Post McEwan Stress Disorder

This picture is from tiny card my mother once sent me. The message inside is mundane:

Monday, 2pm

I received your letter. Went over to the garage. Explained about little red spanner [Skoda’s irritating ‘service due’ warning light].

They can deal with little red spanner ie: take it off so that it won’t be a nuisance any more.

I left the key with them. It will soon be dealt with.

Love, Mum XXX

It felt a bit creepy reading this so-ordinary and long-forgotten message from Mum’s earlier self, but it was nice to see her handwriting, and to see that all the full stops were once again in the right place, the ‘i’s all meticulously dotted and the ‘t’s all crossed. The style’s clumsy for her, though – ‘it’ must already have begun at that point, and I didn’t realise.

It was a long drawn out and horrible Flowers For Algernon process, for us both, first watching her handwriting decline and then her mind refusing to tell her what to write in letters to friends, and her desperate strategies to keep doing so: the sudden change to writing in pencil – I bought her a whole box of 2Bs and a desktop pencil-sharpener which neither of us could then fasten to the desk; the endless, obsessive process of rubbing out bits of sentences and trying again; the rewriting of entire letters; the asking me to check them before she posted them.

I have a little nightmare of the same thing happening to me one day – and not realising – and gibberish appearing in this blog, and either no one telling me (and who would want to be the one to do that?) or everyone just Unfollowing. Oh, God save us from an unknown future.

I found Mum’s butterfly card in one of my books. Being lazy and using everything from letters to bus tickets to torn-off pieces of cereal packet does have its upside. You never know what little treasure you might to come across when you get round to tidying your books. I also found a lot of bookmarks from a particular second-hand bookseller.

Every time you order a second-hand book from them, no matter if it only cost 99p, they include a nice cardboard bookmark with a design submitted by a reader. And they are excellent bookmarks (they must have many graphic artists among their readers) and also an excellent selling point. It works with me anyway: I always look down the list and see if I can get the book from them rather than any of the alternatives, out of sheer bookmark-greed.

I notice a preponderance of the black-and-white-one-with-the-many-skulls. I remember, in fact, them sending me three black-and-white skull bookmarks inside a single ancient paperback one time, and picturing some poor, bored school-leaver on work-experience in an office on an industrial estate, fishing for the umpteenth time into a plastic bin full of pretty bookmarks and flinging in whatever happened to come out. I wonder if they do swapsies?

And now, by the magic of technology and a lot of messing about with fancy filters I am able to use Mum’s little butterfly card in a post. Mum would have been horrified, not at the idea per se but at the prospect of me attempting to explain it to her. Her eyes would glaze over the minute I started on about my computer: Mum was very good at un-listening, as no doubt most Mums are.

Why am I going on about butterflies? Well, I was going to use this picture as an illustration for the next Books From My Bookcase item. This was going to be a debut collection of short stories called A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies by John Murray (2004). The book leapt out at me because it is one of two physically beautiful books I possess, the other one being the hardback first edition of How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff – the one with the gorgeous red flowers. Hang on, lets try to find it:

how i live cover

The above doesn’t do it justice. Bits of it (the leaves) are all shiny and lit up – sorry, metallicised – can’t find it in the dictionary but sure it’s a real word – metallized just wont do! – and bits of it are left matt. And Tropical Butterflies is yellow and brown and kind of fusty-Victorian-looking, and inside there is a bonus – an extra sheet – what do you call that? – the front paper – with a glossy version of the same yellow cover, a delightful little shock when you open it.

Now, later on in life, I understand why I married an artist. I thought it was only an unhappy childhood and alternative brain-wiring we shared but it was also an eye for beauty. In another life, maybe, I shall be a  collector of objects d’art Maybe I can go back (since I doubt that ‘lives’ are in chronological order) to the 17th Century and be a man (makes life easier, always) and have a cabinet of curiosities full of wonderful and mysterious things that I can show off to callers. Or maybe I’ve already had that life.

Rats.

In any case, having found A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies I realised I had only in fact read a few little bits of it. The short stories look good, if a mite challenging. They certainly got good reviews:

“John Murray’s stories are a genuine cultural breakthrough… adventures of the mind, and rich in human feeling, true departures from any other known fiction.” Muriel Spark

I think I read a little bit of one and had uncomfortable flashbacks to Ian McEwan. I had a really bad experience with his macabre short story collection The Cement Garden (1978). Every one of those tales frightened the living daylights out of me. Never been the same since. Post McEwan Stress Disorder.

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From my bookcase: R K Narayan: The Painter of Signs

Sort of visual pun, tee hee!

