Objets Perdus

Now, this is a bit of a strange one, and I have been putting off writing about it for days. Something to do with shame, I think – shame and sorrow. But what’s the best way for a writer to call up and exorcise her ghosts?

Write about them.

When I was a child I had a (very) few treasured objects, and one by one I lost them or gave them away. Something seems to compel me to ‘lose’ the things that mean the most to me – and not just objects, people. One by one, I have mislaid them all.

Setting aside the people, because nothing at all can be done about them. Those objects…

I had a copy of Aesop’s Fables. It was a beautiful book – they are ferociously expensive to buy second-hand now. You know, I thought, until this very moment, that I had given it away. I had been wracking my brains to think how I gave it away. Why would I have done that with my beloved Aesop? I read that book over and over. The fables, and the beautiful but slightly creepy illustrations, those glossy, full-page watercolours, seeped into my childhood consciousness.

But I gave it away. Or did I? I just turned sideways and there it was, sitting in the bookcase beside me. It has lost it’s cover, the boards have faded from scarlet to orange, but – still here. Inside I have written my full maiden name, in ink, in weird little-girl writing. Two pages on and an inscription reads With love to Rosie, on her 7th Birthday. From Grandma & Grandpa. Well, Rosie or, you know, whatever.

But other objects I really did lose. I once had a stone, with the impression of a prehistoric sea creature upon it, like a tiny octopus. I found it half-buried in the path between the allotments. It was as if it had been waiting for just me, that magical fossil, for billions and billions of years. If only I had kept it, if only I had not somehow lost it – what luck it might have brought me.

And I gave away my Odhams Encyclopaedia for children. I remember the struggle I had at the time. It was when my niece was born and I foolishly had this idea that the child should “inherit” something of value from her auntie. And I have regretted the loss of that book ever since.

And then there was my teddy bear. I temporarily forgot about him and instead of taking him with me when I got married I foolishly left him with Mum. In fact he was up in the attic, and I didn’t realise. Mum and my sister are alike in “getting rid”. She accidentally informed me one day, several years later, that she had given my bear to Oxfam. After all, she knew I wouldn’t want it.

I never stopped missing my bear. I mourned for him. Even now – especially now, when I am old – I want my teddy bear back. I realised today that that was what my teddy-bear buying jag had been all about. I now have a cupboard full of disreputable 1950s teddy-bears courtesy of E-bay. None of them are my bear, but I have rescued them. I couldn’t save it but I have saved them.

I know, it doesn’t make sense.

And now I have gone and saved “my” Encyclopedia. And in fact I have saved more than one of them because the other day eBay came up with a second, horribly battered copy for only £2 and I bid the £2 and won. To my surprise. The first one, which arrived a week ago, cost a massive £20 but is in excellent condition. Unlike me, its owner must have held it close, kept it. Presumably there will soon be a stack of second-hand Odhams Encyclopaedias on my coffee table, all ridiculously, pathetically rescued by some ancient woman, just in case one of them might turn out to have been her actual one.

When I was a child the page that fascinated me the most was the one with the anaconda. My mother used to take the mickey, saying that the encyclopaedia would fall open at the snakes page of its own accord. I do hope it was nothing sexual. I mean, I was very young and, lacking any kind of brother (though over-supplied with sisters) did not even suspect the existence of that appendage which, according to Dr Freud, snakes represent.

In my memory the anaconda took up the whole of the page and was vividly coloured, green and gold and glittery. Now I see that it is smaller, and in black and white, but I still like the way the artist has coiled and draped the various snakes around the branches, the way the pictures and the text bleed into one another.

How beautiful that anaconda was to me, and how utterly terrifying. In my mind’s eye I stood before him in the South American jungle, tiny-small in my cotton check school dress and pudding-basin haircut. Anaconda was looking at me out of that glittery, sardonic eye. He was weighing up whether to wrap me in his sinuous, gorgeous coils and crush me to smithereens. Because that is what anacondas do, being the largest of the boa constrictor family.

And I wished he would. And I wished he wouldn’t.

And this is him, my beloved, my childhood version of God: the anaconda, unchanged over the decades and decades since I first caught sight of him.

Why do we lose the things we love?

IMG_20191118_133816

The Magic of Cat’s Cradle

When I was a kid some other kid showed me how to make a cat’s cradle by looping a circle of string around my hands. That was only one of the many possible patterns, I realise now – and probably the most basic; but nobody told me so I just thought – been there, done that, boring!

Now I discover there’s all this sort of stuff, for one pair of hands or two. Maybe more!

cats cradle 2

I seem to be spending the whole of my old age discovering yet more ways in which my youth was totally and utterly wasted.

I thought I might venture a few cat and/or Halloween-related posts. I have a really good book of English folklore – obtained second-hand/falling to bits – and with some difficulty. I also have The Golden Bough. These should serve as a starting point. There’s the good old internet to fill in any gaps, of course, but I do like to start with books, old books; proper books, all heavy and faded and dusty and smelling of – ah! -book.

I always assumed it was called Cat’s Cradle because what you were making was a cradle for a rather small cat. However, apparently not. It’s likely to have come from cratch-cradle. Cratch is one of those archaic English words. It used to mean – well, it meant to scratch or claw (appropriate for cats) but it also meant crib, or manger. It’s related to the French word crèche, which also used to mean manger.

If you type cratch into Google images you’re more likely to see a kind of plain or fancy gate still used on English narrowboats, which is there to ‘restrain’ the boat’s cargo and hold up part of the roof . The connection, I think, is the wooden framework involved – you can see how the same kind of triangular or crutch pattern could also have been the basis of a crib.

cratch2

It’s a kind of trellis, and cat’s cradle is also a kind of trellis.

I was looking for folklore around Cat’s Cradle, because apparently it is one of the oldest games ever, and has been played all over the world. The Golden Bough (1890) says that among the “Esquimaux” tribes, as they were referred to in those days, it was taboo for a little boy to play at Cat’s Cradle. Should he do so, when he grew to be an adult and went off hunting the whale his hands might become entangled in the harpoon line. I am guessing this would not do one’s hands any good. In fact, one might be handless at the end of it.

