I wish I was a human being

Well, this is where I was at lunchtime today, at a place call Docklands Outlet in Chatham. I think this bit, which is kind of round the back, is probably the Marina rather than the Outlet. I was sheltering from Shopping Man, Shopping Woman and Shopping Infants, and relatively scorching temperatures in a patch of shade six inches by three. I was on a bench, crammed in behind a potted bush identical to the one on the left of the picture. My hip hurt, my feet were swollen and I had only been there an hour and a half. Only two and a half more hours to go before I could go home.

I always head for water when alone and under stress. I must say this wasn’t particularly exciting water, sort of man-channelled, black and not going anywhere much, but it was water, and I was mercifully alone with it. I had just eaten a large dribbly ice cream with a chocolate flake subsiding into it, followed by a double Mars bar, melting so fast I had to eat it before it began to form a chocolately layer in the bottom of my canvas shopping bag. Earlier on I had eaten an expensive toasted cheese sandwich, which wasn’t really agreeing with the chocolate, and Iwas attempting to read a David Mitchell novel called Slade House – much, much shorter but not quite as brilliant as Cloud Atlas – creepy and kind of gothic. But the sun, and the inner battle between melted cheese, melted ice cream and melted chocolate, together with thirst, boredom, loneliness, and the likelihood of being discovered and Sat Next To at any moment by some tedious variant on Shopping Man/Woman/Infants was preying on my mind and I could not really concentrate.

I was on an Outing, in a coach. Only six of us had turned up. One lady’s dog-sitter had let her down, another was ill, another… etc. But most of them had sent along their five pounds anyway, so that was OK. Except for the driver, who wouldn’t be getting as much in the whip-round at the end. I had a conversation with the driver later, about Ant and Dec. He said poor Ant (at last, a way of remembering which of them is which) had been going through such a bad time, what with his wife having left him, and no wonder he turned to drink. I ventured (foolishly) that for all we knew he might have left his wife, or his wife might have left him on account of the drinking. Which came first, the lost wife or the drinking? How could we possibly know?

The driver retorted that it was always the woman’s fault, if she left. (I left.)It transpired that his wife had left him. He then returned to a picture of a large bare lady in the newspaper, whose hands were absently but conveniently cupping the very end part of her gigantic bosoms. I told him those most certainly weren’t real. Silicone, definitely.

Two hours and fifteen minutes. My watch was doing that running backwards thing, like the wall clock in the call centre used to do as I counted down the hours, minutes, seconds even, to the blessed end of another Twilight Shift.

In the end my entire day’s haul was:

  • Two plastic peg baskets
  • Two planet-saving water bottles (with additional compartment at the bottom for biscuits or some other kind of snack)
  • One additional canvas shopping bag
  • An eighteen month diary. Eighteen months of not having to think about getting a diary. Excellent. And for some reason it was cheaper than a twelve month diary.

Then it was home again, complete with hurty hip, to feed a house full of cats. Lo and behold a letter from a Debt Collection Agency on the doormat, insisting once again that I owed an electricity company £82.22, the final balance on a house I moved out of five or six years ago. Last time I phoned them and explained that I did not owe it, I could clearly remember paying the final bill, by card, over the phone etc., I got the weary, condescending disbelief thing from the Young Person on the end of the phone, and then another Young Person, and was eventually reduced to tears. I was on the phone to their call centre for what felt like hours after being held in a queue for hours beforehand – but finally they conceded they probably wouldn’t bother me again.

And today, predictably, they were bothering me again. Would I kindly phone them, the letter said, as Further Information was required. With the nineteen cats gnawing at my ankles in search of their evening Whiskas, and the dirt boxes overflowing from a day’s neglect, I phoned instead the Electricity Company (EDF – whose customer service number was not supplied in the letter from the Debt Collection Company, meaning I had to hunt for it on the internet). The Electricity Company tut-tutted quite a lot and read me out a prepared statement saying to please ignore the Debt Collection Agency, which seemed to have been pursuing innocent former EDF customers in error.