A few days ago I said I would select books from my bookcases at random, but at that point my bookcases were in total disarray so I couldn’t have found a book on purpose if I’d set out to. Since then you will be pleased to hear that I have re-alphabetised my library and you know, I feel so much better for it.

I have also found my Sisters By Chance, Friends By Choice wooden coaster. I foolishly made mention of this coaster in an old post (Being a Beastly Sister) stating that it was one of my most treasured possessions. On re-reading the post for some reason I realised – it’s a sinking feeling that becomes more and more familiar as you get older – that actually I had no idea where this treasured possession was. Then I felt like an Even Beastlier Sister.

I had to find it. I can’t not look for things once I realise they are lost, and since I have a tendency to ‘file’ small objects I don’t want to lose but don’t quite know what to do with – such as bookmarks, letters and coasters – between books in my bookcase, I decided to spend an afternoon playing a simultaneous game of ‘sort the books’ and ‘hunt the special coaster’.

Now that the books are in alpha order, it’s difficult to avoid an element of selection, so I’ve decided to just hop about a bit, from one writer-nationality and writing style to another. They say variety is the spice of life and I suppose it might be true. My life has been quite varied, I suppose, but I seem to have missed out on the spice.

So, R K Narayan: The Painter of Signs (1977). Quoting from the back cover again:

Raman is considering giving up sign painting when he meets Daisy of the Family Planning Centre. Slender, high-minded, thrillingly independent, Daisy has made up her mind to be modern and is now dedicated to bringing birth control to the people.

In such circumstances Raman’s mounting, insistent passion, coupled with Daisy’s determination to disregard the messy, wayward concerns of the heart, can lead only to conflict. R K Narayan’s magical creation, the city of Malgudi, provides the setting for this comic, bittersweet story of love getting in the way of progress.

R K Narayan (1906 – 2001) whose full name was (cut-and-paste here) Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Narayanaswami, was an Indian writer known for his stories set in the fictional South Indian town of Malgudi. He was born in Madras (now Chennai) and was a leading author of early Indian literature in English. He lived till he was 94.

I think I probably started collecting R K Narayan novels and short stories out of a fascination with language in general. It may have been around the time I was working through an Open University linguistics unit. Until then it had not really dawned on me that my own beloved English language was metamorphosing into series of entirely new languages in many parts of the world. To begin with there is English as she is spoken in England, and a slightly different version in America, say, or India.

But at some point in the future the all these new ‘Englishes’ may become as hard for a speaker of the original language to understand as Dutch or Old English are today. The inexorable passing of time, and the distance of people from one another… everything changes, nothing stays the same. One day Shakespeare will have become genuinely incomprehensible, not merely to English schoolchildren but to English professors of English Literature too, unless they have a translation.

Although, of course, the internet may now be acting as a force in the opposite direction, with a tendency to steer all the Englishes back to a shared centre ground. Anyway, most of us have not travelled that far from each other, linguistically, yet. We can still revel in Indian English as spoken and written on the Subcontinent, it’s intricacy, its formality, its musicality, its subtle differences and its joyful quirkiness:

‘The very man I was looking for,’ said the lawyer, holding him up. He had undergone a correspondence course in law. ‘I must give you the happy news just received: I have passed the law, and I want your help to get my nameboard done immediately.’

‘Certainly, I’m at your service,’ said Raman.

‘I knew you would help me,’ said the lawyer. ‘I want it before eleven a.m. on Thursday.’

‘Impossible,’ said Raman. ‘I want at least five days – drying takes time…’. He felt desperate, having to explain to man after man how one had to allow time for paint to dry. No one understood the importance of this.

I won’t go on. Coffee and biscuits beckon, and the washing machine has finished its chunterings and started to whistle from the kitchen. So far we have roamed from a bleak 1950s vision of a futuristic America, to a little novel of 1950s academic England, to a fictional city in southern India in the 1970s.

Where might our bookcase time- and space-travellings take us next?

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The tiger’s name is Kevin, by the way. He has lived with me for a long time

In Some Disarray

Our local cat rescue society is in some disarray, and everyone keeps telling me this. ‘I am only phoning you because I gather the local cat rescue society is in some disarray’. Even the vet said it, at my latest appointment.

It would seem that our local cat rescue society, whether as a result of a shortage of volunteers, vicious in-fighting or an outbreak of bubonic plague, no longer in any meaningful sense exists. And this seems to have been the situation for at least the last several years.

Neighbours tend to arrive on my doorstep, usually in or just after thunderstorms bearing straggly, ear-mite infected kittens and huge, battered, un-neutered toms.

