Should you, because you can?

I often start off thinking no, I couldn’t possibly write that…

Next thing I know, I’ve written it.

This post may be one of those.

Sometimes I have moments of enlightenment. It’s probably a myth, you know, that enlightenment happens all at once, a blinding flash in the dark, sunlight on the road to Damascus. It’s more a tantalising chink before the door creaks shut again, sometimes for millennia.

Last night it occurred to me, not for the first time, but every time I forget – which is another way in which the door creaks shut – that I may not even be here to write. Or rather, just because I can write doesn’t mean I should, or that I absolutely have to. Maybe I’m not meant to be doing it at all at this point.

I don’t mean this sort of writing – this blogging pastime – which to me is more like chatting on the telephone, or writing a longish letter to a friend.  I mean the sort that requires the participation of your entire being, that drains every drop from the glass, that scrapes the last baked-bean from the saucepan, that… well, you know.

It just reminded me. When I was younger I had a friend. He was more than a friend, in fact (and then considerably less, but that’s another story).  My friend had a guru, except that, being a Christian he referred to him as something else – my Mentor, my Guide – can’t exactly remember now. This Guide was revered among Christians of a certain hue – those who drawn to the paranormal, out-of-body and near-death-experiences. He wrote a whole series of books; I read one or two of them but found them a bit chewy. Perhaps I should have another go at them now.

We visited him together, just once. His house was quite a long way away, and so bare. I never saw a house so devoid of everything except its occupant. It was as if stuff no longer had any meaning for him. There was a piano, but it was locked. There was a big old table but no cloth, no books, nothing on it. Ladies brought him food – home-made cakes and such, my friend said, and he lived mostly on what people brought him. Food didn’t matter.

I can’t remember much more about that meeting, except that he looked at us both, very carefully, and for an uncomfortably long time, and told us we were old souls. I think I knew this already, as did my friend: I had known him since the earth was molten metal, since we were blades of grass side by side in some prehistoric meadow, since… but then people in love tend to reckon in geological time. How can there ever have been a time when we were not together? How can there ever come a time when we will be apart? And maybe they are right. Maybe we’re the deluded ones.

And I couldn’t help thinking, well, what else would you expect a guru to say? Just as you’d expect a fortune-teller to tell you that you would cross water and meet a tall, dark gentleman. A gypsy fortune-teller at a church fête once told me I’d have four children. That didn’t come to pass, in fact no children came to pass. But then she was the vicar’s wife in boot-polish and a fancy shawl. What would she know?

I asked about the locked piano. My friend told me that his Guide once played the piano. He had so loved to listen to a certain piece music that he could close his eyes and be transported by it onto another spiritual plane. But music had to be given up in order that he could become what he needed to become. It was the price he had had to pay. There is always a price to pay. It seemed very shabby to me then – all of it – the house with the empty table, the donated cakes, the locked piano, the absent gramophone, the being alone in the dark most of time, the occasional cup of tea, a visitor.

spider4.jpg

Once upon a time, a very long time ago, I had a dream. I was on an upper level of a railway station, looking down at the scurrying figures in the concourse beneath. Between them and me was a plate-glass window so wide and so thick that there was no way they could ever hear me, even if I thumped on the glass. And they would never look up. They were fixed on their destinations, whereas I had no destination – or at least none that I knew of.

Writing was always a kind of thumping on the glass or – a later analogy – the weaving of an elaborate web. I couldn’t get into their world but maybe, just maybe, I could entice them into mine. With the benefit of hindsight and old (well, medium) age, I see this would never have worked. Had the spider’s web been encrusted with precious gems and its strands laced with the finest of nectars – had they crawled in in their little wingèd millions to worship me, the Great Writing Spider – it wouldn’t have worked. They would have been deceived, bewitched, enticed. They wouldn’t have come otherwise, wouldn’t have entered willingly. And that great windy nothingness at the centre of everything would still be there.

So what’s an old soul to do, apart from a bit of blogging now and again?

I think maybe nothing. I think just Be.

I think open a channel.

I think wait.

Larks and Sparks

Yesterday afternoon, just when I thought it was safe to assume that any future electrical emergencies would be happening to my successor, the power went off yet again. Snugly nestled in my handbag, my credit card was already beginning to emit quiet little bleats of distress. No, Mummy, Mummy, not more!  You haven’t even paid for the removers yet…

I ignored it, because I had to.  Can’t manage without electricity for weeks, maybe months. Somewhere around £130 per half an hour, weekend rates. Maybe it will only turn out to be one half an hour…

Two hours later the electrician arrived. From his accent I guessed he was Polish, or maybe Latvian. I didn’t really feel I could ask, in the current climate.

Sorry, he said. Satnav sent me down big holey road, great bumps…

Oh my God, I said, knowing which one he meant (Satnav always sends people down big holey road, which is certain death to any vehicle smaller than a tank) – you didn’t go down it?

No. Only little way, then back.

And of course, it wasn’t going to be one half an hour, it was going to be an hour and a half.

He worked fast, trying to save me money, talking to himself non-stop all the while. I was impressed that he was talking to himself in English rather than Polish or Latvian – maybe for my benefit, or maybe just for practice.

I plug this in here, I plug this in there, I eliminay this, eliminay that… We switch on the kettle, see if this works. Turn on wash machine… Now tumble dry… Now telly… 

I live mostly in silence. By this time we were surrounded by more noise than I felt I could bear…

Now toaster – see if it pop. Yes it pop.

Can I turn it off now?

No, not yet. Upstairs please.

For a moment I hesitated, thinking he might have some sort of ravishment in mind. However, the risk of his being overcome with lust for my ancient personage seemed vanishingly small; well worth taking to get the tumble drier, washing machine, television and pop-up toaster concerto turned off sooner rather than later.

Turn on iron, please. Show me plug sockets. In this room? In this room? Where is water cylinder please? By this time I was worn out.

Eventually he located the fault. As he unravelled from a hole behind the fridge and behind the panelling at the back of the kitchen cupboards more and more seedy, dreadful-looking wiring and an appallingly brown and perished-looking extension lead, the credit card in the handbag switched from quiet little bleats to high-pitched whimpering.

What is that? I asked.

I show. He unscrewed the cover the mottled brown plug, which had once belonged to the fridge. See this – big cable – very, very bad. See this – two wires from very big cable, wired into very small plug. Very bad. House burn down.

He told me a great deal, as he high-speed drilled things and twisted stuff, about the fire-damaged houses that were his speciality. He told me what melted PVC windows looked like, and how fire blew the glass out into strange, frosted patterns. Scary. But like the art, you know?

And the burnt wiring he said – cannot strip – he made imaginary cable-stripping motions with an invisible penknife – all – all – stick –

Fused?

Exact! All melt together.

Where he had dragged out the fridge and the washing machine, I now noticed, was a deep, disgusting layer of wood-pellet cat litter, swollen-up cat biscuits, drifts of fur, little bouncy balls, screwed up bits of paper and broken glass. Anything that could lurk under a fridge or a washing-machine had been lurking, for the last three years. And it was going to need cleaning up. By me. Chaos was now truly come again, but having seen what all that old brown wiring looked like, I realised he might well have saved my life, or my buyer’s.

He was a nice young man. He told me he had a family to keep. I suddenly felt really sad that he – along with other foreign workers who had settled here, worked hard, felt they belonged – might now feel unwanted – which I was pretty sure had never been anyone’s intention. Were they afraid that they would be loaded onto boats and aeroplanes and summarily thrown out?

At the end of it all, sweaty and covered in cobwebs and quite probably prehistoric cat-wee  (one of those ancient plugs had been suspiciously wet inside) he sat down to work out the charge, hampered by Rosie, who seemed to have taken a fancy to him – Hello, little Rosie-cat.

It was exactly as huge an amount of money as I had been envisaging. Credit card gave a sob of utter despair on being dragged out of the handbag – but somehow, in spite of everything, the electrician had cheered me up – a little.

On the way out he got a phone call. Pssst, where Stain? he asked me.

Staines? Not sure. Middlesex? Essex? Other side of London.

I get there in half an hour? It was eight o’clock by this time.

No, no. More like two.

Sorry mate – can’t do Stain from here.

