Play that song…

So there I was, aged thirteen and three-quarters or thereabouts, attending the Methodist Youth Club. All Around Me (as the ghastly Christmas song would have it) Children Playing, Having Fun…. Except that I wasn’t having fun and the Methodist Youth Club wasn’t anything like everyone cracked it up to be.

It was held in the back room of the Methodist Chapel in Station Road. The floor was uncarpeted boards and kind of dusty. Having moved the long metal benches to one side a handful of teenagers thundered about on it, aimlessly. In one corner there stood an out-of-tune piano. Every once in a while a brave or show-offy teenager attempted Chopsticks on it, very loudly and very badly. One or two could also manage a version of a tune I notice has come back again recently, in disguise. Now it’s hiding in a catchy rap-type thing called Play That Song:

Play that song
The one that makes me go all night long
The one that makes me think of you
That’s all you gotta do
 Hey, mister DJ when you gonna spin it
My baby’s favorite record she been waiting for a minute
She invited all her friends and I’m buying all the rounds…. etc
 Originally it was known as Heart & Soul (Hoagy Carmichael, 1939) and had different words.

Whatever, they plonked it out on the piano for a minute or two before losing interest.

There were only other things to do to pass the time at the Methodist Youth Club, which as I recall was more or less unsupervised by any kind of adult. You could disappear into the back room to take part in a kind of seething mass snog in the dark, which was where ninety percent of them went. Or you could play ping pong. Mass snogging was obviously a total no-no for a girl of my mangy ilk. Nobody ever asked me to play pingpong and I would have been mortified if they did. I therefore stood around watching other people play pingpong.

I stood around trying to pretend I wasn’t the only person standing around with not a soul to talk to.

I stood around trying to look as if I could have played pingpong or disappeared into the back room for a snog in the dark – if I’d chosen to.

I stood around, a too-tall, spotty teenager who wouldn’t take off her blue school mac (why? why did I go round in my school mac all the time? I must have been so weirder even than I remember), her hair scraped up into two wispy school-type bunches. I had not only spots all over my chin all the time but, as it seemed to me, boils. People laughed at me. I dreaded going to the Youth Club. I dreaded not going. I looked forward all week to going. I hated actually being there.

On the subject of ‘why’. Why do mothers come out with stuff like ‘Oh you might get the odd little spot or two now you’re a teenager, but by the time you’re eighteen your hormones will have settled down…? Untrue, so untrue. It’s one of those absolute lies regularly told to women and little girls, such as:

‘Childbirth? Not nearly as bad as people make out…’

‘The change? Scarcely noticed it!’

‘No, of course old ladies don’t have hairs growing out of their chins. That only happens to wicked witches in storybooks…’

So I stood there week after week, one Airforce Blue school raincoat-clad elbow casually draped upon what had once been the mantelpiece, appearing to be reading with utter fascination the only other book in the room apart from a massive Bible on a lectern, which nobody would have been seen dead even approaching.

There I stood, week after a week after week after week, under the beady eyes of Jesus. He was a wrinkled print in a cheap frame. He was sitting on a hilltop somewhere, on a hillock or maybe a boulder. I remember he didn’t look a bit Jewish, more blonde, curly and wispy-brown-bearded. He had a halo of course, and all around him were children of all nations gazing up in longing and adoration. I believe it might have been captioned Suffer the little children to come unto me. I seem to remember little girls were perched on his knee and even at the time it struck me as a bit creepy and horrid.

However, He was Jesus and He was looking down on me and even at thirteen and three quarters or thereabouts I hoped that He might be looking after me as well and saw me as I stood there hideously self-conscious and awkward beyond all description. He saw the meanest sparrow fall unnoticed in the street, after all. Why not me and my many zits? It’s not at all fun suddenly being adolescent especially when, even before a tidal wave of hormones decided to envelope you, you were pretty screwed up.

The book was called The Midwich Cuckoos and it was by John Wyndham. I can see it now, a cream and orange penguin paperback somebody had abandoned on what had once been the mantelpiece to gather dust. It was a library copy – a paperback that converted into a hardback and plasticised, a torn date label inside. The plastic had gone brittle in the sunlight and was crackling away at the edges.

I can see that book so clearly, what I can’t remember is the plot since I never read a single word of it in all the months that I stared so earnestly and learnedly into its brown and faded pages.

I suppose I’ll have to read it now. Exorcise the ghost.

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In Oppley they’re smart, and in Stouch they’re smarmy, but Midwich folk are just plain barmy”  (The Midwich Cuckoos: John Wyndham)

Featured Image: Piano Duet: Pamela Blaies

White plastic popper-beads and a red hat

I have noticed that my posts become increasingly like the white plastic popper bead necklace I had when I was a child, and which broke all over the floor during a game of spin-the-collection-plate at the Sunday School Christmas Party because some stupid boy (probably Peter Stelmazuk) yanked on them to see how they were held together. I get one thought, and that leads on to another, and that another and occasionally if I’m lucky the end thought joins back up to the first one.