‘I thought as you have lots of cats you might just know the telephone number of the local cat rescue society, although I hear that nowadays they are in some disarray..

What they always mean is: one way or another I intend to give you this cat.

So I was not particularly surprised the other evening to get a telephone call on the subject of cats from ex-sister-in-law-the-elder, and to be advised yet again that my local cat rescue society is in some disarray. Somehow or other she was aware of this even though she lives sixty miles away. This is why she has extracted my new landline number from ex-sister-in-law-the-younger, something she wouldn’t have dreamed of doing in any other circumstances, etc.

‘I wouldn’t bother you’, she said – she wasn’t – but there’s this old lady, you see, who lives really, really close to you, you see, and you see she’s got this lovely old cat. And she’s got this problem

And so yet again, after yet another bout of rain, I ended up on the rattly local bus with its endless diversions on the way to visit an old lady in an unfamiliar neighbourhood. ‘Really, really close to you’ equates to almost an hour on the bus, then a bit of a walk, street-map in hand. Ex-sister-in-law did not realise I’d lost the car.

By coincidence, Ex’s family used to live around these parts, and this lady used to be nanny to ex-sister-in-law-the-elder. Now in her eighties Annie is tiny, bent almost double with arthritis and only able to shuffle about very, very slowly with the help of a walker, and strong painkillers. When she first opened the street door I thought she must be at least a hundred. Recently she also had a massive heart attack and was in hospital for two weeks. Ex-sister-in-law wasn’t told.

Annie brought up two children. They were not her biological children but she brought them up anyway. About four years ago she was given a cat for company – a large, soppy black and white creature – let’s call him Moppet. Moppet loves Annie to bits, and Annie loves Moppet.

Because of the arthritis Annie is now confined to the ground floor of her tiny terraced house. As you walk along the hallway the stairway is uncarpeted, ascending into darkness. Everywhere is uncarpeted, just wooden floors. In her front room is a bed and a chair and a television set, and that’s all. When I saw it I promised myself I would never again fret about my house being shabby or uncomfortable. Moppet ambles between this room and the back kitchen. He greets me casually, jumps up onto the bed and then onto her lap.

‘He’s a real mummy’s boy’, she says. ‘Aren’t you, Moppet?’

But this same laid-back Moppet has apparently savaged the ‘son’s’ hands, or legs whenever approached on a visit. And the son has said to her: ‘When you’re out, Annie, I’m going to come in and get that cat and take it somewhere – leave it in a field.’ I suspect the son has been rough with the cat in the past, and the cat remembers. Annie does too.

‘He’d do it,’ she tells me. ‘He’d really do it, and I couldn’t stop him. I’m so frightened he’ll take Moppet and leave him in a field.’

She is also afraid that she might die and that her pet will be instantly disposed of, or that she might be rushed off to hospital again and Moppet will have vanished by the time she comes out. Several times she has been sobbing to my sister-in-law over the telephone. I really hate human beings sometimes. Even if he was joking, what a dreadful, insensitive thing to say. And if he wasn’t…

I sat on the bed. We had a bit of a chat. ‘Friends’ and its canned laughter carried on in the background. I gave her both my phone numbers and told her (more than once) that Moppet would always have a home with me if he needed one – either permanently or as temporary respite. Sister-in-law telephoned me later to say that Annie likes me, and was greatly relieved to have met Moppet’s potential rescuer face to face.

But it worries me. That cat really needs to be out of danger but he and Annie are great friends, and she needs him. Besides, it’s not my decision to make. It worries me that by the time I found out something had gone wrong, and long before I could embark on that interminable bus journey clutching one of my spare cat boxes, the worst would already have happened. Annie can’t tell her son about me because she is frightened of him. Sister-in-law daren’t tell him that there would be somewhere for Moppet to go if necessary: he is suspicious of sister-in-law and her husband, and she feels this might just tip him over into carrying out his threats.

Yet another frail old person to add to my growing collection. And yet another little cat for Saint Francis to watch over.

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He hates me, he hates me not…

This morning, crammed into one corner of my tiny sofa, one cat or another on lap, bowl of Oatibix-and-sliced-banana poised midway ‘twixt hand and mouth, ghastly news on TV as always – I happened to look around and there was Hector sat in the other corner of my tiny sofa. Admittedly, he was leaning sharply away from me, the Hated Mummy. However, this is progress of a sort because although Hector is technically “mine” and has been for some months, I may never actually have touched him.

