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.
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.
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.