How is the one thing connected to the other? Because it’s an example of negative magic. In tribal (and not-so-tribal) societies magic can be both positive and negative. Positive magic would be to do a certain thing in order to make something desirable happen. Negative magic would be to avoid doing a certain thing in order to avoid something undesirable happening. So taboo and negative magic seem to be more or less the same. But it’s quite subtle. For example it’s not taboo to say ‘Do not put your hand in the fire’ – that’s just common sense. Taboo is to avoid doing something symbolic of the thing to be avoided, and the consequences of breaking the taboo will not necessarily take place now but at some time in the future.

Digressing slightly, it seems that in the past, in the village councils of one district of India, it was forbidden for anyone to twirl a spindle. (Since the meetings were all male, I would assume that both men and women might twirl spindles.) The twirling of the spindle would mean that the talk would be doomed to go round in circles and never reach a conclusion. It occurs to me that someone must have been secretly twirling in a dusty corner of the House of Commons over the last three years.

Cat’s Cradle has different names in different countries. In parts of America it is referred to, poetically, as Jack in the Pulpit. In China it’s Fan Sheng (turning rope) and in Russia, more prosaically, it is The Game of String.

choki

In case you should be seeking inspiration for Cat’s Cradle-related reading there’s a book called Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. I would like to claim to have known that all along, but I just found out, and I haven’t read it yet. I’m not entirely sure I want to. It’s science fiction (one of my favourites) but apparently it involves man’s greatest fear: the witnessing, or worse still, the survival of Armageddon.

The sprouting of damp souls

I have ordered a new smartphone; cheaper and, I sincerely hope, smarter than the Doro. The Doro wasn’t very smart at all. My sister is seven years younger than me and has a son with a degree in computing who designs apps for a living – at least, we believe that’s approximately what he does – and says the Doro has got to go. “It’s time,” she says. A smartphone deserves to be in a bin, she says, if it

  • turns itself off and on at random;
  • will no longer charge except within its own special little cradle;
  • refuses to open one of those little square boxes with patterns on that produce Amazon return labels, whilst its Owner is edging towards the front of the queue at the Post Office;
  • is perpetually loading but never actually starting a weather advice app that it’s owner didn’t want in the first place;
  • has space for only one app in addition to the Google and Doro bloatware that it came with and demands that you delete even that every time Google or Doro want to update any of the never-used bloat-stuff; and
  • becomes convinced, after every unscheduled hibernation, that the date is January 1st 1970 and can only become convinced that it is 2019 or thereabouts after five minutes of laborious scrolling. And then there is the time to reset from 01:00 hours –

Why would it even contain a calendar going back to 1970? Surely mobile phones – those huge house-brick things that go with the frizzy hair, the weird lipstick and the rainbow-coloured exercise outfits – didn’t appear till the ’80s?

I have also given up and turned on the central heating. It was getting kind of dank in here. The washing – which I’ve been draping from the doorframes to dry since the tumble-drier gave up the ghost – was not drying, at all, merely adding to the general air of Dickensian dampness. It’ll be the black spots next, I thought. And after that tiny mushrooms or maybe – toadstools – sprouting from the skirting-boards.

Which reminds me of a school poetry lesson many years ago, when a Jehovah’s Witness classmate objected to the souls in ‘Morning at the Window’ by T S Eliot. “There is no such thing as The Soul, sir!” she said, standing up behind her desk. Her desk was near mine, and I could see her trembling. “No such thing!”

After fruitless negotiations, along the lines of “Couldn’t we just assume the existence of The Soul, in the context of this particular poem – ?” she was led away by the left ear and deposited on the bench outside the headmistresses office.

Poor girl. How hard it is to speak up when we should, and how hard to stay silent.

Morning at the Window – T S Eliot 1888 – 1965

They are rattling breakfast plates in basement kitchens,
And along the trampled edges of the street
I am aware of the damp souls of housemaids
Sprouting despondently at area gates.

The brown waves of fog toss up to me
Twisted faces from the bottom of the street,
And tear from a passer-by with muddy skirts
An aimless smile that hovers in the air
And vanishes along the level of the roofs.

Henry swallows a wasp

I was pursuing the wasp around the kitchen, as you do, with a glass tumbler and a piece of cardboard. I was waiting for it to settle. Several of the cats had a go at it, but I managed to thwart them. Henry, however, was too quick for me. The wasp was gone, down inside him, and as with Browning’s Last Duchess, all buzzes stopped together. Surely it must have stung him all the way down? I waited, aghast, for his little oesophagus to start swelling up, for the gasping, the terrible whining indrawn effort at breath –

I was wondering if the vets had those pens you were supposed to stab people with when they accidentally ate peanuts. Were there those pens for cats? Would the vets have them. They were only a small vets, not much room for supplies. Should I just bundle him in the car and drive the six miles to the surgery? Would I have to burst in in some awful melodramatic way? Please – my cat – he’s swallowed – a wasp – ! Every bone in my non-melodramatic body rebelled against it. I simply couldn’t draw attention to myself. But I must.

Henry was probably dying of a wasp.

But if he was dying, he’d probably be dead by the time I got there anyway. Suppose I got to the car park with him in his little box and he was lying there, all golden and expired? I could hardly walk in, in front of the gloomy waiting hordes and their miscellaneous creatures, who would turn their gloomy waiting eyes upon me, expecting entertainment. What could I say?

Excuse me. My cat just died in the car. Of a wasp. Yes, a few seconds ago. Maybe we could arrange a cremation?

Henry continued to occupy the sunlit windowsill, bolt upright. He licked his lips several times. Oh My God, I thought, this is it, the wheezing, the –

What did you have to go and do that for? I asked. I sounded rather petulant.

Henry inspected his immaculate, pale gold coat – the faintest of stripes therein. He licked his lips again, and did not die.

Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands,
Then all smiles stopped together.

Oops, no title…

I’m not good at having fun, in fact I don’t think I’ve ever had fun in my life; not really. However, today was a good(ish) day. The sky was blue and so was the sea – well, the one mirrors the other – and it was warm. Shouldn’t have worn the boots, really. Or the long-sleeved autumn outfit. But I thought it was autumn. Well, it was autumn at six o’clock this morning when I awoke, dozily crumpled into a corner of the living room sofa in a sort of uncomfortable dressing-gown/person bundle.

I did go to bed but eventually had to retreat from the bedroom after one of the cats for some reason took fright and leapt into the air, gouging three long tramlines into my right forearm. That woke me up, as you can imagine, and by the time I had partially staunched the bleeding and debated whether to apply TCP to my right arm and risk stinking out the Over 50s minibus tomorrow, or not apply TCP and risk yet another bout of cellulitis, with a subsequent two weeks of daily drives to the hospital for antibiotic injections, and possible death – I couldn’t get back to sleep. And supposing yet another one of the nineteen moggies should land upon my sleeping form and savage me.