A long time after he had gone I realised the iron was still blazing away upstairs, eating up my electricity. Then I opened the door of the washing machine and out fell a whole lot of water. Several cats were deluged, but at least the TV was working.

Better tune in, quick. Might have missed a disaster.

No prophecy at all, just sadness

Yesterday I watched David Cameron outside 10 Downing Street, being calm and dignified in the face of overwhelming political defeat. This was something my generation grew up with and took as read – that an Englishman would be generous in victory and gracious in defeat. That was ‘only cricket’. I can’t say I’m a fan of Westminster, politicians, the establishment or the political élite but he managed that particularly sad situation just as you – or we, in earlier times – might have expected an Englishman to do.

So whatever happened to the rest of us?

Last night I watched a young, white woman drown out an elderly academic during what was supposed to be an interesting political discussion on the results of the Referendum. He was an old, white man, she shouted, and that was why he felt entitled to talk over her and steal her air time. I suppose technically she won since she got all this in before the interviewer could moderate her. Yes, she succeeded in being sexist, ageist, racist and cruel in a single sentence and stunned the elderly academic into silence. He had been trying to say that in a democracy we each have one vote. Where did this sense of entitlement come from? Did she think maybe that people under forty should have two votes, and those over forty none?

This morning I went out in the car for a while. When I came back my neighbour was out in the front garden. He and his wife are retired prison warders and since retiring they have been spending more and more time at the house they are building in France: they had returned just in time to vote.

They and I have history. When I first moved to this area I was told – by another neighbour – a horrible story about the male prison warder. It may or may not have been true, but at the time I believed it. There was so much ghastly detail attached; how could I not give it credence? I was told that he killed one of a neighbour’s cats with an air rifle, because he didn’t like cats and it came into his garden. I was told he got rid of the creature’s body in the Council’s green bin and then laughed about it, boasting of what he had done.

Anything to do with animal cruelty horrifies me. I can’t abide it. Until then my cats had roamed freely out of doors: that ended that night. At ten o’clock at night, with a torch, I rounded up my whole feline tribe and have never dared let them go outside since. If one of them does escape, as of course happens at intervals, I spend the many hours it takes to find them and persuade them to come back indoors in a torment of anxiety, imagining that at any moment they might get shot from a bedroom window.

And yet, over the years, though I wouldn’t say we’ve got to know each other any better, we have come to an unspoken agreement. I still don’t know if the cat-murder story is true, and probably never will know, but we talk to each other now, in passing. He asked if he could come into my garden to prune his roses from the other side of the fence. When, during a gale some time back, his roof sent a ridge tile crashing through my car windscreen, he and his wife knocked on the door, came in and paid me, unasked, for the inconvenience this had caused.

This morning we chatted about his impending move to France, and mine to the far side of the county. During the talk it became clear to me that we had voted in opposite directions in the Referendum. I carefully adjusted anything I might have said. He carefully avoided saying anything that might require me to confirm which way I had voted. We talked generally about immigration and about people’s motives for voting Leave or voting Remain in this neighbourhood. We talked about the endless legal delays and complications involved in moving house. I told him I was dreading mowing my lawn, which had grown so long recently the mower was unlikely cope with it. He laughed and said he had had to take the strimmer to his, having been away in France so long. We talked but we kept it general; we steered the conversation onto safer ground.

neighbours 3

That’s what British people do – or what they used to do. We avoid confrontation.  Along with the Japanese – another overcrowded island race – and, I gather, the indigenous peoples of Australia – we practice something called negative politeness.

There are things both parties to a conversation know, but avoid putting into words. We avoid asking the other person any question that might conceivably embarrass them – even if it wouldn’t, and they are in fact just dying to tell us what we are just dying to find out.

We proceed on the assumption that the speaker is imposing on the listener, and that this imposition should be prefaced by elaborate apologies. We go to great lengths to avoid putting the other person in an awkward position.

We tread delicately, gently alluding rather than baldly stating, mentioning the unlikely possibility of rather than directly asking for. Occasionally we become so veiled in our allusions that we give bewildered visitors the impression that we are talking in code, which of course we are, in a way.

As a nation we have many faults but we used at least to be kind – courteous to one another and to strangers, anxious above all not to give offence. What changed, I wonder, and when?

neighbours 2

prophecy

Ramon de Something, who gave lectures from an elephant

I have a confession. In considering ever more desperate ways to save my finances, it did occur to me recently that once I’ve moved I could make money by being one of those artist’s models, i.e. sitting around in the nude in some draughty art-school studio. Maybe, I told myself, just maybe, you’ve now got so old that you wouldn’t be self-conscious…. And apparently it’s quite good money.

Countering that, there was the memory of my ex-husband, who went to two art schools in the sixties (maybe the fifties, even – he was so much older than me I kind of lost track of his timeline) laughingly recalling the hideous naked old men and ladies he and his fellow students had been provided with – though of course, the more hideous the better, in a way. The lumpy, ugly ones, he said, were more interesting. He told me one story of an elderly gentleman who often fell asleep, mid-pose. There was a notice up, something like:

SILENCE PLEASE, WHILE THE MODEL IS POSING

And of course, somebody altered the ‘p’ to a ‘d’. Anyway, irrelevant. Maybe…

But why I started this post, when I hadn’t planned to post at all today – let alone confess my bizarre naked ambitions, which will no doubt horrify Rose and Daisy – is to share with my readership a small triumph.

Today has not been a good day, generally. My days are rarely good nowadays. I awoke with the same little worm of pain on the right side of my head that I had been dozing fitfully with all night, in between rolls of thunder, flashes of lightning and torrential downpours. In the middle of the night also a great stack of packed cardboard boxes fell over at the far end of my bedroom, burst open on the carpet and all the books inside spilled out. That’s what comes of using cheap boxes, and boxes too big for the weight inside. I kicked them out of the way and tried to get back to sleep, but couldn’t. Outside, thunder and lightning; inside, a floor-full of battered old paperbacks, the accumulated heat of a thundery summer night and three or four hot, furiously scratching cats.

In the end, I got up, and in the process noticed that one of the tumbled books happened to be The Colour of Saying, an anthology of verse spoken by Dylan Thomas.

Which reminded me this poem I’ve been looking for. Since 1974. All I could remember was it was about a Spanish gentleman who collected broken chairs. I knew there was a lamppost in it, and it was something to do with Dylan Thomas.

I don’t give up, folks. To be more accurate, I can’t give up. Once I decide I must look for something, particularly a poem, I’m doomed to spend the rest of my life fretting about it. So I sat downstairs, too hot, with a headache, and a thunderstorm raging outside trying to resist the cats’ demands for breakfast at 3 in the morning. Idly leafing through this book – there it was – the missing poem.

It’s a strange poem but I thought I would copy it out since I happened to mention it in comments beneath a post called The poetry is in the pity and unintentionally corralled others in the search:

I think the appropriate reaction might be a ‘Woot!’

MYTHOLOGY by Lawrence Durrell

ALL my favourite characters have been

Out of all pattern and proportion:

Some living in villas by railways,

Some like Katsimbalis heard but seldom seen,

And others in banks whose sunless hands

Moved like great rats on ledgers.

 

Tibble, Gondril, Purvis, the Duke of Puke,

Shatterblossom and Dude Bowdler

Who swelled up in Jaffa and became a tree:

Hollis who had wives killed under him like horses

And that man of destiny,

Ramon de Something who gave lectures

From an elephant founded a society

To protect the inanimate from cruelty.

He gave asylum to aged chairs in his home,

Lampposts and crockery, everything that

Seemed to him suffering he took in

Without mockery.

 

The poetry was in the pity. No judgment

Disturbs people like these in their frames

O men of the Marmion class, sons of the free.

(Featured Image: blind monks examining an elephant)

Biting the bath plug

Still enjoying the voluminous (luckily, electronic) diaries of Jean Lucey Pratt, alias Maggie Joy Blunt.

One woman shouldn’t be cheered by another’s problems, of course – but since we have quite a lot in common – single-wise, man-wise, too-many-cat-wise and compulsive-record-keeping-wise – discovering that she too has her bad days and disasters is a consolation. Oh, the violence lurking just beneath the surface in a tranquil country cottage!

