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.

arthur.jpg

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.

Couldn’t we just skip spring?

I never liked spring. Spring is an uncomfortable time of year and every year older I get the more uncomfortable I get with it. I’ve never quite been able to pin down why this is.

April is the cruellest month… as the poet Ezra Pound put it. And the reason he gives for this?

…breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.

I seem to remember from my distant ‘Eng Lit’ past that lilacs are synonymous with lust, or at least they were around the time this poem was written. Lilacs flaunt their sinful, lustful little stalks in TS Eliot’s Portrait of a Lady too, come to think of it:

Now that lilacs are in bloom

She has a bowl of lilacs in her room

And twists on in her fingers while she talks,

“Ah my friend, you do not know, you do not know

What life is, you who hold it in your hands”;

(Slowly twisting the lilac stalks)

“You let it flow from you, you let it flow,

And youth is cruel, and has no remorse

And smiles at situations which it cannot see.”

Could that be it? The further away from lust you grow, in body and in time, the more distasteful reminders of it become? I was watching a pair of pigeons out on the back lawn this afternoon. She was waltzing about looking for sunflower seeds overlooked by the sparrows, he scuttling behind her in that weird bobbing courtship dance they do – obsequious, desperate. I am here, your Feathered Majesty, and only too willing to serve…

I caught myself thinking, Pack it up you two, or get a room.

I suppose it reminds you how very old you have become when every tree is suddenly, horribly out in overblown, luxuriant blossom – so pink, so white, so bridal!

And then there’s the weather. I went to visit my old lady today – not Mum, the other one – and standing at her front door shivering as the chilly wind blew in and the laburnum blossom danced and pranced on her lawn she seemed quite upset by it all. It should be warm, we both knew it. Either good and warm or good and cold but not this ghastly can’t make up its mind, middle of the road changeability. We couldn’t be doing with it, either of us.

At least we’re into May now. That’s April disposed of. Bad things always seem to have happened to me in April, and the lowest sloughs of despond. I remember one awful walk alone in April. I had forced myself to go out because I knew I would go mad if I didn’t. My shoes were worn out. The sky was the colour of old saucepans. Passing motorists had dropped cigarette packets beside the road, the tinfoil catching the afternoon light, and someone had tossed out an old music cassette (remember those?) with brown tape streaming off into the grass of the verge.

Everything seemed odd, the wrong colour, polluted. Down the side of the hill, in the distance, horses were bending their heads to eat the wet spring grass in a field. There was something horrific about it, something wrong. I suppose it wasn’t the worst day of my life – the very worst ones seem to merge and sink out of sight – but this particular one took root in my memory.

Spring always affects me like that. I was a winter baby. Give me icy roads every time, and that kind of damp cold that gets into your bones. Give me blizzards and an early, cosy nightfall. Failing that let me have lazy summer heat when the roads are empty at noon and nobody stirs, or autumn and the sudden death of the leaves, the first few gales.

Couldn’t we just skip spring?

The beauty of the morning

On the 3rd of September 1802 William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy were both moved by the sight of London spread out before them as they viewed it from Westminster Bridge. Dorothy recorded her impressions in her diary:

“…the sun shone so brightly, with such a pure light, that there was something like the purity of one of nature’s own grand spectacles.”

And William was inspired to write one of his most famous sonnets:

Composed Upon Westminster Bridge

Earth has not anything to show more fair:

Dull would he be of soul who could pass by

A sight so touching in its majesty:

This City now doth, like a garment, wear

The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,

Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie

Open unto the fields, and to the sky;

All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

Never did sun more beautifully steep

In his first splendour, valley, rock or hill;

Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

The river glideth at his own sweet will:

Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;

And all that mighty heart is lying still!

It seems to me that there are two sides to every coin, two faces to ever view. Wordsworth saw the majesty and beauty of his capital city from a famous bridge and yesterday we saw the strange fruits of terrorism strung out along that same bridge – men, women and children mown down by a stranger in a hired car.