Hence, the sofa. I turned out the lights, arranged myself uncomfortably upon it, trying to keep my stinging arm away from the pale green faux leather – and yet more cats came to perch themselves uncomfortably upon me – any of whom, of course, might leap up in a fright at any moment – and plugged in my MP3 player. And listened to hours of John Renbourne, which reminded me of Ex, which made me cry in a self-pitying, 3 in the morning, just gouged by a cat sort of way. And finally I reflected that listening to John Renbourne would not in any way remind Ex of me, or make him cry, and fell asleep.

My life is so complicated, but I have said that before.

Another complicated thing about life is female friendships. I am no good at this sort of stuff. I don’t understand it. I feel the same about human social interactions as I felt about those interminable netball and hockey games at school – the ones I couldn’t find an excuse to get out of – left-handedness, short-sightedness, a touch of depression, left my PE kit at home – that I am in the middle of a lot of beings flying about and throwing or kicking things at one another, but I don’t know which team is which, or which way I am supposed to be running, or which goal is mine, or why… Why are we running about? What is the purpose? What are the Rules? Why has everybody else had a copy of the Rules, but not me?

The politics of them are more complicated than anything that goes on behind closed doors at Downing Street. I think I may have made a new friend today but I’m not sure how I did that. I mean, I wasn’t trying to. I never try to make friends but just occasionally total strangers for some reason decide to pick me up, look me over, dust me down and adopt me for a while, like a lost bear. And then how do you fit the new friend in with the old friend when they don’t seem to like each other much – or am I imagining that? Should I walk with this one or that one? How do I have more than one friend?

Over the years I have learnt enough to know, at least in theory, that I don’t need to worry myself sick and arrange everything. People usually sort themselves out without my help. I’ve also found that people tend to appreciate me more if I just allow myself to be an oddity instead of trying to appear normal – masking, I think it’s called. Thing is, first you have to notice when you are masking, and that’s an art in itself.

Talking of lost bears, I found another, in a Barnardo’s shop on a coach trip to Whitstable. Even that was complicated. I felt compelled to explain to the volunteer lady in Barnardo’s that I wasn’t the sort of person who habitually walked around with a bear, like Sebastian. Of course, she hadn’t read Brideshead Revisited and had no idea who this Sebastian was.  She told me of an old lady she knew, a harmless madwoman, who carried a doll everywhere and had even made it an outfit to match her own. Well, presumably a  number of outfits…

And then I – and my new friend – and my old friends – oh, so many of us and the relationships between us so fluid and complicated, jostling for position and attention around the depressing racks of wilted cast-offs and bobbly old men’s jumpers in Barnardo’s – went on down the street to a rival charity shop, Demelza’s. Where I got told off by the Demelza lady for buying my bear in Barnardo’s when hers were half the price. And how then to explain the subtle psychic difference between a merely cheap bear (I could have gone to Tesco’s for that) and a damsel-in-distress bear in a blue velvet dress and lopsided velvet bow, languishing among racks of jigsaw puzzles with several pieces missing; brown plastic handbags no one can ever, ever have liked and coffee-stained CDs of jazz musicians that nobody has ever heard of.

(Yes, I made the Sebastian joke again – I just couldn’t seem to stop myself – and no, she didn’t laugh either.)

But Whitstable was OK, and so was Herne Bay. Later, trying to eat a huge pink and white ice cream before it melted, under a blue sky, beside a blue sea, at a rainbow-painted bench, I reflected that it wasn’t such a bad day out after all. And recalled that my Aunt always planned to retire to Herne Bay and open a cake shop. It was her dream. But she married a blind chap from Devon several feet shorter than herself, and lived in Exeter, and never visited Herne Bay again, as far as I know. And then died.

That’s the trouble with dreams.

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.

I wish I could think something useful

I have had a moderately thought-free day today, Praise Be. I have been sat sitting – I was sat sitting there – a colloquial, northern British expression though why I’m suddenly using it I don’t know. I don’t know much today. I probably know even less than Missy (above) who is possibly the world’s least intelligent cat.

So, what have I been doing today? Well, mostly cutting out hexagons for patchwork. This is my kind of work, I have discovered. Stuff that you can do – industriously, obsessively, even – that leaves your brain absolutely free to think of what it wants to think of. Or to listen to the umpteenth repetition of Pink’s Beautiful Trauma on Heart. I’m not averse to a smidgeon of Pink but you can have too much of a good thing. As that male hairdresser said – the one who cut my hair very short and then donked me most painfully on the head four times with his extra-long phallic black hairdryer – Oh, Pink – she’s got a belting voice – and I could tell he actually couldn’t stand her, belting or not.

pink

Or perhaps he was just wishing he could be working on her hair rather than mine. More scope for his creativity.

(Sigh! This is one of those post you just keep writing in the hope it will eventually make sense…)

(So far it hasn’t.)

I was thinking about Stephen Hawking, who died recently. I was thinking several things, the oddest of which was that our one and only Guardian Angel just got up walked out the door – at the very moment when we could do with more than one Guardian Angel. His Guardian Angelness did not occur to me while he was alive. Three cheers for Stephen Hawking, who finally escaped his bone-bound island and is now floating free in the universe he imagined better than anyone else since Einstein.

Beyond this island bound
By a thin sea of flesh
And a bone coast,
The land lies out of sound
And the hills out of mind.
No birds or flying fish
Disturbs this island’s rest.

Dylan Thomas: Ears In The Turrets Hear

The other thing I was thinking about Stephen Hawking is this: that he had the best job in the world. One hour or so a day teaching, and the rest of the day being allowed to Think. In Peace! He had the sort of brain that made Thinking worthwhile, of course. He could concentrate on the nature of the universe for hours – for days, maybe – whereas my concentration span, even when it comes to laboriously cutting out paper hexagons (tongue clamped between teeth) and tacking tiny hexagonal bits of cloth to them, is a microsecond or two.

I was thinking how odd it was that it has taken me all this time to realise that the only sort of work I am capable of engaging in happily is precisely this sort – the sort I once despised. I remember once telling a tutor that I wanted to be a writer, and him kind of snorting (politely) and saying in that case I would be better advised to give up the worthless Sociology ‘A’ Level, the worthless Commercial French ‘A’ Level and his own worthless English Language & Literature ‘A’ Level, and go and get a job in a factory. And he was right. But I was a snob. I was an intellectual, right? It was one of those road-not-taken moments. One of many.