Thing is, I very nearly gave in and paid the £82.22 last time, even though I knew I didn’t owe it, simply because I was so wearied and upset and wanted to be rid of them. It was only because I couldn’t afford to pay the same bill twice over that I dug my heels in, and cried all over them instead. This time, had I phoned the Debt Collection Agency as requested rather than being inspired to call the Electricity Company, I would probably have been ground down into paying it.

So how many poor old ladies and gentlemen have been bullied into paying non-existent electricity bills from years back? Will they be getting their money back anytime soon, I wonder?

Ah well, all’s well that ends well. But sometimes I loathe human beings. I loathe them for their all-pervasiveness and their pomposity and their long-suffering condescension and their overflowing shopping bags and their fat, food-stuffed faces. I despise the lot of ’em.

I wonder when and where my next Outing will be?

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Keep Calm And Carry On

This phrase – famous from mugs, biscuit tins tea towels and whatever – was invented by the British Government in 1939 just before the start of the Second World War. It was a motivational poster intended to carry the British populace through such horrors as the Blitz, and to remind them that the British were famous for their Stiff Upper Lip. I can’t imagine what a Stiff Upper Lip looks like, in practice, can you? How did they communicate, with all that stiffness going on?

For some reason, in spite of the Blitz actually Happening and turning out to be Even Worse than Anybody Could Have Imagined, the poster was hardly used.

I was thinking it’s a bit like that now. Still no motivational poster, while we wait, with a growing sense of Foreboding, for those superpower idiots to stumble into bombing and nuking – or maybe horribly gassing and poisoning – the hell out of one another, presumably in and around what’s left of Syria. And in the meantime a military grade nerve agent, apparently capable of wiping out the entire population of the UK, is used on a former Russian spy and his daughter on the quiet streets of – of all places – Salisbury. Until now, nothing of note ever happened in Salisbury. People who don’t live there are not even sure where it is. It was just getting on with things, minding its own business.

But we are the British. We possess Stiff Upper Lips. We Keep Calm and Carry On. Apparently. But it seems to me that that is what ordinary people, everywhere, tend to do. Mostly.

My Mum had what they then called a Nervous Breakdown, around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. At the time I wasn’t aware of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and only aware of my Mum’s Nervous Breakdown because it involved what seemed to me like Years of lying on the sofa taking aspirins every four hours, and Nan coming along the road to do Mum’s housework after she had done her own, and me getting ignored and understanding that this was all My Fault. Indeed, my father told me it was My Fault. Mine and my sister’s, for fighting so much.

The thing Mum was most worried about, she told me later, was the Atomic Bomb. The Atomic Bomb was about to fall on all of us, any day now, and we would be just like the people in Hiroshima, reduced to piles of smoking ash, black shadows on walls or irradiated to death. Now we all live with that, don’t we? It’s got old and tired, and we no longer have Nervous Breakdowns over it. Indeed, we no longer have Nervous Breakdowns. We get Tired and Emotional, or we suffer from Exhaustion and have to book ourselves into some Clinic or other, for Cognitive Therapy.

All over the world, we carry on; we wash the dishes and put out the rubbish; we feed our pets and fill in our tax returns; we grumble because the bus hasn’t turned up – again; we wonder whether we should mow the lawn, or is it too wet still? There is nothing whatsoever we can do about the Bigger Picture: having no power to do anything else we focus on our postage-stamp lives and hope that somehow or other Armageddon will give us a miss.

Yesterday – apropos of nothing, or something, not sure – I took Fifi to the vet to get her claws clipped. For months she had been hooking up on one bit of furniture or another. It was time. But Fifi didn’t think so. Fifi is a tiny tabby, old and kind of frizzy looking, but on the nurse’s table she turned into a Wild Beast. It took two nurses to hold her, plus the application of a teensy-tiny muzzle that covered her whole face so she couldn’t see and being wrapped in a thick blanket. The nurses wrestled with poor Fifi, whose snarls and spitting could be clearly heard in the waiting room, and finally the claws were clipped. “If only you could have just Kept Calm, Fifi,” said one of the nurses, “it would all have been over with in a few seconds.”