It seems to me also that for every hate-filled, lone revolutionary who somehow concludes that his political beliefs make it OK for him to kill or injure a random group of people who just happened to be crossing a particular bridge at a particular moment in time, there is an unarmed policeman willing to be stabbed to death to prevent him from entering the Houses of Parliament. I think of the blood-smeared face of an MP trying unsuccessfully to keep him alive until the ambulance came.

I think of all those bodies on the bridge but also of the doctors running out of hospitals and along the bridge to help the wounded. I think of every injured or dying person on the pavement surrounded by a crowd of passers-by whose instinct was to stop, try to help, reassure or just keep them company in their hour of need.

I think of the police giving first aid to the terrorist they had just been forced to shoot, and of the medics who afforded the same care to him as to his victims.

And it seems to me that for every wound inflicted there is a great flowering of fellow-feeling and human kindness, and that compassion will always overcome, in the end.

The Armageddon Suitcase

In the raspberry wallet file marked Desperate, I found this prompt: What would you pack in your suitcase if you could not go home again?

So what would one pack in one’s Armageddon suitcase? It seemed apposite, when on the News we have been watching Italian villagers, saved from their crushed medieval village after a massive earthquake, but with nothing to call their own. No memories, as they said – also, interestingly, no future. The earthquake, in their perception has stolen their whole lives, past and future.

My first thought was to pack the cats. I would take them in preference to any material possessions, even if they did need a supersize suitcase (with ventilation holes). And people do that, don’t they? You see them on the News shepherding their dogs into the back of the car as the forest fire licks the paint off the veranda; attempting to climb into wobbly boats with their beloved budgies in cages. They save their pets as they would save their children.

But children/pets aside. For material possessions, and if I could never come back…

Part of me thinks it would be as well to leave it all and just grab any cash and cards you happened to have lying about so you could buy new things, if you really needed them. We don’t need most of the objects we surround ourselves with anyway.  No doubt I would miss the 2,000 paperback books since they are, in a way, the story of my life, but rather than choose some I would leave them all and pack the e-reader.

Would I take any clothes? Sometimes I think it would be a relief to start one’s wardrobe again from scratch, to move to a strange town and just wear whatever raggle-taggle collection of garments its charity shops could provide.  I read a local newspaper article once, about an unemployed man who was awarded the princely sum of £20 in Emergency Fund benefit to buy himself new clothes after his only pair of jeans and only tee-shirt were stolen from his washing-line. The paper took up his cause with great enthusiasm and managed to get him a complete outfit from charity shops, including a serviceable pair of leather shoes. This was a long time ago, mind you: might have to settle for broken flip-flops now.

What would I miss the most? Or what would I need the most, in that big blue earthquake tent, crowded sports hall or dismal underground bunker with nuclear war being waged overhead? I think I would end up with a strange and impractical Armageddon suitcase-full:

The e-reader, because I couldn’t bring the books.

Well, maybe two print books – the King James Bible, because it would last forever and there could be no better time to read it (and no more beautiful version of the English language to read it in) – and a book of poems for comfort, and learning by heart. I’d probably go for The Rattle Bag (ed: Heaney & Hughes) or The Faber Book of Modern Verse (ed: Roberts).

I’d have to pack a vast supply of file-paper and pencils (and pencil sharpeners and…) because I’d need to record my adventures in all their horror and interestingness – and there probably won’t be an electricity supply for typing and whatnot. In which case the e-reader would have been a waste of space.

I would pack Nan’s bread-board, because it was Nan’s, and she’s gone now, and Grandad carved it for her. For a thing to have survived that long and then be just – left behind – it doesn’t seem right. And you never know when you might need a bread-board; similarly, her wedding ring. I’d leave my own behind, I think.