I think continually of those who were truly great.
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history
Through corridors of light where the hours are suns
Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
Should tell of the Spirit clothed from head to foot in song.
And who hoarded from the Spring branches
The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms…

Stephen Spender: I Think Continually

The Poemworm

I have to confess that though overblown imagery and gothic, post-romantic medievalism are out of fashion at the moment (they are still, aren’t they? or have they snuck back in again?) I just love Alfred, Lord Tennyson and particularly cherish The Lady of Shalott. And this is despite the fact that he named her after a type of onion. I wonder why he did it. Perhaps in late Victorian times shallot didn’t mean a type of onion?

Well – I discover, belatedly checking it on the internet – that’s not strictly true. The Lady of Shalott has one L and two Ts, whereas the onion’s cousin has two Ls and one T.

According to my battered copy of The Everyman Book of Victorian Verse: The Post-Romantics, Tennyson’s story corresponds to the death of the Lady of Astolat of unrequited love for the oh-so-beautiful Sir Lancelot. Why didn’t he stick with Astolat, I wonder? It’s easy enough to rhyme.

The other linguistic peculiarity is one of which a sheltered late Victorian gentleman like Alfred, Lord Tennyson was probably unaware – that, to English women at any rate, The Curse is code for a very specific event. So when ‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried / The Lady of Shalott – it can tend to produce a wry smile of sympathy.

It just shows you, though, how brilliant the poem is, that I can read that particular verse again and again, and still enjoy it:

She left the web, she left the loom,

She made three paces thro’ the room,

She saw the water-lily bloom,

She saw the helmet and the plume,

She look’d down on Camelot.

Out flew the web and floated wide;

The mirror crack’d from side to side;

‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried

The Lady of Shalott.

 I have not yet found a way of forcing this particular off-the-peg WordPress website design to do single spacing when it comes to poems, so I won’t go on quoting. No doubt if I was a Techie Tinkerer with Code and Stuff I could do so. Life is too short for Techie Tinkering. It falls into the same category as Mushroom Stuffing, Filing Old Paperwork and Rearranging Living Room Furniture.

The Lady of Shalott will keep buzzing around in my head at the moment. Not so much an earworm as a poemworm, although music is tangentially to blame since I have also been binge-listening to Canadian singer Loreena McKennitt  on Spotify, and one of her songs is – guess what, set to music? Yes, The Lady of Shalott. I am haunted, by this lady imbowered on her island.

‘I am half sick of shadows,’ said

The Lady of Shalott…

And of course, if you love the poem you have to love the art too. I revel in those lurid colours, the weird twilights and, I’m afraid, all that wafting ginger (sorry, Titian) hair. It’s the luscious excess of it all. It’s because of cigarette cards, and Sunday evenings.

When I was a child I spent every Sunday with Nan and Grandad along the road. As I have written before, those Sundays were my childhood-proper, my respite time. Along the road was where I belonged, safe with N and G, by a roaring fire, in a fug of tobacco smoke, with Sally the fat, cream-coloured labrador asleep on my feet; waiting for my newly-washed hair to dry, and consuming crumpets passed to me from the tines of a brass toasting-fork, by Grandad.

Anyway, in those days cigarette packets were smaller and – as an incentive to buy them and ruin your health – contained small, rectangular, brightly coloured cards. Children collected these. There were famous footballers and famous Shakespearian characters –  and Grandad had a collection of these, in an album. It was there I first saw the picture I called – just inside my head, thankfully, not aloud – The Floating Green Lady (who is actually Ophelia, by John Everett Millais) and all unknowingly became hooked on the Pre-Raphelites for ever.

ophelia

And looking at her now, she’s not even green, is she?  Everything else is green but she’s kind of dampish silver-grey. But it was the green-ness that made an impression on me – and the chilly wetness, and the floating flowers, and the tragedy of it all; the way she was floating with the weed, the way her dead hands rose up out of the water, as they would in real life, or real death. I used to practise the Green Lady Floating Hands in the bath.

Do you have any Guilty Pleasures, art or poetry-wise? Any Poemworms? Any guilty bathtime memories?

The meaning of life passes me by – again

So, I was sat there at the bus stop opposite the station having, as nearly always, just missed the bus home. There is a gap, after lunch, of one and a half hours. I had hit that gap.

I had been waiting there for over an hour already. Other buses came and went, and various other people came and waited – and went, on all the buses that arrived that were sadly not my bus. There was just me and this very, very old man. I was sat in the shelter, such as it is, with the narrow hard seats that slope forwards (on purpose, to discourage sleeping tramps, according to Bertie). He was sat behind me and to the side, on a low bench. The low bench is much more comfortable, though difficult to arise out of if you have been sitting in it for any length of time.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the very, very old man wished to talk to me. He was doing that fidgety, glancing in my direction and then glancing away thing that people do. So I went over and sat down next to him. He told me his sight was really bad and he couldn’t make out the numbers of the buses.

Was I by any chance waiting for the same bus that he was waiting for?

I was.

Would I be so kind as to tell him when that bus arrived?

I would.

He had a very soft voice, and unfortunately in the range that I find most difficult to hear. I tried to disregard the noise from a constant stream of traffic, and watched his lips. He told me that he was ninety… something. And now, strangely, that is nearly almost all I can remember of our conversation. I realised he was an educated man. We seemed to be talking about philosophy, and the meaning of life… and all that. I remember struggling to answer him in a way that would make it appear that I had heard… clearly. I wanted to hear. I could tell that what he was saying was really interesting. It came to me that we were kindred spirits of some kind, and that he was meant to be here today, sitting on this bench, and that he had an important message for me.

Finally our bus arrived. He sat next to me and carried on talking, softly. At one point I realised he was reciting Desiderata to me in that soft, kind voice. He knew it, and other poems, by heart. He said when he understood his sight was failing he had begun to memorise poems that were important to him. He said he worked to keep his memory sharp by reciting as many as possible of these poems daily. We discussed the origin of Desiderata, agreeing that it had not been found been nailed to the door of Old Saint Paul’s Church, Baltimore AD 1692 as was claimed in the 1970s, but that this didn’t matter in the least.