But cats, unlike humans, are not programmed to Keep Calm And Carry On.

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The Return of Mystery Dog

I sometimes feel as if I am living inside an unpublished chapter of Cold Comfort Farm, here. Like when Charlie says things like

‘Arrr, they comes in from the field, them rats. And in the summer they goes back there.’

How does he know that? I mean, there is a field at the end of our road – acres and acres of one featureless field that stretching so far into the distance that its boundaries are invisible. It grows – field stuff. Stuff that changes colour with the seasons and at least once a year coats everything with a kind of fine chaff. Sometimes it needs ploughing, and it is ploughed. The ploughing seems to go on all through the night and the tractor has a light on it. That is about all I know about the field.

I mean, how has he even got into the field, since we are disbarred from it by a rancid, weedy ditch full of rubbish and brambles, and an old hedge? And assuming he, being a country person, has managed to get in, how has he learned the ways of the local rats? Has he spent many hours standing in the middle of it, like a scarecrow? Indeed, now I think of it he would make an excellent scarecrow.

That’s the trouble with having been born and spent the first twenty-one years of your life in a suburb, among bungalow-rows and metalled roads and tame suburban trees – you never quite fit in anywhere else. Deeply, deeply uneasy in the big city, you are equally out of your depth in rural – by which I mean the real, shabby, workaday rural England, not leafy Surrey with its secluded mansions – though I would probably feel equally ill-at-ease there.

So, the rats have come in from the fields, apparently. And will return there, apparently. I have my doubts. If I was a rat and found a ready supply of tinned cat and dog food, plus bits of bread fallen from the bird table, I think I might decide to stick around, but who knows how a rat thinks? Maybe Charlie really is tuned in to rodent thinking. He certainly seems to be one with the soil, and all that.

When he departed, to sort and deliver several hundred parcels that had just been dumped on his driveway by the gigantic daily lorry, I thought again about poor Mystery Dog, and his plaintive woofs in the pitch-black garden around midnight, when he found his giant bowl of dog-food absent. I thought I had made a grown up decision for once, a sensible decision, in discouraging the ever-burgeoning colony of rats in my garden, but the thought of that little woof… And such a big dog, who must have been so very hungry these past two nights…

I have noticed, every time I make a grown-up decision it turns out to be the wrong one. I should obviously be following my instincts rather than trying to think. So I put more food out. Maybe the rats will have forgotten that there ever was food here, after two days of no food. How long is a rat’s memory, for goodness sake? I suspect it is pretty long since they can work out mazes and stuff, and press buttons in complicated sequences to get grapes – or is that monkeys? But still I put the food out.

I think maybe Mystery Dog himself will have forgotten, after two nights of misery. Maybe he has packed his belongings in a spotted handkerchief and set off for pastures new. But this morning all his food was gone. The stray cats’ dishes were polished too. So it’s either him or – as Charlie suggested – a fox. Or a hedgehog capable of eating three times its volume in supermarket meaty chunks.

Homo What?

Homo What?

We were just retrieving her disabled badge from the dashboard of my car, and as she leant in she spotted the paperback book I had casually jettisoned onto the driver’s seat to make less weight in my bag. Its actual title was Homo Deus and it was by a gentleman I had never heard of until I spotted him on the Three For Two shelf at W H Smiths – Dr Yuval Noah Harari “who now lectures at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem: specialising in World History”.

One thing I am good at is lightning deconstructions of trains of thought, ie what people were thinking before they came out with that strange remark. OMG, I thought, she doesn’t speak Latin (not that I speak Latin per se but enough to know what Homo Deus means) and now she is anxious that the Nice But Dim lady she befriended at a rainy bus stop sometime last year, suggesting she might like to come along to the local Over 50s, is going to turn out to be a Man In Drag, and she might turn out to have bagged herself a Gay Best Friend rather than someone to provide convenient lifts here and there: her very convenient disabled badge – which allows us to park free for hours-and-hours in all sorts of car parks – nice wide spaces so you are not forced to damage the door of the car next door, take a huge breath in and slither out like the Basilisk from Harry Potter – versus my very convenient little red car, and continued ability to drive it. (She has a car – a very nice car – but is scared to drive it now due to dizzy spells.)

