid and still-in-the-process: something that could become almost anything, in time; like the downtrodden Irish people.

It is said that a Japanese Emperor sent away a favourite pot to be mended. It came back stapled – the standard method in those days – but he thought it was ugly so he sent it to another craftsman, who transformed it into something new by piecing it together with gold, and it was so much more beautiful than it had ever been. This is how the art of kintsugi was born. Originally, repairs would have been in gold, silver or pewter; but nowadays a lacquer is made out of powdered gold, silver, platinum, copper or bronze. Damage is not disguised but celebrated.

The philosophy behind kintsugi – golden joinery, beautiful mend – has gone on to influence many other forms of art:

kintsugi man

My Canadian sister used to tell me that it was ‘zen’ to include at least one mistake in any piece of knitting. I think the idea is that you can’t appreciate perfection except in contrast to some tiny imperfection – and also that perfection means cessation of movement, an end to flow. (I don’t need to introduce mistakes into my knitting; by the time I have finished there are always several to choose from.)

The same principle applies to the idea of the crack, that is in everything. Leonard Cohen immortalised it in Anthem:

Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.

So next time you’re looking in a mirror and find yourself agonising over imperfections, either the mirror’s or your own, remember about the light that wants to come in. Remember that once something is perfect it can make no further progress. The cracks are to let the daylight in: they mean you’re still growing. In the end, you may be broken and worn  but you will have gone past the dead end of the beautiful; you will have arrived somewhere unimaginably different from the place where you began.

Image result for kintsugi

 

 

 

 

 

All the right words but not necessarily in the right order

My friend who-shall-be-known-as Daisy keeps sending me words for an app called Words With Friends. Now that I have a Kindle Wotsit I’m sitting target for apps. Words With Friends is more or less Scrabble, and as I suspected I am just as hopeless at the teensy-weensy electronic version as I used to be at the large cardboard-and-plastic version. ‘You’re good with words,’ people say, ‘so you’ll be good at Scrabble’. Alas, I’m impatient, and hopeless at strategy; I can’t resist a long, showy-offy, low-scoring word when a three-letter triple-word-thingummyjig would have been wiser.

When I was at Junior School teachers used to say ‘You’re tall – we’ll put you in for the 100 yards on Sports Day’. Since when does being tall mean you can run without banging your knees together and falling over your feet? Since when does being tall mean you give a rat’s patootie whether you stagger across some arbitrary white line first or last?

I was hoping Daisy might enlighten me as to another game app-thingy called Dark Echo which I foolishly downloaded in order to practice app-downloading, and because it was free.  How I wish I hadn’t. I just don’t understand. I mean, you’re in the dark, right? And there’s these little white clickety footsteps, right? And they clatter along, scarily, like a pair of foolish high-heels in a midnight underpass, giving off these little lines, which presumably represent echoes, only visible. And that’s supposed to help you find your way out, if the monsters don’t get you first. I haven’t met a monster yet. If you click on the little white feet it sends out a whole starburst of little lines, which seems to equate with noise, although it’s no noisier than the little white clickety feet themselves, and it is this hypothetical, visual noise that may attract a monster.  I think.

I did find my way out, once, but I don’t know how. It was an accident. And when I was out it was just as dark as when I was in, so what’s the point of being out? My little white footsteps go backwards and forwards, creepily retracing their steps, marking time at invisible walls, backing off, retracing the steps before the steps before, and I don’t know why. Is there some proper way to play Dark Echo? Why are there no instructions?

You can tell I’m tired, probably. Perforce, I’ve been doing housework all day – with breaks for this new electronic Scrabble-thingy – since it’s the first of my two Open Houses on Saturday. To get the house looking anything like presentable I shall be doing housework all day tomorrow, too. It’s done my hip in. You know you’re getting old when you start to realise you have hips – and knees – at all – because they hurt. The cats have temporarily lost the raggle-taggle saggy old beds they used to be able to flop into all over the house, and dirt-boxes have been strictly rationed. Net curtains are festooned everywhere to dry. Tomorrow they’ll have to go back up. I shall have to remember not to whip the bedroom curtains open to greet the dawn, in case I amaze the down-hill neighbours.

