The Wife of Bath’s Tale

Friday, September 19, 2003

The Wife of Bath’s Tale

Extract from blog : Blue, with Stars : 2003 – 2006

On TV at the moment they are doing modern-day adaptations of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and last night was The Wife of Bath – I think last week was The Miller. I was made to “do” The Wife of Bath at school but it was heavily censored. I remember many words were only represented by lines of stars, and the definitions of others were mysteriously missing from the index. I do wonder how much of the tale there actually was left as most of it was fairly rude – no wonder I had no memory of the actual story. And Chaucer does have this thing with plot – ie he seems to be before the time when people began to think stories ought to be satisfying, symmetrical, and all hang together. His stories are like slices of everyday life – untidy, purposeless – and you begin to think ‘Yes but why … ‘ and ‘Why are you telling me all this ..?’ Frustrating to a reader used to tight plots and twists at the end. However, they seem to have gathered together the best actors and actresses – Julie Walters and Bill Nighy in this one – and really heavyweight actors can pull anything off by sheer force of personality I think.

Social problems

There seems to be a lot on TV at the moment about binge drinking, and the ladette culture which leads women to binge too. They are talking about advertising campaigns and treatments and all sorts of things to persuade people not to guzzle so much but as always they don’t seem to have tried to find out why it’s happening. After all people must go out behaving badly and making themselves ill because it’s pleasurable or necessary to them – and to stop them doing it you have to provide them with an alternative activity. It is my guess that people are bored – that human beings are not designed for a life where there is no fighting to do, no problems to solve, nothing much left, socially. No religion either, no structure, no hope. So they are looking for escapism. Drink is only one way of course – for myself, I read, I go to films, I study, I walk, but it is all in an effort to escape or forget. We are not so different.

# posted @ 8:14 AM

Even wobblier in all sorts of ways than I had imagined

I’m not a great play-goer. They tend to be ‘foreign territory’ to me, along with ballet and opera. Well, opera I just hate. So the few plays I’ve seen, apart from pantomimes, tend to have been with N.

N was my boss when I was a legal secretary. We shared a love of the labyrinthine coils of English Legalese and general bad luck with men. Her luck was to change, eventually; mine wasn’t. Intelligence-and-common-sense-wise she was several hundred points ahead of me but she was patient, considering my whimsical incompetence, tendency to throw a wobbly or quietly panic most days and to either file all her stuff in the wrong place or forget to file it at all. She even found it amusing that people tended to think I was the solicitor and she the secretary. An entirely logical conclusion: the big bony lummox must be the boss, the little birdlike one must be the secretary. It’s evolution, innit? Eventually she went to work for another legal firm. Eventually, also, she became my friend, for which I am grateful.

In my defence, I could type really fast. It was just… well, all the rest of it.

Sunday, September 14, 2003

Extract from (long lost) first blog : Blue, with Stars : 2003 – 2006

Rosie the kitten is sitting on my knee. We had the ceremonial opening of the cat-flap yesterday and she shot out into the outside world. Of course I spent the whole day trying not to keep checking up on her and making sure I could still see her, hunting for her all over the place. This must be what it’s like for parents letting their children go off on a gap year to Africa or whatever. Luckily Rosie didn’t set off for East Anglia (where she came from) at a brisk trot, via the M25 so she must be content to stay with me. I’ve been doing some calculations. I had vaguely thought she would be about 6 months (when they have to be spayed) in February but according to my diary it’s more like December, just before Christmas. I’ll have to check with the vet in October, when I take the remaining three in for their cat-flu injections.

Went to the theatre with N on Friday night. Not the best of nights as I was exhausted, as always after work, but especially at the end of the week, and I think she was too. She hadn’t been home but had carried on working. It was an amateur performance, and I thought it might be interesting just because of the “wobbly scenery” possibilities but it was even “wobblier” in all sorts of ways than I had imagined.