Here are three entries from 1952:

Wed 16 April

The final straw was to see that my longed-for bath water was disappearing instead of mounting in the bath. The plug for some reason has gone on strike – it doesn’t seem to have perished but simply would not stay in the hole. This brought on such a paroxysm of rage that I bit a piece out of the rubber.

Thursday, May Day

I found the perfect grey cardigan and put my live cigarette end right through the back of it the same night. It has been mended professionally, but the place still shows a little. I could have strangled myself.

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Wed 2 July

My story about biting the bath plug has met with huge success. E.D. suggests that I keep the plug hung in a convenient place and bite chunks of it whenever overcome by rage. But I should not let myself be seen doing so, or I should be locked up.

housewife

 

(Rubber-gloved/green gingham lady: Jennifer Lopez in disguise, I do believe.)

Midsummer Snowfall

Why did this never happen to me?

Holding thickly-mittened hands with a young (enough to be my grandson) man in perfectly edible yellow jumper, perfectly accessorised with a scarf in avocado green, only slightly made up, hair only slightly enhanced by styling products…  And they’re at a skating rink and she’s got that sweet fair-isle jumper on and that kooky hat and ah, don’t they look nice together and it’s Christmas and all…

Except it isn’t. I’ve been stuck in front of the television set in the middle of a hot, sticky afternoon watching the second half of a film of some romantic novel called Winter by Rosamunde Pilcher. Furthermore, to land on Winter, with all its Christmas frippery, I had to bypass a session on Christmas Crafts on the crafts channel. What’s going on? It’s not even July.

And why did I get stuck in front of the TV on a June afternoon? Wasn’t I half way through planning a story (sheets of green file-paper are scattered on the floor around my computer even now); the cats were due to be fed; four games of WordsWithFriends waiting for me to make my next electronic move. I had worthier things to do.

Could it have been the snow? It looked so real, so crisp, so glistening… Was it the country house with the long, gravel driveway lined with snow-loaded fir-trees and snow-capped stone statuary? Could it have been the romance? Not a lot of romance in my life – maybe I’m starting to yearn for it in my second adolescence – a kind of balancing out? Could it have been the soft-focus… everything? Could it have been the acting?

No, it definitely wasn’t the acting. Despite the fact that the film contained at least four famous actors that I recognised from other things – in which they had been able to act – in Winter they seemed to have switched off normal acting in favour of prolonged, soft-focus, emotionally-charged, silent staring at one another. The stared at one other over grand pianos; on the snow-laden steps of the that country house; over expensive pairs of white skates; reflected in huge ormolu mirrors in London flats with lilies in the foreground; in the stable over chestnut horses; in the drawing room over the half-restored paintings… You could tell they were thinking deep and moving thoughts. But about what?

There are several schools of acting – the Shakespearian kind where everything is  enunciated at you, and charged with great import – the Patrick Stewart/Ian McKellen school, as it were. There’s the Australian soaps style where everything is either gasped or screeched at you and goes way, way up at the end of every line. And then there’s the John Wayne/Hugh Grant strategy – look and sound exactly the same whether playing a cowboy, an Irish leprechaun, a deep-sea diver or a restrained but lovelorn eighteenth century gentleman. Oh, be a trifle bandier (having just got off the horse) when being a cowboy, possibly, and allow the fringe to foppishly flop a bit (having ridden post-haste from Bath) for the eighteenth century. This was the soft-focus-looking-somewhat-wistful school.

So why didn’t I just turn it off? Well, I suppose I’m having a slightly bad day. Some days you just seem to need a too-small, saggy sofa and a romantic film. You need to dine on yoghurt, hacked-off lumps of cheese and cream crackers, and drop a lot of crumbs on the carpet. You need to shed a tear when the patriarch lies prostrate at the bottom of the slippery stone steps in his wine-coloured smoking-jacket – like a rheumaticky, white-haired snow-angel. “I always did like the snow,” he remarks with a faint but rueful chuckle, before expiring.

One of the things reviewers keep pointing out about Jean Lucey Pratt, whose diaries I reviewed in a recent post, was that she “read widely, but not well”.  And it’s true – the many, many novels she mentions in her diaries are all also-runs: long-forgotten stories written by long-forgotten novelists of the forties and fifties. I think this is a bit unfair. Better to read widely than not at all. And as a writer you can learn just as much, probably more, from a bad book as from a good one. And she enjoyed what she read. What’s wrong with that? Maybe I need to defy my inner critic and read a Rosamunde Pilcher. Then I might then understand what was happening in the film.

I just checked out the works of Rosamunde Pilcher online. Apparently Winter is only one of a suite of soft-focus romances called the Four Seasons. So there is a Spring, a Summer and an Autumn featuring the same characters. Fortunately, the others have been shown already. Winter (in June) must have been the last one. Or unfortunately.

Sigh!

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I mean, she does this all the time – slightly pensive, slightly sideways, anticipatory, innocent and yet… wondering

Now out fly the little demons

I have no idea who Godot actually was, have you? But Vladimir and Estragon were waiting for him. Waiting, waiting, waiting… It’s how I feel today – as if Godot, in all his multifarious forms, is never going to arrive, and I haven’t even got a fellow-tramp to grumble with.

I’m waiting for WordPress to email me back with the solution to my ‘no links’ problem. They promise twenty-four to forty-eight hours. Suspect even if they do email me I will neither be able to comprehend nor implement their solution, but you never know.

Waiting…

This morning I phoned a firm I used to work for (twice) and asked them if they would take me back for a ‘third term’. I know they are likely to say no, and it has taken me the best part of a week to muster the courage to even phone them. But – can’t afford to leave any stone unturned. You owe it to the cats, I told myself. Not that the cats care. Anyway, now I’ve gone and done it.

And I’m waiting…. and it’s thirteen minutes past two…

Human Resources need to check round various different departments. I am thinking maybe check round various different departments is HR code for no, but we’re too kind to say so; we will say no later today; or maybe we just won’t call you back so that you can surmise that’s what we probably meant? Or does it in fact mean we need to check round various different departments?

So I’m waiting….

And I’m doing what most people do while they are waiting – trying to get on with other stuff. I watched half a repeat of Stargate but remembered the plot so well I turned off the TV. I plodded through a big heap of ironing. Well, that’s done now… I got an idea for a post and here I am writing it.

Well, that’s good…that’s…positive…

We spend so much of our lives on hold, don’t we? At the moment we are waiting for the Referendum, which is Thursday. I get a postal vote and voted weeks ago but still, I’m waiting…

Until today I was telling myself Que Sera, Sera. My one little vote isn’t going to decide things. Who’d want that responsibility? Que sera, sera – but I am starting to be afraid. Whatever the outcome, by the end of this week things will be altered.

Half of the population will be jubilant. The losing half will be furious and will never forget that the winning half opposed them, and won. Either half may decide to consume all the lager they can lay hands on, wrap flags round their stupid shoulders and riot semi-naked in midsummer streets. We seem to be good at that.

The losing half will lose faith in the democracy they totally took for granted up to this point, and the losing half will spend the next ten years blaming the winning half for Every Single Thing that goes wrong with Anything and Everything, from Friday forward, whether related to Europe or not. We will never hear the last of it.

They gave us this choice – that’s democracy. They shouldn’t have given us the choice, that’s the political and psychological reality of the thing. They opened the little wooden casket: now out fly the little demons.

Waiting… My mother is waiting to die. We visited her yesterday and found her in a wheelchair, too weak to stand or even rearrange herself in the chair once the carers lowered her into it. She had spilt porridge and water all over the place and had just been changed yet again. Grey-faced and distracted, she can no longer speak and no longer looks at us. I write our names on the white-board. She stares at it in terror.

She stares out of the window, hoping that a bird or a squirrel might land on the boundary fence. Sometimes she points at the boundary fence, but we but we can’t see what she’s seeing. Her hands shake. Her nails have grown long, like claws. I can’t help her and she can’t help herself. Even the carers can’t help her, only change her, lift her, feed her and bring her beakers of cranberry juice.

It kind of puts paid to my theory of souls. Until this last thing happened to Mum I chose to console myself with the belief that we designed our own life, between lives, when we were again souls. We passed on what we had learned from our past life, rested for a while and then gradually became aware of what we still needed to learn; with help from the wise ones we chose our next incarnation. And down we came, flutter-flutter-flutter, into our new bodies, to continue the eternal learning process. But what can this day-to-day, hour-to-hour, week-to-week suffering possibly be teaching her? What possible purpose is there in being like she is now?