‘I am playing all the right notes but not necessarily in the right order.’ Eric Morecambe 1926 – 1984, English comedian.

 

 

Mistrust all enterprises that require lipstick

I first came across this saying in A Room with a View – it is discovered by Lucy Honeychurch written in the back of a wardrobe. Until today I didn’t realise it was a version of a quote from Walden by Henry David Thoreau –

“I say beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes.”

He is so right. I’d go one step further, for female readers (Thoreau probably didn’t have much experience of this) – forget about the new clothes: even the faintest urge to put on lipstick is an indication that…

… there may be trouble ahead…

So, when I found myself slathering on the one and only lipstick (Max Factor’s Rosewood – it’s lasted for years) in order to go and visit a possible care home for Mum with my sister, I thought ‘This doesn’t bode well!’ After all, who cares what the lumpy, flaky elder daughter looks like, lolloping along like a wonky Tesco trolley behind the slim, efficient youngest daughter? I suppose the lipstick was to make it look as if I had tried, or even to confirm that I had actually woken up at some point before falling into the car and turning the key in the ignition. With it – yes, that was the look I was aiming for – especially when venturing into a home full of dementia patients.

As we sat on a tiny sofa in the Lounge discussing (or in my case, not) fees, wander alarms and social activities – karaoke, Elvis impressionists – apparently they love Elvis – patting a giant inflatable ball from one side of the room to another, etc – with the home’s administrator, an elderly gentleman shuffled up and asked us kindly if we were getting to like being there, nowadays.

I began to think, perhaps I should never leave. Like the Hotel California. I seemed to be fitting right in… If it wasn’t for that faint smell of dinner… I mean, it was big and nice and sunny. And there were paintings on the walls. And I quite fancied having a pat at that giant blue ball… There was even a cat, somewhere. There was a notice as we went in:

Warning: Baby, our resident cat, likes to sleep in the corridors. Do not trip over him.

Not much chance of that. Thirteen moggies means you never raise your eyes above your foot-level. You’re wading through cats; an ocean of tails, paws and fur.

The thing is, beyond a certain age, lipstick becomes a liability. It travels. Best to avoid red wine for the same reason, at least in public, or you risk looking like Dracula’s Granny – and not realising it.

Is it even worth putting on lipstick any more? Even when I was in my prime I had the sort of face that lipstick didn’t improve. In fact, nothing improved it. Mum was striking-looking, in her twenties, with her upswept hair and sparkly eyes – you could see why Dad fell for her – and Dad was positively handsome in a raven-haired matinee-star sort of way. The trouble was, instead of taking after either one or the other (my sister takes after Mum) I got a bit of both – Mum’s crooked front tooth, Dad’s footballer’s-knees and piano-player hands. Worse, looking in the mirror – more and more as I get older, I see that my face has a kind of meridian – Mum from the nose upwards and Dad from the nose downwards and the two sections don’t match: I’m a chimera. I’m Franken-daughter.

What I need is the niquab. Maybe it’s not too late to convert? Alternatively, maybe I could carry one of those bespangled carnival masks on a stick… all year round.

Fashion and I have always had a difficult relationship. Mum used to despair of my marriage prospects since I refused to entertain corsets, eyebrow-pencil, false eyelashes or frills. And whatever I bought – however much it cost – once on me it always looked as if I’d got it in the Oxfam shop. In the end I gave up and short-circuited the whole tedious process by actually shopping at Oxfam. Still, whatever I bought would turn out to be uncomfortable: it would either cut in, hang loose, get in the way, sag, pinch or feel conspicuous.

The most comfortable time of my life was when I lost my prestigious position as a Partner’s Secretary and found one in an outbound call centre on an industrial estate where ‘smart casual’ might mean anything from wellington-boots and kohl-ringed eyes to fairy-wings and a fez. I ditched the office schmutter and lived in men’s clothing from supermarkets. A man’s shirt or jumper is about half the price of the equivalent woman’s shirt or jumper, did you know that? Ladies, they charge us almost double simply because we’re vain and love to shop. I discovered by trial and error what size men’s jeans fitted me. I gauged shirts, tee shirts and jumpers and socks by eye and was hardly ever mistaken – but women are used to doing that, since ‘standard’ sizes vary from one label to another.