The theatre was a very small section of a leisure centre and we had to wait in a rather dismal area on a motley selection of hard chairs, saggy sofas and chaise longues, while the (one) lady behind the bar struggled to serve the queue with orange juices etc. Then we found that the theatre seats weren’t numbered and all the locals had stampeded in first to bag seats for their friends. We couldn’t sit together because there simply weren’t two seats left.

The play was a murder mystery of staggering uninterest, the actors had costumes made of what looked like curtains dyed different colours and were totally miscast – eg the ‘honeymoon couple’ were a reasonably attractive young woman and a hideous old bloke (who later got ‘killed’ and staggered back in with – possibly strawberry jam – all over his white shirt). Thank goodness for that, I thought.

The second half was a kind of question and answer session where the audience and a panel asked questions of the cast and tried to work out who dunnit. Nobody had a pencil to write the answer down. The plot had so many logic-holes (normally a plus point, as far as I am concerned, and one of the most entertaining aspects of Star Trek) that I couldn’t work out why they dunnit even when I was told that they had dunnit, and furthermore I didn’t care. It turned out to have been written by a member of the cast (the fat one with the bow-tie).

I felt a bit embarrassed that I had let N in for this awfulness but she seemed to find it quite amusing, said it was better than sitting at home writing Wills for people all evening.

# posted @ 8:56 AM

Life is full of these small irritations

Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Extract from blog : Blue, with Stars : 2003 – 2006

Am arranging to have windows cleaned. Have never cleaned the outside since I have been here! Can’t reach. Too tired. As Quentin Crisp said, after the first four years, the dirt doesn’t get any worse. However, these are new high-tech window cleaners. You have a bar code in your window which they scan, so you don’t have to wait in for them, or leave money out in little envelopes, or hunt around for change. I don’t normally take any notice of door-to-door sales people at all, but this does seem like a good idea.

On the home improvement front I have also decided to get the lock mended on the back door. I am fed up with having to prop the dustbin lid against it every time I want to go up the garden without letting all the cats out. Life is full of these small irritations and mine seem to have multiplied to such a point I think it’s worth the investment to rid myself of at least one or two of them.

Have volunteered (or been volunteered) for a quiz in September. In aid of a tiny church with a congregation of about ten as far as I can gather. I know where the church is – a very twisty complicated and, in the dark, scary journey round narrow, unlit country lanes. If you meet something coming the other way you have to reverse for miles and reversing (in a straight line anyway) is not my strong point, especially now my neck no longer works properly. Unfortunately the quiz is not even in the church but even further out into the wilds at what sounds like some sort of village hall called The Peace Rooms. I will have to do an experimental drive out there this weekend, in daylight.

# posted @ 7:18 PM


Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Extract from blog : Blue, with Stars : 2003 – 2006

Long, tiring day starting off with a visit to the vet with Rosie & Ozzie. Got told off by the receptionist for bringing Ozzie as well, even though they had sent me a card to remind me his booster injection was due. Then the vet, having done Ozzie, decided Rosie might be too young after all for her first injection and come back next week. Of course, every time you come back it costs more money. Apart from Rosie and Ozzie, the remaining three cats are due for boosters within the next month or so. Mum says in her youth they didn’t take cats to vets, and they lived on table scraps. I wonder how people managed (and still manage) to apply such different standards of care to animals and human beings. Any old chain-smoking alcoholic overweight human being and other humans will take endless trouble to make sure he/she receives the best of medical attention but a cat – waste of money.

I’ve started reading Northern Lights the first part of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy *. I know it’s a children’s book but having read and enjoyed Harry Potter I decided good children’s books are not to be ignored. At first I didn’t think I was going to like it – it seemed very slow to get going and he hasn’t got quite J K Rowling’s knack of appearing to be writing simultaneously for children and adults in the same language – in other words avoiding the faint but irritating feeling of being talked down to, and being expected to have an alien (ie childish) set of perceptions and interests. At first his parallel universe didn’t really convince me but now the story is getting moving and I do find myself looking forward to the next few minutes I can snatch to real it.