Waiting… waiting… Learning to wait.

waiting 2

To prise a snail from its shell

Gun to your head, if you had to leave the house all day, every day, where would you go and what would you do?

Frankly, my dear, I can’t think of anything worse than having to leave the house all day, every day. What’s the point of having a house and not being allowed to stay inside it? It reminds me of a boarding-house holiday at Ventnor on the Isle of Wight, with my parents and sisters. The landlady was strict – you had to gobble your breakfast (two runny fried eggs, cold toast and marge, tiny glass or orange juice, stewed tea), get out and not come back till seven, when you would discover the evening meal was running approximately one hour late and all the hot water had been used up by Germans.

What did we do all day on that holiday? Well, I think mostly we argued, with very few gaps in between. I was sixteen. That’s what you do when you’re sixteen and stressed, isn’t it – argue with everyone?

I recall a particular skirt – I was a clothing disaster in those days, having no choice but to be bought occasional items by my parents, from my mother’s Freemans catalogue. I was bad at choosing: hadn’t yet acquired cynicism, and failed to understand that whatever the model looked like in that skirt, I wouldn’t. Models are thin and beautiful, and the clothes are caught up at the back with clothes pegs, skilfully-lit, etc. This particular skirt – it was red and white roses – I hate red, hate white and particularly hate the combination of red and white – but in the catalogue it looked so nice.

When it arrived I discovered it was made of some strange, loosely-woven fabric. Threads were always catching and pulling; and then of course I would pull them through because I can’t leave anything like that alone. And then of course the roses got gaps in them. That skirt bothered me throughout the week at Ventnor. There was a photo of me in it, looking thunderous with a parrot on my shoulder. It was a café parrot and that was its job – to sit on people’s shoulders, dig its claws in and demand titbits – to amuse them whilst pooping down their backs.

It’s interesting what the author of the website (Seven Strange Questions That Help You Find Your Life Purpose) assumes you will be getting up to if you don’t leave the house. Apparently you will be sitting on the couch eating Doritos whilst nothing new happens. That would be so nice.

Also interesting is what he assumes you would do once you had levered yourself off that couch, tossed the Doritos onto the carpet and ventured out. No, he says – you wouldn’t go and sit in a coffee shop and browse Facebook – you would sign up for a dance class, join a book club, get another degree, invent a new form of irrigation that can save thousands of children’s lives in rural Africa or learn to hang glide.

Oh yeah? Well you listen here Mr Seven Strange Questions.

I joined a dance class, in fact I joined several different dance classes. Rose and I spent many an hour on the sidelines at the Railwayman’s Club, hoping for a man to come and waltz us round the room: anyone other than the effete instructor with the snaky hips and the fluorescent false teeth. And how many hours being hopelessly behind the beat and out of synch at that Zumba, rhumba or salsa class? I couldn’t keep up, OK? I love music, I long to dance but my brain won’t let me.

I joined a book club; several book clubs in fact. It meant reading a series of books you didn’t want to read – obscure biographies of people you didn’t realise were even alive; those strange books based on people’s deprived Cockney or Irish childhoods when everyone and his uncle either beat them up or molested them; syrupy, heart-warming stories of women’s knitting circles and discovering the meaning of life through kindness and crochet. You couldn’t just skim, because you might be required to say something intelligent about them.

But then you never were asked. Someone would go down a list of questions, like an exam paper (book club books often have a whole chapter of these at the back, supplied by the author) and you would have to answer yes, or no, or don’t know. And that was it. Also, you didn’t dare disagree with the retired schoolteacher types who run these gatherings, since they didn’t like to be interrupted and already knew the answers. Then everybody would put on their coats and head for the car park.

Get another degree? One would be nice, but even that I could acquire from the safety of my Dorito-and-moggie-strewn couch. Hasn’t he heard of distance learning?

Invent a new irrigation system? Has he ever invented a new irrigation system?

Learn to hang glide? Even if I wanted to risk my life jumping off a windy hilltop supported by a flimsy contraption of aluminium alloy and synthetic sailcloth, what would I pay for it with? This chap’s assuming everybody’s got disposable income for all this going-out-and-doing-exciting-stuff. Everything costs money: even breathing, probably. If not, there’s bound to be something in the pipeline; some tax or deduction for oxygen consumed, carbon dioxide contributed to the environment…

mr winkle nude

Apparently this little chap is Mr Winkle, one of the first internet memes/stars – unless it’s a joke. Featured Image is of Mr Winkle accoutred as a snail, or possibly as a winkle. And above is Mr Winkle in his birthday suit.

(Sigh!) Culturally, I seem to have missed so much.

What’s happened to his front paw? It looks kind of bendy.

The poetry is in the pity

What sparked this off was a picture of a baby I found in the bottom drawer of a weird cupboard thingy I bought on impulse in a charity shop. It – the cupboard, not the baby – is about the size of a grandfather clock with shelves and spaces in an eccentric configuration. The man in the shop didn’t know how to describe it on the invoice so he just called it Wooden Thing, or somesuch. I rather like it. I can see it in my new kitchen, assuming all goes well with the house move. I am using it to keep my multi-cat-household-stuff all together in one place – bowls, brushes, a variety of probably-out-of-date half-finished medicines, a collection of cut up cereal boxes for scraping up those darling little piles of this-and-that first thing in the morning…

Anyway, I thought I’d thoroughly explored all those weirdly-arranged drawers, but I missed something. Today, in the very bottom one I found an odd-shaped block of poor-quality wood – an offcut maybe – and a polaroid photograph of a baby.

To the unpractised eye he looks much like any other baby. Sort of spherical; rather red; not entirely bald; correct number of fingers on each hand. He’s wearing a rather charming stripy blue and white bottom-half and a matching blue fleecy top, with a hood, and he’s fast asleep in the corner of what looks like an armchair or old sofa wearing a faint, Mona Lisa smile.

My first thought was oh, I must somehow get this back to the owners (the baby photo not the cupboard) but then I looked at the back on which was inscribed in a round, unmistakeably female hand: Harry Noah Dodsworth Lauder, born: 28.10.08. So – frantic maths – the infant would be around eight years old by now.

I suppose he could even be reading this post. The ability to use the internet has now started to be inherited genetically, I reckon. Even foetuses know about CTRL-ALT-DELETE. Even in the womb, little Harry could have told me why I can no longer get links to work on this blog, and with any luck in plain English rather than irrelevant, supercilious geek-speak. Bit muffled, maybe, due to the womb.

Why did they name their child after a music-hall artiste? I wondered. But then of course they wouldn’t have heard of Harry Lauder. He was even before my time. Quite like the Noah, though. Nice manly name. Good strong ark-building name. A jutting-jawed, I’ll-do-it my-way sort of name. And Dodsworth… Dodsworth… Charles Lutwidge…? Oh no, that was Dodson. More likely the mother’s maiden name or a treasured family surname.

lauder

Harry Lauder (looking rather pink also)

The baby-photo gave me an idea for a story. It’ll probably never get written, but you never know. It also reminded me of all the little objects I have found and lost. Like those red plastic sunglasses when I was a child (I would link you to my posted mini-story “She…” at this point but I can’t because WordPress have broken my links.) Like the smooth, heavy stone with a fossil of some long-dead tiny octopus on it, with legs and suckers and all. I lost that again, somewhere along the way. I’ve regretted that ever since. I’m sure the ancient fossil-octopus was a talisman, intended for me alone. Never had a day’s luck since I mislaid it.

And how many other things – a dropped key, a single earring; a child’s bangle; a small, squashy bear near the village infant’s school, probably thrown out of a push-chair; a £10 note in a car-park. All those things I found and should have kept, and now have lost again.

So, I’m going to start a Found Objects box. I’ve got a spare shoe-box (the cut-up cereal boxes will have to go somewhere else). Everything I find from now on will go in it. Everything I find will, at some point, get turned into a story; or maybe just collected, just for the saving of things that would otherwise be lost and unloved. The poetry, as they say, is in the pity.