I would include the delicate china cup and saucer a friend once gave me. It’s white, red and black and has a design of stylised cats. There is not much use for a china cup and saucer but this one was designed and hand-made by an actual potter. She would have made others of the same general design, but not one exactly like it. Something unique, that much thought has gone into, deserves to go into the Armageddon suitcase.

I think I would bring the green glass cat I found one day at a boot fair, with Ex. At least, Ex was there somewhere – probably rifling through the second-hand railway books or buying battered LPs. It’s a strange, hybrid creature – a cat-that-looks-a-bit-like-a-dog – but the glass is so weighty, so green and so luxurious. It’s an object that’s cold in your hand, yet comforting. It’s just glass-for-glass’-sake and makes me think of Leonard Cohen’s Nancy, who wore green stockings and spent much time alone, gazing at the Late Late Show through a semi-precious stone.

I also recall that My Replacement rather coveted that cat to add to her extensive Green Glass Collection, and hinted as much when she visited my house one day, with Ex.

And didn’t get it!

Ha ha!

Anyway, I shall go on thinking, as I move around the house and examine all the items in it with new eyes. Would you go in the suitcase? Would you?

What would go into your suitcase?

(Photo: Sandra Cunningham)

This ae nighte, this ae nighte…

OK, so I grew up with Tolkein.  On the bedrooms walls of most of my fellow students, wedged between the one of Che in a beret and the one of the man with the very long legs striding above the legend Keep On Truckin’, was a purple and yellow one of Gandalf. I remember the coarse texture of the paper, and the violence of the colours.

So the idea of poems being spells or incantations is kind of inbuilt. How could they be anything else? But of course, that may be just a ’70s thing.

I wrote a poem about a mouse many years ago, as one does. This is it, it’s only little:

A Conversation

The Mouse sits on my shoulder through the night.

Again, I sharpen quills and drag my books into the light.

But oh, the hours are long and I grow old.

Magic’s not wanted now, I whisper

Spells will be mocked and songs are out of season.

All the more need for you, my Wizardess.

All the more reason.

Of course the Wizardess is me – all characters in people’s poems are aspects of the poet, just as all characters in a novel are aspects of the novelist. And the mouse is a kind of play on muse – Mouse/Muse? No? That’s why he’s got a capital letter, because really he’s a character from Greek Mythology.

However did I survive to be this old, if I felt that old in those days?

I have a habit of picking up a paperback, reading a few pages and putting it back on the shelf. Since the house is stuffed with paperbacks going way back beyond Gandalf and Keep On Truckin’ it becomes a kind of random, inspiration-finding exercise. I tend to believe connecting snippets of information, ideas,  thoughts – like Marvell’s nectaren and curious peach – ‘into my hand themselves will reach’ – from the rows of crumbling, tea-coloured paperbacks on my bookshelves.

This morning I picked up and briefly perused Understanding Poetry by James Reeves. This is a very old book (Australia 90c, South Africa 75c, United Kingdom 6/-) and James Reeves must surely be deceased by now but it remains one of the best books about poetry ever for the newbie poet (so hate that word but Needs Must When The Devil Drives).

And this is what I found:

A poem, then, is an act, not simply a statement… it is an act of magic. And of the magic of the act rhythm is an essential part.

He then goes on to include the Cumberland Lake-Wyke chant, which was a chant used at the death rites over a corpse in the north of England, up till as late as the 17th Century. He shared it with me and so I’ll share it with you, just for the magic of it:

This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
Every nighte and alle,
Fire and fleet and candle-lighte,
And Christe receive thy saule.

When thou from hence away art past,
Every nighte and alle,
To Whinny-muir thou com’st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If ever thou gavest hosen and shoon,
Every nighte and alle,
Sit thee down and put them on;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If hosen and shoon thou ne’er gav’st nane
Every nighte and alle,
The whinnes sall prick thee to the bare bane;
And Christe receive thy saule.