* which for some reason is also called The Golden Compass, but does seem to be the same book nevertheless.

Rosie’s just decided to come and help me type this, so I might as well give up. She is still tiny but not quite so wizened-looking now – more kitten, less gnome. And my first black cat. Now all I need is a broomstick!


I’ve just been dipping into an ancient blog which I was posting into from 26th of April 2003 to 22nd October 2006. Well, technically it was a blog but really it was little more than a personal diary gone public. I hadn’t grasped the concept of blogging for an audience as yet.

I remember the day my then-computer was delivered; I had the evening before acrimoniously broken up with the gentleman-in-name-only who had been going to set it up for me. Good riddance to him but bad timing. So there I was with a monster cardboard box containing a monstrous monitor, a monstrous computer box-thingy, a monstrous keyboard, a monstrous mouse, miles of monstrous cables ending in pluggy-in bits, and a multitude of sockets in the back of the monitor where any of the pluggy-in bits might or might not be plugged in. Plus some diagrams which I knew it would be pointless even to look at at. I’m afraid I do such things the ‘man’ way – set everything out on the carpet, put all the little nuts and bolts in a teacup and guess. If something doesn’t work I wrench it apart and start again. I get cross and exhausted but usually succeed eventually. Then I entirely forget how I did it.

I had never set up a computer before. At work we had a computer engineer. He (they were always he’s) set the machines up in the first place and he it was who would saunter along and make them better if they went wrong. In addition I was emotional. Traumatised, tear-stained and hiccupping, I set to work. That was around midday. By 10 o’clock I had a thumping headache but the computer was working. And in only ten hours.

My Stone Age blog was called Blue, with Stars. I’ve lost the username and password for it and can now only view it via a bookmarked link. It was called Blue, with Stars because of the little paragraph, which I used as a heading:

The robes of Wizardesses are blue with stars. The robes of Wizards are green with stars. And there are still Others, of whom little is known and less is said, whose robes are beyond description being of all the colours of the rainbow, and none. But all have stars.

This meant quite a lot to me but probably nothing at all to my readers, assuming I had any. It’s the first paragraph of a fairy story I wrote, or half-wrote, which was mislaid in one of my house moves. Midwinter, it was called. Maybe I’ll have a go at rewriting it.

Predictably, much of Blue, with Stars is tedious to read back and not recyclable. Nowadays I write for different reasons – to entertain, amuse, or at any rate contact other people, so I’m putting much more effort into it, searching around for more varied subject matter and editing and rewriting more carefully.

Re-reading an old diary can be a double-edged sword, a queasy business. There am I, but somehow twelve years younger and sounding twelve years younger. I want to shout to her ‘Look out!’ and ‘Don’t do that, you twerp!’ And then there is the inevitable sense of loss. What happened to the ‘me’ still marginally attractive enough to have a gentleman-in-name-only with whom to part company acrimoniously?

And then the exasperation on discovering that some of the things I have been posting about recently I was already posting about twelve years ago. I recently wrote a post, for example, called A BRUSH WITH HERBERT. I thought I was being clever with that title until I discover that on Saturday, May 21, 2005 I wrote a post in Blue, with Stars entitled – guess what – A Brush with Herbert. I think I may append the old post to the newer one for comparison. But can I really have been thinking the same things over and over, coming up with the same bright ideas and then ignoring or forgetting them, then coming up with them all over again? It’s Groundhog Day.

But it’s all grist to the mill* – seems a shame to waste it – so I decided every now and then to ‘lift’ selected high- or low-lights from Blue, with Stars should I happen to have posted something ‘lift-able’ on the equivalent of today’s date in 2003, 2004, 2005 or 2006. This is how it’s done on the Pepys Diary website Currently, for example, they are showing Pepys’ entry for Sunday 24 August 1662

(Lord’s day). Slept till 7 o’clock, which I have not done a very great while, but it was my weariness last night that caused it.