Featured Image: Fobots (found object robots) by North Carolina artist Amy Flynn

tutu girls

 

 

Cats and Jean

When I first made her acquaintance she went by the name of Maggie Joy Blunt; she was writing reports of everyday life on the wartime home front and posting them off to the Mass Observation project. She was one of many Mass Observation diarists sampled in a popular series of books by social historian Simon Garfield. The books threw up quite a few eccentric and entertaining characters, but Maggie Joy stood out as a natural writer. Indeed she was constantly trying to get things published – just not very often succeeding – and her diary entries had a cool lucidity; a kind of intelligent overview, that some of the others lacked. I looked forward to reading her entries.

Sometimes I would amuse myself by trying to work out what the real names of these ‘characters’ might have been, before Garfield disguised them. What could ‘Herbert Brush’ have been called, for instance? (Now thought to have been Reginald Charles Harpur, of Sydenham). And Maggie Joy? Now revealed to be Jean Lucey Pratt, who died in 1986. I often wondered what happened in the gaps between her war diary entries. What sort of life did she really live? Well, now we know because Simon Garfield has edited extracts from sixty years of her diary-keeping to bring us A Notable Woman, the romantic journals of Jean Lucey Pratt.

She wrote in fountain pen, usually in Woolworth’s exercise books – about anything, but mostly about men, work and cats. Unlucky in love, with an unfortunate leaning towards married men and charming scoundrels, she was desperate to be a wife and mother. Maybe the desperation was her undoing? She never does find a husband but finally succeeds, well into her thirties, in losing her much-loathed virginity and from then on has a series of lovers, or ‘affaires’ as she liked to call them. She talks rather a lot about sex, and desire – and is frank for a woman writing in the ‘thirties and ‘forties. This element is missing from her wartime reports, which tend to focus on the shortage of fully-fashioned silk stockings and her perpetual search for cigarettes. Sometimes, reading her, you wish you could shout down some kind of time-funnel/megaphone – no, don’t smoke those dreadful things, don’t you know they’ll kill you? or Not another married man, Jean – can’t you see he’s an out-and-out rotter and just using you? But of course, she didn’t know, and she couldn’t see. Like the rest of us, she was staggering along in the dark, doing the best she could.

jean pratt 3.png

She was also a fellow cat-woman. Yes. I know: women who for whatever reason don’t have children are likely to be verging on insanity and surrounded by cats. Jean, after forays into architecture, journalism and biography, spent her later life running a small shop in Farnham Common, Buckinghamshire. It began as a general shop, but later she specialised in book-selling, and cat-book-selling in particular. She did better at this than at any of her other career choices and ended up supplying cat books to devoted customers all over the world. I’m most of the way through her diaries at this point but find myself a bit flummoxed, really, by her attitude – or perhaps I mean the then-prevailing attitude – towards cats.

She is obviously deeply attached to all her pets – it’s obvious both from the frequency with which she writes about them and the affection in her ‘voice’. As Maggie Joy Blunt in one of the previous Simon Garfield books she tells the story of how her favourite little cat is extremely ill, and she has to take it to the vets, on the bus. The cat is in a basket on her knee, and a child happens to be sitting next to her. After a while her cat gives an awful howl and ‘Maggie’ becomes aware that that she has just died. The child asks about the cat and Maggie, knowing she mustn’t upset the child, fights back her grief and says something to the effect that puss is just having a little nap right now. She records it in a very spare, contained sort of way, but it’s the story that everyone remembers reading in floods of tears. I am hoping it doesn’t come up again in A Notable Woman because I don’t think I can bear to read it a second time.

And yet – none of her cats seem to be neutered. Did cats just not get neutered in those wartime and pre-war days? And her female cats are constantly producing kittens. At intervals she records having to take both mother and kittens off to ‘the cats’ home’ in Slough, or finding a new home for this kitten or that kitten. I just don’t think I could have done it – any of it. It seems – well, irresponsible on the one hand and impossibly pragmatic on the other.

She tells of two kittens ‘stoated’ in the woods (her own invented word – I tried it in a game of scrabble recently); one kitten with a hole in its chest which at first she thinks must have been made by a bird, and another kitten that she had to send one of her visiting gentlemen out to despatch – he later mentions not having been able to do this. Why are kittens roaming around outside, in a wood, to be set upon by stoats? Why isn’t an injured kitten taken to the vets to be despatched, if it’s so severely injured? And why is she sending a man to do it, as if it’s one of men’s jobs to kill things?

I’m not blaming Jean – indeed, perhaps it’s just me being over-sensitive. I’ve come up against this same attitude before, in conversations with my mother, who is perhaps a generation younger than JLP, and it was the one subject over which I felt we were seriously at odds. She tried to explain it to me – that cats in her day were regarded as ‘just animals’ (which annoys me, since we are also ‘just animals’ and I don’t believe that stuff about God setting us in authority over them – as far as I’m concerned, if he did that, he wasn’t a God worth his salt). She said dogs and cats would be fed the scrapings from plates, the scraps from the table. I can’t remember whether she said there just wasn’t commercial cat-food in those days.

Jean herself mentions taking one of her cats to the vet to be advised that it isn’t getting enough of the right sort of food, and how she manages to beg a few extra scraps of meat from the butcher on the way home, since rationing was in place. To be fair, Jean herself didn’t seem to be getting the right sort of food at the time and was plagued with chest infections, recurring boils in the ears and so forth.

The thing that really annoys me is when older people refer to animals as ‘it’. We wouldn’t refer to one another as ‘it’. I can tell male from female cats by sight, but even if faced with a dog, say, or a parakeet – I’d make an attempt at its gender. Better to be wrong than insulting. Mum fudged it, really, by making all cats ‘she’ and all dogs ‘he’. I was never sure if this was a devious way of saying ‘it’ – one less likely to infuriate Linda – or whether dementia had genuinely deprived her of the ability to make the leap – if all dogs are ‘he’ how do puppies get made? Dementia did rob her early, and very noticeably, of logic – of the patently obvious, of the ‘if this then – inescapably – that’ process.

I’d be interested to hear what anyone else thinks about attitudes to pets, particularly if they have happened to stumble across A Notable Woman. I’m going to see the book through, in any case. Sixty years of diary-keeping, throwing a clear light on a period of recent British social history fast vanishing from actual memory, deserve to be read to the end.

jean pratt

 

O brave new world, that has such people in’t!

Terraforming – I thought it had been invented by Captain Kirk. There was this film, wasn’t there? And someone transforming some planet into some kind of Garden of Eden on steroids – playing God, in other words – bound to end in tears/flows of molten rock/sky turning purple with yellow streaks/massive explosions.

Unbeknown to all, you see, Spock was on the planet. He was kind of a baby in a space-capsule, lurking the undergrowth and the new planet accidentally got synched to his accelerated growth/ageing process. I’m not sure why it was accelerated, or how he came to be a baby in a space-capsule in the first place, but anyway, it was. And he was.

But it appears the idea of terraforming was around long before Star Trek. According to Wikipedia:

The concept of terraforming developed from both science fiction and actual science. The term was coined by Jack Williamson in a science-fiction story (Collision Orbit) published during 1942 in Astounding Science Fiction,[1] but the concept may pre-date this work.

If I was allowed to rebuild this planet from scratch, to suit myself, what would it be like?

it fits

 It Fits!! : Matt Friedman

I would prefer there to be almost no people in my Brave New World, but not absolutely no people. You need to be able to speak and listen every so often: that’s what keeps your brain alive. I learned that lesson from Mum, though she didn’t realise she was teaching it: partially and then completely deaf, as she got older she wouldn’t wear her hearing aids, even to make things easier for visitors; she would hide behind the curtains if anyone came to the door and would physically drag us away if we bumped into anybody we knew, or she had once known, in the street.

It’s a person’s choice to hide themselves away, of course, but there can be a high price to pay; a kind of Robinson Crusoe Syndrome. The brain gets scrambled without at least the minimum of conversation. Even the least sociable of us are designed or have evolved, mentally, for the interchange of ideas – we are at our best when firing off other people. It’s a bit like the internet, only with squidgy stuff rather than circuits.

That said, I’d be happy to live like the Giant Panda, shambling around in the forest and only getting together with others once a year for mating purposes and a bit of a chat. Or in my case just a bit of a chat. The only downside with pandas is apparently they have to poop forty times a day. Something to do with their diet.