One thing I am not normally very good at is summarising books, instantly, when someone asks “What’s that you’re reading?” I always hate it when they ask that, especially when I’ve only just started reading it. However, a quick reply was obviously needed, so I took the sort of huge breath normally reserved for Slytherin’ out of narrow gaps between parked cars, and exhaled: Oh no – it’s – it’s, um, about Men being gradually upgraded into Gods.

It was a good enough one-line précis of a huge book, but I could see it hadn’t helped. She clutched her disabled badge to her chest and dropped her walking stick again.

Got to cut this short, I thought.

“It’s non-fiction,” I said. “Nothing to do with – you know.” And so we went on our way, possibly for another lot of Tea and Buns somewhere, I can’t remember.

Anyway, I’ve got a bit further on with Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow now. It makes excellent bath-time reading, though I keep having to discourage the three-legged cat, who is convinced he can navigate the entire soapy edge of the bath without Slytherin’ into this trough of steamy bubbles containing the mysterious bare human.

Thanks to Homo Deus I have decided I am an Animist rather than a Theist or a Humanist. Yes, I am some sort of primitive throwback to times when one could communicate with trees, and ghosts and spirits mingled unselfconsciously with mice, deer, bears and human beings, and all had an equal value in the universe, and equal rights. I have always been one of these, without knowing it, and that is why thing like factory farming and cruelty to animals make me so miserable. Ah, all those trees I failed to hug, back in the days when tree-hugging was an acceptable pastime and not associated with the Prince of Wales. All those yurts I failed to build and wild nights out under the stars I failed to experience…

And now I am too old. My neighbour pointed out a tree branch to me yesterday, that had somehow got trapped underneath my little red car. I had been driving around with said branch dragging along the ground for a week, I guess, judging by the length of time the unexplained knocking and banging had been going on. He was obviously expecting me to throw myself full-length on the ground, man-fashion, that instant (even though it had been raining) and retrieve the shameful branch before it “gets tangled in the electrics” but my days of throwing myself full-length are over. It’s not the getting down, it’s the getting back up.

So I temporised. I thanked him for pointing it out and slunk off indoors, returning with a patchwork cushion and the long metal hooky-thing the previous occupants of my house had once used to hook down the loft-ladder, and knelt, in the damp, with a creak or two. I was dreading a kind of wrestling match with some ferociously entangled-with-electrics piece of wood but actually it came away quite easily. I looked round, hoping against hope that he wasn’t still observing me from his front room window, as I clung to the wing-mirror and mountaineered myself up the side of the car, clutching pole, patchwork cushion and branch. The neighbours feel sorry for me, but they think I’m weird.

You know how you can always tell, when people think you’re weird?

I wonder why I started writing this? Oh yes, The Ratties.

I have rats – or at least I did, until yesterday. I don’t dislike rats, or any other living creatures, and had quite enjoyed watching them scuttling backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards at the bottom of the garden, pinching pieces of bread and seeds from underneath the bird table. They had neat little tunnels, I realised, allowing access from the piece of waste land beyond my end fence. Then they did a kind of circuit round the myrtle bush, and that green shrub that gets yellow spots on it in the summer. They had worn little rat-runs through the grass.

It was OK when there were only two of them. For a whole winter there were only two of them. Then, suddenly, there were little baby rats and then, equally suddenly, there was a garden-full, and they were right up by the back door. Every time I looked out there was one running off with a lump of cat food from the stray-cats’ dishes, or a lump of dog-food from Mystery Dog’s Dish. I could see that soon they would start coming in through the windows, running up the drainpipe and chewing the electrics in the roof, causing neighbours to complain to the Council; the Rat Catcher in his smelly moleskin trousers, knocking on my front door.