From Whinny-muir whence thou may’st pass,
Every nighte and alle,
To Brig o’ Dread thou com’st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If ever thou gav’st silver and gold,
Every nighte and alle,
At t’ Brig o’ Dread thou’lt find foothold,
And Christe receive thy saule.

But if silver and gold thou never gav’st nane,
Every nighte and alle,
Down thou tumblest to Hell flame,
And Christe receive thy saule.

From Brig o’ Dread whence thou may’st pass, Every nighte and alle,
To Purgatory fire thou com’st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If ever thou gav’st meat or drink,
Every nighte and alle,
The fire sall never make thee shrink;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If meat or drink thou ne’er gav’st nane,
Every nighte and alle,
The fire will burn thee to the bare bane;
And Christe receive thy saule.

This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
Every nighte and alle,
Fire and fleet and candle-lighte,
And Christe receive thy saule.

I won’t go through and translate every word, thereby spoiling it, but if you’re interested go to http://www.duntemann.com/likewakepage.htm. I would link it but the elves at WordPress scarily ‘disappeared’ my entire draft post when I tried to and it’s taken me half an hour of exasperatedly Googling message boards or whatever those dire things are, to wrest it from them. (Oh, now it’s gone and linked itself…)

 

Featured Image: Cyra R Cancel, Florida: Black Cat & White Mouse-Wizards

Time to stand and stare

Dad used to like quoting poetry. Not whole poems, just snippets, mostly of army doggerel or surreal little verses recalled from the music hall. But he did know one of two better quality pieces, one of which was William Henry Davies’ Leisure:

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

I believe he learned it from his own father. It meant something special to him at any rate, and he repeated if often.

When he got old he got depressed. It was lonely for him living with Mum in those latter years; she’d never exactly been a listener and now wouldn’t wear her hearing aids so he couldn’t have a proper conversation with her. He didn’t really want to go anywhere or do anything. If you did take him somewhere – and you had to take him everywhere – he wanted to sit down rather than walk about, so Mum used to “park” him for twenty to thirty minutes at a time. She seemed to be terrified all the while she was away from him that somehow he wouldn’t still be there when she got back.

For twenty frenetic minutes she would zoom about the shopping centre hunting down the items on her shopping list fretting about having left Dad unattended, while Dad sat on a bench and watched ladies rushing by in strange outfits, the toddlers attached to the women, young men in bellowing groups, the multi-coloured shopping bags, the wheels of push-chairs and shopping-trolleys, the walking-sticks and the worn-down shoes. Mum left the newspaper with him but didn’t read it. After a while we realised he couldn’t read it, and hadn’t been able to for some time.

Sometimes we went to Leeds Castle. Mum always wanted to go inside just to check that nothing had changed – no new oak staircase, moved portrait or missing suit of armour – but Dad didn’t; once was enough for him so he sat on the wall outside, not-reading but quietly watching.

Is there  a gene for ‘standing and staring’, I wonder? Why do some people seem to feel the need to contemplate at length while others cannot bear to? If there is such a gene, two of us inherited it and the other one, like Mum, did not. On the whole, the one who did not is more successful. Standing and staring doesn’t tend to get you anywhere in life, it just makes life vaguely tolerable for those who, at intervals, find it intolerable.

I have no time to stand and stare at the moment, which doesn’t mean I don’t need to. I yearn for summer lunch hours in the Memorial Gardens many moons ago, eating my sandwiches, watching the teenagers escaped from the Technical College, prim office types with their plastic lunchboxes; the tramps, those experts in being invisible.

I remember the too-hot sunshine and the too-cool shadow, but not wanting to move. I remember the sparrows, hoping for crumbs. Sometimes the sparrows got most of my lunch, to tell the truth. How many poems got started – or finished – on one or other of those park benches? How I lingered on there, into September, October, while the leaves began to clatter and swirl around me, not wanting to give up my thinking-place. How I searched for other places to tide me over the icy months of winter – the corner table in the reference library; a straight-backed pew in an almost empty church.