I’d like to live in a wooden hut, with a veranda, and an old wooden rocking chair with a bit of a creak to it. Then when it rained I could sit in my rocking chair and rock, and look down into the forest, observing the raindrops dropping off those great, glossy leaves and a cool breeze causing the lianas to sway a little…

My Brave New World would be fitted with some sort of controls, within limits. So, if it had been raining for three weeks non-stop in your solitary rainforest and you could really do with a couple of days of pleasant sunlight streaming down through the canopy – there should be some sort of control panel – no doubt hidden in the ruins of some ancient Inca civilisation – where you could twiddle a few knobs or press a few buttons to arrange that. But one wouldn’t be permitted perpetual sunshine since this might interfere with the natural environment for all the other animals you were lucky enough to share your rainforest with.

It might be nice if the storm-clouds made music as they passed overhead – or maybe the planets themselves as they circled – something like the music of the spheres. That too would be turn-off-and-on-able. Silence should always be an option. Or maybe just birdsong – some ambient twittering.

What would your Brave New World be like?

tortoise

natural

Am in Market Harborough. Where ought I to be?

My English teacher introduced me to spider diagrams and I took to them like a duck to water. I could immediately see the point of them and used them for everything thereafter, including exams. Maybe it’s different now but in those days there were no spare sheets of paper allowed for ‘workings out’ – it was part of the test, to show how you reached your conclusions.

Thus, in maths exams, it was OK for your exam paper to be measled with tiny sums (in my case 2 x 6 x 9 x 15 = ? = ? = ?) as long as the real answer was apparent. You could draw rings round all those frantic sums or strike through them, but your sadly defective thought-processes would still be clear for the examiner to see.

Similarly with essays – you could do a spider diagram on the left hand side, strike it through, then write the essay proper on the right. In this case, the examiner would be mightily impressed by one’s complexity of thought and creative super-abundance – or so I hoped.

spider 1.jpg

And then I realised I didn’t need them. It was probably when I left school for a short-lived first job in the local library, where I was bored to tears writing out cardboard library tickets, failing to get the notices straight on the notice board, failing to look suitably busy when not and watching out of the staffroom window as young policemen giggled and hosed each other down instead of ploddingly washing their panda-cars at the back of the police-station. I was suffering from essay-withdrawal-symptoms, which must be quite a rarity among seventeen year-olds, and began to write even though I didn’t have to. A revolutionary concept. Can’t remember what I wrote, but I must have been desperate.

One day it just dawned on me that I didn’t need, and probably never had needed, the actual spider diagram because – and this is hard to explain – the inside of my head was a spider diagram. I just naturally thought sideways, and off in all directions. And there was more to it. It wasn’t just me thinking outwards from the centre (with a spider diagram you start with one ringed word in the centre) it was stuff careering inwards towards me, from all directions. This was scary, and still is. Once it starts doing that you are no longer in control. It’s creating you.

So, it sends you a bit barmy. With all that going on – stuff spider-ing out, stuff rushing in – something’s got to give. You can end up odd and vague.

And what made me think of this? Well, I have three dictionaries of quotations – it should be two, two of everything – maybe I’ll have to give one away… Anyway, I was reading one of my three dictionaries of quotations in the bath, as of course you do, and the words of author G K Chesterton’s telegram to his wife in London squelched up to me in the steam:

AM IN MARKET HARBOROUGH. WHERE OUGHT I TO BE?

Now, if you’re English – unless you live in Market Harborough – you’ll know why this is funny but probably won’t be able to explain it. Market Harborough is one of those unmemorable Midland towns – everybody’s sort of heard of it but nobody knows exactly where it is and nobody would set out to visit it on purpose. So if you’re there, you must be lost.

I myself have been to Market Harborough – I think. Also Corby and Kettering – I think. Ex used to live there, before me. Ex was nine years older than me so he had a whole other life, in the Midlands, which I’m afraid I failed to be sufficiently curious about. He used to run not one but two music clubs – one Folk and one Blues. He booked all the musicians, designed all the posters, played and sang. And he shared a stage with John Renbourn. We had every album John Renbourn had ever made, and played them evening after evening in front of a log fire, surrounded by cats, drinking cheap cider from the supermarket until, dizzy and half-asleep, we were temporarily able to talk to one another. Even now I can hear in my head every next track. I should have been fascinated, and I was, when I grew up. Something that didn’t happen until long after we had divorced, when I couldn’t go back and ask him about it.

renbourn

John Renbourn sketched by James Gurney

We went to visit his friend from this former life – a lugubrious Scotsman, witty in his own way, descended from one of the many Scotsmen who found their way south, following work to the Corby steelworks.  In the meantime he had married and produced two little girls in quick succession. We stayed one night at his mother’s house. I helped her dry the dishes. She had mislaid her teeth. They appeared under the last upturned cup. That night I dreamt of a lengthy funeral procession in that very house. They were coming through the walls.

We spent the rest of our stay in the Scotsman’s house on an estate. How gleefully they abandoned their horrid/delightful offspring to their new ‘Auntie’ and ‘Uncle’. I remember these chubby little girls and the speed with which they charged up and down the passageway, the hardness and painfulness of those little skulls as they collided every time with one’s shins. They were sleeping with their parents so that we could have their bedroom; two very tall, childless and increasingly stressed visitors on two very small and badly-sprung mattresses, with thin red hospital blankets to cover them. I remember the little dears crying out in their flat Midlands accents as, all day and seemingly all night, they ran up and down that passageway: Mooomy, Mooomy!

I haven’t thought of those girls until now. Their mother was to die in her thirties, their father a decade or so after. John Renbourn, too, is dead. How strange life is. How connected.

How unconnected.

On the eating of frogs for breakfast

I try not to get distracted by the internet but I do, just like I get distracted by everything else. Usually at ten past midnight I find myself trawling through strange but fascinating photographs – of a man with seven arms but very little of anything else; of plastic surgery mishaps so bizarre you wonder what on earth possessed the patient to have it done. Could it be a case of the spider and the fly? First lot a disaster, second lot to put the first disaster right, second lot a disaster, third lot to put the first and second disasters right… How do people – women, especially – end up looking like something out of a travelling fair when they started off (by my standards, anyway) naturally beautiful?

Sometimes, however, I click on something that catches my imagination. I do believe it might have been one in the morning last night, but I did doze off in front of the TV – the end of yet another Andromeda repeat followed by Australian policemen apprehending one motorist after another for speeding and complicated drugs offences – for a couple of hours. As you get older, you do tend to do that – same amount of actual sleep, but collected in increasingly random instalments.

I am, however, hoping not to take after my mother who now speed-walks around her care home all day and most nights, collapsing in a chair for an hour every now and again, to fall into a slumber so profound that no one can wake her. They say she’s the fastest old lady they’ve ever had – like Road Runner, almost. They intercept her by the meds trolley to dole out her tablets but by the time they’ve got the pills into the little cup she’s off again and they have an awful job to find her. She’s wearing out her new pink slippers. Even her fingernails seem to have speeded up. We keep having to remind the carers to cut them.

road runner.jpg

Beep! Beep!

But frogs. For breakfast.

Well, according to this motivational video I stumbled across in the wee small hours of last night, the way to get things done is to eat one’s live frog first; the frog being the task you are least wanting to do. The idea is that the frog, if not eaten, will weigh on your mind. Yes, its uneaten-ness will exhaust you, stress you, de-motivate you, even if you don’t realise it’s doing so. What you should do is make a list, each morning. Having made the list you circle the frog, and you tackle that first.

So I did that. At one o’clock in the morning or thereabouts I made a list for the next day – which was of course by now today. It began something like this:

  • To Post Office to return Amazon parcel (cat carrier too small to house any known cat – a gerbil maybe)
  • Strip bed and sheet washing (I do that every Saturday)
  • Ironing
  • Blog post
  • Keep fingers crossed bank statement doesn’t arrive (it did, of course)
  • Go through solicitors’ paperwork (more important but dull letters, important but dull forms, important but dull energy assessments, dull this and dull that – than you could shake a stick at).

Now, you can guess which is going to be the frog, can’t you? That massive bundle of solicitors’ paperwork. This has to be done either today or tomorrow because on Monday I have to ring the solicitors and make an appointment to go in and discuss it all, have my signature to the contract witnessed, etc., etc.