I used to know a woman who spoke like I write. Unfortunately she lived opposite me on the new estate that Ex referred to scathingly as Brookside. She was one of those women who having discovered you stuck to you like a veritable limpet and wouldn’t stop talking. I used to get invited over to their house, which was hugely much bigger than mine, with a conservatory, a lovely (if bijou) garden with a water-feature, and those massive, expensive armchairs with electric controls that lift the back, the seat, the arms, the footrest and whatever other moving parts it has up and down so as to ensure your absolute comfort whilst consuming white wine or nibbling on canapés of an evening.

Her husband used to go upstairs to his study as soon as I arrived, either to construct model aeroplanes or to further his bid to become a local councillor so as to have speed bumps inserted into Brookside’s smooth new speed-bumpless circular road, which the local hooligans used as a racetrack, using the car park of the equally new and monstrously big Tesco store as their starting point. He was exhausted being married to this woman and, after only twenty minutes in her company, I was exhausted too. Unfortunately, I never got away with less than a whole evening.

She would talk non-stop, seamlessly segueing from one irrelevancy to another, whilst I tried desperately to keep all the threads together and understand the connection between them. I would watch her mouth moving and moving and moving, fascinated and horrified, wondering when – and how she was ever going to get to the point. Her conversation was like one of those fractal leaves, you know? Endlessly branching, branching and branching. And the thing was, you couldn’t tune out and daydream because every now and then she would stop and ask a question, but never about the branch of the fractal she was currently on, always about something several branches back. I couldn’t abide her, but abide her I did for several years. I felt sorry for her because she had no friends. I knew what it was like to be impossible and unlikeable and not understand why. I suspected she and I had an uncomfortable something in common, but at that time I didn’t know what.

She used to take me shopping in Canterbury. She would drag me round one department store after another, looking for a red hat or similar must-have object. She would never buy anything. In each store, instead of looking for the must-have object she would approach the first sales assistant she spotted on the ground floor and demand to know where the red hats were. She would fail to memorise the instructions and ask the poor woman – who was actually selling make up or perfume rather than hats – for it all to be repeated. Then she would drag me up and down escalators in search of red hats, because of course despite the repetitions of detailed instructions she had instantly forgotten where the red hats were.

Then we found the red hats, and one particular red hat she really loved. Then we would leave the shop in search of a cash machine because she had not got any cash out before going shopping. This would take some time. Then neither of us would be able to remember where the particular red hat was, so would spend the rest of the morning trying to relocate it. Then she would disappear into changing rooms and leave me standing in the middle of the store. Hours later, still standing there, I would wonder if she had simply gone home. I would ask shop assistants if they had happened to see her. None of them ever had.

I moved house but she came to visit me, turning up in her husband’s bright yellow sports car and skewing it across two of my new neighbours’ parking spaces. She was not a good driver though it was a good car. The best air-conditioning I had ever experienced, and it smelt of new leather and great expense. She also phoned, at great length. I had ‘caller display’ put on and took to not answering it when her number showed up. I felt bad about that.

Now, I remember where this was going. Sooner or later we will get on to the Youth Club, the out-of-tune piano and a single battered copy of The Midwich Cuckoos. And somewhere in the mix will be a queasy, beatific portrait of Jesus surrounded by unlikely children of all races, suffering them to come to him. And then there will be my newly-found Certificate of Baptism and my dear Godmother who is not, in fact, my godmother at all as it transpires.

I think it will have to be another post.

Maybe even two.

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Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair…

Apparently, human beings are evolving towards a state of complete hairlessness. This is because being less rather than more hairy is considered attractive, particularly in women. Therefore, by a process of natural selection over many thousands of years, hair is  on the way out – faster in women than in men because quite a few women still rather like the hairy man and continue to select him for a mate.

Apparently, for reasons I have now forgotten, if I ever read that bit, our many, many times great grandchildren may have huge foreheads, great gobstopper eyes like those Manga characters, and teensy-tiny teeth. They are likely to be very tall, but physically rather weak. Etiolated – I seem to remember that word from biology. You put a plant in a dark cupboard and it grows and grows, looking for light, but not finding any light it blanches and weakens and droops. That’s what we’re doing as we sit in the flickering dark catching up on all those box sets. Etiolating.

But that’s in 100,000 years time, and by that time we’ll probably all have long since nuked or poisoned ourselves to extinction. Earth will be crawling with cockroaches and the sea a mass of blind white amoeba type things. Pseudopodium – another word I remember from school biology. It means “false foot” and is a temporary protrusion on the wall of an amoeboid cell for movement or feeding. Irrelevant, of course.