And then, whether by reason of my own physical weariness and anxiety to be home (it had been a long and stressful day) or because the bus was negotiating a series of hills and narrow, twisty roads, causing an increase in background noise, I could not hear him at all. Out of politeness, desperately, I continued to watch his old lips, still reciting and philosophising, still asking questions which I could not hear to answer, and could not lip read either.

As we reached his stop, he suddenly became audible again.  “Well,” he said, “here my journey ends. And yours continues.”

A Lilith of what you fancy (does you good)

Succumb‘ is not a fruitful prompt for someone my age. I mean, it’s not likely to be ‘the insistent advances of handsome millionaire actor George Clooney’, is it? More like viral pneumonia, or rheumatoid arthritis. All I could think of was Succubus.

When I was at school we ‘did’ Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales. I wanted to like Chaucer, really I did, but it was difficult with the textbook we were given. There was Chaucer and his Olde English (well, technically Middle English) on one side of the page and a translation on the opposite side. All well and good, but we were ‘doing’ the Wife of Bath’s Tale and the Wife of Bath was – as I guessed but could not discover how, from the translation – a somewhat saucy baggage. I remember learning that she had a gap between her two front teeth and that in the middle ages a gap-toothed lady was regarded as very saucy. I am not a medieval man, so I have no idea why this should be. Maybe it was the symbolism.

It doesn’t seem to work the other way round…

thomas

The trouble was, every time Nanny Translator got to a saucy bit she substituted an ellipsis (…). I would have entirely forgotten the word swynke by nowand probably Chaucer and the Wife of Bath too – as in

As help me God, I laughe when I thynke / How piteously a-night I made him swynke

had it not been for the fact that swynke was represented on the translation page by those tantalising three dots and the teacher flatly refused to even hint what it might mean. Our teenage imaginations went into overdrive. What could swynke-ing be, for goodness sake? And how was she making him do it?

Actually it just means work very hard, though by a-night we know she isn’t referring to heaving heavy sacks of coal or peeling potatoes.

However… (ellipsis) why was I going on about Chaucer? Oh yes, it was via Chaucer that I learned of the existence, in medieval legend, of a demon known as the succubus. There are incubi and succubi. Incubi are male demons that prey on women, and succubi are female demons that prey on men. Particularly monks. They appear in dreams and tempt their victims to do all sorts of sinful and salacious stuff.

Succcubus and succumb are related, loosely. From the Latin and then the French succomber – sub (under) + cumbere (to lie down). To succumb is to yield to a superior force or strength, or to be overpowered by a desire. It is also to be brought to an end (as in death) by destructive or disruptive forces. Since the evil succubus would exhaust or even kill her dreaming victim by feeding on his dream ‘energy’ you can see the connection, and if you google ‘succubus’ and click on Images you will get all sorts of lurid artistic re-imaginings of what she might have looked like.

You know how you suddenly realise an author has been cleverer than you realised – that pleasant little moment when the penny drops? J K Rowling is particularly good a this. For example, Sirius Black in Harry Potter, who tends to turn into a large black dog at intervals, has the name of the dog star, Sirius. And Diagon Alley is diagonally.

Well, I thought I had one of those with the character Lilith from Cheers and Frasier. Lilith is Frasier’s ex-wife, who simultaneously haunts, fascinates and drains him:

Six months ago I was living in Boston. My wife had left me, which was very painful. Then she came back to me, which was excruciating… So I ended the marriage once and for all, packed up my things, and moved back here to my home town of Seattle.

(1993 pilot episode of Frasier, “The Good Son”)

Ah, I thought. Lilith from Jewish mythology was in fact a succubus – a night-hag or night-monster. How clever they have been, those screenwriters, in choosing exactly the right name for Frasier’s scary, vampiric (but nonetheless amusing) ex-wife.

But then they went and let me down, those screenwriters. Researching further I discovered that Rob Sternin and Prudence Frasier had simply wanted a name that embodied sternness, like a Dickensian… headmistress in a high-necked blouse and tight bun. The Biblical badass didn’t factor in.

Well…well… bah! Why didn’t it? It jolly well should have.

I’m quite put out about it.

Humbug!

The Tortoiseshell Cat: Patrick R Chalmers

The tortoiseshell cat

She sits on the mat

As gay as a sunflower she;

In orange and black you see her blink,

And her waistcoat’s white, and her nose is pink,

And her eyes are green of the sea.

But all is vanity, all the way;

Twilight’s coming, and close of day,

And every cat  in the twilight’s grey,

Every possible cat.

 

Matilda and friends

 

The tortoiseshell cat,

She is smooth and fat,

And we call her Josephine,

Because she weareth upon her back

This coat of colours, this raven black,

This red of the tangerine.

But all is vanity, all the way;

Twilight follows the brightest day,

And every cat in the twilight’s grey,

Every possible cat.

 

Patrick Reginald Chalmers (1872–1942) was an Irish writer, who worked as a banker. His first book was Green Days and Blue Days (1912), followed by A Peck of Malt (1915).

He wrote in a number of different areas, including field sports, deerstalking and horse racing, as well biographies of Kenneth Grahame and J. M. Barrie. He was a contributor to Punch magazine and The Field, and editor of the hunting diaries of Edward VIII (as Prince of Wales). He also wrote much poetry, with topics war, dogs and cats, and Irish life, as well as hunting and fishing.

A line from his poem “Roundabouts and Swings” has passed into common parlance, though the origin is often no longer remembered.

Wikipedia

Now that’s interesting, isn’t it? The same poet who wrote this pussycat poem also wrote a kind of novelty poem in which these two sets of ‘end’ lines appear:

But lookin’ at it broad, an’ while it ain’t no merchant king’s,
What’s lost upon the roundabouts we pulls up on the swings!”

For “up an’ down an’ round,” said ‘e, “goes all appointed things,
An’ losses on the roundabouts means profits on the swings!”

And that’s the origin of the common phrase “What you lose on the roundabouts you gain on the swings” or “It’s swings and roundabouts”.

I’d give you the whole poem but it’s long, and in a kind of Irish-Victorian cockney dialect that becomes tedious after a while. I do prefer the cat poem, which is a little masterpiece of cat-poem-ery.

Featured Image cat is Matilda, because when she was a stray, not so long ago, she used to ‘waltz’ up from somewhere mysterious beyond the bottom of my the garden to be fed. Matilda/Tilly is young, and even naughtier than my other tortoiseshell. Difficult to even get a photo of her because she is always waltzing or haring about (haring: verb, British: running around as fast and as wildly as a hare).