So rose and to my office till church time, writing down my yesterday’s observations, and so to church, where I all alone, and found Will Griffin and Thomas Hewett got into the pew next to our backs …

Pepys Diary website is excellent … it looks good, and it enables a busy person to follow one of our greatest and most prolific diarists without having to plough through the whole thing, end to end, which would probably take almost as long as the Dickens Challenge. Reading him this way also gives you a chance to ‘savour’ not only Pepys’ personality but the historical context in which he wrote.

So to kick off Blue, with Stars, and a few days late, here is part of the post for:

Saturday, August 23, 2003

Rosie is asleep on my lap. I wonder if all kittens are red hot, or is it only this one? She doesn’t seem ill or anything. She did get a bit of a fright this afternoon when the carpet-fitters finally arrived this afternoon to do the bedroom – leapt off my back, lacerating in the process, and went and hid under the dressing table until well after they had gone. It’s funny, she’s so bold most of the time, it hadn’t occurred to me she might be frightened of strange men. And they did hammer a lot. I thought the house might fall down. Put the mockers on the tear-jerking ending of Whistle Down The Wind, when ‘Jesus’ finally has to leave.

I’ve been watching that programme (can’t remember the name, there are so many similar ones) where contestants sing each week and the public votes to keep them in, or not. They are all so unutterably – mediocre. I can see each and every one of them singing on a cruise ship, to an audience of old ladies and slick lounge lizard types in white naval uniforms. One degree better than karaoke.

Have been exploring BookCrossing but am still trying to pluck up courage to release a book into the wild. I just think someone will see me. And they’re bound to run after me with it …

# posted @ 7:23 PM

Rosie, a tiny black kitten, had been rescued from a country road in Norfolk by one of the lady solicitors I worked for at the time. Rosie must have lost her mother and been wandering for some days. We thought maybe the mother was one of the gypsies’ cats, since my boss said it was an isolated area. She was then driven all round the M25 in a cardboard box, in hot weather, and brought to me. Thin, dehydrated and with diarrhoea, she was in a much worse way than I realised during that invasion of the carpet-fitters. However, the vet saved her and Rosie and I are still together twelve years and two house moves later. She is the ‘rosie’ element of my blogging name. I will plonk in a picture of her with this post.

* Apparently George Orwell in his essay Politics and the English Language (1946) dismissed ‘grist to the mill’ as a dying metaphor. Well, George – dead, dying or whatever – I just used it.

A brush with Herbert

The person I would most like to sit down and have a chat with in front of a roaring log fire is: Herbert Brush. And he’s not even a real person. Or rather he was a real person; Herbert Brush was just not his real name.

It may be partly the name. My grandfather was a Herbert. At his funeral service the lady vicar, never having met Grandad and assuming that Bert was short for Albert, referred to him Our Brother Albert throughout. I should have stood up for him. I’ve always felt guilty that I didn’t. I should have stood up regardless of the embarrassment to myself, my parents and the lady vicar, and screeched HERBERT, HERBERT, HERBERT. But you don’t, when it comes to it, do you?

Herbert Brush, almost certainly, was the pseudonym attached to a gentleman called Reginald Charles Harpur, from Sydenham, South East London. He kept diaries for a UK wartime project known as Mass Observation, submitting his daily life “observations” each month. Today, I suspect, he would be an enthusiastic blogger.