Nowadays I compromise. The universal ladies’ ‘fashion’ here at Benefits-on-Sea is for leggings. This is because leggings are cheap, fit everyone and go with everything. So I wear leggings with a variety of long tops – tee-shirts, shirts, ‘sale’ dresses – whatever I can find. I look a bit frumpy and odd but what does it matter?

When have I not?

primp

 

 

 

 

 

The pig that walked away

He was unpredictable, my Dad. Most of the time I was afraid of his footsteps, homecoming; the sudden vicious swoop of his right hand; the stinging slaps; the turn of the key in some lock, with me on one side and him on the other. But I was even more afraid of the hectoring, the badgering, the elaborate sarcasm and the winding up. I had no defence to those.

He had a way with words, my Dad: he didn’t have to stop and think about them, they just came out. That’s where I got it from, this little gift, this way with words. He used them sometimes to write, more often to bully. I use them most often to write but I too, on the half-handful of occasions when rage has got the better of me, have unleashed that river of abuse at some cringeing offender and have failed to stop, when enough would have been enough. I felt that same joy, you see, the same joy he did. If you’re capable of doing something that well, however much you hate yourself, you long to let it rip. It’s a beautiful verbal violence; it’s like magic all bottled up and fizzing; you’ve become the box Pandora foolishly opened; you are what she unleashed upon the world.

But he wasn’t always Bad Daddy, and he did love us. He even loved me though I didn’t know that until he was far too old to tell me and I was far too old for it to matter much any more. I have happy memories of him too, and now that he is gone, I miss him more and more.

I prefer to recall his endless stock of “ditties”, and how he loved to sing foolish songs and recite nonsensical verses. Words for words’ sake, for their sound as much as their meaning: he was my first teacher in this regard. His material was drawn from a variety of sources, all before my time – music-hall, popular music, the military, in which he had so recently been an unwilling conscript. Nellie The Elephant was one of his favourites. We all used to sing that one:

Nellie the Elephant packed her trunk and waved goodbye to the circus…

Elephants also featured in a little poem:

A wonderful bird is the elephant/ It flits from bough to bough / It makes its nest in a rhubarb tree/ And whistles like a cow.

Then there were the peas and honey:

I eat my peas with honey/ I’ve done so all my life/ It makes the peas taste funny/ But it keeps them on the knife.

There was Jemima’s Uncle, forever swimming in circles:

Oh Jemima, look at your Uncle Jim/ He’s in the duckpond learning how to swim/ First he does the back-stroke and then he does the side/ And now he’s under the water swimming against the tide.

There was the monologue about the Little Yellow God:

There’s a one-eyed yellow idol to the north of Khatmandu/ There’s a little marble cross below the town/ There’s a broken-hearted woman tends the grave of Mad Carew/ And the Yellow God forever gazes down.

There was Stanley Holloway’s lugubrious tale of The Lion and Albert:

There’s a famous seaside place called Blackpool/ That’s noted for fresh air and fun/ And Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom/ Went there with young Albert, their son.

A grand little lad was young Albert/ All dressed in his best; quite a swell/ With a stick with an ‘orse’s ‘ead ‘andle/ The finest that Woolworth’s could sell…

There’s the song about the pudding:

All of a sudden a blooming great pudding came flying through the air/ It missed me Ma and hit me Pa/ And knocked him off his chair.

But our joint favourite was the poem about the pig that walked away:

One evening in October/ When I was about one-third sober/ And was taking home a load with manly pride/ My poor feet began to stutter/ So I lay down in the gutter/ And a pig came up and lay down by my side. Then we sang “It’s All Fair Weather”/ And “Good Fellows Get Together”/ Till a lady passing by was heard to say/ She says, “You can tell a man who boozes/ By the company he chooses”/ And the pig got up and slowly walked away.

I remember visiting Dad in hospital for what turned out to be the last time, and making myself take his hand. My hands are a mirror-image of his, as it happens – veins and knobbles in the same places, odd flattened fingertips, even the same size. I had never voluntarily touched him before.

“Warm,” he said. “Warm.”