Never underestimate the power of standing and staring. Never let anyone tell you you’re not allowed to, or that there are so many other things you might be doing. Think of the squirrel, the blackbird, the tramp and the falling leaf. They need their witnesses.

Ramon de Something, who gave lectures from an elephant

I have a confession. In considering ever more desperate ways to save my finances, it did occur to me recently that once I’ve moved I could make money by being one of those artist’s models, i.e. sitting around in the nude in some draughty art-school studio. Maybe, I told myself, just maybe, you’ve now got so old that you wouldn’t be self-conscious…. And apparently it’s quite good money.

Countering that, there was the memory of my ex-husband, who went to two art schools in the sixties (maybe the fifties, even – he was so much older than me I kind of lost track of his timeline) laughingly recalling the hideous naked old men and ladies he and his fellow students had been provided with – though of course, the more hideous the better, in a way. The lumpy, ugly ones, he said, were more interesting. He told me one story of an elderly gentleman who often fell asleep, mid-pose. There was a notice up, something like:

SILENCE PLEASE, WHILE THE MODEL IS POSING

And of course, somebody altered the ‘p’ to a ‘d’. Anyway, irrelevant. Maybe…

But why I started this post, when I hadn’t planned to post at all today – let alone confess my bizarre naked ambitions, which will no doubt horrify Rose and Daisy – is to share with my readership a small triumph.

Today has not been a good day, generally. My days are rarely good nowadays. I awoke with the same little worm of pain on the right side of my head that I had been dozing fitfully with all night, in between rolls of thunder, flashes of lightning and torrential downpours. In the middle of the night also a great stack of packed cardboard boxes fell over at the far end of my bedroom, burst open on the carpet and all the books inside spilled out. That’s what comes of using cheap boxes, and boxes too big for the weight inside. I kicked them out of the way and tried to get back to sleep, but couldn’t. Outside, thunder and lightning; inside, a floor-full of battered old paperbacks, the accumulated heat of a thundery summer night and three or four hot, furiously scratching cats.

In the end, I got up, and in the process noticed that one of the tumbled books happened to be The Colour of Saying, an anthology of verse spoken by Dylan Thomas.

Which reminded me this poem I’ve been looking for. Since 1974. All I could remember was it was about a Spanish gentleman who collected broken chairs. I knew there was a lamppost in it, and it was something to do with Dylan Thomas.

I don’t give up, folks. To be more accurate, I can’t give up. Once I decide I must look for something, particularly a poem, I’m doomed to spend the rest of my life fretting about it. So I sat downstairs, too hot, with a headache, and a thunderstorm raging outside trying to resist the cats’ demands for breakfast at 3 in the morning. Idly leafing through this book – there it was – the missing poem.

It’s a strange poem but I thought I would copy it out since I happened to mention it in comments beneath a post called The poetry is in the pity and unintentionally corralled others in the search:

I think the appropriate reaction might be a ‘Woot!’

MYTHOLOGY by Lawrence Durrell

ALL my favourite characters have been

Out of all pattern and proportion:

Some living in villas by railways,

Some like Katsimbalis heard but seldom seen,

And others in banks whose sunless hands

Moved like great rats on ledgers.

 

Tibble, Gondril, Purvis, the Duke of Puke,

Shatterblossom and Dude Bowdler

Who swelled up in Jaffa and became a tree:

Hollis who had wives killed under him like horses

And that man of destiny,

Ramon de Something who gave lectures

From an elephant founded a society

To protect the inanimate from cruelty.

He gave asylum to aged chairs in his home,

Lampposts and crockery, everything that

Seemed to him suffering he took in

Without mockery.

 

The poetry was in the pity. No judgment

Disturbs people like these in their frames

O men of the Marmion class, sons of the free.

(Featured Image: blind monks examining an elephant)