Mass Observation was an eccentric anthropological study, run on a shoestring by anthropologist Tom Harrisson, poet Charles Madge and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings. ‘Herbert’ was one of approximately 500 volunteer wartime writers. Even more famous than Herbert is the redoubtable ‘Nella Last’ (also a pseudonym) from Barrow-in-Furness whose later life was dramatized in 2006 by British comedienne, actress and writer Victoria Wood.,_49

Nella wrote and wrote – and wrote – approximately two million words between 1936, when she was aged 49 – hence Housewife, 49 – and 1966. She used her diary to counteract the depressions to which she was prone and also to ‘vent’ a side of her personality that her gloomy, awkward husband suppressed. Her diaries – unintentionally – follow her partial emancipation from the stereotypical ‘housewife’ she sees herself as at the beginning – to a much stronger, feistier woman by the end. She was so prolific, so idiosyncratic in character and power of expression (and punctuation) that she has books all to herself:

  • Nella Last’s War (Ed: Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming)
  • Nella Last’s Peace (Ed: Patricia and Robert Malcolmson)
  • Nella Last in the 1950s: Further diaries of Housewife, 49 (Ed: Patricia Malcolmson)
  • She also makes brief, early appearances in Our Longest Days: a people’s history of the Second World War (Ed: Sandra Koa Wing).

Nella Last has her dark side, and her tragedies, though on the whole reading her observations is pure delight. She loves cooking, and details all the crafty ‘dodges’ she contrives to whip up meals of some sort for her family during the worst years of rationing. We also hear how she goes about making clothes, saving money and sewing her ‘dollies’ for the hospital.

Herbert Brush is, if you like, Nella Last’s southern equivalent and he is an extraordinary character – lighter, more comic than Nella Last although, living through the same war and at a more advanced age, his life had its difficulties too. I do hope that someday there will be a ‘collected’ Herbert Brush, since at the moment his entries are dotted about, mixed in with all the other published observations and therefore a pain to locate. It takes a while to build up a ‘flavour’ of Herbert.

Reginald Charles Harpur (almost certainly Herbert Brush) was already 73 years of age in 1945 but lived on until 1959. He lived in the same house in Sydenham from 1939 to 1959, sharing it with ‘W’ (thought to be Winifred Gunton), ‘D’ (thought to be Dorothy Woods) and a cat. This is a mystery in itself. What was the relationship between these three people (and the cat)? We will probably never know. He was a retired electricity board inspector and wrote for Mass Observation between 1940 and 1951.

He is a master of the non-sequitur, of po-faced inconsequentiality, and the joy of him is that you will never, ever be entirely sure that he intends to be amusing. It’s those killer final phrases, those bathetic endings. He also writes poetry to rival that famous Scottish poet William Topaz McGonagall, originator of the immortal lines:

  • Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
  • Alas! I am very sorry to say
  • That ninety lives have been taken away
  • On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
  • Which will be remember’d for a very long time


  • On yonder hill, there stood a coo…..
  • ….It’s no there noo,
  • it must have shifted

 Apparently students used to bang on poor McGonagall’s front door in the middle of the night, to wake him and tell him how bad a poet he was.

Impossible to choose which of Herbert’s many utterances to include so here are just a few, taken from wherever Our Hidden Lives happened to fall open. Best really to get copies of the books in which he appears (eg. from Amazon) and meet Herbert for yourself.

  • Our Longest Days (Ed: Sandra Koa Wing)
  • Our Hidden Lives (Ed: Simon Garfield)

7 p.m. I have been on the plot most of the day. I believe the judges in the competition come round for their first visit before the middle of May, so I have been busy trying to make the plot tidy. I have fixed up another seat at the end of the plot close to the hedge so that I can sit in the shelter during showers. This was the spot where I pressed myself into the hedge with the bucket over my head when a rocket burst overhead and bits of it came down all round me.

Wednesday 9 May, 1945

I have been reading about Harry Price’s book on poltergeists in England and it makes me wonder whether it was a poltergeist which worried me when I lived in Rose Cottage, River, near Dover. The noises got so bad that I was glad to leave the house.

I never managed to explain the things that happened to me there. I might be reading a book by the fireside in the evening, when suddenly my back hair would seem to stand up, a cold shiver would run down my spine and I felt sure that someone or something was behind me in the room. I asked a local spiritualistic medium to come and investigate, so he came with others, and presently he went into a trance, or seemed to, and said that a man who used to live at the house, and who committed suicide years before, objected to me very much.