(Why am I suddenly writing about hair? Well, I found this vast list of one word subjects for poems – far better than the usual WordPress prompts – you know the sort of thing – Taxes – Beige – Ant – Cactus – Hat. I thought I would make use of them here from time to time, taking care to cross them off neatly once used, like my mother with her shopping list – Ryvita – Yoghurt – Comb – Comb again – Tinned Peaches – T/paste.)

You may have noticed the picture at the top of La Tour Abolie. I do believe it is of Rapunzel and may have been taken in some open air Grimm’s fairy tales museum. She was the girl who, imprisoned in a tower by a nasty bit of work by the name of Dame Gothel – a tower with no stairs only a very, very high window – learned to let down her long golden hair so that a Prince who happened to be passing could climb up. There are various versions of what happens next. Her skirt becomes mysteriously tight around the waist. She gives the game away to the witch, who cuts her hair and casts her out into the wilderness. Rapunzel’s hair grows back once the Prince touches it. She gives birth to twins. Dame Gothel herself gets trapped in the stairless tower. Who knows?

Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair, so that I may climb thy golden stair.

rapunz 2

And then there’s poor Sampson, Eyeless in Gaza, at the mill with slaves. Foolish man, he (eventually) confided in the prostitute Delilah that his fantastic strength resided in the seven braids of his hair, which were at once shaven off so that his strength left him, and his eyes were gouged out and he was sent to work at the prison mill, grinding grain with slaves. However, the shaven hair at once began to grow back, and…

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In praise of contraptions

What is the difference between a contraption, a gadget, a device, an apparatus, an invention…?

To me a contraption needs an element of eccentricity, a fair amount of ingenuity and a sprinkling of creative overkill.

This morning on the news there featured a gentleman in Bristol – like Banksy – not Banksy, presumably – disguised in an all-enveloping jacket with the hood up, his voice muffled: the anonymous Grammar Vigilante. He goes around in the dead of night, often in fear and trembling lest he be discovered, inserting apostrophes into words on shop and business signs where apostrophes have been sinfully omitted and removing apostrophes from words into which they have been equally sinfully inserted. But people might say, says the news reporter, that what you are doing is illegal. You don’t have permission to correct stuff.

It’s not right, he says simply. Someone has to put it right. I’m proud that it’s me. And good on him. I’d do the same myself if I had the nerve.

What struck my eye, though, was his special gadget. His contraption. He called it “The Apostrophiser” and it was a wonderful thing – with one end he could apply, at some height above his head, the apostrophe, carefully matched to the original sign for colour and font. The apostrophe started off as a blob and was carefully, expertly, smeared into the proper shape by a small wheel. On the other end was a gadget for blanking out superfluous apostrophes. The Apostrophiser worked a treat but was so big he had to carry it openly about the night-time streets of Bristol. I did wonder as to the necessity of the hoodie etc for a man with a giant wooden Apostrophiser dangling from his right arm, but…

Life is so much more interesting for contraptions, isn’t it? Nan and Grandad didn’t have a fridge, which was a problem on Sundays when they bought a block of Raspberry Ripple ice cream (my favourite) to go with our Sunday Lunch. Grandad dug a deep, square hole under the bathroom washbasin – it must have taken him at least a day – and made a kind of dumb waiter to lower the ice cream into. It seemed to work. It don’t remember it melty. He also made what he referred to as a dibber out of the handle of an old garden fork. Sawed it off and sharpened it. I think the idea of a dibber was to make a nice neat hole to settle seedlings into.

I recently spent ages combing the internet, trying to find a contraption I had imagined, in my head (sorry, it would have been in my head, wouldn’t it?). I could see the thing but nobody seemed to be selling it. Ridiculous. There’s somebody selling everything. It was a thing for squeezing every last drop of meat out of the cats’ Felix sachets. I’m a vegetarian. I hate getting gravy all over my hands and I hate waste. Some poor old horse or chicken or whatever has perished that my moggies might eat and it just feels iniquitous to waste its precious little chunks of flesh.

The thing I had in mind had two prongs, or two somethings – like hair-straighteners? For flattening the pouch. At last I found one, and a very good one. In fact I bought two in case one of the precious items should go missing. Why can’t they call things by sensible names? Like, the sort of description you might type into Amazon when searching?

Dad did try with contraptions, but he didn’t have Grandad’s flair. He once made me a T-shaped thing for reaching down into the hole that the water-meter is in, outside the house, and kind of twisting the handle. Actually, an arm with a hand on the end works rather better, but I keep Dad’s gadget anyway, like the walking stick he bought me and which I am not yet incapacitated enough to use, the rusty screw-driver and the ancient ruler, because he gave them to me.