He and his cohort arrived late one evening in the back of a clapped-out car from the cat sanctuary, in (non-crushed) crush cages. Their elderly human carriers had driven a very long way to bring them to me and were visibly wilting under the weight of these heavy-duty metal contraptions which would normally be used by vets for the treatment of animals that cannot be held securely by the nurse. In the noise, excitement and confusion of their arrival I assumed this was because animal sanctuaries, always struggling for cash, would need to make use of whatever equipment they had for many different purposes.

At the cat sanctuary Hector had – or at least I was sure I remembered he had – allowed me to stroke him, once. But then there had been four very similar cats backed up in one rather small – not illegally small, of course – outdoor wooden cubicle. They had been  in that cubicle for the past two years, come rain or shine or bonfire. There was a bonfire burning in the field behind them on that day, and the smoke was drifting through. It was making me cough. They had been inspected by a stream of visitors, all of whom had no doubt reached out with their big, clumsy, terrifying human hands and tried to stroke. Every visitor had walked away with some other cat or kitten.

Why, is now becoming clearer. In a moment of Cat Mummy Madness I volunteered to adopt all four. I couldn’t choose between them and I couldn’t leave them there. All four have turned out to be as wild as wild can be. Hector and his amigos/amiga represent the North Korea of cats. Furthermore, because they are still together in a group, sharing the same scent, they are strong in their wildness. Kind people – soft-hearted and foolish like myself – have rescued and fed them but nobody has had the time to love them, or been permitted to. They cringe at the approach of a hand, or foot. I think they must have been kicked.

I would guess that Hector and his compadres are years away from the stage where I could pick any of them up, which only becomes a problem when there is a need to visit the vet. That’s a real worry. Fingers crossed they don’t get sick for a while or that patience and love will somehow, miraculously, prevail.

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Grainy (this photograph – bit of a stretch, I know!)

 

From my bookcase: Flowers For Algernon: Daniel Keyes

I’m experimenting, really. Feel free to skip.

For my artsy-craftsy patchwork-selling project, which seems to be moving at snail’s pace like all of my projects, I need to be able to take still-life-type pictures on that Fire-Thingy and transfer said pictures to this Computer-Thingy. Of patchwork stuff. And sell it. That’s the idea, anyway.

It may surprise you to learn (or not) that my level of expertise is not high. More or less everything I know about computers I have worked out for myself, then usually forgotten or lost my voluminous notes for, then had to teach myself all over again. Sigh! My sole asset is a pig-headed Holmesian determination to work out, by the Application of Logic, the Elimination of the Impossible and so on, how to achieve something horribly complicated once I have set my mind to it.

This doesn’t happen very often. Usually I give up. 

So, I took the above photo. It took quite a few attempts and in the meantime I discovered that a cat had peed in my ‘budget’ tray overnight – or possibly several nights ago –  and soaked my latest budget and related papers. Also remembered that I had four letters to post and had neither washed up nor made the bed.

The photo is not a brilliant but it is, after hours of faffing about, sitting at the top of a WordPress post. Yay! My computer is now demanding a password every time I turn it on. How did that happen? Someone?

The basic idea is that every now and then I will select a book from my book case more or less at random, ‘compose’ an amateur-arty-farty still-life photo to hone my electronic photo-taking/uploading skills and then write a tiny bit about the book to make it worthwhile.

So, Flowers For Algernon was a long short-story, published in Galaxy Science Fiction in 1959, which later metamorphosed into a novel. It is a story about the friendship between a boy and a doomed laboratory mouse called Algernon. It is about the blossoming and fading of intelligence. It is about the joy of understanding everything and the grief when you realise your new understanding is fading.

How – or whether – you read it depends on your life experience, I think. If you have had to deal with disability or seen dementia in real life you may find this book closer to horror than science fiction. It’s very, very sad.

If you can cope with it, though, it’s one of the finest short stories/novels ever written. (Not for nothing does my edition of the book have MASTER WORKS printed down the side.)

Algernon is a laboratory mouse who has undergone surgery to increase his intelligence by artificial means. The story is told by a series of progress reports written by Charlie Gordon, the first human test subject for the surgery, and it touches upon many different ethical and moral themes such as the treatment of the mentally disabled. Wikipedia

It is technically brilliant because the language tracks the mental enhancement and subsequent mental degeneration of Charlie, from an IQ of 68 to an IQ of 185 and back again. To sustain that throughout a very long story – I don’t know how he did it, and mostly I do know how writers did it, even if I couldn’t do it myself.