Here are some black and white moggies, whilst I’m at it. I struggle to get photos from my tablet to the computer to this blog. Something always seems to go wrong, and in the most dramatic way.

Overnight, for instance, my tablet has accumulated around 500 album covers in it’s photo memory – all the stuff I’ve been listening to on Kindle and Spotify – at least six copies of each. I’ve just been laboriously deleting them all. So let’s make hay while the sun shines:

Left to right, top to bottom:

  1. The elusive Frizzle
  2. Hugo and Hector
  3. Pandy, Hugo and Hector
  4. Ditto
  5. George doing what George does best / least dangerously.

 

Pas de cherry-peeking, Breets ridicules!

Now that’s set your teeth on edge, hasn’t it, proper French speakers?

I had a very unoriginal thought today.  I googled it and discovered that it was in fact even more unoriginal than I imagined. I was looking at my books, all 2,000 of them piled vertically now (for cat fur/ease of hoovering reasons) into a high stack of de-shelved book cases.  It suddenly struck me, if I had to take the complete works of a very limited number of authors to a desert island with me – say, ten – which authors would I choose?

Now this isn’t as easy as it seems. It would be no good taking to a desert island a book with a thrilling but memorable plot, for example. However good it was, what would be the point of reading it again?

No good taking anything too distinctive, either. Harry Potter, for instance. I loved reading Harry Potter, each new book as eagerly anticipated as if I had been thirteen and three quarters rather than middle-aged. But once you’ve read them the surprise is gone out of them – they were whizz-bangs when they landed on our bookshelves but now… they’ve fizzled.

Not really much point in taking thrillers or detective novels, for the same reason. You might not think you remember whodunit but as soon as you start to read, you will.

And humour probably wouldn’t travel well. Only so many times you can laugh at a conversation between Bertie Wooster and Jeeves whilst fishing in the sea with a piece of string and an improvised hook, or trying to persuade yourself that shredded palm leaves are edible. Jokes are best not repeated – to the same audience – yourself.

No, the books would have to be kind of meaty. The sort that, though they may be a bit of a struggle to get into, pay dividends on later reflection. Also books with plots so labyrinthine that it is impossible to remember them on re-reading.

But you’d also need an element of comfort reading. So some of your books would be there just because they reminded you of home in some way – winter afternoons by the fire and snow falling outside; long walks down country lanes kicking autumn leaves with your wellies – whatever.

I’m thinking that, as with Desert Island Discs, a few ‘master’ works should be taken for granted – found in a deserted cabin, chewed a bit by moths but still perfectly readable, say. I believe Desert Island Discs allows castaways to assume The Complete Works of Shakespeare and a copy of the Bible, and I would add the Complete Works of Dickens. (It’s my island, I can make Dickens be in the deserted cabin if I want to. Maybe I’ll put the skeleton of the previous inhabitant in there too…)

Of course, the books you take may also reflect the age you happen to be when cast away. If you are twenty, say, you will have longer to savour the books of your choice, but also longer to get heartily sick of them. If you are ninety-five you might want to be more rigorously selective still, or take rather more spiritually-inclined reading matter.

So this is my list, in no particular order Still a work in progress. As you will see at the end I still haven’t managed to whittle it down to ten. I did consider simply putting the total up to twenty, but that seemed like cheating.

  1. Isaac Asimov
  2. A S Byatt
  3. Neil Gaiman
  4. Annie Proulx
  5. Charlotte Brontë
  6. Rose Tremain
  7. Alice Munro
  8. George McKay Brown (non-fiction, comfort reading)
  9. Ellis Peters (comfort reading – how could you be on a desert island and not have Cadfael for company?)
  10. ….

And here’s where I’m stuck. I feel I should take at least one author that I always felt I should read but only ever got round to reading around the edges of – so I’m torn at the moment between George Eliot, Anthony Trollope and Aldous Huxley. Maybe Huxley would be a bit dated? Trollope would certainly be meaty but… as well as Dickens? And Eliot – is she perhaps one of those authors you feel you ought to read but Life’s Too Short for – like whoever perpetrated Moby Dick and War and Peace? Not to mention Ulysses. I carted that fat paperback of Ulysses around with me for years when I was a student: never managed to get beyond the first page.

I don’t know… I don’t know… And remember you have got to take all their works – pas de cherry-peeking, Breets ridicules! as I like to imagine they would say in Brussels. So you can’t take Howard’s End and leave the posthumous Maurice behind, or take the whole of Neil Gaiman except American Gods which is just too long.

To digress slightly. Having just discovered (after how many years?) that I can watch more or less unlimited dramas and TV series on my Kindle Fire for absolutely-free merely by tapping on that dull little icon top right – who knew? – I launched into American Gods on video, thinking I might find it more digestible.

They were putting each other’s eyes out! Severed limbs were flying through the air! I don’t remember that, in the twenty percent of the book I did manage to get through. So I plumped for The Night Manager.

To digress again. I read a comment on the internet by a girl who felt it should correctly be deserted, not desert island, since how many islands do you find in the desert? Duh! An island with nothing on it but a lot of desert-type sand and perhaps a wobbly palm tree and a man in faded rags with several weeks-worth of stubble – not an island rising majestically from the sands of the Sahara.

Anyway, enough. What would be your ten desert island authors? Or just the first one on the list…

Unexpected Rainbows

Sometimes life throws you an unexpected bonus or – if things have really been bad –  a consolation. For example, the other day I had to wait an hour at the hospital for a blood test, and the buses home only go once an hour. I sat with my torn-off paper ticket (number 106 in a queue starting at 85) and I sat, and I sat, and finally I got behind that blue curtain to get my blood test, one minute after the bus was due to have left. I trudged to the hospital bus stop and found nobody waiting. Yes, my bus had definitely gone. And then there it was, like magic, my precious bus coming round the corner, two minutes late. Did you just do me a good turn? I asked the universe.

And today I have rainbows. I put some sheeting stuff up at the kitchen windows – it’s clear, textured plastic, held up by nothing more than warm water and washing up liquid, plus suction. The reviews on Amazon did mention rainbows but I hadn’t seen any. Ah well, I thought, I am now invisible to the neighbours and vice versa, and that’s all that matters. Privacy is restored.