I dutifully circled it and wrote in big letters FROG!!!

Then I went to bed, and couldn’t sleep. It hardly seemed worth it by that time, and I was being interfered with (no, that doesn’t sound right…) by three cats. The Gingery Gentleman seemed determined to get under the duvet for a dribble-and-purr; Mary seemed to be determined to beat up said Gentleman, and Missy – Mary’s fluffy double apart from a mad-looking eye – seemed determined to beat up both Gingery Gentleman and Mary. The claw-swiping, fur-scattering battle raged on around my head. And it was hot – too hot. And down the hill some poor outdoor dog barked on and on the night. And my head was still full of uncooked frogs, seven-armed men and plastic surgery disasters.

And this morning – did I consult my To Do list and consume my frog?  No, of course not, because I am constitutionally incapable of taking either my own or other peoples’ advice. Frog will be eaten next, I promise, as soon as I’ve finished watching that yellow digger thing digging up the front garden of the neighbour over the road and all those men standing about, conferring with one another but not actually doing anything.

Do you know, there was a giant lorry as well, this morning, with a hoist for taking away the soil? Do you know, one of those men decided to take a voluminous pee against one of the giant tyres of the giant lorry? He stood with his back to my front window (one small mercy) for all the world as if my net curtains made him invisible…

“Shopped” – a little fantasy

Their sentence arrived concurrently with their punishment. The District Coven habitually gave its ruling in absentia. At one and the same moment both Elsie and Violet were advised of every detail of the ruling; felt their normal green blood turning to polyester super-microfibre stuffing in their veins and the veins themselves turning to cloth. Two full-sized, living and breathing witches became two small witch-toys and found themselves transported to a gift shop in Aberfeldy, Perth & Kinross, Scotland.

They found themselves hanging – well, suspended, since there weren’t exactly nooses round their necks – from a display unit in a stuffy little shop at the less frequented end of the High Street, next to a selection of socks. This, then, was their punishment for meddling in black magic and general mischief-making.

(…the cow that changed from Frisian to Jersey overnight; the fox tippet in the fashion museum that came to life and barked at a party of passing schoolchildren, causing one particularly delicate boy to faint; the bottled milk turning fuchsia on people’s doorsteps – oh, that was a good one – and the Chancellor of the Exchequer – not known for his sense of humour – and on prime time TV, what was worse – growing a sudden moustache. One minute he was clean-shaven, banging on about the eternal budget deficit, next minute a bristly ginger moustache was appearing on his upper lip. He could be seen becoming aware of it, gradually becoming more panic-stricken over it, even as he pontificated….)

‘We shouldn’t have done all them things, Elsie!’ Violet’s thoughts came through, slightly muffled by cloth and stuffing.

‘Damn right, Violet. But it was fun, wasn’t it?’

‘Fun while it lasted, Elsie, certainly.’

‘It’s so dull being a witch and not wreaking havoc, know what I mean?’

‘Too right, Violet. But if that was dull, this is going to be monumentally dull – hanging about in the Highlands for an unspecified time, swinging about among the woolly mittens and colourful fair-isle footwear, just waiting for some tourist to step over that threshold, ring that jangly bell and take a shine to us.’

‘Or one of us.’

‘That’s a thought. They might buy me and not you.’

‘Or me and not you.’

‘No guarantee we’ll both go together.’

‘Or they might buy socks instead.’

‘Or even mittens.’

‘Do you think it’s for ever?’

‘No – weren’t you listening to that last bit? It’s until we can redeem ourselves by doing something good.’

Think, Violet. Think of something good.’

You think, Elsie.’

But thinking was to prove surprisingly difficult, with stuffing for brains.

Wild Witch of the East

This is how I feel today:

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ie: not like writing. However, as novelist Anne Tyler famously said: “If I waited till I felt like writing, I’d never write at all”. Writing’s like going for a walk – if you’re basically lazy and apathetic you never want to do it – but you feel a whole lot better when you have.

So, I thought I might explain all these witches. You may have noticed my little icon/gravatar thingy, which is a picture of a blue stuffed witch. I found her on Morguefile, along with the one in the red shawl and the one in the white blouse, on broomsticks. I’m guessing, from the tartan woolly socks a-dangle in the background that they must have been in some Ye Olde Crafty Gifte Shoppe deep in the highlands of Scotland, but who knows.

I felt I needed a disguise, really. I don’t like me in photos, especially now when the Me looking back in the mirror no longer looks anything like the Me looking out through my eyes. And I quite liked the symbolism. I’ve always thought of fiction, poetry especially, as a kind of wizardry – spell-casting.

When I was young I was pretty average to look at – I mean, not Elephant Woman or anything – but I was horribly tall, thanks to my 6’ 4” father, which denied me the invisibility I longed for. “Head in the clouds,” my father used to say, “in more ways than one.” On my first day at infants’ school they put me in a class with seven year-olds. It was only when the teacher asked me to read something off the board and I couldn’t oblige that they realised there had been an administrative error. I was relegated, in disgrace, or so I felt, to the babies’ class. By which time the babies had made instant friends with one another and regarded me as some sort of incoming weirdo-freak.

My immediate ancestors, according to the family tree, were nothing out of the ordinary – no marauding Barons or slyly philandering Dukes, just servant girls, washer-women, carpenters, gardeners and clerks. We were kind of rural, I suppose, and kind of poor, and we didn’t move about much just sort of stayed where we were, or moved a few villages away, to breed even more of us. The Vikings invaded us – well, kept on and on and on invading us – and a lot of us have Viking blood. I always suspected Vikings in my gene-pool, somewhere. I’d have made an excellent Viking.

In Viking times I would probably have been thought of as heroic – in strength and proportion, if not in valour, and might have found myself a good husband. I can’t help remembering a tale of a beauty contest at a ceilidh in the Hebrides, where a woman was considered utterly ravishing – synonymous with excellent breeding stock – if massive enough to run with a heifer under either arm.

I was never attractive to the opposite sex in a general way – never got a Valentine’s card, for instance; never got whistled at by builders; had to chase pretty hard for the few dates I actually got – the first one turned out to have been a dare – and by the time I got them I didn’t really want them. Circular logic, you see – the only man worth pursuing is the one who can never be caught.

But I did seem to be a hit with a few specialist segments of the population – chivalrous, lusty old men; frail, dependent old ladies; children with learning difficulties (I taught a class on teaching practice and was a big hit there, though heckled and pelted with elastic bands and screwed up balls of paper in other classes); terminal bores in pubs; the least popular three girls in any class; people everyone else laughs at behind their backs and strangers with scary psychological disturbances in need of someone to talk to.

I’ve also always seemed to attract what I now understand – didn’t at the time, since they hadn’t been invented – were spectrum or Asperger’s men; and an entire universe of stray and lonely cats, which homed in on me like heat-seeking missiles. So I married one of the former and became a serial adopter of the latter. Sensible, really.

Anyway, these witches. I actually had a story in mind about the two witches – the couple with the broomsticks, not my blue ‘gravatar’ witch, and how they came to be banished to a highland souvenir shop in the first place. But I see I have run out of space as usual, so that will have to wait for another post.

Ah, that feels better. Maybe I’ll go for that walk.

Basically, Bananas

I try not to think of myself as an impulse buyer, and on the larger scale this is true. I can’t afford to go out and buy a red Ferrari, Jimmy Choo shoes or whatever, and have trained myself not to even want these things. It hasn’t been that difficult, really: I’ve never been attracted to bling.

Something I have discovered, however, is that however low you set your budget the impulse to impulse-buy remains – it’s just reduced in scale. So now, on my rare ventures into civilisation, I might discover that I have bought a pencil – one of those silver, German ones with the interesting looking bobbles down the sides, presumably for superior grip. Not that gripping a pencil has been a problem in the past but – who knows what you might write with a special, silver German pencil. Or I might discover that I have bought a green and vaguely rubbery-textured make-up bag (so much tidier, all two lipsticks in the one place) or a copy of the New Scientist just in case it should spark an idea for a science-fiction story: fairly useful items, but not strictly necessary.