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Flowers For Algernon

🙂

From my bookcase: Less Than Angels: Barbara Pym

Thought I’d go for something less scary this time, so ‘Less Than Angels’ by Barbara Pym, 1955. It’s quite a while since I read this book and so I’ll crib from the back cover:

Catherine Oliphant is a writer and lives with handsome anthropologist Tom Mallow. Their relationship runs into trouble when he begins a romance with Deirdre Swann, so Catherine turns her attention to the reclusive anthropologist Alaric Lydgate, who has a fondness for wearing African masks. Added to this love tangle are the activities of Deirdre’s fellow students and their attempts to win the competition for a research grant.

The course of true love or academia never did run smooth.

I remember thoroughly enjoying this book.  The African mask thing: the wonderfully-named Alaric Lydgate, who wears the masks (in the privacy of his back garden, if I remember) is a true eccentric, seen in snatches through the eyes of his very ‘normal’ neighbours. A troubled man, but things turn out all right for him in the end. Pym’s knowledge of Africa and anthropology came from seventeen years working at the International African Institute in London, from 1946. She was the assistant editor for the scholarly journal Africa. I think she felt herself to be a kind of anthropologist – observing the ‘tribal customs’ of suburban post-war Britain with a quiet fascination, from the outside.

Two things about Barbara Pym.

First: she is much underrated and only now being rediscovered. She has been described (by Alexander McCall Smith of No 1 Ladies Detective Agency fame) as a modern Jane Austen, and you can see it there – the very small canvas – a gathering of essentially good or well-meaning, if rather restrained, muddled and emotionally inexpert – characters – English, in other words – and the overall female tone to the book.

This is not to say that her stories are dull, or bland. She can be witty, and very sharp. Her characters may not indulge in explicit sex (this was 1955, after all) but it is there in the background. Barbara Pym herself had quite a number of love affairs, though these  seem to have ended in unhappiness. She was at one point involved with a much younger man, as is Catherine Oliphant in the book. Barbara Pym was reticent about her private life and inner world but you might see a partial self-portrait in Catherine.

One of the things I like about the book is the sense that men and women in those days actually did expect to ‘court’ one another, and were hoping for romance even if they did not always find it – or find it with the person the expected to find it with – followed by marriage and children. These were – how would you put it – quieter times, and kinder.

Second: when you have read one Barbara Pym book you are almost certain to want to read them all. That’s another reason I can’t recall the plot in detail – because at the time I was working through the whole of her oeuvre (such a pretentious word, whyever did I use it?) one after another. Every now and then I put my books back into alphabetical order and am always surprised and pleased at the sight of all those colourful long-lost Pym paperbacks sitting neatly in a row. Sad, yes.

Barbara Pym’s books tend to contain lots of little bits of poetry – her characters, being academics, tend to toss quotes back and forth quite naturally. This leaves you with the delightful task (if interested enough, as I always am) of discovering where the stray lines came from. To give you a head start, at the end of Chapter 4 a character refers to a sonnet by Dante Gabriel Rossetti beginning: When do I see the most, beloved one? I notice I have even glued the sonnet into the back cover:

Lovesight, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)

When do I see thee most, beloved one?

When in the light the spirits of mine eyes

Before thy face, their alter, solemnize

The worship of that Love through thee made known?

Or when in the dusk hours, (we two alone)

Close-kissed and eloquent of still replies

Thy twilight-hidden glimmering visage lies,

And my soul only sees thy soul its own?

O love – my love! if I no more should see Thyself,

Nor on the earth the shadow of thee,

Nor image of thine eyes in any spring,

How then should sound upon Life’s darkening slope

The groundwhirl of the perished leaves of Hope

The wind of Death’s imperishable wing?

I used to feel guilty about ‘customising’ my paperbacks but nowadays book customisation is all the rage – a sub-category of scrapbooking, apparently – and anyway, to slightly paraphrase Lesley Gore (1963-ish) and many others:

It’s my paperback and I’ll glue if I want to…

 

From Mum’s Old Recipe Book: Somerset Apple Cake

  • 8 ounces self-raising flour
  • 1 teaspoon mixed spice
  • 3 heaped tablepoons soft margarine (4 ounces)
  • 3 heaped tablespoons caster sugar (4 ounces)
  • 1 pound peeled, cored and diced apples
  • A little milk (if necessary)
  • 1 large beaten egg
  • Spoonful granulated sugar for garnishing
  • Mum has made a note: ‘add 2 ounces mixed chopped nuts’ – this may have been her own preference rather than an essentialapple

Grease and line 8″ (inch) cake tin. Sift flour and spice into bowl and rub in the margarine. Stir in caster sugar and chopped apples. Add beaten egg to make a spreading mixture. If it seems a little dry add some milk.

Turn into the tin and bake at 350ºF for 1 – 1 1/4 hours. Turn onto wire tray. Just before serving sprinkle the top with sugar.

🙂