I have this thing, you see, about eyes. It feels as if I am caught in the headlights when someone stares at me, and particularly if they persistently stare at me. I read somewhere that in the 17th century and earlier, people did not yet understand about light and vision (I believe it was Newton who eventually sorted it out) and actually believed that people ‘saw’ by sending out an invisible beam from their eyes. In other words, their eyes were sending out light rather than receiving it. John Donne uses this to good effect in his erotic poem The Ecstasy:

Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread / Our eyes upon one double string…

Anyway, although I am a Thoroughly Modern Post-Newtonian Person and know that nobody is actually fixing me with their X-ray eye-beams, that’s what it feels like. In some sort of psychic or psychological way, it hurts. And similarly, if I am forced to stare at someone or even see them when I don’t want to, it hurts. Without intending to they are invading me, and the space around me, just by being in my line of sight.

So, given this weirdness, which seems to be  one of two absolutely fundamental and incurable issues with me – boundaries and visibility – I more-or-less solved the problem by buying two rolls of the plastic stuff on Amazon. And today, finally, the sun shone brightly enough through my kitchen window to create those promised rainbows.

Sorry it’s cats again – and sorry for apologising since I know from previous feedback that this is British of me – but sorry, anyway – but cats is what I have a lot of and cats are what I spend most of my day either feeding, tripping over or being sat-upon by. I just saw these rainbows on the cats – and on the floor – and decided I must try to capture them – for posterity – for this electronic treasure trove of ours – and for – not having to wash up a whole sink load of cat dishes for at least another five minutes. So much more fun to tiddle about with photographs.

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Plastic rainbows on my grubby kitchen floor (hence the vignette filter causing a convenient Darkness on the Edge of… um, the floor tile)

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Henry in his basket, bedecked with rainbows. Suspect he cannot see them, as I read somewhere that cats can only see in shades of blue and lilac. This seems like a terrible disability, if it’s true, but it doesn’t seem to stop them catching mice.

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 Henry – more rainbows.

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Martha -no rainbows, because being a tortoiseshell (calico) she carries one around with her.

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Rosie – no rainbows, just because I love her, and she’s getting on a bit now. Rosie was rescued from a road in Norfolk as a tiny, sick, dehydrated kitten and brought to me on a hot summer’s day, in a cardboard box with no proper air-holes, all the way round the M25 and beyond. She is the inspiration behind my blogging name: Rosie2009 and the reason for much subsequent confusion.

From my bookcase: Tea Time for the Traditionally Built: Alexander McCall Smith

Mma Precious Ramotswe is a large lady, so much so that her elderly car has developed a permanent dip on the driver’s side. But the heroine of Alexander McCall Smith’s No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series can make an advantage of any disadvantage. She is, she explains, full of national pride, ‘a Lady of Traditional Build’. All the other ladies and gentlemen – the Mmas and Rras of McCall Smith’s fictional Botswana – perfectly understand this distinction.

When her father dies she is left a little money and, having escaped from her no-good husband, the handsome but wicked musician Note Makoti – who will resurface later in the series to torment her – Precious decides to set up a detective agency. She names it The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency, something she can legitimately do as is the only ladies detective agency in Botswana.

Imaginative business names are a feature of the series and part of the ongoing entertainment. Some of my favourites are Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, The Kalahari Typing School for Men, The Double Comfort Safari Club and – best of all in my view – the Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon.

I have never visited the real Botswana and am never likely to, and so I can continue to enjoy the comforting illusion that Botswana is an earthly paradise, the most civilised, the most beautiful, the most fertile place on earth, and filled with the loveliest and kindest of people, as Mma Ramotswe believes. She is naturally positive and has a knack for solving the everyday problems of her fellow Batswana with a combination of luck, common sense and excellent people skills.

IMG_20170906_143017_kindlephoto-11727959

As the series goes on we are introduced to a huge cast of eccentric characters. Among others there are Mma Ramotswe’s second husband Mr J L B Matekoni, and her spikey and scarily ambitious sidekick Grace Makutsi – she of the unfortunate skin, the big glasses and the down-at-heel background in an out-of-the-way village, who conducts an ongoing conversation with her shoes. There is Violet Sephotho, that ‘Jezebel’ from secretarial college; there are Grace’s eventual husband Phuti Radiphuti and her eventual baby, the impressively named Itumelang Clovis Radiphuti. If you are one of the few people on the planet haven’t come across this series or seen the TV version, give it a go. You’ll probably love it. I say probably because there are people out there who don’t like Harry Potter, so anything is possible.

Tea Time for the Traditionally Built is number 10 in a series of 16, and very shortly to be 17 for, I have just discovered, the latest in the series is actually due for publication tomorrow, the 7th of September. Now there’s a coincidence! Unfortunately I am going to have to wait until the cheaper and more convenient paperback/second-hand version comes out in six months or so, but at least I know it’s out there, and waiting … It’s called:

unexpected.jpg

 

From my bookcase: Dissolution: C J Sansom

It is well known that cats are drawn to those who fear them most, and sit at their feet, eyes wide and sort of… threatening. I have long suspected that this principle is in fact universal, and that potentially life-threatening items are inexorably attracted to those who fear them most. Hence the deadly nightshade.

I have deadly nightshade in my garden. I cannot dig it out (as advised by the internet) because its actual roots are in my next door neighbour’s garden and she, being a school teacher and not afraid of anything, didn’t take me seriously when I hinted that she might dig it out. She had her fence panels renewed recently and I suppose the ground being disturbed has given new life to the indigenous weed population. Now the dreaded belladonna has joined those two other local residents, the giant bramble and the unidentifiable yellow triffid-thing.

I’ve always been worried about poisonous vegetation. I remember even as a child, some other infant telling me not to eat the tiny black seeds that rained onto the pavement from the laburnum tree in my mother’s front garden because they were deadly poisonous. That set the seed, as it were, for my not-quite-phobia.

Every few weeks or so the stuff starts sprouting and every few weeks or so I go out there armed with thick rubber gardening gloves, the secateurs, a garden-rubbish bag and a bottle of vinegar to cut it back.  The internet advises that deadly nightshade cannot thrive in a vinegar-treated environment. I can see the amateur chemistry behind this – acetic acid versus poisonous alkaloid. Unfortunately my deadly nightshade plant just seems to guzzle it up and sprout away again.