So I’ve had to bite the bullet, stop putting food out. Now Sunshine the stray ginger tom no longer even bothers to detour through my rat-run grass. Last night I heard Mystery Dog woof-woofing mournfully in the garden, wondering where his monster plate of food had got to. And no birds sing (mournful sob!)

O WHAT can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.

I have gone against my every instinct, and am become La Belle Dame Sans Merci.

Would you be in the B-Ark?

I may have a weird sense of humour but I particularly like a race of beings that appear in Douglas Adams’ book The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. They are called Golgafrinchans and they originated in “a red, semi-desert planet that is home to the Great Circling Poets of Arium and a species of particularly inspiring lichen”. The story is this. At some point in their history the Great Circling Poets decided they wanted to get rid of the useless third of their population. So they invented a story that the planet Golgofrincham would shortly be destroyed in a great catastrophe (by a “mutant star goat”). The useless one third of the population were packed into a spaceship know as the B-Ark – supposedly one of three giant Arks – and launched into space. They were told that the remaining two thirds of the population would follow in the other two Arks.

Of course the remaining two thirds did not follow – there were no other Arks – and the B-Ark was programmed to crash land on a remote planet on the spiral arm of the galaxy – which happened to be Earth. So they crashed. The Golgofrinchan societal rejects mingled with and usurped the native cavemen and became the ancestors of humanity.

But who were the useless third? According to Douglas Adams they consisted of hairdressers, tired TV producers, insurance salesmen, personnel officers, security guards, management consultants and telephone sanitisers.

I have always assumed – being a gloomy sort – that I would be included in the “useless third” and would find myself on a spaceship hurtling towards relative oblivion. But then I started to wonder – how do you define “useful”? Surely “useful” itself is relative, since it depends on the society you happen to find yourself living in, and the relative needs of that society? And doesn’t it depend on the intelligence of the individual, his or her store of arcane knowledge, unused skills and potential to change or adapt?

I mean, in some societies there is little choice. In our own, for instance. There are many pretty trivial jobs but most people need a job of some kind.  Inevitably this means quite a few will be left with no alternative but to become – telephone sanitisers or whatever. I’m pretty sure those bored gentlemen forced to stand/pace around for hour after hour in stores in a silly uniform as a deterrent to shoplifters, don’t really want to be doing that. They do it for the money, and for security.

Hairdressers – well, yes, in an apocalyptic situation or primitive society you wouldn’t need hairdressers. It is quite possible – as I have discovered – to cut your own hair after a fashion – at least well enough to keep it out of your eyes – or just to let it grow long. In our current society, hairdressers are somewhere between a necessity and a luxury: their function is to make people look and feel better; a good hairdresser is an artist in his or her own right. Do we really need musicians? Do we need artists, or tailors, or comedians? No, we could survive perfectly well without them if they all suddenly disappeared in a puff of green smoke.

If I were to be marooned on a desert island with a brilliant violinist, would he or she be able to save me from starvation and the encroaching tide? Probably not. On the other hand that same violinist might be good at maths (musicians often are) and might be able to calculate the tides around our island, so that we knew the most fortuitous time to set off on our raft – which he/she might even have been able to help me construct. Because being musical does not preclude you from having other talents – simple construction work, for example. That telephone-sanitiser might happen to know how to weave, or paddle a canoe. Or they might have qualities not previously utilised – a clear head in an emergency, people skills, courage under fire – whatever. Until you are tested, you don’t know what you can do.

So I would say, be careful who you write off as useless. Do not write off disabled people, autistic people, artistic people – or people who have never had much of a chance in life and so are forced to accept trivial or low-status jobs. Do not assume that that is all they are, or all they could be if circumstances were suddenly to change and a new and different version of society come into being.

It is a risky thing to define any skill or occupation a “useless” – we do not know enough, about the present, let alone the future, to be able to make such value judgments with any confidence.  Fate has a way of taking its revenge on those who are absolutely sure they know best.

According to Douglas Adams, the Great Circling Poets of Arium were eventually wiped out – by a virulent disease contracted from a dirty telephone.