But what about the things I end up having to throw away – like the revolting black plastic rain hat that didn’t even fit on my head (only £1 in the £1 Shop) or the transparent plastic pot of what was supposed to be a fruity breakfast snack I bought in Tescos: chewy, inedible mixture of blueberries and wheaty-something-or-other. Why did I even think I needed it on top of the triple-cheese-sandwich pack?

But the biggest weakness of all is second hand books. I cannot afford second hand books anymore. Furthermore, I have nineteen huge cardboard boxes of second hand books stacked against the wall in my bedroom, all of which will have to be ‘removed’ by sweating and probably complaining removal men very shortly. There were about 2,000 of them at my last rough calculation, but I’ve bought more since.

It’s Amazon’s fault, mostly. I go on there to resupply the cats with wood-based cat-litter and end up buying a hefty treatise on philosophy. My last extravagance: four paperbacks by a Japanese lady writer I had never heard of before until I happened to skim past her name on Twitter, skid to a stop and skim back again. Someone had written that they only started reading Banana Yoshimoto because of the simple, elegant design of her paperback covers. And there, irresistibly, was a photo of a whole row of plain, brightly-coloured paperbacks – like sweeties in a sweetshop to a bookaholic – by this Banana Yoshimoto lady. One, irresistibly enough, was even banana yellow.

Apparently I just had to have them since a few days later they started thudding onto my doormat, rammed through the letterbox by a lazy postman. So which ones did I buy? Just checking, since I’m only halfway through the banana yellow one:

N.P. (banana)

Kitchen

Amrita

Asleep

So I bought four second-hand paperback novels by a novelist I had never heard of until two seconds before I bought them, and might not even like. Luckily I am liking N.P. It’s kind of short and kind of mysterious, kind of modern and kind of ancient. It has that creepy feel of impermanence, evanescence, falling cherry blossom and fleeting lives that Japanese Haiku also convey.

The initials stand for North Point, which is described in the novel as ‘a very sad old song’. The song is said to have inspired a collection of stories entitled – you guessed it – N.P. by a famous Japanese author living in Boston and writing in English, who committed suicide after writing them. Thereafter, everyone who tries to translate the book back from English into Japanese also commits suicide. It’s very strange, like the manuscript is cursed.

Of course I had to try to find this very sad old song, but so far the only North Point song I have found is one by Mike Oldfield – which is certainly gloomy but not all that old, and would have been even less old when Banana was writing the book in 1980. I was thinking more along the lines of one of those American ballads of explorers who drowned in the ice looking for the North-West passage or whatever, but nothing pops up on Google. I suspect Banana invented North Point, the song, just to wind me up.

Tomorrow I am going into town again and once again will try to resist the urge to buy the New Scientist or an inedible pot of fruity gruel just for the pleasure of buying something. What is it about shopping that makes one feel so much better? The feminine ‘gathering’ instinct, perhaps – once upon a time it was nuts and berries, now it’s plastic rain-hats and oriental paperbacks.

And on the way I shall ponder my new pen-name, for all those best-selling, elegantly-designed little novels I might possibly find time to write one day. I was thinking Celery Clark. Or maybe, just that little bit more exotic, Kiwi-Fruit Klark?

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Banana Yoshimoto

Not in Kansas Anymore

I don’t know what it is but driving to the vets with cats mewling pitifully in the back – No No Mummy, Not Claws Clipped Again, Don’t Like Nursie…etc., etc – tends to bring out the Muse in me. Or should it be Muser?

I was just musing, as I approached the Island’s Eccentric Traffic Lights, as to whether there was such a thing as home for me anymore, and coming to the conclusion that probably there wasn’t. The traffic lights chose to stay red for some considerable time. Other times they just bully you through.

I’m moving soon – fingers crossed, no date yet – and what has been ‘home’ for the last three years or so has now become an un-hoovered, inconvenient brick cube full of stacked cardboard boxes and jumpy, confused cats. There are no shades on the lamps. There is nothing much in the garage apart from flattened cardboard boxes. I am hoping there will be no more trips to the tip with car-loads of rubbish. Everything’s in the wrong place. I’m eating off the same two plates and drinking from the same two mugs; the rest are packed.

How many times have I been through this before? How many photos have I got of cats curled up on cardboard boxes, enjoying a transitory patch of sun, wondering where the next meal will come from – assuming their cat-food stash hasn’t also been boxed up.

After three years of doing nothing much about the various problems in this road, all my neighbours seem to have sprung into action for some reason. The lady next door has suddenly decided to replace her boundary fences with lovely new, expensive wood panels after three years of no fences in part – so we were continually catching sight of one another bleary-eyed in our dressing-gowns and slippers first the morning, shambling about the garden – and fallen fences in other parts, leaning drunkenly on my garden shed and slow-motion dismantling my water-butt. The fence man has been here for days, his radio on at full blast, hammering and clanking, his white van blocking the road to my right.

The man over the road has decided to dig up the scruffy square of concrete in front of his house. This might even cure the torrents of muddy water that have been cascading down the hill, making a beeline for my driveway and deluging my back garden every autumn and winter: except I won’t be here to appreciate it.

All day yesterday, over the road, there was a pneumatic drill controlled by a man with a white hat in a small yellow machine of some description. He too had a portable radio on loud. He couldn’t possibly have heard it over the pneumatic drill but he had it on anyway. Now the road in front of my house was blocked, by a big lorry with a trailer on the back and yet another white van.

Reversing out of my driveway has become an even greater challenge. The workmen pause and wave their arms around, grinning – those mysterious ‘reverse this way’ signals which only confuse women. Shut eyes tight, wrench steering wheel hard left and pray that Jesus has control – that’s the way to do it.

not in Kansas

Not in Kansas Anymore: Eric Diaz

What makes a brick box a home? I wondered. And what stops it being home?

Silence. The traffic lights at last turned amber. First gear. Handbrake off.

When was the last time you felt at home?

I never did. I am a stranger in a strange land. I was born one and I will die one.

So what is home?

Home is not a place, it’s a knowledge. It’s being loved by someone else, loving someone else. Home is feeling safe.

Have you never felt safe?

Have you never felt safe?

Have you never, ever felt safe? 

What a grey day!

What a grey day! It’s the second of June and it might as well be November in the south-east of England. I do love this country, and that includes our eccentric weather in all its moods – but saucepan-grey-everything is probably my least favourite especially when it’s been going on for what feels like a week. Where is summer?

A grey day can be poetic, of course, if you are in the right surroundings: mist-shrouded Yorkshire dales, perhaps; an icy fretwork of shapes around the docks on an Autumn morning; the lawn of a country house under a murky drizzle; roses, scarlet against a stormy sky, battered by rain. But a couple of hundred brownish brick box houses, all very much the same, segmented by unmade roads like a series of uncombed partings – it’s not a view to be savouring on a cold, grey summer (yes, summer) day.

All of which leads me, non-sequitur fashion, into recalling a certain joyously effeminate Northern comedian called Larry Grayson, who never missed an opportunity to trill “Oooh, what a gay day”. Alternatively: “Seems like a nice boy!” or “Everard! Shut that door!”

Catchphrases do nothing for me. Stand-up comedians do nothing for me either. Presumably I have some sort of a sense of humour (if I was entirely and smugly convinced I’d got one I probably wouldn’t have) but one person standing up on a stage delivering a quick-fire stream of gags has the same numbing effect on me as golf tournaments, snooker, darts, football, people hoping to sell me double-glazing or reclaim, for a fee, the millions they are sure I must be owed in PPI insurance, and the results of the National Lottery. However, Larry Grayson was very popular in his day and so must catchphrases be, since people repeat them ad nauseam.

Which made me think – do I have catchphrases? Surely not. The trouble is there’s no one here but the cats to record or savour any quaint little phrases of mine, but if they spoke any other language than ‘food’ I’m guessing they would be subjected to:

How much more of this?

Dear God, not again!

Which one of you did that? George?

Do I never get to sit down?

And as for my relatives, Grandad – possibly the gloomiest man on the planet, with a sense of humour so very dry that most people failed to notice it – would be saying:

Can I say something now?

If I’m spared.

or

Oh Lord, how am I going to get rid of that? (Particularly, and ungraciously, when somebody made him a gift of something, like a home-made sponge cake.)

Mum would be sighing:

I’ve given you the best years of my life and look how you repay me! or

Oh Linda!

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What would your catchphrase be?