Wednesday 21 November, 1945

I went to Hyde Park to see the captured German aeroplanes which are parked there, surrounded by a fence. I noticed a few bullet holes in one of them and wondered whether the German who flew the machine had died there. I hope so.

There were hundreds of people walking about, with little crowds near each plane. One young man brought his chair close to the fence, and with his face pressed close to the railings was staring in a sort of fascinated way at one of the planes, as though he wanted to memorise every detail. I watched him for some time but he never moved a muscle.

I got a seat under a tree and ate my lunch, and I forgot to look for the young man when I came back. Probably my thoughts were on the chances of a ticket collector coming along and charging me 2d. for the chair.

Monday 17 September, 1945

The BBC news at one o’clock said that there was quite a pea-soup fog in some parts of London, but in SE26 it was quite clear, so I went to the plot and sewed a row of broad beans. I had only just finished when I smelt fog, and, looking up, saw a wall of it coming my way. Very soon the sun was yellow and then vanished, so I came home as I don’t like the taste of London fog.

I thought I’d see what sort of verse came out of it if I put pen to paper.

  • Sometimes I sit and think
  • Sometimes I only sit
  • And do not even blink
  • For quite a bit
  • Is this a sign of age
  • Does life just flow
  • Like turning on a page
  • I’d like to know.

It sounds morbid, but after my exercise on the plot I’m feeling very fit.

Tuesday 21 January, 1945

I think I probably feel an affinity for Herbert because he reminds me so much of my own grandfather. It’s more than just the coincidence of the name. In all the time I knew him I don’t remember Grandad smiling once, yet he somehow managed to make people laugh. If we children were chattering too much he’d sit in gloomy silence for half an hour before intervening, in his creaky old voice: Can I say something now?

If anyone asked his opinion, he’d say: You do what you want – you usually do.

And if he was asked what he was going to do tomorrow, he would provide a gloomy summary, finishing with: IF I’m spared.

A visiting daughter-in-law presented him with a huge cake once, and his response was: How am I going to get rid of all that?

And yet this was the man who, as a teenager, liked to sit with his mates in the upper tiers of the music hall, peeling oranges and dropping the peel down the necks of the people sitting below.

For further information on Herbert Brush and Sydenham visit:

PS: I recently discovered an old blog called Blue, with Stars, and discover that I already posted about dear old Herbert there and even used the same title for the post. And I thought I was being so clever inventing that one. So here, for comparison, is my Blue, with Stars post for: Saturday, May 21, 2005

  •  A Brush with Herbert
  •  Still reading the book of post-war reminiscences (Mass-Observation Project). It’s surprising how they do come out as characters, even though no one is ‘writing’ them. Each person is just rambling on happily through his or her diary, commenting on everyday things, and yet you can almost see them. Pensioner Herbert Brush is the best – sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally funny. He is greatly concerned about his health – his piles, a lump on his back which the doctor charged him 5/- to tell him was harmless, the purple marks appearing on the backs of his hands. He wonders about things. He spends a long time playing with numbers and searching unsuccessfully for a book which gives all the prime numbers up to some huge amount. He writes dreadful poetry. He does a lot of travelling about on buses, changing of library books, growing of vegetables in his allotment, and always seems to be creosoting his fence.
  •  I am enjoying it because that’s when I grew up, and yet I don’t remember. I didn’t enjoy being a child. Didn’t understand why people were the way they were, and things were so drab and dreary. This book has explained why to me. And I envied in a way their modest expectations. They accepted their everyday lives, even when they complained about them. They didn’t expect anything exciting to happen. I suppose they were just relieved to be still alive. However, that lack of aspiration, that dulling of everything – suburban England in the 50s was not a good time to be a child, not a good start for a dreamer.