A long and winding introduction, then, to C J Sansom’s historical crime novel, first in the ‘Shardlake’ series, entitled ‘Dissolution’. You may remember that in a previous post I mentioned my calamitous loss-of-mojo as far as reading was concerned, but I also said I was still trying to get lost in books again, and ‘Dissolution’ is the novel I am trying it with. I found a battered copy in a charity shop – 50p, excellent value – on the way from the bus to the train station. I seem to be permanently between bus and train station nowadays, when not mucking out or feeding cats, decapitating monster brambles or sloshing vinegar on the belladonna.

I suppose this is a sign the book-mojo-magic-thing worked, at least temporarily: having read to the end of Chapter 12, where a poor little novice monk is poisoned by deadly nightshade and comes to a terrible, hallucinating, twistingly-spasmodic end, I put down the book and went out under the full glare of the midday sun (gosh, it’s hot out there!) and attacked the belladonna. It’s been well and truly cut off and vinegar-sodden and I have washed my hands at length at the kitchen sink using yellow washing-up liquid. Irrelevant, I know, the yellowness of the washing-up liquid, but the good detective (or hunchbacked lawyer/agent of Lord Cromwell in this case) lets no detail pass unrecorded.

So, a good one to read if you like that sort of thing. ‘Dark Fire’, the next one in the ‘Shardlake’ series, arrived today. Post-lady gave up trying to push it through the letter box after ten minutes or so of determined wrestling (I was watching her in the living room mirror – even behind frosted glass that tomato-red Royal Mail uniform is unmistakeable) and had to knock on the door and hand it to me in person. Really, I suppose, I should have got up and opened the front door but I was curious to discover how long she would spend trying to ram a thick novel through an obviously inadequate hole in a door.

The cat in the photo is Sophie, by the way. She was my first cat and has, sadly, gone to that great Summer Garden in the sky. And greatly missed she is, even now, hence the elaborate photo frame which I found, of all places, in a garden centre café whilst queuing for egg-on toast and a pot-of-tea with Mum and Dad. Funny how objects bring back memories.

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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: 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…

 

The past: a foreign country

This will almost certainly never happen – so don’t don’t hold your breath whatever you do – but I thought I might pen a fantastically successful ‘cozy’ (or ‘cosy’, if you’re English) detective series. This would solve all my financial worries in one swoop, in perpetuity, and be very good for my ego. However, I’m not much good at getting to the beginning of projects let alone the end, and this would be a very long project indeed.

But I am very good at preparing. I enjoy the preparing so much more than the doing. This is because doing – especially writing-type doing – is very hard work and that fierce concentration, that excitement, that passion – sucks the very life-blood out of you.

So, in ‘preparation’ I am reading a monster of a book by Dominic Sandbrook (in fact there are two books, this is the first) entitled Never Had It So Good: a history of Britain from Suez to the Beatles. My God, it’s a huge thing, I mean Bible-sized. You feel like you need a lectern.  My right thumb all but fell off with cramp after five minutes of reading.

That poster – You Never Had It So Good and the face of Prime Minister Harold MacMillan were part of my early teens. You couldn’t walk up Station Road without those hooded old eyes and those droopy old moustaches following your every move: MacMillan was the Big Brother of the early sixties.

But at that time I was just starting a new school, with all the terrors involved in that. Politics didn’t mean anything to me then and I had no idea that I was living through the seminal decade of the twentieth century. Whilst others were sitting around looking cool in coffee-bars or prancing round campsites in the West Country bedecked with flowers I was going up and down Station Road in my school uniform, burdened – yea, burdened – by hormones and a generalised sense of doom. I had no overview.

I would like to ‘write’ the sixties but the thing that worries me is the non-PC aspect. Can I really manage the awful, repugnant attitudes, the rampant racial prejudice, the ghastly belittling of women? Of course any writer worth their salt ought to be able to but it’s so very close to home. I was alive then. I didn’t know, but I was complicit.

We once had a temporary teacher of English. He was a young man – somewhat under thirty at any rate – and personable. We were a girls school full of frustrated teenage virgins (mostly) and you can imagine the electrical effect he had on us. Hysteria. We followed him everywhere, primping and giggling. But once in his lessons he threw a board-rubber – one of those great chunky wooden things – at a girl. It hit her on the forehead and she started to bleed. He was apologetic of course.

And once a Jehovah’s Witness girl stood up and confronted him. She was a timid girl, gingery, freckled and mostly silent – but he had just read out a couple of lines from T S Eliot’s Morning At The Window and it sparked something in her:

I am aware of the damp souls of housemaids

Sprouting despondently from area gates.

There is no such thing as the soul, sir, she said.

OK Susan, but let’s pretend there is such a thing as the soul, for the sake of the poem.

No sir, there is no such thing as the soul…

She was being courageously, terminally annoying. I’m not sure how I would have handled that situation as a teacher. What I think I would not have done even then was take her by the ear and drag her, tearful but unprotesting, to the headmistress’s office and dump her on the bench outside.

None of us thought a thing of it. He was our beloved, gorgeous English teacher. He was strong-jawed and handsome. His thick blonde hair was combed back in a kind of quiff. She was not popular, and he was a man.

In my new tome of a research book, I read an extract from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, a famous novel of the sixties. I remember reading it at the time and thinking nothing of it. Arthur Seaton is sleeping with two married women, but tells himself:

If ever I get married… and have a wife that carries on like Brenda and Winnie carry on, I’ll give her the biggest pasting any woman ever had. I’d kill her. My wife’ll have to look after any kids I fill her with, keep the house spotless. And if she’s good at that I might let her go to the pictures ever now and again and take her for a drink on Saturday. But if I thought she was carrying on behind my back she’d be sent back to her mother with two black eyes before she knew what was happening.

Arthur Seaton is the hero of the novel.

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Our handsome, bequiffed English teacher left after a term. He had in fact been a good English teacher as far as English was concerned, introducing us to challenging and relatively modern poems like Dylan Thomas’s Poem in October which I would never have come across otherwise. He broadened our minds. He threw board-rubbers at us. He took us by the ear and dragged us.

He left to become a Black And White Minstrel on TV. My parents loved that programme and, forever after, every time it came on our black-and-white TV I would look out for him, although of course you couldn’t tell under the black-face makeup. Apparently he was a resting actor. You didn’t have to be qualified in those days as long as you had a degree. It never occurred to me that it was offensive for white people to black up. It never occurred to me, to be honest, that Minstrels were supposed to be black people. They were just Minstrels to me, as Gollywogs were just a kind of teddy-bear alternative. Not people.

Which is another story, and one that I don’t feel up to telling at the moment.