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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.