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…

From my bookcase: Sovereign: C J Sansom

I have discovered there are only so many way you can ‘stage’ a paperback book on a sofa, or in a kitchen. Note that the cup is empty apart from a tastefully arranged teaspoon, and the scraping-of-the-barrel with the Tesco Oaty Granola bar (which happened to match the book). I fed my hoard of digestive biscuits to the birds whilst awaiting my cholesterol score. The granola bar has been lurking in a cupboard for at least a year, uneaten and unappetising. I knew it would come in useful if I hung onto it long enough.

I’ve now reached book 3 in the ‘Shardlake’ sequence of historical mysteries by C J Sansom. The first one, which I have written about before, was ‘Dissolution’ and the second one ‘Dark Fire’. I read on the internet that C J Sansom is suffering from a form of cancer, though doing well with chemotherapy and currently working on the next massive book in the series. For his personal sake, of course, but also for mine and that of all his other readers, I am keeping my fingers crossed. I am looking forward to reading the several future books he has in mind, which would take his crook-backed detective/lawyer Matthew Shardlake well into old age, and the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

‘Sovereign’ is said to be Sansom’s own favourite instalment, so far.  It is one of those novels that draws you in, the way some films do, so that you find yourself mentally wandering round the streets of – in this case – the teeming, tumbledown city of York long after the you have put the actual book down. York is a dangerous place and Shardlake finds himself narrowly escaping sharp bits of metal flying at him from roasting spits, bears let out of their cages on purpose on dark nights as he is passing, and a crossbow aimed at his chest. There seem to be more deaths in this book, and poor, principled, lonely, misshapen, Shardlake will be forced to disentangle them all amid a web of dark politics and ulterior motives before he is permitted to return to London and the sanctuary of his legal practice.

There is a particularly vivid scene in which Shardlake is obliged to be presented King Henry when he comes to York on a Royal Progress. King Henry, officially anyway, is felt to be a kind of demigod, God’s ‘voice’ on earth, but when he makes a mockery of Shardlake’s disability, describing him as a ‘bottled spider’ in comparison with the tall old man standing next to him, things change. In that moment the lawyer senses the King revelling in his cruelty, whilst making a calculated political point. The King is a monster, a  terrifying creature glimpsed only in segments, as all eyes must be lowered in his presence.

Shardlake ‘records’ the details other people miss. Even as he is being mocked by the King and his entourage he notices that one leg is thicker than the other and that the bandage concealed beneath the hose is discoloured, and catches the rotten smell of pus from Henry’s ulcerated leg.

Sansom’s hero is a modern man trapped in a late medieval setting. This makes his life both difficult and melancholy, but throws into relief the very different mindset of the day. Do not expect much introspection, self-analysis or sympathy for baited bears, dying horses, whipped urchins, starving peasants or emaciated and hideously tortured prisoners, except from Shardlake.

Here are another couple of moggie pictures, while I think about it:

Martha wonders whether she will be the legal owner of this selfie, whilst George has a little wash 🙂

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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.

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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:

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