“Words That Stung”

Yes, it’s come to this: in desperation I have printed off a list of Interesting Personal Essay Ideas. Sigh! And this was on there – the title, not the wasp, or wapsie as Canadian sister used to say when little, several millennia ago. I know why the current lack of inspiration: things have been happening in my life as usual, but for various reasons nothing I can actually write about here. This always stymies me, since my usual method is simply to ask myself What am I obsessing about/ ruminating over/ pondering/ remembering right this minute? And however unlikely the subject is, I sit down and ‘splurge’ about that.

I usually avoid internet lists of essay titles. They mostly seem to be aimed at schoolchildren and involve school, teenage crushes, dreams and plans for the future, lurve or parents – none of which I have, in any useful sense. Note of gloom creeping in here – buck up, do, you old misery!

Words That Stung – hmmm, we all have some of those, don’t we? And how not to turn a feeble attempt at an entertaining Monday Morning Post into All The Nasty Things People Have Ever Said To Me. Let’s just select a few, then over to you for your examples.

There was the time my mother told me I had to keep my face still when we were out shopping, because some lady had said What a pity your little girl has St Vitus Dance, or words to that effect. My mother explained that St Vitus’ Dance was when your face kept twitching, kind of grotesquely. I wonder who St Vitus was? Somebody who danced, obviously. Will have to look him up.

There was the time Canadian Sister and I entered a children’s writing competition in the local newspaper (Uncle Mac’s Corner). The title was something like Why My Mummy Is The Best In The World. I wrote it really, but sister provided some enthusiastic input. She was probably too young to write at that stage. I was so proud when it appeared in Uncle Mac’s Corner the next day, and expected Mummy to be pleased (chocolate cup cakes for a week, I imagined) but she wasn’t.

Instead she launched into a – to me, at seven or so – inexplicable and hysterical rant, to the effect that I sent that to the newspaper, secretly, for all to see and laugh at, and I could write all that but I could never tell her to her face. It was true that I had never told her to her face. It had never occurred to me because what kid goes up to their Mum and says all that sugary, embarrassing stuff? And anyway writing was my telling, my speaking, my confiding – was then and has remained so.

And then I had to walk to school, with my face all red and puffy, hiccupping, and get teased and stared at all day for the mess I was in. I maybe understood a bit better when I got older, but I never forgave her.

There was the time – no, I can’t tell you that one. Or…that one, either.

And then there was the time a supervisor told me the ‘bosses’ regarded me as some kind of slightly addled old hippy – nice, but vague – or words to that effect. I wasn’t actually nice, and I wasn’t actually vague, and if only I had been a hippy.

There was the time a visiting financial advisor remarked that of course the root of all my problems was a) insufficient income and b) all those cats. The sensible thing, he said, will be to dispose of all, or most of, these stray cats. I wondered whether he had children, and how many of them he would dispose of in times of financial stress, and which of them he would choose.

There was the time the doctor told me my bad back would get better if I lost some of the excess weight when actually I was just bundled up in an old winter raincoat with the belt bunched up funny round the waist (à la little Meghan’s posh white coat in her official engagement photo, but nobody said she could do with shedding a few pounds because it happened to be a chilly day and her belt was tied sort of funny!)

On similar lines, and talking of fat, these Stinging Words are not mine, but were related to me by a colleague. She said she had gone to the doctor one Winter’s day wearing a puffy anorak with her woolly gloves poked into the pocket, and he had asked her how far along her pregnancy was – when she wasn’t. Mind you, she was a bit chunky.

And one from my sister, when she and her husband were trying unsuccessfully for a baby, who kept receiving pamphlets in Air Mail letters from her mother-in-law, about female infertility. Her husband had been trying to intercept the post on his way out to work, to fish out any pamphlets before my sister saw them. But that’s not so much a Stinging Word as a Stinging Action or a Stinging Assumption.

Have any Stinging Words (not too painful to share at this distance in time) remained indelibly seared into your memory over the years?